At seven years old, I was dinosaur-obsessed. I watched educational dinosaur specials on VHS, and I knew all their names. I visited their bones and models at the Milwaukee Public Museum. I loved their gruesome display of a T-Rex eating a ceratopsian, guts and all.
But I had never actually seen a dinosaur, you know, eat a person.
Not until one glorious summer night in 1993 when, in his infinite wisdom, my father decided to bring pint-sized, pigtailed me to see one of the first theatrical showings of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. The film was based on Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name.
The lights went down, and thrilling carnage ensued. I was transfixed, terrified, and fascinated. When we stopped at the gas station to fill up on our way home after the show, I was still shaking. I also begged to see the movie again as soon as possible.
That summer, I wanted to be Dr. Ellie Sattler more than anything in life. Like my idol, I had an intense curiosity about the world around me. I wanted to touch it. I wanted to study it. But I also feared it and knew it could hurt me. Not only were my beloved cinematic velociraptors unbelievably awesome, they were also hideous and deadly. They were the manifestation of the unique awe that comes from an acknowledgement of human frailty. A shrieking animatronic memento mori, if you will.
After Jurassic Park broke my brain, I developed an all-consuming love for creatures that I feared. In literature and film, I looked for them wherever I could. The monster could assume so many different forms, from killer sharks to city-smashing gorillas, to the mutants and aliens of science fiction. Monsters could even be humans who had become monstrous through their curiosity (like Dr. Jekyll or The Hulk) or through no fault of their own (like Frankenstein’s monster or Grendel). Speaking skeletons and murderous squids danced in my daydreams. They still do. In my fiction, they always find their way forward. And I’m not alone. It delights me how every year I inevitably get a new infusion of monster-centric fiction to read and films to see. These genre titles are often billed as less serious literature, but I couldn’t disagree more.
When I think about monsters, I think about the magic of fear. As we learn to navigate the world, most of us stop looking for fairies beneath toadstools and give up on the hope that we might stumble into a portal to a fantasy realm. But fear is something that we all believe in. It comes from outside of us and inside of us, no matter how old we get. That’s part of the human condition, and it’s an invisible wraith that haunts our worries. But when we can entertain fear in the form of a monster, it’s a terror laden with relief.
The monster allows human imagination to give fear a shape. It’s a way to see threat in detail, with its teeth and beauty and power and scales. It demands a certain kind of reverence and reminds us that, yes, sometimes we have to reach our hands out to touch our fears on their terrible snouts. And while that can be frightening, it can also be life-affirming. Strangeness, self-discovery, transformation: these things require facing the demons that we all have. The only difference in a monster story is that they are actual demons.
Not all monsters are bad, and that’s one of my favorite things about them. At the end of the story, as much as we cheer for the efforts to fire arrows at the monster or evade their snapping teeth, we really don’t want to see the monster die, because we know that the monster is a part of us, too. By othering it we deny that truth.
We see the monster as the threat of the possible, the danger of the unknown. Sometimes monsters are monstrous merely because they are strange: bizarre, unnatural, unholy. Monster stories have the courage to ask, What happens when we meet our fears?Where does the real danger lie? What’s the real difference between the monster and ourselves? Whether organic, robotic, or supernatural, all monsters are interlopers, crossing into the field of human interaction without permission or sometimes even definition.
To be human is to fear. To be a monster is to be the thing that is feared. At our most powerful and pure, we can recognize our own monstrosity and allow it to companion with virtue. The Romantics knew this well. For them, the most divine of emotions was sublimity–witnessing something peerless in beauty and unbounded force. It’s the reverence that compelled Shelley to write Frankenstein and play her part in the invention of science fiction.
That’s why, in one of the final frames of Jurassic Park, the scene that still pricks me with chills is this: as the humans get helicoptered to safety, the massive T-Rex raises her jaw and lets out a bone-rattling roar. With the manmade remnants of the Visitor’s Center crushed to smithereens around her, she emanates sheer joy in her power, and something strange happens. After hoping so fervently that the characters escape her deadly mouth for the majority of the film, we smile at her triumph. Yes, we think. Because somewhere deep down, we know that monsters deserve to be free.
As a writer, I’ve found a calling in my fascination with fear. I owe much of it to 1993, dinosaurs made of metal and rubber, and the vision of genre writers everywhere who know how much we will always need their monsters.
Then, I wanted to know what it was like to be nowhere. I had always lived somewhere before, rooted to cities by work, school, friends, family, and relationships. I wanted to be adrift.
I moved to Ohio to begin a doctoral program in English. I wanted to lose myself in the unfamiliar familiarity of books and find freedom in whatever that could mean. That fall in Ohio found me jumping through countless bureaucratic and administrative hoops, which would be a key component of my time there. I resisted and resented the impositions. My non-obedience opened up a class-shaped hole in my schedule; it was too late for me to fill it with another course. I resolved to cram it with books. On a whim, I began Book One of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s series, My Struggle, which had only recently been translated into English.
In the first pages of that first book, read during my first semester of study, young Karl, age eight, watches the news on TV. He watches a segment about a fishing boat that has sunk: I stare at the surface of the sea…and suddenly the outline of a face emerges. I don’t know how long it stays there…The moment the face disappears I get up to find someone I can tell. The boy seeks verification of his experience: proof, and the communion that’ll follow. His family refuses to satisfy his need; they don’t entertain his vision, which is akin to seeing a face in the clouds or the man on the moon.
But of course the face existed. He saw it. I just wanted to find out if they could see what I had seen. To write is to confirm our sight, while forcing others to look to us—at us—even as we stay hidden beneath the water. As I sit at my desk writing, the waves swallow what once formed on the surface; the afterimage remains, along with the impression it made. Knausgaard wrote five more books to go along with the first. All of them are of a piece. They are, according to him, one novel. Following their publication, everyone looked at him, to him.
