The Bumblebee-Maker’s Kiss

Reckoning 1

Johannes Punkt

The first time your worlds crossed paths you felt your fate short-circuiting. It had been a whetstone-dull day, and you had stopped counting the dull days. They bled into each other; you never knew when to make a hatchmark on the wall. But the air was thick with meaningless perfume-smog and you stopped to examine something on the ground.

A bumblebee without its wings. Every twenty seconds its machinery whirred but it was immobile as a whole. It must have been missing legs too, or maybe it did not have legs in the first place. There was a lovely gilded spiral painted on it, and a serial number on its side, and here is when you felt it. You thought: poor little thing, some sadist child caught you, huh? What did he do with your wings? And your next thought was that at least it was a machine and not a real animal. You found one of the wings at the same crime scene and you pocketed that for some reason obscure to you. As for the bumblebee itself, you held it in your cupped hand. It was exquisite.

And it took you a long time to realize that this was not a dull, blunt day anymore. It was not joy that you felt in the intermittent buzzing in your hand; you always imagined it would be joy that brought you out. The relief of a dead friend sending a new text message, one that began with “Sorry.” The safe reciprocity of some perfect stranger smiling at you from his train window as he left the platform. The vicarious oblivious bliss that you sometimes felt watching kids play in the park, like a memory you didn’t have to remember because it was right there. But there were children playing some bastardisation of football thirty metres behind you when you knelt to pick the bumblebee up and you hardly noticed them.

Oh, Tilda.

You found a local workshop and looked inside. The mechanics in the barnlike building were sat at their long desks welding and soldering and not looking up. They had all rolled up their shirtsleeves and some of them wore long, thick gloves so only their elbows were naked. The manager came up to you after a spell and asked how he could help you, and you presented him with the bee as if he would know what to do with it.

“I came to return it,” you added.

He told you it was not created there and you would be better off just wearing it as jewellery or throwing it in the trash. Later, you would thread a gold chain through its body. You asked how one knows where to go. There was a registry, he told you, at the registrar’s.

It was an easy building to find, because all bumbling bees created in the city must first migrate there in order to be approved so that they show they’re capable of flight and pathing and so that the creator will get paid, before the bees can go do their real work; this he told you with a magician’s flourish of his hands and the bee he had been holding on to took leisurely flight out from the barn, down along the canal following some simple scented path planted a decade ago in colours that are lost to us now, crossing the road a few times far above eye level where you almost lost it, and then in through a small hole in an unassuming building with a little golden government plaque on the outside.

Inside, all you saw of your guide was a glimpse of red as it zipped into another opening. Far up on the wall. But with a vine or two creeping out of it, almost come-hithering. Above the borehole-cum-crevice, wiring ran to the right, leading your eyes to a massive painting, a reminder of the far-reaching consequences of the Nimbley Legislation restrictions. It depicted a scene from The Android and the Primadonna, the android sat at his easel with his brain encased in glass atop his head, the mirror in front of him displaying the brain with parts missing, a blueprint taking shape on his canvas with all his best guesses about what those pieces might look like. A painting opposite, above a waiting-bench, showed a Chinese man up an orange tree. He was perched like he had done this all his life, and his alchemist’s belt held different potions in coloured flasks and pouches, and in his hand he held a pipette, and he must have been fertilising the flowers. The sky was abstract; the man was almost a photograph except for the seven fingers on each hand.

You took a number and eventually someone came to see you. They confirmed your suspicion that the bee still had two months of warranty left, so to speak. Three times they asked you why, before they told you the address of the workshop, Margot Hanel’s Path 41b in the northern quarter. “But the woman who works there is weird and you’re better off—”

“Making jewellery out of it. Yeah yeah. Thank you.”

You passed another red blur on your way out. In the workshop you had been to, they had all simply dipped their creations in inkpots, let them dry off, and then set them flying. The one you carried in your hand was painted with some form of elegant fool’s gold.

And on your way to your first encounter you went out of your way to pass the old placeholder statue in the square a few blocks from where you grew up. The one without a title, which the locals call Disgrace. You looked at it for the first time in years, and this was life returning to you, and maybe you would have stopped it if you had suspected what was going on. There is a mat of spikes, hostile architecture, which was put up as a temporary measure to “dissuade pest birds” while the sculptor completed the statue on an extended deadline. Dirty doves and pigeons white as untrodden snow had soon learnt to walk between the needly spines, and now they roosted there instead of any marble or bronze. On days when it hasn’t rained for a while the sides are painted white with droppings. When the locals say disgrace, they smile.

You had missed life. You did not know this.

Her workshop was a little shed. There was a lazy wisp of smoke making its way out of the open door, originating in a container on her desk: a coffee cup of grey water, housing a soldering iron, and its cable continued the snaking motions of the smoke down to somewhere under the desk, where electricity conducted itself underground until it was untraceable in the grid. Her gloves were on the floor next to her feet. In front of her was a tool that looked like a gyroscope, or a three-dimensional spiderweb. A bumblebee splayed open in exploded view was caught there.

The spider must have seen you in the curved reflection of her safety visor, because she did not look up. Just held her hand out in expectation. “Could you hand me the steel pincers? Mind the iron.”

Tilda, already you were in love. Something about the ionized air, the perpetual and artificial spring, the accident of neurons, the disposition of yours to love when you can, the grace of the bumblebee-maker. Something. You did what you were told.

She did not tell you thanks. You, in turn, did not mind.

“I came to give back something of yours,” you explained to her indifference.

She twisted some minuscule mechanism in the bumblebee’s loose heart.

You went on, “It’s a bee and you made it. I thought perhaps you would like it back. It is broken. My name is Tilda, by the way.”

And she turned a little crank that made the spiderweb coil up like every steel thread in it was the same yarn. You could have sworn the circuits closed, though, going around the ball. The constructed bee became whole. “Let me see.”

And you handed her the little machine.

She turned it over in her hand. It had stopped buzzing by this point. “Yes, it’s broken.” She placed the wingless thing in your hand again. The next task on the table was to brush the coat of the new bee ever so gently with tar from the cup. The brush she used was fine and seemed to melt and get shorter with every stroke. You held the broken bee in your hand and your heart hurt but, Tilda, your heart hurt. Brief thoughts of train tracks warped by the summer heat, which must have looked like a seismogram from far above. A memory you couldn’t place. You could feel your own heart like hesitant wheels rolling over jointed tracks.

She placed the finished bee on a tray along with several others. Took a small break to tell you her name—”Clover, like the plant”—and then she handed you a visor and darkened the sky with her blowtorch, working on the chassis for the next bumblebee. When you took off your visor it was dark outside. She had made the sun set, then. You took it off because she did, and the both of you went outside with the tray. Put it down on a tree-stub in the garden. The paint had not yet dried on the most recent mechanical bee but it was a wonderful green white mandala thing with twelve little legs that rattled against the baking tray. They all had different features, like she refused to make the same thing twice: the springs and the sprockets and the very shape and the number of thimblebaskets and wings and the dimensions of the wings and the way they folded and whether they folded at all. Presumably the mechanisms inside were different too, with different ways to identify blossoms and pick paths to travel. And there was the paint.

“This one’s not painted,” you said, pointing to a grey number in the middle of the tray. There were maybe thirty of them all in all and this one shone grey where the others were adorned with patterns in one or two colours from her array of indigo blue, ivory white, pale green, rosehip red, and royal purple. You didn’t mean for it to sound like an accusation. You did not understand it and you wanted to learn. In the silence that followed there was nothing to soften the edges of the sudden gash in the air. But maybe she could see the old colours.

“It’s painted with glue,” she corrected.

You were once taught that nature abhors a vacuum. If you stay silent, people rush to fill the void you make.

Some people’s chests are airlocks, though.

You asked the question. ”Why?”

”It’s a chemical, magnetic thing.” She spoke, she speaks, in bursts of indicative air like a valve spinning open. “When the nectar touches it, it sticks. That’s how yours is gilded.”

In the daylight her skin looked like yours but in the spectrum cast from the orange torches that hung from the eaves like lanterns she was gilded. But she wasn’t yours.

“They run on wind. The bumblebees, like windmills. Mine do. We’re never going to run out of wind.”

”Is that unusual, the windpower? Sometimes I see them at night, they’re around the lampposts, I think they have UV panels on their wings. I think the bumblebees I see have that.”

”There’s no computer in mine. They’re all mechanical. It runs on cycles, though. It’s like clockwork but it’s not clockwork like that. That’s why yours is. . . .” She stopped talking, and took the little thing from your hand, touching your palm with her fingers in the process. You hadn’t realized you had been cradling it.

She threw it in the air and caught it: it was ticking again. In a room you visited once there was an electric light that buzzed and ticked. It could never stay lit for long; the shock of shining brightly knocked it into silence again. Then the hum would begin. Like cicadas, someone said. Or like bees. People bragged about the insects they knew the names and sounds of. And with a metallic tick likened to a chirrup, your bumblebee proved it was alive.

”This is better,” Clover said, and you couldn’t tell if it was as if she was sure you loved the clockwork like she did, or if she was trying to impress you. If she was trying to impress you, you decided, she would be looking at your face when she showed you whatever she would show you. But you couldn’t look at her face, because you needed to experience what it was. And she grabbed the tray by one end and flung the little things up in the air, and they took flight in stutters and stalls but none of them touched the ground. They were the moment before the rain hits, a coruscation, and then they were gone.

Your own bee buzzed with longing in your palm. You had not seen her face when she would have looked at yours, if she had.

skull_green_scenebreak

You went back three days later. There was life in you, which you fought for two whole days. But the hydrology of your heart was stubborn.

You built concrete walls to keep yourself alive, someone had said. He had tried to save you once, while holding your shoulders so you couldn’t leave or really look away. He had told you there was a difference between living and being alive. He had probably got this from some movie. He was a lover; you never meant to have lovers, though there is love in you to give. It takes the smallest hint of UV light as proof of concept.

As a kid you used to throw exotic fruit seeds—from the ghost mandarine—into the tarmac when the men and women in hard hats tilled the black earth and laid the roads down. You had been given those seeds to eat, a profligate luxury.

Something was sprouting from your heart, Tilda, like you had swallowed seeds years ago. She told you about scents that day. It was not like you were asking questions, and it was not like she was teaching you, nor was it like you were having a conversation. It was like she was translating on the spot from some other language that only she spoke, sunlight. You drank it up.

“So, this is actually better than the ones with circuitboards?”

“Better?” She chewed on her tongue a little and you wanted to distract her. You wanted to have her not troubled.

“How are your bumblebees able to smell?”

There was an old watchmaker who died. When he was alive, he was the last of his kind. They called him the great turtle—although with the quickness Clover spoke with you could not figure out who they were, if there really were none more like him. He had a slow, mechanical mind like an orrery. And it was falling apart. But there was genius there, and seven years before he was gone completely he started developing a technology that no-one else had thought of. He couldn’t possibly have accomplished what he accomplished with an unruined, pristine mind. When you asked her what the technology was called she had to stop and think.

In the pause, you said, “Destroy the instrument to make the music,” and your new friend did not understand. She had put down the tool she was using, a magnetic cone of some sort. You smiled wanly, “It’s from a poem.”

