Small Grenades: Writing and Politics

by Sydney Lea

Who knows what the presidency of a self-regarding, mendacious, and abysmally ill-informed martinet bodes?

For the moment, however, most of us are lucky enough not to live in a system such as the old USSR’s, say, in which—as Joseph Brodsky once said in a journal I edited—merely to describe a flower accurately felt like a political act.

In much of the west, and particularly in the U.S, we face a subtler difficulty than that posed by authoritarian censorship: namely that the authorities (and the “public at large”) are unlikely to be swayed one way or another by anything like fiction or poetry, simply because those arts go largely unnoticed. To that extent, our better writing strategies likely involve newspapers or, more accurately in our day, social media, as opposed to the so-called creative arts.

But even online activism, to name it that, proves problematic, for at least two reasons. The first is that social media can put Einstein in the same house as the village imbecile: thus, if two disparate accounts of the same thing are broadcast, there is no determining which will strike a broad readership as more compelling. This was, off course, painfully exemplified by the idiotic controversy over President Obama’s birthplace. Those who chose to label him a Kenyan were simply not to be dissuaded by indisputable proof of his birth in Hawaii. The social media’s second great liability is that, just as oppressed parties may use them, so may their oppressors, a sad fact illustrated by the ill-starred Arab Spring and by frequent manipulations of information in China, for instance.

In the end, though here I am surely influenced by when I cut my teeth, it may be that more direct political activism—street demonstrations, working harder for genuinely progressive candidates, and so on—are the likeliest avenues to such success as the kind of people reading this may find.

But let us imagine a literature that was an effective tool of change. My surmise is that, like socialist realism, it would, qua writing, be bad or tepid in any case, simply because art founded primarily on an aprioristic agenda is usually doomed to inferiority in my view. As Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image, has written: “The problem with socially conscious art is that, by attempting to address social ills directly, it begins with the notion that it already has the answers and merely needs to dramatize them. The results are predictably didactic and inert.”

All this may sound as though I urge political or social nonchalance upon the artist, urge him or her to be a little Nero, playing the violin as Rome burns. Not at all. In fact, exactly the contrary. Any poet who stayed innocent of the great migrant crisis of the world, for example, would be no poet at all. An artist must be as open as possible to all manner of observation, and must be jealous of those observatory powers, because the threats to them are myriad. To allow that openness to be usurped by anything—even the noblest political or moral conviction—is by my lights suicidal.

Here is a remark, which resonates with me, by my dear friend, poet Fleda Brown: “I’ve long since quit worrying about whether writing itself is a worthy use of my life. Whether it is or isn’t doesn’t change my inclination to do it. Anyway, I’m positive that it matters, words themselves being small bulbs buried under the soil, small grenades.”

I hope that Fleda is right, but in any case, I know that a willful effort to make my poems “political” or “relevant” in the way my own formative 60s demanded will serve no one: not me, not my reader, and not the causes I passionately subscribe to, including resistance to climate change, women’s right to their own bodies, a sane and compassionate attitude toward those disrupted by violence, which would go hand in glove with the development of a non-hysterical stance toward terrorism.

The only thing I really know to do is to beat at my keyboard. If what results is an explosion, I must accept that. If I am moved by a bloom or a bird or the birth of a grandchild, these are what I need to bring forth. The point is, we writers need to sustain belief in our own voices, and in their autonomy– not to the point of perversity or narcissism, but right up to those points. If we allow our voices to be controlled by dogma, even virtuous dogma (if there be such a thing), we might as well be writing advertisements or propaganda. We need to believe that our sincerest testimonies matter, even if we cannot define how that may be in any definitive way. We need to agree with William Carlos William’s assertion that

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

And again I agree with smart Fleda Brown: “Okay, to be really blunt: What do I—as a writer—do about Donald Trump? Theodore Roethke said, ‘My heart keeps open house.’ Omit nothing. Bombs, bullets, butterflies, beetles, Trump.”

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author photo craftsbury Sydney Lea has recently completed four years as Vermont Poet Laureate. His most recent publications are his fourth collection of personal essays, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long, and his twelfth volume of poems, No Doubt the Nameless. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

Getting a Book Wrong by Getting it Right

by David Ebenbach

One of the most surprising things about writing is that you can set out to do a particular thing, and completely succeed at doing that thing, and, as a result, produce something that is not good.

