Month: July 2019

Book Review: Dealing in Dreams by Lilliam Rivera

by Daniela Z. Montes

In a time filled with terms like “fake news,” when it can be hard to tell what’s true, Liliam Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams reminds us to be aware of the rhetoric that shapes our society and to be mindful of its effect on us.

The novel is less about a dystopian government oppressing people than it is about the citizens realizing that they are being oppressed. The reader goes through this journey with Nalah, otherwise known as Chief Rocka, the leader of one of the baddest gangs in Mega City, Las Mal Criadas.

Throughout the novel, Rivera’s diction, syntax, and use of Spanish delve the reader deeper into this Latinx-run world. Early in the novel, Nalah’s second in command, Truck, says: “Remember the time Manos threw a malasuerte into [the training camp] dorms. It was raining, and them young girls ran out screaming when the malasuerte blew up.” The use of Spanish, “incorrect” English syntax, slang, and advanced vocabulary in the novel adds a layer of representation that will make some readers feel at home. The Spanish not only helps establish the world, but every once in a while it, adds comedy. For example, when the LMC comes across another gang, Las Muñeca’s Locas, whose members dress like baby dolls, Nalah thinks to herself that the crying babies need a “big pao pao.”

The book’s first-person point of view brings the reader into Nalah’s mind, allowing Rivera to show Nalah’s unyielding admiration and loyalty to Déesee, the leader of Mega City. Nalah adores this woman so much that she has tattooed freckles on her face to look more like her. When Déesee asks Nalah to gather intel on a gang that threatens the way Mega City lives, Nalah immediately says yes. The prize is the fulfillment of Nalah’s dream to live with Déesee in the luxurious Mega Towers.

Unlike other dystopian heroines, Nalah does not see the suffering around her; in fact, she does not acknowledge her own suffering. She assures herself that everything she does is for the good of herself and her girls. Her unquestioning belief in the system is in character: Nalah heads one of the top gangs in the city, so it makes sense that her privilege blinds her. She revels in the way society is run and she loves that women are in charge. Early on she thinks: “the male gaze is dead.” Rivera drives this point home when the girls go to Luna Club, a “boydega” or nightclub, where girls can get a hot bath and be entertained by papi chulos who fulfill their fantasies.

With the exception of the papis, the other men in the city have tattooed brands on their arms to show which gang they are allied with. Some of these brands are done willfully, but others are placed on men who are caught out after curfew and do not have a brand on their arm. Men must cross the street or keep their eyes averted when they see a woman. Anyone who is not in a gang works in sueño factories with the exception of Déesee’s chosen few, those who live with her in Mega Towers. Sueño tablets (dream tablets) are used in the novel as currency and they are highly addictive. They dissolve on the tongue, giving the user  beautiful dreams. The markers for sueño addiction are grey skin and blue lips and if the addiction goes untreated the user wastes away to nothing.

Mega City is not only oppressive of men, but also to members of the LGBTQ+ community. During their journey, Nalah and her crew encounter a gay couple. It is during this exchange that Nalah begins to understand her privilege:

“Why did you leave Mega?”
My tone is full of anger. Why do these two get to share a home while I kill myself to get in the Towers?
He is scared. He should be.
“I didn’t want to be a papi,” he says. “I also didn’t want to hide how I felt for him”
“Déesee doesn’t care who you love. Only that you put in the work.”
He pauses. He is nervous I will hurt them. I can. His partner enters the room with a bag of fruit.
“This might be true for you, for women,” he says. “Not for us.”

Nalah is jealous that these men have their own house, their love, everything they can dream of outside of the city. She wants luxury and comfort, but she believes the only way to reach her dream is through violence. More than anything, Nalah struggles with the idea that happiness can be found outside the city – away from Déesee. Her revelations continue to the end of the novel: “Since I left Los Bohios, situations that never crossed my mind are being shown to me in a different light. It is unbearable. I prefer ignorance.” Nalah is forced to face her privilege over and over, forced to see the rhetoric that has kept her down when she thought it was elevating her. It’s hard for her to face these revelations because she has been blinded by her dream her entire life. She thinks she is the alpha, when in fact she is nothing but a pawn.

Dreams play a big role in Dealing with Dreams. On the one hand, Nalah is plagued by recurring dreams of the sister who abandoned her. On the other, she is addicted to her dream of reaching Mega Towers. She has sold this dream to her crew and it serves as their motivation throughout the novel. She has gotten them hooked on the idea the same way Déesee got Nalah hooked on the idea of the Towers. To live in the Towers is to truly be special, just like Déesee. They would have a bed, real food, and be in Déesee’s inner circle. Nalah looks down on sueño addicts, but the irony of her situation is lost on her. Just like they do anything to chase their high, she is willing to sacrifice anything to reach her dream.

Ultimately, Nalah has to dismantle the rhetoric that made her who she is and piece herself back together in her own image. It is a struggle we all face.


Daniela Z.  Montes is a current contributor to The Coachella Review. She received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of California – Riverside, Palm Desert Low-Residency Program. She was The Coachella Reviews former Social Media Manager. Daniela received her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California – Santa Barbara, where she received an honorable mention in the Kieth E. Vineyard Honorary Scholarship Short Story Contest.

