October 13, 2017

LitMag at McNally Jackson on 10/12/17

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Thank you to all who came out to join us in celebrating the first issue of LitMag. It was a thrill to offer readings by Chinelo Okparanta, Bette Pesetsky, Sarah Wang, Jonathan Greenhause, and Emily Saso. It was standing room only, and there was something in the air.

Those in attendance were there for the same reason we started LitMag, A hunger for words. A hunger to read them. A hunger to hear them—words put together in ways you haven’t seen or heard before, with sounds and rhythms that have both skillful and mysterious effects, words that deliver not only stories but visions. It is a hunger that binds us all.

We cannot say how thankful we are to all of the contributors to our first issue. They entrusted us, a new, yet-to-be-published literary magazine, with their work. We were honored and grateful, and we remain so.

August 28, 2017

LitMag in Barnes & Noble

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The first issue of LitMag is on the shelves at Barnes & Noble across the country, and it’s selling well, better than even we had hoped. We want to thank every one of you who has purchased a copy, every one of you who has told a friend, every one of you who has emailed us or posted on social media to tell us how beautiful it is (cover and layout), and how much you love the stories, essays, and poems.

We started LitMag because we saw a need.  And we’re very excited to that so many people saw the same need.

Thank you again for buying LitMag. Let us keep hearing from you. Happy reading!

May 25, 2017

LitMag Turns One

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One year ago today, LitMag opened for submissions. Many thousands of submissions later, we are sending Issue 01 off to the printer. It has been a very heartening year.

A devotion to the literary life.

Respect for writers.

These two principles motivated us. We thought there was a need. And the literary community has shown us that there is indeed a need for LitMag. Readers started subscribing back in October 2016, a full six months before we were scheduled to publish a single word. Great writers believed in us and sent us their work. Unpublished writers believed that we were going to be the literary magazine that would devote itself to their bold new voices. (more…)

April 10, 2017

Forgotten

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Nina Charap

I hollowed out my skull and let you swim about
Let you piss and laugh and dance
Let you fill me up with every disgusting thing inside you
Inside me
Inside you
To think that I loved and loved and loved you
I cradled my skull in my hands
Hunched over it like a mother
Humming lullabies
To the cracked and worn remains
Pieced back together
The finished vessel
Unfit to be filled
Like swiss cheese
Like the syphilitic skeletons you took me to
You held my hand and you said look
Look what that disease can do
Better you had said look
Someday the wind will whistle through you
A cacophony of you after me
You would have been right
But take me outside now
And the sun shines through
You ate away the parts I didn’t need
And now I’m filled with light

Nina Charap is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. This is her first publication.
April 10, 2017

The American Ruse

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Gerry LaFemina

My first guitar was a Japanese Les Paul wannabe
with a warped neck I’m certain was manufactured
in Staten Island, in Paul Majewski’s basement,

circa 1982. We knew the best ones were built in the States,
Gibsons & Fenders we couldn’t afford.
The best amps were British Hiwatts or Marshalls,

hand wired, tubes glowing like party lights, those parties
we never attended. We were poor children of poor parents.
Our heroes made do, made music from distortion—

Wayne Kramer, James Williamson, Ron Asheton,
names so ordinary they might have been written
under a class photograph. In school the sisters

assured us we could do anything, just not rock n roll
or art; not anything sexy, anything glamorous or fun.
What we were ravenous for we never received:

that guitar refused to stay in tune & turned
my left hand into a claw. Don’t ask
what happened to Majewski—maybe jail,

a jealous husband. More likely he just drove off
into an adulthood of average jobs,
an above average mortgage: that slow drizzle that never

becomes a full blown torrent. He lived with his mother, &
we’d escape, nights, into punk dives or else
into cassette tapes delivered by boombox, the first song

always the same, Robin Tyner insisting
we kick out the jams, motherfuckers. We wanted
to kick out the doors & windows, too. Kick out the night.

