Van Winckel, Chang, and Mills: New Work up on AGNI!

We’ve got great work up on the main AGNI website—excerpts of an essay by Nance Van Winckel, two poems by Victoria Chang, and fiction by Bronwyn Mills. Check it all out!

 

AGNI NVW“From hour to hour I’d long first for more of Me-In-Charge, then for less, then please, none. This lasted weeks. I’d stand in the purply dark—that swirling admixture of all colors—until the stars of bulbs in other houses flickered on.”

 

from the essay “Sister Zero” by Nance Van Winckel

 

AGNI VC“Control—died on August 3, 2015, along with my mother. Suddenly I was no longer in the middle of the earth. Suddenly I could change the angle of the liquid pen so that the rocket went the other way.”

from the poem “Obit” by Victoria Chang

 

AGNI BM“One night in Lisboa, Ö. went into a fado bar. He went in late, to take shelter from cold, damp weather. The place was darker than the grave; and inside sitting at a table, he saw an older man eating a lovely fish soup. The music was rising to a wail. The singer was only practicing, so the music would stop now and then, unexpectedly, in the midst of an anguished cry. Wanting to strike up a conversation, Ö. sat down next to the old man.”

from the story “The Story of Ö” by Bronwyn Mills

 

 

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Abildskov, Berry, and Tandon: New work up on AGNI!

We’ve got great work up on the main AGNI website—an essay by Marilyn Abildskov, two poems by Ciaran Berry, and two poems by Jason Tandon. Check it all out!

Marilyn-Abildskov“When you were a Mormon girl, your future was mapped. You knew that one day you would live in a two-story brick house, that the house might be on Emerson Avenue or Logan Avenue but wherever it was, there would be a vegetable garden in the backyard, a soft-spoken priesthood-holding husband inside, ginger-haired children you drove to swimming practice and piano lessons and skiing trips on the same slopes where you learned to ski so many years before. In addition, you would probably have a cabin in the mountains, one with a lofty fireplace in a family room spacious enough for everyone to stretch out and play Monopoly. And on Sundays? You would all sit together on one of the front pews, sharing hymnbooks, the older kids holding the younger ones in their laps.

“And when you’re not a Mormon girl?”

from the essay “And Who Can Say It Will Not?” by Marilyn Abildskov

 

Ciaran-Berry“you yelled out ‘right leg’ and I answered ‘green.’
We both waited for the other to topple onto an elbow or a knee

as the updraft passed through Jonesboro and Pinckneyville,
gathering to its core a rowboat, a rocking chair, a woman on a bicycle.”

from the poem “Twister” by Ciaran Berry

 

Jason-Tandon“Rolling and
unrolling the scroll

I don’t know
which
to prefer.”

from the poem “Having Forgotten to Put out Fresh Towels, I Run Naked and Wet to the Bedroom” by Jason Tandon

 

 

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Fear, Love, or Both: A Question with Megan Harlan

AGNI: Your essay “Spider Season” (AGNI 85) brings so many wide-ranging things together, all connected to the central element of spiders: danger, superstition, beauty, home, cultural differences, childhood, and parenthood. How did you know, in writing, which connections you wanted to include, and which (if any) you would ultimately decide to exclude?

Harlan: “Spider Season” began when I noticed, one Fall day, just how many spiders were living on my front porch, because I refused to sweep them away, despite my longstanding arachnophobia. Spiders, as I say in the essay, comprise my one true phobia, yet you’d never guess it to see me near a spider now. How had this happened? Had I actually matured out of my fear? Not exactly: I’d instead developed a deep, if admittedly silly superstition surrounding them. My second awareness: This superstition had cropped up when I became a parent—which also coincided with my settling into the first real home in my life. I’d moved around almost constantly growing up, and “home” had always been a tricky, mysterious subject for me. Yet now I had one—and it was often crawling with spiders.

