What Does Your Cat Want from You? A Writer’s Thoughts

by Anis Shivani

Cats know death better than anyone.

It seems that the primary reason they domesticated us, at the same time as humans became domesticated to agriculture and a sedentary life, was to remind us of the sensuous things that keep escaping us. And what is more sensuous than death? What is more luxurious, what is more eventful, what is more poetic? A cat contains the poetry of death—and indeed it is the highest form of poetry, because this poetry comes from silence and ends in silence—like nothing else on earth.

The cat’s every movement and gesture and sound and hesitation and flurry and escape and approach is designed to embody the idea of death.

The idea of death is a furry softness we touch and grope and fondle, thinking we are touching a cat. Squeeze a cat in the belly and hear him utter that half moan, half mewl, half plea, half grump, squeeze him and feel how delicate and fragile he is, how absurdly small despite his usual proclamations to be a tiger in a cat’s little body. He is small and he knows it but most of the time he doesn’t want you to know it, except when you rub him a little too hard, he realizes then you have penetrated the membrane of forgettability, you have raised questions!

A cat does not want to answer questions. This explains why he’s often not around to take them. Or not take them at moments inappropriate for him. Or he takes them on sufferance. Or he takes them as answers in themselves, not bodies he’s accountable for.

A cat has the most fluid sense of accountability, like you should as a writer, a cat is unaccountable and unknowable and unchangeable as you were in your best moments as a child.

Remember when the ocean of gratitude washed over you in the playground, as you ceased for that moment to try to grow into something, a viable man or a viable woman, a bigger, taller, stronger, hardier being? You paused in the stillness of the midmorning sun, unable to calculate, unable to add two plus two, unable to remember your name even; all you knew was that you had shown up in the world just that morning, unmade, unborn, unreal.

A cat is born into the world anew each morning. (This is what you misinterpret as his need for luxury, for conspicuous ease, in fact you misinterpret all his gestures as his need for luxury.)

Each morning he tells you, the writer, he is shocked to be alive. Is any of it real? Is he actually breathing, beside the slant acrostics of the sun, under that revolving fan that throws kooky shadows over the walls, is he actually breathing? In and out, in and out, watch his nose flutter, watch his eyes purr in disbelief, yes he is breathing something of the air we all share. (Air is nothing but the volume of unreality that rises and falls in proportion to the quota of tragedy that has been your lot for the day. You don’t believe that the air is thicker or thinner on any given day? Then you haven’t been around cats long enough, sorry.)

A writer knows that a cat reincarnates more prolifically than a person. A single cat may die and reincarnate twenty or twenty thousand times, reappear in all the different hotspots around the world to put his foot down and throw his scent around and lay out the smartest paths of escape. But here’s the difference from people reincarnating: a cat has no choice but to relive his finest instincts each time, the failure of nerve, unfortunately common to people, not a shortcoming he needs to reappear to correct.

It’s quite possible that cats invented reincarnation.

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My original Fu, who died Oct. 13, 2015, after two years of illness; he ate a poisoned rat, otherwise he would have gone on to live till twenty-nine.
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Foolittle, who was born around the same time Fu died, at six months old. A case of reincarnation? You decide.

A cat looks at food and insects and birds and trees and flowers and grass and pillows and newspapers and dogs and bookshelves and drinking fountains and socks and purses as objects in the process of reincarnation, things that have been here before and will be again, things that have always existed, so that it is not possible to conceive of their non-existence. Shouldn’t you, as a writer, be paying at least that much respect to objects around you?

So what does your cat want from you?

He wants you to be as indifferent as he is to solving crossword puzzles.

He does not want you to go out in the rain, because you will get wet and antsy, you will bring in a trail of sodden worldliness, the world drenched in the excess of the weather, the world as weather, the world crying from happiness, he does not want you to remind him that other forms of being overwhelmed besides the one he wants you to know are possible, so he does not want you to go out in the rain.

Actually, nothing is sufficient to explain why a cat does not want you to go out in the rain.

But he does want you to write as though the world had ceased to exist.

He wants you to be alone, a lot more than you have ever managed to be. He means alone in the sense of forgetting how to speak, occasionally, alone in the sense of carving out that big hollow ball of cautious fur where you can lay down away from the tyranny of seconds and minutes and hours.

