Letters from AWP: Re-Entry Is Hard

AWP 2019 is done.  The tweets tell the tales, from a fish that got into the hotel minibar, to many pictures of people I don’t know posing together, to the surest evidence that a literary conference has just taken place: tote bags.  There are also, of course, many photos of many people’s book fair spoils, books splayed out before a smartphone’s eager eye.  I search these photos for evidence that someone has purchased my books and find none.  But the sort of reader that buys my books doesn’t take pictures, I’m sure. “My hope is vague,” as Richard Hugo wrote, but also strong.

There are also many photographs featuring donuts, for which Portland is apparently famous.  I ate one.  It was really good.

I bought a bunch of awesome books at the book fair. Here is a picture of them. I’m thinking of posting a tweet with the same picture that says, “Here are the awesome books I bought at the book fair.“  I wish I had also taken a picture of some of the food that I ate so that I could tweet a picture of that too. But I forgot. Anyway, here are the results of a Google image search for “Food”; feel free to imagine me eating any of this in Portland.

This year’s conference was much mellower than any I have ever attended. The book fair, which is usually as hectic and pushy as a New York City subway station, was relaxed, even friendly.  People seemed to be really into the panels, concentrating hard. The hotel bars, which have always been packed, writers smashed up against the bar like the superfans pressed against the stage at a concert, weren’t crowded at night. All of this may have had something to do with the fact that recreational marijuana is legal in Portland.

Do I sound bleary and confused?  Does this report sort of fail, in Ezra Pound’s famous figuration, to “cohere”?  Well, after years as an AWP-goer, I’ve come to think that this is the quintessence of the AWP experience, a kind of soul-deep sense of overwhelm, a splash of images and sounds, half-yelled how-are-you’s, thousands of colorful rectangles, and more emotions than anyone has the bandwidth to feel.

As I walked around the book fair—my brain filling with fog, the bags under my eyes growing heavy with whatever it is that fills up eye-bags—I kept thinking to myself, and saying to friends I bumped into, “I became a poet because I like to stay home. This is the opposite of that.”  And it now strikes me that this is the contradiction at the heart of AWP: we gather together once a year to celebrate a series of wholly interior art forms.  We read books in order to commune with the voices of those with whom we cannot actually commune. We nestle deep under the covers or bury our faces behind books on our commutes.  We sit in comfy chairs and pretend that time isn’t passing all around us.  We are, many of us, the kind of people who are exhausted by people.  We read in order to recharge from the hours we spend not reading.  We would rather be alone, and we come to AWP to hang out with other people who would also rather be alone.

And yet, we are also the kind of people who started spending so much time reading because we couldn’t find people we enjoyed talking to in our families, our schools, our hometowns, our hemispheres, our languages.  We went to MFA programs because we were mostly bored talking about anything but novels, poems, or the mechanics of braided essays.  And it turns out that, as is the case with many varieties of weirdos, there is a conference for us, a place where only the kind of people we like are gathering.

And so, reentry is difficult.  It’s back to spreadsheets, curriculum committees, submitting expense reports, crafting memos no one will read, and retreating at the end of the day to our comfy chairs to recharge as well as we can before it all starts again tomorrow.

I would not call AWP a vacation—it’s so tiring, but perhaps that is the nature of vacations.  It is a pilgrimage, a journey to the best and worst of what it means to a contemporary American writer, where ambition and community collide and eat donuts; where writers sit at tables and attend panels until their eyes liquify, and then talk books until dawn; where tote bags are born.  Every year I tell myself I’ll never go again; every year, I go.

Image Credit: Pexles.

Letters from AWP: The Writer’s Life in Portland


Attending the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference is like holding your wedding reception in the middle of your bar or bat mitzvah.  Everyone you have ever known—perhaps everyone you have ever met—is here, and they do not belong together.  Your ex from your MFA program is here.  So is that weird kid who never once talked during workshop.  Also here are the two children that the two of them have had together during their 15 years of happy marriage.  Also here is the person with whom you ceaselessly chat on Google Hangouts to pass the long hours of the workday at the job you have had for the 15 years since your MFA program ended.  It is nice to see that person, though it’s weird that they are corporeal.

Also present are 12,000 to 15,000 other people who self-identify as “writers,” some of them so young it’s impossible to imagine that they have yet learned how to ride a bike (though, with a smart phone, who needs a bike—why go anywhere?); some of them so old that it would make much more sense to see them on an isolated hilltop, wind blowing poetry through the few remaining wisps of their hair, than at the Portland Convention Center. This unfathomable population gives the lie to the long and preciously held idea that we, having chosen literature, are unique.

And yet, we share a practice—poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, lyric essay, the serially composed poetic sequence, the novel in stories, the novel in verse, the braided essay, the stout and ridiculous prose poem—and that is undeniably beautiful.  Lined up end to and, the walkway made of our collective pages could lead us to the moons of Saturn, except that they are all PDFs; no one has printed them out, and no one ever will.

This is probably my sixth or seventh AWP since I began going a little more than a decade ago.  That first year, I was one among the throngs of eager new writers, clamoring for a glimpse of Nick Flynn, desperate to shake hands with the editor of the literary journal Pleiades, which had just published my first poem.  I was wide-eyed and hopeful, peering around the book fair in search of my future.

Indeed, I found it here.  This year, I come with several books to my name, with much less hair, grouchy, poignantly at the mercy of my skewed internal clock, which is still on East Coast time. It is basically dawn, and I am standing beside a smoker’s pole while my wife and daughter, who have been on the West Coast for 10 days, sleep soundly in our hotel room.  I am dictating this into my phone, swatting away the emails from coworkers that threaten to terminate this post prematurely and get me stressed about a bunch of problems I am too far away to help solve.  Later, I will desperately hunt down my writer friends who have also brought their children, in the hope that our children can play, so that we may have a few minutes of adult conversation before being asked for snacks. This, I fear, is the writer’s life.

Which is also to say, it is a good life, a surprisingly normal one.  Literature finds its place in the cracks of time between a job and a family, and I come here, rather than to that windswept hilltop, to commune with my fellow practitioners, visitors to the temple erected between pages of books.

I think I had more hilltops in mind when I first imagined my life “as a part of literature,” as my wife likes to say, but this is good too. Later this morning, we will have breakfast with a poet friend, then go have another breakfast with a couple, writers of fiction and middle grade books, and my daughter will play with their daughters, and we will talk about literature—maybe—between requests for snacks.

Then, on to the book fair, the wedding-bar mitzvah, where my eyes will grow puffy with a kind of soul-sucking joy.  Tomorrow morning, I will present on a panel on the theme of my recent book of essays: poetic development, how poets change.  Then, back to the book fair, followed by several dinners in quick succession, maybe a party or three, and then an early flight home Sunday morning, my soul retreating back to the margins of my life.

It’s weird, it’s overwhelming, and it is what I wished for: I live amongst writers, buried in books that I binge-buy once a year at AWP.  If you are here, I hope to see you.  I also hope you are wearing your conference name badge. If I cannot recall your name, please forgive me; I can barely remember my own.

Image Credit: Flickr/Jeff Hintzman.

Working with What You’ve Got: An Interview with Lydia Kiesling

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Readers of The Millions know Lydia Kiesling as its current editor, corralling an eclectic group of writers and readers into a daily book blog circulated to thousands of book lovers.  Lydia’s first novel, The Golden State, arrives today from Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s MCD imprint.  An unusually accomplished debut, the book has all the elements this interviewer reads for:  flow, language, ideas, surprises, humor, and a great big heart.  

The Golden State’s protagonist is a young mother named Daphne, separated from her Turkish husband through an immigration screw-up, struggling to support her family in San Francisco.  Overwhelmed with her situation, Daphne takes baby Honey and retreats to the family’s ancestral mobile home in rural California, the site of an enthusiastic separatist movement gunning for the new State of Jefferson.  As Daphne revisits memories from her family of origin, she faces a thousand small and large obstacles in raising Honey.  She follows a trail of longing through the fallout from America’s Kafkaesque immigration system so that she can create a family that coheres.  I was lucky enough to catch up with Lydia via email over the summer. 

Martha Anne Toll (MAT):  How did you first come to writing? 

Lydia Kiesling (LK):  I was always a reader. I had a corresponding, mostly submerged, urge to write, but I wasn’t sure how to start or what to write about. When I was 25, I decided to set up a Wordpress blog to write…something. Books seemed like the best entry point, so I started out writing short posts about books in a semi-facetious style. C. Max Magee, who founded The Millions as his personal blog and grew it into what it is today, read the posts (via emeritus staffer Ben Dooley), and kindly invited me to make the site a home for my writing.  For a long time I only wrote about books, but I was constitutionally unable to avoid bringing in personal elements—writing about my particular experience of reading—which didn’t always translate to the classic book review (there are many strong opinions about this!). I quickly started doing more writing in the category of personal essay, but I didn’t presume to give fiction a try until about six or seven years in.  

MAT:  Readers are always interested in process.  What is the genesis of your novel and how did it unfold? 

LK:  I started feeling that my available venues and structures for writing were limiting. I had a full-time job, so digging into deeply reported or researched pieces was not realistic.  I also found that some of what I wanted to explore didn’t fit neatly into an essay format—at least one that I knew how to write or sell. I saw that fiction was where you could range as far as you wanted with a particular theme, provided you put it into a story that made sense, and that’s where I started to focus my energies. I felt that the day-to-day experience of parenthood, and certain kinds of professional and political frustrations, were rich fodder for a novel, and that I might have the tools and material available to write about them in that format.   

MAT:  With your more than full time position at The Millions how do you fit your own writing in? 

LK:  I’m glad I give the illusion that The Millions is full-time, but it’s really extremely part-time! The reason I could write this book is that my increasingly urgent desire to try a long fiction project coincided with Max’s feeling that running every aspect of The Millions while doing his own full-time job and raising children was untenable—he had been doing it for more than a decade!  He offered me a position that worked out to about two hours per weekday, with a stipend that almost covered daycare for one kid (now I have two—whoops). My husband and I figured that we could make the arrangement work for a year, at the end of which I would have to either sell a book, or have a clear indication that it would happen soon. I’m incredibly fortunate that my husband had health insurance and a salary that covered our rent, and that I could mostly cover childcare with my stipend. I was writing against the clock, at a pace I’m sure I’ll never sustain again, and I made the deadline with a couple of months to spare.   

MAT:  One of your book’s most unusual aspects is Daphne’s experience with the Turkish language and her commentary about its joys and challenges.  Can you say more about that? 

LK:  I started learning Turkish in Turkey in 2005 when I was there teaching English to kindergarteners. I moved back to California after a year to be closer to my family, but I regretted not going further with Turkish, and I missed Turkey dearly. In 2009, when my now-husband and I were living in Pittsburgh while he went to graduate school, I decided that my job prospects were such that I was basically only qualified for miscellaneous admin jobs just outside what I wanted to do, so I went back to school to work on Turkish and get a Middle Eastern Studies degree.  The decision made no sense since our plan was to move back to California, but I have been able to use it in different ways.  Putting Turkish into the novel was both a form of domestic economy—working with what you’ve got—and also a way to live in a world where I used a language I sincerely love.  

MAT:  Turkish has everything to do with Daphne’s husband Engin, who is marooned in Turkey due to a green card calamity at the San Francisco airport.  How do you think of their relationship? Do you see it as a metaphor? 

LK:  I think Turkey and America have a lot in common as relatively young countries—the way our social currents affect governance, in particular—but realistically, it’s probably only a metaphor for my own sense of…regret isn’t quite the word, but melancholy that I can’t see a future when I’m going to live in Turkey or speak Turkish.  I’m losing my Turkish all the time, and I knew this as I was writing.  I was anxious not to make Engin too much of a fantasy boyfriend, life-not-lived kind of thing. That said, as someone who unwittingly followed the practice of “assortative mating”—my husband and I grew up in very different regional contexts, but our demographic and class backgrounds are similar—I am interested in other kinds of couples. Many people feel social pressure, either explicit or implicit, to marry someone from a similar background, but marriages happen every day between people who didn’t grow up speaking the same language, and where neither party will assimilate into the other’s culture—they build something new. I did hesitate about trying to portray an experience that I haven’t had. Then again, since we only have Daphne’s narration, we only hear her side. One reader was really incensed about Daphne, on Engin’s behalf. “Imagine being him, helplessly watching your child’s mother melt down on the other side of the world via Skype.”  She had a point! 