TCR Talks With Michele Filgate

By: Felicity Landa

Shortly after Michele Filgate’s deeply personal essay about her relationship with her mother was published on Longreads, it went viral. “Our mothers are our first homes, and that’s why we’re always trying to return to them,” she begins in her poignant and moving piece. In her essay, Filgate breaks her silence to tell the story of why her relationship with her mother is so painful.

“I wrote this essay because I felt like we couldn’t have this conversation in real life,” she tells me during our interview. In doing so, Filgate unearthed a community of people who also had stories about all the things they couldn’t talk about with their mothers. “Knowing that something can speak to a stranger and make them feel less alone, and really resonate with them—that’s the power of words,” she says. The overwhelming response to Filgate’s words gave her the idea to compile an anthology named for her original essay: What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About.

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About is a composition of real motherhood, from the hilarious moments to the painful. It is an exploration into the imperfect women who make up this unique part of humanity. André Aciman writes of his relationship with his deaf mother in “Are You Listening.” Lynn Steger Strong reflects on the impossible expectations we put on our mothers, the ones they can never live up to, in “The Same Story About My Mother.” Alexander Chee attempts to shield his mother from the sexual abuse he suffered as a child in “Xanadu.”

The essays in this collection are compiled from a star-studded group of writers. They weave together a story of what it means to be a mother and to have a mother. Every essay resonates, giving life to the idea that breaking our silence brings us closer. “There’s something so deeply lonely about confessing your truth,” Filgate says in her introduction. “The thing was, I wasn’t truly alone. For even a brief instant of time, every single human being has a mother.”

THE COACHELLA REVIEW: How long after your essay went viral did you make the decision to go from individual personal essay to an anthology that further explored the mother-child relationship?

MICHELE FILGATE: My essay came out in October of 2017, and I sold the book as a proposal in February. I immediately had the idea for the anthology as soon as so many people started responding—not just to the essay, but to the title—and saying they had a story about their mom,hat they can’t, or never could talk about with their mother. So the wheels were already turning that first week that the article came out.

TCR: You have such a beautifully diverse group of writers contributing to the book, and a lot of big names. I’m curious about the logistics of that. How did you gather people to be a part of the project?

MF: I was in California the week my essay came out for the LitQuake Festival and I ended up on a panel with Nayomi Munaweera. We were talking about the topic of my essay and she had something to share. Right away, I knew I wanted her in the book. So I started gathering writers almost immediately. I think it also comes from years of experience as an events coordinator at bookstores, and a former board member of the National Book Critics Circle where I do interviews with authors. I also run a series called Red Ink that is Brooklyn based. I host it at Books Are Magic: it’s a quarterly series where I pair together five different women of all different genres, backgrounds, experience, and age range, and put together a salon-type atmosphere where we have a discussion surrounding a certain topic. So already for my work I’ve done a lot of thinking about pairing different voices together, and putting this book together seemed like a natural extension of that.

TCR: Did you know which writers you wanted, or did you put feelers out?

MF: You have to reach out to a bunch of people, especially for a topic as sensitive as this one, because a lot of writers are busy, or they think they’re ready to write about their mother but they’re not. Some want to do it, but they end up backing out for whatever reason. I reached out to a bunch of people at first. The goal was to find pieces that were different enough, and could really stand on their own as part of the anthology.

TCR: Most of the essays are original, but some, like Brandon Taylor’s “All About My Mother,” were previously published. Why did you pick those particular pieces to include?

MF: I remember when Brandon’s piece was published on Lit Hub, and I was just blown away by that essay. I wanted most of the pieces in the book to be original, but we did have room for a few pieces that had been previously published. I knew I definitely wanted that particular piece in there. Brandon is extraordinary—I feel really fortunate that I got to put his words into this book. The way he writes about his mother, despite the fact that she was abusive toward him, is filled with such tenderness and generosity. I found that essay to be so incredibly moving.

TCR: In Melissa Febos’s essay, she discusses the idea that memoir writing is very therapeutic. She says, “When I sent my second book to my mother, we had an hours-long conversation. I explained how my writing created a place where I could look at and talk to parts of myself that I otherwise couldn’t. She explained to me that this was exactly what her mode of therapy allowed her patients to do.” You do touch on this in your introduction, that it’s freeing because you can take control of your own story. I’m curious about how that process was for you. Did you find it to be therapeutic to write your story about your relationship with your mother?

MF: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’ve done a few events with my friend T Kira Madden. She wrote an incredible piece for Lit Hub called “Against Catharsis.” She argues that writing can be therapeutic for people, but the point of the essay goes beyond that. For me, yes, there’s a therapeutic component in writing about your trauma, but at the same time, I need more therapy than ever. I’ve written and published my experience, and now I have to talk about and relive it over and over again.

It’s actually more therapeutic for other people to read my work. I’ve heard from others who have been in similar situations that my essay was something they felt they needed to read. For myself, there’s power in putting your story down on the page, but at the same time it’s been incredibly difficult. You do choose what you’re going to say from your own story when you’re writing it. So there’s stuff that’s left off the page that you think about all the time, but the casual reader doesn’t see. There’s a duality in it—it’s painful, but also rewarding. The subtitle of the book is  “Fifteen Writers Break the Silence,” and I do think it’s really important to break silences. There’s power in that. But therapy is a separate thing from writing. I thank my therapist in the back of the book—she’s been instrumental to this process. So therapy paired with writing is therapeutic in my opinion. You need both. Writing can’t be a substitute for therapy.