I started reading about spiders, and the more I learned and remembered about them, the more moved I was by their architectural prowess, their relentless and complex home-building. And that led me to consider my own relationship with the family home, with the psychological resonances of architecture. Though I wasn’t sure where I was headed, I wanted to write the essay as a patterning of ideas, memories, and emotions about spiders, using the simple structure of eight sections to both connote my subject and give me the freedom to wander within it.

It’s very true that—at the risk of confusing creatures and metaphors—this was magpie sort of writing: I kept noticing shiny things off in the distance and bringing them back to the nest. I filled the essay with all the spidery associations that occurred to me—whether pulled from mythologies, religions, the natural world, or aesthetics. And there were so many spider-related incidents involving childhood—my own and my son’s.

But each element had to pass what I’ll call the fear/love test: Did it matter enough to me to strike fear, inspire love, or—best of all—both? This was a very helpful measure in culling my material. I jettisoned almost immediately, for example, the time a spider dropped into my eyelashes while I was watching a movie at a theater: While an icky, startling, and somewhat comical experience (at least, I’m imagining, from the other movie-goers’ perspectives), it didn’t touch on much else.

This measure no doubt explains why family became a central subject in the piece. Parenthood can trip off spontaneous memories of our own childhoods, revealing a funny, everyday metaphysics, the time travel involved in our experience of raising children, as former children ourselves. I often find myself thinking, “When I was his age…”—while also trying to spare my son too many of these musings. But these ideas can be so rich to explore, and nowhere better—at least for me—than in the essay. It’s a form elastic enough to depict and structure associative thinking, the intuitions that give shape to our ideas.

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Megan Harlan photoMegan Harlan grew up on four continents and now lives in Berkeley, CA. She is the author of Mapmaking (BkMk Press/New Letters), winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. Her nonfiction and poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Crazyhorse, The New York Times, Hotel Amerika, TriQuarterly, Catamaran, The Common, American Poetry Review, and Poetry Daily, among other publications. She holds an MFA from New York University’s Creative Writing Program and works as a writer and editor. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Villoro/Hernandez, Brody, and Melnicove: New work up on AGNI!

We’ve got great work up on the main AGNI website—a story by Juan Villoro (translated by Jorge Luis Flores Hernández), an essay by Leslie Brody, and a poem by Mark Melnicove. Check it all out!

AGNI Hernandez“One afternoon, my father got in his Studebaker, and we never heard from him again. The last and defining fact tying these photos to my father is the absence of pictures afterward.”
from the story “Bad Photographer” by Juan Villoro (translated by Jorge Luis Flores Hernández)

 

AGNI Brody“I’d never been manhandled before. There’d been no physical violence in my childhood. When I was nineteen, a policeman had clobbered me in the head at an anti-Vietnam War protest. Then, there’d been blood and stitches, and I’d displayed my scar proudly. Nothing in my life had prepared me for being flung across a room.”
from the essay Daisies: An Observation” by Leslie Brody

 

AGNI Melnicove“Just when all feels lost,

the fire department volunteers show up in shiny,
red corvettes, gather in a circle around
the crumbling frame of the house, and piss

on the charcoal timbers”

from the poem “Where I Came From” by Mark Melnicove

 

 

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The Pistol Sign Pointed Right at Me

by Peter LaSalle

It’s happened to me twice recently. And in light of the ongoing and always loud controversy about gun control turning louder now with our utter political polarization, it seems to haunt me even more.

The first time was in Istanbul, where I’d traveled to meet with the translator and also with the Turkish publisher of one of my books of fiction, a short story collection. I’d set myself up in small family-run hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, a yellow-stuccoed place on a quiet dead-end street thick with flowers blooming and not far from the almost bluer-than-blue waters of the Sea of Marmara. The spot proved perfect for my blending some taking in of the nearby sights of Istanbul’s landmark mosques and the ancient Grand Bazaar, as well as conducting my literary business via a short walk across the Galata Bridge to the city’s commercial center.

There was a shop, the equivalent of a corner deli, in Sultanahmet that sold cold beer. At the end of one day of much walking, heading to the hotel, I stopped by. I figured I would take the can back to my room and relax for a bit, sip a refreshing beer and read some before dinner.