I moved to a rural university town in Ohio without ever seeing it. When I arrived, it certainly felt like nowhere, but I felt compelled, drawn to the place by that exact quality. Was it an act of faith, or the result of a lack for it? I didn’t need to tour rentals to figure out which to choose—I didn’t care about any of that. I didn’t need to see the place I would live. I wanted to not want anything. I didn’t succeed.
Almost four years have passed since then. I finished reading Book Six of My Struggle on the balcony of my apartment overseas, thousands of miles from where I began the first. It took me these years to read all 3,600 pages of the novel.
When I was sixteen, I thought life was without end, the number of people in it inexhaustible…The people who had been there then would become even more important, infinitely significant in as much as they had not only been shaping my perception of who I was, had not only been the people through which my own face emerged and became visible, but embodied the very understanding of how this particular life turned out the way it did.
This is from early in Book Six, in which the author tries to close the loop around the years of his life depicted in the pages of the novel. In the last book, he writes about the wild success of the first in the series. The response of readers, of the public, feeds into his writing.
Youth hides the lines that are manifest in the face, revealing the life that’s been lived: success, failure, and criticism are all parts of it. People intimately and vaguely involved in that life are part of it too. Perhaps the slow revelation of the face, its emergence, is more acute for the writer. I see what Knausgaard saw: the face and its lines. The other result is the novel, and words, which unlock time, heaving us outside it. That’s why we read, and why I write.
Abrade—yes. That’s the word. That’s what time does. We try to tie a bow and close the loop around time, our lives, but the text frays and unwinds it.
I recently began to experience tinnitus. For me, it’s a distant high-pitched ringing in my ears. For others, the sound is different, like a roar or drone. My experience is the literal effect of time; the aftermath of the life I’ve lived. I only notice it in the morning or evening, when it’s most quiet. I can hear it now, and I can pinpoint some of the concerts that damaged my hearing, all those years ago. The noise from then is still with me. No one else can hear it.
A note from SR: before you go, check out Derek’s contribution to Issue 22.
Praise be to Encircle Publications for selecting my friend Muriel Nelson’s Please Hold as the winner of their 11th annual chapbook competition. Any and all lovers of poetry currently suffering frustration, blahs, even despair, over lineated topical prosaics may take heart. These twenty-five poems bind together actual poetry: musical-magic words. Deployed from within the courteous, indefatigably sunny suburban disposition I remember from my own childhood, they flick quirts & quips of vocabulary at the thorniest issues in Christianity’s crown: the suffering and death of innocents, ripping as usual through the here and now, while a good-enough god’s vital creation flourishes, for instance, its novel & ingeniously variable virus. Nelson (sometimes assisted by a stone-faced sidekick gargoyle) rubs dry sticks together, flint-striking among them worrisome sparks of prayer over nature, beloveds and the commons, such as they (and we) may seem-or-not to get along these days. Or ever? Organ of vox humana, ”That ultra-low purr,/ is it your scary business? Your pleasure?” (God Deafness).
Nelson’s work, full of noises and mouth feel, craves and rewards reading aloud: “words like worms wriggle out” (A Few Words from a Haystack with Facehole); “gold leaf down brown water, brown spot down gold leaf” (Up to You) as “radios amplify hubbubs” (Nap). “Rather than dazzle, please mail juncos”, a speaker requests. (You There). “Sanctus,” via violin, “rises/ over orange machines and trills through diesel” (Hold Sway). Wanton, irresistible frolicking language made of everyday diction we already know by heart.
Anxieties addressed in addition to pandemic include other illnesses and infirmities, clear air turbulence in aviation (Nelson’s own son the pilot at risk); hair overgrowing unruly in lockdown, nearby Mt. St. Helens’ volcanic eruption and forest fires, plus whatever else may fill in any of our blanks. Why is our local nit picked of the universe such a mess-in-plain-sight? Because this world of oops is God’s mirror-image shattered in a truck mishap. (Nap) Image-recognitions like this, more persuasive and quicker-to-the-pinch than rational proofs, are why/how we get to make sense of things, even as sense may go on to make and unmake the best efforts of artists, fans and rationalists. Because seeing is believing, the gardener –reluctantly conceding that god obviously prefers weeds– can’t really mind. Don’t look there. Look over here instead.
More ‘Notes’ than just one on hummingbird arithmetic would be nice: Vox humana, gargoyle, worm moon, clear air turbulence, retrograde, ankyloglossia, A440. I do like reading notes before I begin a book, getting that initial feel for what’s in store. And, what with everything zapping all around the world’s diverisities all the time, a particular writer’s cultural tropes are not so much common knowledge as used to be.
The sheer antic fun of Nelson’s wordplay, nimble, precise and outlandish enough never to get caught out in bourgeois complacency, wins us over and wins. Goofy poem “Hug,” for instance, declares its own title a word too ugly to be tolerated, and so (um, ‘embrace’?) substitutes (why not?) “waffle,” enumerating the latter’s superior fluff and sugary qualities and ending up (neverminding stiffly-posed ancestor portraits) in the very waffle that created us descendants. Or, “A woman with a hole in her brain the size of a lemon says”/ I find repetition soothing. Really?” The poem’s skeptical speaker attempts a few irritatant repetitions in rebuttal, but soon concedes the issue utterly.
Atheist Zweig engages these glories in awe for quite a while, as the music tickles and soothes. Gradually, though, an inner Richard Wilbur begins to notice the gigantic absence here of any human (and systemic) depravity in the world. If we can’t blame God (busy puttering light and music among the weeds), who gets held to account, and how? One poem, after ee cummings, seems to indict Mister Death, but this, sez I, is mere Manichaean heresy: did superpower Death create Itself? “Second Story Window” acknowledges a “God, who contours love with dark // who forsakes even Christ,” yet ends beguiled hearing bells and a shadow singing. In these poems music and wit (soothing, satisfying) never accuse. “Nap” comes closest: “God of great pain, lone, // self-bombing, bloody-crossed God… whom no one hugs, you untouchable, sharp, broken One.” Christianity, though, is obliged to address deliberate human sin— which the crucified god, (as we’re told by numerous authorities), forgives in advance and for all time. Wow! Thanks a bunch! Let’s sin again, maybe more so this time! Did I miss the parts where the moneybaggers get bounced out of the temple and barred from the heavenly kingdom even as some lumpy beast slicks through the needle’s eye?