TCR: I love that hearing your readers’ responses to your story is therapeutic in its own way. Now that you’re settling into the idea that your words are even further reaching than when your essay was originally published, how are you feeling after having so much contact with so many people who were affected and touched by your words and your story?

MF: That’s one of the best parts of writing a book: knowing that a stranger can pick it up and get something out of it, and in this case, not just from my own words, but from any of the authors in the book. There’s something that can speak to so many different people. It’s one of the most rewarding things about an anthology, the many different voices you can compile. I’ve been hearing from strangers not just about my own essay, but about all of them. It’s the power of personal essay writing—reading the stories that come from other people’s lives, and seeing how they resonate in strangers’ lives. I’ve had several mother-and-daughter pairs come to my events who’ve bought copies of the book, and plan on having a book club to work through their own difficult conversations. I wanted the book to be published to allow for healing and communication between people.

TCR: We recently had a review of the book on our blog, by Nathania Seales Oh, and she talks about the overwhelming presence of men in every essay, and how men affect and change women’s relationships. I thought that was such an interesting perspective.

MF: That’s just one way that these essays speak to each other. It wasn’t necessarily intentional, but when you pair them all together you see the threads that run through, and I think that thread is very apparent—whether it’s Cathi Hanauer’s essay about having a domineering but loveable father who never lets her mother have a one-on-one conversation with her, or my piece where my stepfather is the dominating one in the household, while my mother was in denial and allowing his behavior to continue. Leslie Jamison as well. She writes about trying to understand who her mother was before she was born by reading the unpublished manuscript from her mother’s first husband. There are many ways that men are important in this book, not just the mothers. I think it’s hard to write about moms without writing about their partners, because parenting, traditionally speaking, is considered a thing that you do with your partner, although obviously that’s not always what happens. The men are going to be a part of these essays because sometimes the issue stems from the male presence in the household.

TCR: As a mother myself, I love that you say in your introduction how mothers are set up to fail. I don’t think I realized that myself until I became a mom. I’m curious about your own realization of that, and how that affected the way you relate to your own mother.

MF: One of my favorite reviews of this book is Ilana Masad’s in the L.A. Times. She writes about how the book celebrates imperfect mothers, and I like that description. As I say in my introduction, we want our mothers to check all of these boxes and be everything. Mothers are humans, and we have to get rid of the mythologies that we attach to them and remember that. Thinking about that as I put this collection together gave me a lot more empathy toward my mom, what she’s been through, and the choices she’s made. It didn’t make things right between us, but it helped me understand who she is a little bit more. I also think that women in general are set up to fail. You can’t please everyone in society. For instance, childfree women are asked constantly why they don’t want kids.

TCR: No matter what we choose to do as women, someone is asking us why we aren’t doing the opposite.

MF: Right. If you have one child, people ask when you’re going to have your second child. Or they’re judging a choice you make in parenting that child. On and on, no matter what you do. But especially for mothers, who are already making the ultimate sacrifice in devoting their time to this other human being, nothing they do can please everyone. We, as a society, put impossible expectations on moms, and one of the things I really wanted this book to explore is how we can look at mothers as human beings, because that’s what they are.

TCR: In her essay, “Mother Tongue,” Carmen Maria Machado talks about how she didn’t realize her feelings about having her own kids until she explored her relationship with her mother. How has this whole process changed your own perspective on motherhood?

MF: It’s given me a newfound appreciation for all the moms I know in my life. Good friends, and my sister who’s an amazing mom. It’s made me appreciate the moms who communicate and listen to their children. I’ve known since I was little that I don’t want to have kids, so I don’t think that editing this book has changed that for me, but it has deepened my understanding of my own mother.

There’s a line in my essay: “I say nothing. Nothing until I say everything. But articulating what happened isn’t enough. She’s still married to him. The gap widens.” That’s the whole point of my piece. Sometimes you can break silences and it doesn’t matter, because there’s so much denial you can’t break through and listen. This essay is for my mother to hear me, although I don’t think it worked, sadly. This piece was written out of a longing to have a mother in my life, because I haven’t had her in my life in a real way for a long time. Our relationship had been strained for many years, and when she read this essay, it made things even more painful and complicated. It was written from a daughter longing to have her mom in her life more.

TCR: What comes next for you in this whole process of understanding motherhood, and healing though writing?

MF: I’ve been working on an essay about learning how to mother myself. I’ve been thinking about it while editing this book. You need to be good to yourself, to nurture yourself, if you can’t get that from your own mom. Even if you can, you can’t put all those pressures on one person. So I’ve really been learning how important it is to be your own mother in a lot of ways.

 


Felicity Landa is an MFA candidate at UC Riverside Palm Desert. She serves as fiction editor for the online literary magazine Literary Mama and nonfiction editor for The Coachella Review. She lives on the Central Coast with her family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Desert Seas

by: Anca Segall

Lars’ baby blue VW bug, rusty and dented, came to a stop in the rutted parking lot at the trailhead into Dark Canyon. Covered in nearly as much dust as the car, we both tumbled out into the scrub desert, already parched in May. Fable Valley had enough flash floods to make leaving our names at the BLM box prudent, though it was still early in the season. Eager to stretch our legs, we shouldered our backpacks and started down the steep trail into the valley.