There was that small brick ranch in Royal Oak
with its flower gardens & sadnesses
of in-laws with their secret hurts. My wife & I

would visit on summer holidays until the barbecue grill
became just another smoldering. So many hot coals
in the suburbs, in that marriage, in the country,

and so I’d just take off some afternoons,
stop at the stores on Woodward Avenue where out-of-luck
axe-men pawned old Gibsons & Vox amps, where

I could play for a while, first a Mosrite
followed by a Rik then a Gretsch or whatever else
hung on the walls. Nickel strings digging again

into my fingertips. I moved from shop to shop:
Music Castle, Motor City Instrument Exchange,
Woodward Guitars, take a pick from a glass jar,

plug in. I wanted what the guitars had to say,
the inflection of sustain & overdrive, a feedback
barrage Fred Smith & Wayne Kramer understood,

a revolution in fuzz tones. It was the third of July.
Already those streets of pastoral names reeked
of sulfur & lilac, maybe a lead lick of honeysuckle.

We could be anything, we once believed, but even
then, all I recognized were the frowns of my wife,
the gospel of bills & bank statements to which we tithed,

so I knew I couldn’t afford that American Flag
Fender Coronet with the single humbucker
just like Kramer used to play

on Back in the USA (it could have been his, he was
made in Detroit, after all). From the tuning pegs,
the price tag dangled like a dog tag. I knew

in a way I hadn’t known I’d been taught, I was
finally getting hip to the American Ruse.
I couldn’t afford the revolution. But still, it came.

Gerry LaFemina is the author of numerous books of poetry including, most recently, Little Heretic. He is an Associate Professor at Frostburg State University and serves as a Poetry Mentor in the Carlow University MFA program.
April 10, 2017

Seven Months

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Ravi Mangla

In a courtroom that doubles as a mobile office for the DMV, my parents marry for a second time. Under different circumstances this would be cause for celebration, a collective victory for all those kids who saw their childhoods undone by divorce. Under different circumstances I might have bought them a blender or breadmaker (or, more conveniently, a custom license plate). Yet we have only the attending circumstances, which cast the proceedings in an altogether different light. My niece sits on my lap as we watch them recite vows and exchange rings: plain, unadorned bands. Once the ceremony has finished and the papers have been signed, we commemorate the occasion with a breakfast at Denny’s.

Two nurses take turns feeling for a serviceable vein. Scar tissue has accumulated from the weeks of chemo treatment, which prevents the needle from advancing. Soon they will insert a port in his upper arm. For now they continue to poke and prod, without any success, while my father seals his eyes, suppressing the urge to wince. “This never happens,” one of the nurses, confounded, says. “Usually I’m much better at this.”

Portraits of grief are cheap. Writing as therapy is taboo.

When the doctor tells him that he is dying, that from now on time will be measured in months, we are sitting in a room decorated in sea tones. There aren’t enough chairs to accommodate the three of us—my father, my brother-in-law, and me—so I am forced to stand by the door. When the doctor tells him that he is dying, I am facing my father, watching his head quietly nod, the news settling in like a gentle salve.

Later that same day he asks my mother to marry him again.

Portraits of grief are cheap. Writing as therapy is taboo. Stories of cancer are passé. A dime a dozen. The lees of serious essay writing. I promised myself I won’t appropriate my father’s pain for my own ends, that I won’t succumb to that lowest of impulse. Because writers seem to believe, out of some misguided hubris, that they feel more acutely than others, thereby entitling them to repurpose the pain of those around them. But this is not how I choose to grieve or hope to heal. This is how I remember.

There is a particular night embedded in my memory. I am five or six and afraid to fall asleep on my own. My mother is out of town and my father is sick with a cold. Despite his poor health, he sits in the doorway of my room, for what seems like hours, far enough away to protect me from his illness, but close enough that I can still see his silhouette.

Cancer, like acts in a story, has only three stages: a beginning, middle, and an end.

Once I was besotted with hospitals, particularly the way their self-replicating corridors simulated the dream state: the clean lines and unvarying design. Each door an enigma, a mystery of purpose. Yet after hundreds of dreams inside hospitals, there is no place more unpleasant to me, no place I would less like to be.

