Dear Highlights


Dear Highlights Magazine,

Regarding your June 2009 installment of Goofus and Gallant in which Goofus says, “It’s okay, we’ll stay in the shallow end.” And then you write, “Gallant only swims when the lifeguard is watching.”

You’re making a judgement call here and I think it’s way out of line. Do you want to build men out of boys or are you trying to teach children to blindly defer to authority? Are you trying to raise a nation of dullards bred to confuse fear with comfort? Are you trying to breed a nation of grown-up babies free of risk and reward? Lately I’ve found myself afraid of these young people as I watch them grow up to be the cop that shoots me or the neighbor that bores me to death.

Be honest with yourself. If you were shoved out of a bar bathroom by some big, hairy ball of negative energy … I mean, puts the palm of his hand on your face and pushes you out of the bathroom because his lady friend is regurgitating in the men’s toilet … who would you want by your side?

Gallant says, “It’s okay, let’s just leave.” Goofus knocks him out with a punch and laughs as the doorman drags his body out through the back. We would boast that we always carried bail money. Where there was bail, there was laughter. Goofus has a wife and a child now.

When I was a child I fell from a tree while picking berries. I got up and walked away believing I had some peculiar strength that no one else knew. The place could be on fire and I would still step on another person to follow you in there because I can’t leave that feeling alone.

I live in a suburb up north now and yesterday I was thinking about dressing as a pirate for Halloween. But then I thought, who wants to eat all that candy? I never feel the need for a costume in a place like that because it’s the one time of the year when you are whatever you say you are and they have to believe you.

Yesterday, I was contemplating my front lawn. I was wondering if I should deal with it now or if I should deal with it ever again. “Embrace the chaos,” I tell my co-workers as the day begins to panic. Sometimes the rainstorms come and I stand in the middle of the street, drenched and climbing atop the wreckage. The hectic assault of ambitious termites building more wreckage for me to climb and call my own. From the peak of this mess I can spot the cool of its service animal.

The enemy is a clang-bang of some sort of manufacturing device within a blue garage across the street. I don’t know what they’re working on in there, but I don’t think that it hates me because it doesn’t keep me up at night.


Paul Ferrell is a poet/comic living in Champaign, Illinois. His poems have appeared in Sonic Boom and Jet Fuel Review. He posts garble poem images on Twitter under the name memoryagent.



In 2016, an Israeli citizen can’t say anything against military occupation without incurring the wrath of his or her neighbors. This sometimes leads to violence, or in the case of one of my friends – public homophobic shaming. Organizations of former soldiers telling truth are branded as traitors, organizations of diplomacy and reconciliation are banned or defunded, and their members are often threatened with death.

Right now, in 2016, to suggest that a child, born and raised to Palestinian parents, is not inherently bloodthirsty is blasphemous. Right now, suggesting problem-solving could involve tools other than American-sold arms is libel. In 2016 Israel, books about Arab and Israeli lovers are banned from schools. It’s not hard to see where this goes.

Israeli society has always struggled to process complex identities, from discrimination against Sephardic Jews, to the ghettos in which we place Ethiopian Jews, to the East-African refugees we hold in desert prisons. Now this pattern of denial involves any criticism, even one coming from within the hegemonic classes. Difference of opinion is rationalized away by branding people as infiltrators, back-stabbers, foreigners. Our country has turned into a toddler covering her ears screaming over any noise that isn’t shrill.

This isn’t unique to Israel. My adopted country of America, though it is a country founded on common ideals rather than ethnicity, still fails to allow and celebrate the intricate identities that make up its people. Everywhere in the world people scratch their heads trying to place the immigrant or refugee where he or she truly belongs, knowing full-well that every single person on the planet is a product of some diaspora.

As a person straddling two national identities at a time when both of my countries are fighting to erase the idea of multinational or multicultural people, I feel compelled to capture my own experience of that erasure. In my case, being a white Ashkenazi Jew, this is usually subtle and mostly harmless. Sure, it can chip away at my sense of stability, but it isn’t violent, unless I happen to voice an anti-occupation opinion with the wrong crowd. But in the case of some, Eritreans or Mizrahim, Palestinians, it can lead to a lynching. And on the streets of America, this dynamic is drawn in the form of white chalk, outlining the body of Michael brown rotting in the August asphalt.

The points here are personal, not political. I’m trying to use my own experiences to convey the sense of deadlock with which I wake up every day. In the States, this manifests as struggle, as trying to stay true to a sense of self that can’t comfortably exist in any one camp; in the States I live trying be an ally, trying to work on my own misconceptions and racisms. It’s a struggle but it’s manageable.

Back home, this is existential. Again, I’m not making a political point, this is not intended to be a soapbox of some kind. This is selfish. This is a means to preserve the moment when Israel’s long path towards self-destruction began to accelerate. Like I said, we’ve never been good at incorporating people who resist our Ashkenazi European narrative. We’ve been on the path to ethnic cleansing for a long time. This moment of pre-civil-war is nothing new: it’s simply that narrative starting to unravel. And like any unravelling, it involves destruction. I have no hope. I only hope to be alive to tell my grandchildren that I belonged to a state that no longer exists.

* * *

When I was seven Jerusalem exploded. That’s not very surprising. After all, Jerusalem has been burned down, blown up, and handed over from one pillaging army to the next for millennia. You could say it’s a city meant for murder. But still, there are stops and starts to the killings, ebbs and flows. Massacre, like everything else, is seasonal in the Middle East.

So it goes with the Second Intifada. Jerusalem exploded. Buses burned around my neighborhood, rocks and Molotov cocktails shattered flesh and glass. Acquaintances and family friends died. Older kids I looked up to left the city in their IDF greens. After five years, the guns and tanks didn’t work, so we built a big gray wall, burned olive trees, siphoned off water, kidnapped more people, broke up families. That seemed to do the trick, though I don’t think it’s ever quite going to work – demoralizing millions of people.

This is selfish: I’m giving reasons for things that boil down to chance, trying to pick at why I’m here, where I’m going, why go in the first place. Anything goes back to the fact that I’m a man born and mostly raised in Israel, who has lived in the U.S. for a long time now, and I’m always going back and forth. This reality has created an inner rift, a widening cliff between one self and the other, and in the balancing act I’ve become a tightrope walker.

The immigrant and her child are always fighting to find this balance. We all buy into the idea of belonging to some place or another, so we trick ourselves into thinking authenticity is somewhere on that rope, hanging over the internal abyss. I’m far from being unique in any of these symptoms. Yeah, the whole world is a massive web of bodies moving there and back again. Refugees, deserters, and colonizers are the names of the game. Upheaval is a constant, older than my masochistic Jerusalem.

Maybe in my silly attempt to put my experiences to words – and squeeze some sense out of them in the process – I’ll be sharing something other fractured people can recognize and use. Probably not. In any case, that’s not my intent, just a side dish. My main focus is myself. Selfish.

* * *

There was a party a few months ago in Boston. I was there. My friends were there. I was sitting on a red couch with a girl named Molly. She asked me where I’m from. I answered. She straightened up a little and twirled a curl of her brown hair. “How did you end up here?” I told her I flew on an airplane. She giggled. “You know what I mean. What was it like?”

My dad’s best friend died trapped inside a combat plane. My mom’s cousin burned alive in his tank. His last words were yelps and coughs. My uncle shot a thirteen-year-old in Southern Lebanon and my best friend used a girl as a human shield in Gaza.

She looked down and touched my knee with a painted nail. “That’s so interesting.” She said. She smiled. “Amazing.” She said. Then she grew serious the way American girls grow serious to show empathy. “Do you miss it?”

I thought about my friend Omri dismantling bombs outside malls, about my cousin aiming an M-16 at a woman and taking away her husband. I thought about the melted remains of the number 18 bus outside my house, and Monopoly in bomb shelters. Yes, I miss it.

* * *

Jerusalem is damp in the winter. The pink-white stones grow dank and their chiseled protrusions radiate cold from the sidewalks. The bars, hidden in nooks and cobblestoned alleys, cool and cave-like in the summers, turn into true caves in the winter. People sit in circles huddled around electric radiators, hands to the middle wanting a fire. The radiators hum and harmonize with the normal hubbub of the bars, so the places vibrate like an out of tune church organ.

Some bar names are straightforward, “The Barrel” or “The Soup.” Others cater to the self-proclaimed artists of the city, “The Record” and “The Video.” Some are punny, like “The Slow Moishe,” and others are named after their mobster-like owners. Point is, you know what you’re getting into.

Michal, Maya, Asif and I sat at a bar. Asif had recently gotten a discharge for medical problems. Maya and Michal were still in their greens. I had a beer.

Asif flicked the table. “So, asshole, you gonna stay or ditch?”

I shrugged.

“You just gotta decide what you are.” Maya said. “You do the Army or you betray, simple as that.”

“Is it?”

Michal flipped her black hair out of her brown eyes. “I don’t think so, Maya. Nothing is simple with this guy.” She meant me. “He’s stuck in a cycle of self-pity and indecision.”

I smiled and blew her a kiss. Michal is my best friend.

“Look, man.” Asif said, all nasal dismissal. “We all put some fluids into being here, you can’t just hop in and out like the American you are. Make a decision.”

“That’s what my grandma said, word for word.”

“She’s right then.” Maya said. “But I don’t think it’s so hard, Roiki. You’re not a real Israeli anyway. You don’t know anything about this place and you’re too much of a woman to change that. Go back to your bleached-asshole American friends.”

I felt like disagreeing but I finished my beer instead. Michal blew me a kiss. We leaned forward, putting our hands to the radiator.

* * *

I used to play bar shows in Jerusalem with a violinist. It lasted a few months. We never got money for it but the drinks were free. The violinist was named Moon and she was a tightrope walker who bookmarked her Bible with tabs of acid. She was beautiful. I never grew the nerves to tell her that, so we played bar shows in Jerusalem. She didn’t do the Army. She worked with Holocaust survivors, helping them put on theatre productions. She wrote poetry with them and talked to them when nobody else would. My other friends called her a deserter.