We had driven down from Logan and stopped in Provo for a Saturday fair in the city park, where Lars did a brisk business drawing portraits of fair-going kids. He’d kept them captivated with stories on a rickety stool as he rendered their character in strokes of charcoal and Conte crayon. At midday, while families lunched and the kids trickled in more slowly, Lars had me pose for him, to pass the time and entice paying customers.

“Would you stop moving? You’re worse than the kids,” he pleaded.

I tried to get comfortable paging through my Tony Hillerman novel under Lars’ blue-brown speckled stare, but felt like a specimen in a dissecting scope. At last he showed me the portrait.

“I think you’ve got my chin too short,” I suggested.

We compared proportions (tip of the nose to the hairline, to mouth and chin). “You’re right,” he said. I liked that about Lars – he didn’t mind criticism. He spent a bit more time on corrections, then handed me the portrait.

By mid-afternoon the fair wound down and we repacked the VW bug and continued south, Lars a few hundred dollars richer.

We’d met a few months back at a party where, unusually, biology students mixed with art students. Fueled by beer and cheap wine, we first got lively, then loud, especially when the talk drifted to financial support for art versus science. I couldn’t fault the art students for their envy: we received stipends to pay us for our lab work, while the artists waited tables and painted houses to put themselves through school. On a lark, I invited him back to the house I shared with a couple of chemistry students. Among us, he was like a visitor from a parallel universe.

I followed Lars down the rocky trail, carefully picking out where I placed my feet. Scrub brush reached up with thorny branches and grabbed at our hiking boots. I was scared of rattlers and half expected to step on one. Finger-long lizards zigzagged here and there, hiding under the rocks, stubby trees, and sagebrush that bordered the trail. We stopped now and then to sip some water, careful not to drain our supply. At the bottom we crossed the sandy gully towards the western wall of the canyon, looking for a campsite.

This trip was supposed to give us time together. It was as if we spoke different dialects of the same language—we needed time to learn each other. We found a flat and fairly clear area sheltered in the mouth of a side canyon.

“We can put the tent up later,” Lars said.

I watched the shadows crawl across the valley as the sun dipped behind the canyon rim. “Gorgeous. And so quiet.”

We meandered out from the campsite, holding hands, towards a rock that angled upwards a hundred feet. I dragged my fingers along the sandstone, red layered with darker, purple strata. I was fascinated by the shapes I could just make out in the rocks beneath my feet and in the wall of the canyon.

I ran my fingertips again across the tiny bivalve shells and the segmented tubes with tiny fringed fans coming out of one end; the sensation radiated pinpricks across my skin. I felt the texture of the tiny creatures ossified and immortalized, their last gasp of life lost to the sun and the receding waters. Hundreds of microscopic rakes scratched across all my nerve endings.

We scooted up onto a ledge. A light breeze flitted across our sweaty, salty skin. In the merciful shade, the sweat evaporated and left a layer of cool air. He hummed into the crevice between my chin and my throat. We fused into each other in this moment, in this place, in geologic time.

By now the shadows stretched across the entire canyon bottom, all dusky purples and blue-grays. We put up our tent but left the sleeping mats outside. The stars sparkled against the black sky, as if someone had started to paste them up there one by one, then given up and sprayed them on with a water gun.