MAT: A central theme in The Golden State is new motherhood and childrearing.  Daphne’s relationship with her baby daughter Honey is at times laugh-out-loud funny, at times poignant, and always heartrending.  You were in the throes of new motherhood when you wrote this novel.  How did that affect your writing?  Was part of the challenge to protect your real-life child/ren from appearing on the pages of this book? 

LK:  I started sketching out vignettes when my eldest daughter was about six months old, and I started writing in earnest when she was 17 months old, about Honey’s age. The book owes everything to her; I simply wouldn’t have written it if I hadn’t had her and if she hadn’t transformed the way I experience time—both the huge anxiety of seeing her new-babyness turn into toddlerhood so quickly, and the slowness of individual moments with her.  I didn’t feel any angst about representing her; obviously individual parents know their individual children’s quirks, but babies and toddlers tend to operate within a spectrum of familiar behavior, so Honey is kind of an Every-baby. I was more interested in describing a particular parent’s psyche and behavior as she interacts with a toddler, not in imbuing a lot of specificity to the toddler herself. I now have a second baby, and it’s an experience I don’t seem to urgently need to translate to fiction the same way. I suppose I could worry that my babies will grow up and read the book and worry that I was miserable, but Daphne isn’t me, and her life is much harder than mine, and she isn’t totally miserable in any case. My children don’t make me miserable—the way American society fails parents of every background is much more immiserating. I love them, and I think and hope that will supersede whatever weirdness they feel if they ever read this book.    

MAT:  Novels are often about memory.  Daphne finds herself on that most personal of journeys—revisiting a critical place in her childhood.  Can you talk about Daphne’s encounters with memory, particularly memories of her mother and grandparents who are everywhere in the house to which she escapes? 

LK:  I grew up moving around a lot in a Foreign Service family, as well as visiting the same places over and over without living permanently in them, so memories of place are central to the book.  Along with the baby stuff, it was the nostalgia and love you can feel for particular places, both as the sites where you interacted with particular people, but also as their own, stand-alone forces—smells and sounds and sensations—that I wanted to get on the page.  

MAT:  Writers are admonished to be observant.  Can you talk about that admonition with regard to this heart stopping sentence:  “…observation is violence as any Orientalist knows.” 

LK:  I think about this all the time, particularly because I was in an “area studies” program both as a student and later as an employee, that has roots both in the discipline of Oriental Studies and in the Cold War-era belief that America would materially benefit from Americans learning about other languages and cultures. And my childhood in the Foreign Service was full of mythology that if you travel to a lot of places you will be more informed, more empathetic, more adaptable. There is truth to that, but the more saccharine and platitudinous version of this mythology ignores the fact that gaze is everything. Part of what has been breathtaking about adulthood, in ways good and painful, is seeing how my own gaze has been shaped by social and political forces, many of them malign. This is pertinent to area studies, but also to literature, as we see again and again in conversations that take place in the literary community. So yes, you have to be observant to be a novelist, but you also have to understand that what feels to you like objectivity or interest, or even love, can be ignorance, and can be violence. (Phrenologists considered themselves very observant!) Also, this may seem like a tangent, but women are socialized to be observant.  Observation in that sense is rarely neutral—trading observations is currency in female friendships, particularly among girls and young women, and wielding observation cruelly is part of that. I’m still not sure where the line is as far as fiction goes, but I try to keep it in mind. 

MAT:  The personal becomes political in The Golden State.  Daphne is confronted with a militant secessionist group fighting to break off from California and establish the State of Jefferson.  How did you come up with that idea?  How much did contemporary politics shape the plot of your novel? 

LK:  I started seeing the State of Jefferson signs on drives up north and east in the last few years and found them surprising, but it turns out this regional movement to create a 51st state out of part of northern California (and Oregon, in some iterations) has been around for a long time. The neo-Sagebrush Rebellion activities as characterized by the Bundys and their supporters are their own thing, but the rhetoric overlaps, and the ideological roots are similar.  So I conflated a few things in this book—I took a State of Jefferson action that took place in 1941 and gave it a kind of Malheur standoff spin. I didn’t devote a lot of the book to the State of Jefferson, but I wanted to show that something that seems to have nothing to do with you can brush up against your life in a variety of ways. I didn’t really see until recently how much Daphne’s feeling that if she can be alone with her child she can be safe, can manage her life, even though all signs point to the contrary, somewhat mirrors the belief that if people can break off and form a state that matches their politics perfectly things will just work out (again, all signs point to the contrary). 

MAT:  The Golden State begs the question:  What does this novel say about the virulent fight over immigration we are experiencing in Trump’s America? 

LK:  I wrote the novel during the Obama years and the immigration story is loosely based on that of people I know. One of many things that alarmed me then about our immigration system is that it often seems to come down to the individual frame of mind or set of prejudices of the border agent you come across. You have absolutely no power, regardless of whether you follow the law (such as it is) or not. Our immigration policy was exclusionary and difficult before Trump.  But now everything that was previously subtext is text.  It seems clear that the people in Trump’s coterie want to end birthright citizenship, and that is sickening. If they take that, they take any remaining pretense of American being the land of opportunity. The American Dream becomes Stephen Miller’s dream realized.

MAT:  What’s next for you?  Do you have another novel/book in the works, and if so can you tell us about it? 

LK:  I’m early in another book, about American efforts at soft power abroad!  But there’s no way I’ll be able to finish it before my daycare money runs out. I’ll need to rearrange, again. 

Dispatches from Nicosia: Birds, Cats, and the Cyprus Talks

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Running the river path of Nicosia some mornings ago, I stumbled across two kittens. One small, orange, scrawny; the other gray and white. Both had a single weeping eye, yet the gray kitten seemed sadder. I watched long enough, the pair struggling forth on the bare sunbaked road before the path gives way to dry dirt hills covered with cracked irrigation tubing. Long ago I learned there is no way to visit a place or be visited by a person and stay unchanged.

Only two weeks earlier on a boarded-up Sunday street, my children and I similarly came across a barely breathing bird fallen on the ground, veins and legs red, a fledgling baking on a 106-degree afternoon when nothing stirred in Nicosia, one of the world’s last divided capitals. You walk from the end of Europe into a Turkish-controlled zone just by flashing your passport. Nicosia is torn into three as if the children of divorce in which the exes just cannot get along: the southern predominantly Greek Cypriot side; the U.N. buffer zone marking the Green Line between two halves; and then the northern part southerners call the Turkish-occupied zone while Turkish-speaking northerners call it Turkish Cyprus.

I am here to research, among other questions, the poet C.P. Cavafy. The entire enterprise bears an imprint of ridiculousness the poet himself might have appreciated: rumors abound regarding whether Cavafy, that dignified dandy of a poet who wrote such strange confessions about same-sex eros with such a clear eye on posterity, ever visited the island. He had a niece; he came. Others say, strongly, no, he is confused with Giorgos Seferis, who wrote about the nightingales of Platres, but Cavafy in Cyprus? No! And yet he has odd references in his poems which at least show a comfort with the island’s profound geography. A Kyrenian painter, he says in one place, or speaks of sailing seas of Cyprus and Syria. Cavafy writes less of birds and Cyprus, more of desire. While, during our bird debacle, two lines stayed with me: “And if you can’t shape your life the way you want/at least try as much as you can not to degrade it.”

We had been degrading in all sorts of ways, baking in southern heat. As we watched the bird, a passing spry Cypriot, the kind of man who in the States would be a bike messenger, aged into wiry skinniness, took interest in our crouch. Without hesitation, he intervened, lifting the bird to place it back in the nest we had spied in the crook of a nearby tree. And then laughed at our faces. We too had migratory status: unacclimated, we stared.

I leave such things to fate, he explained. The will of the gods! Shrugging: who knows?

Such capricious gods my daughters could not accept. After our messenger passed, we asked suggestions from an ironic restaurant owner who had espied our follies from his own perch: seated before an empty birdcage in an alley with sheets stretched overhead for shade, smoking shisha from an ornate purple pipe. A pale Russian man by him proffered a ramen box, the skeptical owner handed us a slice of American white bread, and the owner’s friendly wife from the Philippines offered a thimble of birdseed. Inside her friends hooted at a karaoke contest playing out over a vast television screen, melodies blaring a stereophonic and unsongbirdlike wail that had its own dirgelike human drama.

Collectively endowed, the three of us, mother and daughters, ended up parading back in heat, carrying the bird in the ramen container all the way home. Yet as we entered the apartment door, someone shoved by one daughter and so the bird fell to the ground, making a double impact.  In our apartment we twittered over it, creating a bed from torn bits of tissue paper. While we looked up how to feed such a defenseless creature, in the relative cool, the passerine started to look calmer, though outside, on the streets, no one moved, even after the muezzin called the faithful in for Ramadan’s afternoon prayers. In the southern part of Nicosia, the muezzin usually summons solo Bangladeshi, Pakistani, or Syrian boy students who aced their TOEFL in the British Councils back home, most of them here on restrictive visas and forced to find community by lingering in parks and take-out places. But on this day, because of the heat, no one walked through the street below our apartment.

Online, in our reading, two lines of thought prevailed: one was that we had kidnapped the bird, the other was that if it was a fledgling, we had done the right thing and there probably no longer existed any mother willing to adjudicate or tend.

This afternoon had started to feel the way many Turkish Cypriot folktales begin, a la: “once there was and once there wasn’t, when the sieve lay in the hay and yesterday was today.” Perhaps we could nurse the bird back to life and then set it free near its tree.

Cavafy can be an ornery muse, self-involved and yet hortatory. At one point he says: “Even this first step/is a long way above the ordinary world./To stand on this step/you must be in your own right/a member of the city of ideas.” He had, in many ways, been cheering me on in Cyprus.

And still, even as the bird calmed away from the heat, how awful to see the thinness of the life impulse, red pulsing the base of the scrawny legs. Ways to mistreat such a vulnerable creature multiplied; we probably already had been guilty of most. Yet we held out some dim hope: in some parallel universe of happy endings, the mother may yet have been hovering near, awaiting the return of her babe, though from the start, even given a hunting interval, we’d seen none, and fledglings ostensibly need to be fed every 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, in another paralleloverse, macho heads of state from both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides showed masculine potency by eating, in clandestine hushed settings, this bird’s phylogenetic cousins, black caps and song thrushes called here ambelopoulia: eating these migratory songbirds is a newly illegal act.

Finally, we spoke to wildlife rehabilitation people, doing what we could toward resuscitation. We were to use dog kibble soaked in hot sugar water, mushed, cannibalistically, with baby formula and hard-boiled egg, but ended up only able to make a small ball of chicken yolk from our offering, poked on a toothpick toward the fledgling. At our offerings, it pecked only limply.

That weekend, endangerment was everywhere.

Monday, heads of Turkish and Greek communities were to convene in Geneva with the exhausted United Nations people yet again. Some dreamers still believed shuttle diplomacy might prevail. Even if, already that month, the U.N. itself had given up hope, leading to this occurrence: daily in the buffer zone between the two checkpoints, watched over by becapped Serbian and Bosnian peacekeepers with ironic smiles, a hardy group of Cypriot optimists had been gathering to sing Joan Baez songs, blow whistles and vuvuzelas, reading bicommunal poems with the hope of mobilizing a movement to get not just the U.N. but the whole country back in the Unite Cyprus platform. To participate in that rally, to stand in that raucous buffer zone, was to breathe the air of such beautifully antique idealism, it became harder to cross 20 meters over to the Turkish side (where water comes from a pipeline all the way from Turkey) and note the crumbling infrastructure and unsupported buildings.