Mustached, toothily smiling, the guy behind the counter asked me with what little English he had where in America I was from. While I am, in fact, from Rhode Island and usually spend summer months in the state, I’ve lived a good part of my adult life in Austin, where I teach creative writing. To make things easy, I replied, “Texas,” as in many years of traveling I’ve learned that to say Rhode Island will only elicit bafflement from most people abroad.

Handing the blue can of Efes Pilsner in a plastic sack to me, the guy grinned, just looked at me with a larger smile; he said “Texas,” nodding, then offered me the universally understood pistol sign with his hand—thumb cocked for the hammer and forefinger out straight for the barrel, nodding some more.

And then, just last summer, I was in Lisbon. I was on another literary errand. This time it was to match up some of the places in that true gem of a city of steep hills, endless red-tiled roofs, and such impressive imperial architecture on the wide Tagus River with the work of Portugal’s giant of modernist literature, Fernando Pessoa, who died relatively young in 1936 and near thoroughly unknown then. I planned to write an essay for a literary magazine of the sort I have been writing lately on going to a place where a favorite author’s books are set, to see, through exploration of the setting, if I can better experience the work that way.

With Pessoa proudly honored by Portugal today, he has emerged as perhaps the defining cultural image for Lisbon itself, site of much of his poetry as well as the eerie, posthumously published prose ruminations of a fictitious Lisbon office worker, his acknowledged masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet. There’s now a much-photographed life-size bronze statue of Pessoa seated amid the umbrella tables outside the popular Café A Brasileira. Pessoa had been a regular there, often discussing literature with friends at the ornately classic place in the heart of the city’s Chiado district, today a busy pocket of trendy shops and usually clogged with tourists.

In my reading about Pessoa, an odd fact I came across was that the Café A Brasileira, famous for its literary ties, once had also been frequented by members of Portugal’s feared secret police. During the repressive 36-year rule of the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, they operated under different names, the most notorious acronym being PIDE (Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado); their headquarters had been only a street or so away, back then known as “The House of Torture.” After some checking around online, it was easy enough to find the exact location of that former headquarters on Rua António Maria Cardoso, a narrow street with gleaming rails for the yellow Lisbon trolleys, sloping steeply down toward the city’s extensively redeveloped dockside.

As I stood in front of the building on this hot and deserted summer Sunday late afternoon, I took notes on the look of the place, thinking I might use such details in my future writing. The four-story stone edifice—impeccably sandblasted and with fine, iron-railed balconies—was now, after complete remodeling, the home to (and this is pretty ironic) very chic central-Lisbon condos; an upscale designer furniture store occupied the ground level. Which was when a barrel-chested guy approached me, seemingly of African ancestry and thirty-five or so, in shorts, T-shirt, and sandals. Friendly, quite animated, he asked in his melodically bellowing voice if he could help me, maybe answer any questions.

Bic and little red-marbleized notebook in hand, I said I was just looking at the building, checking the plaque now affixed there by the government, which, with proper repudiation, does fully own up to a most tragic chapter in the nation’s past.

“Yes, yes,” he said, “this is it, and this is where people were locked up in cells, where they were tortured in all sorts of ways for too long, even murdered, and now look at it”—he histrionically waved his hand as if to take in the whole street—”a home for the rich.”

We casually chatted. He explained that his mother was Portuguese and his father from Angola, the former Portuguese colony that suffered in the 1960-70s through a drawn-out war of independence, a foreign conflict unpopular at home and for many the equivalent of our painful Vietnam episode. He said he’d learned most of his English, very good, from TV, and he offered more of his opinion on how the rich were indeed ruining the world, how his dear Lisbon itself was being bought up by the rich, and “Money, money, money!” Eventually he introduced himself as João; I gave him my name. And when he asked me where I was from in the U.S., I again, without thinking, simply said, “Texas.”

