Trying to Make Sense of an Absence: A Question with Evanthia Bromiley

AGNI: Your story “If the City Falls” (AGNI 85) focuses on characters who are experiencing the same thing—a bombing—while keeping them apart for most of the story. It’s such a striking choice. I think the choice serves the story well, but why did you choose to isolate the characters from one another?

Bromiley: I think it has something to do with the inefficacy of language in times of trauma.

During World War II, my grandmother was interned at a work camp in Germany. Whatever happened in those years—and I know very little about her, can only surmise—drove her crazy. After the war, she had my mother, but she couldn’t care for her; she abandoned her. My mother and her brothers were split up and given to relatives to raise. That’s something my mother has never been able to forgive.

I never met my grandmother, but I remember the day she died; we heard over the phone. I must have been ten, about the same age she left my mom. The phones still had those long, loopy cords, and my mom kept wrapping that cord around her wrist. My grandmother was asking her to come, please come, to her bedside. And my mom couldn’t. She said no; she didn’t say much else. Afterwards my grandmother died, and the day went on as usual. Judaism, traditionally, is matrilineal: every child of a Jewish mother is considered a Jew. Yet in my family, there’s this rift in the maternal line.

So I think something of this absence made its way into the center of “If The City Falls”—invention in place of fact, feeling in place of memory. Your question makes me wonder if rifts like these open in the absence of words. We need words to express these things, with each other, I think. A lost story is dangerous. That’s why so many people tried, at all costs, to preserve testimony. Emanuel Ringelblum, for example, buried sheaves of archives in milk cans, beneath the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto—he knew these events were unprecedented; they must be preserved. It’s possible that if my mother knew my grandmother’s story, she could have forgiven her. It’s also entirely possible she wouldn’t have—but she would have had the chance to try, a choice. Instead we have this impenetrable silence: no one speaks of it. So when people say the Holocaust and the events leading up to it has been written, or can’t be, well, I think that’s not quite true. It’s this strange, human paradox: Words cannot rectify the evil truth of what happened. What might also be true is we have to try, anyway, to find words, to make sense of an absence. That paradox isolates my characters, and is what I’m trying to explore in “If the City Falls.” The characters try to reach each other through the ruin, and even though they’re very close… there’s the inefficacy of words to face up to something like that.

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Evanthia Bromiley Evanthia Bromiley lives, writes and teaches in Durango, Colorado. She is the recipient of a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, a Lisel Mueller scholarship, and the 2017 emerging fiction fellow at Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop. Currently she attends Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. “If the City Falls” is her first published story. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

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19 thoughts on “Trying to Make Sense of an Absence: A Question with Evanthia Bromiley

  1. Allen Hagar

    6/20/17

    The inability to express an idea in words motivates me and spurs me along to a language that can speak of horror without alienating the reader. It is difficult to do. ABH

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  2. Allen Hagar

    6/22/17

    This blog reply is about the River & the City. Every river, every city, for all cities have a yellow river. And all cities need a poet.

    And all cities need a river. To do the laundry. To chronicle Time. To bathe in the sunlight of yellow. Flowers fragrant & musical; a girl, a poet.

    And the bread, Challah, a golden crust, the bread, the must have it. The poet resigns, he not a baker, reminds us of the failure to communicate.

    As the hope & desire gloriously to admire the work & untiring writer who can speak & say: “Good work & good day!” ABH

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  3. Allen Hagar

    6/22/17

    The Holocaust and the history of Western civilization’s genocides needs friends of writers. The slavery of the many ages that have passed, urge us on to communicate a new kind of Truth. Thank you for remembering the Ghettos of Warsaw and the assault of the City. Truth put up to Horror is Power, a power of the Hour, the cusp of a Time and the honesty of a flower and the Rivers that bend. ABH

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  4. Allen Hagar

    6/22/17

    The yellow river is true for all cities. For yellow is the color of Delacroix’s Liberty. That all cities are created equal is the Truth of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Thank you for the reminder of evil in our cities. The need to write has never been more urgent. ABH

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  5. Allen Hagar

    6/22/17

    “…If the City falls.” Is Hope Truth to Power? Perhaps that is the unspoken Fight of Justice. What do we (as Americans) owe the priest Martin Luther for his Theses? The hope of Liberty might become the Hope remembered by honest souls? The river is forty centimeters deep, is that enough to permit a flow? Absence and nonsense seemingly overflow. Absence and nonsense seemingly go.

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  6. Allen Hagar

    6/22/17

    The “inefficacy of words” is such a phrase, it rings true, it is worthy of praise, the need to say what the Truth inspires us to know, the need to say what the Truth exposes, yet how tell the unspeakable, an absence of her, she is among us when we speak the words: Catholic, Jew, Mary, Mother. A loss, a hope, the honesty learned as a poet. ABH

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  7. Allen Hagar

    6/22/17

    War is about absence, the silence (between explosions), the lack of sound, like the eye of a hurricane, like during a war of thunder and lightning, blitzkrieg, like a jeweled lightning, the absence of jewelry, a jeweled absence, like a crafting of hate, a skate, on a riverbed, the silence beneath the bottom, an obelisk with hieroglyphs, the Egyptians, ancients who knew the Truth. ABH

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  8. Allen Hagar

    6/22/17

    I wonder. Is the absence of the story or is it a part of the reality of your mother and grandmother’s estranged relationship? Can a jeweled lightning produce a jeweled absence? Is the brilliance of your story an attempt to tell the truth of mother and child, (of human relationships) or is that story a starting point, and not necessarily a conclusion? Is the Holocaust a major idea or an incidental one, are the truths poetic or literal? Congratulations again, this time for your magnificent first published story, a story like a history of “then.”