I learned this lesson in the process of developing my new short story collection, which originated in an idea. Probably this was not a great way to begin, but it’s how I began. I noticed that I had written a few short stories that were in the first person and starred a narrator who was trying to convince the listener/reader of something. A ha! I thought. A pattern! And so I decided that I was going to write an entire book of stories like that.

Side note: before my first collection of short stories, Between Camelots, was published, I would work on one individual story at a time and would only think about that particular story. I didn’t think about how that story might fit in with other stories, how it could be part of some emerging theme or focus, how it might fit into something bigger. I didn’t think in terms of books. Ever since Between Camelots came out, though, it’s been hard to avoid thinking about books, because books are fun and rewarding. Whenever I write a story now, I have this awful tendency to look right past it, wondering if it could be part of a collection. It’s a bad habit that I don’t know how to break.

Anyway, that habit was already in place when I decided (based on those several relevant stories I’d already written) that I was going to write a collection of first-person stories with narrators attempting to persuade. In a sense they would all be dramatic monologues. Well, I set out to write those stories, and over a couple of years I did write them. I got the job done. When I put them all together and slapped a title on the collection—Missionaries—I shared the manuscript with some very smart writer-friends, and they agreed: yes, I had indeed put together a book of first-person narrators pleading their cases.

The problem was that, as these very smart writer-friends told me, it was not a good book.

These very smart writer-friends told me that my attempt to pursue a focus had produced uneven stories; some were good, but others were clearly there just because I needed more of that type. I had lowered my standards in order to make sure my goals were met. Even worse, even if all the stories had been good, apparently it was pretty tedious, reading one narrator after the next all engaged with the reader in the same kind of way. In other words, I had succeeded in putting together a certain kind of book, but that kind of book was not going to work for a reader. Doing what you mean to do is not inherently a good thing; it’s only a good thing if what you mean to do is worth doing.

A somewhat euphemized version of a piece of advice I regularly give my students: You can smear mud all over a plate—on purpose, intentionally—but your intentions don’t make it dinner.

And so I retreated to my Writing Cave and pondered. Instead of pursuing the Missionaries idea further, I decided to let myself be guided by the power of the stories. I dumped the ones that were so-so and hung onto the ones that were solid. I also grabbed some other solid stories I’d written along the way, ones that I’d written even though they didn’t fit into the collection idea (sometimes I’m still a little irrepressible, even with my bad Could this be a book? habit), and I just put them all together, side-by-side, to see whether they might play nicely with one another. (That’s how I assembled my first book, after all.)

And it turned out that they did play nicely with one another. And in fact there was even a theme there—people trying to figure out how to fit into the social world—but the theme was not relentless, and it emerged organically instead of being an artificial force producing stories like an assembly line, and there were many different kinds of voices, and third-person stories (and even second-person stories!) to go with the first-person stories. There was variety. This was a collection rather than an idea stuck on repeat. When my very smart writer-friends read the new version, now called The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and other stories (and now published, I’m proud to say), they said it was good. They said that this was a plate of something that could reasonably be called dinner.

When it comes to assembling short story collections, intentions are not sacred. Intentions probably aren’t even necessary. Certainly they matter a lot less than the stories themselves.

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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 short story collection The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and other stories. He lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University.

On Running a Democracy Without Reading

by Kelly Cherry

I don’t get out much these days. There are two reasons for this: I have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and my husband and I live in the middle of nowhere, which is to say that there is nothing near enough for us to get to. We do, however, have televisions—plural, because Burke has games to watch, especially basketball and tennis. I turn on the TV in the bedroom sometimes even when I’m writing, although I don’t have it on at the moment. We have a couple of shows we watch—The Americans is terrific!—and Designated Survivor, because we are Kiefer Sutherland fans, even though we liked him better when he was defeating enemies and saving lives around the world. But mostly, in these traumatic days, I watch the news.

I was once in Trump Tower, the night it opened. I didn’t meet Trump himself, who was just a blank to me, and all I remember of this event (the opening) is seeing a famous literary figure—the head of a well-known publishing house—stuffing cocaine into his nostrils and sucking it up into his nose. I’d never seen anyone do this before; I was fascinated by the event, or perhaps I should say ritual. I admit I concluded that his ability to tell a good manuscript from a bad was likely impaired—assuming he actually read the manuscripts, and I think that’s doubtful.