Three nurses are huddled in the corner of a darkened waiting room. This is not the start of a nursery rhyme. This is the room where I go to gather myself after long spells at his bedside. I don’t turn on the lights for fear of startling them. The nurses remain moored in their seats, taking a momentary break from their rounds to watch Maury deliver paternity results.

Months later, I meet with a new primary care physician. Changes to my healthcare coverage have delivered me here, to an office catering to the perennially underemployed. He is younger than my previous doctors, speaks in a unvarnished Bronx accent. He asks if stress could be contributing to my sleeping problems. I describe to him the last seven months. He nods and begins leafing through the questionnaire I filled out in the waiting room. “If I find out you’re a smoker,” he says, “I’m going to smack you upside the head.”

Cancer, like acts in a story, has only three stages: a beginning, middle, and an end.

The hospital where my father receives radiation treatment was once the site of human testing, performed without consent by an arm of the Manhattan Project. Over the course of two years, eleven patients were injected with plutonium, six with uranium, and five with polonium. Official records designate these patients with the letters “HP”—or “human product.” Now the hospital is among the most respected in the state, a leading employer in the region.

A candle is lit and placed on his casket. The act is a religious rite, akin to tossing a handful of dirt into an open grave. Before the body is lifted into the furnace, its final resting place, the director of the crematorium hastens over and politely asks that we extinguish the candle, fearing that it presents a possible fire hazard.

Three months before he passes, his third grandchild is born. The son of my sister and her husband. The boy is healthy (save for a spot of jaundice) and unusually composed for a newborn. My father spends hours with this child, who takes his name as his own, feeding him bottles and rocking him to sleep in his arms.

Agonal breathing refers to the intermittent gasps that happen when the body is not receiving the oxygen it needs to sustain itself. The term—like its counterpart agony—derives from agon, the Ancient Greek word for struggle. The gasps are the kind you might expect from a weak swimmer drowning in some rapacious sea. In most cases these respiratory spasms last for minutes; in rare ones, hours.

His hand is bloated and smooth, like a latex glove puffed with air. He has never asked me to hold his hand before.

Books I finish in the hospital: Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The Complete Poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Truitt’s Daybook and Turn, Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson, Michelle Orange’s This is Running for Your Life, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Why am I mentioning books? Because they are your greatest allies in moments of pain, a buffer against the certitudes of time.

My father wants to make it to his birthday, a date he adopted when he resettled in the country. For Indians of his generation, birthdays are an inexact science. We know he was born sometime in the late spring. Each year I would have to remind myself that the date we celebrated was guesswork.

He asks me to hold his hand. Time has slowed to a crawl. It is only a matter of days now. His hand is bloated and smooth, like a latex glove puffed with air. He has never asked me to hold his hand before. In fact, when I was a child, he spurned physical affection.

At night, unable to sleep, I wander the empty hallways of the hospital. The lights on the ground floor have been turned off. No announcements issue from the loudspeaker; no patients pass on padded gurneys. The gift shop is closed, its menagerie of care animals caged for the night. I search for hallways I haven’t navigated before, but each feels as familiar as the last. This isn’t a dream, though it doesn’t quite feel like real life either; it lacks some essential vividness. I walk with deliberate steps, trying not to break the spell of silence. Soon there will be no more hospital left to traverse, no more corridors through which to pass. My walk will have reached its end, in the way that all things end, and the only thing left to do will be to find my way back.

Ravi Mangla is the author of the novel Understudies. His essays have appeared in Kenyon Review, Midnight Breakfast, Cincinnati Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Paris Review Daily. He lives in Rochester, NY.
April 10, 2017

Misremembering Chekhov

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Rebecca Gould

There are tragedies and there are comedies…a comedy depends on stopping the story at exactly the right moment.—Siri Hustvedt

Chekhov was not my first love. More obviously delectable to a college freshman just returned from her first visit to St. Petersburg and discovering Russian literature for the first time were the thick novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Those “great, baggy monsters” (as Henry James called them) buoyed me up through my first marriage, my frantic conversion to Christianity, and my equally hasty divorce. I imbibed the entire oeuvre of Dostoevsky on a reading binge, hoping to drown my tumultuous marriage in his tales of white nights, conniving detectives, and holy fools. Dostoevsky’s tortured heroines perfectly matched my overstrung mind, and his philosophical dialogues about the existence (or not) of God were the perfect object of reflection for my theologically conflicted soul. “I return my ticket,” Ivan Karamazov said directly to God (in the person of Alyosha). I won’t pause to consider it, but D.H. Lawrence’s interpretation of this scene (in a new translation of the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter published by the Hogarth Press in 1929) struck me as the inanest piece of literary criticism I had ever read, and I was certain I could do better.

