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NinaRevoyrMost of your earlier books take place in urban environments and deal with race and culture. What’s with the mountain adventure novel?

I love mountains and wilderness as much as I love the city, and I’m a big fan of adventure and survival stories. When people’s lives are at stake, you get to see who they really are. Besides, questions of race and class don’t disappear when you go from urban settings to rural ones. In some ways, they may even be more heightened.

LostCanyon1-136x200The picture opened on Gwen’s computer, revealing a lake framed by pine trees, a backdrop of snow-covered peaks. A small stream flowed from the lake and when she looked very close, Gwen could almost see the water moving, the clouds drifting over the mountains. She imagined herself in the scene—the warm sun on her skin, the smell of pine—and felt her breathing slow, her shoulders ease. Just for a moment she forgot where she was—in a dingy building on 103rd Street in Watts.

Still

By Sarah Xerta

Poem

When people come to me I want them to feel like they are standing at the edge of a lake. I want to be reflective like that, cool like that, calm like that. When they touch me I want them to feel infinite and not because of me but because of them. I want you to love yourself, why don’t you love yourself, who’s been stopping you all these years?

I study neuroscience and know we are infinite. There are a trillion neural pathways in each of our brains, it’s no wonder we feel lost, it’s no wonder we always find ourselves anyway, blinking up at the light like the children we fear we still are.

We still are.

Funeral_Procession_by_Ellis_WilsonIn August of 2007, our co-worker, Sherri’s, daughter was killed by an ex-boyfriend. He followed her car home, slipped under the arm of the security gate, and then shot her multiple times in her apartment. He went back to the parking lot and killed himself. The complex has them on videotape: Daneel standing her ground, telling him “It’s over, Manny. Go home,” and then walking back up the stairs to her place, Manny in his car, getting his gun from the glove compartment, loading it with bullets kept in the trunk, walking back up to Daneel’s, then back down to his car before putting the gun under his chin. It took him thirteen minutes to die.

Zoom Zoom photo

That’s my life in 2009: my Mazda 3, my new landscaping, my maroon curtains I thought went well against the cream color I’d chosen for the walls of the room downstairs I made into an office. The office my ex-husband (sans ex at the time) used to walk into and spread his arms and say, “Look what I gave you,” and say, “How much money can you contribute this month?” and say, “I’m posting an ad for a stranger/roommate on Craigslist to make up for your lost income.” If you looked through those curtains, you’d see me slumped over my computer, unemployed, drinking my fourth cup of coffee, submitting resumes and/or writing my novel I used to believe in, and/or posting on Facebook and/or feeling depressed about my depression.

The City of Mesa paid us $500 to replace that grass with desert friendly shrubbery. Removing grass is a horror. Annihilate it with chemicals. Wait for it to die. Rip it out by its roots. Cover the ground with black plastic so it can’t push back through. My father-in-law, taking a break from schizophrenia to help with our landscaping project, shoveled the remains of the grass into the back of his white van and drove the dead pieces out to the desert where he dumped them. The same white van he used to park down the street and watch our house in an attempt to catch the kidnappers who’d taken my husband. The same white van he called from asking my husband if he was safe to talk, if he was safe to signal from the window, if he was safe to use code words so the kidnappers didn’t catch on. When we planted the Jacaranda near the walkway, we imagined how beautiful it would look in springtime, how magnificent it might act as shield from the sun. When I left in 2012, the support beams were still in place, holding up that scrawny trunk like two men carrying their drunk friend out of a bar.

imrs

In 2006, I started tutoring the Moorhead sisters twice a week at their charter school on Napoleon Avenue. It was one of the first schools to open after Hurricane Katrina with 319 students enrolled. The Moorhead sisters got to school by city bus. They had evacuated Katrina late – in a rainstorm – and saw the car in front of theirs drive over the spillway. Everyone in it died. Their family had lost their home and they’d relocated to a double on Elysian Fields. Their mom was an RN at Touro Infirmary, but she’d decided to open her own catering business.

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How can I characterize my love for a place I only came to know after its devastation?

I first traveled to New Orleans in 2006 with a group of student volunteers half a year after the failure of the levees. The city never knew I existed until it was undone by Katrina’s storm, when it was ravaged and its insides exposed on national television. My love for this place is the other side of heartbreak, and sometimes the line between the two isn’t so clear. It is a strange kind of attachment, one that comes from seeing destruction, persistent injustice, and, sometimes, resilience.

Through a local grassroots relief organization, my group was sent to work in Violet, Louisiana, a small city in St. Bernard Parish, located east of New Orleans proper. Katrina pushed a twenty-five foot storm surge into St. Bernard, leaving oil-tarnished water with nowhere to drain for weeks. All of the Parish’s homes were declared “unlivable.” I knew little of what to expect, though I understood residents had to clear out the site of their former home to qualify for a FEMA trailer. Our job was to tear everything down, leaving only the bare wooden frame.

I thought I knew the scope of Katrina’s wrath from photos and videos, but looking out the window while driving into St. Bernard Parish for the first time brought the reality into razor-sharp focus. It was seven months after Katrina and all the traffic lights were still broken along the four-lane road into town. There were virtually no other cars and certainly no people walking down the street. No businesses were open. We passed a gas station where the typical T-shaped roof had completely toppled over, its legs folded and buckled. I saw rusting cars in the grassy median and a motorboat in a ditch by the curb. A small wooden house with light blue siding lay off its foundation in the middle of the street. Even the most iconic American corporation didn’t survive, the golden double arches of McDonalds bent into an unrecognizable shape. As we drove deeper into St. Bernard, the accumulated mountains of trash and debris grew larger, more sinister: couches, tree stumps, broken furniture, refrigerators, mattresses, and entire chunks of wall and insulation.