I still have not met Donald Trump and I hope it never happens. He is, after all, a liar, a bully, desperately thin-skinned, and foolish. Foolish because he is poorly educated. He doesn’t read books; I doubt he even reads newspapers. Well, he did tell us that The National Inquirer is a factually correct device for finding out what is going on. He said this because the so-called newspaper had put him on their cover. What would be the point in meeting him? He wouldn’t listen to anything I said, nor would he care to know anything about me. He lives in the smallest of worlds and has even less communication with it than we in our isolated house do.

He has now established his team, the people who will serve him in his presidency. He must depend upon them because, despite his many “deals,” he knows very little. Very little of anything. How can someone who doesn’t read books know anything about the world? How much did he learn by dialing Taiwan? How much has he learned from Putin’s hackings? How much has he learned by tweeting?

Pretty much nothing.

And how much has he learned by doing deals in various countries? He has certainly learned about doing deals in those countries, but otherwise, he has learned—let’s all say it together—pretty much nothing.

Why do I think his lack of interest in reading is crucial? Not only because books inform us, though I am glad they do. Not only because books entertain us, though I am glad they do. Not only because books remind us of the beauty and power of writing, though I am glad they do. Books also teach us how to be human. They finely and delicately and forcefully demonstrate for us thoughts we have never thought or only barely thought. They teach us compassion and the need for it, illustrating the excitement of observation, the heartbreak and perpetual grief that occurs in every life, the gorgeous peace of serenity, the exhilaration of discovery. Yes, these experiences happen in people’s lives, and some people manage them and some don’t; but books instruct us in the details, the particularities of events, and thereby strengthen our understanding of love and loss, of being one and multiple, of feeling. They ready us for life and allow us to think on it. Even that publisher snorting coke in Trump Tower would have known this.

Watching our outgoing president presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to his outgoing vice-president, those of us in front of TV sets saw both men cry. That was an exalted moment. In that moment, we knew both men, Obama and Biden, were as human as ourselves. Neither struggled to outdo the other in any way. There was no bullying, only comradeship, two guys who had worked well with each other. There were no lies on their tongues nor any desperation. Neither did or said anything foolish, because both are grown men who are well acquainted with the world and unafraid to acknowledge their limitations.

And now we have this incoming president who knows nothing but “making deals.”

I would be glad to have a writer as a president, or a painter perhaps. I don’t think the best president is necessarily a politician. I’d be glad to have a business man who also reads, or listens to Beethoven’s string quartets.

But Donald Trump is so benighted that he doesn’t understand why some people cry. He doesn’t know what other people feel, what they go through. He can’t allow himself to feel his feelings of inferiority and is unaware that others feel their own. He can’t tell the truth and is unaware that others do speak truth.

How can a man without awareness run a democracy?

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KellyPhoto1Edit BIO Kelly Cherry’s most recent poetry collection, just published, is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. She has also recently published Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories (Press 53); A Kelly Cherry Reader (SFASUP); A Kind of Dream: Stories (U of Wisconsin); and a poetry chapbook titled Physics for Poets (Unicorn Press). Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Reader Response Theory? A Participatory Review of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick and Amazon’s I Love Dick

by Emily Stone

Dear Dick,

Oh, God. This is so good. This feels so right. I am breathless.

I have only ever written about infatuation. Now I have a cat. I had to disentangle myself from her, all of us in bed together, to write this.

I first met you on Amazon Prime, jetlagged and longing, my partner sleeping in the next room. You were Kevin Bacon on horseback in a series pilot without a series, getting at some kind of elusive, disjunctive truth. Digital editing keeping you in sharp focus while everything was soft behind you, digital distribution making this kind of ruminative ironic project possible on a television screen. As a character, you were every possible combination of person and fantasy, of interpretation and adaptation, a memory of a review essay about intertextual imaginings of you in the New Yorker. From the first time I met you, you were a palimpsest of other people’s projections, Chris Kraus’s epistolary novel of ricocheting between New York and LA as an independent filmmaker in the 1990s superimposed over Ben Lerner’s Marfa, a “weird meditative lyric” cannibalizing its own influences. Time, place, and critical context shifted, the game continuing. When I saw the new paperback, Kraus’s original novel reissued by the press run by her ex-husband, in an art bookshop in East London, I felt for the first time in a long time that I could participate.

Is it possible that I was supposed to vote for you on Amazon, to say that I wanted to see more? Did I have some kind of weird power after all, deciding whether the series would ever be made?