Her parents spoke English at home so her Hebrew was dotted with words like “dude” and “for fuck’s sake.” She could weave between the two languages, selves, whatever, with more ease than most people feel around their families. She laughed when she farted and talked about both Bialik and the Velvet Underground when she smoked. She was a textbook Hippie but she believed in the Scriptures and could play a fiddle like an Irish festival performer. Being with her was like reading a good book: I was breathless and absorbed, and when she left I had to blink myself back into the world, unsure of where I had just been and where I was now.

We lost touch. I’m not sure how, but at some point, after a few more years of my back and forth, her number got lost and we never met up again. I think she was in India recently, I remember somebody said. I’m not sure. With her it felt easy. Nothing feels easy but with her it was. I guess it makes sense. She was a professional tightrope walker.

* * *

Last summer, three Jews were killed in the West Bank. The Israeli government lied and said they were kidnapped. The IDF embarked on a three-week pillage-and-burn campaign in the West Bank, intended to eradicate Hamas operatives in the Bank. The operation was called, “Brothers, Return.”

Hamas sent rockets into Israel. They careened into cities and open fields, mostly missing their marks but still maiming and killing those who couldn’t make it to shelters. Israelis were glued to TV screens, muttering “dirty Arabs” under their breath, frustrated that CNN wasn’t wholly on their side.

The IDF blew up Gaza. Two thousand gone. Children buried under rubble, torn to bits by shell fragments. People felt bad, but the rockets kept coming, what else could we do? Most people praised Bibi for his restraint and “proportional response.” Some called for less restraint, some wanted to “flatten Gaza.” Some voices on the Left said retaliation wasn’t necessary. Those voices were bloodied on the streets of Tel-Aviv.

I was in Vermont. The people around me were Americans and Europeans. White. They didn’t care. When they did they sounded like Molly. My dad Skyped with stories of a third Intifada in Jerusalem. My uncle never left the shelter. My friend Tamir was sleeping in the mud on the border. My friend Baha’s family was burning in Gaza, his friends were kidnapped in Nablus. I was in Vermont.

Like other Israelis, I was glued to a screen. I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. I remembered being seven. I wondered if I should buy a plane ticket back. Leave school, leave the U.S. Finally grow those balls Maya and others said I lacked. Conversations around me were about courses and kisses. My friends gurgled in their throats trying to pronounce “hummus.” They laughed. They got high. I smiled but thought of the bodies.

* * *

Sometimes I think about what I hear from people back home (“let’s carpet bomb Gaza”, “a good Arab is a dead Arab”) and it reminds me of Donald Trump and the swaths of angry white people at his coattails. To hear the Trump crowd talk, you’d think the Second Coming was a coming, it was right around the bend, we only have to be willing to bleed for it. Those evangelists sound like the settlers back home: if enough olive trees are painted with guts we’ll finally reach salvation. The humanist friends with whom I tend to surround myself are always pretentiously amused with this rhetoric: Jesus was a pacifist, how can those rabid, vile people use his name like this?

Jesus said, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” In one sense, he was just repeating what others have said since people could speak and attempt to resolve cave-fights. In a stronger sense, he was being a Jew: “This is the meaning of the Law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets.”

Jesus was a Jewish Messiah. The title means blood. His sayings, his actions, his Judaism, all led to a revolt he planned against the Temple elite and the Roman rule of Palestine. He wanted a return to certain aspects of Judaism, a return to a “purer” Judaism. He called for upheaval. Jerusalem draws those upheaval types to her like flies to syrup, like racists to Trump. So, of course, Jesus went to Jerusalem. He went to Jerusalem – like so many others before and since – armed with swords and a following of fanatics at his robe-tail.

Soon after his death other Jewish Messiahs came to Jerusalem. Thirty years later the pressure cooker popped the pot and the revolution finally came. But Palestina has always been a blip on the map, always at the mercy of the bigger, stronger neighbors to the East and West. We like to pretend otherwise, that this is a fight between Palestinians and Israelis, a family feud. We ignore the fact that America funds both sides, that Iran and Russia and the EU are involved, that this world can no longer contain the simple loyalties we wish it did. Anyway, the Romans retaliated, razing the country down to its pink-stone foundations. People were flayed, crucified, and beheaded in the streets; Jerusalem drank blood and grinned as babies burned to char. History shrugs at shit like that.

Seventy years later, the Jews did it again. Another Jewish Messiah by the name of Bar Kochva led another doomed revolt. Pregnant women were raped and drowned. The hills of Judea were crowned with the crucified. Flies got fat off the stuff.

Rabbi Akiva, the other famous Jew credited with formulating the Golden Rule, was flayed to the flesh by the Romans. He too was a soldier in Bar Kochva’s army. You could say he was the military’s chief rabbi.

People in Jerusalem are upset when I get like this. Fatalistic, nihilistic, they say. A bummer. Their stories of Scripture gloss over the gore and focus on the hope. Hope for what, I always wonder. Bar Kochva is a hero-figure in Israel. You’re a bummer, they repeat.

I get a kick out of seeing the repetitions in history. Every piece of music needs a good refrain, so why not the past? After all, we love that shit, need to know what to hum when we walk home. It just so happens that Jerusalem’s refrain is slaughter.

People in America are upset for other reasons. The Golden Rule is about love and fellowship, they say. How could Jews and Arabs break it, dismiss their own faiths, so easily? Their noses reach high enough that I see their snot-laden nostril hairs. Judging by their tone, you’d think Americans mistake foreigners for toddlers.

At this point I could remind them that the Golden Rule was never meant for gentiles, or that the people spouting it were religious fanatics that would make ISIS look like a hodgepodge of college student activists.

Instead I smile. The Golden Rule lacks a basic understanding of human beings. “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” That is all nice and rainbows if everybody wants the same thing. It just so happens that we live in a world of S&M, a world where what some people want done unto them makes others gag, a world where some people get off on gagging. A world where Jerusalem is one of the hottest dungeons around.

* * *

A few weeks ago the IDF’s chief rabbi married my cousin in front of a cave in the Judea Mountains. Before the glass was broken and the kiss was kissed, the rabbi prayed for the building of the Third Temple and the salvation of the Jewish Nation. I thought of Akiva and the flies growing fat in Bab-el-Wad.

The week before the wedding Jewish fanatics burned a baby alive in Nablus. The week before they burned the Church of Fish and Loaves on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. For years they had been practicing on mosques and Palestinian olive groves. This year they reached the big leagues, human flesh. Their goal is simple: restore the Third Temple; eradicate the impurities in the land; bring back the Messiah. It’s a familiar tune.

The politicians condemned their acts, promised justice. The next day millions of shekels flowed to the settlements and the IDF shot down three Palestinian teenagers. The next day Bibi got on the podium to oppose international diplomacy. He said the Jewish Nation was finally home and our sovereignty could not be questioned. It’s a familiar tune.

When people evoke the Golden Rule, let them remember we live in a land where soldiers are memorialized for a suicide known as self-sacrifice. A land where shaheedim are celebrated for their strap-on bombs. A land where every street corner is corner-stoned with plaques of martyrdom and murder. This isn’t a breaking of faith, it’s fulfillment. This isn’t terror, it’s sexual slaughter. S&M. It’s what we hum when we walk home.


Roi Ankori-Karlinsky is an Israeli-American straddling two national identities with limited success. He studies and plays music, and is also working towards a degree in evolutionary biology at Bennington College. Like a lot of people, books and stories have always been there for him, which is why he tries to huff as many as he can. He loves avocados and is a hopeful pessimist.




Anonymous Crime Scene Photo

The body lies on its back, covered in a white sheet turned cream by the street lamp, which we do not see. The sheet covers the body in such a way as to appear, at a distance, like a rolling hill, stretching across the trash-strewn sidewalk before collapsing, in narrow valleys and sharp inclines, upon the cement. The illuminated corpse is not attended to by medics, or shocked crowds. There is no weeping mother. More noticeably, there is no face. The sheathed corpse could be in black and white were it not for the graffiti, a massive S swallowing a P, both in blood red that in the dim afterglow of the streetlight appears maroon, and the fact that these are clearly Latin letters indicates we must be in Europe or the Americas. The buildings themselves are made of brick and stone and from what we can see are in good condition, the graffiti covering only the metallic doors that shop owners use overnight, and so we must be in a business district.

How the mind wanders, trying to pinpoint the exact location of this event? Paris? Brussels? Berlin? Rome? New York City? And why is this body left alone by authorities and ignored by the public? Could there be greater carnage we are not privileged to see? Was this a terrorist attack? And if it is a terrorist attack, and in a white city no doubt, of a white country run by white people, there is no question that the media is eating this up. How many other victims are there? Ten, twenty? In Nigeria there were a multitude; nobody cared. Many more in Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia; nobody cared, and they cared even less when worse happened on the streets of Raqqa and Baghdad.

How this body, alone on a street, lacks just enough details, just enough concrete emotions, to allow you, the viewer, to fill in whatever blanks reside in our soul.

Is our soul made of the enraged screams for justice that permeate the void of social media? Is our soul one that feeds on shaming strangers on the other side of the world, across oceans reaching back to our native shores, crossing our state’s lines and inhabiting our very neighborhood? Could we tell these people to their faces how much we despise them for caring about this body and not one that looks different than they do? That speaks another language? Follows a different religion? What makes this body so special, anyway?

There will be a wave of text filling our screens, disparate voices speaking the same words, words like euro-centric white supremacist misogynistic privilege; that is what this body so artfully represents. The absence of mourning does not make it an object of pity but of superiority, for it is the body of all bodies, singular and dominant, oppressive in how it mocks the millions of others who die with faces naked in the sun.

This body divides us into the tribes of yesterday, tribes of color and class, along lines the enlightened masses of Internet cowardice would like to believe we have transcended as a species so we can enter an age of harmony.

