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Scott and Jen

 

By the time my debut novel came out in 2013, I had honed a one-word answer for when people asked me what the book was about: loneliness. Of course, it was about a lot more than that (immortality, magical realism, an enchanted herb, partition-era Poland, World War II, 1940s country music stars), but people can relate to loneliness—who hasn’t felt, at some point in their life, on the outside looking in? But now my second novel, The Summer She Was Under Water, has come out, and I’m struggling with that one-word answer. Often, I say the book is about a dysfunctional family, another great sales generator (just ask Jonathan Franzen or Gillian Flynn). That answer feels disingenuous, though, because there is a much more direct (and more uncomfortable), word to describe it: incest. Brother-sister incest, if you want to be really specific.

aaron-burchMy wife [Elizabeth Ellen] and I drove three hours to Ohio for a birthday dinner for her 93-year-old grandmother and drove back the same day. I drove there, got a little drunk at dinner on two Manhattans while Elizabeth had club soda, and then Elizabeth drove us home. I’d been putting off this self-interview because I’m a procrastinator, and also because I wasn’t sure what to ask myself, so I talked Elizabeth into helping me ask myself questions even though that didn’t really constitute a self-interview.

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Blood comes before the scar; hunger before the apple.

–Leslie Jamison, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”

 

“Defensive”

1. defending or protecting someone or something from attack: helping to keep a person or thing safe


2. behaving in a way that shows that you feel people are criticizing you


 

It’s not my fault the new rosebushes didn’t get watered. I was running errands, taking the kids to soccer and music lessons, and I have an essay for American Lit due tomorrow. Why didn’t you do it?

When my husband complains, I first point out that it’s not my fault, and then point out why he is culpable instead.

It’s not my fault the dinner burned. I had to get our son into the shower, and make our daughter do her homework, and couldn’t you hear the oven timer?

But more often than not, my husband was merely stating that the rosebush was suffering because everyone forgot to water it. He didn’t mention the burned dinner other than to ask, what’s that smell?

I grew up in south Louisiana’s Bible Belt. I read my Picture Bible, with its comic strips, until I knew all the stories. There were plenty of moments where Jesus gave women grace and forgiveness—the Samaritan woman at the well and Mary Magdalene come immediately to mind. But the women in the Old Testament were out of luck. Jesus wasn’t born yet.

BurchcoverI am fascinated by beginnings. I think this has always been the case, but it has certainly amplified since I began teaching. In part because they’re important, obviously; in part because they’re easy to teach. Middles, endings: those take context. It’s harder, if not impossible, to look at a large selection of endings, side-by-side, and analyze what works, and why. They work because of everything that came before. Conversely, beginnings work because of everything that comes after, but you don’t know that yet at their time of presentation. A good beginning should pique your interest, it should make you want to read more. It should make you start asking some questions—once your brain starts inventing questions, you’re involved, you have an interest, and now you want to keep reading, because questions need answers. A good beginning gives you all that and, too, in the parlance of creative writing classroom, it teaches you how to read the piece itself

morganandstefanyMorgan and Shuffy (Stefany’s nick name), why did you write a book about dead people?

Would you prefer that we write a book about live people? No, better the dead…

 

Are the essays in this book eulogies?

Yes…and no. We did try to take each of these dead persons seriously and therefore to write with some sympathy. In general, even with the living, we try to take people seriously and on their own terms. But the job of writing about recently deceased persons of note is not to say something nice simply for the sake of saying something nice. It is about digging and scratching at the lives in order to see what comes to the surface. Sometimes, this creates surprises.

 

deadpeoplecoverSun Ra

(1914 – 1993)

In the Egyptian section of the Penn Museum stands a man. He is next to a 12-ton sphinx and is wearing a multicolored dreamcoat. His beret shimmers; a red cape hangs about his shoulders. “Planet Earth can’t even be sufficient without the rain, it doesn’t produce rain, you know,” he tells the camera. “Sunshine… it doesn’t produce the sun. The wind, it doesn’t produce the wind. All planet Earth produces is the dead bodies of humanity. That’s its only creation.” The man pauses and slides his hand across the sphinx. “Everything else comes from outer space. From unknown regions. Humanity’s life depends on the unknown. Knowledge is laughable when attributed to a human being.”