“I don’t make the music,” she said. “And it has no real name. It’s just technology. Technique.”

The watchmaker could not finish his thoughts anymore, and started writing “Fermat,” “Ferm,” or simply “F” in the blank spaces of his blueprints. Some of the holes in his plans were filled with failed attempts to write the dead mathematician’s name in his florid, wilting handwriting. Like someone had lovingly transcribed the results of resting their hands on a keyboard. Like the sound of a fuse burning.

As his brain folded in on itself, the schematics became less and less accessible. They lost convention, becoming recipes and fragments and eggs of ideas.

It was the consensus of people who came after the watchmaker that the things in gestation on his paper could never be carried to term, and it was impossible to tell what the results were even meant to be: a machine-made facsimile could not be produced.

One of the gadgets he’d written up, just one of them, made sense to Clover.

A reverse butterfly mechanism: drum up a hurricane to flap a little insect’s wings, when your tools could never be small enough reach those hinges directly. She had improved on the mechanism. Extrapolated from it. She showed you how it worked but the point was that you couldn’t see the last of the dominoes falling. You end up with a mechanical system that can smell flowers.

“Essentially, you weigh the molecules.”

skull_green_scenebreak

You found out that her last name was Aguinaldo. Which accounted for her copper-pollen skin and the quickness in her speech, like she was still in Spanish gears. You found out more but you shouldn’t have searched for information about her, Tilda. You believe you shouldn’t know more than what someone wants to tell you about themselves.

“My full name is Matilda Barrow,” you blurted out. You were getting used to the tiny weight around your neck now, which sometimes buzzed for a heartbeat. ”I just say Tilda because otherwise it always sounds like people are calling me theirs, and I don’t like that. I don’t even like it when people say ’my friend’ or things in that same. . . semantic area. Now you know this about my name.”

Clover Aguinaldo remained enthralled by the sparks and the spiderweb in front of her.

You had brought dinner. You had asked the day before if you were allowed to do so and she had agreed, not indicating that she would like it. Not indicating that she would not like it. She had written AGRADCR on a post-it-note on her desk before you arrived, which was just under eye level when she sat. The note had just been existing there, arching upward a little. And after the meal she had taken the note, looked at it, looked at you, thanked you, smiled, crumpled it up, thrown the note away. Returned to the bumblebee. This one was an eight-winger. It could fly with only two of them, but it was important that they fall off in pairs.

She took a deep breath like you do when you’re about to say something you have prepared. And her visor fogged up when she talked. “Could I have the tool that looks like a stripy wrench that has been hollowed out?” Holding out her gloved hand. “It’s in the drawer by your left knee.”

A strategy of talking around what you wanted to say so she would eventually ask what you were getting at might have been unwise here, Tilda. Your lips along the edge of a drinking glass. You found the tool and handed it to her. You wisened up.

Maybe the weight around your neck would grow back its wings if you told her unambiguously.

“Do you know why I come here? No, that was too general, sorry.”

Maybe there was something in your voice that made her cotton on. Maybe that was wishful thinking. But she put the wrench down on the desk, turned her visor to the side and looked at you without filters.

You put yours to the side.

“You seem to come by for different reasons. One day you came to show me you had hung the bumblebee you found around your neck like a collar. Amulet. Necklace. Today you wanted to bring me food. It was good food. I like crushed peanuts. Once you wanted to ask about the Nimbley Legislation and if that was why I do not use electronics.”

“Right. Those are all true. The deeper reason is I like you.”

Beat. “Thank you.”

“Do you know how I like you?” You shook your head at yourself. “I mean, have you figured it out?”

“It’s a riddle,” she said, then she titled her head like she had asked a question.

“It’s not. It’s just—I want to kiss you. I just want to kiss you.”

“Okay.”

You gripped your amulet to stop it buzzing, but of course it wasn’t at all. “Okay as in you understand what I’m saying?”

“I do understand the meaning of your words. You may kiss me.”

You did.

You were aware love makes you do foolish things.

But you thought it was the generic, impersonal, indefinite you; not you specifically, personally, definitely. You pulled back when she didn’t kiss back, just sat there like a statue with soft but cracked lips that tasted like tofu and crushed peanuts.

She smiled for a heartbreak. “Have you got it out of your system now? Did that make you happy?”

How operative was the word just, Tilda. You shook your head slowly with a “No, it didn’t.” Of course.

She makes the bumblebees, Tilda, that little kids follow across a soccerfield, distracted from the game, because there is a trail of clovers riverring through the field there. Little kids are made without empathy for machines, Tilda. And she makes her machines without a sense of self-preservation.

“Do you want me to go now?”

It was a yes-or-no question, and you know she has trouble with those.

“Perhaps that would be for the best.” It sounded like she was quoting something.

“Can I come back in two days?”

She sat stock still but her eyes followed some invisible insect back and forth. Closed her eyes in concentration. You still had the kiss on your lips; you had been greedy.

“No because I will be elsewhere. Technically you can come back here but I will have locked the shed and I keep the only key and it might rain. You would get soaked waiting for me. And hungry, probably.”

“Oh, I thought you were always here. I. . . shouldn’t have assumed that. Can I ask—I mean, what is it you will be doing?”

“It’s the referendum. You may leave now, please.”

You did.

skull_green_scenebreak

It was the three thousand and seven hundred eighty-first day of spring and you were staring at your ceiling. Or, the point where your ceiling became walls. Your hands interdigitated, resting on your chest, you were performing your best approximation of a corpse. If a brain was rotting and someone zapped it with electricity, would that electricity running through the dilapidating pathways in the brain count as a thought or not? What was with your heart?

How could you possibly go on like this?

At some point your eyes migrated toward a screen and you read about tamefires. You are not a voracious reader, but you used to go days without eating and other times you ate because there were things in front of you to eat entirely unrelated to hunger. There were things in front of you to read; the screen bumped the paragraph up a few notches when it noticed you reaching the end of the line. And repeat.

How flowers bloomed themselves to extinction like goldfish bursting; how some of them, after a few consecutive springs, went dormant for a prime number of years only to bloom again, peeking out from under the dirt to see if the coast was clear; how certain councils were starting fires to reset this clock, to let the crops grow right and avoid a famine. Resetting this clock itself was a ticking timebomb; fire was never tame, not even in a hearth. Everybody knew this. At the end of the article, your screen glitched for a few seconds before resizing to show you the attached image, an orange-tinted close-up of a woman planting lengths of rope like fuses in rows in a field of dirt.

It was the day before the referendum. It was a big one, because it was ten years ago it last took place in San Ginebra. Strawpolls indicated a landslide yes majority, which was why they held it here at all. But rumours brewed. Subterfuge. An underground union. People circling the wrong answer like lanternlights, hoping to draw the monster out from the dark, then teething down as one on a no. Politics.

Last time they called you up they had been asking irrelevant things, hiding their target in layers of lifestyle and opinion. And then a simple question wrapped in hypotheticals, which you boiled down to: should we prolong spring another period, yes or no?

Oh, there would be consequences. In fact, maybe you had already ruined everything. Said the wrong thing. Kissed her. Kissed her. Kissed her.

Okay, there was no-one in your home but you.

You wavered like air over asphalt. Tried to strip the metaphor from your words, but ended up tonguetied. Speechless. Told yourself: this was not a build-up period. Not a progression from friendship to love.

You were in love from the start, and though it has brought you joy that is not its purpose.

What’s more, the joy you felt in the moments before rain hit the ground might have been full of desire but they were good moments regardless. You do not have the right to make them bad memories, now. You have the right to hurt, you always do.

You always do. At least on the days that are not dull.

You had solid ground underneath your feet, which meant you weren’t falling in love.

There was no story, as such. There was nothing failed. No foreplay, nothing thwarted.

Your love was not contingent on a promise of more. Your love was anchored around your throat, threaded through with a needle and a gold chain. It was not with joy that you had pierced its hull, but with metal, like the thing itself. You already knew how you possibly could go on: there is life in a beating heart.

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Four Found Poems

Reckoning 1

James Treat

These found poems are drawn from interviews with elderly citizens of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation recorded in 1937-38 as part of the Indian-Pioneer History Project sponsored by the federal Works Progress Administration and archived at the Oklahoma Historical Society and the University of Oklahoma.

 

Older and Very Sour

1

 

the creek indians had

many different delicious dishes

made from corn one of which is

osafke

 

it is not intoxicating

as some white people believe

 

very few know how to make osafke

the old indian women are

especially learned in making it

it must be made right

or it will not taste good

 

vce cvlvtwe is the indian name

of the corn from which

osafke or safke is made

the corn is used when it

has dried after it has ripened

it is shelled by hand

 

the corn is put in the

mortar keco while wet

then the

pounder kecvpe is taken up

by hand about the middle and

the pounding begins

 

2

 

the corn is then placed in a woven

birch skin basket with small spaced holes

which separates the flakes and dust

from the corn

the corn grits are then emptied into

a kettle of hot water

when the water reaches the boiling point

one half cup of a lye solution is added

to taste and soften the safke it is then

boiled from three to four hours

 

safke is placed in an earthen jar and

kept about four or five days until it sours

 

safke is used as a drink and as a food

the indians raised white corn

which they called safke corn

when the corn matures it is

about twelve to fourteen inches long

 

3

 

safke corn is a flint corn hard

and smooth

 

the proportions are

three buckets of water in washpot

one gallon of grits

and one cup of lye

 

most people dont like it when

it gets sour i think its better

when its two or three days old

 

4

 

i liked safke when it was

first made and sweet

and i liked it when it was

older and very sour

nobody will like the

sour safke when he first

tastes it you have to

get used to it

 

5

 

i have heard a story about an old woman and how she

made the first safke a drink which is a great

favorite of the indians

 

there was once a young man who lived with his old

grandmother the young man would often go off into

the woods on hunting trips and be gone all day

 

every time he left he came home to find that the

grandmother had prepared the safke the young man

began to ponder over this because there was no corn

around the place

 

he finally decided to stay near the place and find

out what the old grandmother did

 

 

the old grandmother said since you have found out

the secret now you take me to the old corn crib and

lock me up in it close all the openings and

cracks after four days you look in and look at

what there is

 

that is why some people say that the corn is an old

woman and it was best not to provoke it

 

all old ladies are easily provoked and are cranky

 

if you do not care for the corn you will lose it

 

 

Jefferson Berryhill, b. 1909

Sarah Fife, b. 1861

Martha Scott Tiger, b. 1890

William Baker, b. 1868

Robert Thompson, b. 1888

 

 

The Power of Medicine

the indians have always had faith

and been the strongest believers in

the power of medicine men and their

powers when using the medicine for

personal or tribal protection in

illness

 

it was the older leaders and

medicine men who were noted and

gifted for their power of preparing

the strong and effective medicine

that would enable any of the indians

to escape any harm

 

any group of indians out hunting or

on travels were never without their

tribal medicine man it was the

medicine man who knew of the best

ways of saving his people and he was

much respected by his people

 

the white meal hompetv hvtkē was the source and

basis of the secret power

the white meal consisted of special foods taken by

the prophets

medicine men

and other leaders

it was made up of mostly corn the pounded corn

meal made into bread pounded corn prepared as a drink

of which the indians are very fond and one or two

articles of food

all this had no seasoning

 

the greatest enemy to the indians was in the use of

salt

fat

flour

sugar

or anything else sweet

 

although the indians had never used these things

they began to realize how very necessary they

were to them and how the added flavor made

many of their meals very delicious

 

the power of medicine

was not so effective

from that time on

 