When our goosebumps rose with the chilling night air, we crawled into the tent, spooned, and drifted to sleep.

~~~

We woke to the chatter of birds and rustling of the wind through the brush.

“I heard there’s a waterhole a bit farther down; if we’re lucky, it will still be filled from the last rain,” said Lars, leading the way.

Water moved in the bottom of the wash without much conviction, the sheerest hint of white foam lapping at the boulders in its path. It didn’t even touch the banks.

“Those worms in the rock—my cells must have been just like those cells once,” I mused. “They eat and drink, they suck up simple chemicals and turn them into complicated molecules that do the work cells need to do. Make more cells, mostly. We’re just insignificant cogs in the continuum of evolution.”

“Are you ready for kids?” he asked, out of the blue.

I looked at him, trying to read his face; it seemed way to early for that conversation.

“You did say ‘reproduce’,” he said, answering my confusion. “I love kids. I always wanted a few running around.”

“Not ready for that yet. I want to finish school, get a job. Travel more. Besides, I’m not sure I ever want kids.” I noticed his expression sag a little. “But I do like practicing,” I added, reaching for his hand.

“So do I, babe,” was all Lars said, his eyes a bit unfocused.

We walked south between the small stream and the side of the canyon till we reached the waterhole, scooped out as if by a giant Roto-Rooter, its walls forming deep swirls that morphed into shallow steps. Lars cannonballed into the pool, then bobbed up, smoothing the hair out of his eyes.

“Whoa! Cold!” I squealed as water splattered all over me. “How’d you know it would be deep enough?”

He shrugged. “I just assumed.”

The clear water, a dark aquamarine, reflected the sky streaked with a few wispy clouds and the red rock overhanging the hole.

“It’s not cold once you’re in it a bit. It must be fed both from above and below, otherwise the water would be a lot lower.”

I dipped my toes tentatively, but his hand snaked up around my calf and pulled me in. He caught me in mid-fall, smothering my scream with a kiss, then wrapped his arms around me to warm me a bit.

“May I take some pictures of you? I want to do some paintings later, you here in this place,” he said.

I’d spent some time in his studio and had liked his new painting series—figures rendered in broad slashes of raw blues, burnt oranges, and greens. One of my favorites was of an African woman with her hip cocked, holding a flexible longbow, a biplane buzzing over her shoulder. The incongruence fascinated me.

I agreed to the photos.

He crawled out of the pool and fished an SLR camera from his satchel. I leaned my head back and focused, squinting, on the sky and the rock walls looming above. The sandstone sparkled with bits of mica or quartz, contrasting the washed-out green of the trees and shrubs that grew denser near the stream. An occasional vulture floated on air currents high above our heads, scanning the canyon and mesas for tidbits worth a dive.

“Don’t you want to be up there, soaring with them?” Lars asked. “They look free. Food must be scarce, though.”

“They’re great scavengers.”

He took what seemed like hundreds of pictures, close-ups and vista shots of the canyon as well as of me.

“I’ve been thinking about the conversation at that party, where we met. Do you think science really is more important than art? More deserving of support?” he asked.

“That’s not really a valid question. There are a lot of similarities between them. Both demand intelligence and creativity. And anyway, does it have to be science or art? Why not and?”

“I think art is so much more… instinctual. Fed by intuition, by vision. Not logic.”

“Are you saying art is illogical?” I teased him. “A scientist with good intuition for what the data mean is better off than one who just plods along.”

He smiled. “A scientist who admits they’re guided by instinct! That’s a new one… I was trying to say in art there’s no set process, no right or wrong way.”

“What about rules of composition, of proportionality? Guidelines for mixing colors and paints? Writing’s full of rules: grammar, characters, plot. Having a hook. Perhaps you have more leeway in art than we have in science.”

He set his camera on his pile of clothes on the ledge and pushed off, propelling himself to my side of the rock pool.

I was still on my soapbox. “Don’t artists have common threads, experiences that they learn from one another and pass on? Aren’t those a kind of protocol?” I said, tipping my head at him.

“But people don’t do science for the hell of it—it has to be useful. Art doesn’t have to have a function. Maybe it has to entertain, or make people think, even startle them. Get up our noses, sometimes,” he said. “Like…Robert Mapplethorpe.”

“Both of them educate, in their own way,” I said, defending my ground. “Okay, so the main function of science is to be useful. But basic science is all about figuring out how things work, with no immediate purpose beyond that. That’s a bit like art for art’s sake.”

“Art that entertains is a hell of a lot easier to sell. Like my art fair portraits compared to my studio paintings.” He propped his head on his arms, like a little boy. “Its main function is to take people out of themselves, to psychic places where they wouldn’t otherwise go,” he insisted, then smiled, looking less boyish. “Like sex: transporting you out of yourself.”

I ran my fingers along his jaw, traced the artery along the column of his neck. “True enough.” I leaned back once more against the rock ledge and closed my eyes, floating in the now-warm water as if on liquid silk.

We didn’t notice the noise until it reverberated against the canyon walls, a loud humming still some way off, but moving closer. My eyes focused, scanning up and down the canyon. It seemed to come from the north, where dark grey clouds had gathered.

“We’d better get to higher ground, fast!” He pushed himself out of the waterhole and helped pull me up. “I don’t want to be caught in its path when it comes.”

We grabbed our stuff and ran along the ledges, reaching for handholds and footholds. The roar got loud enough that we could no longer tell which direction it came from. I panted hard, trying to keep up with his strides.

I stopped to catch my breath, then looked back at the clouds. They didn’t seem to be getting any closer, but I could see streaks reaching the ground. “Think that’s rain over there?”

Lars tugged on me. “Come on! We gotta go!”

Just then a thin, dark shape appeared high above the rim of the canyon, moving southeast, dragging a white contrail behind it. Seconds later, two more shapes appeared on either side of the first one, in the tight triangular formation only military planes could hold. They crossed the sky, the roar quieting to a hum, then dissipating altogether.

~~~

Back in Logan a couple of weeks later, I walked into Lars’ studio in the Art building. “Ready for your show?”

Between my work and his, we hadn’t seen much of each other since the camping trip. He had been focusing day and night on the paintings for his graduation exhibit, and I had come to keep him company. Many more canvases lined the studio walls, but I still had not seen his portrait of me from Dark Canyon. He’d wanted to surprise me.

The show opened on a Friday evening with a wine and cheese and strawberries reception. All his artist friends had come, and even a few of mine. He liked showing me off, like a curio.

And there it was: a black and white painting in high contrast, almost a photographic silver print. My face huge on the canvas as I floated in the waterhole, breasts breaking the surface, the canyon wall a gray backdrop. A toddler crawled near the edge of the pool. Above were the three planes, white condensation streaking like kite tails behind them.

Something roiled and swirled rancid in my throat. I put my wine glass down and left the gallery, receding like water out of the canyon.


 

 

Anca Segall, Ph.D., is on the faculty of San Diego State University, teaching and doing research in microbiology, while also working toward her MFA in Creative Writing. Born and raised in Bucharest, Romania during the Communist dictatorship, she immigrated to the U.S. just in time for Watergate, and is still optimistic about the resilience of the American democracy. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in The Bookends Review and Open Thought Vortex, her flash fiction in The Riggwelter Press, and her poems in The Coachella Review, Streetlight Magazine, and others. Connect on Twitter: @AncaMaraScribes

 

Book Review: The Flight Portfolio

by: Rachel Zarrow

How do you assign a price to a human life? Are some lives worth more than others? In a world that is on the verge of collapse, do the rules of the living apply? In her second novel, The Flight Portfolio, Julie Orringer explores these questions.