He wants you to fail, fail at everything you thought was yours for the taking, for only in failing is there the reminder of death which is the only point of life, his and yours.

But he wants you to succeed too, only not in the way you thought you were going to, but in a different way, different not to the world but to you, because you experience success, meaning the world noticing you, as…well, this is the hardest thing to define, so let me have him, the cat, step in for a moment, and take a direct shot at it:

“The world is rain. Or shelter from rain. When you feel the glow of success it’s as if you’re sheltering in the rain. But what I like about you is when you can be in two places at the same time. Or many, many places, too many to count. When you recognize other people you cease being in more than one place at a time. Then I find it hard to speak to you, until you come back to me. And it’s even worse when other people recognize you. Strangers who have never poked at your ribs or puffed in your ears or clawed at your eyes, strangers who think they know you. Do not write for them. I will never recognize you in that familiar way.”

There, good job, cat!

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The original Fu, the most literary cat there ever was; he read more books than most human beings will ever encounter in a lifetime, and was the author of at least seven, perhaps eleven, books.

A cat wants you, the writer, to rethink all you thought you knew about love. Love is not a gift, it is not a treasure, it is not a possibility, it is not a heritage. You can only experience love to the extent that you’re determined not to experience it. If you want to be in love, you cannot be in love. A cat knows that better than anyone, because he is a connoisseur of death, and you can see it anytime you look in his eyes.

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Foolittle, who hasn’t yet tried to get into reading and writing, is mostly interested in eating raw venison every couple of hours, chasing the laser beam and flying around the house, keeping me up all night and trying to eat my feet, and in general being a 24/7 cat YouTube highlight reel.

What exactly do you, dear writer, see in a cat’s eyes?

They are full of emerald beatitude, and the end of the world in a sunny explosion, and layers of truth in the moment of death, of course they are full of all these things, but what else do you see in a cat’s eyes?

A cat wants you to see in his eyes a trail of sadness and laughter that ends because it cannot end, the fluid glass container of grace that takes its own measure, glassy poetry that does not blink, does not pause for the sake of the pause alone.

A cat is, almost, a futurist, but not quite.

A cat moves from one thing to another without the blank aura of questioning. Do not ask the wrong questions. Do not waste time asking questions with no answers. In fact, do not ask any questions. This is the nature of a cat’s curiosity that a writer likes best. It is not about questions and answers, it is about not visibly and transparently moving from one moment to another, not traversing moments in a nuanced, atmospheric, observable way, but just being in one moment at a point in time and then reappearing in another at a different point in time—without transition!

This is the only thing that negates death. Well, not really, but the only attitude, this simultaneous reappearance in infinitely many guises, that plays death’s own game, does not try to cheat it but pays it due homage.

A cat is every moment paying homage to death. A writer should likewise always be paying homage to death. Together cat and writer grow into a languid sunflower that graces the noontime doorway, a rain that desires to idealize every evening as it accompanies the sun on its exit, a middlebrow butterfly that has yet to be called the sum of its parts, a bantering rabbi trying to discover the prayer that will negate all lazy prayers, a child playing in a doll’s house which is the only house that exists after the world has ended, a scholar tripping over a tower of books and laughing about atrophy and disappearance, a fish and a bird and a squirrel twisting this way and that in the sun over the churchly pond which will not abide intemperate moisture and grime.

A cat is not a puzzle to a writer. A writer is not a puzzle to a cat. A cat, when he takes you in his confidence, does so from the only heroism he knows.

AGNI Monkey

Fu4Anis Shivani’s recent books are Karachi Raj: A Novel, Soraya: Sonnets, and Literary Writing in the 21st Century: Conversations. His work appears recently in Black Warrior Review, Subtropics, The Journal, Boulevard, West Branch, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He has previously been published by both AGNI’s print magazine and the blog. His forthcoming novel, A History of the Cat in Nine Chapters Or Less, imagines the evolution of the feline-human relationship at key turning points throughout history—all from the point of view of the most perceptive cat there ever was. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

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Writing and the Tibetan Book of the Dead

by Ann Tashi Slater

I think a lot about death and faith and the creative process. This started some years back when I began writing a novel related to the Tibetan Buddhist belief in bardos, between-states when everyday life is suspended. Or maybe it started long before: on a winter day in 1912, my Tibetan great-grandfather was coming down to India from Tibet by pony. He and some of his party were buried in an avalanche. My great-grandfather thrust his arm up through the snow and waved his prayer beads, calling to his beloved Guru Rinpoche: “Save me, Guru Rinpoche, save me!” The men aboveground saw him and he was saved.