 

Wilburn Hill, b. ca. 1909

 

 

Lives of the Fish

first of all

the fish killing is a bit out of the picture

for the indians of today due to the fact that

the occasion has been outlawed by the white men

 

during the days of fish killing

the streams were full of

various kinds and sizes of fishes

and the indian killed only

that which he needed

 

the thing that figures mostly in

the indian fish killing is a weed

called the devils shoestring

the root of this weed is

very bitter

it is this nature of the weed

that causes the fish to rise

to the surface of the water

 

digging the strings is about the

hardest part of the whole affair

it takes brain and muscle

to be able to get your quota

 

if it is a flowing stream then

the medicine is scattered into

the water in one place

if the kill should be in

water that is stationary then

the medicine must be scattered or

applied all over

 

before any of the participants

or anyone in the group

looked into the chosen water

a ceremonial was in order

the one with the power of

medicine paints a color on

the cheeks of everybody

 

it was a splendid reputation

to be called a good shot with

the bow and arrows

it was an honor to kill the

biggest fish during the occasion

it took skill to be able to

look for and find an arrow that

has been lost in the water

one must know how to shoot

the fish

 

thus ends the story of fish killing

the longing in the hearts of the old indians

who watch the modern day oil wells and salt water

become a menace to the lives of the fish

continue to ache

and they wish to know just why

an honest mans hunt for the fish for his use

to strengthen his body that he may live longer

is more detrimental than to kill a fish without

thinking at all

indian killed that which he needed

oil men kill because they must have heaven

on earth with the money that he accumulates

 

 

Jefferson Berryhill, b. 1909

 

 

The Deep Fork Bottoms

it might have been back along in

eighteen eighty and up around in

the eighteen nineties

that there was a great demand for

walnut and pecan wood

i think it was some foreign

country germany it was that

was buying great quantities of

this wood to manufacture it into

gun stocks

 

many walnut and pecan trees were

cut down in the deep fork bottoms

as there were more of that kind of

trees there than anywhere else

the trees were sawed down and

cut up first and the stump was

later uprooted and trimmed off

because it was said that the stump

part made the best kind of gun

stock

then it was loaded and hauled

to eufaula where it shipped off on

the katy railroad

 

i think that the timber that was

shipped to the foreign country

was received back in bullets

during the world war

 

 

Toney Carolina, b. 1875

Read an interview with James Treat here.

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Goldie Locks Interview: “2222”

goldie-locksRead Goldie Locks’s story “2222” from Reckoning 1.

Michael: You live in Moscow. What’s your experience of nature like? My only knowledge of Moscow is through Russian literature in translation. Are there public parks? Do you visit them? Can you walk down to the Volga in winter and watch your fellow city-dwellers ice skating in winter? Please disabuse me of my romantic illusions.

Goldie: Nature is the best part of Moscow, especially in spring. There are many public parks and recreational forests in the city. Most of them are pretty commercialized, unfortunately, but one can find a pretty old tree away from eating joints and bike sharing stations to come sit on its roots.

Yes, I love visiting public parks, as well as strolling along downtown boulevards.

There is a river in Moscow, but it shares the city’s name. It is way smaller than Volga and mostly dirty. Swimming is allowed only where it enters the city. Nevertheless, it is inhabited by fish, ducks and seagulls throughout its full length. There are some water plants there as well.

I never saw anyone skating on Moscow river. Public skating rinks are quite common in the city. They are safer and easier to maintain than “wild” rinks that can be built on a river. Some (probably most) of the public rinks are free.

Michael: Did you grow up in Moscow, in the city, or did you move there later in life? What has been your experience of rural life, if any?

Goldie: I was born in Moscow, but very soon after that my mother moved in with her mother and sister who lived in a small town, Khotkovo, about 40 miles from the capital. It used to be fairly rural when I was small. I learned to swim in a tiny river floating across a huge meadow rimmed by a forest. When our family dog was a puppy, we once took him mushrooming in the forest and carried him back home in a basket — because no mushrooms met our eyes, and little Sharik was too tired to walk. On a smaller meadow on the other side of my house there was a lonely swing I loved very much. A dairy-woman lived on our street — and she was not the only cow owner in the town.

But as an adolescent and a young adult I witnessed derurification of my small motherland (this is how we Russians call places where we were born or came to know this world). The meadow I used to fly over on my favorite swing was turned into a car park. The other one was partly overbuilt with summer homes. High-rise blocks or brick cottages replaced most wooden houses. Currently there are no cows that I know of. A road to Moscow was built, and city-bound cars became a menace of the town.

Michael: What does it mean to you to write feminist, lesbian fiction, in a language that is not your native tongue, in a place that actively discourages that kind of thought or action? Writing a story like “2222”, do you feel like you’re taking an ideological stand? Are you participating in a resistance? What does resistance look like to you, where you live?

Goldie: “2222” is literally the first piece of fiction I ever wrote outside a teaching situation, and I was quite amazed by the fact that it turned out to be so feminist and politically charged. But, I believe, it was quite natural, because I grew up in an all-female environment (I cannot say family, because it was a more complex phenomenon) which made me a grassroots feminist. The fact that women are strong and able to cope on their own was never a revelation for me, but always a reality.

It was important for me to write about lesbians because I saw it as a way to cope with a certain sad episode of my love life, and this would not have worked lest I was sincere. I needed to express my unrequited love and say a warm goodbye to it. Also, I believe that the world needs more Russian-made books about Russian LGBT. We have to be represented worldwide, because in the times of ascendant bigotry and wall-building, LGBT people of various nations are grassroots (I do love this word — too bad it is untranslatable into Russian) liaisons keeping the world together.

I wrote the story in Russian initially and showed it to a few people online. Thankfully, it is possible and more or less safe to share such texts in Russia so long as you keep a low profile (that is gravely important). My readers praised the story, and I decided it is worth an attempt to publish it. But I suspected it was unpublishable in Russia (probably I was wrong), therefore I decided to translate it into English. While I was at it, I changed many aspects of the piece. Sometimes I think about translating it back into Russian — not for publishing, sadly, but just for showing it to my friends who are not good at English.

Yes, I believe, I was taking an ideological stand when I was writing “2222” and especially submitting it for publication, albeit under a pen-name. I realize that should the story become famous (which is unlikely), it could cause me some trouble. What makes me so brave is the feeling that my voice is too quiet to be heard in high places.

I think I am participating in a resistance — at least, I made a statement of resistance for myself and my friends. I am quite an outsider, though, therefore there is not much I can tell about resistance as a sociological phenomenon.

Michael: I read a fair amount of radical feminist journalism, as it exists here in the US. This month’s BUST Magazine, for example, features an interview with Nadya Tolokno of Pussy Riot. Pussy Riot means a lot to radical feminism in the US, it seems to me. They are icons of defiant, fearless activism. We look to them, especially now, in the era of Trump, as role models. What does Pussy Riot mean to you? Are they accomplishing anything, are they accomplishing any real change, or are they just drawing attention to themselves?

Goldie: Ironically, when Pussy Riot held their punk prayer in the CCS, I was an orthodox Christian. For 4 years, I unconsciously used this disguise to hide my lesbianism from myself. I was not interested in politics and never realized the danger posed by Putin. Therefore, I was not too pleased by Pussy Riot’s action. But I certainly was appalled by their lawsuit and sentence. This disgrace made me start to pay more attention to things outside my nuclear family. If it worked for many people, Pussy Riot definitely made things at least start to change — but, sadly, at too great a price.

I cannot say Pussy Riot are icons for me — for aesthetic reasons. I never kept an eye on them. I even heard that the group does not exist anymore. But of course, I admit that they are (or were) doing important things. As for the attention part, I cannot comment on this, because I am not acquainted with any of the Pussy Rioters personally.

Michael: Who are your literary influences? “2222” reminds me of Chekhov, a bit, in that it relies heavily on dialogue and shows obvious empathy for all its characters; it believes in the humanity of its characters. It also reminds me of Tennessee Williams, for some of the same reasons, and for the subtle way it approaches taboo topics. What do you want readers to take away from the story?

Goldie: Thanks a lot for comparing me to Chekhov. I was fascinated by him as a child, and read almost everything he wrote. He still is one of my favorite writers, although I realized with much dismay that he was a misogynist and a homophobe. When I was writing the erotic scenes of “2222” I was keeping in mind Chekhov’s story “Volodya”, where a boy’s first sexual encounter is described so subtly that I realized the meaning of the scene only when I grew up. Unfortunately, I have not read Tennessee Williams.

My other influences are, of course, George Orwell with 1984 (hence the title of my story), Aldous Huxley with Brave New World and Yevgeny Zamyatin with We. I even had an ambition to write a novel, of which “2222” short story would be the first chapter, but I am not feeling up to such a big challenge. Actually, I wished to give this novel a happy ending. I even started reading books about revolution.

Michael: What kind of a risk are you taking in writing a story like this?

Goldie: Well, it is tempting to put on a solemn face and write about people sent to GULAG for lesser offenses. But GULAG was a long time ago, and the current situation in Russia is not so dire. However, civil activists are arrested and sent to prison. So, there was, probably, no risk in writing the story, but really vocal publicizing of it in Russia could have some ramifications. They depend on the extent of the publicity.

Michael: You’ve lived with the reality of a repressive, conservative regime. Do you have any advice for those of us in the US who are facing a new, dangerous reality of political suppression?

Goldie: I am in no position to give advice. I can only plead: Please don’t stop! Don’t stop your protests. Don’t stop listening to minorities—they are naturally the first ones to feel the screws tightening. Do not stop paying attention even if everything starts to look fine. Strongmen are as sly as power-thirsty. And please try to understand what encouraged Trump voters to choose him over Clinton. What injustices made them see their advocate in such an unlikely person? What can be done for them without turning the USA into a dystopia?

Michael: Will you please write more fiction in English?

Goldie: I will try, definitely.

Michael: Thank you! I really appreciate your talking so candidly. I’m going to go get out my Chekhov and read “Volodya”.

And I promise not to stop paying attention and speaking out.

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2222

Goldie Locks

Reckoning 1

“I like a boy.”

Julia silently pushed a button on a remote control lying in front of her on the table, on a pile of celebration stuff. A larger than life fir cone in the lightest corner of the room hissed out nine tentacles of unequal length. With a loud spat of suction cups, the treerootlike offshoots firmly attached themselves to the floor. The cone erected and started to telescope. Collapsible fir-tree branches covered with silicone needles were shooting from under its scales.

Julia and her daughter Nastya were observing it from the opposite sides of the table—”The Botticelli Venus who sold her hair to buy a pair of jeans and a tee, and Leonardo’s goldilocks angel”, as they were called by Klara, an artist, their friend. In about five minutes a gorgeous New Year tree was standing in front of them.