    How do we tell when the truth is being told. Is a bell rung? How are we told? A promise kept between author and reader is meant to be… a secret? What should we blog, what should we write? Is slavery present within the genocide? A Rape of Warsaw? A personal history? The passage of Time, of a matter still interesting? ABH

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  9. Allen Hagar

    6/22/17

    “If the City Falls” is clearly at its conclusion, a story about Hope. The hope for the protection of the Truth of genocide, a yellow truth, a promising endeavor. The story has laid out a variety of paths to follow, roads not yet traveled, the ways not taken. Subtle, inviting and real, the surreal of the underlying matter is true. The rape of Warsaw is yellow and blue. The absence of sound is in the nature of war, we cannot afford to forget, her screams, and her gentle voice, have yet to subside. ABH

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  10. Allen Hagar

    6/22/17

    Is the wreckage of the piano related to the absence of words, the absence of sound? Does the piano represent the loss of music, a sick loss of sound, does it represent the end of the song of a girl unknown, or a girl known but unrecognized? Is the girl Luca? Will he miss her song? ABH

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  11. Allen Hagar

    6/23/17

    Dear Friends: I write for the city, I write for the end.

    The city, in French, la ville, is Marie, la belle Marie, lovely. She be buried in the rubble of the city. And as the last man alive survives capture, so too will the city be alive with his breath and his poetry. The girls will survive as far as they are the city. Memory persists.

    What of the absence of sound? Does an absence exist around the edges of the Warsaw Ghetto? During the twentieth century Second World War? Does a similar silence exist around the edges of nineteenth century American Slavery? During the twenty-first century, do the two relate? How do they relate? Echo? Reverberate? (Berate).

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  12. Allen Hagar

    6/23/17

    Dear Friends: The fact of the writing of “If the City Falls…” is proof that the Poet survives, she is memory’s friend. The story asks if one survives to tell the story, the city will live. Yes. ABH

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  13. Allen Hagar

    6/23/17

    Hi. I write of the unspeakable Truths of humanity, I write of the numerous times of conquering of Europe and Warsaw, Poland. The genocides of civilization. How true is the story of America, the story of African-American women and men, a story of lust and saving grace. Concord grapes and relationships of power and advantage. How does history repeat itself. Is Warsaw an Eternal City? Will her story always be remembered? Or is the inefficacy of language, of words, a barrier to the preservation of the True? Must we struggle to break through? Remember the color of dear Liberty. The isolation of the characters, (Zbigniew, Maria, Viola and Luca) mirrors the separation of victims across the span of ages and space. So true of history renewed.

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  14. Allen Hagar

    6/23/17

    Dear Evanthia: In the blog, you wrote of “Words cannot rectify the evil truth of what happened.” Yet we must “make sense of an absence.” What is the truth of the ages and can the truth of the story of “If the City Falls” take place in America during the nineteenth century? Are the flowers of evil real or metaphorical? Or are they perhaps both? I’ve been wondering for some time now. I think you have found a road of poetry less read to travel upon. ABH

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  15. Allen Hagar

    6/23/17

    What is the truth of today? The war in the Middle East. The war in Syria and the Levant? In Iraq? What is the truth for the citizens of the land at war? Do we need Peace? How do we find it? What is the quality of the peace? What is the inequality that always leads us to war? How does America’s divide between President Obama and President Trump lead us further towards war or closer to peace? What does equality have to do with war? Anything? Or something?

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  16. Allen Hagar

    6/24/17

    Have we forgotten? Did we forget? “Are all men created equal?” Including “them?”

    What is the story of absence in the Middle East? Have the Palestinians been silent? Quiet? Muffled? Is the story too intertwined for easy six o’clock news analysis? Can President Trump challenge this? Can his supporters affect him? How can we, as writers, impact the situation? Is logic needed? Or is more passion required?

    Have we not forgotten? What is the truth of genocide today? What is the truth of slavery yesterday, in America, during the nineteenth century? And what is the biblical truth of slavery in the time of Genesis? How do they relate, talk to each other? What about equality? Are all men created equal? What happens when we speak of “Other Persons?” Do they exist? Is much writing required? Perhaps a lifetime? ABH

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  17. Allen Hagar

    6/24/17

    Have we grown accustomed to the face of Mars? The Roman god of war? Are we comfortable with his presence in our beds? Flowers yellow bloom. Are the fields of wildflowers far away? Are the beautiful fields of crops distant or near? Should we be afraid? Are our beds safe? The brilliance is not so far away. The flowers of evil might be here to stay…

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