Approaching the end, Please Hold arrives at “doting,” three times: a word I resist because doting is foolish. Am I supposed to be foolish for having indulged in delight among these poems? Must I, must other readers and Nelson herself, commit to holy foolery for Jesus and Saint Paul? After some research I reread “A woman with a hole in her brain the size of a lemon says” –increasingly my favorite. We cultured folk know perfectly well that art and all its witness entail willing suspension of disbelief; likely you and I can entertain Holy Foolishness without becoming wholly foolish. My atheistic smarts briefly snooze right over there, safe-&-sound.
Revisit the commodious mischief of this robocroon title, perpetrated, surely, by the gargoyle sidekick: Your prayer is very important to us. Our only-one god is busy hearing other supplicants and will respond to you in the order of your prayer received. You are currently number four trillion and eighty-two, please hold, or pray again later. (music) Organ, please hold that vox humana note. Dike against the sea, please hold; my place in the soup line; wall against the dark hordes, shutters against the storm, please hold. Hug me a little longer, (urgently/politely) don’t let go. Endure, don’t disintegrate, don’t die. And so on, let me count the ways. Please Hold your horses, your fire, your tongue, that thought, this book.
Congratulations are in order for past contributor E.J. Levy, whose newest book, The Cape Doctor, was released this summer. E.J. was kind enough to send us her own description of the book, found below.
I’m delighted to have had my debut novel, The Cape Doctor, out from Little Brown on June 15th, after nearly a decade of work. The book is inspired by the life of Dr. James Miranda Barry–born Margaret Ann Bulkley circa 1795 in Cork, Ireland–a brilliant, irascible, dandified, army surgeon who advocated for the rights of the marginalized and was the first person known to perform a successful caesarian in Africa; Barry was caught in a sodomy scandal with the aristocratic governor of Cape Town (then the Cape Colony) in 1824, and eventually rose to the level of Inspector General, only to be discovered after death to have been “a perfect female” and to have carried a pregnancy late to term.
In the 150 years since Barry died, the doctor has been celebrated as both a feminist icon (as the first female-born person to receive a medical degree in the UK, 50 years before Elizabeth Garrett Anderson would, and 35 years before Elizabeth Blackwell would earn her degree in the US) and more recently as a trans icon. Both are valid interpretations in my view. I agree with biographer Jeremy Dronfield (author of Dr. James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time) who has said that he sees validity in both a feminist and a trans reading of Barry’s life, but he rejects any effort to impose one interpretation to the exclusion of the other or to present one as definitive. Mine is one reading of a richly ambiguous historical record of the fascinating and courageous life of Margaret Bulkley and James Barry. In writing the book, I was aiming for something like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando–in which the protagonist changes sex over centuries–but I think I’ve ended up with something closer to Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield.
I have changed Barry’s name to be clear that mine is a work of fiction. But it has felt at times more like a seance. I first learned of Barry on a trip to Cape Town; as we traveled around the city and into the countryside, I felt a little possessed by that spirit, as if Dr. Barry was whispering in my ear; I’m delighted that others have a chance to hear that same voice now.
I’m gratified that Booklist has given The Cape Doctor a Starred Review, calling it “Remarkable…Absolutely superb… beautifully written…In sum, an unforgettable work of art that deserves raves.” The book was also named among Barnes & Noble’s “Best 100 Books of Summer” and was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.
I hope The Cape Doctor helps bring wider attention to and awareness of the remarkable life of both Margaret and James.
On March 15, past contributor, author of nine books (poetry, fiction, and nonfiction), Daniel Olivas, was invited on to the Beckett’s Babies podcast. Within the podcast, the group discussed topics such as Daniel’s play, Waiting for Godínez, being selected for the Playwrights’ Arena 2020 Summer Reading Series, Daniel’s first memory, how he has been selected for Circle X Theatre Co.’s inaugural Evolving Playwrights Group where he is adapting his 2011 novel, The Book of Want, with a planned Zoom reading in 2021, among a variety of other matters.
The interesting thing about getting old is watching it unfold. This is applied science: biology in action, psychology and sociology revealed in real time as I experience the changes in my body and brain. I can react to others’ responses or my own, or I can step back and withhold all judgment. I’m both participant and observer.
I’ve written about aging, about post-seventy tattoos and half-marathons, physical decline in spite of excellent health, dwindling opportunities and increased invisibility, a thicker skin and fuck ‘em attitude about things that used to bother me. The challenge, though, as a writer, is to make this process and my experiences appealing to readers young and old. The former may be inclined to glaze over and think, what has this to do with me? B-o-r-i-n-g. The latter might appreciate commonality, feel less isolated in their own experience, or they might choose to avert their eyes, say I’ve got my own shit to deal with, she doesn’t know the half of it.
Since Baby Boomers entered their seventies they’re writing about aging too, as if they discovered it, expressing the indignity of it all, their painful joints or purported joys, or just plain denial as they grasp at perpetual youth, pronounce seventy to be the new fifty. But I got there first by a few years, and I intend to stay in the conversation. If all else fails, I’ll beat them to eighty and have new stories to tell before they catch up again.
There is a fish in the mirror, this very first line in the “This Mournable Body,” a novel by Tsitsi Dangarembga, distorts the reality that what you see out there, probably and/or actually, is not what it is; and opens up the truth that the “coolest cruising” of our expectations and the arrival of our promised land are always either suspended or ebbing.