“My best idea ever”, Julia said. “Much unlike that lame decision to send you to a mixed school. Well, do you want to tell me more about your crush?”

“Wanna ask. Who can marry a boy?”

“Only women with immaculate genes.”

“Do I have maculate ones?”

“You will get tested later in life to find out.”

“This boy, Misha, has a younger brother. Cute one. I held him.”

No idea what to say? Find some work for your hands. Julia picked up a tangled set of fairy lights and started to puzzle it out. Nastya took a sheet of paper and began to fold it to make a snowflake.

“To raise kids, it is not necessary to marry a man and move into Gene Pool Square. Sveta and I wanted a baby and adopted you.”

“But why could you not, like Misha’s mom? You know . . . .”

“Give birth to our own children? As for Sveta, ask her yourself. And I have poor eyesight. My kids would have got my nearsighted eyes.”

“I would like to have eyes like yours. Blue ones with orange halos around the pupils. Your eyes look like eclipses of suns.”

“Thanks. But my eyesight is poor. And yours is fine.”

“But don’t you feel . . . deprived?”

“What a wording! That’s my girl.”

“I am serious, you know!” was the indignant answer. “It does not seem just.”

The unraveled set of colored lamps was lying on Julia’s lap like a long wreath of flowers with tight small buds and dry wiry stalks. Julia rubbed her temples.

“I never thought you would grow up so fast,” she said. “Sunshine, this system is ages old already. And it was not invented by a single person. When people think together, it is harder for them to make mistakes. For instance, look at our New Year tree. The idea is mine, but I am a writer, not an engineer, and my tree was just letters on a screen. And engineers . . . .”

“American ones, Mom. Why not ours?”

“Now, is that good talk for a holiday? Let us discuss it later. I need to think of the right answers. For now, let us decorate this tree. Sveta will be glad to see it when she comes from work.”

Julia opened a yellow cubic box and produced from it an indigo bauble with lemon yellow dots and golden hanging loop. She gave it to her daughter. The girl examined it carefully, kissed it and hung it on the most prominent branch of the tree.

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We seed culture everywhere, but nobody seems to care,” Kira sang.

The second line was sung an octave lower.

“New song?” Sveta poured more wine into her friend’s glass. A beaded bracelet on Sveta’s slender wrist sparkled in the candlelight.

“Improvisation. Themed on yesterday’s events.”

“What kind of events?”

“Got myself a new student in the Pool. Rita. Five kids, can you imagine? I even agreed to go to her place, because there is no way she can get to mine.”

“What’s she like?” Sveta asked. From the tone of her voice and the look of her shiny hazel eyes it was clear she was genuinely interested.

“She is good. But the atmosphere . . . . We went there with Klara. She is drawing Rita and her baby for a picture. Madonna thing, you know. We went to a café after the lesson. We were eating and talking. Then a waitress came and told us: ‘Your conduct is obscene, stop it or I will have to make you go.’”

“But what were you doing?” Sveta asked, her warm, low voice sounding slightly amused.

“Nothing. I was telling about my first girlfriend. Under my breath. Some pregnant skirt was sitting next to us and left after a while with sour face. She must have ratted when she was walking past the kitchen.”

“Well, I can understand her,” Klara said. “She probably never heard anything like that.”

“So what?” Kira asked. “Is she afraid to give birth to something unnatural now? She should have asked me; I would have told her that sexual orientation is not transmitted to a fetus from its mother through her ears.”

“Why do you even care?” Klara stroked her wife’s shoulder. A strand of Klara’s blonde hair she’d thrown behind her back slipped forward, into her wine glass, and became pink at the tip. “I think you should drop this new student Rita. I do not want you to get so upset every time. You will find a new one in the Gyn.”

“Well, it isn’t Rita’s fault. Insensitive people can be found everywhere. We probably are a breath of fresh air for her.” Kira shut her lips tight, as she always did after saying something too far from her usual sarcasm. She met Julia’s eyes and said, “And why are you so silent?”

“Just watching. You know, if anyone made a ‘the strangest couple’ competition, Sveta and I would vie for the first place with Klara and you.”

“It reminds me of what Pushkin wrote in “Eugeny Onegin”, Kira said with a smile.

So, verse and prose, they came together,

No ice and flame, no stormy weather

and granite, were so far apart,” she declaimed and stood up, her wine glass lifted.

“Let us drink to that,” she added. “To dialectics!”

“Happy New Year, girls!” Sveta said merrily and also stood up with her wine glass in hand.

Klara, Julia and Nastya also stood up. Nastya rose on tiptoes to make her glass of orange juice meet with the adults’ glasses over the middle of the table.

skull_green_scenebreak

“Sorry, can you say that again?” Julia turned the water off.

Nastya finished drying a plate, put it onto a kitchen shelf and repeated her question. “What are Pool and Gyn?”

“Gene Pool Square and Women’s Square. Sveta and Kira invented those nicknames ages ago.”

“Have they known each other for a long time?”

“Yeah, since they were kids. Kira made the bracelet your mom is wearing. It is much older than you.”

“Do you like her?”

“Who, Kira? Yes, she is clever and nice. But not as simple as she might look.”

“She is so loud. But only on the outside. And deep inside she is quiet. Like you.”

“Yes, right you are.”

“But why?”

“Well, I believe she protects herself this way. It is not easy to be a quiet person, especially when you are an actress and a singing tutor.”

“Oh, she’s an actress? I thought she might be. She is pretty, you know. And bright, like a picture. Her hair is so red. Her eyes are so green. Her skin is so white . . . But she probably does not think she is pretty enough.”

“Hence the loudness?”

“Yep.”

“And what do you think of Klara?”

“Klara is nice. Like a kitten. But I would not cuddle a kitten like that, because it knows what to do with its teeth.”

“You are so grown up . . . And the things you say about people are very bright.” Julia took a stack of washed dishes out of the kitchen sink and put them on the table. Nastya picked up her kitchen towel again, but Julia shook her head. “But still, you are too young to stay up so late. I can see you are tired. Kiss Sveta, if she is not asleep (she had a long day at work), and go to bed. I’ll finish here and hit the pillow as well.”

“I’ll kiss her, anyway. If she is asleep, I’ll take care not to wake her.”

skull_green_scenebreak

In conclusion, the weightless fingers traced a young moon under Julia’s belly, as if finishing a declaration of love with a one-bracket smiley. Julia caught Sveta’s hand and stroked it. Then, by a well-honed synchronous move, each of them took her usual place for heartfelt night talks and sleep. Julia moved to the edge of the bed (a good place for an insomniac who often gets up at night), Sveta snuggled up to her from the side near the wall and pulled the blanket over them.

“I like it when you do that to me.”

“I like to do that to you.”

“Why do you do it so rarely, then?”

“I was afraid you would take it wrong.”

“How exactly?”

“As an attempt to remind you . . . .”

“Of what cannot be forgotten?”

“I thought you might think I want to underline my importance.”

“I see this gesture as an expression of affection to me and the past we shared. The thing you did for me then does not need any underlining.”

“This is the best thing I have done in my life. When I look at your scar, I feel so strong. I am so proud of myself. But this is your body, and I . . . .”

“And you make it absolutely happy. And once you saved it from grave trouble, putting your carrier and even freedom at risk.”

“If it had not been for that, would you be with me?”

“Don’t you remember my first check-up?”

“Oh, I remember your first check-up. But will you tell me about it? Please.”

“You wicked girl. Telling it will make me want to have at least one more round.”

“And you will have it. We can sleep as long as we want tomorrow, and I rested after my shift while you were doing the dishes. So, if you do not mind . . .” Sveta slid her index finger down Julia’s high cheekbone to her lips.

Julia kissed it and said, “Of course I don’t!”

“Well, where is my story then?”

skull_green_scenebreak

“I was lying on my back, in the most tattletale pose. I am sure that chair was invented by a sadist. I was looking at the dimly lit ceiling and waiting for your footsteps. To distract myself—as if it could help—I was recalling how it all started. That day my body also produced much biological liquid, although it always responded rather scantily to emotions. Tears were running down my cheeks—for the first time since my childhood.” Julia paused, closed her eyes.

“Yeah, I remember,” Sveta told her.

“You were looking at me without disapproval, as if it was quite a usual thing to burst into tears instead of answering a simple question. You asked me, ‘What’s your gestational age?’, and I just felt my face was wet.”

“And I told you, ‘Calm yourself, please,’ and gave you a tissue. Actually, I keep them on my desk for a reason.”

“When I took the tissue from my face, it was dripping wet. Then you looked straight into my eyes. That moment changed my life. Because of that moment you called me to the Shelter, and because of that moment I was wishing the earth would swallow me when I was lying on my back at your Shelter office and waiting for your footsteps.”

“How come?”

“I did not know whether you liked me. And I had no chance to hide I liked you.”

“Poor thing,” Sveta kissed Julia’s temple.

“Then I heard your footsteps. You sounded surprised and amused when you asked . . .”

“I asked, ‘Is this your usual reaction to a check-up?’ Actually, I have heard about such things.”

“But it was my reaction to you. I told you I was having it for the first time in my life.”

“Too bad you were not looking at me at that moment. It would have been hot.”

“I was so ashamed! I could look only at the ceiling!”

“You were looking up there as if you were trying to drill a hole into it with your stare.”

“Yeah, right. That would have distracted you, would it not?”

Sveta laughed and hugged her wife. They lay silently for a while.

“Then you asked me, ‘But what about your man?’ And I told you we broke up. And also—that I never wanted or loved him, just got trapped. Could not find it in myself to turn him down.”

“Then you sat down and pulled your sweat-shirt almost to your knees.”

“Yeah, at last I remembered I could cover myself.”

Sveta smiled and stroke Julia’s naked body, hot under the blanket, from neck to delta, where she left her hand. Julia took that hand in hers and replaced it on her left shoulder.

“Sorry,” she said, “the story is more upsetting than arousing so far. I should not have mentioned Nastya’s father. I never told you, but he never used condoms: they made his stuff soft. He promised me he would always pull out—but did not do it that day. Intentionally, I am sure. I still remember the look on his face. I feel so angry and abused when I think of that.”

“So sorry to hear it, honey. But I was suspecting something like this. You never seemed badass enough to have conceived an illegal child deliberately. But I do not want to talk about assholes anymore. I want to make love to you.”

Julia closed her eyes and concentrated on her private parts. She was trying to imagine blood flowing there, making her hot between her legs. But she could not help thinking of the moment of her daughter’s conception.

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When menstruation did not come, on the third day of the delay she put her pass to Men’s Square into the top drawer of her office desk. On the fourth she took it out at lunchtime, when her colleagues were at the dining hall, and underlined in pencil the abortion clinic address. Too far to walk, and no bus goes there. And they say that taxi drivers report where they take their passengers. On day five she was standing in front of a curvy woman in white coat (she was cute, despite weary sternness). Tears were running down Julia’s cheeks.

“What are you thinking about?” Sveta asked.