The Flight Portfolio is a riveting fictional story of a real person, Varian Fry. In the novel, Varian, an American journalist, works for the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) evacuating artists and intellectuals from Europe during the second World War. Stationed in Marseilles, skirting the Vichy regime, and back-channeling money and visas around the ever-nearing threat of the Nazis, Varian is responsible for the safety of thousands. The novel unfolds as a race against the clock. How long until Varian is forced out of France or worse, incarcerated? How many lives can he save in that time? How much longer will there be funding for his work paying bribes and forging escape routes? How long until he returns to his wife in New York? And how much more time will he have in the arms of his lover Elliot Grant?

This last question is the sucker punch of the novel. In Marseilles, Varian reconnects with his former lover, a man he knew at Harvard twelve years earlier. Now married to a woman, a part of Varian still belongs to Grant, and their encounter in France reopens the floodgates of their highly charged romance. “How like him, Varian thought, to show up out of nowhere after an eon, still in possession of Varian’s inmost self” (15). Varian marvels at the command Grant has over him:

How could this person evoke in Varian a series of feelings so uncontrollable as to seem a threat to his sanity….Under the present circumstances, and considering the weight of responsibility he bore, how could he find himself thrilled like a plucked string at the prospect of meeting Grant at the Vieux Port? (69-70)

Though he is a man with a very serious mission, Varian finds himself suffering from an affliction that has plagued many before him: lovesickness. Varian fears that an affair of this emotional magnitude with this particular man is different than the “occasional adventure on the side” (111) that he’d had in the past. “[H]ow was he to be honest with [his wife] about Grant, when Grant’s presence was still a matter of consternation and confusion?” (111).

Throughout the novel, we follow Varian on two major emotional and moral dilemmas: his affair with Grant and the excruciating nature of his work. For every person Varian helps, there is someone else who gets left behind. Plagued by guilt, doubt, and a “bad gut” (103), Varian leads readers through impossible decisions.

Varian and Grant’s relationship grows fragile and tenuous as more questions arise. What will happen when they’re back in New York? Will he (Varian) or won’t he leave his wife? As Varian and Grant begin to question their future, Varian is plagued by doubt. First, a colleague, Miriam, and then Grant, question the nature of Varian’s work. Miriam asks, “Don’t you think it’s rather silly? And not just silly, wrong-headed, or maybe wrong-hearted….to decide whether someone lives or dies?…Don’t you think a middling artist deserves a chance as much as a great one does?” (195). When Varian replies that the names on the list mean something, Miriam says, “Everybody means something to someone” (198). This line of moral questioning around Varian’s work increases his doubt in his work and in himself.

Surrounded by a makeshift family of surrealist artists and colleagues in Marseilles, an unfamiliar place that “smelled of diesel fuel and cardamom and wet gutters, of tobacco and women’s perfume” (9), Varian disconnects from his life in New York. “The outline of his life, once as firm as if inked, had become obscured” (103). His sense of disconnection increases along with his understanding of what is at stake in Europe, something that was not clear to many Americans at the time. Having traveled through Spain on his way to Marseille, Varian knows the effects of the war, “the decimated buildings, roofs blown open to the sun…children walking near-naked in the streets, begging for bread” (95).

Every day, in the hotel where Varian has set up his makeshift office, refugees vie for a meeting with him, forming a line that snakes down the hallway. Varian and his colleagues must determine who to help and in what order, following commands from the ERC, including a mission to rescue specific artists and intellectuals based on a list. The names on this list are both real artists (e.g. Marc Chagall, Max Ernst) and creations of Orringer’s imagination (“Lev Silberman”).

This blending of historical and imagined characters is an example of how Orringer wields her command of this particular sub-genre of historical fiction, sometimes referred to as “fictional biography.” In this form, the author often writes a novel based on a real person but elaborates with the freedom and abandon of a fiction writer. Any reader would be remiss to judge this book as a biography and should instead read it as a work of fiction. In The Flight Portfolio, Orringer blends not only fact with fiction, but also characteristics of many sub-genres of fiction: war novel, thriller, romance, and historical fiction.

In The Flight Portfolio, Orringer creates a world so riddled with moral gray areas that black and white no longer exist, all the while painting sensory details with the care of one of the artists she describes. With painstaking attention to detail and immaculate prose, Orringer invites the reader to ask herself the most difficult questions, including: What would I do?


Rachel Zarrow writes fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in various outlets including The Atlantic, BUST, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is working on her first novel and screenplay. She lives in San Francisco. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @rachroobear and at www.rachelzarrow.com

We Are All Karolina

by Cynthia Bruckman

“EXCUSE ME, MISS! ARE YOU JEWISH?”

I had just moved from San Francisco to New York City. I was walking down Park Avenue, heading to the 6 train after a particularly grueling day of work, when I was approached by two young men from the Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement, waving what looked like willow branches at me as they shouted and ran in my direction. I had that dark-haired “Jewish look,” I suppose, that they were eagerly scouting for in rush-hour Manhattan during Sukkot. They were very excited.