This Mournable Body (Graywolf, 2018 & Faber & Faber, 2020), one of the shortlisted fiction for the 2020 Booker Prize, is the last installment of her trilogy, Nervous Conditions (1988), which was enlisted in the list of BBC’s top 100 books that shaped the world, which she wrote at the advent of Zimbabwean independence but its narrative line was set during the colonial Rhodesia in the early 1960s when the nation and the land were going through the identity crisis, a story of Zimbabwean girl’s, Tambudzai Sigauke, enlightenment with that “it’s bad enough . . . when a country gets colonized, but when the people do as well! That’s the end, really, that’s the end” and she started her struggle in pursuit of hope to liberate herself, at first, from the circle of poverty, darkness of ignorance and injustice of patriarchy; then to explore her identity as a colonized black African, in a broader sense, “the crisis of personhood” as Ms. Tsitsi Dangarembga said in an interview with Madeleine Thien, author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing.
As a very practical woman and properly conscious about the reality of the world Dangarembga had changed her territory of creative endeavor from literature – a psychologically charged and solitary work process for which she needed 400 dollar and a room of her own as Virginia Woolf prescribed – to film which requires a more physically engaged schedule, and took her eighteen years of seclusion, subsequently, to publish the second part “The Book of Not” (2006), set in the turbulent times of the Zimbabwe’s war of emancipation in the late 1970s when Tambu had gone through a feeling of indignant displeasure of the image of her sister Netsai’s dismembered leg and the encounter of uncle Babamukuru’s twinge spinal cord encamped with bullet “so to the scars of war were added the complications of Independence” in her life.
As Nervous Conditions, the title was scrounged from the preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961)- a refutation of colonization and an anatomy of dehumanization – written by Jean-Paul Sartre, is an archetype of Old Colonialism, “This Mournable Body” is the kaleidoscope of New Colonialism, the title is also sprung from the essay “Unmournable Bodies” (2015), a subjective reaction to the Occidental lamentation over the slaughtered journalists of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical Parisian journal, by Teju Cole who commented in conclusion “that incontestability, that unmournability, just as much as the massacre in Paris, is the clear and present danger to our collective liberté.”
Tambu, in Nervous Condition, equated education as the emancipation from poverty but when she was in Sacred school she saw the hidden perpetrator- her blackness as a source of her wretchedness whereas, in This Mournable Body, she equates the independence or decolonization as the flowerbed of personhood but at the different stages of her career she experiences tones of “fresh humiliations” of old bondage and gets the taste of “losing hope” of new freedom as an effect she realizes that the rejection of the dignity of personhood, in the political logic, is the root of her domestication and dejection.
The novel represents the ceaseless conflict between our expectations and reality both in an individual and the national level either parallel or reciprocally. In childhood Tambu thought her high achievement lay in the sacrifice of Shona, her indigenous language, in the name of imperialist language and education would give her prosperity and lofty social status. But her education seems to be a raucous failure when she writes a letter, in chapter 6″ to her cousin Nyasha, a film maker in Germany as a fictionalization of Dangarembga’s real life, “to break away from the implacable terror of every day” in Zimbabwe and tears it up thinking that “if you cannot build a life in your own country, how will you do so in another ” and she submerged into a more screeching misery that “the vegetables become too disgusting to eat, as first cooking oil then salt fall off your shopping list… Every minute of each twenty -four hours taunts you with what you are reduced to.” Surprisingly, Tambu, in chapter 11, sets her foot on the “new realm of impossibility” when her cousin returns Zimbabwe “in spite of her degree, in Europe” radiating the failure of continental dreams with such “liminal complexity.”
Tambu used to think that breaking the colonial servitude and racial segregation would give her the possibilities to devour her personhood, however, in her antique age after leaving a stagnant job at the advertising agency and taking an unbalanced refuge, constantly in the fear of deportation, in a hostel for young women in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, then she rents an economical cottage “to live” from a white widow. There she comes to learn (in chapter 7) that “the moon shadows have edges sharp as knives” in a close conversion with Christine (the niece of the white widow) that the independence she had got through her “fruitless war” with “full of lairs” is shining with “false hope” as like Tambu’s “worthless education intensifying” her ludicrous miseries and distresses. In chapter 12 where Tambu hears Mainini, her war veteran aunt’s testimonies of disappointments and violence that have been popped up from colonial war and domestic riots:
“Yes, sometimes we wondered why we went to war when we came back and everyone was shocked and began to hate us. … Mainini pauses, remembering her little son whom she had left to fight in conviction that her risk was the down payment on a better life for both of them. … When the Rhodesian soldiers came, the young boy ran back to kraal… in order to prevent the Rhodesian butchering the entire herd. Instead, the soldiers drove bullets through the boy’s back… ripped his stomach open and spread his intensities on the sand that was mixed with cow dung.”
Tracey Stevenson, her previous employer, appoints Tambu in her ecotourism enterprise named Green Jacaranda Getaway Safaris in the farmland targeting the European audiences and prospects. In the thriving time of their tourism venture, then President Robert Mugabe’s “government at independence transformed much of the settlement into a home-ownership area” and “the trouble with the inheritance laws in the country” pushes them to find a new spot in the Tambu’s homestead and again she hears a hyena’s laughing sound of the downfall of her economic security and mental discomfort in her head on; and the narrator says to Tambu: “The tourist brochures you composed said your country’s village women rub their cow pat floors until they shine like the cement floor. The brochure lied. There are no shines in your memory. Your mother’s floors are never shown with anything. Nothing ever glittered or sparkled.” These lines utterly open up the very naked lies of history that the liberators assured her the Promised Land but Tambu feels there is no true freedom she ever gets, only she has just transferred from colonial captivity to democratic domestication.
This “uneasy conscience,” Sartre commented in the preface, in “the system which depends on overexploitation, as you know, would be ruined.” You will see the similar kind of reverse colonization or the revenge of the past in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace in the post-apartheid South Africa. Who to blame elite settlers or “colonized minds?” The undisputable answer is not near to get.