And with that it did happen again, more or less an automatic response on his part. He pronounced “Texas” slowly, as if tasting the syllables on his palate, and, yes, slowly he raised his hand to make the pistol sign, now not with a nod but just a rather hopeless, apparently pitying shaking of the head.

I really didn’t know how to answer, to be honest. Or, to put it another way, in Lisbon on such a pristine sunny Sunday afternoon and in Istanbul that other day, both times the exchanges left me embarrassed, if not a little depressed.

OK, here’s where I am going with all of this.

I don’t think that what appears an automatic reaction from people abroad linking guns and Texas can be summarily dismissed and just pegged to the influence of Hollywood’s Western movies over the years, though that obviously is part of it. Still, in a larger sense, it could be more that Texas, loud and brash as it is sometimes seen, does become for many outside our country an icon for much of what they consider wrong in America in general. (It’s a recurring trope in movies and literature, admittedly a cliché, to portray a noisy American buying up artifacts of old world culture, with no understanding of that culture, as a drawling, ten-gallon-topped Texas oil millionaire). And I suppose there is a certain sadness in the way that frequently when those abroad do think of America in general, easily tagged with that stock image of Texas, they readily associate it with guns.

I mean, concerning gun control in general, it wasn’t just these instances. And how often I have found myself with friends in France, where I have taught at universities on faculty exchanges, or in Brazil, where I have gone a couple of times to do research for my writing and give lectures, and when the subject of life in America came up, it was soon accompanied by amazement, or incredulity, about a situation that to those in other countries can be the sheer absurdity of the full availability of firearms here—anything from the cheap Saturday-night specials used to bloodily resolve family arguments to high-tech, military-style assault weapons capable of wiping out entire classrooms of school children in mere minutes. It does little good to attempt to explain the enormous power of lobbies in America, also to say how a good number of my faculty colleagues and I have vocally opposed the Texas legislature’s enthusiastic recent decision to allow “campus carry” at my own university: explanations—or outright excuses—fail.

So, as grateful as I am to a state that has provided me with a fulfilling university job that has allowed me exposure to bright, wonderful students in a long teaching career, plus the so many good people I’ve known throughout Texas and the countless other undeniably fine things about the state, too, I think I’ve learned my lesson—in travel abroad from now on I don’t need an accusatory pistol finger pointed directly at me anymore. When somebody asks me where I am from, I will always say emphatically “Rhode Island,” granting that experience has taught me that my very small New England native state will more than likely be confused with—if recognized at all—New York and, well, Long Island.

Further, and maybe more seriously, I will keep trying, both as a writer—with whatever outlets for words are at my disposal—and merely as an everyday citizen, to take a stand the best I can against the madness of present gun laws, or shameful lack of them, as the effort clearly does become increasingly challenging amid this current political rockiness.

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lasalle-photo-for-usp-brazil-visiting-lecture-1Peter LaSalle’s most recent books are a story collection, Sleeping Mask: Fictions (Bellevue Literary Press, 2017), and a collection of travel essays, The City at Three PM: Writing, Reading, and Traveling (Dzanc Books, 2015). A longtime AGNI contributor, he has a short story, “Where I Was When My Older Brother Died,” in the current issue (84), and his essay “Walking: An Essay on Writing,” which appeared in AGNI 70, was selected for The Best American Travel Writing 2010. He teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin, both in the English department and the Michener Center for Writers. See all of what he’s published in AGNI here.

Things Ayurvedic Doctors Have Told Me

by Shahnaz Habib

One of my favourite things to do when I go home to Kerala is visit an Ayurvedic doctor. Ayurveda is an ancient medical science that originated in India. In America, Ayurveda is delicious-smelling creams at Whole Foods, plush spas, soy candles and massages in exotic sandy beaches that seem to exist only in travel magazines. In Kerala, Ayurveda is poor people’s medicine. It is wizened vaidyas in small, dark offices that smell of herbs and hard work. It is bitter brownish-black potions that you drink while pinching your nose to avoid smelling them. There are of course high-end resorts with tall walls that are laced with pieces of broken glass. But Ayurvedic clinics and hospitals tend to be matter-of-fact places where doctors tell you unpalatable truths. Over the years, I have heard some, and in this, its bleak view of life, Ayurveda is very much the fruit of Kerala soil. In my essay in AGNI 84, “A Letter to my Daughter About Palindromes,” I write about the rudeness of my mother-tongue, its can’t-do attitude, its tough love. When I visit Ayurvedic doctors, and they shake their heads and dispense their glum wisdom, I know I am home.