“It depends on how you define ‘Jewish,’” I answered. It appeared as if I were about to be blessed by their branches, and as a newly arrived New Yorker, I needed to be blessed.

“Is your mother Jewish?” they fired back.

“N-no, but my father’s father was Jewish,” I hesitated.

“Then you’re not a Jew!” they said, hugely disappointed. They started to run away from me, frantically in search of a “real” Jew.

“Wait!” I shouted after them. “My great-grandfather was murdered in a concentration camp! Does that count?”

“No! Sorry!”

“Wait! Come back! I want to be blessed!”

But they were gone.

In November 2016, archaeologists found a girl’s pendant, almost identical to one that Anne Frank had owned, in the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland. Not long after this news broke in January 2017, I received a message from a cousin: “Short story is, we are related to the girl who owned the pendant!” Her name: Karolina Cohn.

Yad Vashem and the Israel Antiquities Authority had asked the public’s help to locate Karolina’s family. A talented part-time genealogist quickly found relatives all over the world.

Karolina is my first cousin “twice removed.” My father was born to an Italian Catholic mother and a German Jewish father. My grandfather was her first cousin on her father’s side.

The possible connection to Anne Frank (whom we now know is not a relative), was intriguing, but Karolina’s story alone was compelling. Archaeologists located the wooden plank, known as “the stairway to heaven,” that girls and women had to walk across, stripped and shaven, on their way to the gas chamber. Under these floorboards, they found Karolina’s pendant, which, they believed, she had purposefully dropped.

I received an invitation to come to Frankfurt. The Claims Conference, representing the interests of Holocaust survivors in Germany, would be honoring Karolina and her family in an art project commemorating “the victims of national socialism.”

Although I’ve been living in Canada as a dual citizen for the last six years, I continue to participate actively in the American political system. I absentee vote and make as much noise as I can to resist the authoritarianism tearing apart America’s hemorrhaging democracy. So when I received this invitation to honor my relative in a ceremony that would be commemorating “the victims of national socialism”? I knew I had to be there. The events in Charlottesville, Virginia were the tipping point. Neo-Nazis weren’t hiding anymore in America; they were murdering people in broad daylight. And our president was proclaiming that “there are good people on both sides.” Before I left, I asked people on social media for German expressions that might be useful during my trip. A cousin suggested that I tell people, in German, “I’m sorry about Trump. I’m from Canada.”

On a trip to Europe in 1989, I had the uber-creepy experience of staying at a bed and breakfast in Amsterdam where the hostess was a Holocaust denier. When my friend and I told her that we were going to the Anne Frank Museum, she snapped at us that it was “a hoax,” that the Holocaust had never happened. Fake news! On that same trip, I was also in Berlin, just after the wall came down. I now found this ironic, given the trash-talking about building a wall to keep out those “murderers and rapists.”

To prepare for what I knew would be an emotional trip, I started watching Holocaust testimonials, which served as a sort of masochistic homeopathy; treating like with like, I figured that to bolster myself, I needed to put myself there—particularly in Sobibor, where people were immediately herded to the gas chambers when they arrived. One bright spot was that the prisoners there staged a revolt, successfully taking out their Nazi guards with hatchets and anything else they could get their hands on.

I was watching these videos in my kitchen one morning with my mother, when I learned that the Cohns had first been transported to the Minsk ghetto in Belarus. Nearly everyone there had either died under the harsh conditions, been transported to Sobibor and other camps, or had been shot. This meant that Gitta, Karolina’s little sister, who also deserves to be remembered, likely died in Minsk, as very young children were not sent to the camps.

What was becoming clear to me was that my cousin Karolina was shrouded in absolute mystery, her voice, like millions of others, silenced. There was no diary left behind to attest to her precious singularity, but instead only a vague idea of what kind of spirit she may have had. Like Anne Frank, she longed to be remembered. Subversively leaving behind evidence of her murder spoke of a defiant girl on the verge of young womanhood. She was a rebel in the face of unadulterated evil.

My Lufthansa flight involved free cocktails and watching Wonder Woman kick some Nazi butt, which was hugely gratifying. Emboldened by cognac and Gal Gadot, navigating through German customs was a breeze:

Agent: Why are you here?

Me: Family flying in from all over the world for a big ceremony for Karolina Cohn, possibly related to Anne Frank.

Agent: Thank you. Go ahead.

It was raining in Frankfurt, early morning. My cab driver was a long-haired, artsy-looking guy named Yoschua, curious about me after noticing the Canadian flag on my luggage tag. In the course of our conversation, he told me that he was German, born in Iran, and seemed pleased that I mistook him for a South American. “A lot of people think I’m Peruvian,” he said. He immediately differentiated himself from some of the newly arrived immigrants, many of whom, he said, “are not assimilating. Now there is backlash—not so bad in Frankfurt, but worse in other places. German women are being called ‘whores’ by these fundamentalists when they walk down the street. This is not so good.”

Given the anti-Muslim scapegoating coming from the White House, I wondered how this was affecting everyone else in the world. I didn’t bother to tell Yoschua why I was here. When he asked, I said only, “A family event.” I was tired from the long journey, so I made things convenient for myself: I kept quiet both about my Jewish ancestry and my American citizenship.