Guru Rinpoche, the eighth-century Indian saint who brought Buddhism to Tibet, is believed to have concealed his teachings under rocks and in lakes, in trees and the sky and the mindstream, to be revealed to future generations when most needed. The Bardo Thodol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead, is one of these teachings; when someone dies, monks sit next to the body and read from the text, exhorting the deceased to acknowledge reality but not give up as she journeys through the terrifying after-death bardo, wondering what will happen. Intended as much for the living as the dead, the Book of the Dead encourages all of us to persevere, whether in the after-death bardo or one of the difficult bardos experienced in life, like accident or illness.

In 2010 I lay in a hospital near death, an experience I write about in “Traveling in Bardo” (AGNI 86). I remembered the story of how my great-grandfather survived in the snow, and this helped me to accept what was happening yet not despair. The Book of the Dead was discovered centuries after being buried in Tibet; in a similar way, I felt, my great-grandfather’s lesson about faith came to me from where it had remained hidden in our family’s mindstream.

The Book of the Dead says that in bardo, we encounter blood-drinking, flame-spouting wrathful deities as big as the sky. Holding human corpses and brandishing axes, they shriek and howl. We’re told not to abandon hope: the deities are only emanations from our subconscious. W.Y. Evans-Wentz, editor of the first English translation of the Bardo Thodol (1927), called the deities “airy nothings woven into dreams”; the moment we recognize their true nature, they dissolve. Thus, we are the creators of our experience in bardo. As the Buddha said, “All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.”

Writing is a kind of bardo because ordinary life recedes as we create a universe on the page. The fears and doubts that can derail us while writing are like the wrathful deities. The uncertainty about where our hours at the desk will lead; whether, or how, a poem or an essay or a book will be realized. Recognizing that our worries are only our own “thought-forms,” as the Book of the Dead says, we have the chance to break free of them and engage fully with our creative work. In the bardo of writing, we make our experience.

AGNI Monkey

Ann Tashi Slater--AGNI blogAnn Tashi Slater’s work has been published by The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Tin House, and Granta en español. Her writing appears in Women in Clothes (Penguin) and American Dragons (HarperCollins), and her translation of fiction by Reinaldo Arenas was published in Old Rosa (Grove). Current projects include a bardo-related novel based on her Tibetan family history, a memoir about a pilgrimage to her ancestral homeland, and multimedia events at NYC’s Rubin Museum, including an October 2018 talk about her AGNI essay, “Traveling in Bardo,” and Tibetan wisdom in everyday life. A longtime resident of Tokyo, she teaches at a Japanese university. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

Delight and Devastation: A Conversation with Ben Purkert

by Jay Deshpande

Ben Purkert’s poems aren’t just concerned with intelligent life—they are intelligent life. Reading his lyrics, one feels an organism of language assembling, cobbling together casual talk, billboard advertisements, and wisdom to examine what we make and how it comes apart. For the Love of Endings is the kind of poetry debut that invites many rereadings as the poems turn in the light and take on new weight.

I’ve been reading Purkert’s poems for some time: we met in a college poetry workshop, and have continued to talk about craft, unremittingly, for nearly 15 years. For the book’s March release, I wanted to get Ben’s thoughts on For the Love of Endings and the world it enters into. Our discussion highlights Ben’s distinctive approach to making poems, but it also captures the enthusiastic speed and range of his thinking.

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JD: I wanted to start by asking about the place of wit in these poems. I see it in phrases like “really gasoline got me where I am today” or “at least the swallows outside // my window sound into / each other.” In each of those cases, the statement is true but gets stranger the longer we look. Familiar phrases fork into multiple meanings and force us to take them literally. How do you think about wit as an instrument in poetry? Are you conscious of it when you write?