Chekhov offered a different kind of pleasure.

Tolstoy struck a different chord. His ability to cut through racism and prejudice, in particular of the home-grown Russian variety, set him apart from any other Russian novelist I had read. Certainly, it placed him light-years ahead of Dostoevsky, whose novels swarm with hunchbacked Poles and snivelling Jews. Tolstoy did not pull at my heartstrings in quite the same way as did Dostoevsky, but he did speak to my social conscience, and to my desire to make a difference in the world. In the early years of the twenty-first century, amid the Russian air strikes on Grozny, Hadji Murad and the other Tolstoyan fictions set in the Caucasus read like political prophecies from a writer intimately familiar with the results of nationalist hate. I created a special shelf in my student apartment for Tolstoy, a writer I came to adore not for what he had to say about love, but for his vision of the social good. Thus did the pair whom Nabokov christened Tolstoyevsky enter my life: through my personal travails (in the case of Dostoevsky) and my desire to change the world (in the case of Tolstoy).

Chekhov offered a different kind of pleasure. I did not have the chance to taste him until my final semester at Berkeley, after a whirlwind tour of the Russian canon. I was in a class on the Russian short story. We had been assigned to read six carefully selected tales in the original, and scrutinized their lexis, morphology, and syntax intensively twice a week. For our first story, my professor had chosen Chekhov’s “Lady with a Lapdog” as the object for analysis. “Chekhov’s story is possibly the best short story in all of Russian,” she said, “some would say in all of world literature.”

There was indeed something magical about ”Lady with a Lapdog.” Unlike Tolstoyevsky’s baggy monsters, the story seemed to thrive on silences. What actually transpired in the story wasn’t in any way remarkable, at least not according to my memory from my reading as an undergraduate. What stayed in my mind was the author’s habit of not interpreting the events he disclosed. Like Hemingway, Chekhov never reported anything that could not be verified first hand. The narration was laconic, dry, and terse. It was also incredibly moving, in part because it left it to the reader to project onto the text almost all the emotions simmering in and between the characters. Gurov sees Anna’s eyes and thinks “there’s something pathetic about her,” and Anna tells Gurov “You will be the first to despise me now,” but in Chekhov’s world no omniscient author tells us what to think. Interpretation is left to the reader. Chekhov’s method seemed demanding, yet devastatingly close to the complexity and uncertainty of life.

Then he licks his voluptuous lips.

The most enduring impression I took away from that story, and which I carried with me in the decade that followed my graduation from college, was that, to a much greater extent than Tolstoyevsky, Chekhov was a cynic. After depicting the blossoming of love between a younger woman and her older lover, I recalled from my undergraduate reading, Chekhov showed how love is fated not to last. This is how I interpreted and remembered an unforgettable detail in the Yalta hotel room, after Gurov and Anna Sergevevna have sex for the first time: Anna laments her lost virginity while Gurov is overcome with boredom. He then glances around the room and spies a ripe, bright pink watermelon not far from their bed. Gurov promptly proceeds to devour the watermelon until only the rind is visible. Then he licks his voluptuous lips. This memory, of a man who has grown disgusted with the woman he has just penetrated and who is already on the lookout for new pleasures, remained with me for many years after my first reading of “Lady with a Lapdog.” All other aspects of the story had become dim.