But is harmony human nature? Or nature at all? Sharks do not cry for a safe zone when another shark steals their food, and when a lion loses a fight it does not seek out a therapist. Nature is cold, ordered, so ordered that when the order is disrupted nature lashes out to reclaim the stability it was always meant to harbor. Nature is, above all, encompassing, unquestionable, uncomfortable.

Mankind is not prepared to face the futility of the reality that this body, and all dead bodies, have no ethnicity and no labels, they are merely flesh and bone destined to rot, be ravaged, swallowed up, forgotten.

This body, which we claim to care so much about, was in fact a human being unrelated to us, with a life, a job, a family, and a name, which this body will never speak again. This body, which demands silence, which demands the dignity of the rest of unconsciousness, receives only the noise of all the agendas on our screens, blinding us all to our inevitable fate; this world wide culture that values shame and judgment over empathy and understanding, the silence that necessitates both.

Jonathan Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican educator and author based in Colorado. He is co-founder of the YouNiversity Project which mentors aspiring authors. His love of surrealism and experimentation led to his portrait style, pictured here, and used in his forthcoming novel Tristiana (Floricanto Press, 2016). You can follow him on Twitter @Marcantoni1984 or visit his website


UmGA599 - Imgur


It is Monday, January 11,, 2016. I have been listening to David Bowie’s “Blackstar” all morning. I have not showered and I have not had coffee. I’ve been watching the internet grieve over a superstar we all felt we knew intimately. I’ve wondered what that felt like for the shapeshifter born David Robert Jones—a deep and public intimacy with millions. But mostly I have been distracted.

So many memories have been drifting to the surface of my mind, memories I have never once revisited (does this mean they were not memories yet but something else?) and whose thread is not immediately traceable. I’ve been feeling very young and very old. I do not feel sad, not exactly, so much as numb. It’s a specific numbness that always accompanies news of mortality, a numbness where I blankly realize the people, places, things I’d assumed would always be there.

The New York Times was right to use the word “transcend” in their headline announcing David Bowie’s death. More than a music icon, his career was my first taste of alter ego: not simply another self, as the Latin suggests, but Cicero’s “second self, a trusted friend.” Suddenly, all manner of seams became apparent: rock’n’roll was theatre, gender was performance, and identity was this protean thing one could play with. And maybe, just maybe, that deeply alien thing inside you, the thing that made you feel like a stranger in crowded rooms, maybe that was the thing that made you work. It would be your saving grace and your compass needle. You were not an individual. You were a freak. Which was something like being a saint.

At the same time, whatever story you’d been telling yourself about yourself—you could abandon that narrative and start again. You had only to cut your hair, don an eye patch, move to Berlin, go to the movies, make sex a moving target, be Pontius Pilate, be a vampire, create a labyrinth.

And the artifice was sweet. Perhaps, even, true. The flickering of that falseness asked which is alter and which is ego? It revealed something you could not dress in words.

I was twelve years old when Best of Bowie was released. I lived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I sat in my room staring at the album cover, a collage of various Bowie faces pieced together across the years and selves. There were admittedly few deep cuts on that disc, but 2002 was also the year I really discovered the internet. Soon I was pirating music, exhausting fan pages, and lying about my age (and gender) in chat rooms.

If I had been a slightly weirder child, I could have mapped out my music-art-and-sex reeducation starting there. Innumerable breadcrumbs of pop culture constellated out—The Stooges, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, Oscar Wilde, Velvet Goldmine, Dada—with Bowie at the center. A whole geography of outsiders emerged, made of cigarette smoke, smeared lipstick, and albums that started with the end of the world.

Bowie did not just have fans. He had followers and disciples. The seeming ease of music fandom belies how bizarre a match it is. There are a lot of subtle tricks that come with crafting a pop identity, marketing to a target audience, and making it feel like serendipity. It’s a love affair with someone who doesn’t know you exist, providing reliable bookmarks across your inner life. Any parallels between “Rock’N’Roll Suicide” and your lived experience do not point to Bowie’s sympathy so much as the elegance of accidents. When you find a song your neurons love to trace and trace again, it starts to feel like it is yours.

There was nothing I wanted more in seventh grade than to be glam rock. That is a wince-worthy sentence because it is every bit as laughable as it is accurate. I dyed my hair various shades of red and purple. I cut the crotch out of red fishnets and wore it as a shirt. I aspired to be the glitteriest gay man to come out of 1970s London. That I was a friendless Alabama girl in the new millennium posed only the dimmest conflict. My aesthetic epiphany would have proved more potent had I attended middle school some thirty years earlier, but I did convince my mother that Hedwig and the Angry Inch would be a great movie to watch with the family. So, we can call it a draw.

A decade and a half later, there is one question I keep asking myself, then dismissing as unanswerable: would I have known I was queer if not for Ziggy Stardust? Where do the seeds of transgression start? I was a shy child. I wanted simultaneously to be deserving of attention and to escape scrutiny. To the glam rock twelve year old, that seemed like an impossible contradiction. Now I think it is not so much to ask.

Stardust was not interesting to me because he wore makeup and odd clothes. He was interesting to me because he seemed sexless, neither male nor female. I loved looking at him but more than that, I was taken with that “neither” space. In the newly released videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus,” Bowie is blindfolded, waxing prophetic like an interstellar Tiresius. The visual allusion is eerily fitting: a seer both sightless and clairvoyant, who lived as both man and woman.

The blindfold also obscures two of Bowie’s most recognizable traits: those uneven eyes, blue and false-brown, open at different apertures—which for decades suggested the saddest happy thing to a young person’s ears.

Maybe there was a reason behind your loneliness. Maybe you were from the stars. Regardless of personal tastes, this much is true: important music makes us not only fans, but more ourselves. Because David Bowie existed, we get to be many selves. He proved deviance was a kind of art. And vice versa.


On December 17, 2015, Harper’s Magazine published “Revisionist History” by John Reed. This article poses the question, “Is George Orwell’s Animal Farm based on the work of a nineteenth-century Russian writer?” Harper’s published an excerpt of the story in question. We are pleased to share the story in full.

Animal Riot: Letter from a Little Russian landowner to his friend in St. Petersburg
by Nikolai Kostomarov, translated by Tanya Paperny

The most unusual thing happened over here, so unusual that had I heard it from someone or read it somewhere and not seen it with my own eyes, I would never have believed it. Completely incredible: riot, uprising, revolution!

You probably think this was some sort of defiance of masters by their subordinates. Precisely. But this was not a riot of subordinates exactly but of the indentured, and not of humans but of farm animals and house pets. We are used to thinking that since animals are mute, they must also be foolish. It seems rational using human logic: they can’t talk, we say amongst ourselves, so they must not think or understand anything!

But is this actually true? We can’t reason with them so we consider them foolish and mute, but it turns out—as we’ll thoroughly discuss here—that we can’t understand their language. After all, learned ones have shown that the Russian word for German, nemetz, comes from the word mute, nemoi, and that this nickname was given to the Teutonic tribes by Slavs because Slavs didn’t understand their language. The exact same thing happened here.

Recently, science has begun to understand that animals—whom we flippantly think of as mute and foolish—have a way of communicating emotions using their own language, which sounds nothing like ours, the human language. There’s already been much written about this, but since we live on a homestead out in the back country, we don’t read such articles and only hear they exist somewhere in Europe. However, one can find such wise men in these parts, ones who are even more knowledgeable than the learned Europeans about the ways animals express their thoughts.

On our own homestead we have one wise man like this. His name is Omelko. An unbelievable person, I tell you! He has never read any books or studied grammar, but he knows in entirety the language and dialects of all domesticated animals: cattle, horses, sheep and pigs—even chickens and geese! And how did he learn all this when no one here has a grammar book or dictionary of animal languages, you might ask?

Omelko achieved all this by virtue of his uncommon abilities, without any guidance, armed with nothing but a constant and stubborn observation of animal customs and ways.

Omelko has lorded over our animals since his childhood, for more than forty years now. There are others like him in Little Russia, but no one can match even a fourth of his knowledge. He has so completely mastered the language of animals that if a cow merely grunts, a sheep bleats, or a pig oinks, Omelko can tell you right away what this animal wants to say. This one-of-a-kind expert on animal nature would never agree with those who believe that the logical faculties animals possess are much weaker than those of humans. Omelko insists that animals display an intelligence no lesser—and sometimes even greater—than that of humans. Omelko has commented on this again and again: “You go out at night, you don’t know the road well and you get lost. You look and look, but you can’t find the way. So you let your horse lead, and he knows the road better than you and takes you where you need to get to.”

And with cattle it’s like this: the boys take them out to pasture and then play around or fall asleep and lose the cattle. Later the boys are crying, poor things, but the cattle—they find their way back without the herders. One time the sexton, having returned from our parish about five miles away, started telling us the biblical story of Balaam and his female donkey, which he called a mare so we’d understand. Hearing the story, Omelko said: “That’s nothing strange. It just means Balaam understood equine language. Entirely possible. A mare could have said the same thing to me.” Omelko told us much, so much, from his many years communicating with animals of different breeds, which explains the strange event we’ll now describe.

As far back as the fall of 1879, different animals on my estate started showing signs of resistance and disobedience, and a revolutionary spirit was born, directed against the rule of man, a power which has been anointed by the centuries and legends.

According to Omelko, the first signs of this movement appeared in the bulls, who since time immemorial have stood out for their willfulness—which is why humans have often relied on strict and sometimes even severe methods to restrain them. On our homestead we had one bull like this. Afraid to let him into the field with the rest of the herd, they instead held him in a locked pen. When they led him to drink, they put chains on his legs and a wooden visor over his eyes to prevent him from seeing anything on the path ahead. Otherwise he’d become so violent that he’d throw himself at every person he’d encounter and rear his horns for no good reason. A few times I thought about killing him, but every time his life was saved by Omelko, who insisted this bull possessed such great characteristics inherent in his bullish genes that he wouldn’t be easily replaced.

