The Role of Place in Creating Suspense

by Sheila Kohler

We had just arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia: my daughter Cybele, my granddaughter Masha, and I. I had not seen Cybele, who lives in Berlin, or Masha, who is at university in England, for a year, and was very fearful of missing them at the airport in St. Petersburg. I had to fly from New York to Paris to change planes there, and I was afraid of delays, strikes, or simply summer crowds. When I stood in the hall of the airport in St. Petersburg and saw neither one of them or even the man who was supposed to pick us up, I was in an extreme state of anxiety. With what joy I heard a glad cry, “Gogo!”—the name my granddaughter calls me—and saw a beautiful girl with pink cheeks and brown curls come flying through the crowd. Soon we were all embracing happily.

There was a fourth person present, however, at our reunion: the ghost of Dostoevsky. I am here, thanks to the university where I teach, with the intention of walking in Dostoevsky’s footsteps. I’m in the process of writing a book much inspired by his Crime and Punishment. (I don’t want to give too much away, so I won’t tell you more than that.) We’re even staying at the Sonya Radisson hotel. You will remember the saintly prostitute in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Sonya Marmeladov, who will save Raskolnikov, the murderer, with her love. There’s a quote from one of Dostoevsky’s books up outside of every room in the hotel.

The three of us—or should I say the four—will take a train from St. Petersburg to Moscow and on from Moscow to Omsk in Siberia, where Dostoevsky was imprisoned, after his mock execution in 1849.

On December 22, the members of what was known as the Petrashevsky Circle, a Russian intellectual literary group, were taken from their cells in the fortress of Saint Peter and Paul and sent to Semyonov Square. With the soldiers lined up and pointing their rifles, fingers resting on the trigger, the first three prisoners were tied to a stake, black hoods over their heads. They waited for imminent death. When a messenger rode up waving a white flag, they were told that, in a “show of mercy,” Tsar Nicholas I had supposedly spared the men. This was actually a means of fostering terror, and gratitude, something Dostoevsky would use in various ways in his subsequent great novels, including Crime and Punishment. He would always remember that moment of terror and how precious life suddenly seemed to him.

What struck me, though, on arriving here, after the first moment of great elation at the airport—is how different the city seems to me from Dostoevsky’s dark description in Crime and Punishment.

I will admit we have only been in this city built by Peter the Great in the eighteenth century for less than a week, and all has been colored by our joyous reunion and exceptional sunshine. Together we have taken a boat on the canals, admired the great works of art in the Hermitage, and visited the fortress where Dostoevsky was imprisoned. We have seen the houses where he lived and the one Raskolnikov was supposed to inhabit and the place where he was to murder the pawnbroker.

Obviously, St. Petersburg has changed much since 1866 when Dostoevsky wrote his famous book. It was then, as he describes it, flooded with the newly freed serfs who flocked here in search of work in the factories and the budding industries of the great city. Yet, the wide boulevards, the orderly layout of the city, and the baroque buildings which line the Neva, as well as many of the churches with their glittering onion-shaped domes, date from the eighteenth century, and must have looked much as they do today, and surely the weather has not changed that much.

In the book, which starts in the summer, like our visit, the city is dusty, filled with dank odors which rise from the polluted water of the canals; drunkards, who stagger down the sweltering narrow streets, or youthful prostitutes who wander precariously, half-clad in the summer heat followed by dangerous predators. Dostoevsky writes, “It was terribly hot out and moreover it was close, crowded, lime scaffolding and bricks, dust everywhere and that special summer stench known so well to every Petersburger who cannot afford to rent a summer house.”

Obviously, like the history portrayed in the fortress of Saint Peter and Paul, where Dostoevsky was imprisoned, the city can be seen in many different guises and disguises, and the way it appears in Crime and Punishment serves the author’s purpose. He uses the place to skillfully echo and evoke concretely the emotions of his troubled and conflicted hero as well as to provide motivation for his crime, and ultimately to create suspense.

Though our hotel room is certainly not palatial, it has large deep windows, and the sun continues to stream in until late at night. I am writing this at eight-thirty without one light lit in the room. The enamel basin and bath shine with cleanliness, and the towels are fluffy and white, whereas poor Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky’s murderer, in Crime and Punishment lingers on in a stifling closet of a room that Dostoevsky likens to a “coffin.” It has yellowing wall paper (all the rooms seem to have yellowing wallpaper) and an accumulation of dust on the books which he can no longer bring himself to read, sunk so deeply in the lethargy of his depression.