Almost twenty years later, the Russian literary pantheon had lost some but by no means all of its glory to me. A long succession of other loves had intervened between me and Chekhov: Arabic, Persian, Georgian, not to mention my abiding passions for French, German, Italian, and Spanish literature. All of these literatures I have tried to know with some degree of intimacy. But, in spite of my promiscuous disloyalty to other literatures and languages, Russian kept cropping up in unexpected ways. Chekhov in particular, whom I never knew intimately during my undergraduate years, appeared without warning in places where I least expected to find him.

One of the most unexpected places in which Chekhov cropped up was on an online dating profile. To do justice to this memory I’ll use the historical present: A Brussels-based scientist lists Dostoevsky among his favourite authors. I, the author of a senior thesis on Dostoevsky, immediately “like” this scientist. An hour later, he does the same. I write back. It is 3:30 am, but since when was love measured in hours? I ask him, of course, about Dostoevsky. Which novel does he like the most? I then tell him about my late adolescent discovery of the Russian master, and how it changed my life. He replies: the same thing happened to him around the age of sixteen. We are synchronized! In our next exchange, we agree to spend the Christmas and New Year’s holiday together in Paris.

You will have guessed, have you not, that this was the beginning of love.

Paris is like a dream. We spend our first full day together strolling through the Jardin du Luxembourg, trading memories of the books that impacted our lives: Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Thomas Bernard, Nathanial West, Richard Yates, John Cheever, and the neglected John Williams. It does not take long before we come around to The Brothers Karamazov and the mysterious Alyosha. My companion from Brussels has an impressive knack for remembering detail. Better than I could ever do without rehearsing, he delineates the ups and downs of the trial scene, recounts Alyosha’s wanderings throughout Skotoprigonyevsk, and speculates on the reasons for Old Karamazov’s murder. I am impressed.

In contrast to the analytical approach of my undergraduate years, we do not linger over the philosophical nuances of Dostoevsky’s fictions. We do not the ponder the existence (or not) of God. (As confirmed atheists, we know how such debates are destined to end.) We do not agonize over the problem of evil or commiserate with the sufferings of the children whose stories Ivan Karamazov had cut from a recent newspaper. Instead, we walk, hand in hand, over the pebbled pathways of the Jardin du Luxembourg, past its duck-filled ponds and the villa that crowns it at the end, towards a sun that is casting its golden halo along the Seine. We have not yet kissed.

You will have guessed, have you not, that this was the beginning of love. And you will not have been wrong. We were much like Gurov and Anna in Yalta. Thereafter I visited him twice in Brussels. We then convened in London and drove each other crazy. Our love was of a strangely short duration, that evaporated soon after it was born. Chekhov, I had thought, was the prophet of this evanescence. He foretold the entire story of our relationship in his “Lady with a Lapdog.”

Or so I thought until I read the story again, after the breakup with my Brussels lover, almost twenty years after I read it as an undergraduate, hungry for a story that could explain to me how what had blossomed so beautifully between us in the Jardin du Luxembourg could have been poisoned so rapidly. I opened up my college textbook and flipped to the familiar Chekhov story. I soon discovered that I had misremembered Chekhov. Although the cynicism was indeed the story’s opening gambit, Gurov’s indifference to Anna Sergeevna soon yielded to an entirely different affective horizon. “Lady with a Lapdog” ends with the two lovers unable to extricate themselves from their love, and able to feel alive only when they are together. Each experiences true love for the first time in their otherwise monotonous lives, a love that must be kept secret because both of them are married.

I had misremembered Chekhov. I then re-read “Lady with a Lapdog” again, in search of even more illumination in the aftermath of my recent romantic fiasco, and I discovered that I had not only misremembered Chekhov’s plot, but also misremembered his tone. As an undergraduate I had taken Chekhov for an unadulterated cynic, when in fact his story depicts the gradual emergence of a love so intense that the world cannot contain it. The narrative’s apparent ruthlessness results not from love’s inconstancy, or his hero’s womanizing mentality, as my memory had told me. Rather, the story’s tragedy consisted in the suppression of love by the marriage bond. Chekhov was not merely parodying Anna Karenina’s adultery plot, as critics have often commented; he was propagating a new romanticism, which insisted on the ability of love to overcome social conventions. The story ends with Anna crying and Gurov “clutching his head,” both of them trying to devise a solution that would allow them to live a “new and splendid life” that was not secret, “and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.”

