Lady in the House Questions: Alexis Smith

Who are your favorite water gods and why?

Sedna, the Mother of the Sea in Inuit mythology, has always struck a chord in me. She refused to marry the suitors who offered themselves to her, so her father took her out in his kayak and threw her overboard. When she clung to the side of the kayak, he chopped her fingers off. She drifted into the sea and her fingers became the seals, whales, and other creatures the Inuit people hunt for food.

There’s something about this story that reminds me both of female saints, like Winifred of Wales, who decided to become a nun rather than marry a guy named Caradog, who beheaded her (it fell to the ground and became a freshwater spring, incidentally), and of some of the more gruesome Grimm’s fairy tales, like “Catskin,” in which a king wants to marry his daughter because she looks like her dead mother, so she runs away in a coat made of cat skins. In these stories there’s the beginning of the question about who controls women’s bodies, and the women always suffer physically for their attempts at autonomy.

Sedna becomes the sea goddess through sacrifice, and populates the waters with her body parts, so she’s a creative force, and in that way, benevolent. Unlike the saints, who sacrifice themselves for a patriarchal god figure, and the princesses of fairytales, who usually happily marry some other guy, Sedna can be vengeful, withholding bounty to hunters who don’t show her respect. She hunkers down in the depths and keeps control of her body (think: body of water). I think of Sedna now, when the threat of more oil drilling in the Arctic looms, the sea ice thins drastically each year, and imagine how the Mother of the Sea will show us all who’s really in charge up there.

 

What do you think about the bottling of water?

I carry tap water around in a metal bottle, or, if I can’t find that bottle, mason jars. I’m lucky my city has clean, drinkable tap water. Bottled water is a necessity sometimes—when wells fail, when sources of potable water become contaminated, when there’s a natural disaster and municipal water sources are compromised. I live in earthquake territory, so we have bottles of water stored in our emergency kit.

But for the giant flotillas of plastic roaming the Pacific, I would say that bottling water is not such a bad thing, but do we really need millions of those little plastic buoys out there, or crunched into landfills, for that matter?

And then there are water rights, and the owning of natural water sources by companies like Nestle, whose CEO has said that water is not a human right, but should be owned and managed by companies such as his own (link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEFL8ElXHaU)—great stewards of public well-being that they are. I think Nestle is utterly full of shit and prefer not to support their endeavors.

Be a Girl Scout; carry a canteen.

 

What are your ocean-crossing stories?

When I was about ten I was obsessed with Amelia Earhart. I read all the biographies I could find on her in the library. I remember the way I couldn’t sleep the night I watched the Unsolved Mysteries episode about her mysterious disappearance. I can still picture the speck on the globe where she was supposed to land, but didn’t.

When I was sixteen, my dad took me and my older sister to Hawaii. It wasn’t crossing an ocean so much as landing in the middle of it. I was quietly certain we would all die for the entire plane ride.

One of the early chapters of my novel, GLACIERS (which Tin House published last year) is based on the ferry trip my parents made from Seattle back to Alaska, when I was an infant. I have no memory of it, only photographs and family anecdotes, but I, like my heroine, Isabel, sometimes imagined the journey. I haven’t taken the ferry back to Alaska since.

 

Isabel’s parents returned to Alaska soon after she was born. They had lived in Washington for four years, since Isabel’s older sister, Agnes, was born. They lived in a dumpy apartment over a drugstore in Bellingham, then in a cooperative household in Seattle, with three other families, several cats, and a blind Labrador retriever named Little John. Isabel’s father was a musician who had dropped out of music school. He worked odd jobs and gave the occasional guitar lesson. Isabel’s mother stayed home with Agnes, cooking and gardening with the other women in the household. With one child, the family might have gone on like this. Isabel was born on Valentine’s Day 1979, and within a month her parents decided to go back to where they had grown up, where her father could get a good-paying job on the North Slope.

Isabel doesn’t actually remember, but she imagines the voyage now, twenty-eight years later. The ferry from Seattle was crowded with other families, not Alaskan families but the kind of loose-minded travelers who pointed and photographed without really seeing.

Like other great creatures before them, the glaciers were dying, and their death, so distant and unimaginable, was a spectacle not to be missed. The ferry slowed where a massive glacier met the ocean; a long, low cracking announced the rupture of ice from glacier; then came the slow lunge of the ice into the sea. This is calving —when part of a glacier breaks free and becomes an iceberg—a kind of birth. The calving sent waves, rocking the ferry. Hands gripped railings and feet separated on gridded steel. There were shouts of appreciation and fear, but nothing like grief, not even ordinary sadness.

North of Juneau, the boat lingered near some rocks. A voice announced that below, starboard, was the wreck of the Princess Sophia, sunk in a storm just before the armistice. A gale whipped the ship over some rocks and tore her open like a can of salmon. All aboard died in the oily, frigid water. Only the captain’s wolfhound, which made the dark, impossible swim to shore, survived. He shivered and howled among the rocks until rescuers carried him away. Only a few yards of mast were visible above water after the ship went down, and the wind and waves had driven the bodies of passengers and crew miles along the coastline. The travelers, pondering this tragedy, lined the rails to peer into the water. Somewhere beneath them, they contemplated, were the disintegrating remains of a boat not so different from the one they were on. What did they expect to see in that water? Their own wavering reflections stared gravely back at them.

Isabel’s family sat in the commissary during the viewing of the Princess Sophia, eating sandwiches with no lettuce.

Only a few grainy photographs remain to tell the tale. In the first, she is dressed in hand-knit blue wool. The smallest living thing, even smaller than the gulls. Her father holds her, his back against the railing, her mother and Agnes to the left. Behind them: deep dark water and stony sky. The porpoises that sometimes surfaced are not surfacing. The whales that sometimes arched smoothly over the waves are not worrying the water’s fractal plaintiveness. Other photographs are notable for what is absent: her mother, who was the photographer, only appears at the beginning of this story, for the family portrait, then disappears.

The steaming boat eventually harbored. There were long hours on land in a car, north, then south again, down the peninsula to Soldotna, named (some said) after the Russian word soldat for soldier. A small city on the Kenai River known for its salmon and halibut fishing, and as a gas and bathroom break on the way to Homer.

Outside town was the homestead of her father’s grandmother, Agnes, her sister’s namesake, who had died the previous summer. Three rooms with a woodstove and running well water. A small garden with raspberries and a weedy patch of Sitka strawberries. An acre of woods. Her mother made the beds with felted-wool and down blankets. The cast-iron pans and chipped china came with the house. Her father hung a rope swing for her sister from the tallest tree. Her mother started seeds in the greenhouse. The aspen and birch were just opening up, shuddering off the cold.

 

Have you ever drowned in one way or another?

I have experienced deep depressions in my life that felt like drowning. Particular years stand out: 14, 16, 19-23. Those were all dark years when it was difficult to keep breathing.

 

What was your favorite water body as a child and how did you engage it?

I spent the first ten years of my life in Alaska, at the delta of the Kenai River and Cook Inlet. Cook Inlet is part of the northern Pacific, and I think it had the most influence on my mental and spiritual geography. I loved going to the beach with our dogs, having weenie roasts over a fire on the shore, hunt for shells or agates. I loved it, but I also knew to be afraid of it. The ocean will chew you up and spit you out—it just happens to be ravishingly beautiful about it.