Back at my hotel, where I rediscovered that luxury of being by myself, where I had been upgraded to a suite with a table and chairs and a couch running the length of the room in sweatpants motif, I gave my silent consent. I agreed to enact Chris Kraus’s project. For Chris, too, the counterpoint of this and every story was Guatemala. I discovered longing there, and so writing. I met my first Dick there, playing with the name. That was 2001. He was an Air Force pilot. He was a Republican. I wonder if he survived the Bush years. I wonder now what he has to do, if anything, with Donald Trump. I was in London for a photography course, a course on visual culture and Instagram and competing and finding an audience. In one or two interstitial moments, my classmates asked me, relic of a time when the internet was about text and not image, for writing advice. “Why bother?” is advice I really have given, not meaning to be ungenerous. “Who’s listening?” This time I said, try writing for an audience, even if it’s private, to help you decide which choices to make. Was I inspired by you? I don’t even know you.

At the end of 2016, I woke up in this same light, unable to distinguish between my partner’s breathing and the sounds of a snow shovel hitting the pavement outside our window, outside our lives. That is true. That is private. This morning, I woke up wondering if I should cultivate an audience on Instagram, colleagues on LinkedIn, and friends on Facebook. What is Twitter for? My professional life is like my personal life. I want to be alone, so I don’t write, then others don’t write, and I feel lonely. As an author previously published here, I have been invited to write about my work on the blog. I have wanted to participate.

How to write? I said I let the connections, the links, build up. The perfect time to write is when I see enough connections to put something together, before I see so many that I’m worked up into a frenzy. Last term, one of my own students, a college freshman, pointed out that, speaking from experience as an individual with bipolar disorder, seeing connections between ourselves and everything we encounter is a hallmark both of clinical mania and of the first-person essay. This student, I came to understand, was unsatisfied, both in life and in my class. I sympathized deeply, on both counts, but I kept my distance in the hopes that such an experience could be a private, personal, independent one for my student.

There is a sunset clause on this letter, or a sunrise clause. I have to be finished by the time my partner gets up to go to work. Because I have to get back to my bourgeois life. Goodbye, Dick. I loved your solitude before I ever met you. I have always loved your chest exposed to the sun, your memories of your childhood in the English Midlands, your house at the end of a desert dirt road. I sincerely apologize for all invasions of your privacy.


Emily Stone

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27ef868543abf9c4e16439c1aeb8f0bdEmily Stone is very proud to have published her first “literary” piece here on AGNI Online in 2008, and her work has since appeared in Tin House, Fourth Genre, and The North American Review, and been included among the notable entries in The Best American Essays and The Best American Travel Writing. She teaches expository writing at NYU and maintains the website Chocolate in Context.

Don’t Get Hysterical, Get Historical—and Mythical

by Rachel Hadas

Precisely a week before the dreaded inauguration, I found myself thinking about work written by Euripides, W.H. Auden, Walt Whitman, and—a couple of months ago—by some of my students at Rutgers-Newark. In however zig-zaggy and haphazard a fashion, allow me to try to join this constellation of dots—or as Auden put it in “September 1, 1939,” these “ironic points of light.”

A graduate seminar on myth in literature I taught this past fall met on Wednesday afternoons. On November 9, I walked the students through “September 1, 1939.”

To the best of my recollection, not one of the dozen of them (both MA and MFA students) was familiar with Auden’s work at all. Marilyn Hacker, in her trenchant essay “Poetry and Public Mourning,” reminds us that “Auden wished to excise some of his early political poetry from his oeuvre because he had ceased to hold the convictions there expressed: many readers go on reading these poems, wherever they stand in their politics.” It’s well known that “September 1, 1939” was widely circulated on the Internet after 9/11. It’s also the case that some people quickly began to refer to November 9, 2016 as “11/9.”