Or, as Cavafy would have it:
…the Alexandrians thronged to the festival
full of enthusiasm, and shouted acclamations
in Greek, and Egyptian, and some in Hebrew,
charmed by the lovely spectacle—
though they knew of course what all this was worth,
what empty words they really were, these kingships.
Could there be a reunited Cyprus?

It depends on who has your ear.

The island saw waves of immigration and conquest from the Minoans and Phoenicians, from the Ottoman Empire, from the Assyrians, Greeks, Venetians, French, and British. In 1960, after decades of fostering division and bicommunal identification—even Lawrence Durrell got into the meddling from his lemon house, via his work at an English newspaper—the British had foisted an idea of Cyprus and Cypriots on the people of the island, the concept of an independent country few in the country wanted, according to many, the country just riding the coattails of other independence movements: India and the other colonies. Before independence, in 1960, Greek Cypriots were linked with Greece and Turkish Cypriots with Turkey. By 1963, after a spate of violence that roared out of Greece and took over Cyprus, Turkish Cypriots lost trust in their former neighbors, which they then needed to cover over with some amnesia in order to get along until 1974, ending a period of unparalleled prosperity for the island during its sole 14 years of self-governance.

In 1974, instigated by the junta in Greece, Turkey took over the northern third of the island. To Turkish Cypriots in that moment, many women and children having had to flee north to follow their fathers and husbands who had already been rounded up, Turkey did not occupy the north, it provided a necessary peacekeeping force. So testifies the 50-foot statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk atop the mountain range near Kyrenia, or the massive Turkish flag design cut into the hills soon as you drive out past the Greek checkpoint, or the Turkish flags made of metal in order to be always visible over Nicosia.

One of many deleterious legacies of 1974 is that 40 percent of the population will identify as refugees. Turkish Cypriots fled generational homes in the south for protection to the north, paralleling the northern Greek Cypriots who fled south, all of which leaves the north a nation unrecognized by anyone but Saudi Arabia and Turkey, considered illegally occupied territory. And because many in the north are civil servants paid by Turkey, because infrastructure comes from Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan remains the parent in this situation: complained about (Turkey makes unconscionable profit from the water it diverts to Turkish Cypriots), yet also necessary, saber-rattling as it might be: many believe Turkey might yet bomb the oil drilling undertaken by a French company, Total, begun last July in one of the Cypriot “blocks” in the Mediterranean.

So that while the wounds may differ, they hurt equivalently. Turkish Cypriots tend to recall 1963 and its outbreak of bicommunal violence while some Greek Cypriots tend to stoke 1974. A Greek physicist mother will say she doesn’t want Erdogan a presence in her kids’ school in the southern Greek side and a Turkish refugee up north will say she doesn’t want to go south again to Paphos, where she once owned a restaurant, because neither Costas and Andreas remain—those friendly Greek neighbors with whom she once enjoyed her muddy coffee (called Cypriot coffee in the south, Turkish coffee up north).

While most Turkish-side locals say they do not trust Erdoğan, others feel he is a man of courage, worthy of admiration, preventing the rape by other nations, as they will say.  “Look, thousands of Muslims were killed in the very center of Europe, in Yugoslavia, while Europe just stood by,” one temperate Turkish Cypriot woman told me. “We need Turkey.”  Negotiations with the U.N. were meant to contemplate whether 40,000 Turkish soldiers got to remain on the island or whether there might be a third-party guarantor of Turkish Cypriot safety. Would they succeed? Theories abounded. While Greek Cypriots tend to remember their childhood homes in the north, often fetishizing the particular key, the fig tree, a substantial number of Turkish Cypriots now do not wish to unify, as economically fetching as it might be to become members of the European Union.

Ghostlike dates hover over all: 1964, the moment when a British general used a chinagraph pen to mark out the “Green Line” as a ceasefire between the two communities; 1974 when president and former archbishop Makarios was overthrown by a Greek coup, leading Turkey to use the opening for its partitionist plans, according to some; the opening of the checkpoints in 2004; the referenda that have been rejected; Cyprus joining the European Union.

History has a way of striking families obliquely yet creating villages of communal feeling: one moment can torque an entire habitat into being, creating odd bedfellows.

Turkey, for instance, has been shipping in busloads of loyal and religious peasants from Anatolia in order to change the numbers and culture of the north. In the south, one often hears Greek Cypriots state that while they are fine and happy with Turkish Cypriots, these new Turks are unlettered and rude, crass and different, descendents of Mongolian barbarians. And yet how often I heard a genteel Anatolian or westerner speak in glowing terms of Erdogan, who began his connection to Cyprus in a far more liberal and gentlemanly fashion than he now behaves.

And while recent genetic studies prove the deep connection between the Greek Cypriots and Turk Cypriots, ethnonational discourse lives among the most virulent Greek speakers, who revere Hellenism and the cult of Enosis, union with Greece. In their ancient rhetoric, you hear that Istanbul means barbarism and Athens gentility, a story older than Byzantium.

A man born after 1974 told me that he has seen every country in his region become a plaything for superpowers: Cyprus, Libya, and Afghanistan have served as toys for the U.K., Russia, Turkey, and the U.S., with China now determinedly snatching up land. These superpowers sow communal discord, while only the Nicosia sewage system, linking the two halves of the capital, offers an homage to peaceful cooperation, gurgling bicommunally: what gets worked out underground fails to be worked out aboveground.

In “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats, mourning the loss of what a younger self knew, says: “That is no country for old men.” Around the same time, Cavafy from his perch in Egypt and Turkey imagined ancient Hellene leaders at the cusp of losing power. In “Ithaka,” read at Jackie Kennedy’s funeral, Cavafy tells his reader, essentially, if you sail to Ithaka and find it lacking, the journey will have mattered: your perception is the only thing that might make it lack.

These many months we have been living in this sundered zone amid the din of trauma, nostalgia, and claims of worth, hearing the simultaneous clamor of muezzin and church bells. Many have given up hope for unification. The youth are a bit tired of all this talk of the katastasis. For our part we have been trying to offer up random spots of good, volunteering in a Turkish orphanage and a southern refugee camp housing Kurds, Syrians, Somalians, Lebanese, built over the site of a massacre in the 1960s. But it feels as if no effort can truly touch the central issue, which is what it has long been: who ever gets the story of identity right? Even a tiny bird fallen near us proved how very good we all are at bungling.

About that bird: finally, in the opposite of a triumphal march, we brought it back, past the restaurant where the owner no longer sat at his purple shisha in the alley but had retired inside to his wife and small boy.

At the tree near where the fledgling had fallen, we placed it back in the nest. Birds have little sense of smell; perhaps the mother had only gone out for a bit; perhaps nature or fate would reassert itself. The older daughter kindly consoled the younger: now the bird gets to rest.

Fortunately or not, a week ago showed the bird had gone to a happier perch somewhere: the nest was either empty by the bird’s choice or had been emptied by a greater power, a predator or disconsolate mother.

Which is why I hesitated today with the kittens.

I had dropped the kids off for their second day at a happily unheeding Cypriot summer camp lacking all American liability papers and went for a run through the municipal park where Sundays Filipina and Sri Lankan domestic workers gather for a day of picnicking and community on their single day off from government-mandated schedules as six-day maids, the state’s form of modern slavery. I ran through that park, once a cruising nighttime area for clandestine men, and into another where I practically stumbled over the kittens.

The pair seemed pathetically starved and ill-treated: perhaps someone had abandoned them. I waited long enough to be sure no mother lived in the picture, hunting or not. The orange one had some gregariousness, rubbing up against my leg. At first I wanted to bring them home so at least one kid would delight when coming home from camp, but then knew another in our family, allergic, would protest. Instead I picked them up in my shirt and carried them to a place along the river path which grew especially wild, where houses met a pedestrian ramp.

There I’d often seen a young woman in black flowing clothes tending to stray cats, putting out food and dishes of water and milk in late afternoon when the sun bent over the ravine toward the cracked walls of her house. A few centuries ago, the Venetians had brought cats to Cyprus as rat-killers, according to some, while others claimed the French were the first. Soon as we had landed, multiple cat eyes were staring at the new arrivals, peeking out from under corrugated tin, from the branches, from under cars. Only a grown black minx, self-assured with a small black cat, came toward me, the sleekest best-looking member of the pack. Was this a friendly confederacy or an autocracy? I brought the kittens to a bowl of water and the orange showed acumen, sipping with great thirst, while the small gray one practically fell in. I left not knowing whether I had done the right thing, only that I had done something.

At night my children and I passed through a square where reggae blasted, Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” set to techno, courtesy of the amazing Home for Cooperation here, a place stationed in the U.N. Buffer Zone which tries to create free events that will bring Turkish and Greek Cypriots together in an easy appreciation of culture and the environ. Other non-governmental organizations dedicated to refugee rights sold small plastic-wrapped plates of tabouli. A young Somali teen in red hijab danced ecstatically with a group of small children. The NGO administrators kept hissing at the gathered cats to leave, but drawn by the music, the cats stayed lit by the floodlights in the square beneath the church, hopeful that some scrap of understanding might be shown them.

And then this morning again came the news. Negotiations had failed this time, perhaps for good. The Greek president, Nicos Anastasiades, had bewilderingly said no to the military presence of 750 Turkish soldiers, instead choosing to keep the status quo of 40,000. The United Nations decided to leave the two Cypriot parties, Greek and Turkish—groups different only by religion and language—to duke it out themselves. An exhausted António Guterres, the lead U.N. negotiator, wished Cyprus well. Everyone would be left with what the colonizers had torn asunder. “Before 1974, we used to live like brothers, sisters, cousins,” Turkish and Greek Cypriots often tell me.

And today when I ran the path again, to my horror, the mother cat—I am almost sure she is the mother—turned up in the spot from which I hoisted the kittens. Orange and black, stilled after she licked her paw, she sat patient as a cenotaph and is still there waiting on the path for her kittens to come home. “Wise as you will have become,” says Cavafy, “so full of experience/you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.” I am still waiting.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Death and the Poet: Inside the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast


The poet will always stay in the haunted house with you. Sisters will balk, husbands must watch children, but a poet will feel obliged to accompany where ghosts reputedly tread.

The poet is arbiter between life and death, constantly stretching the tenuous fabric of life as if considering buying a yard from that bolt. What exactly was it that called Emily Dickinson back from her little cousins? The poet must know. The arterial blood poor John Keats coughed into his handkerchief before his pen had thoroughly gleaned his teeming brain: worthy of examination.

My staunch escort was A., winner of the Iowa Prize, someone who cares so deeply for the craft she earned two MFAs. I knew her from undergrad, a small liberal arts college in Maine. Since we had graduated in the early 1990s, I had seen her exactly three times. Three times in a quarter of a century, and yet I didn’t even have to call; I texted her to say “Want to stay overnight with me in the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast August 18, my treat?” Despite “treat” being a dubious description, within moments I had an affirmative response.

The Lizzie Borden B&B in Fall River, Mass., pays homage to the shocking dual murders, by hatchet, of Andrew and Abby Borden in 1892. Andrew was Lizzie’s father and Abby her stepmother. I was writing a novel about the case, and my editor wanted me to spend the night. Since I live in California, I was trying to come up with an east coaster—hopefully with somewhat morbid sensibilities—who could meet me for the night.

A few months later, I took a redeye into Boston, rented a car and met A. at a deli where we ate abject iceberg salads and then caravanned to the house. I drove past it on the first try; the house was quiet and the world was calm when I had been expecting more fanfare. I circled back and saw A. in the rear view do the same. We parked behind the house where a minor orchard once supplied pears for snacks and alibis.

For some background, Abby was murdered in the morning while Andrew was out of the house, a fact established by forensic examination of the couple’s stomach contents. He came home a few hours later, sat down on the sofa in the sitting room and was killed, never knowing his wife’s body was cooling upstairs on the guest room floor. Famously, as memorialized in the jump rope rhyme, their heads bore many, many blows. There was such rage that it made potsherds of their skulls.