My mother dated a science teacher for a while who had a daughter, Elsa, who was about my age, nine or ten. One day in late winter—almost spring—he took us girls down to a beach on Cook Inlet where a geologist friend of his was working out of a little trailer next to the bluff. The tide was out and there were icebergs marooned all over the beach. I don’t think I had spent any time on the beach in winter before, and I didn’t realize that ice floes and icebergs could get beached like that. It was a magical scene: the gray waves pummeling away out toward the horizon; the colony of gigantic icebergs squatting on the shore like huge ice sculptures, like ice shacks, like a village. Elsa and I went flying over the beach toward them. We licked them, we picked at them, and of course, we climbed them. Its wind was biting cold and wet. Eventually Elsa’s dad called us to the trailer for cocoa and we blithely skipped inside. We made cocoa on a paraffin stove and were burning our mouths on it when I looked out the little aluminum trailer window. The tide had come in—had been stealthily creeping toward us the entire time—and was carrying off our icebergs like they were made of Styrofoam.

I’ve never underestimated the ocean again.

 

After watching this video “Water, Consciousness & Intent: Dr. Masaru Emoto,” how is water connected to your consciousness? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAvzsjcBtx8

I crave the ocean. Last summer I started taking my son to the beach almost weekly, even though it’s almost a two-hour drive each way. Everything became lighter, faced with the ocean. Nothing carried the weight I felt before I was there. We would wander the beach for hours, the rhythm of the day set for us like a metronome. Being on tidal time is something akin to being in dream sleep. They call our brains’ energy patterns “waves” for a reason, and I’d like to think it’s because that movement is elemental to us.

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Lady in the House Questions: Alexis Smith

Statis

by Seema Reza

Le Chatelier’s Principle: If a chemical system at equilibrium experiences a change in concentration, temperature, volume, or partial pressure, then the equilibrium shifts to counteract the imposed change and a new equilibrium is established. This is optimism: seeing everything, everything wrong. Seeing it all entirely. And then, very carefully, choosing not to see it anymore. Choosing instead to find beauty, to let the worst fade from focus, to shift to accommodate the unavoidable disappointments and changes in order to find balance. It is the way of the natural world. Necessary. Dangerous.

Such optimism is essential to existence in a place as poverty stricken and precariously positioned as Dhaka, Bangladesh. In 1971, East Pakistan divorced West Pakistan in a bloody civil war. East Pakistan ­­­­became Bangladesh. The majority of the country’s economic activity was agricultural then—fishing and farming—businesses and lives were tied to the tempers of the rivers crisscrossing the land on their paths to the Bay of Bengal. The people have tired of this relationship, so they migrate, 400,000 each year, to Dhaka city. Dhaka’s population density is double that of New York City’s—more than 100,000 people occupy every square mile. People live in commercial high-rises and in dingy, one-room apartments above the markets, in gaudily appointed mansions and in small, family-owned buildings three or four stories high. As the concentration of people in the city grows, so does the city’s volume: the fragile tin and bamboo shacks of slums mushroom and expand the borders of the city. Hopeful migrants work in garment factories and as household help in private homes; they pull bicycle rickshaws and beg in the muddy streets.

During the pre-monsoon, from March to August, the heat is dense and vicious, a physical force. The clouds bear down like a blanket still in place after the fever has broken and the city squirms and looks skyward. Children on the street, old men at roadside tobacco shops and women at tea parties anticipate the rain in every conversation. The monsoon invites the rivers, menacing and necessary as dictators, to encroach on the land, which is on average a mere 6-8 meters above sea level. It will turn the city back into a swamp, and thousands of people will die of water-borne illness, pneumonia, or will simply drown. Slum-dwelling families fish up their floating belongings and wait on drier land. Bangladeshi folk songs praise the beauty of the rain and rivers. The monsoon is a monster, but it is also their savior. For in the height of the monsoon, when curtains of rain are parted daily by an hour or two of intense sunshine, rice crops grow at rates of five or six inches a day, remaining just ahead of the furious, rising water.

I met my husband, Karim, here in Dhaka. He was twenty and I was seventeen.  We fell deep into a desperate, salty sort of love. I loved the way he looked at me and the way heads turned for us as a couple. I loved his dimples and his grace, his cool air in dark designer sunglasses. The Dhaka we inhabited was a series of rooftop parties and bottles of vodka bought on the black market for a middle-class man’s monthly wages. We lifted the hems of our pants and stepped over the muck on our way into posh restaurants. When he punched the windshield of his car in anger, I was scared. But through an optimist’s eye his jealousy proved his devotion; his forgiveness was divine. I saw an instant bridge to the future with him, free of our families, free of religion, independent, adult. We were married within a year and had our first child soon after, our second six years later.

Since then, I have been back with one son or both, with and without Karim. But now, for the first time in twelve years, at twenty-nine years old, I make the eight thousand mile journey entirely in my own company. Karim and the kids remain at our home in Maryland. There is no shoulder to rest my head upon, no children to care for. This visit to my family in Dhaka, a family in which I am a child rather than a mother, is intended to give me a break from cooking, cleaning, kids, and a respite from the tedium of my suburban life. The time apart will renew my marriage.

In a pale green journal with handmade paper pages I have written and illustrated a book for the children to read in my absence. The book begins: When I am flying high over the ocean, you will be warm in your beds. Let’s meet in our dreams and have mushroom soup up in the clouds. After ten or eleven pages of meticulous writing, chronicling how we will stay connected in dreams in spite of distance and differing time zones, I run out of time and have to improvise. I put captions on pages and ask them to illustrate, tuck a Starbuck’s gift card between the blank pages in the back.

The night before my flight, as I haphazardly finish the book, I feel an uncontrolled sense of failure—of unpreparedness and guilt. My suitcase lays open, gifts for aunts and cousins still in shopping bags wait to be packed. Karim offers to help. He asks whether the shoes must be packed beside their mates, if tags should be removed from gifts, if I am sure my mother really needs this or that. Irritated, I snap at him once, then twice, and before I know it, it has spun out of control; he has snapped back and we are up all night. I am pulled into his spiral as he dives into one argument after the other: grievances a decade old follow new accusations of wasteful spending and concerns over my immodest wardrobe choices.

At the airport, I hold the children and weep, smell their heads as if they are newborns. Karim spent the day sleeping while I ran all my last minute errands with the boys in tow. He woke two hours before I had to leave to catch my 9 pm flight. He checks my passport and tickets repeatedly. He moves my laptop from one compartment of my carry-on to another, fusses with the zipper on my suitcase—repenting through care for minutiae. When it is time for me to head toward the plane, I dodge his kiss and glide away down the escalator. By the time my plane touches down in London, I am ready to let go of my anger, to steady myself. I send him a text message from Heathrow to tell him I’ve landed and I remind myself of how lucky I am to have him.

* * * * *

The patchwork of green seen from the sky as the plane descends in Dhaka invites hope—perhaps it’s not as bad as I remembered, perhaps in the three years since my last visit, sweeping changes have been made. The view soon gives way to a swarming cityscape dotted with coconut trees and buildings that were once white, but are now streaked with the brown of pollution and the green of humidity-borne mold.

My luggage is slow to arrive and my parents, aunt and cousins have been waiting behind the metal gate outside the arrivals door for more than an hour. Finally one of my cousins pays a security guard five hundred taka to let him in to see what’s keeping me.  By then I am already rolling my parrot-green suitcase toward the door. There are no refunds on bribes.

My cousins make a big show of putting a garland of orange mums around my neck when I finally come out. They congratulate me on having traveled from America and ask me loudly if I need to use the bathroom. People stare, and our scene becomes louder. I assert that I am very busy and in America we all wear diapers to promote productivity. We laugh harder. The three of them were born and brought up in Dhaka, but have spent the better part of the past ten years studying and working in New England, Canada and Singapore. We appreciate the instant audience afforded by a society in which it is not considered impolite to stare.

