Hossain’s DJINN CITY satires & encapsulate’s today’s zeitgeist

(Unnamed Press)

BY NICHOLE L. REBER

Saad Z. Hossain’s recently released Djinn City from Unnamed Press builds on his 2015 novel Escape from Baghdad! This Bangladeshi writer captivates with his often humorous blend of satire, sci-fi, fantasy, and mythology that takes place in 2066 underground, at ground level, and in the skies.

The novel opens with the backstory of Indelbed, a child who lives with his widower dad and a few ghostly servants in a decrepit house in Bangladesh’s capital. His father is a very learned and very drunk man, possibly because he misses the boy’s mother, and he refuses to allow his son a traditional education. Dr. Kaikobad won’t even educate his son about his own mother, other than the fact she died giving birth to him, which people love to joke about as “death by Indelbed.”

When Kaikobad falls into a coma, Aunt Juny, Uncle/Ambassador/GU Sikkim, and cousin Rais take the little guy under their wing. They initially seem to resist doing so, less so upon learning he’s related to djinns and his father is a djinn emissary.

Who/what the heck are djinns, anyway? A survey course in mythology might convey their various villainous characterizations. In Hossain’s novel, they are indeed villainous. They come in human form with a powerful aura that surrounds them and works as a weapon. It’s their human qualities that bring out Hossain’s funny, satirical encapsulation of today’s zeitgeist. They’re a litigious lot who think nothing of creating 743-page contracts, they have no allegiance with family members, and they politicize seemingly everything. Capable of becoming embroiled in frequent existentialist debates, they argue about evolution and creationism and djinn superiority over all other creatures.

Here’s an example that takes place when Rais and his mother are on the trail to figuring out how a sort of overlord evil djinn named Matteras killed Uncle/Ambassador/GU Sikkim.

“What if humans and djinns are just related species, or even just mutations of one specie?” Rais says. “Most djinn don’t believe in evolution or genetics. They wouldn’t like this at all. I mean, it might tear them apart.”

“Even the most tolerant, humanized djinn think they’re inherently better. Imagine if there was irrefutable proof that they’re just like us? I don’t think they could accept that, as a specie,” Aunt Juny responds.

These debates go on throughout the book. For instance, Matteras throws Indelbed into a labyrinthine underground murder pit of Matteras’s own creation. There rock wyrms threaten to eat the boy, who’s been there long enough to become a man, and Givaras, who’s apparently been there for at least a millennium. Givaras, a pedantic, Dr. Frankenstein type, has tried and failed in his attempts to breed various forms of creatures who are placed down there with him. Failed, we learn, means killed.

Now the rascally character, who flagellates between likeable and despisable, plans to try again– this time with Indelbed. Before he does so he says: “I will try a technique of heating your blood, essentially boiling it. The pain is going to be rather horrid; I think some of the sensations will get through despite your damaged spine. However, you should survive, which is the main thing. It’s only pain, eh?” This time Givaras succeeds. In fact, from Indelbed’s perspective, he could construe the experience as a lesson captured by that old platitude “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Matteras’ attempt to convince the other djinn at a major conference that there’s an overpopulation of “Humes.” They’re destroying the earth, he wants other djinn to think. Continuing on with Hossain’s themes of superiority and evolution vs creationism Matteras wants to get the OK to commence massive natural disasters that will ultimately destroy the human race. “Are we to end our days in obscene couplings with jumped-up monkeys? Chosen by God, I say! Chosen by fire!” he says.

Then there’s the existential perspective of Kaikobad, the little boy’s comatose father. He is actually alive as a sort of ghost. Walking through parts of the capital city he sees “buildings winking out of sight overnight, entire streets turning to mist.” People were disappearing as well. He “saw them fade in front of his eyes, dissipating into a kind of alternate existence, or to some purgatory.”

On a final note, Hossain’s humor is just one more reason to read this book. Its light-heartedness echo the Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, especially when he mentions technologies actually in use today:

“Us djinns are more free spirit antiestablishment types…We don’t go in for big government.”

“You follow Twitter?” “Follow? We’re the ones who invented it! Djinns love brevity. It’s a racial trait, I’m sure you’ve discerned.”