Lizzie was accused of the murders because she was home for both, had weird, conflicting stories for what she was doing (eating pears in the barn, ironing handkerchiefs, looking for fishing sinkers) and was known to be uncordial with Abby. She had also been seen trying to buy poison the day before the murders (and hmmm the Bordens were vomiting that week, as was the family’s Irish maid) and had a spot-on premonition, expressed to a family friend on the very eve, that “something might happen.”

Instead of experiencing an hour of lead after discovering her father’s hacked-up corpse, she wondered aloud where her stepmother might be, saying she had gone to visit a sick friend, and then suddenly proclaiming she thought she had heard Abby come home and maybe she too had been killed.

Despite these troublesome facts, a jury hurriedly acquitted her. They deliberated only one hour; it’s said they stretched it out to appear more diligent. Lizzie and her sister, Emma, went on to purchase a nice home with the proceeds. Luckily, Mrs. Borden’s dying first meant the sisters received everything as Andrew’s heirs rather than having to share anything with their stepmother’s family…people whom the sisters strongly disliked.

A poet surmises that the site of so much anger bears supernatural residue. The hatchet carved a solo meridian in Abby’s forehead: she saw her attacker. Andrew, on the other hand, was napping when attacked (he did go gentle into that good night) and perhaps feels a shade’s outrage for the unfair fight. Abby tried to crawl under the guest room bed to escape, but was too large. The post-mortem photographer pulled her back out and tacked her arms down by her side. There is pathos to the hobnails displayed on the upturned soles of her shoes, like the garland briefer than a girl’s.

Anyone can book a night in the room where Mrs. Borden foundered. It contains a different bed, meant to look like the original. Portions of the carpet were cut away to display vestiges of the carnage in court, and one can only assume that under today’s equally-florid carpeting, stains still plague the wood. There was no way in hell I’d stay in that room, with or without a poet.

Luckily, the room I considered the safest, one full floor above any murder, was the one I needed to stay in: the maid’s attic chamber. My novel tells the story from her—Bridget Sullivan’s— point of view, along with a contemporary narrative. I set aside fire hazard fears and welcomed being at the top of the house, far from any wraithlike shenanigans, and had booked it online as soon as I got A.’s consent.

Yet as A. and I entered the house through the side door, the servant’s entrance leading to the kitchen, we learned we’d be just down the hall from the most haunted room in the house, named for the prosecuting attorney, who clearly sucked.


We dropped our bags and poked around the house, told we had free range; the home was now closed to day visitors. History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors, the front stairs and the servant stairs, the chambers locked between family members. A. had read up on Wikipedia but didn’t know Lizzie’s story fully; nonetheless, she was clearly interested in the Victorian interiors and the home’s confines. I imagined what it was like to be Bridget, tasked with cooking and cleaning the downstairs chambers, wielding the broom lapping the floor, looking for dead bodies.

I walked into Lizzie’s chamber and shrieked: two people were lying on the bed. “Come in, come in,” they called to me, laughing. But I felt too shy and I never really did circle back to examine that room closely; even during our official tour later in the evening the room was too small for everyone to fit into.

After our self-guided wanderings, A. and I walked a few blocks downtown to a Portuguese restaurant for seafood. I made her try sangria; she hated it so that left me with a pitcher to conquer. We lingered so long we had to speed back to the house for our official tour. I was glad we had left for a few hours, both because we got reprieve from the home’s claustrophobic energy and because we got a spectacular view of it from far away, lights blazing in the night. It occurred to me then that Lizzie would’ve loved the house heaving with people interested in her and the minutia of her life. Who knows but I am enjoying this? Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?

We returned to the kitchen for snickerdoodles and bloodthirsty tales, a two-hour voyage through every chamber with a guide who knew the case backwards and forwards. Up in the attic, we learned why the Hosea Knowlton Room was the most haunted. Before Lizzie was born, a relative had lived next door, a woman apparently so overwhelmed by the duties of maternity that she drowned her baby and two-year-old in the basement well, and slit her own throat. The four-year-old got away somehow. A sordid, awful tale and for anyone with an iota of imagination, like a poet, nearly impossible not to envision with real-time mental footage. The story is cited in connection with the Borden murders because it’s an example of kin killing kin (we cannot draw a genetic insanity correlation, however, because she was related to Lizzie via marriage) and because when Lizzie’s family moved to Second Street, likely there was talk of the scandal from decades prior. Oddly, the drowned children are said to have moved their paranormal selves one house over and up three stories, where they push unseen but noisy marbles across the floor.

The tour included snippets of important information for each room (here on the sitting room mantelpiece Andrew kept the key to his bedroom; here is the lounge where Lizzie reclined and was fanned by her friends while police tried to interview her; here is the stove where Lizzie burned a dress directly after learning she was a suspect). Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?

In Lizzie’s bedroom, the guide pointed out the nail holes in the doorjamb connecting between her room and the elder Bordens’. Lizzie, or someone, had nailed that door shut, and positioned the bed to block the door. For anyone raised in the post-Freudian era, these details elevated eyebrows. Yes, the guide said. Over the years, psychologists who took the tour had told her these particulars signaled textbook abuse.

He did not do, he did not do, any more, that black shoe.

In the guest room, our guide lay face down where Abby had, and we all climbed the stairs single file to do just what jurors had done in 1893: to turn our heads midway up the winding flight to see if it was possible to look under the bed and see the body on the other side. Note: it is entirely possible. I think this is the single most damning detail from the whole saga: as Andrew Borden was ringing the front doorbell to gain access to his own home, strangely locked to him while his wife’s life blood was congealing (did he accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent?), and Bridget fought the locks to open the door so he could come in and be killed, Lizzie stood on the stairs—where we now stood— and laughed.

After the tour ended, the guide showed us the handwritten telephone number to reach the B&B’s owner. There was considerable stirring as we realized we were going to be alone in the house, strangers brought together by odd fascination with a century-old cold case. But but but, we sputtered collectively.

The owner lived in the second story of the barn, so if specters pursued us and we fled into the night screaming, we at least now had a door to pound on. The “barn” was a reconstruction of the structure where Lizzie said she ate pears one after another in the hayloft on the hottest summer day, or picked through a box looking for lead to make a sinker—despite not possessing a fishing line and despite having canceled her trip to the seashore and despite never having fished before. Plausibility: it’s a thing.

The guide departed and the rest of us milled around. A medium offered to do readings in the parlor and several people joined her. A man set up his laptop with special time-lapse ghost-hunting software to film Andrew’s sofa all night, then went upstairs to install another to capture Abby’s slice of carpet; some people followed him. A. and I repaired (I found myself thinking in Victorian verbs) to the sitting room, reluctant to go to bed. The door was open to the parlor, so we spoke in hushed tones to not disturb the spirits fighting through the travails of time and loss to whisper in the medium’s sensitive ears.

A. was upset, I soon learned. She was still mulling over the baby and toddler drowned by their mother. I had already encountered and digested this story in my research, but for A. it was a jolt and she wasn’t easily dismissing it. I even wondered if this was the thing that would push us out into the night to find Fall River’s Motel 6.

But eventually conversation turned, and we kvetched about teaching, lowering our voices, although I realized at one point the ghost-hunting camera was recording our every word (Note to that guy: you can blackmail us!). I also realized how casually I was chatting away on a replica of the sofa on which Andrew had been slain.

After a bit, we adjourned to the parlor but learned we had been correct to avoid the awkwardness (“I sense an older woman telling you you’re doing a great job.” “Really?” “Yes. An older woman. Has an older woman passed, an aunt or a family friend?” “No.” “But she’s here and she wants you to know you’re doing a good job.” “I don’t have a job right now”), and left as soon as we could, leaving the company of others to climb Bridget’s dank stairs to our third floor attic room.

Via mutual decision, we kept the light on all night. I’m sure the neighbors see the windows aglow all the time and our B&B fee must factor in the electrical expense. Our only jump scare came when someone abruptly rattled our door, trying to gain entry—but it turned out to be domicile ventriloquism from someone opening the bathroom door.

We lay there talking, so much in common despite the years. We both taught English comp at trade schools, were both married with two daughters, held MFAs in poetry (just one for me), and felt guilty being there. I had left my family for a week, spending time with my bereaved sister and wedging in this research trip, and she felt badly because the day she left, her youngest had been vomiting. We sleepily talked, then tried to read, then fell asleep with our books in our hands.

If something walks the halls of 92 Second Street, A. and I did not feel it. I did have a nightmare, though. In it, I had opened the closet in our room to find a young, naked girl cowering. I could trace that back to two things: the four-year-old who had escaped her mother’s infanticidal clutch, and the incest theory between Lizzie and Andrew. Oh, another thing, too: the tour guide had told us that inside the third attic chamber’s closet, wire hangers would jangle on their own in the night. Silly to be scared by haunted hangers, yet their repository figured in my dream.

In the morning, we were jubilant. We had survived without filming terrorized, wild-eyed video missives to explain our demises à la The Blair Witch Project. A. confided she felt A-OK to walk down the two flights by herself to brew a pot of coffee. “That’s cool,” I said. I pulled out my notebook to jot down the dream.

After a while I realized she hadn’t left yet.

I looked at her questioningly.

She blushed. “Want to go down with me?”

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

My Pilgrimage to the House of Brontë

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The Brontë Parsonage Museum lies in the remote Yorkshire village of Haworth, perched above vast, unpopulated moors. Arriving on a drizzly evening in late November, having changed trains several times and debarked in Keighley (pronounced KEITH-ley), I jounced over the narrow country streets in a bus, bleary with jet lag, until a grandmotherly woman nudged me to get off. The bus left me at the bottom of a high street so steep that its original pavers had installed the bricks short-end-up to give horses more traction. I lugged my suitcase up between the iron-grey stone and lath cottages lining the street. The Black Bull tavern appeared on my left, and an old-fashioned pharmacy with chickens scratching around its front door on my right. Once installed in my room at Weaver’s, a bed and breakfast over a low-ceilinged, hearth-warmed pub, I looked out the window. There before me was the parsonage, facing the famous graveyard and Rev. Brontë’s church. My breath caught in my chest. I was about 100 feet from the place where Charlotte Brontë — born 200 years ago today — lived, worked, and died.

Isolated in bucolic Haworth, the Brontës did not have society connections. Patrick Brontë moved the family to the remote Yorkshire village in 1820 when he became resident parish priest. Within five years, his wife, Maria, and his two oldest children, Maria and Elizabeth, were dead. In the parsonage, his four youngest children grew up with books and created their own magazines and illustrated sagas. By adulthood, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne had written seven novels and several volumes of poetry. Their brother Branwell painted and earned money by tutoring the children of local gentry.

The young artists had to forge their own connections. When Charlotte was 20, she wrote to poet laureate Robert Southey for feedback on her writing; Southey admitted she had ability but chided her: “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be.” Years later, after a half dozen rejections of her first manuscript The Professor, Charlotte penned Jane Eyre: An Autobiography “edited by Currer Bell” over the summer of 1847. When it came out that October, it was an overnight sensation, immediately drawing the admiration of William Makepeace Thackeray and the bombast of anti-feminists. Even before the pseudonym was unveiled, London literati were beside themselves over the question of authorship. In the Quarterly Review, Elizabeth Rigby rankled that the book could not have been written by a woman because Jane defies the essence of femininity and Christian piety; “and if by no woman, [the book] is certainly by no artist,” she added.

Between the novel’s publication and her death eight years later, Charlotte, surviving the loss of all three siblings in the space of eight months during 1848 to 1849, became a one-woman publicity agency. She visited London, met the already famous political economist Harriet Martineau, and entertained rising novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, a prime figure in a new subgenre of fiction, the Condition of England novel (to which Shirley also belongs). Gaskell would soon become Brontë’s posthumous biographer. When Life of Charlotte Brontë hit bookstores in 1857, devotees arrived in Haworth, peeping into the windows as Rev. Patrick Brontë ate his meals alone. So began a fiercely devoted fan culture that has only gained momentum over the past century and a half — with pilgrimages like mine and with a steady stream of literary tributes such as this year’s The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell, an example of biofiction distinctive to Brontëana.