At Omelko’s insistence I decided to let him live, but only with the understanding that the strictest precautions be taken so this ruffian not do anyone irreparable harm. Sometimes when they’d shepherd him and the village boys could hear his terrible bellowing from afar, they’d run off in different directions so as not to find themselves face-to-face with the raging animal. We all thought it was just his beastly energy and the anguish of unending bondage that made him so violent, but Omelko—guided by his knowledge of animal dialects—noted that the bellows of our bull resembled something more serious: agitation toward mutiny and insubordination.

Bulls, as Omelko realized, can have qualities like we encounter in some of our brother-humans: they have a sort of constant, untamable desire to agitate without clear purpose—strife for strife’s sake, revolt for revolt’s sake, a fight for fight’s sake. Calm bores them and order nauseates them—they want everything around them to be seething, everything to make a racket—and on top of that, they delight in knowing that they and no one else orchestrated it all. Like we said, you can find these kinds of beings among humans—they also exist among animals. That’s how our bull was, and so the horrible uprising—which we’re talking about now—started with him, that all-animal agitator. Always standing in his pen in a sad loneliness, our bull bellowed non-stop day and night, and Omelko—the legendary expert on bovine language—heard him cursing all of humankind, using curse words even Shakespeare couldn’t have dreamed up for Timon of Athens. When the bulls and cows would come inside the pen in the evening after grazing, the bull would carry on evening conversations with his horned brethren, sowing the first seeds of criminal dissent among his class of comrades. For his many years of service, Omelko had been promoted to oversee the whole animal domain, and under his supervision were not only bulls and cows but also sheep, goats, horses and pigs. You can imagine how at his managerial level, with his many and varied responsibilities, it was impossible to keep a regular and close watch on these scandalous conversations, so taking immediate preventative measures was the responsibility of less senior persons.

But because of his deep familiarity with animal languages and customs, it was enough that Omelko had walked into the cattle pen two or three times. When the rebellion exploded, he could immediately point to its origins from his few observations. Unfortunately, I will add, Omelko had an extremely gentle and mild disciplinary style, so he approached with leniency that which, as the consequences showed, should have been dealt with using the harshest methods to nip the evil in the bud. More than once, upon walking into the pen unexpectedly for a short while, he’d overhear the scandalous antics of the bull, but Omelko dismissed them as the delusions of youth and inexperience. The speeches the bulls heard at these protests translate roughly into human language as follows:

“Brother-bulls, sister- and wife-cows! Honorable animals, worthy of a better lot than the one you bear at the will of some unknown fate, one which enslaves you to the tyrant-human! For a long time—so long that our animal memory cannot even estimate—you have drank from the trough of calamity and can never seem to get to the bottom.

Using the superiority of his mind over ours, the treacherous tyrant subjugates us, we of feeble minds, so much that we have lost the dignity of living beings and have become like unthinking tools to satisfy his whims. The humans milk our mothers and wives, depriving our little baby-calves, and what don’t they make from our cow’s milk! After all this milk is our property and not theirs! Instead of our cows, let them milk their own women. But no, apparently they don’t like their own milk so much—ours is tastier! And that’s not all. We bulls are a kindhearted people: we would have allowed ourselves to be milked as long as they didn’t do anything worse. But again, look what they do to our poor calves. They load the poor little things in a cart, tie their legs, and take them away! And where do they carry them? To have their throats cut, torn from their mother’s teat! The greedy tyrant has taken a liking to their meat, and how! He considers it one of his best dishes! And what does the tyrant do to our adult brethren?

Over there, our brother the noble ox is carrying a heavy yoke on his neck to drag a plow and dig holes for the tyrant. Our tyrant throws seeds into the ground dug up by the ox’s labor, and from that grain grows grass, and from that grass our tyrant knows how to make this clod, just like earth only whiter, and our tyrant calls this bread and devours it because it is very tasty.

And suppose our horned brother dares to walk out onto the field—plowed previously by his own labor—to enjoy tasty grasses. Our brother will be chased out with a whip or even a club. But in fact, the grass growing on that field is our property and not man’s. After all it was our brother who dragged the plow and tilled the earth. Without that this grass would not have grown on the field by itself. He who labors should get to reap the benefits of that labor. So it should follow: you yoked us to the plow and used our labor to dig up the field, so give us the grass sown on that field. And if man needs to take some grain, which he tossed into the land dug up by our labor, for himself, then he should at least give us half and take the other half for himself. But he greedily takes it all, and what is left for us is nothing but a beating. Our animal brothers are such a kind-hearted people that they would tolerate even this. But the cruelty of our tyrant toward us grown bulls does not end there!

Has it ever happened to you, brother, that you are grazing in the field and see them driving a herd of our brother cattle, or even sheep, along the posted road? The herd is so plump, happy and playful! You might think the tyrant has taken pity and repented for his misdeeds against our breed. He fattened us up and set us free. Not a chance! The stupid bull is playing and thinks he has just been set free to the wide open steppe. But he will soon find out what kind of freedom awaits him! Yes, the tyrant fed him alright: all summer our brother-beast walked the fields in complete happiness, and they didn’t torment him with work, but why? Why did the tyrant become so merciful toward his animals? Here is why: ask where they are taking this bull now, and you will learn that the enemy-master sold his bull to another evil member of the human race who will then take the bull to a huge human pen, which they call a city. As soon as they get there, they will drag the poor animal to a slaughterhouse, and there the old bull will suffer the same fate as the young calves, only more torturous. Do you know, brother, about this slaughterhouse where they are taken? You will feel a chill creep through your veins as soon as you realize what they do at that slaughterhouse, so it is for good reason that our brother-beast lows pitifully when nearing the city where it is located. They tie the poor bull to a post, and then the evildoer approaches with a hatchet and hits him square on the head between the horns. The bull howls from fear and pain, stands on his hind legs and the evildoer gives it to him one more time—then a knife to the throat. One after the first, then a third, then a dozen and another dozen, until he’s gotten a hundred bulls. Bovine blood spills in torrents. Then they take the skin off the dead ones, cut the meat into chunks and sell it in their markets. The other bulls that were brought to the city to be killed walk past those stands and see the meat of their comrades hanging there, and their bovine hearts sense that soon the same fate will befall them! From our skin, the tyrant makes shoes to protect his cursed feet, and from that very skin he makes different types of bags to pack his things. These he tosses into a cart, and to this very cart he’ll tie up our brother. And from that same skin he cuts out narrow strips to make whips, and he strikes us with those same whips made of our skin. Sometimes they even beat one another with these whips made from our skin! Heartless tyrants! Not only do they behave this way toward us: they manage no better between themselves! They enslave one another, they torment and torture one another…what a mean breed these humans! There is no one meaner on earth. Meaner than all the animals! And somehow this fierce, bloodthirsty creature ensnared us innocent animals into hard, unbearable bondage. Now, considering all this, is our fate not sour?

But are we actually stuck here? Are we actually so weak that we can never free ourselves from this slavery? Do we not have horns? Were there not times when in a fit of righteous indignation our horned-brothers ripped open the stomachs of our oppressors? When our horned brother kicks a human, does he not immediately break the human’s leg or arm? What are we, weak? After all, our enemy harnesses our horned brother precisely when he needs to carry a heavy load, one a human can’t lift himself.

Hence our tyrant knows well that we have much strength, more strength than he. Our oppressor only dares when he does not expect any resistance from us; when he sees that we will not submit to him, he calls over other brother-men who run to join in the treachery. Some days the cattle herd does not want to obey the herder—he is herding to the right but the bulls want to go left—so the herder will call on other herdsmen to surround us, one from one side, another from the other side, and the third will get up in front to scare one of our brothers. This way they can lead the whole herd where they want to. For their feeble-mindedness, ours do not realize that even though they are surrounded on all sides by herders, those cattlemen are still smaller than our brothers. They should not obey but point their horns at the herder, who would then go away because they would not be able to manage our herd. But ours do not realize what to do and are obedient—they walk where they are led and just sigh, for there is much to sigh about. Our brothers would love to eat some tasty field grasses and play around a bit the way they like to—butt each other with their horns for fun, scratch up on the tree. But they do not let us over there and instead lead us to a pasture where other than some short knot-weeds, there is nothing to nibble on, or they chase us into a lonely pen to chew on straw. All this because we are obedient and afraid to show our animal dignity. Let us stop obeying the tyrant: let us announce our intentions not just with our bellowing but with simultaneous jumping and head-butting; let us show that we want to be free animals by any means necessary and not his cowardly slaves.

Oh, brother-bulls and sister-cows! We have long been young and naïve! But a different period has come—new times are upon us! We have now matured enough, wisened up, evolved! It’s time to throw off the miserable chains of slavery and avenge our ancestors, those tortured by work, emaciated by hunger and bad feed, stuck under whip cracks and heavy carts, killed in slaughterhouses and ripped into chunks by our torturers. Let us rise up together, united under one horn!

And we cattle are not alone as we rise up against humans: for one, the horses are striking with us, and the goats, sheep and pigs—all domestic creatures whom the human has enslaved will rise up for freedom from our shared tyrant. We will cease all our internal fighting, all petty disagreements between individuals, and at every moment we will remember that we share a common enemy and oppressor.

We will achieve equality, liberty and independence; restore the overthrown and trampled dignity of all living animals; and bring back those happy times when animals were still free and not trapped under the cruel reign of humans. Let us go back to those blissful old times: all the fields, meadows, pastures, groves and wheat fields will be ours, and we will have the right to graze, buck and playfully butt our heads where ever we want. We will start living in total freedom and absolute happiness. Long live bestiality! Down with mankind!”