The reading on our syllabus that week was Euripides’ play Iphigenia in Aulis. And although for part of the afternoon Iphigenia yielded air time to Auden, her compelling and nightmarish story continued to preoccupy the students. In addition to Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia among the Taurians, we’d read Barry Unsworth’s hard-hitting 2003 novel The Songs of the Kings, also about the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father Agamemnon and his henchmen, and we had seen Michalis Cacoyannis’s 1978 film Iphigenia, which adheres closely to Euripides’ language. An ambitious father, a nubile daughter, an angry mob: “Iphigenia? Ivanka?” asked my student Ariel. Logical? Not exactly. Compelling as a parallel? Undoubtedly. For her final project, Ariel, a poet, wrote a short play on the subject. Another student wrote a dialogue, another a sequence of poems—all works that took these young women (all women) outside their usual generic comfort zones and that considered the ugly but endlessly ambiguous story of the sacrifice from multiple angles. No myth has a single or simple meaning; to understand it, you almost have to retell it, and in retelling it you can’t help changing it a little. “The forms of the tales that work survive, and the others die and are forgotten,” writes Neil Gaiman of myth in The View from the Cheap Seats. True enough; but just think of all the teeming life forms stories take before they become (as some certainly do) extinct.

Are the classics irrelevant? Walt Whitman thought so. In “Song of the Exposition” (1871) he wrote:

Come Muse migrate from Greece and Ionia,
Cross out please those immensely overpaid accounts,
That matter of Troy and Achilles’ wrath, and Aeneas’, Odysseus’ wanderings,
Placard “Removed” and “To Let” on the rocks of your snowy Parnassus…”

Whitman calls for “a better, fresher, busier sphere, a wide, untried domain.” But his breezy optimism, his airy dismissal of stale grievances, didn’t seem to pertain to the world we found ourselves living in last fall. Instead, my students were mesmerized by the darkly compelling, ironic, and multi-faceted story, which varies in every retelling, about the ruthless father and his daughter and the political backdrop against which the drama plays out.

Myth, I tell my students over and over, presents not a lesson but a vision, and lets us make of that vision what we will. At the tail-end of 2016, I was drawn back to Auden—not “September 1, 1939” this time, but to New Year Letter, a long and immensely eloquent poem Auden wrote a few months later, about politics, art, and much else. I’d remembered and sought out again the ominous notes this poem strikes at the start, his matchless evocation of global jitters leading up to World War Two. But I’d forgotten the wonderful passage, also quite near the beginning of the poem, in which Auden authoritatively puts the case that art offers neither realism nor an easy set of instructions but rather

An algebraic formula,
An abstract model of events
Derived from past experiments,
And each life must itself decide
To what and how it be applied.

What does all this have to do with the Trump era we’re being pulled into? Well, that words matter; that the classics retain their relevance, even if only because (as Auden puts it in “September 1, 1939”) “we must suffer [it] all again.” That we have to keep thinking for ourselves; even great literature of the past presents no easy answers. That the insistent tweet of the present mustn’t drown out the past or the future. Robert Frost reportedly said at a dinner party in 1960, “Don’t get hysterical, get historical. If they get some sense of historical background they’ll see how these things happen over and over again.”

Writing, teaching, journalism—these occupations, these vocations and avocations are more important now than ever. In the immediate future, they may become endeavors that call for more courage than many of us have at our disposal. Maybe we won’t need our courage; maybe we will. Some of us will find it. Time will tell—mythic time as well as the other kind; the past as well as the present.

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rachel_hadas_hiRachel Hadas is the author of many books of poetry, essays, and translations. Her most recent titles are a memoir, Strange Relation (2011); The Golden Road (2012) and Questions in the Vestibule (2016), both poetry; and she’s completing verse translations of Euripides’ two Iphigenia plays. She is Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers-Newark. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Lorca the Marginal on the Marginal

by Matthew Landrum

I read on a panel at Signal-Return letterpress in Detroit during banned books week this October. Taking a step beyond banned books, the panelists were asked to read work about or translated from authors who had been imprisoned, exiled, or killed. I read Federico García Lorca, a poet who wrote about the marginalized of society while being marginalized himself.

I worked up a version of “The Ballad of the Civil Guards” for the reading. It gave me chills delving into Lorca’s imaginings—a black-clad militia storming a festival, setting fires, shooting indiscriminately, assaulting and mutilating gypsy women and girls—knowing his fate at the hands of Franco’s soldiers, arrested and summarily executed on charges of socialism, freemasonry, and homosexuality.

The poem opens with civil guardsmen riding toward a city, their horses’ hooves muffled. Against this impending menace, Lorca sets a scene of surreal beauty and calm. City of cinnamon towers, of moons, pumpkins, and cherry preserves, / who could look at you and not be love-struck? The threat and the surreal festival meet when the civil guard enters the city—pandemonium ensues.