I spent my first evening in Haworth walking around the parsonage’s lovely garden-bordered front yard, gazing at the strange churchyard with its gravestones laid flat, and admiring the cornflower blue clock-face. Behind it, the Yorkshire hills, green even in late November, sloped away and rose again in the distance, giving the impression that I was alone on a pinnacle in the middle of nowhere, England. The chilly air was still except for a rooster crowing. There was no sign or sound of life from this century. I scanned the upper windows of the parsonage, wondering which was Charlotte’s room.

The next day, Ann Dinsdale, collections manager of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, gave me a private tour. The four main rooms downstairs are preserved and have been recreated to appear as they were when Charlotte and her father occupied the house after Emily and Anne’s deaths. The parlor on the left sported red curtains and the round table at which the sisters wrote. Across the hall was Rev. Brontë’s study, and the kitchen where Emily and Anne would write diary papers every few years and where Emily would teach herself German while she waited for bread to rise. Behind the parlor was a converted pantry that Charlotte had renovated for her husband, her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. On the landing upstairs, the iconic portrait of the Brontë sisters by Branwell was displayed — a copy, Ms. Dinsdale told me. Behind the pigment that Branwell used to paint himself out of the group portrait, his face just faintly appeared. Upstairs were rooms occupied by Aunt Elizabeth Branwell, their mother’s sister, who came to raise the girls when Mrs. Brontë died.

In a narrow room between Aunt Branwell’s chamber and Rev. Brontë’s bedroom, young Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell fashioned themselves into authors and cultural critics. There they invented tales about imaginary kingdoms, Gondal and Angria, and produced minute, hand-sewn and -lettered booklets that parodied London magazines, complete with advertisements. Their juvenilia is full of military sagas, political drama, and romance — the result of their father’s unusual library containing volumes of racy poetry by Lord Byron, history books full of battles, and earnest political treatises. Rev. Brontë’s library was unusually cosmopolitan for a clergyman or indeed most literate households in the early-19th century. (Books were expensive and often limited to The Pilgrim’s Progress and the Bible). This library, along with Patrick’s encouragement of his children’s art, music, and writing, may be the single greatest reason that the Brontë sisters became poets and novelists — along with the storytelling of their beloved servant Tabitha Aykroyd. According to Dinsdale, Tabitha would relate the village gossip and tell sordid tales that were not necessarily edited for children’s ears. Other than a brief stint at a school for clergymen’s daughters, they were educated at home in a provincial village of miners and wool workers.

But in order to become juvenile authors and the young women who crafted tales of insubordinate heroines and reckless heroes, they had to survive. On a shelf in a downstairs back room, Ms. Dindale pointed out a pair of cloth mules with platform soles; these were for protecting dainty shoes and low hemlines from the muck of the village streets. She didn’t elaborate, but offered a copy of a public health study conducted a few years before Charlotte died.

In 1850, the average life expectancy in Haworth was 25.8 years. Because it was a town “periodically visited by typhus fever,” in that year, Haworth commissioned a report by Benjamin H. Babbage. Babbage was an inspector in the new field of public health, which had gotten underway in London as a consequence of new scientific attention to urban slums and what middle-class Victorians perceived as the moral and physical degradation of the poor. Rev. Brontë assisted with Babbage’s investigation. The inspector found open sewage and water supply contamination plaguing Haworth. Between 1840 and 1847, the year Jane Eyre was published, 42 percent of children died before the age of six.

The mortality rate and life expectancy can be explained by Babbage’s findings, which he declared rivaled the poorest and sickliest neighborhoods of London. One detail from his report speaks volumes about the need for platform shoes. He describes a public privy perched over the highest part of the main street:
The cesspit of this privy lies below it, and opens by a small door into the main street; occasionally this door is burst open by the superincumbent weight of night soil and ashes, and they overflow into the public street, and at all times a disgusting effluvium escapes through this door into the street. Within two yards of this cesspit door there is a tap for a supply of water to the neighboring houses.
More privies like these were ranged along the main street. Additionally, behind many houses were midden steads — 73 in all — containing household garbage, human waste, and pig manure in piles that seeped through walls and even covered the low roofs of houses built into the slopes. Looking at the platform shoes, my mind formed an image of Charlotte, whose small frame had materialized for me in the petite summer dress on display upstairs, walking over streams of sewage. I also realized that my impression of having been teleported to Charlotte’s time on the still night before, with misty fresh air and a cock crowing somewhere, was delusional. To live in Haworth during her time would have made anyone from the 21st century chronically nauseated.

Rev. Brontë visited the multitudes of sick parishioners during outbreaks of typhus and officiated at countless funerals. He had been interested in medicine before entering divinity school and remained an amateur scholar of medicine and a keen observer of his family’s health for the rest of their lives. After his wife and older daughters died, he kept his remaining children at home, but his vigilance could not save them; all four died of tuberculosis, another scourge of the era.

Branwell died first, at age 31, after a long battle with morphine and alcohol, becoming so inebriated that Rev. Brontë kept him in his own bed at night for fear that Branwell would set the house on fire. Anne would write The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as a cautionary tale about a husband’s alcoholism; there are also traces of Branwell in Heathcliff and Rochester. Emily died next, age 29, at home, without medical attention in accordance with her preference. Anne died next; she was sent to recuperate, on her father’s scanty salary, to oceanside Scarborough, but died there; she is the only sibling buried away from the chapel in Haworth. All four of the younger Brontë children lived past the average age of 25.8 years, though not by much.

Looking into the parlor as Ms. Dinsdale pointed out the round table where the sisters wrote, we then turned to a black horsehair sofa upon which Emily had expired. Tuberculosis is a lung disease that causes wasting; before antibiotics, “consumptives” essentially drowned in sputum and blood. I stared in awe and grief at Emily’s severe-looking sofa, just feet away from the vital table around which the sisters had paced as they read their days’ work to one other.

When Charlotte was his last remaining child, Rev. Brontë renovated the parsonage roof, thinking that the dampness in its lathes could be the source of his children’s fatal illnesses. He also monitored Charlotte very closely. Already showing symptoms of decline, she was attended by a local surgeon who diagnosed inflammation of the liver. Charlotte complained in a letter to her best friend, “part of this sickness is owing to his medicine.” She was correct; Dr. William Ruddock gave her mercury pills, still the mainstay of allopathic medication. “Salivating” and “purging” a patient were believed to carry illness out of the body by increasing the release of fluids produced naturally during sickness.

This late continuation of humoral theory was competing with newer ideas, such as those of her father’s home medical manual Graham’s Domestic Medicine. Thomas J. Graham put more stock in regulating the bowels, and Rev. Brontë, keeping up with developments in medicine, did too. In the margins, he carefully documented his own observations and evidence from other authors about the healthy frequency of solid and liquid elimination. In her last novel, Villette, Charlotte made her heroine’s first, failed love interest a cardboard character named John Graham Bretton. Struggling to write the book between 1851 and 1852, Charlotte was reeling from her siblings’ deaths and an episode of what seems to be a lifelong propensity to major depression, plus the debilitating mercury treatments. The whole tale of Lucy Snowe is an illness and grief narrative, wrought in stunning intertextual allusions and even richer wordplay than Jane Eyre. Not surprisingly, Dr. John cannot cure Lucy’s hypochondria (used in its literal sense, “poor health,” in this era) because he believes her nightmares and anxiety are caused by constipation. In frustration, Lucy declares, “Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure” and finds a new love interest.

Despite her father’s solicitousness, Charlotte succumbed to her illness in 1855. Rev. Brontë died in 1861, aged 84, somehow eluding the tuberculosis that had claimed his entire family and the typhus that killed his parishioners. His belongings, including his children’s manuscripts, scattered (they brought especially high prices in the U.S.) but thanks to the Brontë Society some decades later, they began to make their way back to Haworth.

Cousins of family servant Martha Brown opened the first museum. In rooms above a Haworth bank, they displayed items that had been donated, loaned, or purchased by the new Society. In 1928, the parsonage went up for sale and Sir James Roberts, a local textile tycoon who had known the family, purchased and donated it to the Society. That August, thousands of people in cloche hats and fedoras crammed the narrow village streets to witness the opening.

Since then, the Society, the mission of which is to “promote the Brontës’ literary legacy within contemporary society” and to purchase and collect Brontëana, has brought hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world, making the remote parsonage second only to William Shakespeare’s museum in Stratford-upon-Avon. This cultivation of the legacy is rooted in arts and programming, but it is also anchored in 150 years of recalling back to the parsonage every artifact of the Brontës’ short lives so that fans and scholars can imagine the sisters’ lives in Haworth.

On my own pilgrimage, I was unexpectedly and utterly enthralled by the physical traces of Charlotte and her siblings — a curl of Charlotte’s hair, blond and auburn, tucked into a tiny, black-edged mourning envelope looked as if it had been cut that morning; her diminutive dress and shoes; the large metal collar of Emily’s beloved dog Keeper, who attended her funeral in the church; paint boxes and sewing kits; and even their father’s carefully annotated home medical manual all struck me with their intimacy.

Quietly reveling among these homely objects, the wild gothic expressions of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall seemed to me extraordinary to have emanated from the unconnected daughters of a clergyman in a remote village above the sheep-dotted Yorkshire hills. Yet these moors, repurposed into the home of Cathy and Heathcliff and the refuge of Jane Eyre escaping Rochester’s tyranny, were the healthiest alternative to Haworth itself in the insalubrious days before indoor plumbing and germ theory. The fresh, sweet scent of heather would have smelled heavenly in that malodorous age.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

That Was Us: An Expat’s Search for Home

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The baby toys will be the first to go — no use in packing them up; by the time they are unearthed again she’ll find them infantile anyway, pieces of plastic she’ll toss out of the bin to get to the better stuff, her head buried in the search. I’ll put them in the corner of the room next to the boxes of winter coats and try not to worry about where they’ll go next. Probably into the garbage barrels in the courtyard next to the bicycles, although a more organized person would have found a friend with a younger baby or at least a charity that would happily take them, but my Internet research skills are still poor in German, and all our friends with younger babies have already moved.

Holding onto people here, so far from where we came from, is like trying to make time stand still; the second you settle into some semblance of routine — dinner, Friday, as usual, our place or yours? We’ll bring a salad and that chocolate cake I froze earlier this week? — you get together for coffee and there it is: We’re moving.

Well, fuck you, too.

How many times had this happened in three years? The slow unveiling, a few bottles in, all of us relaxed around the dinner table after the push to get everyone sat and fed. Reclining while the kids played across the apartment for a few minutes without intervention, plates wiped clean, rice and wine drops splattered across placemats, puddles of food under the kids’ chairs, all to be cleaned up later or in the morning, or days on when someone slipped on a browning mash of avocado. I’d look around and think, this is okay, this is really a fine life, we really have managed, and that’s when it would come up.

So. The couple looking at each other across the wreckage. So.

Soon we will be those people: too busy to get together for goodbye picnics and spontaneous trips to the Spielplatz because all our time is spent sorting through bags of baby clothes — onesies I stuffed into a drawer when the snaps refused to close — or researching daycares, buying plane tickets, combing Craig’s List for affordable apartments. A life of half-packed bags and endless regenerating lists and piles of mismatched crap you think you’ll sort through but will eventually end up in the trash with the rest; a life of pulling your heart slowly out of a place before knowing exactly where you’ll set it down next.

I thought leaving this apartment, at least, would be easy — we’ve spent much of the last two years cursing it, dreaming about moving: its tiny kitchen for one, the too-thin wall that separates our room from the baby’s — she’ll be so close, it’ll be cozy, our stupidly childless selves thought — the total lack of sunlight in the living room, the many flights of stairs the baby all too often refuses to climb (“Mama, carry you!”). We fell in love with it when we first saw it: the impossibly high ceilings, the neighborhood that could trick you into thinking you were in Berlin or Brooklyn. The spare furniture: enough to keep us from eating off paper plates on the floor but not too overwhelming to have stepped into someone else’s taste. It was a place — our first — that we could really make our own.