It is at least partly this dire poverty which drives Raskolnikov to stumble down the stairs and slink past his landlady’s quarters (he owes the rent) and out into the stifling streets in the first pages of the novel in a sort of “rehearsal” of the crime he will ultimately commit.

In the streets he will come across the young girl who seems destined for prostitution in her drunken and disorderly state. Someone, Raskolnikov fears, has taken advantage of an innocent girl and a predator who follows her will bring about her ruin. This chance encounter in the streets of the city echoes Raskolnikov’s inner dilemma: his own loving sister Dunya is contemplating a disastrous marriage with a pompous and dastardly man, Luzhin, in order to obtain the money her brother needs for his education—surely a prostitution of a respectable kind.

Dostoevsky gives us precise details which serve the author’s purposes exactly. The reader sees, tastes, and smells this concrete world and feels, with increasing terror, for this young man with his generous impulses to help the Marmeladov family, as well as to rise above the circumstances of his life. We fear he will commit murder, and then we tremble that he may confess and be caught. We are brought by the verisimilitude of the descriptions of place to believe this young student could kill the old, avaricious, and cruel pawnbroker brutally with an axe and steal her money. The reader both understands rationally and also feels emotionally that this young man with his impulses to both give away all he has and to grasp what is not rightfully his own might actually strike not only a defenseless elderly woman with an axe but her innocent step-sister who happens to walk in on the crime.

St. Petersburg, with its crowded and claustrophobic atmosphere, its courtyards and dank back staircases, the police office which smells mysteriously of new paint, all of this drives the murderer onward first to commit his absurd and senseless crime and finally, thanks to Sonya Marmeladov’s love and devotion and the detective Porfiry’s skillful questioning, to confess to what he has done, and ultimately to redemption. The inner conflict, the split in his mind—the reasonable thoughts about his family, his relationship with Sonya, and the irrational desire to rise above the law—is echoed by the world outside of him: good and evil abounds around him. In this place where I have come to find my darling daughter and my dearest granddaughter, a place so filled with light and, it seems, love, I have found a new understanding of Dostoevsky’s art and mind.

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Kohler,SheilaSheila Kohler is the author of fourteen books, and the winner of the Willa Cather Award and two O. Henry Prizes for her fiction. Born and raised in South Africa, she has lived in the U.S. for many years and teaches at Princeton University. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Other AGNI blog posts by this author:
“Fusion: What Goes Into the Creative Act”

Lewis, Chang, and Lowe: New Work Up at AGNI!

We’ve got fresh new work up on the main AGNI website—a review of Don DeLillo’s Zero K by Woody Lewis, a poem by Victoria Chang, and a story by Charles Lowe. Check it out!

“DeLillo embraces the mythology of self. His first novel Americana tells the story of self-exploration in the form of a road trip. In Great Jones Street, Bucky Wunderlick explores his musical self without leaving his East Village hideout. Mao II dramatizes Bill Gray’s retreat into himself, while Underworld does the opposite in describing Nick Shay’s escape from his childhood self. The post-Shay novels show DeLillo grappling with his own games of time and infinity: the ghost character in The Body Artist, the eponymous falling man. He turns more inward in these works, past exploring to eulogizing his inner qualities, what Jeffrey in Zero K calls ‘my little felonies of self-perception.’”
“Zero K: Ars Longa, Ex Machina” by Woody Lewis


chang“Barbie Chang should have seen
the signs should

have noticed the signs in the street
that were backwards”
“Barbie Chang Should Have Seen” by Victoria Chang


lowe“The game is called Lose a Foreigner. First, have the foreigner point (the right index finger only!) at a Gucci purse or zippered Prada bag or vice versa. Then, advise him not to look too closely at the fake gold clip. A fake gold clip can blind a foreigner to the possibility of a fine from an overly vigilant customs official. Afterward, walk away from the laowai. Finally, doing the best sexy walk possible, stroll up to a dealer.”
“The 250 Foreigner Game” by Charles Lowe


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If you killed it, was it really your darling?

by Chad Parmenter

For a little while now, I’ve had a mental argument going on against that commandment, “kill your darlings,” that goes from what the title of this essay says to “whoever said that must have been frustrated away from writing,” to “maybe Hemingway said it,” then to blaming Hemingway, then to wondering if I just have envy for whoever got famous enough to say that and have people notice. It can’t be that last one, I’m relieved to say, because I finally found out that, according to Slate, the quote got traced back to Arthur Quiller-Crouch. And I’m pretty sure I don’t have Quiller-Crouch envy. Yet.