Tambu falls into the crisis of personhood, as like an assessment test, in the chapter 8 & 9, she becomes the person she was not and “exhaustion propels [her] over the border of the wakefulness into a sleep from which [she] half hope [she] will not wake.” She feels an agony at her biology class at A level towards the older students who “were toddlers at independence” but have the privileges of manicures at the luxurious saloons and this tardiness make her to punish immorally and almost kills Elizabeth and she falls into a mental breakdown. At the clinic she expresses her embarrassment to Dr. Winton said: “I don’t have the things that make me better. I want to be better. I want the things that make me.” In an “anguished composition” of shame and sorrow Tambu feels a “weakness of contrition,” consequently, to deplete her tormentation, she seeks retribution from Elizabeth’s family by paying her medical bill to recover in chapter 17. But shockingly in chapter 18, Tambu deceives her sense of personhood spending all the savings for Elizabeth to her long cherished manicures and pedicures, to the cinema complex on Robert Mugabe Avenue, for enjoying the weekends in Harare Gardens and for “occult and spiritual divining” at Queen Victoria library. The reader will taste another intense degree of downslide of Tambu’s morality in chapter 19 where she makes a transaction with her mother by promising a leg for Netsai, her sister, “as a kind of barter for the programme” of the finest organic tourism spot for the Westerns as if Tambu “bloated tongues spill onto the earth” where her “umbilical cord is buried.”
From the ebbing, the first part, to the arrival, the last part, most of the pronounced characters either young/old, black/white or central/peripheral are women and their contributions to creating and developing a nation and branding and uplifting the spirits of the traditions and cultures of a country which are very much unique in recent literary landscapes. Dangarembga shows us how Zimbabwean war-women like Christine, Netsai and Mailini have been bearing all the sufferings and the nightmares in their lives as the narrator says:
The women from war are like that, a new kind of being that no one knew before… it is rumored the blood stopped flowing to their wombs the first time they killed a person. … so that the ancestors tied up the nation’s prosperity in repugnance at the awfulness of it, just they had done to the women’s wombs.”
As like the representation of the spirit of Zimbabwean women, as Tambu boastfully says, they “shriek with grief and throw themselves around. They go to war. They drug patients in order to go ahead.” The reader will gradually come to feel the psychological tenacity a woman can go through in a life. To visualize these coarse episodes of women psyche, Dangaremga flares up some motifs of an army of crawling and creeping ants and spiders over her neck and across her skull; a growling and laughing hyena into her head and her flowing womb down her hip bones.
This Mournable Body was a title of a fiction until 28th of July 2020 but it is not a fiction anymore after 31st of July 2020 the day she has been arrested by Zimbabwean security forces only because she has violated the law against anti-corruption demonstration in protest of detainment of the Zimbabwean journalists who are reporting, gathering and protesting the President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government policies that pushing the fledgling country in the full destitution; and the authority has called the demonstration a ‘planned insurrection.’ The novel is real now like her own life when she has, on the same day, tweeted: “Friends, here is a principle. If you want your suffering to end, you have to act. Action comes from hope. This the principle of faith and action.” And the tweet notifies us that literature is a political act itself as well as an artful product; and journalism is not a crime. The trilogy is a perfect blending of facts and fiction, Dangarembga has been carrying Tambu on her shoulder for thirty years, correspondingly, Tambu has been growing with her woes in pace with Zimbabwe’s cry of despair. Moreover, the narrative view of the second person merges the characters and readers with such a dexterity that will push you to feel as if it is your own private story. This Mournable Body is a phenomenal tour de force of human freedom and dignity, of women solidarity, of reality and its desperation, is a canonical and sublime knowledge of Zimbabwean history.
Lynn Sloan is a photographer and the author of This Far Isn’t Far Enough, a story collection, and Principles of Navigation, a novel, chosen for Chicago Book Review’s Best Books of 2015. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Shenandoah, American Literary Fiction, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and included in NPR’s Selected Shorts. Her photographs have been exhibited nationally and internationally. For many years she taught photography in the MFA program of Columbia College Chicago, where she founded Occasional Readings in Photography and contributed to Afterimage, Art Week, and Exposure.
Patricia Ann McNair has managed a gas station, served as a medical volunteer in Honduras, sold pots and pans door to door, tended bar and breaded mushrooms, worked on the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and now teaches in the English and Creative Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago. Her acclaimed short story collection Responsible Adults was released in December 2020 by Cornerstone Press. McNair’s The Temple of Air received Southern Illinois University’s Devil’s Kitchen Readers Award and the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award. And These Are The Good Times was a Montaigne Medal finalist. She lives in Chicago with her husband, visual artist Philip Hartigan.
This interview is with past contributor, Patricia Ann McNair, conducted by Lynn Sloan, on March 1, 2021. It is in regards to Patricia’s new story collection, Responsible Adults.
Lynn Sloan:Patty, I’ve enjoyed and admired your work for years, so it’s a real treat to have a chance to ask you about your writing and your new story collection, Responsible Adults. Great title. It’s the title of one of your stories, but what it suggests, a bad situation where a sound, responsible adult is needed, can be applied broadly to this entire collection. Reversing those two words of the title to adults responsible also works. In these stories, it is usually the adult, the one in charge, who is responsible for the harm done. When in the process of pulling together this collection did you choose this title?
Patricia Ann McNair: Hello, Lynn, and what a pleasure to talk with you as well! I think you are exactly right that these stories and the situations the characters find themselves in ache for the intervention of a responsible adult. That was something that became clear to me as I started to put these pieces into a binder to see what they might look like as a collection. I hadn’t finished the story that the title Responsible Adults comes from quite yet, and in a way that has never happened before, the title for the collection came to me before I had a story for it. I just liked the sound of it, Responsible Adults, especially as I thought of it in regards to the relationships in the stories. “Who is responsible here” can have a different meaning from “Who is responsible for this?” One implies a sort of blame, an insinuation of guilt, the other assumes that someone is in charge. Each of these ideas speaks to my stories in some way, so, yeah, the title stuck with me. And then I had to find one of my unfinished, untitled stories that might make use of those two words as well. A sort of backward approach for me; I usually like to find a title that has surfaced organically in a story and can do double duty for the collection. But this time the title asserted itself into and onto the book.