My only complaint is that there are too many characters to saliently keep up with. To be fair, though, that very complaint marks me as a Western reader. We aren’t used to such a high number of characters. Among subcontinental literature, however, it’s inherent.

Nichole L. Reber picked up a love for world lit by living in countries around the globe. She’s a nonfiction writer and her award-winning work has been in World Literature Today, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Lunchticket, and elsewhere. Read her stories on a Chinese cult, wearing hijab in India, and getting kidnapped in Peru at http://www.nicholelreber.com/.

Facing the Bull

BY JILL TALBOT

“You all die at fifteen.”

—Diderot

Fearless girl statue fights trump meme culture, flat screen TV in the clinic getting a new pace maker—half of us have gone backwards, half forwards, another half to Mars where they can now plant potatoes, halibut and dollar store haircuts. But for now the statue stands proud. I wonder when they’ll pop her cherry.

Millions of Facebook shares, girl statue faces bull. What bull, I thought, but this is a lie, at first I felt like a happy face emoji because that’s what all the cool feminists told me I should feel, then a nagging wrench that something was not quite right—of course it wasn’t. A girl of about seven or eight with her hair back in a pony tail wearing a summer dress—this is now the symbol of the power of my voice, my choices? Honestly, I’d rather be the bull facing her.

Meme culture teaches girls can be anything. When you’re a girl you can believe what you’re taught, if you can work through all of the mixed messages … The tampon commercials declaring you’re powerful beyond measure, now here’s how to hide your shame, the soap commercials declaring all girls beautiful, as if that’s the one thing we’ve been waiting to hear our whole lives and needed capitalism to tell us, a president peeping in the change rooms of Miss Universe pageants, condom advertisements declaring the best sex ever requires hours of grooming and hair removal because he deserves it.

Sometimes I feel like I am a bull facing the seven year old me who thinks that she can rule the world, that she will go into business because the thought of doing something devoid of power and control didn’t enter my head—that was how I survived childhood. One day I would beat those with power by becoming them. Rich, of course. But still looking good in a dress … Fearless girl statue, the article was titled, but I thought that courage must involve fear, facing something dangerous without fear is child-like naiveté—as is the statue.

When I was the size of the statue, I fought boys in arm wrestling and usually won, I played war video games, I never wore shoes in summer, I loved math and wasn’t too cool to admit it, I read everything I could find. I thought tampon commercials were the bull.

I stare at the clinic TV as paramedics rush in. I want to ask them if we can watch  something more uplifting like Orange Is The New Black.

Now it’s been agreed that the statue will remain. The symbol of women’s empowerment—a frozen child who will never grow up. Bronze, probably Caucasian though it is hard to tell.

A petition to make the statue permanent goes viral, some of us don’t get a choice in the matter. A more ideological crumbling symbol would’ve been a woman facing the bull head on, or perhaps a post-it-note on the bull’s head—sorry, I’ve got better things to do today. When I was a child I would’ve taken you on because I was fearless. As a young adult I would’ve taken you on to prove something. Today I think I will go read a novel.

But none of those would be me. I didn’t say it was me, I didn’t say anything, they didn’t say you could speak.

Jill Talbot attended Simon Fraser University for psychology before pursing her passion for writing. Jill’s work has appeared in Geist, Rattle, Poetry Is Dead, The Puritan, Matrix, subTerrain, The Tishman Review, The Cardiff Review and PRISM. Jill won the PRISM Grouse Grind Lit Prize. She was shortlisted for the Matrix Lit POP Award for fiction and the Malahat Far Horizons Award for poetry. Jill lives on Gabriola Island, BC.

Shanbhag’s first novel to be translated from Kannada into English lingers in its intimacy

(Faber & Faber)

BY NICHOLE L. REBER

The intimacy Vivek Shanbhag creates in his 118-page novel Ghachar Ghochar lingers in a way many of today’s first-person fictions or memoirs don’t. But it’s the realities he shows in this fictional account of rising India that arrest the reader first.