Unlike Dostoevsky, Chekhov is rarely a first love.

In misremembering Chekhov, I had simplified my task, really mis-simplified. I had turned this Russian writer into a simple-minded cynic, and thereby shielded myself from Chekhov’s most important lesson for my own life. I had made short work as well of the emotions that had just imploded in my personal life. With its open-ended conclusion and its denial of closure, the Chekhov story as I reread it for a second time corresponded more closely to the actual trajectory of my life. My circuitous path towards love was more like the the “new beginning” that pierced me upon my second re-reading than it was anything like the Don Juan parable I mistakenly conjured in my undergraduate imagination when I read the story for what was then an adventurous Berkeley class in Russian literature. Much of “The Lady with a Lapdog” is about how a person can grab adventure in an otherwise monotonous life. Adventure is what both Gurov and Anna seek independently when they go to Yalta. Both were unhappy, and after their first rapturous taste of each other, Anna says: “It’s wrong…You will be the first to despise me now.” She has not lost her virginity, as I misremembered, but her virtue. Chekhov links adventure to the loss of virtue, and monotony to the chains of social norm that bind them into further unhappiness. As Gurov and Anna sit listening to “the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising” in Yalta, there is the understanding in both of them that this sound “will sound indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies, hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress towards perfection.” This a moment in which the omniscient third-person narrator fuses the perception and understanding of the two lovers. Us here is Gurov and Anna, it is every human being who ever lived, and thus it is also us, the readers. Chekhov, I came to realize, was every bit as profound, and every bit as tragic, as Tolstoyevsky. The major difference between Chekhov and the Russian novelists is that Chekhov chose to end his stories before they falsified the uncertainty of life.

During my undergraduate years, I met many people who recounted falling in love with Russian literature through the novels of Dostoevsky. Within a few years of graduating, they had forgotten those novels and moved onto areas of study far removed from Russian literature: biology, chemistry, and mathematics were all favoured by these apostates of the Russian canon. Unlike Dostoevsky, Chekhov is rarely a first love. Perhaps few decide to become Russianists, or literature specialists, based on their reading of his stories. But also unlike Dostoevsky, Chekhov tends to keep the devotion of those who have fallen in love with him for the rest of their lives. Perhaps the reason for this lies in Chekhov’s peculiar way of representing the world, or more specifically the way he both writes about and engages the extremes of remembering and forgetting. “The Lady with a Lapdog” is a story about an inability to forget what is too memorable. Both Gurov and Anna flee Yalta to their polar cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow, not only with an intention to forget each other but also a strong confidence that they can do so. But they can’t. Time passes, but Gurov’s “memories glowed more and more vividly.” They were vivid to such a point that “he was tormented by an intense desire to confide his memories to someone.” Anyone who has experienced Chekhov’s revelation of the antagonism between memory and forgetting will find it difficult ever to consider the relationship between love and memory without remembering “The Lady with a Lapdog.” We remember, after reading the story, that Guvov, upon his arrival at Anna’s house in St. Petersburg, cannot remember the name of the dog, and he worries “irritably that Anna Sergeyevna had forgotten him.” She did not, and when she sees him she turns pale, because she could never forget. I turned pale because I forgot Chekhov’s story. But in my case, even though I misremembered Checkhov, I was drawn back to him, much as Gurov is drawn back to Anna and Anna is drawn back to Gurov, for a new chance on a “long, long road” that is long mostly because it is “the most complicated and difficult part” and is “only just beginning.”

Rebecca Gould’s books include Writers and Rebels: The Literatures of Insurgency in the Caucasus, After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Ghazals and Other Poems of Hasan Sijzi of Delhi, and The Prose of the Mountains: Tales of the Caucasus. She teaches comparative literature and translation studies at the University of Bristol in the UK.
April 10, 2017

Jesus in Berkeley

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Sarah Wang

My mother came to America from Taiwan in the early seventies. Her only impression of people in the west was derived from a single source: Jesus. Representations of Jesus were everywhere in Taiwan. As statues, in pamphlets, on hand-painted wood amulets that the devout wore around their necks. Upon arrival in Berkeley, California, her expectations were met with great delight. All the men indeed looked like Jesus. Long hair parted in the middle, beards, flowing robe-like shirts, sandals. Even the women looked like Jesus, though without beards.