“How lucky I was to meet you. And how brave you were to write I was not pregnant in my file and to invite me to the Shelter. And how you rock your white coat.”

Julia turned to Sveta and stroked her short, chestnut hair. “Then you asked me how I managed to meet a guy. And I answered you, ‘I have a pass to Men’s Square, I am a journalist.’ And you said . . .”

“And I said: ‘Lie down, journalist. I need to take a look at you.”’

“Then you palpated my belly ever so gently, and it was the sexiest touch my body had ever felt—I mean, before we actually made love for the first time. And you told me, ‘Your uterine tonus is fine, so you can jump into this chance.’ And I stroked your hand.”

“You were still looking at the ceiling. It was hard not to giggle.”

Under the blanket Julia took her wife’s hand and stroked herself with it just like Sveta had done minutes ago.

skull_green_scenebreak

“I never loved or wanted anyone but you in the last twelve years,” Julia said, when they had finished their second round. “So, if you are worried about my feelings, please don’t be. But we have to worry about Nastya.”

“What happened to her?”

“She likes a boy. She wonders whether I feel deprived because I cannot give birth to children. She asked why my fir tree was made in the States. Actually, I feel confused. We can tell her the things she will hear at school next year. But she is a bright girl, and sooner or later she will understand . . . .”

“That the stuff is bullshit.”

“And she will lose faith in us. We can tell her the truth ourselves, but what if it will make her unhappy?”

“It won’t if we find the right words.”

“Today I told her my kids would have poor eyesight. How can I look into her eyes and disprove my own words?”

“Don’t look into her eyes. Write her a letter. Sorry, I am falling asleep. Good night.”

skull_green_scenebreak

Dear Nastya:

Sveta and I discussed the questions you asked and decided to give you the answers you deserve. That is, honest and serious ones. It is very risky, since it is not easy to know all that and be happy. But you are a smart girl and sooner or later will learn the truth. And if it happens without our involvement, you will lose your faith in us, and we all will be unhappy.

I told you enough lies already, but still I hope you will forgive me.

My kids really could have inherited my poor eyesight, but not necessarily. You will not read it even in the fattest books for adults, but it is true. I know it for certain, because you are my daughter by birth and your eyesight is fine.

At the swimming pool you probably noticed a scar under my belly. You never asked me about it, because you are so delicate, but now I have to explain how I got it. It happened the day you were born—and for you to be born.

Women with as poor sight as I have are not recommended to have natural childbirth, because it can damage their retina and even make them blind. Since the “Gene Pool” program was introduced, they do not have the chance: nearsighted women are not accepted to the Gene Pool. But earlier, when any woman was allowed to have kids, nearsighted women and those who were unable to give birth naturally because of other conditions could have a special surgery called caesarian birth.

It was invented in ancient times and has been practiced ever since. But in our country it was outlawed a century ago, when the “Gene Pool” program was introduced. The official explanation was that a healthy nation does not need caesarian birth. But the truth is our state just cannot teach enough doctors to do this surgery (and many others). We have no money for education, we have no money for medicine.

Sveta performed that surgery on me. We met in the very beginning of my pregnancy and were expecting you together. She learned all about caesarian birth from old books, and it was insanely risky for her to put that knowledge to practice. But she did, and the fact that you and me are alive and well shows how brilliant she is. It is very right that she is your second mother. She did for your birth even more than I. She had to take care of me and perform the surgery secretly, in an underground hospital. If it is discovered, Sveta and me will go to jail for undermining the Gene Pool.

You asked me today why my New Year Tree was made in the USA. The reason is, our country is too poor to teach enough engineers for some of them to have time to turn a piece of a sci-fi novel into a set of telescopic tubes and hi-tech materials.

I am full of grief now, to have to write all this stuff to you, because I’d rather tell you only good news till my dying day. But I hope that my letter will not make your life less interesting and happy.

I love you very much.

Mom

 

Julia went to Nastya’s bedroom and put the letter on the girl’s desk. A reddish beam infiltrated the room through a slit between heavy curtains in the window and highlighted Nastya’s half-face on the pillow, a tabby cat curled up next to the girl, and the yellow silk holiday gown she had cast on the bed. Julia sighed and turned on the desk lamp. She took the gown and hung it into the wardrobe. Then she bent over the desk, took a pen from it and wrote at the end of the letter,

I was upset to see how you treat the beautiful gown Klara made for you. I put it away because I did not want Murka to tear it with her claws. But your clothes are your responsibility.

Then Julia went to the bathroom to take her contacts off.

When she went to bed, she felt a sheet of paper on her pillow. It was her letter. She went to the window, slid under another pair of heavy curtains and read a write-up in the reddish light, with her nose almost touching the paper.

Mommies, I love you so-so-so much. Please tell me who is my father. It is better to burn the letter. Sorry for the gown.

Julia looked at the sky. Over the sleeping city, straight above the Central Square, a congratulatory hologram was shining the year in all colors of the Flag of Russia. Four identical digits—2222.

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Mohammad Shafiqul Islam Interview: “Rivers Lament”

mohammad-shafiqul-islamRead Mohammad Shafiqul Islam’s poem “Rivers Lament” from Reckoning 1.

Michael: We hear a little here in the US about Bangladesh’s low-lying areas being one of the most heavily populated places in the world under threat from rising sea levels, but not much comes through to us about it in the way of media reporting. What has been your experience of climate change so far? Do you see it affecting the people around you, your co-workers, and your students?

Shafiq: Bangladesh is proud of Bay of Bengal, the Sundarbans and hundreds of rivers flowing around the country. Bay of Bengal, the largest bay in the world, is situated on the southern part of Bangladesh bordering India and Sri Lanka. The Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world and a world heritage site declared by UNESCO, covers the northern part of the country. Bangladesh government has planned to set up the Rampal Power Station that is going to be a coal-fired power plant in Bagerhat, Khulna. Environmentalists, along with left-wing politicians and activists, are protesting against the power station, but the government reiterates that the station will not affect the Sundarbans.

With an area of 1,47,570 square kilometers, Bangladesh is well-known as a riverine country. There were once about seven hundred rivers in the country, but unfortunately, the number has declined. We are losing rivers because of the unrestrained greed of the land grabbers—small rivers in various districts of the country have disappeared. Besides, industry wastes land in rivers, which is why river water is becoming poisonous. The capital city, Dhaka, stands by the Buriganga, one of the important rivers in the country, but its clean water is now only a memory. It is true that low-lying areas of the country are submerged by flood every year and this affects human life severely. Climate change, a global phenomenon, also impacts the environment and life—comfortable weather conditions no longer resonate with the seasons here.

Michael: Could you tell me something about literature in Bangladesh? Who are your favorite authors, your influences as a poet? You’re a professor of English—what kinds of writing do you assign to your students? What do they like?

Shafiq: Bengali literature in general is rich in comparison with many other literatures of the world, whereas Bangladeshi Bengali literature in particular has also drawn attention of readers throughout the world. Translation of Bengali major works into English is taking them across borders and cultures. I should make it clear that the language of West Bengal, India, is also Bengali, and their literature is called Bengali literature. So Bengali literature by Bangladeshi writers and the same by West Bengal writers need to be addressed separately. Bengali literature made its mark across languages and cultures for Rabindranath Tagore who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913 for his seminal work Gitanjali (Song Offerings). Kazi Nazrul Islam, famously known as a ‘Rebel’ poet, is the national poet of Bangladesh. Famous poets and writers of Bengali literature include Jibanananda Das, Buddhadev Bose, Selina Hossain, Syed Shamsul Haq, Rudra Muhammad Shahidullah, Humayun Azad, Helal Hafiz, Hasan Azizul Haq, Shahid Qadri, Nirmalendu Goon, Mahadeb Saha, Humayun Ahmed, Taslima Nasrin, Imdadul Haq Milon, Mohammad Nurul Huda, Shaheen Akhtar, Syed Manzoorul Islam, Harishankar Jaladas, Nasreen Jahan, Mohit Ul Alam, Moinul Ahsan Saber, Audity Falguni and Pias Majid among others. Some of them are also being translated into English.

Bangladeshi English writing is an emerging field though very few writers including Razia Khan Amin started writing in English in 1970s. Bangladeshi English literature has drawn more global attention recently because of Dhaka Literary Festival (DLF) that takes place during November every year. Writers, poets, artists and performers from around the world gather at Bangla Academy premises to share and exchange culture and literature. Among the fiction writers, Thmima Anam, Zia Haider Rahman, Adib Khan, Monica Ali, Niaz Zaman, Mahmud Rahman, Rashid Askari, Kazi Anis Ahmed, Razia Sultana Khan, Jackie Kabir, Sharbari Z Ahmed, Abeer Hoque, Farah Ghuznavi and Shazia Omar are well-known—some of them are diaspora writers as well.

Kaiser Haq, the most prominent English language poet from Bangladesh, is known and studied across borders—he is the leading poetic voice of the country. Besides, a handful of poets including Azfar Hussain, Rubana Haq, Shamsad Mortuza, Ahsan Akbar, Sadaf Saaz, Mohammad Shafiqul Islam, Sabahat Jahan, Sayeeda T Ahmed, Nahid Kaiser and Shehzar M Doja, among others, write poetry in English.

Many works of Bengali literature, translated into English, are becoming part of world literature. Well-known translators including Fakrul Alam, Kaiser Haq, Niaz Zaman and Shabnam Nadiya, among others, have already translated a good number of books into English, and they have enjoyed warm reception. The notable works of translation include The Triumph of the Snake Goddess (Kaiser Haq, Harvard University Press, 2015), The Essential Tagore (Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty, 2011) and Bandhon Hara: Unfettered (Niaz Zaman, Nymphea Publication, 2012). Dhaka Translation Center promotes translation, and it has already published some wonderful books of Bengali literature in English translation—The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction (Comma Press, UK, and Bengal Lights Books, Dhaka, 2016) is one of its remarkable publications.

As an enthusiast of poetry, I try to read all kinds of poemst—classical, romantic, modern as well as contemporary. At present, I am doing a PhD on Nissim Ezekiel who is one of my favorite poets. To name my favorite authors is not easy at all—many poets and writers from various countries and languages have influenced me. Keats among the romantics and Eliot among the modernists are my favorites. I also like reading Baudelaire, Neruda, Derek Walcott, William Carlos Williams and many other contemporary poets. I like Kaiser Haq’s poems very much. Sudeep Sen is also a wonderful poet in the contemporary literary scene. Recently, I have read Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation and liked it very much.

I usually teach poetry—romantic, modern and contemporary. South Asian poetry in translation interests me as well.

Michael: “Rivers Lament” makes reference to some Anglophone literature—I love your use of Grendel as a representative of environmental destruction—but clearly also draws on your own sense of place. Do you write in English? Bengali? I’d love to hear how you think about combining those influences.

Shafiq: I have been inspired by many influential texts and great writers of English literature. When I find a relevant context, I try to bring some characters or subject matters as allusions into my writing. In the poem “Rivers Lament,” I used Grendel as a representative of environmental devastation—you are right. Those who grab riverbanks, grab land, destroy rivers, devastate nature and torture human beings illogically are modern Grendels. I feel disturbed when I see that our rivers are disappearing day by day, river water is turning poisonous and we are losing green to the greed of modern Grendels.