* * * * *

Homeostasis is the ability of the body or a cell to seek and maintain a condition of equilibrium or stability within its internal environment when dealing with external changes. All horrors can be absorbed. Even the shock of poverty wears off.  Before this happens, every sight feels like a slug to the chest. It takes more than an hour to travel three miles by automobile in the city at some times of day, and through the windows of the car I watch children carrying babies on their hips. Thirty-six percent of the population in Dhaka is under twelve. Kids tap on my window and beg and wave sheets of cheap stickers that I buy. I watch a child of two or three squat and have a bowel movement on the sidewalk. His mother picks up a green foil potato chip bag from the gutter and wipes him with it and then picks up the feces. Everyday, I cry.

At a point in each trip, my heart begins to encase itself in armor: the working children who serve tea and cold drinks in households I visit socially, the mothers begging for rice to feed their babies, the haggard looking men and women breaking bricks by hand in the hot sun become nearly invisible. I realize the magnitude of the problem, recognize my own limitations and then give up, go about my own business. I talk on the phone or read a novel in traffic. I dip an edge of my cotton scarf in perfume and breathe through it when we pass through an especially malodorous part of the city. I adapt.

Soon, I begin to pick out beauty, find reasons to smile. The flowers, sticky fragrant, arranged in baskets to fan like peacock displays in neighborhood shops on nearly every main street. I admire the painted designs on the backs of bicycle rickshaws, the strings of lights spilling over the sides of wedding halls, the colorful bolts of checkered woven and floral printed fabrics stacked in the markets. I make offerings of paper boxes of milk and foil packages of biscuits to children in the street to ease my conscience, and feel good about what I’ve done. This skin of optimism is thin, permeable.  I go shopping with my mother and am suddenly faced with a child of nine or ten, the same age as my older son, pulling antiques from a case and presenting them to me. I smile and ask whether he goes to school.  His smile fades, and I realize I have embarrassed him. My chest constricts.

* * * * *

My mother has the smiling, dimpled, childlike confidence and self-assurance that come from being loved and believing in her beauty. Her only nod to vanity is black hair-dye—and even that she often forgets to do. She has left us behind, reversing her forty-year migration to the United States to retire and return to the city of her childhood. She has traded beloved indulgent weekends with her grandchildren and daily conversations with her daughters for an apartment across the hall from her octogenarian mother and stepfather, who suffers from dementia. In Dhaka, she is ‘grandmother’ to a group of the city’s poorest children. They attend a need-based school, only the least fortunate are accepted. They are mostly fatherless children whose mothers work as washerwomen and prostitutes. In addition to a traditional education, they receive lessons in hygiene. Each child bathes in the morning upon arrival at school. Signs posted around the open courtyard of the one-story building read “Don’t spit” and “Wear shoes” in Bengali and English. With their uniforms they receive a bag of rice, a bag of sugar, and a can of cooking oil for their families each month. My mother adds the fun. She takes them on trips to amusement parks and treats the whole school to ice cream and coke. She kisses and hugs them and remembers their names as well as she can.

She says she loves it here in Dhaka; that she is finally home. In her time in America, she sought out hard to find tropical flavors: squash greens, dried mango, fiery little green chilies. She ate rice everyday. Here in Dhaka, she bakes cupcakes and signs up for an Italian cooking class at the American Embassy Club. She asks me to bring cake mixes and tubs of icing in my suitcase. Now Duncan Hines tastes like home.

She asks about Karim and the children daily. I tell her the highlights: Karim’s promotion, Ali’s wisdom, Omar’s clever mischief. She can sense something is not right, and she is nearly always by my side. She sleeps with an arm over me in the giant bed she brought in a shipping container from America, and wakes me with a cup of tea. She reminds me to call Karim, to email him, wonders how he’ll feel about this or that. I try to respond evenly. But when I come out of the bedroom after a harrowing long-distance telephone conversation with Karim, she sees my face and I tell her, “I don’t think I can do this. He is so unhappy.”

I have spent my time in Dhaka basking in her confidence and regaining my own. I have stopped taking the anti-depressant I begged the psychiatrist for in an effort to save my marriage. I have laughed and been easy to be around. For a brief moment, my mother forgets the professional photograph hung on her wall of Karim and me, posed in an embrace, left hands clasped, the wedding bands we nearly forgot to wear reflecting the studio lights.  She forgets, and she says, “No, no.  You can’t live like this.  You can’t go on this way.”

To her, divorce is the worst thing that can happen to anyone. Her own experience as a child of divorce, over half a century ago, still haunts her. It is the reason she is still married to my father. It is the reason she immediately takes back her words.

“Try counseling,” she says.  “Try something.”

* * * * *

Newton’s First Law of Motion: Every body remains in a state of rest or uniform motion unless acted upon by an external unbalanced force. There are times when radical change just cannot be avoided. For Bangladesh, that time came in 1970, when unrest over the lack of Bangla representation in the Pakistani government was compounded with fury over the lag in the government response time to the ferocious Bhola Cyclone, which hit in November of that year. Over half a million people were killed, crops were destroyed, and villages were leveled.  Bangladesh went into its fight for liberation wounded. And she paid, with self-destruction and the virtue of her daughters and the lives of her sons. She stood shakily triumphant, blinking in the light—she had never maintained her own economy or governed herself. But she had reclaimed her identity, and had hope for her future.

My grandmother is in love. She is no optimist. To her, nearly everyone is an asshole—just wait and they’ll prove it. But with her husband, she is sweet and trusting.  More so since his dementia has begun to steadily march across their life.  He reaches for her hand and she allows him to take it, embarrassed by the show of affection, but pleased to be one of the few he truly remembers. She has withdrawn. She was never a loud person—her voice trembles and squeaks when pushed to high volume and even her laughter is a nearly silent heaving. She covers her face with the loose end of her sari and shakes, emitting only the high-pitched intake of her breath, as though she might be sobbing—though she would never show sorrow so plainly. When the family gathers and conversation and laughter reach a crescendo of absurdity, each of us talking over the others, she stands up and shuffles away, the black border of her white sari hovering two inches above the ground.

I bring her TED talks to watch. She was a psychology professor at Dhaka University, and I’ve downloaded the lectures of Philip Zimbardo, Michael Sherner, and Dan Gilbert. They speak on the human capacity for evil, strange beliefs, and happiness. Morning after morning she half-watches, folding and unfolding her hands, adjusting the large glasses that magnify her already large eyes, crossing and uncrossing her ankles.

“Hmm.  Very interesting,” she says.

In fact, nothing seems to interest her. We make conversation over tea. She is careful to ask after Karim and the children; I remember to ask after her knees and heart. But the real conversation, when we arrive at it, is both less material and more concrete.  She asks me why I do not believe in God and what I do believe. I tell her I’m okay without knowing, that I can live without heaven if it means I can discard hell. She is religious; she prays regularly, a collection of prayer beads hangs on a hook on her bedroom wall. My step-grandfather is an atheist, but she can no longer ask these questions of him.

As the man my grandmother loves slowly recedes, she has more time to reflect on the man she didn’t love. My biological grandfather was a taboo topic when I was a child, broached only when my mother and her two sisters, one older and one younger, thought all the kids were asleep. In the darkened room we shared on our summer vacations in Dhaka, out of the earshot of my grandmother, they compared memories and updates acquired through the Dhaka grapevine. In the daylight, they pretended to feel no loss, pretended so well, in fact, that many of my cousins can recall the electric shock of the exact moment they found out that our grandfather was not a biological relation.  Even today, in spite of its twelve million people, the Dhaka of the English-speaking upper class is a relatively small town. In the early 1960s, it was smaller, more like an extended family. My grandparents’ divorce and my grandmother’s subsequent remarriage was a big deal. To quash any femme fatale accusations, my grandmother dressed in widow’s white after her divorce. The austerity of her dress and the smooth neatness of her bun are juxtaposed by her partiality to things that sparkle: she wears a diamond ring on every finger, a large round-cut stone perches on her nose, clusters of diamonds drag her earlobes down.