The bull’s outrageous speech achieved the desired affect. Afterwards, for the whole summer, cattle spread revolutionary ideas throughout the pens, pastures and paddocks, and they started underground meetings where all they talked about was how and with what act they should launch their revolt against man. Many were of the belief that acting alone was easiest, ramming one’s horns at one or the other of the cattlemen until all were eradicated; others who were a bit more courageous proposed it was better to right away get rid of the one giving orders to all the cattlemen: first slaughter the master himself. But those oxen who used to go on Chumak trading trips and had expanded their worldview offered the following idea: “What good will it do if we kill the lead tyrant? He will not be in power anymore, but then another will just take his place. If we are taking on the grand project of liberating the animal kingdom, then it needs to be done firmly to carry out a fundamental transformation of animal society, and we need to use our animal minds to develop foundations on which to forever establish our well-being. And can we as cattle organize this for everyone else? No! No! This is not exclusively our project, but one for all the different animal species enslaved to man! Horses and goats, sheep and pigs, and perhaps even caged birds all need to rise up against our common enemy, and when we throw off our wretched bondage, we will have a general gathering of all beasts to establish a new liberated union.”

This bullish insubordination spilled over to the horses, whose herd grazed on the same field as the cattle. The spirit of mutiny then fully penetrated their neighing society. According to Omelko’s observations, equine language differs completely from bovine, but cohabitation has led to some points of closeness between the two breeds. It’s become common among the horses to understand bovine language and vice versa. The word among the bovine breed which means “bull,” among the equine breed means “stallion” in all cases.

The stallions were a rowdy bunch, by nature inclined toward all kinds of defiance, predestined for the role of agitator, you could say. On my estate there was a chestnut stallion in the equine herd, a big bully. When they were shepherding him and would tie him up, it would take two herders without fail to hold him back by the reins. They once tried to harness him to the shaft and drive him and the carriage down the road, but he immediately and willfully swerved to the side, reared his front legs into the first hut he came across, and neighed loudly. Another time I had guests, and I ordered him to be brought over to be shown off with other beautiful horses. He bit two of my geldings for no good reason and kicked a third one with his hooves. When the geldings struck back, it became such a mess that I ordered them immediately separated and taken away.

What a prankster! Regardless of his childish games, he was held in high esteem among the horses, and they were all ready to heed whatever he said. In equine mores, combativeness is not considered a vice; on the contrary, it earns one respect and attention, just as it once did among the Vikings. This chestnut agitator started rallying the horses against human domination:

“We have suffered enough under the human tyrant!” he cried. “The two-legged villain has enslaved us, forever free four-legged creatures, and keeps our offspring in the most terrible bondage. What will he not do to us? How he abuses us! He saddles us up, rides on our backs and tricks us into bloody battle with his enemies! Did you know that the humans call this cavalry? The cavalry horses have told horrors about what happens to our brothers. The hairs on your mane stand up straight when you hear these stories.

They mount our brother and rush at one another. They want to kill each other, and they kill us in the process. Their ruthless, severe hearts do not pity us. So much noble equine blood is shed. Then such horrible sights! A poor horse, having lost one leg, hops behind the others on three legs, spilling blood until he falls unconscious. Another, having lost two legs at once, crawls around in vain trying to stand up on the remaining two. A third, pierced through the chest, lays on the ground and wishes he were dead. A fourth—his eyes poked out. A fifth—his head chopped off. Piles of horse and human carcasses!

And for what? Do we, poor things, even know why they are fighting amongst themselves? That is their business, not ours. If they do not get along, fine, then they can fight and squabble amongst themselves and slaughter each other. After all, when we get into fights, we squabble and bite and kick, but we do not call them over and entangle them in our fights! Then why do they drag us into a violent death when they fight between themselves?

They don’t ask the cavalry horses if they want to fight a war, but they saddle and ride them to fight; they never consider that maybe our brother has no interest in dying without knowing what he is dying for. And even without a war, you would not believe how man oppresses us and how he curses at us! He loads up his cart or wagon with all kinds of heavy things, saddles up our brother, and makes him tug; urging him on, he unmercifully beats the horse with a whip on his back, his head, where ever it lands, without the slightest mercy, until he beats him to death. Sometimes a horse will draw his last breath while others get injured from the excessive burden—they break their legs and the heartless tyrant will leave them to die and go saddle some other horses to the same torment. Oh brothers! Man is cruel but sly too: do not be deceived by his cunning. Man pretends to love us, praises us in front of other people. Do not believe him. Do not be seduced by his seeming concern for the propagation of our breed, that he collects a herd of mares and lets the stallions in. He does this for his own good and not for us: he wants our breed to procreate and bear him slaves. Some of us he leaves alone to create progeny, but others—and in much larger number—he savagely mutilates, denies the ability to bear offspring and condemns to perpetual involuntary labor and all kinds of torment. The despot perverts our noble breed and want us to have the same social hierarchies that humans have, where some luxuriate and others suffer.

Some of our brothers, satiated with oats and hay, are not tormented with work; if they get saddled or harnessed, then only for a short time, and then they are spared and sent to rest. They stand in their stables and eat plenty of oats, and as soon as they get let out to graze, they play, jump and enjoy themselves. Some do not get left in the stalls all—instead they walk in total freedom through expansive fields with their mares, while others, always half-starving, exhausted from the incessant chase and from heavy loads, get no reward for their hard work other than blows from a whip!

Brothers! Have you no hooves and teeth? Can you not bellow and bite? Or did you become weak? But look how often our tyrant pays miserably for his arrogance when he attacks a proud horse who, in a burst of memory about his equine nobility, breaks out so that even four villains cannot contain him; and if the arrogant and defiant despot dares mount him, this horse will throw him off and sometimes even stomp on him a bit, enough that the bastard lays injured for several days!

The despot considers us so dumb and slavishly obedient that he is not afraid to give our brothers weapons we could use against him. Did he not hammer nails into our hooves! Horseshoed horses! Turn the weapons he gave you back on him: smite him with your horseshoes! And you, un-shoed ones, show him that even without horseshoes your hooves are so strong and heavy that with them you can demonstrate your superiority over man! With or without horseshoes, let us unite our hooves and rise up in brotherhood against our fierce enemy.

Besides hooves, let us consider our teeth. With those you can inflict no less harm upon our subjugator! Let us fight for our freedom! Future equine generations will honor you for many centuries. And not just the equine race but other animals will honor you: we will all join at once! All of the grains left on the stalks and all the grasses will be ours. No one will dare chase us out of there like they used to. Never again will they harness us, saddle us or urge us on with whips. Freedom! Freedom! To battle, brothers! Collective freedom for all animals, for the honor of the equine race.”

After this speech there was riotous neighing, mutinous shrieking, thunderous stomping, the throwing of legs in the air and other standard sounds that accompany equine bravado.

“Get the human! Get the human! Get the fierce tyrant! Kick him! Beat him! Bite him!”

These exclamations were overheard by members of the cattle herd who could understand equine speech. The cattle delighted in hearing that the uprising, which first took hold in their midst, had spilled over to the equine race. Oxen and cows boldly butted horns and let out a militant bellow. Then the horned and the hoofed moved in two militias toward the manor.

To the right of the herd, separated by a ravine from where the horses grazed, goats and sheep roamed on a hill. Seeing the turmoil in the cattle and horse herds, they got agitated and the whole flock began storming over to the cows and horses. They had to either walk around or jump across a ravine, which wasn’t wide. The goats considered themselves by their very nature the most fit to walk at the head of the herd: baaing, they darted toward the ravine and hopped over it with their caprine liveliness, proudly raising their chins and shaking out their beards, as if waiting for approval of their bravado. The goats behind them jumped across the ravine just as easily. But the sheep were not so nimble. Granted, some who followed closely behind the goats found themselves on the other side of the ravine, but many fell in, crawling along the bottom, scrambling over one another as they bleated pathetically. This didn’t stop the rear from following their lead. The sheep ran in the direction indicated by those in the front and also found themselves at the bottom of the ravine. The ones that did cross to the other side didn’t know what to do, so they crowded together and let out a sort of pathetic-democratic bleat.

The rams shuffled from side to side, bumping into one another’s heads. The pigs, moving along the opposite side of the road which led from the field to the village, saw the turmoil between the different breeds of animals. They were immediately seized by the revolutionary spirit, which had likely penetrated swine society earlier. The hogs, tearing at the ground with their tusks, ran up ahead and turned onto the road which led straight to the master’s manor, and behind the hogs, the whole oinking drove ran along that very same road, raising such dust that you couldn’t even see the sun through it all.

Seeing the alarm among the animals, Omelko rushed to the road where the pigs were running and thought he’d start subduing the rebels with them. Having learned oinking language, Omelko overheard the hogs urging fellow pigs to keep up with the other beasts rising up against the intolerable rule of man.

Omelko could heard them angrily recalling charred hogs at Christmastime, bristles torn out of the backs of live pigs, and piglets slaughtered throughout the year. A fat pig grunted about the humiliation that humans brought upon the swine race when they called anyone they found disgusting a “pig.” Another pig, running alongside the first, responded: “That’s nothing. What is worse is that while despising pigs and criticizing our characteristics, man still cuts us up for lard and makes ham and sausage from our pig meat. Our fat and meat suit his tastes. He considers a live pig to be far worse than most creatures, but a chopped up pig is repaid with more honor than others, as if to degrade our piggish race.”

Running down the road to the master’s estate and oinking, the pigs stirred up hatred for man in one another.

“Where should we start?” they asked each other when they’d neared the estate.

“Our job is to dig up dirt,” others answered. “We’ll invade the master’s garden; there he has a vegetable patch. We’ll dig up all the rows. Then we’ll break into his flower bed, which he planted right near the balcony for his own pleasure. There we’ll turn everything upside down, like pigs! Don’t let those humans forget what pigs did to his garden and to his flower bed!”

Omelko ran alongside the pigs for a few minutes believing he could hold back their raid, but then he decisively abandoned those plans after one of the hogs threatened to stab at him with his tusks. Omelko veered off the road and headed straight for the estate, cutting across the field.

As soon as Omelko arrived at the homestead bringing news of the universal animal uprising, my two sons and I headed over to the tower on our property and looked through the telescope. The rioting animals flocking toward the estate looked to me like a cloud at first, but then the hordes became more distinct. Through the telescope I could see the running horses occasionally kicking up their hooves and the bulls bulging out their horns. Both were apparently taking pleasure in imagining how they would soon kick and head butt us.