I write poetry in English and translate from Bengali into English. My debut book, Wings of Winds, is a collection of poems. An anthology of short stories in my translation, titled Humayun Ahmed: Selected Short Stories, appeared in 2016. My latest book is also a translation titled Aphorisms of Humayun Azad that is out in February 2017. I am now at work on my second collection of poetry and a translation project.

I have influences among both Bengali and English writers and poets. I use elements from my culture, literature, environment, and everyday incidents as raw material for my writing. I write in English, but the subject matter of my writing mostly comes from my culture. I learn craft by reading different texts from around the world meticulously.

Michael: Are there other writers in your community addressing environmental justice? Anyone you’d recommend I solicit for Reckoning?

Shafiq: Many poets and writers of Bengali literature address environmental justice, but it is difficult to name even a few who exclusively write on environmental justice. But I can refer to a poem by Kaiser Haq titled “Buriganga Blues,” which is from his latest poetry collection called Pariah and Other Poems. This poem reveals how the river Buriganga has lost its glory and how its water has turned poisonous—indiscriminate urbanization and people’s mindless activities are responsible for this kind of damage to environment and nature.

Michael: Thank you! There’s a lot here for me to dig into, I really appreciate it.

Shafiq: Thank you for this amazing publication! In this world of climate change and global warming, Reckoning, no doubt, plays an important part for environmental justice.

 

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Rivers Lament

Mohammad Shafiqul Islam

Rivers lament over why they were born, they

Question their existence, ask their maker if any

The rivers weep copious tears no one can see

For the loss irreparable. Clinically dead, they

Seem to wait for a time when news echoes in

The air: the wasteland returns. Cuckoos will

No more sing to declare the advent of spring

Deadly and ear-piercing cries of humans and

Animals will break stones. O agonized rivers

You don’t shout like human beings absolutely

Vacuum within! You’re calm like trees gifting

Nature with gentle breeze. Desperate and evil

Land grabbers ravage banks extending gluttony

To the rivers, eating out life, destroying beauty

And disturbing cadence like Grendel. The rivers

Had golden days with stream of water as a force

To create rhythmic sounds as if celestial music

And petite white flakes made many a shoal of

Small white fish swim, jump and fall in between

Giant boulders to have a flower nearby blossom

Rapidly and feast the eyes of travelers. Children

Would bathe in a group, young girls would swim

Together, farmers wash mud after plowing their

Fields to sow seeds for golden crops. Toxic water

In different colors spawns fetor making distance

Between humans and rivers—to touch water now

Is to catch incurable diseases! O rivers, you do not

Inundate fields to bring silt for healthier crops and

Bountiful harvests anymore! The soil has already

Begun to crack, trees stopped growing and a new

Form of epizootic is imminent. Ether couriers your

Valued missives: don’t kill water, let your life flow.

 

 

Read the interview with Mohammad Shafiqul Islam here.

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Kate Schapira Interview: Climate Anxieties

kate-schapiraMichael: Kate Schapira’s Climate Anxiety Project is a fascinating creative experiment in which she sets up a counseling booth (in the style of Lucy from Peanuts) in a city square, invites people worried about the future of humanity to come and talk to her about it, records the results, and finds creative ways to respond. Her “Three Alternate Histories” in Reckoning 1 are just the tip of the iceberg.

I love your blog; I am so impressed and inspired by the Climate Anxiety Project, and I’m very glad to find out you’ll be doing new sessions in 2017. Thank you for agreeing to talk to me a bit about it.
I wanted to ask your impression of the reaction to it. I know the project has had quite a bit of press already. I wonder if you’ve seen any kind of momentum building from that. For Reckoning, I’m very interested in fostering community, of encouraging people to think together. Have you seen anything like that as a result of your project? Have you made any friends at it?

Kate: That thing of encouraging people to think together, of enacting community with each other, is something that the booth proper doesn’t always lend itself to very well, because everyone’s talking with me but it’s pretty one-at-a-time, they’re not necessarily ever talking to each other. Sometimes one person will jump in on a conversation that another person, someone they don’t know, is having with me, but I don’t know if any ongoing relationships ever come out of that. And I don’t collect data—contact information, stuff like that—because I think that would change the dynamic a lot. I have made a couple of friends, and there are people who are sort of regulars—people who aren’t necessarily coming back for more sessions, but who will come talk and catch me up on their lives when no one else is talking with me, and if I see them around we’ll say hi.

But one of the things that’s come out of the booth conversations is how isolated people feel, and how unable they feel to act together. One way I’m trying to respond to that is with this series of weekly neighborhood gatherings called Interdependence Days that I and a few other people started this summer. We share stories and food, we learn skills or make things together, we let each other know of more opportunities for neighborly actions and then sometimes we do them together—for example, somebody came and talked to us about a city ordinance to increase police accountability and transparency, and then one other person from the group and I went doorknocking about it. But we also do things like draw, or do reflective exercises, or make something together—we’re trying to practice ways of being with other people that differ from the ways our world most easily makes available to us.

About five people living in other places have at different times expressed some interest in operating a Climate Anxiety Counseling booth of their own, but so far as I know that hasn’t moved beyond interest. I would be beyond thrilled to help someone create a version of this that works for them and their city or town—I would bend over backwards to do this—so people who think they might like to try it should get in touch with me.

And I guess the last thing thing is about the alternate histories, like the ones you’re running here: while they’re obviously not literal instructions–they don’t taken nearly enough into account–they are suggestions. I wish people would try to follow them and see what happens, and I invite anyone and everyone to do so.

Michael: Can you share with me something you’ve learned in the course of listening to and addressing people’s anxieties? Do you think you’ve gotten better at it over time?

Kate: I’ve definitely gotten better at it over time, and the specific things I’ve gotten better at are listening and asking questions rather than volunteering information or making suggestions. This means that more of the conversation comes from the person who’s talking to me, and they have more opportunities to consider and understand their own thoughts, and I have more of an opportunity to be responsive to what they’re actually thinking and feeling, so that the conversation is really between the two of us and not a conversation I’m having with myself. This is key for people who are trying to work together to make something happen—both in the “what should we try to make happen” part and the “how should we do it” part. I’ve absolutely used this practice outside of the booth to do things with other people and it’s made both the process and the outcome better.

I’m not trying to get people not to be anxious, so the “addressing” part of it is really just about recognizing and being responsive, and maybe thinking through the “what do you do when this happens” of it a little more, and I think I’ve gotten better at all of those things. I do sometimes make recommendations, and I think those recommendations are less, “Go do this, it’ll be okay!” and more like, “Try doing this and see how it feels to do, and what you learn from doing it.”

I think the other thing I’ve learned is how real and true interdependence is, and how fake independence is. And from that, I’ve gotten better at talking about the flow between the human and the nonhuman, to kind of pierce the mental wall between “a person” and “the environment”—to be able to not just tell people that they’re connected to and interdependent with all these systems of life but to lead them to see and feel it.

Michael: Does doing this make you feel better about where we as a planet are going? Has it changed your expectations at all about what’s to come?

Kate: Not at all. Everything I see, both firsthand and reported–not just predictions for the future, but observations about the present–says that we are in the middle of a hard time that’s going to get harder, more painful and full of loss and grief, falling unevenly according to who’s already suffering or exploited. I don’t feel better about anything, ever, anymore, except in little tiny patches.

But those tiny patches matter to me and I want to nourish them, and I thin one of them does have to do with the way that people behave toward each other: the listening I spoke about a second ago, the ability to then align with what each other wants and needs, and the ability to imagine, together, something different than what’s happening. How we behave in this bad time—who we align ourselves with and what we try to do together, what we see as our responsibility toward each other, what we try to protect each other from and enable each other to do—is in the realm of things that we can help, that we’re not helpless about. And that “each other” includes humans and other beings as well.

Michael: Have you gotten many negative reactions, like the one I see someone has posted on your blog’s about page? How do you deal with those?

Kate: Not that many–it seems like people who think I’m stupid or wrong mostly don’t get into it. There was a little rash of that kind of response this summer, I think because a climate-change-trivializing blog found my page and linked to it, and some of the comments on that blog’s post—not mine—were rude in a personal way as well as disparaging the project, commenting about my appearance and stuff like that, but incredibly mild compared to what some people say to women online.

You probably saw that I didn’t respond to the comment on the Climate Anxiety Counseling About page, just put it up and left it there. Someone tried to have a Twitter fight with me about it too, and I just kept it factual and low-key and like, “You’re mistaken.”

Someone else wrote me this very long and concerned email, and I kind of treated it like a booth session: I said a little bit about where I was coming from, but mostly I tried to ask questions about where they were coming from, why they wanted me not to be worried, what they thought was an appropriate response. I don’t think I moved them at all, though.

When people have come up to the booth saying that climate change isn’t real or that it’s pointless or stupid to worry about it, sometimes I’ve reacted in a way I feel okay about, where I feel like we connected as people, and sometimes I’ve reacted in a way that I don’t feel good about, where I let irritation or impatience show in a way that didn’t let either of us learn anything. Anger is important and useful, but it’s better if you wield it on purpose.

I’ve included links to those posts from this summer in the list below, as well as a couple of reflective notes that people might like to see, and an explanation of the alternate history stories.

Thanks so much for putting Reckoning together—it’s amazing.

Michael: Thank you!

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Three Alternate Histories

from the Climate Anxiety Counseling Booth

Kate Schapira

Reckoning 1

Ownership

CLIMATE ANXIETY: 5/12/16

Heat, dryness, really sick people, kind of barren landscapes. A lot of—as I’m listing things off it looks a little bit like what’s happening right now, in terms of economic and cultural devastation. A lot more complete separation of folks with resources and folks without resources, a lot more violence and globalization from below—people joining forces, people finding commonness where they couldn’t before because they thought they were in competition.

That part sounds—not exactly hopeful, but like something that you would like to see.

 

Yeah, that is.

So what’s the fear part?

 

Starvation? . . . but when you go to identify it, it’s different than what you think. I like to think of the world as an ecological system. Basically the fear is that turned on its head and nothing being able to sustain anything else. I don’t even know how to file that, where to put that.

CLIMATE ANXIETY: 5/28/16

I’ve been down here 10 years working with the homeless. Last year they had a sign that said there was no smoking in the park, so then of course people came and smoked out here, but now people are smoking in the park again. . . . I’d like to see people down here motivated to clean up the park.

What do you think might motivate people?

 

I think people need to take ownership of it.

But what makes you take ownership of something? Like, do you own your house, what makes you feel like the owner of your house?

 

I think you have to tap into what people can do instead of what they can’t do.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: 6/18/16

The story of competition is only one story.

D hangs laundry in his backyard, bees rocking and rummaging in the rhododendron pollen. He has a backyard, at the moment, that he can say “his” about. If he’s honest, it belongs also to the bees, to the rhododendron, to the grass; to the native trees that the rhododendron and grass replaced, to the Native people that his ancestors displaced, to the slaves that cleared the land of trees the first time; to the bugs that thread through the grass and the worms and grubs that tunnel through the dirt; to the microfauna in their guts and the fungal hyphae laced around them. All those whose speech is in their operation. The living and the dead. There’s enough backyard for all of them, if he does it right.