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I don’t know how to write this essay. It’s smarter than me. I’m overthinking every line, every angle. I write it, and I take it apart. I hold a broken piece and try to fit it in somewhere else and stare for a long time and take it out again. Writing about family is complicated. Reading what I write about my family is complicated. Write, delete. Hold back, unleash. Delete, delete. I’m exploring the idea of family because I have some sort of family identity struggle going on because I always have a family identity struggle going on. Is this what happens when your parents get divorced? When your parents break do you break too? Divorce or separation doesn’t equate brokenness—doesn’t have to but usually does. People don’t get divorced because their relationship is going well. Divorce means something is wrong—so wrong the animosity between my parents is still palpable after twenty-five years.

I want to tell you stories about my parents, and I want those stories to reflect me with big psychological terms. I want to contain my identity in a manageable, cohesive space. This essay. I’m starting to think this is impossible.

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July 8, 2016

To: Nelnet Education Loan Servicing, The U.S. Department of Education, the FSA Ombudsman Group
, and the Better Business Bureau of Nebraska

CC: Loretta Lynch, Barbara Lee, Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, and Barack Obama

BCC: The Nervous Breakdown

From: Ariel Gore, Oakland, CA

 

I am writing to make a formal complaint against Nelnet Education Loan Servicing and, by extension, the U.S. Department of Education that empowers them, for a pattern of willful incompetence that I believe amounts to fraud.

I entered college as a young single mom in 1990. I was told that an education was the road out of poverty. I did not take out any private loans. I took out the maximum government student loans recommended to me, and was assured they were reasonable based on the educational products that were being sold to me. Those loans amounted to less than $40,000. I did well in school and graduated from Mills College with honors in 1994. Instead of studying creative writing at the graduate level, I opted for a more “practical” master’s program in journalism and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1996. I have been on an Income-Contingent / Income-Based Repayment Plan since 2002 and have always made the required payments on time.

jacket copy smallerSwan Huntley’s debut novel We Could Be Beautiful is as literary and character-driven as it is a cleverly plotted page-turner. Forty-three-year-old Catherine West grew up with money. Eighty thousand dollars gets directly deposited into her bank account each month from the family trust. She owns an apartment in the West Village and spends her days with her masseuse or shopping for designer clothes. At an art gallery she meets William Stockton, who is rich, handsome, and happens to be an old family friend. As they fall in love and then plan their wedding, Catherine’s mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, faintly remembers sinister things about William’s past, including a letter from a nanny stating, “We cannot trust anyone…”

I found myself completely immersed in the world Huntley created, and not just because I read We Could Be Beautiful while living in Manhattan this summer and surrounded by the types of characters she details perfectly on the page. As scary as it is the narrative felt possible, maybe because Huntley wrote from experience. After receiving her MFA from Columbia University, she lived in a commune in Brooklyn and worked as a nanny for a family in Soho. Today, she lives in Northern California, where she was when I called her for this interview about We Could Be Beautiful.

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My ex-husband and I used to half-joke about what we’d do if we got divorced—I don’t always like you, I’d say, but I like being married.

He’d say: I’m never getting married again if this doesn’t work out.

His girlfriend moved in with him before the divorce was final—they’ll be married in a few months.

Our two sons have yet to be introduced to a man in my life.

We separated six years ago. Neither of us is who we said we were.

 

***

 

Though it gets a bad rap, not being in love with your boyfriend is a comfortable place to be; one doesn’t feel off-kilter. When he was unhappy with me I was clear-headed, took out a notepad and wrote down his concerns, moved toward problem-solving to preserve the trappings of what we had—daily phone calls and text messages, steady sex, a date I needed one. I made space to accommodate this thing I kind of wanted, this thing I was finally mature enough to settle into. Not being in love with a very nice boyfriend is a good compromise.