LS: Most of your stories involve parents and their children. Though swift and taut, almost all of your stories cover an arc of many years, even when the present moment of the story lasts only a few minutes. In “Good News or Money,” an adult daughter calls her estranged father and leaves a series of phone messages. In “Responsible Adults,” the narrator says, “Time was something stretchy to me, long and short, short and long.” Can you talk about time in your stories?
PAM: I have always admired the kind of story that makes the reader feel as though the world of it existed before the first line, and will continue in some way after the last one. So as a writer, I need to establish a sort of continuum of time in the pages. Funnily enough, I usually do that through breaking the chronology of the story. A character—if we are trying to make them human—in any given moment has other moments behind them, and more ahead (usually, that is, unless we are talking about Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” for instance). I like to visit those moments that are outside of the story, as a character would. “Good News or Money” features a seventeen-year-old girl who carries a lot of crappy memories that she is unwilling to let her father forget, so she excises them in her phone message. The story is meant to read as though it were happening in real-time, pauses and interruptions and all. And time is something stretchy to me, too, perhaps in this historical moment it is to all of us. In “What Girls Want” I especially jump around in time, in narrative distance, and this is partly because of the way the narrator is willing—and not—to admit their involvement in things, in the lives of others. His self-awareness evolves, his confessions are difficult and sporadic, his culpability spans years.
LS:In several of these stories, the relationship of care or responsibility is outside the family—a cop in “Serve and Protect,” and a teacher with her own troubles who faces a difficult teenage student in “Regarding Alix.” You teach writing, you’re a professor, you know the complications and limits of responsibilities of a teacher. Did that make this story easy to write or hard?
PAM: “Regarding Alix” is one of the more autobiographical stories in the book (although all of them have some part of me, some memory or observation or emotional tug of mine). In that sense, it was easy to write because of the closeness I had to the situation of teaching a group of teen-aged writing students at a boarding school. It was right after 9/11. During, really; our first day of the semester was September 11. Making that setting and using that tension—the overwhelming sadness and worry we all felt—apparent on the page was not too difficult. But I am interested in this idea of the responsibility of teachers, perhaps especially right now while we all have to renegotiate the way we teach and interact with our students. There was some of that when the towers went down, too. So much was out of our control, out of the control of our students. It is amazing to me that we survive these things, but we usually do. This current crisis is ongoing, and every day we hear about how students are suffering, struggling. And I can’t help think about us, too, the teachers. We are expected to be the responsible adults here, some would say we are paid to be. And yet, as in “Regarding Alix,” we are not always fully equipped to make things better. I think I veered away from the heart of your question there. Easy to write, maybe, but hard to do. Hard to shoulder my (our, their) responsibilities and to admit my (our, their) failings.
LS: One of my favorite stories is “What Girls Want” in which the dad blows up a suburban version of the American dream during an afternoon barbeque, alienating forever his wife and young daughter. But it’s his relationship to a neighbor kid, the boy who asked him, “What do girls want?” who later exposes the irrevocable damage the dad has done to himself. I loved this. How did you decide to use a secondary character in such a pivotal way?
PAM: Some years ago I saw a man I had known in college on the train. He, like I, was nearing middle age, and was a very different human than he was when I knew him. He had been an odd and sensitive kid in college; the man on the train was out of it, rocking and smiling and overdressed for the summer day in a heavy coat. He was a bit of a mess, actually. I carried that image with me for a long time; I saw him more than once, he didn’t remember me, I could tell. I looked for him whenever I was on that line at the end of the day. I suppose I knew I wanted to write a story about someone like him. Someone who gets lost as they become an adult, who migrates quite a ways from the nerdy, weird, interesting young person they were. The first draft of “What Girls Want” started with my recreated character on the train, but that wasn’t working. I needed to explore how he got there. I imagined him as a child, as someone that was both smart and annoying, in that way kids can be especially to some unaware adults. So I had to create a flawed, unaware adult. From there I let the character—Gregory—be more of a wrench than the gears of the story. His role was to mess things up for the main character—or at least to give the main character someone to blame for the things he messes up. The heart of the story is the stepfather/daughter relationship, and Gregory provides a sort of triangulation that pulls at that, creating an uneasy balance.
LS:People act badly in your stories and they harm others, others who rely on them. While your sympathy, and ours, is with the harmed, you also make us understand the anguish of those who cause the damage. At what point in writing do you explore this side?
PAM: God, we all make mistakes, don’t we? I don’t know about you, but every time I do something stupid or harmful (usually without intention) I hold so much guilt about it! I try not to be afraid of admitting when I mess up, but I also want to figure out why I do, and maybe try to explain it to whomever I have messed up against. I know I start making a story with an awareness of trouble, of bad behavior. That trouble happens before I can figure out much else, but it is never enough on its own to make a very good story. The people I know, the people I grew up with, the adults who were responsible in my life (and weren’t) are multifaceted. They misstepped, they fell and hurt themselves, maybe fell on someone else in the process. But that doesn’t always mean they shouldn’t be able to try to get up and step again. Even as I make my way through this answer, I am aware that there are folks I really do believe don’t deserve a second chance or our understanding. People who were recently in charge of so much, did so much damage. Some part of me does not believe that they are capable of change or betterment or even self-reflection. But in the everyday way of things, people screw up, and in my fiction, I believe it is important to consider why that might be, or what the consequences of the bad behavior might be on the doer, or how they might change because of it. In fiction—maybe more than in life, is this true?—the bad guys need to have more depth than just their badness. In fiction, characters must suffer their wounds. We, their writers, and they, the characters, owe that to the readers.
LS: As a writer who is always reaching for the next challenge, what comes next?
PAM: Well, immediately what comes next is surviving this semester of remote instruction. While I am teaching, it is hard for me to sink into the work I want to do, the writing of things other than assignments in a learning management system, comments on student work, complaints in my journal. This has always been the case for me, not just during this pandemic. But! But in just a few weeks I will turn my attention back to the work of a novel-in-progress. I am working on a story that takes place in a lake community in the seventies. There is infidelity, race issues, abortion, nosey neighbors. A sort of wet Peyton Place, you might say. Thank you for asking!