His first novel to be translated from the Indian language of Kannada into English (by translator Srinath Perur), Shanbhag’s story centers around one family’s entrance into the middle class, a popular theme in contemporary Indian literature. There is the traditional Amma (mother), who dotes on her family from her kitchen throne; Appa (father), who’s been forced into early retirement; uncle, Chikkappa, the family breadwinner; sister, Malati, the epitome of spoiled brats everywhere; and the unnamed narrator.

Before opening a profitable spice company, the family used to rely on earning household staples like an iron, a clock, and a suitcase as employer prizes for Appa’s good sales record. All financial decisions were made together. The family even discussed how many rupees Appa could give each person for holidays and on what they’re spent—a pair of pants for the narrator (the son) a cooking spoon for Amma, a sari for sister.

The first sign of the family’s success is a gas oven. Bringing a gas oven into the shabby house, Amma can cook standing up for the first time (in very traditional Indian households cooking is still done whilst kneeling). Soon they move into a house large enough for each person to have a bedroom all his/her own, though not all is marvelous.

“We were leaving something behind, though I couldn’t say what,” the narrator tells us. “The house was huge in comparison to the one we had left. Two stories. A room for each person.”

The furniture brought from their old lives is ill suited to their luxurious life. Neither does their new décor: when Amma and Malati are given free range at the furniture store the results are more mix-it-up, less match-it-up.

Moving into the middle class is more than cosmetic, of course. This is apparent in the quick demise of Malati’s marriage. When she moves in with her new husband’s family, she throws temper tantrums, acts superior to them. “Maybe she had gotten used to having whatever she wanted and it diminished her capacity for making the inevitable compromises that accompany marriage,” the narrator tells us.

Then we come to the narrator’s own marriage, arranged by class not by caste—evidence of modern, newly-middle-class India— occurs for similar and also quick reasons. His wife Anita finds out that despite the big title he has with the family business, he has no bona fide responsibility there, and feels deceived. She can’t relate to a man who doesn’t have to work, who lives off family members, and so she leaves.

It is primarily through the narrator’s relationship with his wife that he conveys the deepest intimacy to readers. It starts, however, long before that. In fact, by the second page, we’re learning how inexperienced he is with women. We meet him after he’s skulked away from his first would-be girlfriend. There’s no conversation, no argument, no nothing except his seeming to disappear from her life. Hanging out at the café afterward, he hopes to find confidence in the adages of the waiter Vincent, which bring supposed therapeutic clarity like American bartenders do for their patrons. “Part of me longs to speak to Vincent but I’m holding back— what if his words hint at the one thing I don’t want to hear?” he says of the man who doesn’t know beyond a superficial level.

The narrator’s a bit wimpy, but in the vein of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, we fall for him because of his imperfections, because of his intimate confessions. He gives details of his marriage, not in sexual ways but with gentle self-reflection: “A woman I didn’t know had chosen to accept me, in body and mind.”

“Her arms tightened around me. I could feel her bangles pressing into my back. Through touch, this unknown woman began to be known to me.” Their intimacy is still nascent when she tells him the family story behind the meaning of ghachar ghochar, which is one of the most universal parts of the book.

Later, Anita clashes with the females of the narrator’s family, causing shifts in his own dynamics with them. But he couldn’t stand up for her or against his sister and mother. When Anita leaves town, the narrator and the family reestablish those dynamics.

“It was as if Anita’s absence had allowed us to be ourselves again, without inhibitions.” They’d rather remain an interdependent unit, unbroken by outsiders. Like any intimate unit does.

Read the novel to see if he’ll fight to get Anita back. Read it to learn more about the realities of rising Asia.

Shanbhag is the author of eight works of fiction and two plays, all held to critical success in his native South India. He held a 2016 residency at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Workshop.

Nichole L. Reber picked up a love for world lit by living in countries around the globe. She’s a nonfiction writer and her award-winning work has been in World Literature Today, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Lunchticket, and elsewhere. Read her stories on a Chinese cult, wearing hijab in India, and getting kidnapped in Peru at http://www.nicholelreber.com/.