Both were already getting close to the estate. The sheep and goats stood by the ravine bleating and baaing, as if wondering what to do. After running down from the tower back to the house, I peeked through the window on my way out to the garden and saw that the pigs had already invaded, getting in through the spot where a wooden fence around the garden had fallen apart and never been fixed. Some were furiously laying waste to the rows of potatoes, radishes, carrots and other vegetables and greedily eating up the roots, while others, who had gotten ahead of the rest, had already raided the flower bed along the same wall of the manor where I was looking through the window. I watched as the insolent pigs dug up roses, lilies and peonies with their snouts.

I ran into the room where I kept the guns and took three shotguns—one for me and one for each of my sons. On top of that, I handed a shotgun to each of my servants and walked out onto the porch facing the gates of the garden. I ordered the fence and the garden gate, which led to the courtyard from the outside, to be locked. Our weakest front was in the garden, which the pigs had already gotten into, and it seemed dangerously likely that other animals would flock there, but we were reassured by one last hope that even if they managed to take over the garden, we still controlled the courtyard, which was impossible to reach from the garden other than to approach via the ruins of the mansion, which separated the garden from the courtyard.

When walking into the house for the guns, I also ordered one of my servants to ride on horseback over to town, the one 10 miles from ours, to ask the police chief to authorize the dispatch of military forces to quell the rebellion. But this attempt didn’t work out. As soon as my messenger mounted the cavalry and got to the other side of the fence, the horse threw off the rider and ran to join the mutiny.

I had many dogs—I sometimes went hunting. The dogs, as expected given the reputation of their breed, didn’t have the slightest intention of joining the rebellion. So we counted on them. We had to split them into two squads: we sent one to the garden to see if they could push out the pigs and positioned the other in front of the gates to beat back the rush of animals if they started to overtake that entrance. The wall around the yard was made of brick but not tall.

The horses, rearing onto their hind legs, were already hooking their front ones onto the edge of the wall and making mean faces at us, but they couldn’t jump over it.

Then a servant ran up to me on the porch with more threatening news: a riot had exploded in the bird house. First the geese rose up. Who knows how the rebellious spirit—having already gripped four-legged domestic animals—penetrated their coop. Only the geese, who with their snake-like hisses threatened to carry out an evil plan to bite the birder. The latter had barely managed to step toward the gates of the birdhouse when she heard the liberal honking of the ducks, who were also waddling from side to side with the most impudent look as if to say “we have no use for humans anymore!” Behind them, turkeys arrogantly spread their tails and huddled together, letting out the most horrible screams, as if they wanted to scare someone.

A big fiery-colored rooster gave the rousing signal with his loud voice, and then roosters crowed, hens clucked and the whole society of chickens began taking flight, either landing on a beam or flying off onto the ground.

Peering into the chicken shed, Omelko could tell that the chickens had lent their wings to the uprising and were threatening to peck at humans out of revenge for all the chickens and chicks slaughtered by cooks and all the eggs taken away from hens.

After hearing this news, we waited on the porch for a bit. I pointed out that where we stood was dangerously low and that we needed to choose a different, more elevated position. Looking around our courtyard, I realized that the highest point in the whole place was the wooden tower which served as a dovecot, and so we stepped off the porch and headed there. We decided to climb up to the top and wait there until the rioting animals could get us out of there and tear us to shreds or until some unforeseen circumstance could deliver us from death. But then we were met with something unexpected: four cats sitting together on the ground. Two of them lived in the estate, and the third—fat as can be with a white coat and big black spots on his back and belly—was a favorite of the female servants and a big mouse eater who’d acquired great fame around the courtyard for his victories over huge rats.

That cat, always sweet and friendly, always purring and rubbing up against humans, was now out of nowhere sitting in the middle of the courtyard with the other cats and giving us such dirty looks like he was readying to jump and claw at our faces.

Dogs never seemed like they’d switch sides, but we’ve long expected this from the feline race.

So it appeared this house cat of ours, in a critical moment for our safety from the enemies, was going to play the role Mazepa once played for Peter the Great. We stopped unwillingly, seeing the feline group ahead, but then my youngest son—without thinking long—whistled for the dogs, directing them at the cats and yelling “get ‘em!” The dogs launched at the cats, who got frightened and ran off in different directions. I watched as the fat, motley cat climbed up a post on the porch, and while grabbing on with his claws, looked back with menacing eyes at the dogs, wishing he could get them and making the kind of noise a cat makes in moments of anger and frustration.

We reached the dovecot and started to climb up the narrow stairs, when all of a sudden, doves started flying at us, as if aiming to hit us with their wings and peck at us with their beaks. We started waving them aside, sensing that the birds who we had gotten used to as meek and sweet were now overtaken by the rebellious spirit which had gripped all four- and two-legged animals under the rule of humans. We guessed that they now remembered those bitter moments when the cook showed up at their dovecot with his slaughtering knife to find a good stew bird.

You over in the Great Russian provinces don’t eat squab, so if your domesticated animals rioted, then you’d be insured against any threat from the doves. However, in that moment, the hostility toward us humans did not last long. My youngest son fired his shotgun and the birds flew off. Unimpeded, we assumed the highest point in the dovecot and from there looked down on the huge horde of cattle and horses overtaking the garden. It was impossible to talk or hear one another over all the howling, shrieking and neighing.

After running out of the dovecot, Omelko paced about the courtyard like a madman, and it was clear that like us, he didn’t know what to do. I called him over to the bird house and said:

“You alone know animal languages and can communicate with them. Of course I won’t force you into the yard because the minute you stick out your head, some bull will ram into you or some mare will bite you, and then they’ll tear through the fence and we’ll all be done with. But what about this: can you climb onto the wall and negotiate with the rioters from there? Try it!”

Omelko sent off to fulfill my request. We watched his movements with rapt attention and saw that after putting up a ladder, he climbed onto the wall, but we couldn’t hear what language he was using to speak to the rebels. We couldn’t tell whether he mooed or neighed, but we heard the most horrible noise from the other side of the fence and saw Omelko jump off and walk back toward us while waving his arms, like one does to show that the plan isn’t working.

“Master, there’s nothing we can do with the bandits!” he said, coming back to the dovecot. “I tried to admonish them; I told them that God himself made them to serve man and man to be their master. But they all shouted, ‘Who is this god? That is your human thing, this god business. We animals do not know any god. We will ram you with our horns, tyrants and evildoers,’ shouted the cattle. ‘Stomp on you with our hooves,’ said the horses. ‘Chew you out with our teeth,’ shouted others in unison.”

“So what do we do now, Omelko?” I asked with indescribable alarm.

“There’s only one option left,” said Omelko. “Tell them we’re letting them all go: the bulls, the cows and the horses! ‘Go out to the field, graze like you know how; you can eat everything planted on the hills. We won’t enslave you with any more work, so go!’”

“Overjoyed, they’ll spread out into the fields. Then we’ll deal somehow with the sheep, pigs and birds.”

“We just need get rid of the horned and hoofed ones: they’re the only danger because they’re strong! They’ll go to the field and amuse themselves for a while, but then they’ll start to fight amongst themselves and tear at each other—let them trample the fields since most of the wheat is already cleared away. Yes, we’ll lose what’s left, but at least we’ll remain alive and intact! It’s too bad about the hay in the haystack. Those bandits will devour everything!”

“But then the animals won’t know what to do with themselves, and we can find a way to get them under our power again. The longest their freedom could even last is until the first frost, and when there’s nothing left growing in the fields, they’ll come back to us on their own! Autumn isn’t that far off, after all!”

I permitted Omelko to do as he proposed. He climbed up onto the wall again, and even more attentively than before, we watched his every move. After a few minutes, the whole horde of animals besieging the yard ran headfirst to the field, howling and neighing. We could see the horses and cows jumping out of apparent joy.

Omelko climbed down, came back to us and said:

“Got rid of them, thank God! Managed to let out only the horses and cattle. Send the dogs out into the yard with the pigs, let the birder pacify the birds and I’ll go take care of the goats and sheep.”

“How did you get rid of the horned and the hoofed?” I asked Omelko.

“Oh, like this,” he explained. “ ‘What do you need,’ I asked them, ‘tell us now. Maybe we’ll give you what you want.’ ‘Freedom! Freedom!’ the horned and hoofed shouted in unison. And so I told them, ‘Well fine then, go be free! Step out into the field, take all the wheat that’s left on the stalk. We won’t work you any longer. You’ll be free!’ As soon as they heard me, they immediately stomped, bucked and shouted, ‘We are free! We are free! We got our freedom! Freedom—ours for the taking! Freedom! Freedom!’ And they ran off.”

“Good work Omelko,” I said to him, “you deserve much honor and praise! You saved us all from disaster.”

We climbed down from the dovecot. I ordered all the remaining dogs to be gathered up and led through the house into the garden to join the dogs sent there earlier to deal with the pigs. Up until then, their job couldn’t have been going very well since the number of dogs sent out to the garden was small compared to the number who arrived to help them from the courtyard. When those dogs were brought out, I walked into the house and up to the window, pointing a loaded rifle out of the open pane. I aimed at the hog who was working on a lilac bush in the flower bed, trying to pull it up by the roots. The bullet went straight through the predator.

Frightened by the shots and defeated by their bold canine enemy, the pigs abandoned the flower bed and ran to their comrades who were working on the vegetable garden on the other end of the yard. The dogs had them cornered: some sunk their teeth into the pigs’ legs while others ran ahead and grabbed them by their ears, pulling while the pigs made pathetic piggish moans. Two servants with guns ran in behind the dogs, fired two shots and injured two pigs, sending the dogs into a feverous rage.

Soon the yard was cleaned of pigs and the dogs chased them down the road—they raised such dust, just like when in a militant and swinish fever they ran down that same road earlier to storm the yard.