It makes absolute sense, definitely, to me, when I parse it and try to get what everyone seems to mean by repeating it: if I’m writing something that I have a strong sense of attachment to, and it’s not working, I shouldn’t act like it’s working. Of course I shouldn’t. Shouldn’t I? It might not only get out as bad writing, and be seen by readers who will identify it as bad writing, polluting the stream of writing for everybody and possibly persuading people to not read any more of my writing, because it might be bad, but I might send a message to whatever sinful part of my subconscious cranked that crap out: bad writing is what I do now. Let all the darlings come swarming. Right?

Well, I don’t know. When I was doing a journal purge a few years ago, in the name of downsizing that really had this idea behind it, now that I look back, I went ahead and got rid of a set of sestinas that had come out during some journaling in 2004, in a library in Ireland. They were pretty incoherent, would probably not even yield linked pairs of words that I’d put anywhere else, since I hadn’t ever gotten into that mode, and the fact that I remembered one phrase from them—“pirogues of fog”—just made them seem potentially embarrassing. Really, that’s bad. No, it’s okay, that’s just bad writing. But, as I started to look back, maybe the day after the trash containing those journals went out, I wondered where that phrase came from. Somewhere. But I couldn’t read where anymore.

My high school English teacher was no Arthur Quiller-Crouch, but when I showed him a poem I wrote, he helped me tremendously, more than I could see until recently, by saying absolutely nothing to evaluate it, but simply telling me, “save everything you write.” That gets trickier since I’m a journaller, and a migrant one these days, but it still is doable, thankfully, and it’s one of my new goals—to hold onto all of these things, not out of hoarding or even for the possibility that some of them, someday, might be publishable though I don’t know it now. It’s that, well, any darlings in there are my darlings for a reason. So, I aspire to a no kill darling sanctuary.

Which begs the question (was that a darling way to put it?), what really makes that darling distinction? If I’m going to take a strict attitude with my writing, enough that I do cut a lot, revise repeatedly, and let only the best get into print, then what determines that? Am I really qualified to judge that? There’s an intuitive sense that comes, sometimes, with the writing, of what’s working and what’s not, but there are also things that come completely undone from that, and they may simply be pointing the way toward something new. And that urge to cut might come from fear, not even of what readers might see, but what I might see. So it goes back to the question, what does my writing have to say to me?

According to Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare was a darling-killer, in spite of his reputation for just writing perfect first drafts. And he would have taken my “pirogues of fog” journal right out of that Irish library and hurled it into Galway Bay, probably. But the different versions of Hamlet that have somehow been saved show changes like “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to her” becoming “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba.” And there’s the fact that he chose to rewrite a play already done with a fairly similar plot, not long before, with the title character’s name so closely resembling the name of his son, who had died not so long before. And not for any of his audience members, but with some tenderness toward himself, what if he had let messy drafts pile up, then gone back to see what came from his grief, what different directions his writing took, away from the project, and maybe toward their own?

Maybe he did; I don’t know. Maybe he wrote a lot, grieved a lot, let even the darling parts of his grieving out on paper, and then got rid of it along with everything else autobiographical, except the will. Maybe I’m just lately coming to this idea that my writing has something to say to me, and everybody else knows that about their own, if it’s true for them. But if some part of my writing seems too precious, too sentimental, or too just plain something undefinably bad, maybe it needs to be asked, “Darling,” or, better, “darlin’, what’s going on with you?”

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chad04bwcr Chad Parmenter’s poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, AGNI, and Black Warrior Review, where one won the Third Ever Poetry Contest. His chapbook, Weston’s Unsent Letters to Modotti, won Tupelo’s Snowbound Chapbook Contest, and was published at the end of 2015. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

Other AGNI blog posts by this author:
“Persona Poetry, My Batman Mask, and (Maybe) Me”

Literary Lagos

by E.C. Osondu

One of Nigeria’s pioneer female writers once remarked, tongue firmly in cheek, that if you threw a pebble into a crowd at the University of Ibadan—Nigeria’s oldest university—in the early 90’s it was likely to fall on a poet. I will stretch that witticism a little bit and say that if you threw a pebble into a crowd in the city of Lagos, Nigeria’s former capital in southwestern Nigeria, it would most likely have hit not one but two writers.