BP: I’m not sure if I’m conscious of it as a writer, but I’m very attuned to it as a reader. I love poems that delight and devastate in equal measure, that strike many chords at once. Sometimes we associate being a “serious poet” with always being serious. But wordplay has been an integral part of poetry since the beginning. A serious part, even.

Wit, like poetry, is only as powerful as it is subversive. And I admire poets who take jargon and slogans and euphemisms and expose that language for what it is. Who break it open with enjambment and lay out the shards for the reader. A gasp and a laugh aren’t so far apart. They can even sound the same.

JD: The laugh and the gasp are also bonded in that moment of surprise, which is one of the great pleasures a poem can give us. It makes sense that you refer to enjambment here, as the potential shock of a linebreak is central to your process. In “Salivating Over Nothing,” the poem quivers between peace and unrest, depending how we read a line: “& they / let the mind be // ravaged…”

It makes me think about the sense of impending threat throughout the book. The poems are laced with ideas about destruction. The speaker suggests “You can nuke yourself / garlic knots” or admits he will “work a little / bomb into this page.” Or he considers his own obsolescence: “When I’m gone, the thing I’ll miss is missing, is describing the world I miss.” What interests you about these big and small deaths in the poems?

BP: “Big and small deaths” is such an interesting phrase, because every death feels so big, you know? But it’s hard sometimes to parse these differences of scale, particularly when gigantic icebergs are dissolving and small men are bragging about buttons on their desks that would make it all disappear.

I know we just talked about humor, so apologies for the dark turn, but I feel like all poems are inherently, as you said, laced with ideas about destruction. Dean Young describes poetry as being “formally involved with endings: its primary characteristic, the line, is defined by its ending, so poems are really ending all the time.” It’s poetry’s “terminal aspect.” And maybe that’s why poetry feels so necessary right now? It’s not that the world is ending and we need more poems about its demise. It’s that every poetic line is—by its nature—broken, interrupted, a life cut short. Poetry is the art form that’s closest to our condition.

JD: Giorgio Agamben hits that same note in his lecture “The End of the Poem”: when the poem ends and we fall back into prose, it’s something like a death, or at least “a decisive crisis for the poem… the poem’s very identity is at stake.” Similar to Young, Agamben sees the linebreak as an essential quality of poetry, and doesn’t show much interest in the prose poem.

BP: But I think the prose poem has that potency, too. This may sound weird but I’ve never understood why linebreaks in prose are paid so little attention. I talked with Kaveh Akbar recently and he expressed a similar feeling—shouldn’t the end word of any line (in all genres) sing? It’s the trophy you hand the reader before they trudge back to the left-hand side of the page. I’m indebted to my publisher (hi, Four Way Books!), for many reasons, not the least of which is that they indulged me and preserved the linebreaks of my prose poems as I’d written them. I’m also working on a novel right now and I’m always tweaking sentences and futzing with margins so that the story breaks in the “right” places. It was oddly comforting to discover that one of my favorite fiction writers, David Gilbert, does it too.

JD: Let’s go back to this idea of “differences of scale.” I think your poems teach the reader how to parse them. For example, “Self-Portrait as Infinite Smallness” begins by acknowledging the speaker as a collection of microbes, then considers a car crash, then the street, then the city’s grid, then the ocean. It’s like a primer on how to expand from self to an environmental scale, step by step.

But when the poems look at the world on that macro scale, they often turn toward the possibility of abandonment. In addition to “Escape Plans,” there are a number of poems that contemplate leaving our ravaged planet behind. It’s like science fiction, but considering climate change, maybe this moment is nearly upon us. What are the ethics of imagining an escape from our home planet?

BP: I don’t know much about science fiction, but I do know that our existence here is tenuous. That’s especially true for communities where resources are scarce, where the evacuation routes are already submerged. It’s horrifying to think about, and more horrifying not to think about. To answer plainly: if my poems are dreaming of an escape from Earth, it’s only because they’re so hopelessly attached to it.

On the topic of poetry and the environment, I have to mention Inger Christensen’s Alphabet. It’s such an incredible book; it attempts to take account of nearly every single thing that exists, as the threat of apocalypse looms. And here’s the miracle of her book: it’s not depressing! It’s strangely kind of joyous. Yes, tomorrow brings nuclear winter and floods and famine, but *today* still exists. Today is a gift, and poets must praise it.