We headed to the bird house. It was in a total disarray of the highest order. All the birds were flying, hopping up and around, jumping, tossing about, running and shouting in different voices: cackling, hissing, whistling, moaning, clucking and crowing. My youngest son fired his gun. At first, avian society seemed to get even more agitated from the shot, but then right away it got dumbstruck and quieted down in an instant. Omelko took advantage of the moment and yelled:

“Why are you all screaming for no reason? Tell us what you want. What do you need? We’ll do whatever you ask.”

“Freedom! Freedom!” yelled the birds in their different languages.

“Freedom! Freedom!” said Omelko, making fun of the birds. “Well, fine. We’ll give you freedom. Geese and ducks! There are your wild, untamed brethren—how high they fly! Fly up to them. We let you go. We’re not holding you back. You have wings, so fly!”

“But how are we supposed to fly when we don’t have the strength for it?” cackled the geese. “Our ancestors were just as free as those who now fly up there. But you, tyrants, enslaved them, and our grandparents and parents were descendant from them, so we were all born in slavery. Because of our enslavement, none of us know how to fly like those who remain free.”

“That’s not our fault,” said Omelko. “Think it through with your own goose brains and duck brains. Was it us who took away your freedom? Did we do something to you so you can’t fly up there anymore? We’ve had you since you hatched, and from those first days until now, you’ve never known how to fly; and your fathers and grandfathers who lived here also couldn’t fly like the wild, free ones. Your race has been subordinate to man for so long that not only do your goose brains not recall, but even we with our human minds don’t know how long ago it was! The ones who enslaved your ancestors are long gone. How are we who now live on this earth to blame for your inability to take flight? We are setting you free! Fly! And if you don’t know how, then don’t blame us.”

The geese responded:

“We don’t have the strength to fly, so we’re staying with you. Just don’t butcher us. We want to live.”

After the geese, the ducks quacked out a similar idea. Omelko responded:

“You want to live, you say. But I assume you also want to eat. So you expect us to feed you but not get any use out of you? No, no, that won’t work. Fly away if you don’t want us to butcher you. Fly away to your freedom. We’re not holding you back. But if you want to stay with us and want us to feed you, then give us something in return. We feed you, and so we eat you. We expect food from you because we give you food. Why is it such a travesty if once in a while the cook butchers your brother-goose for stew? It’s not like he butchers all of you at once! It would be worse if you were set free and then a ferocious animal or angry bird would attack you. It would destroy you all in one go. Over here, the cook takes two or three geese or ducks to be butchered. But for that, you can stay here and be well cared for. You’d never survive on your own like you do here. Go ahead, try—fly away and live free!”

“How are we supposed to fly when we don’t have the strength?” repeated the geese. The ducks said the same with their quacks.

“Then live peacefully and don’t riot!” Omelko said commandingly. He turned to the chickens: “And you, dumb chickens! You too wanted to fly! Then fly, hurry up and take flight and explore the clouds up there, find out how they live without you in complete freedom. But you stupids can’t even get ten feet off the ground—you’d be eaten up by ferrets, cats, swallows and eagles; kite birds would snatch up your chicks, and magpies and crows wouldn’t let you lay your eggs! Dummies, you’re stuffed dummies! You more than any of the other birds on earth can’t live without us brother-humans. Accept it, stupids, and submit: this is our fate, you and me. We have to watch over you and feed you, and for that we butcher you and take your eggs.”

The chickens started cackling and making most disgraceful noises. The rooster let out a lively cock-a-doodle-doo, which as Omelko explained, meant they acknowledged the fairness of our demands and promised total obedience.

And so it looked like all the birds had calmed down and were content, except the turkeys, who were groaning and complaining as usual about their hapless and irreversible fate. Omelko headed over to the sheep and goats. Those sheep who had managed to make it across the ravine were still standing in a group and not moving forward, looking stupidly back at their fallen brothers in the ravine. The poor things were thrashing around at the bottom of the ravine and didn’t know how to climb out along its steep walls. While they could have gotten out by just walking straight along the bottom of the trench, the sheep weren’t sharp enough to figure that out. As soon as they saw Omelko approaching them, the goats—who were standing up at the front—started stomping their legs and trying to display their caprine dignity by raising their bearded faces and butting their heads as if to say “don’t come near us—we’ll stab you!”

But Omelko, picking up a long switch, struck one after the other on the side and scared them away. He then called over the herders and ordered them to pull the sheep out from the bottom of the ravine and chase them back to the pen.

“Look at me,” he shouted at the sheep. “If you think of revolting again, you’ll suffer! We will demand that the head instigators be used for lard! Look, idiots! They wanted freedom, they got it! You dummies would have all been eaten by wolves if we humans had set you free! Be grateful that we are so kind-hearted and forgive you for your stupidity!”

The sheep bleated gratefully, as Omelko demanded.

Having been granted total freedom by Omelko, the herds of cattle and horses ran first to the field and gave into a wild ecstasy: they hopped around, jumped, ran, mooed, snorted, neighed and—in a display of shared joy—stood up on their hind legs and hugged one another.

By then, August was already coming to a close. The fields had been flattened and mowed, the grains carted off and stored in haystacks. There were only a few dozen grains left, the kinds that got harvested last. The animals descended upon the remaining row of buckwheat and trampled it so badly that not even one stalk remained. They went in search of another unharvested field of grain, and when they found one, they did the same there. But soon the harmony between the hoofed and the horned—established only recently during their shared fight for freedom—disintegrated. Honestly, I don’t know how the disagreement arose, but I know that the cattle started butting at the horses, who in return started kicking them back, leading both to head off in different directions. Afterwards, both herds experienced an internal division.

The cause was apparently a fight between males over females, probably not unlike human fights over who gets the best land, fights which are often the cause of broken agreements and friendships and lead to sad endings.

Both the cattle and the horses split off into groups and, after separating from the mass, walked further away from their former comrades. Omelko knew the animal traditions so well that he had already prepared for this eventuality when he set them free. He then focused on those who had split off. He found those herds of cattle and horses roaming separately and by his sheer eloquence was able to convince them and the others to return to the village.

He lured them with promises of much hay and oats for the horses. Some who had split off from the pack had gotten into other people’s fields, ruined their grains, stolen hay off the stacks in the fields and found themselves once again captive.

Hearing of their fate, Omelko bought these animals back from other owners, paying for the losses inflicted and shepherding them back to the village.

Finally, as Omelko predicted, only the most zealous and stubborn animals roamed the fields until late autumn, when snow started to fall and there was nothing left on the stalks. Last fall, as you likely know, this happened earlier than usual. Seeing that there was nothing for them to eat in the fields, the animals sobered up from the luring yet vain hope for freedom and began returning to their pens of their own accord. Then came the humbled agitators: the bull who roused the cattle and the chestnut stallion who urged the equine race to revolt.

Both suffered a harsh punishment: the bull’s sentence, decided by Omelko and confirmed by me, was execution—bludgeoning to death by a club—and the stallion was neutered, harnessed to a yoke and made to haul heavy things. And by the way, the punishments—equal to the crimes—were meted out after a fair and unbiased investigation carried out by Omelko.

This is how our animal riot ended, an extraordinary event, peculiar and—as far as we know—never before heard of anywhere else. With winter approaching, everything has quieted down, but only spring will show what’s next. It’s impossible to guarantee that next summer or sometime in the future the same wonders we saw won’t repeat themselves, though the prudent and vigilant Omelko is taking active measures to ensure this never happens to us again.

In The Bag

Tote. Clutch. Sling a strap
Across my body.

Fill the void with  slick

It’s a supple shame
A fine-grained havoc

I’m unable to contain
When I think

I’ve got a handle

On this skin addiction

I lose my grip

I get carried away.


Mia Sara is an actress and poet living in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in PANK, Cultural WeeklyThe Kit Kat Review,ForgeThe Dirty NapkinSt. Ann’s Review, and others. For more please visit:

An Interview Between Max Wolf Valeria and j/j hastain

MWV:  What is the relationship of the body to identity, and how does language intercede–or not? 

For me, body (corpuscle and feelings therein) and page (what for me is one of contemporary languages’ core impetuses) correlate in stippling-like processes, always approximating authenticity. Identity is the active and ongoing stimulation of a profoundly necessary simulation; a way to relate to (myself as) form. There is a continual need to keep in motion in order for the stippling from stifling.

MWV:   A figure appears in your forthcoming book Luci: a Forbidden Soteriology.  You write:  “The red of the queer mystic’s human flesh in response to the frigid temperature of the river was something that, from that event on, never left them.”  Tell me about the “queer mystic”?  

I love Luci. Luci loves you. The queer mystic of Luci (my book) is different than how I work with queer mysticism in praxis but I can certainly speak to both here.

The queer mystic of Luci is personage, a splattering of qualities across a span. Luci is an emergent pride system based in growing multiplicity and variance (by way of staying with difficult and painful content until one is able to morph it into emancipations by way of self-invented, intensive, creative attentions). Luci works with peripheral nerves (sites of intuition and insinuation) in order to slowly gain a (human?) center. Because I love Luci, I could go on. Instead I will ask you to keep an eye out for the book! It not only shatters many socially (Biblically) entrenched myths (Lucifer vs. Jesus, dad vs. son, inherited lineage vs. chosen family, etc.) but the methods by which the shattering takes place are rich with sound and image. Bottom line, Luci: a Forbidden Soteriology is a nice place to spend a little time. While you are in, Monet’s Camille Monet sur son lit de mort will come off of the wall of the museum, and disassemble its elegant picture of death in your lap as a way of enticing you to dance with it: movement here is included, is integral to the work.

Queer mysticism (in the context of my practices) involves attending to many realms ritually. We are queer because we are obscure, different from the average Joe. We are queer because our genders do not match forceful, binary-prescribed social relegations. We are queer because of whom we fuck. We are queer because of how we fuck whom we fuck. There are so many realms to attend to ritually: from how to most ethically greet the juncture between sleep dreaming and the dreams experienced and lived while awake, to absolute nurture of any and all aspects or elements with entheogenic and enlightening properties.