When I moved from Lagos to Syracuse University in the early 2000’s to attend grad school for creative writing, I did experience a bit of a weather shock and some culture shock but not any serious workshop shock because, while there were no formal creative writing workshops in Lagos, we had quite a lively literary community. The city is home to many writers, both published and mostly unpublished. Writers under the aegis of the Association of Nigerian Authors met every first Saturday of the month in Lagos to share our writings; critiques, often not too subtle, were offered. There would usually be announcements of new fellowship opportunities for writers and new contests would also be announced at these meetings. The lucky few among us who had won fellowship opportunities abroad returned with new books and stories of how they were feted and treated like royalty during their sojourns abroad. Because we are writers and we lived in Lagos—a city that loves to party—these events were also a kind of social gathering. Sometimes the chairperson of the association—at one point a poet and banker, and at some other point an entrepreneur and playwright served as chairperson—would provide a sumptuous well-catered meal and of course the ever reliable cartons of alcohol, which has kept the spirit of the true writer alive for generations, was consumed in copious quantities. As we ate and drank we discussed books and the writing life. At the end of the party we would usually share rides back to our various places of abode in this sprawling mega-city of Lagos. We were dreamers, we were hungry for fame if not fortune, we fed on hope, that frail and fragile thing.

In Nigeria and Lagos today, not much has changed. Chances are your proverbial thrown pebble would still fall on a writer, and might even touch another slightly on its way there. A few things have changed, however. With the arrival of the internet a whole new world has opened up for Nigerian writers. Many young poets and fiction writers are now better able to send out their works to foreign literary journals. They are able to share the news of their acceptances through Twitter and on Facebook. Many are also able to win fellowship opportunities abroad. Quite a few like me have also decided to pursue their passion by enrolling in M.F.A. Creative Writing programs in the United States. I often look back with a tinge of regret at all the stories I have left behind in Nigeria. I often tell people here in the U.S. that there are enough stories from one molue bus ride in Lagos to fill the pages of a hefty novel. Some would argue, though, that we live in a globalized world and that geographical boundaries are an artificial construct.

Another thing that has changed is that there is now a more visible involvement by foreign cultural organizations like the British Council, The French Cultural Centre, and a few others in connection writers/artistes with their counterparts in foreign countries for exchanges and co-operation. This has actually involved more than writers and includes dance troupes and playwrights and so on….

One must also add the emergence of Nollywood, the Nigerian movie industry that emerged in the early 2000’s and has since become one of the largest movie industries in the world. Quite a few writers, including the late playwright Ebereonwu, have extended a hand of fellowship to Nollywood and have produced scripts for Nollywood movies. It is hoped that, with the entrance of creative writers into Nollywood, the story-lines will move away from the obsession with juju and fetishisms and begin to engage with the reality of day-to-day existence in contemporary Nigeria.

A major development that has clearly impacted the literary scene is the emergence of two publishing companies—Farafina Kachifo Publishers, founded by the former banker Muhtar Bakare, and Cassava Republic, founded by Jeremy Weate and Bibi Bakare. They have recently been joined by Parressia Publishers. These publishers initially published titles that have won plaudits abroad but they have since gone on to nurture and publish home-grown talent and to wean Nigerians just a little from the consumption of American self-help titles like Think And Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. These American positive-thinking and grow-rich books seem to have found a captive audience among Nigerians by tapping into our can-do spirit.

Some have said that we are presently experiencing the boom years of Nigerian/African writing on the global stage. I would argue that, with the literary ferment going on back home in Nigeria, the world ain’t seen nothing yet—or, to borrow Chinua Achebe’s profoundly philosophical phrasing, It is morning yet on creation day.

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ec photo 2E.C. Osondu is a Nigerian writer. He is a winner of the Caine Prize and a Pushcart Prize. His first published short story—A Letter From Home—was first published in AGNI. His short story Jimmy Carter’s Eyes also published in AGNI was shortlisted for the Caine Prize. He is the author of the story collection Voice of America and the novel This House is Not For Sale. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

Books as Bibles

by David Ebenbach

Don’t mess with Moby Dick. And I’m not talking about the whale, though you should probably leave the whale alone, too—I’m saying don’t mess with the book.