  • Here is your medicine. A bitter potion for the morning and a very bitter potion for the evening. Do this for six months. Wash your feet with warm water twice a day. Avoid eggs and tomatoes. That’s the first phase of the treatment.
  • You won’t be able to do it. You will eat tomatoes. I can just see from your face. You will not be cured.
  • The face says everything. What you say is nothing compared to what your face shows. You think this is superstition. It is, in fact, a science.
  • In the old days, the food was made at home, and the toilet was outside the house. Nowadays, the food is from outside and the toilet is inside the house.
  • Yes, we have room for patients. But I am requesting you, unless you are seriously ill, don’t get admitted. There are thousands of people who are sicker than you. They need us. If you want a massage, go to a resort.
  • This is what elephants eat in the forest when their stomach aches. They are smarter than us. If it is good for them, it is good for us.
  • Yes, this oil smells. It has a special herb that can be harvested only once in six years. That’s if you can find it at that time—in the mountains. We do not ask such a herb to smell nice.
  • This medicine will not work in America. It was meant to be used in the weather here. The weather is an important element of every cure.
  • You want an appointment this Wednesday? Can you come at 3 AM?
  • You think you are eating organic food. How can it be organic when so many people in the world cannot afford it? What is organic about that?

Why is such pessimism so medicinal? Several years ago, I was unemployed and some boy had broken my little heart and I was walking around the city feeling doomed in the way only twentysomethings can. Then one day, I was talking to a monk. We sat under a tree and I cried, “I just want to know that things are going to get better.”

“It will not get better.” he said. “This is how life goes. You suffer and you suffer. You might forget this boy and you might get a job, but then you will suffer about something else. Life is just an endless series of suffering. Do not expect it to get better.”

And immediately I felt better. Immediately. What? I didn’t have to be happy? I didn’t have to get better? Sadness and suffering is normal? So there was nothing wrong with my suffering? My monk friend was not lamenting that life was suffering. He was simply stating it as a fact. The tree we were sitting under, the bench we were sitting on, the green coat I was wearing, his ochre robes, the suffering in life: these were simply realities, to be accepted. It was not his job to make these facts more palatable.

When pessimism becomes the new optimism, you stop expecting life to treat you like a server you will be tipping heavily at the end of the meal. Instead of asking “why me?,” you start asking “why not me?” You feel the softness of the ground underneath; you notice that the river of melancholy is always flowing nearby.

But sometimes, the tyranny of niceness can mask this perspective. The banality of “It’s going to get better,” “I am fine, how are you?” “Everything happens for a reason,” and “This is great!” can make us forget that every little joy has to be deftly fished out of the river of melancholy as it flows by you quickly. This is why I savor the loving rudeness of Malayalam. When I visit Ayurvedic doctors, I know I will not hear polite nothings. When the person you are talking to does not feel obliged to be likable, your interaction with them can become more honest, more intimate. And so in my own writing, I try to resist the temptation to be likable. I am curious about the relationship that opens up between a writer and a reader when the writer’s goal is not niceness, likability, happiness.

A few weeks ago, during the Malayali harvest festival of Onam, I heard about a Kerala restaurant in the outskirts of New York, where they were serving the sadya, the traditional banana leaf feast. I gathered some friends, persuaded the only one among us with a car to drive, and off we went. I spent the whole ride worrying if the food would be any good, if this Wednesday afternoon wild goose chase into the suburbs would be a waste of time. When I walked into the restaurant, the chairs were arranged in a long row (as they would be at a sadya at a temple or wedding in Kerala), not facing each other the way it is in restaurants. “Can you rearrange those chairs around a table for my group?” I asked the server in Malayalam.