 

Figures

By Donald Quist

Essay

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Sometimes, when P and I walk holding hands in Bangkok, I will notice someone’s confused gaze. “Just ignore it.” I can’t. “You know it’s not like in America, in the South. Here they’re staring because they don’t understand. It’s not hate.” (Figure I) I glare at the observer, but they don’t look away.

 

Figure I

• Members of P’s family have expressed their bewilderment.

• Aunts and cousins have asked:

• Why didn’t she marry someone like her, Thai-Chinese?

• Why, after spending over ten years in America, hadn’t she chosen a white man instead?

• With P already possessing coveted light eyes and hair, P’s relatives believe her half-Caucasian children would have been beautiful. P’s hypothetical offspring could have grown up to become Thai soap opera stars.

• When I asked P how she felt about these comments, she offered me the same dismissive shrug I imagine she gives her inquisitive kin. On one occasion, P’s indifferent gesticulation was mistaken for doubt, and a concerned cousin told P not to worry. The cousin said she understood—one can’t help whom they fall in love with. She praised P’s bravery. And, if P decided to have children, her cousin could procure supplements and traditional remedies to ensure the baby would not look black like its father.

• P can repeat her cousin’s words with a smile. “She means well. Try not to take it too personally.”

• I wonder how many other well-meaning people view my appearance as something in need of a remedy.

Claire_Hoffman_Greetings_from_Utopia_Park

So Claire, why did you decide to write a memoir?

I don’t know. I mean, I’ve been working on this project forever. I’ve always felt like it was really important and meaningful despite a number of obstacles. But now, on the eve of its publication, I can’t help but think of all the other things I could have done with my time.  Why didn’t I use all that grit and perseverance on something…bigger?

 

Like what?

I could’ve gone to medical school.  That’s just like one thing that comes to mind.  Or, you know, written a novel. Or been a better mother.  Or become an international newspaper correspondent.  Or maybe all of those things—I could have become a medical doctor who wrote a novel on the side while also being a much better parent and also doing some dispatches from war zone.

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What I hide by my language, my body utters.

—Terry Tempest Williams

 

When she teaches me, I am six or seven, afraid of letting go of her hand, but with her gentle push I finally find my balance on those two metal blades, alone in the middle of the ice, everything spinning around me.

My mother claps her hands for me then circles wide, taking flight. One foot over the other, her skates scissoring madly, the breeze blowing back her bell-bottoms, her arms swaying freely at her side.

She is light, beam first then scatter.

Transcendental Meditation 

51VevgN9+YL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_When I was five, my father, an alcoholic playwright, left $50 on the kitchen table and vanished. My mother quickly found herself broke, unable to keep up with the rent for our Upper West Side apartment in New York.

She had no money, but she did have something else very precious to her: a guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who earlier that year had issued a call to his followers around the globe. Come to Iowa, he’d said, to meditate and create world peace. So after a tumultuous year of moving, getting evicted, and living with my grandmother in Florida, my mother decided that our path to stability would be found in the endless cornfields of Fairfield, where Maharishi was founding a Transcendental Meditation community, complete with a university and a private school for the children of his followers. My mother, my brother, and I moved to the heartland along with 7,000 others. It was 1982.

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Ho Chi Minh City, 2000. A US Marine in plain clothes sat in the waiting area. I’d done enough overseas trips as a White House advanceperson to guess he was a Marine Security Guard detailed for this presidential visit, the first since the war ended.  He exuded youth and boundless strength, with the kind of pectorals earned on a family farm. He looked at me sheepishly. Did he feel caught? I wanted to laugh with him: this wasn’t some neon-lit storefront we were patronizing. This was the hotel spa—where the clerk looked sharp, posh even, his polo shirt buttoned to his neck, like everyone else in this Vietnamese five-star hotel, all of them making wartime seem forgotten. The same hotel where the leader of the free world would stay just as our advance teams had for days. If there was anything sordid about this place we wouldn’t be here.