In October, the poem’s depiction of the wanton use of excessive force seemed immediate enough. Events since have brought to sharper relief the importance of Lorca’s poetic witness on the oppressed and disenfranchised. Lorca’s took its stand through poetry. He spoke for his beliefs, his lifestyle, and for the abused fringes of society. His brave outspokenness cost him everything.

Lorca writes about the aftermath of the raid—The soot, the ashes, the bodies, the mosquito song / of stray bullets—you will see them on our brows for years to come. Those silent marks on the body, the private griefs and pains that follow atrocities. His work brings those into the public sphere. It stands in the solidarity of witness. His time and place needed poets to speak up and ours does too. It’s always a time for witness.

I hope I’ve done some justice to Lorca’s vision and voice (I take comfort in the fact that he himself did experimental translations transmogrifying traditional Arab, Galician, and Andalusian sources), especially in his depiction of brutality and injustice. One of the things I love is how the act of devotion and deep reading that is translation brings me closer to another author. And in this, it’s also my hope that his vision of justice and witness can help me better speak to this time and place.

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photo by Kurt Simonson

Matthew Landrum holds an MFA from Bennington College. His poems and translations have recently appeared in The Michigan Quarterly Review, Glass Poetry, and Image Journal. He lives in Detroit. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.


Writing to Speak to the Dead

by Radhiyah Ayobami

I write as a way of speaking to my dead. I never consciously acknowledged this until I had a conversation with my mother recently. We were reminiscing about my grandmother and her deep orange-brown sweet potato pies, her way of sitting outside with a cigarette and cup of peppermint tea and heckling people from her porch—Hey man, why your head so little? It has been five years since she transitioned into the Great Big Yonder, and she still lives in our stories. At the end of our conversation, my mother said, I wish I could tell her how much I enjoyed her. I said, I’ll tell her. There was a pause.

Back when me and my mother lived in the same city, and sometimes even in the same house, I never said things like that to her. But I live in California now, 3,000 miles away from Brooklyn where I was born, and I’m old enough to have traveled a little bit, seen a little bit, and have a teenager with hair on his chin. I’m also finally brave enough to say who I am. I could make her less uncomfortable and speak into the pause. I could laugh my statement off as a joke, ask about her dog, and the weather in New York. Rainy? Windy? Snowing Yet? Weather is always safe. But I remain silent and finally she says, I don’t know what you’re talking about—I don’t talk to dead people. I say, But I do.

It’s hard for me to think about my ancestors as dead people—to me they’re just folks who live in the Great Big Yonder. I feel like I know them as well as people I see right in front of me, and this is probably my grandmother’s fault. The first stories I remember were hers, and all about growing up in a small town in Virginia, ten miles wide. Today, that town is an exit on the freeway that boasts one buffet, a discount store and a couple of budget motels. Back in her time, it was a town of farms that one drove through on the way to bigger and more exciting things. There she was raised, by parents who were sharecroppers, with her eleven brothers and sisters. (My grandmother would have never used a word like siblings. And since this is her piece just as much as it is mine, I won’t either.) I would never meet most of the people in her stories—they had long ago traveled to the Great Big Yonder. But when I sat at her feet as a little girl, playing with my dolls as she weaved stories, the people she conjured up were just as real as the neighbor next door who brought us over fat slices of homemade red velvet cake in Saran Wrap or the white-bearded preacher in his flowing robes that hollered and sweated and fell out every Sunday. The people in the story became real—and they were mine.

My grandmother’s stories were not child-friendly, and had she known about that concept I’m sure she wouldn’t approve. She was born in 1931, and black Southerners of that generation generally didn’t believe in hiding things from children. If it was grown folks business then a child knew better to question or comment, but survival for everyday living had to be shared. To hide the facts of the world might mean severe trouble or death in a land where they lacked human rights. So even before I started school, I knew how my great-grandmother, Mama Mary, had been snatched by a man when she was just a girl and had given birth to a baby boy who was later raised on an Indian reservation. And I could see what my grandmother called the boy’s hang-dog look as he crouched near the porch wanting to see his mother, while her new husband forbid it. I knew how Mama Mary had taken a child from the arms of a mother who was giving him away because she was going to jail for killing her husband—and how that little boy became one of the rowdiest uncles in the family. He wore the loudest suits, toted the longest rifles, drank the stiffest moonshine, and was always running from the law. I knew about the light-skinned and the dark-skinned side of the family—how the lighter side lived up on a hill and had a little land and looked down on the darker side, who were sharecroppers. I knew Mama Mary was magic—how she went around the town with her midwife bag and bundle of herbs grown in her garden, and she delivered babies of the poor and healed the sickly and had an extra plate for everyone—while her own son was chased from her door.