Now neither of us knows why we fell so hard — most of the flat is dark and the furniture looks, if this is possible, both ancient and like it’s from the ’80s, heavy wooden cabinets equipped with rusted keys, consoles with diagonal designs and rounded edges and shiny gold knobs. The gauzy white curtains are splattered with yellow flowers. My husband didn’t want to risk our deposit by making holes in the plaster, so the walls are still mostly white and bare, save an 8×10 sketch of a tree that wasn’t offensive enough to take down. (Save, too, the inadvertent crayon murals in the kid’s room.)

“This isn’t our stuff!” is the first thing I say to anyone who walks in. This isn’t us! has been my perpetual refrain. One day, somewhere, I’ll show you what is.

But leaving this place also means leaving those last weeks of pregnancy, when we’d take nightly walks from our old sublet over to the new place, my husband lugging a few bags of clothing over his shoulder, or pushing the pram loaded up with toiletries and paperbacks with one arm, our fingers locked together in the hand of the other, our future always just a few blocks off. I’d come by in the afternoons to check on something — did the kitchen house a Cafeteria, a salad spinner, a good sharp knife? — and inadvertently take a nap on the bare mattress, wake up not knowing where I was, tiny legs kicking at my insides.

It means leaving the first home our daughter ever knew: where, in the throes of early mobility, she bounded off the couch and onto her head on the wood with a smack, both of us screaming; where I gathered her up so that our hearts were pressed together, beating wildly. Where she shoved her shoes onto the wrong feet and yelled, “Noa do it, allein!” when either of us tried to help. Where, when she was a very small baby, I spent hours worrying I might tilt the massive window open a little too widely, just enough to tip myself out.

To be an expat is to always feel slightly on the fringe of things. It is to perpetually be a little lost, to live with the nagging feeling that your life — your real life, the one in which you can speak to the grocer, the pharmacist, or on the phone, the one in which you have your choice of jobs, of friends, of pantry-staples — is happening elsewhere. It is to no longer really belong anywhere; to lose the ability to say, with total assuredness, This is my home.

Three years ago, my husband and I moved to Vienna, Austria. I came from Brooklyn, where I had lived for a dozen years; he moved from Munich, Germany, where he had been for two. Next summer, right after our daughter — our born and bred Wienerkind — turns three, we will relocate our small family to the other edge of the western world, to Los Angeles, a place that is almost as foreign to me as Vienna once was. As the wife of an academic on the tenure-track prowl, I’ve spent three years wondering where and when we’d go, perpetually holding my breath; trying to forge roots — always knowing I’d eventually have to pull them loose.

My husband and I were married within a year of meeting, a year during which my idea of home was flipped, in an instant, on its head. I lucked into a rent-stabilized apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, at 23 and held onto it — furnishing it with second-hand wares from Housing Works, inherited dishware from my older sister, and then slowly upgrading one bedspread and rug at a time — for 11 years. During that time, there was much upheaval in my life — an overhaul in careers, one particular boyfriend coming and going, short stints away in Boulder and Harlem and Montreal — but the apartment, a rickety, sunny one-bedroom on a tree-lined side street, always took me back it. It is the place where I learned to live alone, where I recovered from surgery and heartbreak and the myriad joys and indignities of life as a single girl in New York. It provided a sense of stability where there was otherwise very little.

When my husband — then a stranger — swept in from afar, in the form of an email from Germany, everything changed.

Come live with me in Munich, he asked, after our first two-week long date. (He’d flown in for it after months of emails and Skype calls.) It’ll only be for four months, until my fellowship is over. We can try it out. I had just finished graduate school, my teaching job was only one-semester long, and I had no plans but to finish my thesis. At the end of the experiment, we’d go back to Brooklyn. (I never imagined leaving New York for good.)

Two months into our stint in Munich, he was offered a six-year fellowship in Vienna — a place, like Munich, that I had never thought twice about. The decision to go with him to Germany had been relatively easy, if impulsive — it was time-limited, an almost preposterously romantic way to test out our burgeoning love. I wouldn’t need to find a job or friends or a place to live. Vienna, of course, would be different.

But so was I: In New York, my life had been made up of a web of close girlfriends, women I saw many days a week for dinner, for drinks, for yoga, with whom I shared every detail of my existence. But all through the long winter in Munich, this new man and I lived a cocoon-like existence, spending time with no one but each other. Europe was in the midst of a deep freeze and it snowed all through February and March. Every night ended under mounds of blankets, our bodies intertwined. We lived in a studio apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows, and I’d sit in our only Ikea chair and write, watching flakes sweep by and land on our small balcony, which, once summer came, we dubbed “the other room.” We ate Weisswurst with mustard and pretzels with butter, drank beer and gluhwein and bottle upon bottle of cheap red wine — together, always together. I had a decade’s worth of stuff piled into my Carroll Gardens apartment — shelves of books, framed photos of family along every wall, dresses and coats taking on the shape of the coat hangers in the closet — but had packed only one big suitcase, half a dozen memoirs for inspiration. It was all I needed. I had never been so happy, so unencumbered, in so many ways. By the time we decided to take the leap, to move to Vienna, to hitch our wagons to each other for good, he had become my home.

When we got the news that we’d be moving to L.A., I hid in our bedroom and cried — not because I didn’t want to go (I did, there are so many reasons I did, I do), but because I realized — despite how difficult it had been to settle in, despite my almost unending resistance to fully assimilate to Austrian life — how many roots I had actually managed to put down here. How many would, in the end, be yanked out.

If Munich was a time for us to become two, Vienna has been a time for us to become three, a family. But because this is so difficult — so surprisingly unintuitive, so frustrating at times, especially without the net of old friends or family nearby, of any previous existence in this place, of a sturdy decades-long marriage to hold us steady — it has been a time for me to erect scaffolding around us, as I once did in Brooklyn: the strong support beams that friendship provides. These friends — women, mostly, with small children and roots elsewhere — have become my means of survival, a way of finding my rightful place in a strange land. It has been a time to say, Come by tonight. We’ll serve you dinner on borrowed plates, on borrowed time. To say: Please, let’s not forget how close our girls became. Come visit us when we get there.

Now, for the first time in our relationship, we are moving to a place where we will presumably stay for good, or at least for a real chunk of time: Where we can unpack boxes of wedding gifts that have collected dust in my mother-in-law’s guest room and unroll carpets from Carroll Gardens that have be sitting in my parents’ basement and place them just so; where we can buy that long wooden table we’ve been longing for. Where we can make holes in the walls, hang our lives up for our guests to see: This is us! I’ll be able to say. This is us! See? This is who we really are! We’re finally home!

But I’ll know, deep down: That was us, too — the ugly curtains and the ancient consoles. The shiny leather sofa, the pastel blue mugs, the Austrian pillows that made us wake with aches in our necks. Of course it was. That new couple struggling to become a family in a foreign place where everything in our possession was on loan from other expats or belonged to our landlord; where very little made sense, and we were forever trying to find our footing, forever wondering where we’d be next, forever ready to pack up shop, to unload for good: That was us, too. We were home.

I just didn’t know it then.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Thirty Minutes at a Used-Book Sale

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Last weekend, my local library hosted a “bag sale” in its basement, one of its occasional fundraisers in which eight dollars gets you a paper shopping bag and free, manic rein to fill it with used books. I look forward to these sales with the childish excitement that once accompanied major holidays, despite the glaring fact that I don’t need any books. Given my hoarder’s mania for gathering them — from give-a-book/take-a-book racks, curbside boxes, friends both generous and easily stolen from, and bookstores new and secondhand — one could make a convincing argument that a sack of secondhand books is one of the last things I need. My house is filled with books, and though I try to get rid of those I no longer care about, such efforts are largely futile. The things gather like autumn leaves at the corners of a fence; no sooner do I rake them away then another heap blows in. I’m running out of places to stash them. Unless I live to 140, I’ll never read them all.

But still: eight dollars.

So on Sunday morning, I descended the library’s rear staircase like a man eager to be condemned, and entered its long, low, yellow-lit cellar, lined with tables, carts, and boxes of books. Thousands and thousands of books. I gave a grandmotherly, white-haired volunteer — is there any other kind? — my eight bucks; she wrote “PAID” on a Trader Joe’s bag and handed it to me. I thanked her, turned around, and waded into the stacks, joining 30 or so others, brows knit in concentration, in pursuit of more books.

It was 11:55.

At noon, in the hardcover fiction section, I made my first pull of the day: T.C. Boyle’s 2006 story collection, Tooth & Claw. I’m not a huge short-story fan, and I had no real intention of taking Tooth & Claw home. But it was fairly new — at such a sale, anything published within the last decade qualifies as “fairly new” — and I love Boyle. So I just held it for a second, looking at its black-and-grey cover, before sliding it back on the shelf. There was a strange tenderness to the act; the impulse seemed to come from the same place that leads me to absently ruffle my son’s hair whenever he passes by.

Two minutes later, crouching above a shallow box of paperbacks, I brought up Richard Russo’s The Risk Pool. I’ve only read one Russo novel, Empire Falls, and although I enjoyed it, I’ve also lazily assumed that I don’t need to read any other Russos; his work strikes me — rightly or not — as a minor series of variations on a familiar theme. What attracted me to The Risk Pool was its cover; it was an old Vintage Contemporary, a fine time capsule of late ‘80s art direction. I’ve never been disappointed by anything I’ve read in the Vintage line — Yates, Portis, Doyle, Carver — and I’ve never been disappointed by the books’ surreal, pastel covers. The Risk Pool’s was a pleasingly nostalgic painting of a man and a boy resting beside a country road. I took it in, as if standing in a gallery, then nestled it back in its box, needing to move on.

At 12:03, I dropped my first book of the day into the bag: Boyle’s East is East, an early-ish novel of his that I’d never gotten around to. I felt an inane sense of accomplishment, as if I were a St. Bernard who had just discovered a lost cross-country skier. I looked down at East is East in the bottom of the sack; it seemed tragically small and lonesome, and I resolved to find it some friends.

At 12:05, as I again ran my eyes across the hardcover fiction titles, I heard a woman say to a volunteer: “Shoot me if I come back again.” They laughed, and although I didn’t look up, I pictured the joker struggling with a book-overflowing bag, preparing to drag it back to her book-overflowing house. I haven’t reached the point where I need to tell strangers that they may murder me if I try to buy any more books, but I’ll probably get there soon.

I checked my watch. I’d been there for twelve minutes. After East is East, I had tossed a couple more books in my bag (Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Joe Meno’s Office Girl), and I was feeling fairly content until I spotted an old, weathered copy of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. I had no particular problem with or interest in the novel; the issue was that it reminded me that my mother had given me James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird two Christmases ago. That, in turn, reminded me that I hadn’t read The Good Lord Bird — or The Imperfectionists, or Ender’s Game, or A Fan’s Notes, or any other of the dozens of other novels that I’ve picked up over the years, each time thinking, “I can’t wait to read this,” before making the purchase. It was another reminder that I will surely die before I read all of my books, that my descendants will one day be forced to shovel through it all, skeptically asking one another, “Did he actually read all these?” Then, with a Homer Simpson “Ooh,” I spotted Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, dropped it in my bag, and forgot about my eventual demise. I can’t wait to read The Plot Against America.

At 12:10, I saw the fourth copy of Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants since I arrived at the sale just fifteen minutes before. It brought me back to a college-era bull-session question I used to pose: Which album do you see more than any other at used-CD stores? (I always went with R.E.M.’s Monster, which, it seemed, everybody bought and nobody really liked.) So was Water for Elephants the new Monster? I didn’t think so. For one thing, between Freakonomics and Eat, Pray, Love, the competition was fairly stiff. Perhaps Water for Elephants is the new Zooropa.