“Absolutely not,” he replied.

I knew then that the meal would be delicious.

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shahnaz-fidel-photo Shahnaz Habib has been published in Agni, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Elsewhere, the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, the Caravan, Afar, and other magazines. Shahnaz is the founding editor of Laundry, a literary magazine about fashion. Born and raised in Kerala, India, Shahnaz works as a press officer for the United Nations and as a creative writing instructor for Gotham Writers’ Workshop as well as Bay Path University. She has received awards and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, I-Park Foundation, and the British Council. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

The Difficulty of the Story

by Cynthia Huntington

What follows here is an edited portion of a letter to a former student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program where I teach. I have changed some references to scenes and several details to avoid breaching confidentiality.

Dear J—

I’m glad my letter and comments worked for you. I think you’re doing important work and confronting a lot of natural obstacles; you might find it interesting to keep track of your difficulties in writing this—in every case so far, when you run into an obstacle in the writing, that obstacle is an illustration of your situation in some way. When you can’t find language, there is also an issue in the story about people’s ability to find language. When your structure breaks down and the stories go in all directions, that’s also a mirror of your family trying to pull everything into one necessity of caring for your injured brother, while each person has a different challenge in his/her own life. It’s as if the writing takes on the symptoms of the family you are writing about, and particularly it takes the symptoms of your own story within that.

You are in some way forbidden to write this. It is in some way a betrayal of the family’s conspiracy of silence around your brother’s “accident.” You are positioned as the truth teller, and because it is repressed it comes out in awkward, self-shaming ways, like fighting with your uncle at Thanksgiving dinner, crying, yelling, and blurting out more than people want to hear. The truth teller is always in some ways marginal. She must be deeply enough within the story to know it all, but also in a position to see it obliquely, to change the lens. She is often shunned. In your case, you are the youngest, and the one who went away so you are situated on the cusp. It’s easier to deny what the truth teller says if the ones on the inside focus on the speaker’s “difference.”

And the truth teller isn’t always right. Everyone has a slant on their own story, and no one sees it all completely. You constantly question whether what you are saying is actually true, while you feel in your heart that it must be. And being forbidden to write and speak can further distort the speaker’s understanding of the story. That’s why I suggested keeping track of the difficulties you encounter in this writing; they are quite telling. If you feel you must override the difficulties, create clarity where none exists, you will do the story a disservice. This family story, which you are forbidden to tell, because you are forbidden to know a single, ultimate version of it, is shifting, a story of discovery and reimagining. The obstacles this story raises shape the story, so I can’t guide you through them, only encourage you to go forward and have your understanding changed at every turn.

The scenes are the key. When you render a scene you can give more than one point of view, letting characters disagree, giving their words and actions space to exist apart from your interpretation. Not entirely; you can’t be entirely free of interpretation, but you can step back and allow the questions to expand. Is the angry uncle 100% wrong, as the “you” who is the character feels, or can “you the writer” feel the 10% uncertainty of his emotion alongside your 90% distaste for his words? Are your sisters lying to you when you return from college in order to keep you quiet, or is there a 2% “other” in their words and attitude?

Look for these places where the story you are trying to tell defeats you and lean into them; you are diverted for a purpose perhaps, to look again, to see even greater complexity in this tangled family saga of betrayal and love. You are diverted in order to look again.

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HuntingtonCynthia Huntington’s fifth book of poetry, Terra Nova, will be published in February 2017 by the Crab Orchard Poetry Series, Southern Illinois University Press. A chapbook, Fire Muse, is forthcoming in October 2016 from The University Press of New England. Her latest book, Heavenly Bodies, was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award in Poetry. Presently a Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry she teaches at Dartmouth College where she holds the Frederick Sessions Beebe Chair in Writing, and in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.