My grandmother does not forgive. People who show her disloyalty are removed from her life. Upon their divorce, she systematically removed her children’s father from every aspect of their lives and her own. At the beginning, she allowed their daughters to spend occasional afternoons with him, but when they returned home, she berated them for accepting the gifts he gave them. She told them that his mistress would be their stepmother and would beat them and torture them.  Soon my mother and her sisters, terrified, refused to visit him. When he remarried, my grandmother returned the jewelry she had received at their wedding by having it delivered in a dramatic display at his wedding reception and stopped speaking of him. Now my grandmother talks about her ex-husband openly and bitterly. She asks, “How many people can say they have been married to a true pervert?  I can!” And we shake with laughter.

In Bangladeshi culture, family ties and lineage are the foundation of one’s identity. While the caste system has no official place in an Islamic society, the successes of ancestors increase social standing and make young men and women more marriageable. Regardless of class, people meeting for the first time will ask one another, where is your home? The question does not refer to one’s current address—that question, where do you stay— is far less telling. Your home is the village that your paternal ancestry can be traced to. The divorce was an amputation for my mother and aunts.

* * * * *

When my three weeks in Dhaka are up, I feel renewed. For a few weeks, I am unflappable, a superwoman. I cook the children’s favorite foods and reorganize the closets. I apply for jobs, plan a future for myself, have nights out with friends.  I tell the psychiatrist to forget the pills. I tell Karim,  “It’s not me.  I’m happy when you’re not around.”

But the inertia returns, a force of its own. “He’s not so bad,” I tell myself. “He never breaks a bone or blacks an eye.” I remind myself that I am difficult to live with, that it’s my fault as much as his. “Nobody’s perfect.”

We struggle along, presenting our offbeat perfection to the outside world as we always have. We play our parts: I am silly, childlike, spoiled; while he’s serious, accomplished, caring. We are beautiful together. We wear hip clothes to Ali’s basketball games in a middle school gymnasium, and sit with Omar between us and cheer. We take the kids to nice restaurants and collect praise about their behavior from the wait-staff and other patrons.  Months pass.

* * * * *

One day my friend accuses Karim of making advances toward her.

When I confront him he denies it, says it was she who made the advances, and he who rebuffed them. I decide that the three of us should have this conversation in one place, together.

We meet in a park on a Sunday afternoon and they each tell their own side of the story, ladies first. When it is his turn, she interrupts his narrative, shouting, “Don’t lie!”

He turns to her, fists balled; features hard and sharp like a wooden mask.  I know this face and quickly stand between them.

“What are you going to do?”  She asks confidently.  “Hit me?”

She is one of my closest friends. But she doesn’t know. The key to equilibrium is absorption. Everything must be dissolved into the solution, stirred and warmed. If you say something aloud, it never goes away. And when Karim reaches his arms around me and pushes her by the neck, the solution becomes over-saturated. It is no longer liquid at all. It is another thing entirely, solid, concentrated. This is the point from which I cannot return, the point at which internal stability can no longer be maintained, and I am forced into motion.

Statis

Into the Wine-Dark Sea of Self: A Conversation With Amina Cain and Veronica Gonzalez-Peña

HER KIND: In her poem “Summer X-Rays,” Nina Cassian tells us: “That’s why I swim so far out,/ willing prisoner/ inside the sea’s immense green magnifying glass.” What draws you to the water? How far are you willing to swim and why?

 

 

AMINA CAIN: My mother tells me that when I was two years old, she couldn’t keep me from the water. She would set me down on the beach and before she knew it, I was in the waves trying to go further than a two year old should. I had very few fears as a child and I loved the water, as many children do. I love it still. I am always trying to decide which I like best—ocean, river, or lake—but I can’t. The ocean is immense, yes, but you can float down a river for a very long time, and in a cold climate a lake’s waves freeze in winter. Today, on the first day of summer, I think I would choose to swim in a river. The Yuba, in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

I like to think that I’m willing to swim to the ends of the earth, but the truth is that I have a relationship to fear now. There are ways in which I block myself. But there are also ways in which I feel free. I am freest in summer, more myself. I think water has something to do with that. Water is healthy; swimming is healthy. Cassian writes: “I’m still able to recognize a perfect day.”

Is it bragging to say that I think I know what swimming far out feels like? I have felt it in my movements, and in my relationships with other people (I love how far you can go with another person) and myself (I love how far you can go with yourself), and in my writing. To temper this are the ways in which I have been very held back. I think that those moments of going far into something made me a writer, or at least they take up the same space as my writing. It may be that I write partly to be in that space. It is one way to get there. I am probably slightly addicted to it, to heightened experiences (this is what swimming far out is often like for me). But I am also made happy by the simplest of things.

Veronica, I just finished your new novel, The Sad Passions, and the sense for me of reading it was almost total immersion. I think you are able to show what swimming far out is like, swimming out with one’s fears. Feeling them and swimming anyway. Being set in front of the ocean. The water is there, so the question is not do I swim, or how far, but, what is swimming like? What will I encounter “inside the sea’s immense green”? And the sisters’ (and mother’s) voices/chapters do become like waves; they return and crash upon the narrative.

There’s a passage toward the end of the book—in Julia’s final chapter—that reads: “I know what limitlessness is. It was during that year that I saw it in Claudia. I know what not stopping feels like, what not having an outline is, a boundary, an inside, which ends at the edges. I know what not having edges is. I have seen it, that lack of line.” This is the other side of the coin, the other side of swimming far out into the sea. It’s not a place one can live in all of the time.

 

VERONICA GONZALEZ-PEÑA: I think that I swim because I have to … and I am not brave; I don’t go far out. I respect those primal forces, fire and sea, and I like safety; I like to feel myself in some place of control; I envision myself a coward, a scaredy-cat… this is my vision of myself, though when I step outside myself a bit I know it is not true. I am constantly doing things that would terrify other people – this book for instance, The Sad Passions. But it is not a choice for me; it is not as if I do things because I am brave, or feel heroic. I don’t choose to be these things. I feel myself a coward who does what she does because she must. I am already in the middle of the ocean and I have to swim hard, hard to try to find my way back to land. And I can’t say what drives me, either. I am not someone who does things with a plan in hand. I don’t say, I’m going to write a terribly dark novel, or teach myself a new skill, or go far and wide. I like doing and so I do and do and do, I am making films now too, in addition to my fiction, and working on this collaborative project called Rockypoint through which I make prints with writers and artists, and through which too I ran a reading series in LA.

Right now, I am on the road, sitting in a motel 6 with my cat and my dog. My cat has just gone to the bathroom, and the whole room stinks. I have left a very comfortable life and am moving from LA to NY. Not for a job, not for anything concrete, just because I am compelled to; it is like I have to do it. Like writing. Like all these other things I do. But in actual water, in the ocean, say, I am never one to tempt the waves. I do not go far into it at all. I am afraid of that immense space… the wine dark sea… how it may take me over, bring me down and into itself. I respect primeval forces.

I am listening to the Odyssey on my drive across the sea that is Middle America. Ian McKellen’s recording of it – it is just gorgeous, and of course the ocean, the sea and water are everywhere. People are constantly crying too – the warriors weep all the time, into the ocean itself sometimes, and their blood is everywhere, all that aqueous substance. The wine dark sea of self.