My grandmother didn’t do morals; she told her stories and you got what you got. Sometimes they were sorrowful and sometimes they were full of life. She loved to talk the years after the family migrated to Brooklyn and became settled. Back then, Brooklyn was a city where everybody was from down home and you could walk into anyone’s kitchen and smell pig feet boiling or be served a plate of fried chicken necks, backs and gizzards. Every woman kept an endless kettle of greens, white potatoes and fatback on the stove while Mahalia Jackson or Shirley Caesar wailed from a big floor stereo. Somewhere in each of those houses was the Holy Bible on its own stand, a shining picture of Martin, and the long-haired Jesus. All up and down Eastern Parkway were the organizations people had formed to survive, and when these folks weren’t busy surviving in the factories and rooming houses and storefront churches, they were celebrating—the down home folks had got citified. There were the dances kept by Daughters of the Eastern Star and the Masonic Temples, and regular old house parties and rent parties where folks propped speakers in the windows and the women in the house cooked down a full plate with a drink for a little pocket change.

And my grandmother was beautiful. Even though she wasn’t from the light-skinned branch of the family, she wasn’t what she considered ‘too dark’ and her eyes were hazel and changed color with the sun. Her hair was thick and black, and when straightened it curled limp and glossy over her shoulder as she stepped out in her sequined dresses and heels, splashed with rosewater. She was twenty years younger than her husband, and could read, write and mingle easily with anyone—and her husband had none of these abilities. He was the son of sharecroppers who had only done one year of school and had a Southern drawl that could be hard to understand. He knew two things well: hard work and drinking. And he did them every day. He also did things like mix up lye and boiling water in a bucket and threaten to kill his family, and drank up his wages so my grandmother had to take her small children downstairs to the neighbor lady and leave for work at the hospital early in the morning while the sky was still dark. Sometimes, softhearted male co-workers dropped her home, and her husband cursed at her and accused her of cheating. In this marriage, my grandmother stayed for decades.

My family would sit around the kitchen table and laugh as they told these stories. They would start, Remember when… and it was ultimately some story of a man in the family who hurt someone by stabbing, mixing up a deadly concoction or pushing someone through a plate glass window. (All true.) The women were also equal opportunity assaulters, but they were more subtle—they poisoned with a handful of leaves or a sprinkle of dust tossed into the stew. Or got hold of a few of your short hairs and burned a candle and Lord knows what could happen then. Some of the stories were funny to me, but whenever I heard about my grandmother and her husband, I wanted to cry. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to mix up something in a bucket to kill her when she laughed all the time and called everyone chile and shared everything she had in her sweet southern way. I wanted to know why the men in our lives were allowed to behave so badly. And because these weren’t questions I could ask my older relatives, I became a writer.

In my writing, I can ask the questions never would in real life. I can dream up the things I don’t know and make my own endings. I can let the women be warriors and still be loved by their men. I can imagine the women with their long rifles, aimed steady and sure, declaring they and their children won’t be abused. And I can see them sitting in the porch swing with their men at night, watching the stars and the long grass in the fields rustle.

Finally, I can give Mama Mary a happy ending. In my version, her teenage son lopes up the steps like her husband once did, and she peers out the window and sees him standing at the door. She places a lemon cake, warm from the oven, on the center of the table next to a butter knife and two shiny clean saucers. On the table, a pitcher of lemonade, chock full of fresh cut lemons and plenty sugar. The doorbell rings and her smaller children shuffle in the living room, ready to meet their big brother. She opens the door and finds herself looking at the young man with her face, and the family’s trademark honey eyes. The boy is thin, fidgety. Not knowing if he will be accepted. And all she can do is open her arms wide and say to him, Welcome. The story shifts, and we heal. This is why I write.

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radhiyah-blue-1 Radhiyah Ayobami is Brooklyn-born with Southern roots. She holds a B.A in Africana Studies from Brooklyn College, a MFA in Prose from Mills College, and has received awards from the New York Foundation of the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Currently, she lives with her teenage son in Oakland, California, where she is at work on her first novel and the trees give her poems. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.