JD: And praise is no small task, especially for poets right now. But I’m curious about that accounting-for-things you mention. There’s a coy adherence to things in For the Love of Endings, specifically the physical matter of our late capitalist existence. A closeout on ice cream, a visit to Target, El Diablo Doritos “screaming my name”… I sense both an admiration for these products and a cynicism toward their power over us.

BP: I wouldn’t say admiration, but definitely an obsession. Working as a branding copywriter really shaped (or misshaped) how I see language and its applications. Target, for example, is an interesting case… If you look at their marketing, notice how often they use the bullseye logo as a substitute for spelling out the brand name. Like the Nike swoosh, the symbol alone says it all. Once a brand is burned into our consciousness, it bypasses language altogether.

JD: Your poems have a meticulous spareness. Even your colloquial phrases are poised and concentrated. So how do you revise? For instance, “Passing Thoughts in a Couple” was originally published in AGNI 78 as “Caged Words in a Couple.” The adjustments to it are small but significant. What’s the principle behind your revisions? 

BP: For me, revising means working in service of the poem on the page. I’m not trying to impose some idea I might have (Donald Hall: “There is no poem inside the head”). I like how George Saunders describes revision, this idea that every writer is outfitted with a compass that points either to good or bad, and you make edits through trial and error while keeping one eye on the quivering needle.

I will say, though, that revising a book is different than revising individual poems. It compelled me to make some changes I hadn’t expected. For instance, I think “Caged Words in a Couple” is possibly a stronger, more intriguing title. But there are sacrifices you make for the sake of the collective. Uh oh, I feel a sports metaphor coming on.

JD: Running through the theme of environmental destruction is also an undercurrent of guilt and responsibility. It’s there in “Blame Game” (“Pin the ozone layer on me… I clearly went too far”) and it carries throughout the book. Sometimes it’s on the personal level, too: “like most men, I’ll gaze // at anything to avoid looking / inward.” Where do you get your poetics of self-incrimination from?

BP: Well, I’ll say this: poetry is like prayer, and as such, it spans both praise and confession. I’m drawn to a speaker who feels burdened, who’s carrying some weight. It’s what makes writing compelling. As for me, I am absolutely culpable, and can’t hide that from my poems. I wouldn’t want to.

AGNI Monkey

AGNI BPBen Purkert is the author of For the Love of Endings (Four Way Books, 2018). His poems and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Guernica, AGNI, Best New Poets and elsewhere. A former New York Times Fellow at NYU, he teaches creative writing at Rutgers New Brunswick. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

 

 

AGNI JD.jpegA former AGNI poetry editor, Jay Deshpande is the author of the poetry collection Love the Stranger (YesYes Books), named one of the top debuts of 2015 by Poets & Writers, and the chapbook The Rest of the Body (YesYes Books). He is a Kundiman and Civitella Ranieri fellow. His poems have recently appeared in Denver Quarterly, Poetry Project Newsletter, LARB Quarterly Journal, and Horsethief. He teaches at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn. 

Survivor’s Guilt

by Sheila Kohler

One of the questions I have been asked most frequently, since publication of a recent memoir, is if this book has brought closure, if the writing of it has enabled me to go on with my life. Have I put the tragic event of an older sister’s death and possible murder behind me? My sister died at thirty nine in a car crash on a dry night, no other car in sight, her husband, a heart surgeon, who had beaten both her and their six children for years, at the wheel. Why had I not been able to stop this tragedy, knowing how dangerous this man was? How responsible was I? Could writing down this trauma enable me to forget? Does writing ever enable one to overcome what might be called survivor’s guilt?

Certainly this kind of material occurs again and again all through literature. “Beowulf,” the Anglo-Saxon poem, is one of the earliest examples where fratricide is closely woven into the text: Unferth, the Danish thane, kills his brothers, we are told; Haethcyn, the Geat, son of Hrethel, kills Herebeald and Grendel, himself, the monster, is the descendant of Cain who has killed Abel.