In The Sad Passions, Julia says she is afraid of limitlessness, says she knows what boundarylessness is… her mother is mad, so this is her experience of that space that is not a defined space at all because there is no outline. And that limitlessness which can be such a romantic aspiration for some, for her is a terrifying and tragic reality.

But, Amina, I’ve been looking at I Go To Some Hollow again, with our discussion in mind, and your writing, your stories are so full of water. It is everywhere, from the very first. People going to the water, staring at the water, swimming in it, floating, in pools and rivers and the ocean; it is everywhere. All this water is set up as a kind of counterpoint to fire, and barren land. Can you talk a little about this, both as symbol and in the actuality of these primal forces: the barren land (yesterday I drove through Utah) and the sea. How do those two things play off of each other in your own internal landscape, and then in your writing?

 

AC: I relate to that completely: moving to a place because you just have to, because you are driven towards it. That’s what moving to LA was like for me. I was pulled there, kind of inexplicably. And I knew my time in Chicago was over. Driving across the U.S. is like a kind of ocean. The vastness, but also the weird depths. There is something to sink into in that huge swath of landscape that’s always changing. Sometimes your own self.

Landscape has always been important to me, both physically/psychically in my life, and also in a story. When I write something new I often start with land, or at least a kind of atmosphere, usually a place I want to spend time in somehow, either because I crave or miss it. Maybe I passed through once and I couldn’t stay, didn’t have enough hours. Lately, I’ve been combining landscapes. In the novella I’ve started writing: an imaginary France-Brazil coupled with an imaginary Los Angeles.

When I was a baby, our house burned down. Heat is a purifier. I don’t know how to stop it from being a kind of purification in my fiction too. As with bodies of water, when I go to the spa in winter I can never decide which kind of heat I like best: the dry sauna or the wet one. There is something to the sensation of sweating everything out, but I also like the subtle way dry heat pulls out the toxins. I guess I need both, and when I’m at the spa I take turns with each, several times in a row.

When I drove through Utah, I felt very alive and happy. Maybe I’ll never live in Utah, but some part of me wants to inhabit places like that in my stories. I like when everything seems empty; I like when it’s still warm at night. Something this simple is enough to get me writing. In my stories, I think I just go towards what I need and crave, and this means I take myself to these bodies of water and land.

In your novel, Claudia wanders outside her hotel room in Acapulco, looking for her husband M. and she sees a falling star. At first it’s just Claudia and the sky and her fear. Then the ocean is there, moving in that landscape too. “I stopped and made a wish, though I was very frightened, my heart racing, because I believe you must, you must take a wish that is offered to you. And as soon as I had made my wish I registered the crashing waves, loud, hard, and black and loud as they are on the Pacific. I watched their dark violence play itself out upon the soft white shore . . .” When I read this passage it stuck with me, partly because of how beautifully it describes the complexity of an ocean and what our feelings toward it might be in different kinds of moments, but also because of the way it comes alive in that scene, comes alive in that sentence. When I read your writing and in the times I’ve heard you read it out loud I’m struck by how your sentences gather their power and then by how whole chapters do as well. Do you like sentences? I mean, as writers, I imagine we all like them, but in the same way that the ocean becomes present in the middle of fear and a star filled sky, I find a sentence written by you to bring a thing into existence and then another thing and another all along itself. There is a way to travel not just from one sentence to the next, but right inside one of them. There is a way to swim far out. This is gratifying.

 

VGP: I’m obsessed with sentences. With rhythm, with the way things build. I love repetition, and patterns, and hiding things inside of other things. I can live inside a sentence by Henry James, or one by Sebald, or Josef Skvorecky who wrote this incredible novella full of unbelievable sentences, Emoke, or HD (who writes about fire beautifully). Or Flaubert, the way his sentences can negate themselves with one semi colon. Nabokov writes about this in his Lectures on Literature. The way one of his sentences will build and build through clauses; and then a semi-colon and the negating clause which undoes all that went before. It is perverse, almost, and I like that sort of thing… the way that Jean Rhys makes things happen in her sentences too, the dense poetry of them. They do get very complicated sometimes, my sentences, I love layering so I can lose control of them sometimes, and then I have to double back and make them work. This can take a long, long time, but that is what I find gratifying, to use your term – that wrestling with language that ends up giving you something. I like it so much I want to give it to my reader, that gift, a sentence you have to untangle, the pleasure and sense of satisfaction you get from something like that… For me it is all about sentences, not words necessarily. I’ll sacrifice a word for a sentence – I won’t sacrifice a sentence for anything else, not for a paragraph, not for plot, not for character. I work toward making as perfect a sentence as I can; I don’t struggle for the perfect word in the same way. But we’re all so different. I’m sure there are people wanting to kill me over that statement, how stupid, they must think. But I chalk it up to difference, and to pleasure. Sentences are my pleasure. And a series of good sentences, when the rhythm builds to a pitch – that is just beyond…

But Amina, I want to talk to you about the floating sensibility of your characters who are so often there and not there at once – this I associate with water, the ocean mainly, as it is so symbolic a body of water, huge and unknowable, like our very selves. Your characters are often trying to feel or make themselves felt, as if floating on the surface of life. Sometimes they say this directly, express it, their need to be felt, their need to feel; it is as if they don’t quite know they are there at all, like a dream. It is almost as if through the meticulous narration – because your narration is slow and careful and meticulous –  they are trying to explain themselves to themselves. Sometimes the stories have a  dream logic, as in Black Wings where a pilot is suddenly present in an important role, as interlocutor (I imagine him wearing his pilot hat, his pilot’s coat). Other times the stories exist more fully in that dream world, as in Homesteading; yet other times they inhabit our logic, but still feel floaty and somehow slow and surreal – like being in deep water. How do you do this? I keep trying to figure it out. It is not any one element, and, as I said, your narration and attention to detail are meticulous, so how do you achieve that sense of swimming which feels like suspension in water, deeply pleasurable, but so untethered we might float away at any moment?

 

AC: That makes sense to me, that you find such enjoyment in sentences and in the way they build upon each other through rhythm to a pitch. I know I mentioned to you that after hearing you read last month here in L.A. for your book launch, well, I didn’t really want it to end. I felt pitched into something, something not easy to come down from, like when I’ve just watched a film and then it’s hard to walk out of the theater afterwards, into the actual day, or night. The same with reading The Sad Passions. When I finished it, I missed it. I had gotten used to going into the landscape of it, everyday, and also the landscape of those sentences. Interestingly, right now, writing back and forth with you, having this conversation, is affecting my own sentences! I realize I am at times going further into them myself.

It’s fascinating to me what different writers gravitate to in their work. I have always thought that though I’m a writer, it’s not language I’m drawn to when I’m working on my stories—more than that, it’s image. Sometimes fictional situation. And always atmosphere/setting. Plot has never been important to me. Character, I’m not sure, but certainly the relationships between characters. And definitely narrative and voice. So much can be carried in the voice, a swimming out. I think that when plot is not the thing holding a fictional work together then other kinds of scaffolding can emerge, perhaps dreamlike. I don’t plan anything out either, relying instead on my subconscious. That’s probably where some of the floating sensibility comes from. I write to see what is inside my mind—a bit like meditation. But I think in Creature, which will be coming out in the fall, I have been trying to get closer to feeling, and closer to closeness itself, and to understanding another, instead of that distance I have so often mined. Not that one is better than the other, just that these kinds of proximities are important to me right now.

I have to say: I very much want to see the film you just made!