These are what pass for thoughts at a library bag sale.

At 12:18, I found a paperback copy of Steven King’s Lisey’s Story, and pondered its possibilities. I wasn’t wondering whether or not I might want to read it; I had already made that determination at a church rummage sale in July, when I bought the book in hardcover. That version of Lisey’s Story was the approximate weight of an Oldsmobile, and the questions before me now were: 1) Should I take this paperback and, once home, swap it out for the hardcover? 2) Would I actually get rid of the massive thing, or would I just keep them both? And 3) Was I really in the business of buying books that I already owned?

Lisey’s Story went back on the shelf.

At around 12:25, with two more books in the bag (E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel and Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother), I realized that I needed to get back home. There were chores to be done, errands to be run, kids to be corralled. I buzzed the children’s section and chose a quick nine or ten titles — Clifford’s Kitten and a Tom and Jerry Golden Book among them — that looked to be in decent shape. Then a peculiar Black Friday anxiety washed over me as I forced myself towards the exit: what was I missing? There was so much still to see! Christ, I barely browsed Nonfiction! My eyesight grew twitchy and granular as I tried to take it all in: every sci-fi novel, every mystery, every moldering Penguin Classic. I picked up something by Arthur Koestler, as if grabbing at a bobbing life preserver, while I moved slowly from the room. Then, with a sigh, I put Darkness at Noon back in its box and walked into the day, struck by the freshness of the air outside. The bag felt heavy in my hand, but not oppressively so. All in all, the previous half-hour had been a success: six more books to add to the top of the teetering mountain. I wouldn’t be back that day; I could survive until the next bag sale, whenever that might be. Nobody would have to shoot me for buying things I didn’t need.

Ambrose Akinmusire and Jazz in the Smoldering City: A Dispatch From Kyiv

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In the 18 months since Kyiv’s Maidan protests have moved on, flared up, and fizzled in the cities of the east, Ukraine has managed to lurch into geopolitical purgatory — not as hot as Damascus, not as cool as Prague. The city has settled into the importunate schizophrenia of the post-structural, where monetization serves as antidote for nearly anything — civility, representative government. That is code for this: though no person directly responsible for the government-ordered sniper attacks of January and February 2014 has been prosecuted, Kyivites no longer have to concern themselves with actual cross-hairs of actual rifle scopes. And the money’s starting to flow again. The IMF is around, gobbling up transitive verbs: forgiving, restructuring, forecasting. Yet, for a place that is supposedly peaceful, consumed with reform, the hoi polloi have seen little forgiveness, less structure, and a forecast that is, at best, stormy. We spend, rather, a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop. I do.

My first encounter with Ambrose Akinmusire — the liner notes of his 2011 Blue Note debut, When the Heart Emerges Glistening — left the barest of impressions: late-20s, Oakland-born, LA-based, studied with Terence Blanchard. That biography matched with the implausible maturity of the music and my aesthetic’s nitpicking evil twin was off to discover what the trick was. Something was up. What was the true ontogeny of this most recent messiah — the one who would coax America back to jazz? Twenty-nine-years-old: Who was he trying to fool? Trying to be — Miles? Dave Douglas? Erik Truffaz? Clifford Brown maybe, mercifully back among us, moved on from bop? All the markers were in place: the Blue Note pedigree, the technical agility, the burnished phrasing, the seemingly unconscious feel for the very note the room needs to hear and when. Faith comes so dear, and the commodified — and, admittedly, the local situation — world has been hell on any generosity of spirit I may have once possessed.

Not that Ukraine hasn’t seen results — it has. Annual inflation has stabilized (sic) at 140 percent. In the capital, a U.S. dime and nickel (equivalent) will still buy you a ride anywhere our subway goes. The Parliament refuses to repeal, or modify, its privilege of universal criminal immunity. And there are Russians — two kinds: the kind who have been here for hundreds of years with their language and culture and few see any point in calling them Russian any longer; and the other kind. The latter group — here with its tanks, sophisticated mobile rocket-launchers, and deliveries of lethal aid masquerading laughably as humanitarian food and medical supply convoys — is both thankfully in the minority, and largely restricted to a territory in the east of the country about the size of the State of Rhode Island. And with the Kremlin-financed war they prosecute there, we have nearly 8,000 dead and another 1,000,000 “temporarily displaced” in the reductive patois of the political sophisticate. Ukrainian society, battling to make even modest inroads in the realm of cultural reform, is stuck with the leftovers of that distinctively post-Soviet borscht whose core ingredients are moral exhaustion, brutal cronyism, and arriviste contempt posing as sophisticated optimism.

Into this mess comes a young man with a horn, on tour with a new album entitled The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint, and perhaps it is only by me, but neither the metaphysical nor the political significance of this Oakland, Calif., musician’s presence in Kyiv goes unmarked. Brutal cops, poverty, disenfranchisement, and an empowered class that refuses, largely, to address itself to the question of dignity in identity: this black man from the East Bay has more in common with Kyiv than he probably imagines. With the written word, baseball, and jazz about all there is left to believe in, I need to find out who he is. But if my confession is honest, the truth is that Ambrose Akinmusire had me long before he ever traveled to Kyiv. From the opening phrase of “Confessions to My Unborn Daughter,” the first song on Heart Emerges, he had me.

He starts out alone, a student running through some badass warmup intervals in a practice room of a Saturday, and then a series of Perfect 4ths and a drop echoed by the piano and a forlorn Do-Sol-Fa interval that screams theme music from a ’70s TV police procedural. Followed by a concatenation (I’m going to insist) with tenor sax Walter Smith III of such virtuosity that, well, if these two don’t put you in mind of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, you’re not even trying. From that point on the man is relentless — melody after melody where the American sublime riffs on songs not unrelated to those from the old country that your grandmother sang to you both to bind you up and to break your heart.

He that hath ears to hear. Ambrose Akinmusire isn’t just one more modest variation of every other one; his horn is the one thing needful. In a hard world, where moments of authentic revelation, of unsoiled, uncompromised, and uncompromising human achievement, and unimpeded self-examination are so seldom encountered, so elusive, he is the rara avis. And even if he weren’t, even if he was just another product of the genius of American marketing, there is, arguably, no place on earth more conducive to passing off the derivative as innovative than stylishly intellectual, post-Wall, East-Central Europe. Still, finally, with jazz, hearing — live — is believing, and I would have my chance to see, to hear, to judge.

No rain since May, peat bogs that ring the city have been smoldering for weeks. The air has a bite to it, like the inside of your country uncle’s smokehouse after a three-day cure of roadkill wrapped in bicycle tire. As he locks up and heads out on his walk, a neighbor pulls on a surgical mask. He sees me and quips that he hopes the burn doesn’t reach the toxic mystery piles the Soviets buried out there in the ’50s — waving a hand at some undefined coordinate the way Kyivites do when giving directions. It was right after the War, before the city began to spread. I tell him I’m going to see an American trumpet player that evening and he disappears back into his flat and comes out with two more masks and hands them to me — one for me, one presumably for the horn player. It’s a crisp October evening, and in Kyiv — where Sting or Alla Pugacheva constitute a hot ticket — Ambrose Akinmusire has a big gig in a small hall.

The venue is a retooled warehouse a short walk from home, and the chill and the smell of smoke distract from a gimpy lower back and the moral pressure of the task ahead, a task that begins with getting his name right. His website is solicitous, complete with a phonetic rendering that shows the emphasis is on the MU — AkinMUsire. MU, the 12th letter of the Greek alphabet, the world’s tiniest bittorrent client, and, way back, something akin to the Phoenician word for water. Get the name right — at my age I may not see his like again.

When your quotidian is shreds and tatters and the hurly-burly your daily bread, it is too easy at times to shut down the frontal cortex and just let the pituitary take over. And when the horn player is late, late, late to the stage, my old man’s brain struggles to conjure up anything but the worst. And when the worst turns out to be just that he is late, and he appears intact, I exhale.

The crowd of mostly under-25s is jammed, maybe 300 in all, into a room holding half that. Overheard conversations put a lot of them as music students, conservatory types, slender boys with the slightly fey posture of those who have spent untold years under the tutelage of some humorless piano instructor. When they clap they hold their hands as if preparing to feed an apple to a horse – fingers arching back delicately, tightly. Bored-looking girlfriends, a few haircuts, and a very few from Kyiv’s emergent economic powerhouse — the IT class. There is also a fair representation of a category of Eastern European city-dweller of whom space prohibits adequate description — the gorodskoy sumashedshiy, the urban crazy. That, and four young Americans who are here for all of us.

By 20 minutes in, the quartet has managed to tear even the most device-dependent up from the glow of the screen. The moment comes with the song “Regret (No More),” a fatal blow– if ever there be — to the unexamined life. Whether he has succeeded in corrupting any of the youth in the room to the joys to be discovered in a deliberate study of, and an even more deliberate departure from, the cultural legacy left to us, only time will tell. But for those minutes Ambrose Akinmusire and pianist Sam Harris bewitch the room — the moment never to be repeated, never needing to be. It gives me no end of joy to see that this tune, so confessional, so idiosyncratic — all doits and lip-slurs and half-valving — is such a crowd favorite. The song ends and the room howls. Ambrose smiles. The Savior has not left the building.

Two hours and two encores later and it’s 11:30, and before I can convince myself that it’s not going to happen I’m introducing myself to the man in a room off the main stage. When I ask if he’s got time to talk at the end of this very long day, he is grace in action, and agrees. Then I, who can barely talk to him about music, ask what he’s reading and Ambrose Akinmusire treats it as if it’s the question he’s been expecting all along.

Ambrose Akinmusire: Ta-Nehisi Coates, right now. And James Baldwin. I had a period there where I was reading a lot of Chekhov. Those stories over and over. All that anger held me for a long time, then in the end…

My heart is racing. Chekhov? Jesus. He breaks off, distracted, perhaps recollecting, certainly tired. He is soft-spoken, deferential — qualities that appear again and again in the music — an ear for the quiet tones, a respect for voices other than his own.

The Millions: How does the reading — Chekhov, Baldwin, Coates — inform the music?

AA: You have to define your own morality. Good writing helps but it’s not something to follow unquestioningly. You work through it, it’s internal, it has to be, or it’s just formalism and not your own; you just end up doing what everybody else is doing. Personally, you end up carrying around mistakes that you can’t change and it’s paralyzing. We’re all going through that. All the time.

TM: So that’s where “Regret (No More)” comes from? Confronting yourself. A state of confession. The lament, the wail?

AA: I wrote that at a time when I was working on some things. I understood that I had to get past them, let them go. You can’t dwell on the past. It blinds you. And I want the music to lead, not follow, if you see what I mean.

I do, but I’m a little star-struck. The tone he achieved on stage had me in tears. He goes on.

AA: So it is a cry, yeah, but not in sorrow so much, but liberating. Discovery — in the abstract or in the particular — it’s personal at first, until, in time, you begin to see how universal it is, how everybody is experiencing it. The cry starts out tentative, grows more confident as the story starts to tell itself…”

TM: Stories. The ornate song titles, album titles — from out here it feels like there’s some literary process going on. I’m just standing there listening, but I’m looking for ancestry — Miles, Dizzy, Terrance, whoever. And with Sam (pianist Sam Harris), I’m hearing Bill Evans and then Kenny Barron and then nothing at all. Who am I hearing?

AA: It’s impossible to say. I listen to everything. We all do. I read everything I can and it all has its intended effect. Everybody in the band is always reading something. The great work, work that lasts, it’s never coercive. You can’t force resolution, meaning, on an audience. You have to respect their intelligence; they’ll take it where they need it to go. They decide — or not — how it all resolves. So, there’s a risk there every time, and that’s freeing for everybody.

Bassist Harish Raghavan has been part of the — let’s call it — ”interview” the entire time, but silent. What strikes me at first as poise — these are, after all, men of international reputation — now is revealed as kindness. We talk about personal things: family, Indian, Black, White, Chicago, Oakland, Seattle, and my old heart lifts.