One of the most moving moments in Beowulf, a poem that comes to us from the 9th century or perhaps even earlier, is what is called “the father’s lament” (ll 2444-62), when a father confronts the death of a son killed by his own brother. Haethcyn, the younger boy, accidentally kills his brother, Herebeald, shooting him with an arrow. The father is left to lament an act without any means of redress or revenge. The poet writes:

“Morning after morning he wakes to remember
That his child is gone; he has no interest
In living on until another heir
Is born in the hall, now that his first-born
Has entered death’s dominion forever.
He gazes sorrowfully at his son’s dwelling,
The banquet hall bereft of all delight,
The windswept hearthstone; the horsemen are sleeping,
The warriors are under ground; what was is no more.
No tunes from the harp, no cheer raised in the yard.
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
And sings a lament; everything seems too large,
The steadings and the fields.

The Beowulf poet, whose references to religion are mostly from the Old Testament, mentions the killing of Abel by his brother Cain, which results in the birth of a race of ogres, elves, evil phantoms and giants, banished monsters. Amongst them is Grendel, a “fiend from hell” whose nightly vicious attacks become the scourge of the Danish king, King Hrothgar’s hall. This brother-killing, Cain killing Abel, results in a race of banished monsters, amongst them Grendel and Grendel’s mother, both of whom Beowulf fights.

Grendel, of course, is also the well-known novel where John Gardner gives voice to this monster who has emerged from the darkness of the misty marshes so mysteriously and frighteningly in Beowulf and is killed by Beowulf in the first part of the poem. Why, we might wonder, does this writer, writing in the 70’s, want to take up an ancient monster from an old poem and describe the world seen through his eyes? How does he get us to identify sufficiently with a monstrous, man-eating creature? And why would he try something so difficult?

Gardner, who knew the poem well, teaching it for many years, had, perhaps, a particular interest in this story because of his own life. As a young boy, growing up on a farm, he had accidentally backed a tractor into his young brother and killed him, a traumatic event he describes beautifully in a story called “Redemption.” Did he in some way identify with this monster, descendant of Cain, the brother killer, and so desire to give him a voice, to speak for him in the first person? Did he, himself, feel like a monster and perhaps even act like one at times, savaging his fellow writers so aggressively? He is reputed to have spoken disparagingly of Saul Bellow and Donald Barthelme, to mention two. Was he simply suffering from survivor’s guilt and was this his way of going on with his troubled life?

Another example that comes to mind is John Coetzee, the South African Nobel Prize winner, in his historical novel The Master of Saint Petersburg. This is ostensibly a novel about Dostoevsky, who returns to Saint Petersburg after the death of his step-son, Pavel Isaev, who has died in mysterious circumstances. The book is extremely well-researched and contains many erudite and exact references to Dostoevsky’s life (his epilepsy, his debts, his gambling, his first and second wives, the revolutionary Sergei Nechayev). But there is one glaring example where the novel alters the known facts of Dostoevsky’s life. In reality this step-son—who seems to have been something of a black sheep—does not die at all during Dostoevsky’s life but long after Dostoevsky is dead. Why then does the book center on the famous father’s great grief? Why do we have a scene when he prostrates himself on his grave? Why does he, in the act of making love to his housekeeper, find his dead son in her embrace? Is this then perhaps rather a father (John Coetzee) writing in this form to express his own survivor’s guilt, his own great sorrow at losing a son so young and so tragically?

These are questions we cannot answer, of course, but are interesting to us in considering how and why a writer takes reality and transforms it. Whether the act of writing of these tragedies even indirectly was of help to these writers in their lives we cannot know. We do know John Gardner died young and tragically in a motorbike accident at forty nine, whereas John Coetzee is still living and writing successfully today. Certainly, we can say in both cases that the ability to access this traumatic material and give it distance by transforming it into a structured form, ultimately made art.

All I can say as a writer myself is that certainly the writing down of my sister’s life and death in fictional or non-fictional form, which I have done again and again, though it may have enabled me to go on with my own life, has not helped me to forget. On the contrary, it has helped me to remember, to preserve precious memories in written form, memories which I can only hope to share with others who might find something of themselves in my words.

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Kohler,SheilaSheila Kohler is the author of fourteen books, including, most recently, the memoir Once We Were Sisters, and she is 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.

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.