A while back I posted a piece on Medium called “Call Me Irritable: A Chapter Outline of Moby Dick in the Form of an Increasingly Frustrating Conversation with a Guy Named Ishmael.” I had just finished reading Moby Dick for the first time (For shame! How could I have waited for so long?) and I had not enjoyed the experience. So I wrote the fictional conversation as a way of poking fun at what struck me as a novel whose scattered great parts got lost in a book that was in general bloated, shapeless, and dull.

Some people liked the fun-poking; I’m not the only person in the history of the world to not enjoy Moby Dick. But some other folks had advice for me. They told me to read the book more slowly, or to apply different standards to the book, or to try to appreciate the little things instead of the big picture. In one way or another, these folks told me that I was reading the book wrong, or that my dislike of the book just pointed to my own deficiencies.

This confirmed my perception that Moby Dick is one of those special books that has become so firmly entrenched as a literary classic that it has become something more than a novel—it has become the literary equivalent of the Bible.

What do I mean by that? I mean this: when a piece of literature becomes a Bible, it is no longer open to question, or at least to certain questions. We can ask, “Hey—why is this so amazing?” and “What did Melville mean with this symbol?” and “How can I get more out of this?” We can ask questions intended to help us understand and appreciate the book more thoroughly. But we can’t ask questions like, “Um, isn’t this book a complete mess, with truly striking, beautiful, exciting stuff broken up by many incredibly boring chapters full of protracted (and often misinformed) lectures about whales and whaling equipment and whaling technique?” We can’t ask questions, in other words, that question the goodness or rightness of the text.

Because here’s the thing about a Bible, understood traditionally: when you have a problem with a Bible, there is no possibility that the Bible is wrong—this is supposed to be divine stuff, after all. There is only the possibility that you are wrong, and you can only hope to work harder in order to better grasp the wisdom of the Bible.

For the record, I don’t think that the Bible should be read this way, either, but that’s a subject for another essay. More to the point, classics of literature may be wonderful, but not one of them was written by a god, and it seems to me, as a reader, that every one of them should ultimately be open to all possible questions that enter your mind. These include: “Is this working?” “Should some of this be cut/expanded?” and “How might this be improved?”

And here’s another question that ought to be allowed: “Should I stop reading?”

I want to get something out of a book, but if it just isn’t happening, there are approximately 78 quadrillion other books out there that might prove more moving and useful. If, after putting in some real effort, my dissatisfaction builds up too much, I try to figure out what’s not working for me (so that I can be sure not to reproduce the problem in my own work), and then I do a potentially sacrilegious thing: I put the book down. I put it down and move on. And surely that happens sometimes with my own books—people put them down and walk away. That’s the reader’s prerogative.

Of course, it’s a delicate balance. When I start reading a book—not just a “classic” but any book—I do enter it somewhat Biblically, in the sense that my mind is open and my stance is humble. I’m ready for it to be good, to teach me something. And if I have early buzzings of uncertainty, as long as they’re not too loud, I try to stay in there. I want the book to succeed. I want to get something out of it. After all, being a writer in part means being very inclined to get things out of books. If lots of other people have liked the book—if it is considered a classic, for example—I work even harder to keep my mind open. If trustworthy friends have recommended the book, I work harder still. I definitely don’t want to miss an opportunity to be wowed by a piece of writing, so I give it every chance I can.

And don’t we want people to approach our own work that way? I think each writer produces work that, if it’s any good, makes fresh demands of the reader—by messing with the rules of point of view, say, or using voice in a new way, or taking an idiosyncratic angle on structure or pacing or characterization or whatnot—and we don’t want people to say, “This isn’t what I’m used to, so it’s bad.” Naturally we each hope that readers will be open to the possibility of meeting the work’s demands. And we believe that they’ll be rewarded for hanging in there with an open mind.

If I’m honest, I think that’s part of what bothers me about Moby Dick: envy. Not envy of the writing, but envy of how it’s received. It’s a “classic,” so people automatically come at it with a Biblical mind-set. Meanwhile, they probably look at contemporary writing (e.g., mine) with a more critical eye. (After all, Melville was pretty much dismissed in his own lifetime.) My ideal is something more equitable, with every piece of writing getting the benefit of the doubt provisionally, at first. That’s the hope I have as a writer, and it’s the ideal I shoot for as a reader: each text approached with the question Is this maybe kind of Biblical? If the answer turns out to be yes, great. If the answer is no, that’s fine, too. You’re allowed to put the book down. Let someone else call that guy Ishmael.