Until now, the other meaning of ownership has trumped this shared meaning in his mind: the getting of what you pay for, the holding of what you have. The recognition that he is always taking part takes him apart.

He does a few things. He and his neighbors on the one side work together on a pass-through through his yard between theirs and the street, breaking up the concrete of his driveway into pavingstones with moss between them, leaving half the fence to slow down noise and building the rest of its boards into a trellis. When he waters the plants or digs in compost, he treats it like an offering; when he poisons the carpenter ants that are gnawing down his house, he holds a funeral for them. When his neighbor on the other side comes out running from his other neighbor, her girlfriend, he sits with her on the porch and helps her make a plan about what to do next. Later he says to the girlfriend, “If you want to hit her, come talk to me instead. Whatever it takes for you to not hit her. Don’t do it again.”

“Or what?”

“What do you mean, or what? Don’t do it.”

The girlfriends break up and move away, taking advantage of the northward convoys. D doesn’t know what they do, what happens to them. Other people move in, turn the house next door into what turns out to be one of the first free clinics and build out a giant trellis to let the ivy and grapevine make it a superstructure of shade, stabilize its temperature in the increasingly sharp spells of dry heat and downpour. D chats with the people waiting to pick up their doses of hormones and makes tea for the people dying of cancer to wash down their painkillers—iced tea would probably be better, but he needs to repair the connection between the refrigerator and the solar cell. If the next storm doesn’t rip this house away, if food poisoning or accident doesn’t nab him on one of his work trips out into the countryside, he’ll probably die here, too. He belongs here, and so do the plants that scaffold or strangle each other, the tiny animal deaths that feed into insect and fungal life, the remnants of the dead, the visiting birds (ever fewer), the relations among all of these.

Many years later, on that same spot, a circle of people sit in a dry and ragged landscape, a stretch of dust punctuated by tree stumps and a few ragged foundations, in whose shelter the weeds grow and they can sleep. They are tired and dying, looking for the end of the wasteland. They pass an old thermos around. Each of them takes about half a sip. In the morning three of them are dead. The others form a circle, pass an old thermos around, each taking about half a sip. Then they keep walking, the slightly stronger ones bolstering the slightly weaker.

It doesn’t have to last forever, whatever it is, for you to be tender to it, for you to share with it; you won’t last forever, either.

Environmental Hazards

Routine releases means emissions in normal operation, emissions that might happen daily or more rarely, and they’re frequently regulated by permits . . . In accidental releases, planning is very important.

—Barbara Morin, Providence Department of Health

We’re always planning. We’re looking at every event.

—Michael Borg, Providence Emergency Management Agency

The next day, the hazmat teams descended on the Port of Providence, because they were responsible for reducing harm from hazardous materials. They were just doing their jobs when they gave the Univar and Motiva facilities and the staff at the Enterprise propane and National Grid liquid natural gas tanks a timeline and a protocol for distributing or neutralizing their fossil fuel and chemical holdings. The people working there were glad to cooperate, knowing that every day of dismantlement increased the chances of survival for a third-grader or an old man on oxygen or a school of fish, and knowing that as they did this work, their livelihoods were assured in the neighborhood.

There’s no good way to put natural gas or coal back in the ground—not every process is reversible, not every wound can be healed. A council of South Providence residents doled out the natural gas and propane to the rest of the city household by household, rationing it for heat and cooking, knowing that there would be no more when it was gone. They built big, ramshackle structures out of scrap metal and wood from dismantled houses across the train tracks, and colored them with chalk and festooned them with fabric to make sure the drivers could see them from far away.

The people of South Providence made room for the people who’d worked in the Port, and learned from them and the hazmat teams how to work with the chemicals without harm. Sometimes they were able to reduce them to inert compounds, or suspend them in substances that would neutralize them. Sometimes the best they could do was parcel them out into smaller quantities, to be stored above water. Filtration, solution, transformation. Prevention: better than cure. The people who’d worked in the Port, and the hazmat teams, learned from the people of South Providence other sets of skills: arguing, running repairs, improvisation, rapid calculation, code-switching, field medicine. They all breathed more easily.

The next hundred-year storm hit before the tanks were fully emptied. A lot of fish and seabirds died, too many to count, and two humans trapped in a car, and an entire long row of windbreaking saplings that the people of South Providence, old and new, had planted a couple of years before. They succumbed to the chemical-infused saltwater; they stood like thin gravestones.

It could have been worse, it could have been better. The rest of the city’s people took the people of South Providence into their houses elsewhere and took turns cleaning and airing the flooded buildings, breaking down the ones that were too badly damaged or too far into the floodplain to make sense saving; they took it in shifts so that no one had to have too much exposure to the poisonous debris. They noted and charted the lie of the land, where the water wanted to go. They thickened and lined the walls of their homes with torn fabric, scavenged wood, leftover office paper, dry grass; they cooked on tiny solar stoves outdoors in summer and saved their gas and wood for winter.

The people who were young during that storm were almost old when the next one hit, and things went very differently. All the tanks were long empty of poison; some were reefs for the shellfish that were just starting to come back. Long sections of train track ran quietly under the water, coated in algae that had evolved to digest the tar and creosote that soaked the railroad ties. People’s weather senses were better now, and with the help of predictive technology, they knew when to leave and let the water rush through what was left, if that was where it wanted to go. The city’s high points had food stores and hospitals; the city’s low points were thick with marsh grass shading into waterweed, and tiny crabs, and sand fleas, and lugworms, hunkering down to wait out a cleaner tide.

The Ocean State

CLIMATE ANXIETY: 5/8/15

I saw a thing in the paper about how a sea level rise of 3 feet is going to destroy the marshes and salt ponds, down in South County, that are breeding grounds for lots of fish and birds—plovers and stuff like that.

CLIMATE ANXIETY: 5/15/15

The city—pollution. Buildings, cars, power plants. People just like to litter, it’s just fun to them. Like when I was younger and I did litter, I felt bad about it. Like why would you do that.

What do you think would make people change that, those habits?

 

More influence. More influences. Maybe through music—I’m a musician, reggae, hip-hop, percussion. Inspirational vibes and dancing. If it’s there, more broadcasting of it, something in there for children—the inspiration needs to be there. Rhode Island is very depressing, people hate it. It’s depressing, it’s boring, there’s nothing to do. All it really is, is an ocean, which, sure, if you have money.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: 9/8/15

The next day, I’m going to ask you to imagine, C listened to D and D listened to C. They saw that each other had said these things; they knew this much, at least, of what each other wanted.

The people living near the edge of the water broke their houses down to make room for some of the water—to make paths for it, to build rising bridges and floating marshes. D’s music gave shape to their work; he toured from site to site, and so did other musicians and bands (not everyone loves reggae, or early-’90s rock, or bachata). Back in the cities and inland towns, some couples in houses too big for them moved in with friends, opening their houses to people from the edge of the water, or people from over the water. Some, to preserve their ability to be alone, repaired houses that had stood empty. There was time to do all of this, time grouped and divided by music and silence.

Twenty-nine years later, the ocean is where music is, at certain times of day: a parade winding like a slow current, a circle pulsing around a performer like the devouring mouth of a starfish, a skein of song nourishing a difficult task. You take care of it because it takes care of you, or you take care of it because it’s where the music is, where the bus-boats fueled by algae stop to drop off people from the city, where the far-traveling boats still dock or rest from time to time. It’s on the platforms that sink and hover with the tide and that everyone works together to draw in or anchor when the storms get bad.

At other times of day, the music drops. It doesn’t stop completely—air doesn’t, water doesn’t—but it ebbs to make room for terns and osprey to fish, sandpipers to stab for worms, the ears to recover their quiet. Some people learn the music, or the silence, because of the animals. Some people learn the changes of tide, the bugs, the tiny hungers, because of the silence, or the music.

Sometimes, the music turns somber. There are no more plovers. There are no more moon snails. Your home, your home, the place that you loved, the place where you learned to love, is no more, has become something else—you will never see it again, never. It will never again surround you, as this music does, as these people and other creatures do—known to you only so far, so much—as this air does, as this water does.

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Johannes Punkt Interviews Marissa Lingen

marissa-lingen Michael: I asked Johannes Punkt (whose story “The Bumblebee-Maker’s Kiss” is in Reckoning 1 and goes live on the site next month) to interview Marissa Lingen about “How Far Are We From Minneapolis?” because he’s from Sweden and I thought he might have interesting things to ask her, and because I’m trying to do everything I can to foster cross-pollination between Reckoning authors, artists, readers and yes, editors.

Johannes: I love how you write nature as something incredibly personal. Who do you write like, do you think, on your best days? Who would you like to write like?

Marissa: I want to write like my best self. I am inspired by so many other writers, but I have a hard time saying, “I want to write like Jane Yolen” or “I want to write like John M. Ford” or “I want to write like Octavia Butler.” I want to talk about relationship and society the way Octavia did, I want to have the interplay of ideas Mike had in his work, I want Jane’s range in talking to all sorts of audiences. I try to learn from everything I like, to see what makes it go. But at the end of the day, I can only write like me. If I’m lucky and work very hard, I can write like the best me.

Marissa: I’ve been reading more personal essayists lately as well as writing this piece–usually I write fiction. So I can say more particularly that I am inspired by Elizabeth Dodd and by Karen Babine, in this form, and I’m always looking for more inspiration.

Johannes: Since you wrote about wilderness—what is your favourite wilderness in writing?

Marissa: Since you’re Swedish there’s some chance you’ll actually know what I mean when I answer this! My first wilderness in writing was the robber’s woods in Astrid Lindgren’s Ronia the Robber’s Daugher, and I think that that writing about being a little girl in the forest, sometimes with her little boy friend, imprinted itself and the forest on my heart when that was me too. All the others since then have been paler echoes—some of them wonderful, but none as vivid as that first literary wilderness.

Johannes: Reading your piece, I couldn’t help but think about it and about how notions of private/public property shape the landscape and, in turn, those who grow up there. Have you and your Swedish cousins talked about Allemansrätten [A Swedish law that means that even if you own land, you can’t stop people from going there/temporarily sleeping there, &c. That’s the gist of it. In English it’s called “freedom to roam.”]?

Marissa: Yes! They had us out to their country house when we were visiting last year, and it came up then, because we walked out on the road but came back through a field and some woods that were adjacent. I had read about what a large percentage of Swedes go berry-picking or mushroom-picking—an even larger percentage of Finns, I think, under the same type of law—and it totally makes sense compared to here, where people mostly don’t do that. My best friend does urban foraging, but she always asks very carefully. She goes to the door and knocks and says something like, hi, I see your mulberry bushes are full of fruit going to the birds, would you mind if I picked some. And then she makes jam. And of course I don’t want random strangers wandering in and eating my tomatoes, but having a common understanding sounds appealing indeed.

Johannes: Related to the previous question: You write about wildness and wilderness, like a stewardship of nature almost. How do you feel about ownership of land, tamed, half-tamed, or not? (Is it something that elicits emotion?) obviously you wrote that the waterfall was “[y]ours” but the two feel like very different kinds of ownership, no?