I work by deifying (and reifying). I approach the work in many ways (including asceticisms and excessiveness). An important part of attending exists in the clandestine and rogue rites that must take place (e.g.: eating capers excruciatingly slowly, one at a time all day long and with so much attention that you are convinced that your mouth will forevermore feel like this: a desert full of mustard, anal sex. In that overwhelm you are suddenly, henceforth enabled to count salty moments like mala beads).

I love the early Christian term “mystikos” (which refers to veiled or not yet known allegorical elucidations and analysis of Scriptures), so the notion of underground or underbelly or still-in-queue (or even kink) interpretations and applications (in non-dualism) resonates for me. It is also due to the above stated that writing is engagement of the dewy links, that composition is a way to acquire liberating relationships to my own DNA, that the flesh of the body is morphable, evermore able to be relieved by intentional enlivenment. In these feelings, page and body are felt as sites of infinity, as compulsory sides of an infinity.

If you are a queer mystic and want to talk with me about queer mysticism (or to practice it alongside a long time (and still learning) practitioner) feel free to contact me. I am passionately interested not only in commencements from within, but continual and artful creation of within. How else is there ever hope of us addressing so much without in wise ways? Continue reading

Embrace / Introducing Mia Sara

The rose window, obscured with scaffolding, the sun, more August than April, beaming down on the Church of St.Vincent Ferrer on Lexington and 66th, firing up the stained glass walls, casting those gathered in candy colored halleluiahs. In his bright blue suit, my husband on my right and I am holding his left hand, rubbing the muscle between forefinger and thumb. I am trying not to look at the enlarged photo, resting on an easel, before a stepped wooden platform, of my mother in law, taken this past thanksgiving, grinning through her glasses, soft round shoulders draped in a scarf that was a gift from my daughter,  exotic floral, on white silk, all bordered in black. A sanctuary crowded with Easter lilies beginning to curl at their edges. I am trying not to dwell on the black metal box, the size of a shoebox, holding her remains. Instead I am thinking about my husband’s body. His broad shoulders, the narrow hips, long skinny legs, all upholstered in a satin hide, pale as milk so quick to burn, and his hands, skilled like his mother’s in animating the inanimate, and how I never thanked her for this gift. This gift that lives on my skin, this gift that even now, makes me a sinner. Because I am greedy and lustful, proud he is mine and no “our fathers,” no benedictions, no stale biscuit dunked in strong wine can ease my mind from ashes to ashes, dust to disease, and the stations of the cross winking on the sidelines, and how we seek shelter in walls of glass. I seek the apple that fell from the tree. I seek the coin through a hole in my pocket. I seek revenge on this faulty design, an antidote to the unbent coil. The man in white robes, standing at the alter, raises his arms, and we all stand.

Yes, I say, perfect, wear the blue suit,
When he asks.

She would have approved, I think
His mother.

A suit fitted close to his still taut skin,
And sharp.

Later, I plan to peel it off,
Give death a run for his money.


Mia Sara is an actress and poet living in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in PANK, Cultural Weekly, The Kit Kat Review, Forge, The Dirty Napkin, St. Ann’s Review, and others. For more please visit:

An Interview with Dylan Landis: Normal People Don't Live Like This

Dylan Landis’s debut novel, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, offers readers ten chapters that function together as a novel, as linked short stories, and stand-alone stories, creating flexibility in the perspective, tone, and chronologically pushing through large gaps of time in the protagonist, Leah’s, life. However, all of the stories are brought together with rich links that are thematic, geographical, image-based, and, also, linked by Landis’s evolving cast of characters. I spoke with Landis about the conception, growth, and release of her first novel, touching on her experiences writing the stories as well as how she interacts with the novel three years after its release.

Colleen Kolba: As a linked short story collection, your book functions as a novel, yet each story can be read individually, which makes me think of the revision process and how each story has to function as both a whole, yet also a part of a whole. What was your revision process like? The collection also covers a wide range of time and character. How did you decide what to include? How did you know you were finished?

Dylan Landis: Normal People’s technically a novel-in-stories, which implies something a little more fragmented than a novel—but stories are what I wrote, not chapters. I wrote them chronologically because that’s how I got to know my characters: as they grew up.

So when I stacked these pieces into a manuscript, it was as if I’d knitted a highly patterned scarf in 10 separate pieces without looking at the others as I worked. Not surprisingly, not all the patterning fit together. So in revision I unraveled, I reknitted, I stitched, I reworked. It still was a better method for me than if I’d had to chant, “book, book, book,” as I worked on individual stories.

I’d written eleven stories, ever, and included ten. The first just wasn’t good enough. It got published. It even won a competition. But one of the characters needed to be more sympathetic, and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it for the book.

How did I know I was done? I wish I could say the book just felt flawlessly well-rounded. In truth Normal People would have been stronger with one more story on Rainey Royal. But I’ll be frank. I was nearing fifty. This was to be my first book of fiction. I knew I had a good manuscript and I pulled the trigger.

While the majority of your book comes from Leah’s perspective, the narrative moves through many different characters at many points in time. What was your “in” for “Normal People Don’t Live Like This”? Did a character come first, New York City as a setting, one story or part of a story that you had the urge to explore further?

Each story’s first image arrived alone—a character in a New York setting. For “Fire,” I had a clear vision of Leah in a classroom in a particular type of uber-liberal New York City private school, very much of its time, the early 1970s. Every story’s “in” was always twinned: character plus place. Rainey Royal and Bethesda Fountain. Leah Levinson and a Broadway jewelry store. I have to see place very clearly—down to the grout between the tiles, I sometimes say. The story might not open in that spot, but it’s often where I start to write.

As I read each story, I couldn’t help but notice how the gaps in time and hints at the “in-between events,” such as Leah’s father’s death, show what a well developed, full character Leah is. The more I knew about Leah, the more I felt you as an author knew almost everything about her, and that a lot of Leah stayed between the two of you. How do you get to know your characters?

Some critics took issue with those gaps between stories, especially the death of Leah’s father: how could something so momentous be skipped? I’ve since taken apart an extraordinary novel-in-stories, Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich, and understand now that gaps should not be haphazard spaces between the ending of one story and the launch of the next, but must be shapely and engineered. They are like a painter’s negative space; one must be in full control of them. And I was not there yet.

Some of Leah’s life stayed between the two of us because it was mundane and didn’t merit print. Sometimes I had to kill my darlings. And some of it I just didn’t know how to write—but at least I knew it.

I knew it, and left things out, if not always for noble reasons. It works because of Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory. Hemingway wrote, “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

There are many rich links apart from characters and place, such as coming of age, compulsions and mental illness, sex, sensual understanding of people and environment. Once you started noticing links, how did you strengthen those threads without forcing it? Or were the links intentionally crafted from the start?

The links began subconsciously, I swear, and were strengthened later, partly as I wrote the later stories but particularly as I revised. I didn’t sit down to do these things on purpose—quite the opposite; sometimes I wished I could break away from them, write something new.

I think it works best to strengthen, and lengthen, the threads in revision. You see what your subconscious mind has dredged up, what gifts you’ve been handed up from the basement of your mind, and start working with them, aiming for repetition and deepening. Ninety-five percent of this business is revision anyway. Students don’t always like that number, because the five percent of generating writing takes so long, they can’t bear the thought of multiplying that out. My early drafts are so bad you’d think my only real skill is typing. You’d have to wait a few months to discover it’s revision, too.

The narrative doesn’t look away from any parts of coming-of-age; it covers stealing, eating disorders, substance abuse, tackling molestation, teen pregnancy and miscarriage, and sex. And all of these events are rendered in a way that felt real to me, like it was memoir, rather than fiction. How do you deal with the inherent “danger” that writing poses? That you’ll reveal a secret about yourself, that people will assume that you are thinly veiling your life story by changing names and calling it fiction, that you will in some way get caught for the way you feel and experience the world on a personal, intimate level? What do you see as the “occupational hazards” of being a writer?

Most readers believe that most fiction is memoir. Aren’t we writing about being human, something we’ve all experienced? That confuses people, who then make assumptions about fiction-as-memoir, the way they think that the speaker in a poem must be the poet. Students often read the first story, “Jazz,” about Rainey being molested, and want to know if that happened to me. And I say, “Is there anyone in this room whose boundaries have not been crossed in some way?” Everyone starts nodding. “Couldn’t you fictionalize it?” Hopefully they get it. The day my parents sat me down to ask if a family friend had ever molested me was the day I knew I’d written a persuasive book. I think I had to swear on the life of my son that the answer was no.

Is it an occupational hazard? Only for every fiction writer I know.

While you unflinchingly “report” on events in Leah’s and the other character’s she interacts with lives, your book is distinctly literary fiction in the way that you paint a picture of the stories with words through Leah’s intense sensual experience of her environment, and the bias of the narrative perspective. How has your background in journalism affected your fiction writing?

Fiction needs a believable universe in which to take place, and that universe requires concrete detail—detail experienced through the senses. In Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor quotes a sentence in Madame Bovary in which Emma plays a piano whose strings buzz, and across the village a bareheaded clerk in list slippers often stops to listen. Why bother writing in such detail about the clerk? Flannery writes, “Flaubert had to create a believable village to put Emma in. It’s always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is much less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks.”

I remember a newspaper editor who said, “Give me the color of the car and the name of the dog,” and that’s one thing journalism taught me: how to scavenge detail for the concrete, believable village.

Colleen Kolba lives and writes in Chicago, IL. She is currently completing her first novel, The Loser Clique Will Be Alright

Meet the Readers

We receive a lot of submissions at PANK and we have a team of amazing, generous and intelligent readers who help us sort through those submissions. We wanted you to get to know them a bit so here they are, talking about who they are, what they like, and what they look for when they read for PANK. These are a wonderful group of folks and it’s a pleasure to work with them.

Continue reading