No English, was the only English she spoke. This was a useful phrase, one that she utilized as greeting, response, explanation, excuse, and exclamation. She taught the two words to my sister, who was then eight years old, in the months preceding their departure from Taiwan. This was before my time.

Yet during their first week in America, neither my mother nor sister had the opportunity to speak these words, the language of their new land. My mother’s first husband, a man who was not my father, was a louse. He did nothing to provide for his family. The only food in the apartment was single loaf of bread that a neighbor had given him as a welcome gift. He sat in front of the television all day and refused to leave the apartment. For a week, my mother and sister sat in the apartment with him, not knowing what to do. Where did they begin? They needed food. They needed jobs. They needed to go to school. They needed to learn English. And that was only the beginning.

Too ashamed to admit to her eldest brother who called nightly to check in, my mother lied to save face. Everything’s great, she proclaimed. The city is so big and beautiful. The food is not as flavorful as Chinese food, but what can we do? We must eat it anyway. Had she ridden the trolley? Why yes, it was fabulous. Had she seen the Golden Gate Bridge? Yes, of course. Had she seen the hippies on Telegraph Avenue? Most definitely. Her eldest brother was the one who had brought them all to America: parents, siblings, their children and spouses. He picked up my mother and sister from the airport in San Francisco, but had to travel straightaway to New York on business for two weeks.

The money he had given her husband for food and clothes—where had it gone? On the way to their new apartment from the airport, my mother’s eldest brother had mentioned this money. Yet no evidence of it was present at the apartment, which contained only a little black and white television the previous tenant had left behind.

Hearing my mother’s narrative of this account when I was a child, I asked her why she didn’t speak up, why she didn’t ask about the money or tell her eldest brother what was really happening.

I was shy, she said. I was stupid. I didn’t want to throw my face away.

After a week of subsisting on bread, watching sitcoms and news reports in a language that she didn’t understand, my mother was desperate. She had to do something. When her husband was sleeping, she felt his pockets and found a small handful of change. In the morning, she took my sister and walked down the alley past the 76 gas station. My sister had to go to school. They had to learn English. My mother had to get a job. Buses were everywhere in the streets; only she didn’t have any idea about which one to take. She had no idea about anything, actually. No idea about where the school was, how she would learn English, or what job she could possibly obtain when she wasn’t able to speak the language and had a small child to care for.

She saw a bus stop at the end of the block. Running over, she boarded the first bus that opened its doors to her. In one hand, she held out the handful of coins. In the other, she held out a map that her eldest brother had given her. The bus driver asked her a question, which she did not understand. Finally she was able to use the only language she had. “No English,” she said. She pointed to various buildings on the map that resembled schools. The bus driver shrugged. She pointed to my sister and then to the map. She spread her hands, the sides of her palms hinging open, miming a book. She scribbled on one palm with an invisible pen. Again she pointed to my sister and the map. The bus driver looked at my sister. No English. He took a few coins from my mother’s hand and pointed at her. He took a few more coins and pointed at my sister. Then he pointed to two seats directly behind him.

Ten minutes later, the bus driver stopped and waved at my mother. He gave her two slips of paper and pointed to another bus across the street. From my mother’s hand, he took the map that she had been clutching, scrutinized it, drew a circle on it, and handed it back. He pointed at the bus across the street. Hesitantly, she stepped out of the bus, into the street, and looked back at the bus driver. He nodded. At the bus across the street, she repeated the same actions, this time holding out the slips of paper along with the coins and the map. No English. This bus driver took only the slips of paper and the map. My mother pointed to the circle. The driver nodded and pointed to two seats across the aisle.