Marissa: They’re very different indeed. My feelings about land ownership get complicated. We own a house on a third of an acre here, with woods in the back. When we moved in, the woods were part of a long strip of forested land that crossed ten or twelve people’s private property in going down to the city park. It wasn’t a large woods, but it was nice. Now several of our neighbors have chosen to cut and landscape that, which changes the feel of the whole. And of course that’s their prerogative, but it makes me gloomy.

The kind of possessiveness that I feel about Minnehaha Falls is an entirely non-exclusive possessiveness. It’s mine, it’s ours—and I want that “ours” to be as large as possible. I want all the people who live around here and even visitors to feel that they have some relationship with the Falls, some responsibility to see that it’s cared for. I think under our current system having it be a public park is the best way to do that, but if it can be a public park that makes people feel that they are part of the public, even better. I fear that too often “the government owns it” ends up feeling like “no one owns it, no one takes any responsibility,” when it should be a collective feeling of *everyone’s* responsibility. Ownership should feel more like “I need to take care of this [possibly with some other people]” than like “I can do whatever I like with this and no one can stop me.”

Johannes: Your piece discusses adjusting to disability. I got mine relatively early; I can hardly remember what it’s like to be “normal.” You seem to ground yourself with those memories and patterns; what do you do when the world is too xenoformed, too alien to adjust to? If it ever is.

Marissa: Oh, it is sometimes. Yes. There is a level of vertigo that results in dreams of being on a malfunctioning space station with the gravity going haywire, because that’s how completely disoriented my body is about up and down, and that’s the metaphor set my science fiction writer brain has to process those sensations when I’m unconscious. So my brain is literally saying: this is beyond our planetary reference frame, this is an alien environment.

What do I do practically: well, there is a practice my best friend refers to as “Marissa is brachiating again”: that is, going from branch to branch like a monkey. Only I am doing it in the house: getting around without falling over by reaching for the next thing to steady myself on, going from touching a wall to a chair to a countertop. That’s one of my best coping mechanisms in my small, immediate world. In the larger one–my assistance needs and coping vary a lot depending on how bad a day it is. Sometimes my cane is enough. Sometimes I need to take a friend’s arm. Sometimes the only thing that will work is patience, waiting for a day when the world and I are better lined up.

Johannes: And, lastly, it’s a new year and stuff. What are you looking forward to reading this year?

Marissa: I have Maria Dahvana Headley’s Aerie at the top of my stack of Christmas books. I loved Magonia, and I’m looking forward to Aerie very much. Last year I read Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, and I’m now going through the rest of Solnit’s work a little at a time. I also read my first Gerald Vizenor novel, Treaty Shirts, which I loved, so I’m reading the rest of his stuff a little at a time too. And of course there are new things coming out that I’m eager for—Thoraiya Dyer’s debut looks pretty great, and our mutual editor has been talking up Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas, so I’m excited for that.

 

Read “How Far Are We From Minneapolis?” in Reckoning 1.

Johannes Punkt writes with an accent. Previously published in Minor Literature[s], Pamphlets for the Apocalypse, among others. Studies translation at Lund University, Sweden. Email: johannespunkt@gmail.com.

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How Far Are We From Minneapolis?

Marissa Lingen

Reckoning 1

My Swedish cousins were very confused by the walk through the woods down to the Mississippi River. “How far are we from Minneapolis?” they kept asking. And we would repeat: we’re in Minneapolis. This is part of Minneapolis. We’re in Minneapolis right now. They gazed at us in frustration, unsure what part of their excellent English was not getting through. “But how far? How far to get to Minneapolis?”

The urban park land that stretches from just upstream of Minnehaha Falls down to the Mississippi is mitigated, human-focused land. It’s not wilderness by any reasonable definition. And yet the small wilds, the contained wilds, have their place—not to substitute for larger conservation efforts, but to preserve specific landforms. And more, to set aside green space not as a thing that city dwellers visit, but as a thing that we live with intimately.

The park navigates the space between human and wild expertly. At the top of the Falls, there are lawns, even small cultivated gardens. There are statues and plaques. Picnic tables and a bandshell and even a little restaurant that’s open in the warm months. And there is the destination on the official tourist checklist: the Falls themselves. The statue just upstream ties them in explicitly with Longfellow’s poem (though it would otherwise have nothing to do with the area—Longfellow’s Gitchee-Gumee—Kitchi Gammi, Lake Superior—is three hours north). All of that is the farthest thing from wild. But if you take the stairs to the bottom of the falls, a trail leads along Minnehaha Creek, to a wide, grassy meadow with no amenities, except that it’s fun to run around in. Follow it a little more, into the trees, and before you know it you’re alone, you and the bunnies and the squirrels, heading down to the Mississippi.

Close to the Falls, the WPA stabilized the streambeds against erosion back in the 1930s. Those walls have been rebuilt and expanded into a pool area slightly downstream. When I was eight, we took my great-grandmother there on a picnic, and she told us about how she would take the streetcar and walk to get down from Nordeast Minneapolis, where she grew up, for Sunday School picnics beside Minnehaha Creek. Our family was so poor then that Great-Grandma couldn’t afford the white dress she needed to participate in her high school graduation. But they could still enjoy the park, even before its WPA improvements. When we brought her back, she was so shaky she needed my dad’s arm, but she could get there. She couldn’t go up to the Boundary Waters into the wild woods. But this, with shaky steps, with help, she could do.

I didn’t know how soon that lesson would apply to my own life.

Further along, the main signs of human habitation are a stretch of boardwalk where the trail tends to get mucky in the spring, and a bridge and bench at the confluence with the Mississippi. And, of course, the trail itself. The other people you meet here are quieter than the people at the top of the Falls. There are conversational hikers, friendly hikers, but the kids’ birthday parties, the raucous laughter, are left back in the entirely human environment of picnic tables. Between that and the half-wild environment of hiking trails, there is space and the sound of water. It is a very short walk.

Sometimes you need the walk to be short.

“But we have seen her in the woods,” One of my Swedish cousins said, when I was diagnosed with a major balance disorder. More than anything else, that spoke to the frustrations I was feeling. They thought of me as sure-footed, swift and eager to show them my favorite natural surroundings. I thought of myself that way.

I spent a lot of the first year inside. I did the things I absolutely had to do, but when even the most level paved ground pitches and yaws under your feet, it’s hard to add unnecessary tasks to your day. One of the hardest things about disability—especially as you make the transition from hoping it will be temporary to realizing it won’t—is figuring out how to keep the parts that are most important from who you were before.

I couldn’t make a trip to real wilderness. I couldn’t reach the sorts of sprawling forests needed to make life possible for countless species including our own. But even on a bad day, like my great-grandmother, I could take someone’s arm and get to the bridge over the falls. I could inhale the smell of iron-rich Minnesota soil in the water, almost like blood in my nose and mouth. On a better day I could make it down the stairs into the woods. I could take deep lungfuls of the quiet green smell. I wasn’t very far away from people. But I could be away from people, in one of the places I have always belonged.

The Falls park let me be the person my cousins had seen in the woods and find the limits of how I could be that person based on how I was feeling that day, not defaulting to the worst-case scenario like I’d have to on a long trip. And that gave me strength to keep going while we were figuring out an imperfect solution that would allow me “real” hiking trips later—on good days, in good months. The Falls park didn’t demand my best days. It was there for me every day.

Once I was back on my feet, I took a friend’s kids to the park around the Falls, and the thirteen-year-old wanted to know what we were doing there. “Is it the tallest waterfall?” she asked dubiously. “The most volume of water?”

“It’s beautiful,” I said, “and it’s ours.”

Certainly there are things that make the Falls unique—geological, historical. I love The Laughing, Leaping Water, a blog about the history of Minnehaha Falls and Minnehaha Park. But what I love about the Falls are the things that make it beautiful, the things that make it ours. If we let our experiences of the natural world be reduced to a tourist checklist, we miss what’s important about them. We miss the details.

You can experience the Falls, the walk down to the Mississippi or the nearby Minneapolis lake parks on a single visit. Coming back over and over, you learn to understand them. How high is the water? Is that typical for the season? What does it mean for the months to come? What does the water smell like? Did it smell like that the last time the leaves and the grass smelled like this? What does the combination tell me? Is there a lot of garlic mustard around the path down to the river, a little, buckthorn instead? How are we doing with removing those invasives? How far does the ice extend this year down the path into the sunny section? When do the Falls freeze? When do they melt?

You can smell the air, look for invasive plants, admire the swirling currents in the water as it passes, on your first visit. You should! They’re great! But they’re even better in context. This place has so much to teach us.

When you stand at the confluence of Minnehaha Creek with the Mississippi River, having walked the length down from the Falls, you’re watching the lifeblood of the center of North America. It’s all part of the same gigantic system.

Maybe the Indigo Girls told you that “the Mississippi’s mighty, but it starts in Minnesota at a place that you could walk across with five steps down.” Amy and Emily wouldn’t lie to you about something like that. It’s true, and Minnesotans are supposed to make a pilgrimage to that unassuming spot. But a pilgrimage takes time. The headwaters of the Mississippi at Itasca are four hours north of Minneapolis. Great for a weekend trip, no good at all for every day. You can’t make a pilgrimage like that for just a minute on your way home from work. When you’re having a bad day, you can’t flee to the smell of freshwater and trees if it takes four hours to get there. When I heard that my beloved aunt’s surgery had not been effective, that she would have to live with a debilitating condition for the rest of her life, I did all the things I needed to do, updating other relatives, running errands, holding her hand while she cried. And on the way home, I went back to the Falls.

My Swedish cousins love to hike, and to walk in parks and gardens near them in Stockholm. But for them, the two never meet. Parks and gardens are planted, cared-for, manicured. Beautiful. But not a bit wild. There’s no gradient of setting from the managed to the natural. There are grand monuments, mighty rivers and beautiful natural forests, but nothing like this semi-wild park in the middle of Minneapolis.

The grand and the mighty are worth experiencing. But bucket list tourism doesn’t give a sense of rhythm and scale, and it can’t work its way into a city dweller’s daily life. The things that make Minnehaha Falls Park less wild make it accessible. People who don’t have a car for a four-hour drive or the money to rent one can get off the lightrail very near the Falls. People who can’t hike to the confluence—like my great-grandmother, like me some days—can still walk or wheel to the top of the Falls and take the water in, take notice, take stock of what’s the same and what’s different. Someone’s bicycle abandoned in the rocks at the head of the Falls, a mitten frozen in the ice dams. Leaves upon leaves upon leaves. And they can come back tomorrow, next week, the end of the season: has the bicycle gotten pulled out? Is the ice thawing around the mitten? Are we done with leaf season? On a day you’ve gotten bad news, if you live in a city, you may want to go hide in the woods. You know it doesn’t actually work like that. Your life is still there. But this mitigated, urban wilderness gives me a piece of those woods to flee to, to breathe in, to make myself part of.

Pristine, no. But beautiful, and ours.

Read Johannes Punkt’s interview with Marissa here.

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