To order your copy of Responsible Adults click here. Also, be sure to also check out Lynn Sloan’s website as well as Patricia’s website, Twitter, and past work in Issue 3.
When I thought about writing this I was stumped for an opening. What catchy first line speaks to being a writer in these socially traumatic times? Then it came to me. Thank you. Thank you for all the work I know you must have done, all the work I know you must be doing. Thank you for caring about the world even when that caring takes away from the time you have to write the novel, finish the poem or invent a new form we haven’t seen yet. Thank you for even thinking about doing something – that’s actually an active step in socially responsible responses. Thanks for helping where you can, at a foodbank, in a volunteer program, on a political campaign. Or on six political campaigns.
I live in Pennsylvania, where there are always at least six political campaigns that could use my help, my money, my time and my gasoline. I’m nearly 71 so I’m not able to do all the things my younger political friends and allies can, but the one good thing about a state as mucked up as Pennsylvania is today is that there is always a job to do that will fit your skills and energy. So, although there are countless ways you can respond to the social disfunction we call modern American, I want to talk a bit here about political activity.
Full disclosure: I did not come to politics naturally. The hot ticket items of the 70’s and 80’s involved me, the Vietnam War, Nuclear Power Plants, but I was not active in social movements like aiding AIDS victims. I’ve marched on Washington a few times, but I have not marched to end genocide or to change voter laws. I kept many issues at the periphery of my attention and I hoped that someone was addressing those issues. I was a poet. I made art. And art matters. I volunteered in the art field, teaching in schools and running a free writing workshop in my living room for fifteen years. But I was not a political operative.
Then came Trump. When I got past the flattening shock of the elections results, I realized that Pennsylvania put him over the line. The Republicans who crafted his campaign had been smart and sneaky. It was new to me, the way they got him elected. I knew they were able to do it in part because I had been asleep at the wheel. Politics, I’d thought, was not my domain. I was a good enough person doing lots of good things. Other good people were taking care of this political stuff. I thought they did not need me.
So that’s me. If you’re a conservative, you can still listen to (or read) this. Just substitute your values for mine, and consider what writers are called to do when a political crisis of this magnitude overtakes their country and their generation. I will set down a few things I had to do in the past election season, and in my ongoing involvement in politics. Other writers will probably need to do them too.
I had to get educated about my local situation, and meet the local people responding to it. Here’s where I got lucky. A University of Pittsburgh professor, Marie Norman, responded to the 2016 election by forming a Facebook group to organize political action. She called it Order of the Phoenix (yup) and as soon as I caught wind of it, I joined. I was not alone.The group attracted a lot of people who were appalled not only by Trump as a man, but by the policies we knew his election would enable. When Trump said he would have all the “best people” running things Stephen Miller and Betsy De Vos showed up.
I read a critical book that described in excruciating detail the Red Mapping that had damaged the fairness of state and federal districts in my state. “Ratf**ked” by David Daley, tells the story of the gerrymandering of America, state by painful state. Daley’s facts motivated me to get involved with elections and with a group that fights gerrymandering. In Pennsylvania, legal activists took the Republican controlled State Senate to court when they drew highly gerrymandered districts that violated legal constraints. The State Supreme Court ruled that they had to re-draw the maps using parameters that resulted in fairer representation for Pennsylvania’s citizens. I could explain all this, but just read Daley’s book – especially if you live in Arizona, or Wisconsin, or Florida, or Ohio, or Michigan. Or anywhere really, just read it.
That led me into working on the 2018 election where we did well in southwestern PA. Republican control of our State legislature was impacted by the election of many Democrats. It’s great when things go that way. But there was no time to bask in that success.
When 2019 came around, I asked, “there’s a 2019 election?” Yes, Deborah. There’s an election every year – not just when Senate and House seats are up for grabs. That year we worked to elect a better District Attorney for Allegheny County. We had a great candidate, but we lost. I look forward to helping her win next time. For me this was another lesson: if you want social change you have to think long-term while you work as if this is your only chance. You must persist in the face of defeat.
Then there was this year – and you no doubt know that Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes put Biden over the top. You might not know how big a part Allegheny County played in that. We made a difference, maybe even the difference. In Allegheny County the group that may have had the biggest effect is Order of the Phoenix. And when the race was called for President-Elect Biden, we all got to feel something we cannot expect to feel again soon.
So that brings us to now. What does this history have to do with you, with writers in the age of Social Unrest? Well, here are a few thoughts:
Social unrest means there’s something very wrong. Contented citizens do not spend their time hollering. So whichever side of our current divide you’re on, there is a place for you to work, and work you should. That does not mean you can’t write poems, essays and novels as well. There is no “one size fits all” in responding to current events. The many things that happen in our personal lives matter. Family and friends still matter. Music matters. Art matters. Gardening matters. Having fun matters. Laughing matters. Being lazy matters. Looking at clouds matters. But there should be some time and energy that you put into bettering this world at every stage of your life. When I was between trying to stop Nuclear Proliferation and trying to stop Trumpism, I was raising kids, sustaining my community, being a lover, a wife, a writer, a teacher and you will be (or are) those things too. Those were worthy pursuits, but I regret not keeping my eye on the way things were going nationally. I regret that my serious political involvement came so late. I regret that we were on the way to this place for such a long time while I was ignorant. This will be a lifelong regret. Mea culpa.
So we can work. We can educate ourselves in lots of areas, not just in the literary world. We should learn about our states, our towns, our cities, our neighborhoods. Who is feeding your homeless? How are school funds disbursed? None of us can work on every problem but we can keep swinging our eyes around the landscape to keep it all in mind. We can choose something to learn a lot about. I have a political ally who studies how elections are conducted. She knows the safety records behind various kinds of balloting. She knows who makes voting machines and how the contracts to do that are awarded. She knows what local governing bodies have the final say on issues related to voting. I didn’t even know we had a County Council here who makes these decisions. When I need to know about election issues, I contact Julie. I’m re-visiting everything I can find about gerrymandering – the laws and practices, the US Supreme Court cases. I hope to be a useful resource about that when I’m done. But my other specialty is being a good foot soldier. I take orders well these. When we need to get yard signs distributed, when thousands of postcards need to go in the mail to get voters to the polls, when we need to recruit other workers, I’m a good person to contact. There is always a critical issue here, and there are always great people to work with – folks who keep me at it, or let me off the hook when I need time off, because we all have lives, need rest, and all that other good stuff. But – for a start – we can get educated about how things work where we live.