 

VGP: I’m glad you appreciate that sense of rhythmic space I create within my writing – or work to create, anyway. I want the reader to feel submerged in the musicality of the book, to feel so deeply in it that it is as if they must come up for air sometimes. To feel as if they are swimming in it. The films are not as weighty. I made the first one as a relief from the book, which had been so solitary and deep and intense, and so I wanted to work collaboratively, which was a joy. The film is visually poetic, and slow, though it is narrative too, and hopefully it is moving; but it is not of the same deeply immersive intensity as my writing. Sylvere Lotringer plays my daughter’s grandfather in it! This I love. The title comes from something he says to her character about death: Death is like a shadow…. I’m making a new one now, with Michael Silverblatt; and Chris Kraus and Hedi El Kholti are in it too. It’s about a young poet Michael is concerned about, and a young poet plays that part; I’m not really interested in working with actors, but rather in making things happen with the people who are a part of my life, my sphere of interest. I want you to see the completed one! We’ll do that.

It is clear that atmosphere is your main concern. It is amazing, really, how you are able to create it in such a minimal/minimalist way. There is a sense of indirectness between characters and situations, and although your characters work hard to explain things to themselves, they never quite get at things – this is part of this sense of atmosphere, I think, the living inside a space that is thick and weighty and as I’ve repeatedly said, dream-like, that they seem to not be able to move out of, even through their meticulous attention to detail, and language, and careful attentiveness to each other. We sense they are working toward an intimacy that is at one remove from them. They have affairs that aren’t satisfying, friends they love deeply but can’t tell, the children, even, seem careful in these stories. And we are never quite sure why this is, even though they try to tell us, try to tell themselves to us, and it feels almost as if all these things they do in the world are part of the telling, in the service of the telling that will come. In And Went Inside the narrator tells us, Often I imagine things too soon. Sometimes I begin while the thing is still happening.

I’m in NY now, in my new apartment, and of course I am still thinking about the Odyssey. When Odysseus reaches Ithaca, he still has many tests he must endure. He knows this going in, the gods tell him it will be this way. He enters Ithaca a liar; he has to obfuscate the facts in order to save himself. And then for many books he is constantly lying, even to Penelope, and Telemachus, telling stories about himself to others through the voices he takes on, I believe he is still alive, he tells both his wife and his son at different moments, referring to himself in the third person. I think this is something all storytellers share – a telling of the self through the stories we tell, and of course I don’t mean this directly, as autobiography, but something deeper, more decentered and thus more deeply moving. What are you telling us about story telling through your work, and about yourself as a teller of stories?

 

AC: Regarding Death is like a shadow, I really like the idea of working not with actors, but with the people who are already significant in your life. My good friend Laida Lertxundi, also a filmmaker, does something similar. Sometimes she drives out to a space—like the desert—and part of shooting the film, I think, is spending time with the people who are with her there in that specific space. They are making a film, but they are also having an experience together, inhabiting something, and that experience comes into the work very strongly. Laida’s films are not driven by narrative, but they are in relationship to it, and I’m always interested in how one can be in proximity with something without going through the front door of it, if that makes sense. Connecting this back to writing: a story with a relationship to character, for instance, without centering the story there.

I like the way Odysseus refers to himself in third person. I believe he is still alive. If anything, I think of storytelling as a way to get close to experience. Can I somehow let the reader swim out into that space too? There are things that have affected my life so profoundly that I think I have wanted to be near them again, either because of how pleasurable they were, or painful; either way, I have wanted to share them. I have wanted to be in conversation.

What kind of storyteller are you?

 

VGP: A lost storyteller, always searching. I feel I am always lost, like I don’t know things I should and so I tell to figure those things out, or to at least attempt to approach. I am always searching. And this can be hard for others… I am always pushing further, asking questions, too many questions, and I am sure that sometimes I am just too much…

 

AC: I’m glad for that answer, Veronica, for how honest it is. I think I’m trying to figure things out too. Thank you for having this conversation with me.

 

Amina Cain is the author of I Go To Some Hollow (Les Figues Press, 2009) and the forthcoming CREATURE (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2013). She is also a curator, most notably for the literature/performance/video festivals Both Sides and The Center at the MAK Center/Schindler House in Los Angeles (with Teresa Carmody) and When Does It or You Begin? Memory as Innovation at Links Hall in Chicago (with Jennifer Karmin). She lives in California.

Veronica Gonzalez-Peña is the author of twin time: or, how death befell me, which won the Premio Aztlán Literary Prize in 2007. She is also the founder of Rockypoint Press, which produces a series of artist-writer collaborations. Her new novel, The Sad Passions, will be out June 2013, on semtiotext(e).

Into the Wine-Dark Sea of Self: A Conversation With Amina Cain and Veronica Gonzalez-Peña

First Summers of Mischief: Round 1

Thank you to everyone who submitted. Here is our first round of First Summers of Mischiefs.

Not 19.
By Sara Gilbert

Everything I told anyone about that summer was wrong. Maybe I learned how to lie the year I was not nineteen (I would say later I was nineteen, as if I could warp time, move my birthday around just for one summer). I lied about how I was still a virgin, but I wasn’t, I had sex in the second-floor apartment of a man whose name I’d never remember; even though I had a boyfriend who was kind and took things slow and was even, almost, an Olympic triple jumper; I slept with that man on a blanket over a parquet floor on 18th and Hawthorne and none of it was good.

 

Vertigo
By Rebecca Kelley

They say it’s one of the deepest lakes in the world, and the coldest. The water is so clear it’s like there’s nothing there, nothing to stop you from hurtling from the dock to the lake’s floor, ten stories down.

I wanted to step off the dock. If I were a true believer, I’d do it: I would walk on water. They would look up from their Bibles to see me, striding across the lake like Jesus.

Every night I prayed my parents would get back together. This seemed like something He would get behind.

I didn’t jump. But I kept on praying, long after I knew no one was listening.

 

First Trip
By Valerier Wagner

Summer. Sixteen. Tripping on Orange Sunshine. We wandered the beach, footprints making paisley patterns. We made angels in the sand. I felt each granule massage me and shuddered with rushes of whole-body orgasms. In the lake, we splashed colors of rainbow prisms and laughed. I twirled and swirled my hands, making multiple images in the air. “Look!” and “Oh, wow!” is all I said. We stayed until night spread black and stars came out. Silently watching. I imagined somewhere on some distant planet, another girl, like me, staring back in wonder. Our minds met. We spoke without words. In joy. Knowing. Everything is connected, intertwining, moving; changing without end. Timeless.

 

Dear James,
By River Wolton

do you remember that Ladakhi bus roof clinging to straw bundles, the road back from a monastery gasping through thin air into a dark room with a blue-eyed buddha and rancid butter lamps where we gave the monks red rupee bills, grimy and stained like hands that have been working soil, for we’d come white-skinned to this fable-land, glazed from smoking spicy sheets of black, we laughed until our gums and teeth were bared like wolves, and it’s too stony knowing you are dead these almost-thirty years since sitting in the side chapel of can-you-believe-it Westminster Abbey with all those elevated accents and no one saying heroin?

 

The Weight of Waiting
By Christi R. Suzanne

We wasted time by the gate on an empty dirt road. The wooded hills were thick. Waiting for family and friends. And darkness crept in. Aspen trees shimmered and whispered goodbye. They knew before we did, but we felt it, denied it even when the news came⎯a discontinuation of three lives. We were there to acknowledge the departure from earth, and the wooded hills, as the witness to a blameless accident. A cloudless night under the bright blinking stars and the most I felt was a cold numbness somewhere in my chest that stayed there like a hard shell unable to break. Never breaking. Breaking. Breaking again.