Roll it into a log
Get it wet
Place it at the base of a tree
It will grow mushrooms
I know this because it is a mushroom poem
And because my cat fights herself in the dark
Like my father did in prison
My father said that is all you can in prison

I can do anything now
Because this is my mushroom poem
This may not make sense to you
But the sky doesn’t make sense to me
And I don’t come down to where you work
Asking stupid questions about the sky

SusanBarker_Credit Derek Anson (small)So, a self-interview… this is odd isn’t it?

Very.

 

Well, let’s start at the beginning. What’s your novel about?

A taxi driver in Beijing, who finds a letter from an anonymous sender in his cab, informing him that he’s had several past lives.

 

Past lives? Like, reincarnation?

Yes, the letter writer claims that the taxi driver, Wang Jun, has lived before as:

1. A eunuch during the Tang dynasty.

2. A slave during the invasion of Genghis Khan

3. A concubine of the Emperor Jiajing during the Ming dynasty

4. A fisherboy during the Opium War

5. A student during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution

The letter writer then sends the taxi driver more letters – stories about these turbulent past lives.

9781501106781Chapter 1

The First Letter

 

Every night I wake from dreaming. Memory squeezing the trigger of my heart and blood surging through my veins.

The dreams go into a journal. Cold sweat on my skin, adrenaline in my blood, I illuminate my cement room with the 40-watt bulb hanging overhead and, huddled under blankets, flip open my notebook and spill ink across the feint-ruled page. Capturing the ephemera of dreams, before they fade from memory.

I dream of teenage girls, parading the Ox Demons and Snake Ghosts around the running tracks behind our school. I dream of the tall dunce hats on our former teachers’ ink-smeared heads, the placards around their necks. Down with Headteacher Yang! Down with Black Gangster Zhao! I dream of Teacher Wu obeying our orders to slap Headteacher Yang, to the riotous cheers of the mob.

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When I meet the father of my children, he is muscled and brown-skinned with freckled shoulders from swimming in the ocean in the midday California sun. I am a protozoan. Soft and open. Absorbing everything. When I change, we change. This pattern will repeat. By the time our children are born, my husband is shaped like the Buddha. I don’t mind the change in his shape. He doesn’t mind the change in mine. There are other things that will come between us and end us, but the shape of our bodies is inconsequential. Later there would come the confusion of how my body would be regarded as it aged, what my shape would telegraph to the next person who loved me. When our marriage ends, I am lean and shrewd. An apex predator.

n.jackson_headshotJust before your debut novel was published, someone told you that Bhanu Khapil refers to creative projects are “a complete gesture.” Is yours?

Ah, the kindness of strangers and friends. I’ve been lucky enough to receive both recently. Hearing about Khapil’s notion of “a complete gesture” was helpful when I was struggling to let the book go and let readers and the world do with it as they will. I wouldn’t call myself a perfectionist, but I do have high standards for myself and my writing. Which means that I’m still making corrections to the book as I’m reading it aloud from it these days, even though it’s already printed and between hard covers. Some friends, the Shutes, sent me a copy of Ann Patchett’s essay about being on book tour in The Story of a Happy Marriage, and that’s been a balm too. So has sleep and spending time with friends and family who keep me grounded.

51T6EkMTIlL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_The people on the hill liked to say that God’s smile was the sun shining down on them. In the late afternoon, before scarlet ibis bloodied the sunset, light flooded the stained glass windows of Bird Hill Church of God in Christ, illuminating the renderings of black saints from Jesus to Absalom Jones. When there wasn’t prayer meeting, choir rehearsal, Bible study, or Girl Guides, the church was empty except for its caretaker, Mr. Jeremiah. It was his job to chase the children away from the cemetery that sloped down behind the church, his responsibility to shoo them from their perches on graves that dotted the backside of the hill the area was named for. Despite his best intentions, Mr. Jeremiah’s noontime and midnight devotionals at the rum shop brought on long slumbers when children found freedom to do as they liked among the dead.

Moor_Dear Mister Essay Writer GuyHow Tasty Was My Little Frenchman

In August of 1563, Michel de Montaigne, the father of the essay form, was in Rouen, France, at the invitation of King Charles the Ninth. It is not entirely clear why King Charles invited Montaigne, since the French monarch was only thirteen years old at the time and Montaigne doesn’t come immediately to mind as a rollicking playtime companion.

Perhaps the young king needed Montaigne’s help with his high school admissions essay?

In any case, also at Rouen that fateful weekend were three Tupinambá Indians, natives of what we now call Brazil, who had been lured onto a ship and transported to Europe for reasons not fully established by the historical record.

One theory (mine) is that the French wanted these fellows to taste the coq au vin.

Moore_DintyYour book is ostensibly about cannibals. Have you ever eaten human flesh?

My own, I suppose. I used to chew the ends of my fingers.

 

Have you ever met a cannibal?

No, but Montaigne did. You know, Michel de Montaigne, the founder of the essay, he who first gazed longingly at his own navel. Montaigne (which, by the way, is pronounced ‘Mon-taigne’) visited with three Tupinambá Indians who had been transported to Europe to show off as curiosities. Then he wrote a truly peculiar essay about the experience. He is my inspiration for this book: a collection of peculiar navel gazing with a dash of mescaline.