They passed many streets full of cars and Jesuses. The driver indicated that they would be getting off at the next stop. At a street corner, he pointed to a building where children could be seen inside the windows of a room facing a playground. My mother and sister clapped, overjoyed that they had arrived.

On the other side of the school’s fence, a woman approached them. My mother smiled. No English. She pointed at my sister. The woman seemed to understand, and led them to an office. Japan? the woman asked. My mother shrugged. No English. China? the woman asked. My mother bobbed her head. Yes! The woman raised her hand and paused before going into another room. When she returned, my mother was surprised to see a Chinese woman with her.

Now, language overflowed from my mother’s mouth. My daughter needs to go to school. She needs to learn English. I too need to learn English. Do you think I can find a job? Where do I look for a job?

The woman explained that first, the school my sister would attend was determined by where they lived. Where did they live? My mother scratched her cheek. By the 76. Right behind the orange ball. The woman bit her lip. But there are many 76 gas stations. Which one do you live behind? Shame flooded my mother’s cheeks. She didn’t know. How will you get home? the woman asked. My mother pulled a piece of paper from her pocket. The woman called the telephone number written on it.

Fortunately, my mother’s husband answered. Unfortunately, he didn’t know their address either. The woman told him to go out in the street and copy the letters of the street signs.

He could not read English but he knew the alphabet. A few minutes later, he recited the letters he had copied, and in this way he relayed the cross streets where their apartment was situated.

The woman drove my mother and sister to the right school. She showed my mother which buses to take. Breakfast and lunch are provided for free, she said. And you can eat breakfast at the school too, to begin the day with a full stomach. But isn’t that embarrassing, to eat the children’s food? my mother asked. You are allowed, the woman replied.

After breakfast (which my mother knew she’d never eat no matter how hungry she was) you will take another bus to the adult school, the woman instructed my mother. There, she would learn the basic skills needed to live in America, such as: how to take public transportation, how to speak English, and about customs, holidays, and traditions.

Can you believe what the Chinese woman did next? my mother asked me.

She called the police to take your husband away, I guessed.

No, my mother said. The woman drove us to the adult school, translated, helped me enroll, and then drove us home. In the span of one day I experienced kindness from so many people. Are you listening?

I nodded.

Good. Because this is an important story about how you can come to a new country, full of Jesuses in the streets, with a wooden head and a stinky egg of a husband and somehow find your way.

Sarah Wang was runner-up for the 2016 Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Literary Award. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Conjunctions, Story Magazine, The Third Rail, and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.
April 10, 2017

Ask Me About Love

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Ojo Taiye

i look into your eyes each morning
and find

me—sifting

through all the syllables
of love

brimming with words i can say

and cannot spell

half-illiterate in my mother

tongue                  half-silent
in         my         purchased         f———luency

at the age of five
i watched my mother fold her breath

into birds         until they found

home

in a stranger’s
arms

and yes

what of all the green blessings

in my mouth—the shadows

that keep me company

when my lover’s face is a city
drowning in epitaphs

i open myself to a new kind of love—
a beautiful prison where no one is running
where no one is burning where no one is hiding

Ojo Taiye is a young Nigerian who uses poetry as a handy tool to hide his frustration with society.
April 10, 2017

Red

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Meghan Callahan

Tell it like this: she meets the wolf.

She invites the wolf out for coffee on a whim. Perhaps he is tall and broad and barrel-chested and he laughs at her bad jokes on the subway. Latte? she asks. Yes, he says, but what he means is mine.

Or maybe it starts like this: he is someone she knows, but not well, from the office or the bookstore or a night class. She’s always taking night classes—pottery, mostly—and this time he asks first. He’s got holes in his skinny jeans and she outweighs him easily, well-fed and well-mannered. He is everything gaunt and hungry.

Tell it like this: the day was bright.

It’s usually sunny on days like these, light coming through the leaves and sliding in between curtains. And who could feel afraid behind a bookshelf, a counter, a drive-through window, with mundane sounds of receipts printing and the soft hiss-hiss of tires on pavement? Make it clear that she was not expecting this. Make it clear that she should’ve been.

There’s a list, so recite it.

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