 

Back Pages
By Diane Martin

We could not even agree on which booth to sit in, in that bar that smelled of piss, but that day, when the snow was gone, winter’s melt hanging in the air and stereos playing “Truckin’ ” at maximum volume, we swore we’d live as family, though we didn’t pin it down—Kevin set on a farm in Minnesota, and Emily unable to tolerate being more than a stone’s throw from the ocean; Bobby sitting thigh to thigh with me, but under the crystal-patterned table, holding Kevin’s hand. The pizza came and another pitcher. Summer was short and hot. By October’s first snowflake, we’d split in as many directions as pool balls break.

First Summers of Mischief: Round 1

Lady in the House Questions: Kelli Russell Agodon

What is your relationship to the natural world? And do you bring the natural world into your writing?

As I answer this, I’m looking out my window at a madrona tree with its peeling bark, huge areas of blackberry bramble, and low-growing ferns, all while listening to a crow and eagle have it out somewhere near this cabin on a hill.

Because I live in the Northwest, and particularly in a small rural town where you have to commute by ferry to visit, my relationship with the natural world is intimate. We are more than dating, we are significant others. We see each other regularly. As a mountain biker, I ride deep into the trails of our forests. I never know what I’ll see when I pedal off into nature: some days deer, some days owls, occasionally a black bear. As a paddleboarder, I see the world from atop the water—blue heron and kingfisher above me, flounder and moonsnails below.

In the last year, several writing conferences have asked me to teach classes on “nature writing,” which seemed odd to me because I never considered myself a nature writer. Though looking over my work, it does appear that the landscape has slipped into my writing quite frequently. I guess just as the city writer writes about her urban landscape, I write about mine, which tends to be lush and green and growing.

 

Sketch of a Fig Tree
(forthcoming in Hourglass Museum, published by White Pine Press in 2014)

Halfway through the day with the sun like a halo
over my neighbor’s house, I think about God
and time and if it’s possible to feed my soul with a pen
and ink drawing I saw at a museum by an artist
whose name I didn’t recognize.

Somewhere across the country my house is falling apart,
or maybe it did years ago, returning to my old neighborhood
to realize the streets were never as big as I thought
and the house I lived in was not as nice
as the house down the road, but I was never allowed
to walk that far.

I’m older now and what’s falling apart is the sunset
I try to watch from my office window
where I’m surrounded by books
and it doesn’t matter how much the fog moves in
or if there’s a neighborhood where kids fight

about the color of poppies. I think back to the fig tree

that grew in my yard and how the leaves always reminded me
of being somewhere else or in the middle of a Rousseau painting
where the jungle was a prayer and everything I needed
was above me and all I had to do was reach up,
all I had to do was open my hands.

 

What aspect of human nature are you finding peace with? What are you cultivating?

Instead of “finding peace,” I’ve made peace with people’s belief that being busy is important and that money is worth more than one’s time. These are areas I’ve struggled with and when I see others caught up in a life they aren’t happy with (but not making any changes to improve their lives) I try to find understanding instead of trying to fix everything.

I feel the same way about people who have a lot of promise and talent; it pains me to see writers and artists not taking risks with their art out of fear, or worse, they may even be self-sabotaging possible opportunities. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to stretch myself and do things that make me feel uncomfortable—that is where growth occurs. I want other writers and artists to push themselves as well, but I realize we each make our own decisions and while I may offer suggestions or advice, I know ultimately, we each create our own path and are responsible for our own lives, so I do my best to respect and understand others’ choices.

I’m cultivating creativity, imagination, bravery, and authenticity as best I can.

 

 

What is your understanding of why violence against women is “naturalized” in our culture?

This is a hard question for me to answer because I’m not sure “naturalized” is the word I’d use. Overlooked? Ignored? Forgotten? Not spoken of? Disregarded? For me, “naturalized” implies acceptance and that violence against women has adapted to all conditions in our culture, which I don’t think it has. Our culture has become and is becoming more aware of violence against women and there is outrage. There are pockets in our culture where it happens more and where it happens less, but in all areas there will always be people who speak out against it and there will also be denial or disregard.

As for understanding why violence against women or why it still happens in our culture, that I cannot comprehend.

 

What is your nature’s candy? And why?

The sweet smell of lilacs in early spring because they remind me of Walt Whitman.

Plucking off a blossom of the honeysuckle that winds itself around the treehouse and tasting the nectar.

Strawberries that have stretched from my neighbor’s yard into my yard because it’s always a surprise even though it’s somewhat expected.

Figs picked off the tree in my backyard in August; a luxury in every way.

Blackberries in late summer because the vines that take over my yard, each year, apologize with fresh fruit and I make a wicked blackberry crumble.

 

When do you leave a wall intact, when do you knock it down? 

Most of my walls are down until I lose trust in someone, then I build amazing forty-story creations that can’t be scaled by any amount of words or actions.

I leave walls intact when I can see the benefit of privacy or security.

I knock them down when they are no longer fun to climb.

 

Lady in the House Questions: Kelli Russell Agodon

Swimming the Blank Page: A Conversation with Jessica Soffer and Liz Moore

HER KIND: In her poem “Summer X-Rays,” Nina Cassian tells us: “That’s why I swim so far out,/ willing prisoner/ inside the sea’s immense green magnifying glass.” What draws you to the water? How far are you willing to swim and why?

 

 

JESSICA SOFFER: I’ve never lived in a landlocked state. Couldn’t. I’ve realized that over and over when I’ve spent time elsewhere. In New Hampshire, Vermont, Colorado. I think that has everything to do with being a water baby. My mother dipped me into the ocean in Eastern Long Island very soon after I was born. And my best memories are of summer, of staying in the saltwater until she had to beg me to come out, have something to eat, go home, it was getting dark. When I was young, I think I was drawn to the water because it had everything to do with feeling strong, challenging the waves, and so on. Now I’m drawn to it because it makes me feel small, puts things in perspective, shows me all that I cannot control even if I tried.

 

LIZ MOORE: I was just talking to somebody about why human beings are so calmed by the water. Is it what you say–that it makes us feel smaller, or cradled by something? Is it something about the rhythm of waves? Whatever it is, I feel it too, and I need it more and more as I get older.

My favorite water is a lake, not an ocean–the lake in the Adirondacks on which my grandmother’s house sits. That house has become our family’s second home, and we spend lots of weekends there in the summer, and weeks when we’re lucky. Everything is slowed down when we go there. It’s where I feel closest to being religious. Once, in New York City, I caught a whiff of something that smelled like those trees and that lake and I almost cried. I’m very sentimental about it.

Cassian uses swimming out into the water as a metaphor for pushing your limits as a writer. Do you think it’s a good analogy?

 

JS: Writing metaphors in general scare me. Something happens when people talk about writing in such a figurative way that makes me twitchy. Like, I remember that I should be pushing my limits. Or I should think of writing like driving with headlights. Or. Or. Or. And it sends me into a fit of humility, paralyzes me for as long as I obsess about what I’m not doing, or doing wrong.

I think that every time I write, it’s sort of all I can do–to do it, to do it how I do it. And so on. Not that it’s a struggle, but that something of the magic is lost when you think too much about it. You need freedom. And writing metaphors bind me to my insecurities. And binding and writing don’t mix.

You’re less twitchy. How do you feel about the metaphor?

 

LM: I just re-read the entire poem and now I’m reassessing my initial interpretation of it–I’m not sure Cassian is really writing about writing in this poem (though I guess all writers are always, in a way, writing about writing), but I’ll go with what I mistakenly said, since Freud would tell me I should.