Years ago, for a performance piece that I was writing, I had asked my nonna to sit down and record her World War II experiences for me. She talked about hiding my grandfather from the Italian fascists. I was raised with her stories and her culture. But I knew very little about my grandfather who had died before I was born.

The rainy cab ride set a tone. As Yoschua weaved in and out of mounting traffic, he repeated “scheise” under his breath. I thought about what it must be like for him to be here in Germany, feeling the need to say, essentially, that there were people who were not assimilating as they should, but that he had. I imagined my grandfather, hiding out in Italy during World War II, fearful of being discovered, but secretly holding close, just under his skin, the person who he really was.

The experts who study trauma and its impact have found that it courses its cold blood through families for generations. I started experiencing a jittery kind of PTSD when I arrived at the hotel. I viewed everything through Karolina’s ghostly, yet palpable lens: the grey façade had the feel of a bunker; the elevator up to the third floor was claustrophobic with its metal gate; the room was dimly lit with old lighting fixtures; a gas heater barely threw its heat; everything was dark, and quiet.

One night, I accidentally locked myself in my hotel bathroom. My sister, standing just outside the door, couldn’t open it, and I couldn’t open it from the inside, so I panicked. I shouted, and I pounded on the door. My sister ended up prying open the door with a can opener, of all things. Afterward, we laughed at the ridiculousness of it, but she later told me that she too was terrified when she thought she wouldn’t be able to help me.

On a cold and rainy morning, we boarded a train to Weinheim to visit the stolpersteine, or the “tripping stone,” which marked the last freely chosen residence of our great-grandparents. A black swastika was spray-painted on the seat across from us—a sobering message that Nazi hatred was alive and well. On that train ride to Weinheim, where all Jewish businesses, including our great-grandfather’s furniture upholstery store, had been liquidated, we realized that these were the very same train tracks that had carried our relatives to their deaths.

That night, we attended a dinner held on the anniversary of the Cohn family’s deportation, and for the first time we met other family members. We were joined by the genealogist and the archaeologists, who surprised us with an exact replica of the pendant that we had all seen in newspaper photos.

The next morning, a lone clarinet delicately looped its stark melody around the ethereal, flapping wings of shooting cameras while artist Gunter Demnig scraped at mortar and placed the four stolpersteine for Karolina, her sister Gitta, her father, Richard, and her mother, Else, in front of their last freely chosen residence.

We listened to speeches and presentations from journalists, politicians, and students from the Anne-Frank-Schule. In one speech, the large audience, huddled together on the narrow street, was asked to imagine everything that Karolina might have been: perhaps a doctor, a dancer, an artist, or a mother. There I stood, a grown woman whose years on Earth had been meted out in equal parts joy and grief. Nevertheless, I had been gifted a life, while Karolina’s had been brutally snuffed out just as she was beginning to plan her stretched out future.

I took a shallow breath, clutching at my pink rose, feeling completely inadequate. Not accomplished enough. Not brave enough. Not Jewish enough. I felt that old pang that had wounded me all those years ago, when I stood there on Park Avenue, abandoned by the young men in black suits waving their willow branches.

Later that day, after attending presentations at the Frankfurter Philantropin, believed to have been Karolina’s school, we took a train to Darmstadt, where we visited our great-great grandparents’ graves. We asked the rabbi who gave us a tour of the cemetery why the Nazis hadn’t destroyed it. The family names on the gravestones, he told us, were used to identify those who tried to deny any Jewish ancestry, to implicate those who were simply trying to stay alive.

The world now knows one more murdered girl’s name, a defiant and heroic feat that Karolina miraculously pulled off when, over seventy years later, the hands of an archaeologist dug deep into the dirt and found her pendant as proof that she existed, despite the Nazis’ desperate attempts to erase all evidence that she had. “I was here! Remember me!”

A cousin commented on one of my social media posts: “Wir sind alles Karolina.” We are all Karolina. His inclusive prayer holds all of us together in one hand, doing our best to love our imperfect, unfinished selves, so that we might have a measure of love left to give to this damaged world.

 

Author’s Note: July 3rd would have been Karolina’s 90th birthday. The German Claims Conference will mark this day by asking people in Frankfurt to lay a flower on the memorial in Thomasiusstrasse 10 and share their thoughts on social media. Their postings for this event will be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at the handle @JewishClaimsCon.


Cynthia Bruckman is a dual U.S./Canadian citizen, currently living in Victoria, B.C. Her writing includes creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and plays. Her poetry book Endangered Species was published by Wind River Press. Her plays have been produced in New York City (American Living Room Festival at HERE/Lincoln Center Theater; Soho Rep), San Francisco (The Climate Theatre), and Seattle (New City Theater). She is the recipient of awards and grants from the Bossak/Heilbron Charitable Foundation, the Brooklyn Arts Council, and the American Conservatory Theater. She teaches English to refugees and new immigrants, and occasionally works as a theater teaching artist. In her spare time, she volunteers with at-risk youth. You can find her at cynthiabruckman.com.

She would like to thank the archaeologists, Yoram Haimi and Wojciech Mazurek, for unearthing the pendant, and genealogist Chaim Motzen for reuniting family, and Cornelia Maimon Levi from Claims Conference Germany for all her hard work. She dedicates this piece to Karolina, Gitta, Else, and Richard.

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