Harish Raghavan: I’m reading the Coates, too. And Devil in the White City. The Erik Larson book. I’m from Chicago, so I’m really into the history. I’ve been listening to that Hardcore History podcast a lot. Man, that stuff is just incredible. Really challenging.

But I’m an idiot. I am Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney. I suck. He says Chicago and I blank on the Cubs. I consider, briefly, showing them the surgical masks, telling them about the air, the fires. But sometimes Kyiv, it seems, is just too much to process. The fugue passes, common sense intervenes, and we talk about the tour. ”Why Kyiv?“ I ask. Harish looks at Ambrose, who defers.

HR: I don’t know. We had this trip to Poland and the agent calls and tells us we’re going to Kyiv. We didn’t have any idea what to expect, I mean, with what you hear in the news.

With what you hear in the news. The lateness of the hour hits me — how tired I am, how tired they must be. You can taste the outskirts burning at the back of your throat. The crowd is mostly gone. I’m halfway to asking how he could stand to play in all this stink. Somebody with an American accent calls for a gin and tonic. Three shaved heads stand near the exit, watching. No neck tattoos. Security, I pray. We shake hands all around and again I’m struck by the decency of these men. I shove the masks deeper into my pocket and head out into the sour night.

Whatever they may have expected, what the Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet got was a night onstage before this cloud of witnesses, most of whom had, in all likelihood, known them previously only via the Ukrainian duality of a Facebook post and an illegal download. An otherwise unimaginable crowd in a country in the grip of a rumored war stopping to listen to a black man from Oakland and his band testify while the city burns away its edges. Ukraine heaves, working to purge itself of ideologies long dead and new injustices turning gangrenous. But for one night, here stands a man channeling James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Anton Chekhov to lead them. He that hath ears to hear.

Image Credit: cultprostir.ua.

My Travels with Harper Lee

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It’s summertime in Harper Lee’s hometown, the inspiration for the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird. Summertime at midnight, and light from the dome atop the proud courthouse beams high above the storefronts facing the downtown square. Summertime, and two blocks away a string of lights runs from the front porch of Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe to a lamppost near the street, emitting a soft glow over 400 or so people gathered in the sweltering heat to celebrate the arrival of Miss Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman. It’s summertime, and the literary event of the year is right here in Monroeville, Ala.

To Kill a Mockingbird introduced me to a world I already knew. Other books I’d read as a child lured me away from the soulless and repressive place I lived in. I imagined floating off to a magical land full of mythical creatures or maybe a slightly less spectacular world where a cool, resourceful detective inspects the scene of a crime in search of clues. Nothing worth writing about happened in a small town like mine, or so I believed.

I wasn’t old enough to understand the politics of race or anything regarding rape when I first crossed paths with the Finches, the Radleys, and the rest of Maycomb, Ala. To be honest, I wasn’t quite clear on the meaning of the word chiffarobe, nor did I altogether grasp how to bust one up. Those lessons came later. Still, I was taught a good book shouldn’t instruct so much as inspire.

I took to Scout immediately because she could say anything, without bowing to authority or status quo. As in Maycomb, young people in my hometown dwelled near the bottom of the barrel as far as art, music, and books were concerned. I shared Scout’s frustration with her fellow classmates and teachers like Miss Caroline who “seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature.” Scout spoke my tongue, sized up my home turf, yet somehow bent the familiar toward a richly imaginative — not to mention comical — purpose.

And so, for the release of Miss Lee’s long-lost novel, I lit out on a literary pilgrimage. Upon arriving in Monroeville, I checked in at the Mockingbird Inn & Suites, which exuded the quaint appeal of your standard suburban strip mall. I asked the clerk behind the counter for her thoughts on the new book. “I’m embarrassed to admit I just finished To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time,” she explained. Her co-worker, thumbing through a filing cabinet, leaned over and barked, “I’m not gonna read it — I don’t read fiction books!”

I snagged a schedule of events for the following day’s affairs about town before cutting out. A marathon reading inside the courthouse kicked off at nine. What grabbed my attention, more than anything else, was the midnight release at Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe.

On the way to the square, located in what several street signs assured me was a “historic” downtown area, a freshly coated billboard displayed the Go Set a Watchman cover with “Thank you, Miss Lee! Welcome Visitors” scribbled across the top. Although the square is no longer a hub of commercial activity, the old courthouse — now converted into a museum — retains the majestic beauty moviegoers will recall from the 1962 adaptation of Mockingbird. I caught a glimpse of what looked like a bespectacled Atticus, decked out in white seersucker, lingering on the courthouse lawn. (Should the dubious reader roll his eyes here, so be it.)

My endless quest for the ideal independent bookstore borders on an unhealthy, Ahab-level obsession. I turned up as a forklift unloaded three shrink-wrapped pallets stacked with boxes. Inside the phone rang without end as I browsed the shelves. By noon, Spencer Madrie and his staff, which includes his mother, counted 7,500 orders. “As soon as all this is over, I’ll get a cup of coffee and find a cozy corner to read it,” he told me. “We have 5,000 books to ship out. I’m holding out on reading it until I mail a book to every customer.” Each copy contains a certificate of authenticity and a seal with the store logo embossed on the front flyleaf. I checked my bank account before settling up.

The countdown to midnight exceeded all expectations. News trucks from Birmingham, Mobile, Pensacola, as well as major outlets like CNN, jockeyed for curb space along West Claiborne Street. Reporters flanked the throng of Lee enthusiasts, requesting interviews. Mr. Madrie, dressed in his Sunday best and seeming genuinely surprised at the sizable turnout, welcomed the crowd and thanked them for coming. Roughly half were out-of-towners looking to score a copy of a book that’s available online or at every airport in the English-speaking world.

Meanwhile, alongside the shop, a tent and chairs offered relief from the soul-crushing humidity. An Atticus impersonator, flown in from Baltimore, posed for selfies. (To hell with you, dismissive reader, and your smug skepticism! It was him, after all!) Champagne corks popped, plates of finger foods were passed around, a squad of little leaguers, still suited up in game jerseys, chased one another through a maze of pesky adults. No wine-and-cheese reception, this was a free-for-all blowout for book-lovers of every stripe.

I mean no disrespect to Mr. Madrie and his exceptional bookstore when I say the true hosts on this occasion were the people of Monroeville. I sensed no resentment toward myself and the other strangers-come-lately who’d crashed their party. What’s more, I was treated like one of them. A mother and daughter kept me in polite company as I stood in line. The daughter was hell-bent on reading the entire novel on no sleep. Her mother and I chatted about the negative reviews printed in The New York Times. “Being from Monroeville, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “There’s been so much back-and-forth about whether or not the book should be published. Now it’s time for everyone to read it and decide for themselves.”

Go Set a Watchman stunned reviewers by constructing an alternate universe where the beloved moral giant of American literature appears as a racist jerk. From these dashed off impressions, you’d assume Atticus Finch is the character central to the plot. The starting point for this strain of critical myopia begins with the Mockingbird film and the decisive role Gregory Peck played in editing the final cut. According to Charles J. Shields’s biography of Lee,

At the time, the film was considered politically liberal because of the attention paid in the screenplay to social justice. Looking back, however, Peck’s insistence that Atticus’s character occupy more of the film’s center injects a heavy dose of white patriarchal values. In a word, Atticus, an educated white male, appears to be the most important person in the film. Everyone else defers to him, humors him, reacts to him, or disagrees with him. As one critic recently noted, the elimination of Scout’s voice-over from most of the film means that the viewer doesn’t see small-town southern society from the perspective of a young female growing up in it.

Never forget, aspiring Scout impersonators, Lee’s treatment of the story, unlike the cinematic version, is told from the point-of-view of a young girl. By the same token, Go Set a Watchman catches up with our scrappy heroine as a 26-year-old exile, returning to the scene of her childhood.

It comes as no surprise that Lee’s second novel doesn’t quite measure up to the achievement of her debut. An ill-formed draft submitted to publishers at J.B. Lippincott in 1957, Watchman underwent a major overhaul after her editor, Tay Hohoff, recommended rewriting it from the perspective of a child. Two years and untold revisions later, Lippincott finally accepted the manuscript — this time bearing the title To Kill a Mockingbird.

What makes the book a fascinating read, nonetheless, is getting to know Scout as an adult. For those of us who take the liberty of reading Mockingbird as an origin story, Watchman points her toward a destination in life. She stares out a window on a moving train in the opening scene. Her homecoming takes place after living in New York for five years. Sparks fly when a city girl feels pressured to settle down in Maycomb County.

Except for the fact Scout’s dropped her nickname, in certain ways, she’s the same “juvenile desperado, hell-raiser extraordinary” we’ve come to know and love. Jean Louise Finch still thumbs her nose at her prudish Aunt Alexandra, and “when confronted with an easy way out, [she] always took the hard way.”

At a glance, even less has changed in Maycomb, where “if you did not want much, there was plenty.” Atticus, we are told, “was seventy-two last month, but Jean Louise always thought of him as hovering somewhere in his middle fifties — she could not remember him being any younger, and he seemed to grow no older.”

The same stagnant air hovers over Jean Louise’s ex-boyfriend, Hank Clinton, whose world stopped turning back in high school. She keeps him at arm’s length, even though he clearly aims to marry her: “She was easy to look at and easy to be with most of the time, but she was in no sense of the word an easy person. She was afflicted with a restlessness of spirit he could not guess at, but he knew she was the one for him. He would protect her; he would marry her.” His intentions are both noble and condescending. Fortunately, Jean Louise brushes him off in a memorable scene after a late-night swim: “When you live in New York, you often have the feeling that New York’s not the world. I mean this: every time I come home I feel like I’m coming back to the world, and when I leave Maycomb it’s like leaving the world. It’s silly. I can’t explain it, and what makes it sillier is that I’d go stark raving living in Maycomb.”

For every strike against Maycomb, there are homespun moments such as the rapport she shares with the owner of an ice cream shop: “Mr. Cunningham, a man of uncompromising rectitude, had given her a pint free of charge for having guessed his name yesterday, one of the tiny things she adored about Maycomb: people remembered their promises.”

But Atticus and Hank, it turns out, are hiding a continuity-shucking secret. The tipping point comes after Jean Louise discovers they are members of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council. Torn between staying and going, she condemns their actions in what is perhaps the most striking passage in the novel.

Hell is eternal apartness. What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present? I am their blood and bones, I have dug in this ground, this is my home. But I am not their blood, the ground doesn’t care who digs it, I am a stranger at a cocktail party.

After seeking guidance from her long-winded uncle, Dr. Jack Finch, Jean Louise barges in her father’s office for a final showdown. With the calm demeanor of a seasoned country lawyer, Atticus delivers a chilling argument in favor of white supremacy and scolds his daughter for “talk[ing] like the NAACP.”

I won’t spoil what happens, but let me just say the closing chapter leaves readers to debate the value of origins, and whether or not Jean Louise succeeds in escaping Maycomb. To be fair, her home turf can’t simply be dismissed as a wasteland because her native soil, somehow, nurtured the independent woman we admire. And yet, tales of success told in small towns across the country are so often stories of sons and daughters who have cut those ties and left. In either case, Go Set a Watchman taps into a classic myth that crosses every stage of American literature, from Walt Whitman and Mark Twain to John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison: the story of American migration.

I overslept the next morning after a late night at the bookstore. My thoughts turned to Atticus as I peered over the balcony where Scout, Jem, and Dill joined Maycomb’s black citizens for Tom Robinson’s trial. Below me, an integrated audience met in the courtroom for a marathon reading of Go Set a Watchman, proof that life stops for no one.

I spotted a billboard off the highway advertising Monroeville as “The Literary Capital of Alabama” as I drove north. It’s been many years since I left my hometown with dreams of living closer to the center of literary culture. As I sat down to write about my summer trip to Monroeville, Ala., I couldn’t help wondering if I didn’t exchange wealth for poverty.

Image Credit: John Rea.