I actually think swimming farther and farther out into the water is a pretty good description of how I feel when I’m writing. For one thing, it conjures an image of a necessary distance from life. Cassian writes about her view: “Far away on the shore: / children shouting, / dogs with golden rings / circling their muzzles, / and rumors of abandoned memories.” That’s great. That’s how I feel when I’m writing well: like I can see everything going on around me with some writerly distance, as if it’s already on the page, as if it’s framed. For another, swimming farther and farther out implies a risk of drowning. When I push myself to go farther and farther out, I always fear failure–but on the other side of that teetering feeling is sometimes my best work. And finally the aloneness of being far out there, that feels like writing too; the sense that one has to distance oneself from others to get to the truth. I am most at home when I’m alone.

Do you think all writers are introverts at heart, even the seemingly extroverted ones?

 

JS: I hear what you’re saying about the teetering. Totally. There’s something about the proximity of failure that has everything to do with that freedom I mentioned/the opposite of anxiety. And I rely on it. I do. But it’s the overthinking that does me in. If I were to imagine that poetic water every day, I wouldn’t be able to compose a thing. Not a thing.

That said, I once wrote a story about saving someone from drowning. It wasn’t subtle enough–but I think writers are plagued by fears of that big open space (wanting to save themselves, or others from it). The blank page–and then maybe the world, its judgments, how much it might be willing to give or not give on any particular day. Maybe I think of the swimming as having as much to do with the process as with the significance of the process, the bigger process. The writer’s life.

As for your extrovert/introvert question: I don’t know if I well enough understand the definitions of either to respond intelligently. (Though I was surprised when the Myers-Briggs test told me that I was an introvert. Again and again and again. I took it five times–and not in close succession–to be sure.) I think what all writers must be is comfortable in their own minds–maybe equally comfortable in a crowd and talking boisterously about their minds–but really comfortable there. Because that’s where everything happens. I think some writers dwell there, some writers can’t leave there, some writers catapult from there at exactly 10am after day after a solid two hours of writing. But what they must believe in, deeply, dogmatically, is going inside, to the interior. They must need it and be motivated by it. Does that make them introverts? Let’s ask Myers. Or Briggs.

Until then, would you mind if we do some imagining (aka being introverts for a second…)? What would your ideal writing space look like? Would it smell like the water, have a view of the water, have a large water cooler or water feature with watertchotchkes?

 

LM: How far-fetched can we get? My ideal space has no internet or cell phone service. To compensate, it has a huge enormous library with old-fashioned but up-to-date World Book encyclopedias. It has a lot of coffee- and tea-making stuff. It has a large supply of recorded instrumental music of various types. It has a kitchen stocked for cooking (which is the best thing to do after a good day of writing). It has friends in other rooms who emerge at the end of the day. To eat the cooking. Yes, there’s a view of the water. But there are no other houses or roads in sight.

 

JS: As long as I can be one of those friends in another room, I don’t find the idea far-fetched at all. I find it brilliant, and necessary.

 

Liz Moore is the author of the novels The Words of Every Song (Broadway Books, 2007) and Heft (W.W. Norton, 2012), along with works of short fiction and creative nonfiction that have been published in print and online in venues such as The New York Times, Tin House, Narrative Magazine, and Ladies’ Home Journal. She is also a professor of writing at Holy Family University in Philadelphia, where she lives. Her third novel is forthcoming from W.W. Norton.

 

Jessica Soffer is a graduate of the MFA program at Hunter, where she was a Hertog Fellow and a recipient of the Bernard Cohen Short Story Prize. A founding editor of The Tottenville Review, she has been published in Granta. She grew up in New York City, the daughter of an Iraqi-Jewish painter and sculptor who immigrated to the U.S. in 1948. Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots is her first book.

 

 

Swimming the Blank Page: A Conversation with Jessica Soffer and Liz Moore

On Westernness & Stories

by Amy Pajewski

I am an alien in a strange and beautiful landscape. I’d been west before on a cross-country road trip as a kid, but I never truly experienced it. After college and graduate school, I landed in the Texas Panhandle—a place of extremes, wicked weather, and where the stars touch the Earth. I live in a poem. Here I am, an Easterner, looking for a way to start a new life—this is the old western myth, and I yearned for it.

My experiences in nature have always felt like a kind of dream-time, a place where I feel most fully human; a phenomenon that occupies a space neither within the body or mind, but in the space between rocks. Feeling alien is nothing new: I always felt like I had more in common with deer and sugar maples than my parents. My first taste of wildness came as an East Coast backyard in Chester County, Pennsylvania. It was about the size of two city blocks wide and latticed with a chicken-wire fence. The dog could flatten himself just so to squeeze through, and I remember digging, hoping to find some new place or some new rock, maybe quartz or limestone. I scrambled around that yard and was always, always sneaking away to Clyde’s Woods to share some fresh honeysuckle with my neighbor-friend. I think that without the foundation of these first stories, these little moments, I couldn’t possibly begin to sow a new story for myself out west—a place that took me in and held tight.

*

The first thing I noticed here in the Palisades is wind. It blows and whips through Palo Duro Canyon, swirls along the red walls, draws dust from hundreds of miles away, and forms halos around the sun. I often imagine how the houses, sun-blasted, receive the dust, fusing to siding—juniper bending, roots grasping dry earth with eagerness. In the semiarid landscape, wind rarely brings rain. Since I moved almost a year ago, my town in the high plains, sitting at 3,543 feer received less than seven inches of moisture. Sometimes, facing east, I can see shelf clouds forming over Oklahoma, and I’m told, if you don’t like the weather, wait three minutes and it’ll change.

*

Just as seasons shift, land-use is in constant flux. As I travel to small Panhandle towns, looking for places to photograph, history to preserve, I find vestiges of the past—oil tanks and gashes in the earth replaced with slick gas lines and lease agreements littering fences. Feedlot cattle lazily meander around the pipes and glance curiously at my lens. Behind the barbed wire on other ranches, you might find Alpine and Nubian ibex, red stag, or even zebra—suited executives visit for the chance to kill something wild, bag a trophy for the wall. But, if you’re lucky, you might also find a rogue pronghorn, a true westerner, behind the wire, gazing through ancient, amber eyes.

Once a year, some of these same ranch owners are invited to the state park that I consider my second home, to hunt the aoudad sheep. These outsiders, this invasive African species, inhabit the same land as me and the mule deer. For about three months, these beautiful sheep eluded me, perfectly camouflaged in the backdrop of canyon-lands, as if native. One late morning while hiking with friends, we traveled to the south side of Palo Duro looking for signs of native settlement—rock art, grind holes, flint. Facing west, we scaled the ridge just when the earth began vibrating. I held my breath, waiting; I could feel the aoudad’s panic and electricity, and could smell their ripeness. As they approached, the prickly pear and sage quaked, dancing with anticipation. Dust rose in a wall and, as if inside a tornado, time slowed, the air cleared. I stood 20 yards away from the stampede and was startled by their beauty. Both male and female, adorned with curled horns, shaggy fur flowing, ran together in a herd of about 12 and skipped up the walls of the canyon, balancing on gaunt, sturdy hooves. I learned they were brought over to be hunted and escaped the fencing expertly only to forge a place of their own in the landscape. I felt home.

I know that as long as I never stop defending beauty, I’ll be able to watch the cottonwoods turn in fall and hike snow-covered canyons in winter. Everyday, this place up here on the caprock teaches me that the world exists under our skins, in our stories. My story of the West is only just beginning, but I’ve started sowing, growing roots, and grasping tight. The future of the West rests on the shoulders of the people and wildlife inhabiting this wild land. Our stories, my stories, provide the foundation, spin the web, hold the dust down.

On Westernness & Stories