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David EbenbachDavid Ebenbach is the blog editor for AGNI, and also the author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved. He lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University.

Other AGNI blog posts by this author:
“No Soap, Poetry”
“The Ultimate and Decisive ‘Is Poetry Dead?’ Article!”
“Wherever, However: Poetry, Pornography, and the Internet”
“Bringing the Web Back”


Personal Essay as Homage: Rubin’s Deli, 1928-2016

by Alisa Wolf

RubinsDeliIn 2010, Agni Online published my essay “Lokshen Kugel.” It was an homage to Rubin’s kosher deli in Brookline, Massachusetts and my great aunt, Bessie Cohen, who worked in the kitchen there for most of her adult life. I haven’t eaten at Rubin’s in more than a decade. But when it closed its doors for good on Friday, August 5, 2016, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness that I will never order a Rubin’s pastrami sandwich again.

The deli opened in 1928 (or 1927, by some news accounts). It featured a corned beef sandwich for 15 cents, and, for 25 cents, on Thursday and Friday only, “Ho-Made Gefilte Fish.” That typo from a menu posted on the deli’s Facebook page must have been fixed—and the menu updated repeatedly—by the time my father started bringing my sister and me there in the 1960s. But there was still corned beef and gefilte fish, English spoken with a Yiddish lilt, and jokes whose sensibility I didn’t get. In all these ways Rubin’s was an exotic locale that did as much to form my ideas about the old world—namely Vilnia, Lithuania, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries —as my Nana’s Shabbos candles and gooey taiglach did.

RubinsMenu croppedI had plenty of colorful details to draw on for my essay. But I didn’t want Auntie Bessie to come off as a caricature. The family already regarded her as something of an oddball. The adults couldn’t resist making jokes behind her back about the way she doted on her husband, feeding him a special diet that seemed to consist entirely of milk, spinach, and toast, and the well-known fact that he wore a truss under his shirt and vest to keep his hernia from popping out. I laughed too.

But Auntie Bessie and Uncle Irving were both there for me when I was floundering in my early twenties. No matter when I dropped by their Brookline apartment, they welcomed me. Uncle Irving took an interest in my various jobs and political opinions, while Auntie Bessie warmed up a meal for me in the kitchen. I protested that I wasn’t hungry, but I always ate.

I struggled to do justice to Auntie Bessie on the page. I wanted to show how strange she seemed to me when I was a kid but also how vital my connection to her was. Yet so much about Auntie Bessie lent itself to stereotype. The whole Jewish food motif is practically a cliché. The “oy veys” and Jewish guilt—Auntie Bessie embodied them all. But she was also a real person. Someone I loved.

In this essay, caricature came first. Only after prodding the broad outlines did the nuances come out. I worked on many drafts, especially of the first paragraph. I wanted to ground Auntie Bessie in a particular time and place, to show her in her element. The rhythm of our meals at the deli, the tone of the adult conversation, how the food looked and tasted—getting these details right seemed essential to conveying Auntie Bessie as a fully realized character and myself as a flawed narrator whose view was decidedly objective.

Because the original deli moved in 1981 to roomier digs down the street, I couldn’t go back there to check the accuracy of my memories. But the essay wasn’t about a building, or even a way of life. It was, I discovered, about my uneasiness with the Jewish culture I was born into, which worked against a deep desire to connect with it. This ambivalence underlies the relationship between the character I called “Auntie Bessie” and the character based on me. It’s there in the way I flaunt my knowledge of the Yiddish term for noodle pudding—lokshen kugel—only to crave pizza and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese when Auntie Bessie serves her traditional dishes. It’s in the way my frizzy curls and olive skin reflect the shtetl culture embodied by Rubin’s, which on the one hand gives me a sense of belonging there and on the other, feeds my jealousy of my blonde, straight-haired sister. It’s in the tension between my fantasy of a close traditional family, exemplified by the older generation of Rubins, and the dissolution of my own family, as my parents find new partners after their divorce and my sister moves away. It’s in the way I show up at Auntie Bessie’s door in my disheveled, “hippie chick gone ’80s punk” outfit, none too happy with myself and just a little worried about how she’ll view me. But when she answers my ring, I get what I came for: a greeting and embrace that convey how glad she is to see me, no matter what state I’m in.