I had to admit that the things I do, and the things I don’t do matter. That’s not complicated, but it’s easy to forget. Take a look at climate issues, the economy, the educational system, the healthcare system, voting rights, energy production, food distribution, and especially racial inequity which will be a part of the story in each of the preceding areas.
Find your tribe, your people, your interests, and once you do, stay loyal. These are the people who will sustain you all your life. It may be something as personal as reminding you to keep sending out your work, or as big as reminding you to care about the generations who will need this planet when we are long gone. This is what is currently called “selfcare” – a phrase I find chilly and antiseptic, but then I’m an old lady.
And that’s it from me. Thanks for reading this. I’d love to hear from those of you engaged in political work, big issue work, little issue work, any of it. I don’t go to writers’ conventions anymore, but I sometimes imagine a session where there is no panel, no major writer. Regular writers just come in and write briefly about the work for the world they are doing. Then those descriptions, those pieces of paper, are pinned to a very big wall so we can see how effective we can be. This is the age for the fully engaged citizen and the fully engaged writer. Meet you on the ramparts.
“Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.”–W.H. Auden
In late autumn of 1972, when I was twenty-two-years-old, I visited Mozarts Geburtshaus (Mozart’s Birth House), in Salzburg, Austria. I was one of only a handful of pilgrims climbing the narrow stairs to the cramped, former living quarters. Looking into a display case containing some of Mozart’s personal effects, I became transfixed by a lock of the composer’s hair. I recalled a familiar passage from Michael Kelly’s Reminiscences: “[Mozart] was a remarkably small man, very thin and pale, with a profusion of fine fair hair, of which he was rather vain.” And there it was: a lock of that same “fine fair hair”—exactly as described by one of Mozart’s personal friends. I was in a dream-like state, until a tall, uniformed man, in his late-sixties or early-seventies, tapped my shoulder and motioned for me to follow him. I didn’t think I had done anything wrong—so I followed without complaint, and was led to a small, eighteenth-century clavichord. The curator’s stern face suddenly gave way to a benevolent smile, as he pulled back a plexiglass covering from the clavichord’s keyboard: granting me permission to play. A placard identified the instrument as the one used by Mozart while composing his opera The Magic Flute. I was a tubist; not a pianist. But thanks to a former college piano proficiency class, I was able to plunk out the opening measures from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11. My fingers were touching the very keys Mozart touched.
It’s not my intention to present the above memory as a travel-log boast—or a “Bucket List” notch (the Bucket List craze was not around in 1972; and at my current stage of life, I consider that practice an empty pursuit, and more than a little macabre). Mozart was—and remains to this day—my absolute favorite composer. My experience in Salzburg freed the composer from his plaster-of-Paris bust and helped me to see him as a fellow human being, with whom I could have shared bread and wine and enjoyable conversation. And for reasons I can’t explain, my newfound “long-distance” friendship enhanced my awe of the inscrutable genius of this “remarkably small” man’s remarkably profound music.
Around 1980, my professional music career was cut short by a non-life-threatening condition called “Embouchure Dystonia.”A few years later, I was able to lose my self-pity,and turn my creative energies to writing short stories. Good friend that he is, Mozart stuck around; and his music has continued to be a balm for my soul, and an influence on my writing. Which brings me to the Mozartean.
For most of my years writing short stories, I have considered the Mozarteana touchstone. My use of the term refers not to musicological analysis, but rather the emotional and spiritual elements Mozart’s music lends to deep expressions of the human condition. The fact is, I’ma bit rusty on my music theory. And even if I were able to outline an analysis of, say, the finale movement of the “Jupiter Symphony,” it wouldn’t explain the workings of Mozart’s imagination. Genius and the imagination cannot be deconstructed,distilled, or tacked upon a Periodic Table. The best we can do is attempt informed and thoughtful descriptions of the mystery.
In 1956 (the bi-centennial of Mozart’s birth),theologian Karl Barth wrote: “What occurs in Mozart is rather a glorious upsetting of balance, a turning in which the light rises and the shadows fall, though without disappearing . . .”That same year Frank O’Connor (a patron saint of the Mozartean short story) describes the Mozartean way of seeing things as “half way between tragedy and comedy, [representing] a human norm.”
Cross-pollination in the arts is nothing new. Ernest Hemingway, on more than one occasion, said that he wanted to write the way Cézanne painted. In a 1958 interview for the Paris Review, Hemingway was asked to name his “literary forebears.” He responded with a long list of great writers, painters, and two composers: Bach and Mozart. He said: “I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.”
The actual study of harmony and counterpoint would be a stretch for most people these days (or even in 1958). There are, of course, less severe approaches for the layperson. One approach would be to find Leonard Bernstein’s Young Person’s Concerts on YouTube. These incredible concert/lectures were broadcast on CBS (network television!), from 1958 to 1972.
A certain amount of spadework is necessary for all levels of art appreciation. We become better readers if we are able to see, hear and explain the differences between free verse and a Shakespearian sonnet. We become better listeners if we are able to hear and explain the differences between a Gregorian Chant and a Bach Cantata. Great art does not reveal its deepest treasures to a passive audience. It won’t happen by osmosis or pharmaceuticals.
But at the risk of sounding contradictory, I think it would be perfectly reasonable to begin the Mozartean quest simply by listening to some of Mozart’s compositions. I highly recommend beginning with two very short pieces: The Clarinet Concerto, and Ave Verum Corpus. Both of these pieces were written in the last year of Mozart’s short life; and both are exemplary of music in which the light rises and the shadows fall, though without disappearing.