Toward the end of her life, I got to know Auntie Bessie better, as one adult to another. One of the regrets she shared with me was that she never had kids. Who, she wondered, would say the Jewish prayer of remembrance—the Kaddish—for her when she died? In the essay, I hold her hand and mourn my own road not taken. Because by now I know that I’m not going to be a traditional Jewish housewife—a baleboste—and mother. But because of Auntie Bessie’s example and unwavering love, it’s okay.

I can’t say how Auntie Bessie actually felt when these scenes occurred in real life. I depicted her as honestly as I could. I can only hope I’ve done her justice. Or at the very least, that in employing her to bring clarity to my own questions about who I once was and the choices I once made, I’ve drawn her in all her complex humanity, not as a caricature.

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AlisaWolf_May Alisa Wolf’s work has appeared in Agni Online, Calyx, Cimarron Review, Concho River Review, Fjords Review, Pisgah Review, Red Cedar Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Sojourner, and The Legendary, as well as the Prentice Hall Reader, 11th and 12th editions. She lives in Medford, Mass. and is a member of the Writers Room of Boston. Find out what she’s published on AGNI here.

An Leabharlann

by Brian Doyle

One time I was in Connemara, that tiny remnant of the Gaelic kingdom that once ruled all the green rocky sprawl of the Irish island, when I finished the books I had brought to read while traveling, and realized, with a start, that I was well and truly screwed as regards reading material, for I had already read the books my companions had, one of them twice, and the cottages where we were staying had nothing whatsoever to read, not even old magazines, so I wandered off in search of the local library. This turned out to be a small cottage with a small librarian and a sweeping view over the sea behind it—“Bertraghboy Bay,” said the tiny librarian, “which is supposed to mean ‘yellow sandbank’ according to what’s in your guide books and such, but it doesn’t mean that at all, and in fact means something more like ‘a great place to find the oysters.’ Names mean more than the words that compose them, you know. But you know that, as a literary man. No, I am afraid we do not have any of your books, but yes indeed, if you send them to me we will happily shelve them, although where to do so is a mystery at present, as you see. We are sold out, as it were, in the matter of shelf space for books, and given the parlous state of the economy, and the ruinous political management of the district, I cannot imagine that money will be miraculously found for the expansion of the library system. But having too many books is a happy problem, is it not? Because the books do wander out every day, and most of them come back. I used to be much more fidgety about retrieving them from those who kept them too long, but I gave that up years ago, on the theory that if it took some fella in Errisbeg longer than a lady in Crumpan to read such and such a book, well, then it took him longer, and as long as he did return the volume eventually, all was well. Here and there someone would lose a book, twice into the waters of the bay, but almost always a new copy would appear somehow, and to be honest it seems to me if a book goes into the bay then it’s a good death for the book, and surely we owe the bay a bit of thanks after all it’s given us, don’t you think? Not to mention maybe there’s a well-educated lobster tribe down there, for all we know, and good for them.

“How did I become a librarian? Well, now, I’ll tell you, and it’s a strange bit of a story, for I think it all began with the very word itself. I was just a bit of a boy with not a word of the imperial English in my head when my grandfather first took me to the library. It wasn’t this building, no, it was a smaller one, someone’s old cottage, as I remember, and it was no bigger than two crows standing back to back. I remember as we walked up to it my grandfather said, with real respect and reverence, an leabharlann, which is the Irish for ‘the library,’ and the way he said it, slowly and gravely, has never left my ear. To him and so to me it was a holy word, a sacred word, a crucial word. Your library is where the community stores its treasures. It’s the house that imagination built. It’s where all the stories that matter are gathered together and celebrated and shared. It’s exactly like a church, it seems to me. People come to it communally for something that’s deep and ancient and important beyond an easy explanation. Who you are as a town is in the library. It’s why when you want to destroy a place you burn down the library. People who fear freedom fear libraries. The urge to ban a book is always an urge to put imagination in jail. But in the end you cannot imprison it, just as you cannot imprison the urge to freedom, because those things are in every soul, and there are too many souls to jail or murder them all, and that’s a fact. So a library is a shout of defiance too, if you think about it: dorn in aghaidh an dorchadas, a fist against the dark.”

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Brian Doyle Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine, in Oregon. He is the author of many books, most recently the novels Martin Marten and Chicago. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.