Pills

BY DANA VERDINO

In the event that you try a new pill and it dampens your creativity, try another new pill. In the event that that other new pill doesn’t work to your liking either, then try another pill. This is the way I would go at my life. Step by step, pill by pill. This one pill lifted my mood but made me sleepy, and this other one gave me energy but made me lonely. They say there is no magic bullet, though I haven’t given up trying to find it. I think there must be the perfect cocktail of pills that I haven’t stumbled upon, a perfect combination of herbs, vitamins, and prescription medications. Every new cocktail brings hope and keeps me moving to the next. I’m like a chemist running experiments on myself. I add this, take out that, and factor in the alcohol, the cigarettes, and the men. Without these other highs, the pills are uninspiring, and without the pills, the highs are dangerous. The pills take away the self-loathing and the guilt. The pills make the highs leave less of a dent in my heart.

“If all these pills cannot provide you with an answer, perhaps you should try therapy,” says my psychiatrist, a serious woman with blonde hair in a loose bun, round blue eyes, and large pearl earrings. “Let me recommend someone to you.”

I try to shut my mouth after she says this. She doesn’t want to analyze my inner dialogue; it isn’t part of her job description. She doles out medicine according to symptoms. She doesn’t listen to your daddy issues or analyze your dreams with you. She is beautiful. She doesn’t know that if she had what I had she would never be what she is.

“I’ve tried that,” I say.

But this is not entirely true. I went to a few of those free group meetings at the local church for people with my kind of illness. I remember floating around the church before the meeting started. There was a table with a canteen of watery coffee, those small styrofoam cups, and hard straws. I sipped on the coffee as I read signs and pamphlets. I don’t drink coffee, actually.

There was a decent turnout. Mostly there were women. Apparently, we are the ones who need to share our misery with others the most, as if we could heal through admittance of what shames us. I wish it were that simple. None of these women went out of their way to socialize. This was to be expected. Such an illness goes hand in hand with social withdrawal and excessive rumination. We were too tired to forge relationships beyond the ethereal circle of textbook therapy and empathetic nods. Meanwhile, relationships are likely what we all need the most because we hate ourselves to no end.

My shrink must have known I was curtailing her suggestion, because she then asks me, “How long did you try your therapy?”

I say, “A few sessions.” She looks at me curiously. “My point is that I just know…I know that talking isn’t going to help me. I had a fine upbringing, I have my health, my looks, education…no reason to feel the way I do, no explanation other than this faulty wiring in my head.”

“Ok,” she says.

I am not used to this sort of appeasement so early on. Normally I have to fight for this. People closest to me rarely believe me. They think I make excuses and take the easy way out. Maybe they’re right, but it doesn’t matter. I just know it can’t work. I can’t afford to entertain futile endeavors. Every hour is too long when you are sick and you can’t sleep through it. I am glad there are no prerequisites in meeting with this blonde-haired, blue-eyed prescription pad. All I need is all that I have and all I want is a new pill so I can keep moving, step by step. From my apartment to the train to her office, and the steps to the bars and the beds and the bathrooms, the steps through the sand and water and wind just to keep from breaking.

Dana Verdino‘s work has appeared in Fiction at Work, Boston Literary Magazine, Open Minds Quarterly, Camroc Press Review and Heart Insight, the magazine of The American Heart Association. Dana is an English instructor and is sort of working on a memoir. Or maybe a short story collection. She has an M.A. in English, an M.A. in Education, and lives in South Carolina with her husband and four children.

Nutrition Facts

BY KAT TAN

that she tried very hard to forget and in fact thought she had forgotten only those bullies broke that part of her brain too the part that wore round glasses and brightly patterned cotton scarves and muttered under its breath mm hm mm hm as it shuffled and reshuffled all those lovely chapter books in all those Koa wood shelves that stretched from freshly vacuumed navy blue carpets skyward so now all the books have tumbled down and disappeared the carpet into a blanket of ripped out pages and that part of her brain has been quite scrambled since the day that memory was zapped into monstrous life like Frankenstein had been only she can’t put her finger on how that story actually went since she read it quite some time before the day those bullies sliced her up into 5 servings per container and opened their mouths wide because the serving size they cut for themselves was quite large and she rather thought they bit off more than they could chew since the taste of her made their stomachs twitch and they went running and told the rest of the school how she had made them sick and the rest of the kids said really and tried a bite themselves some found her too fibrous for their liking and others had an underdeveloped taste for protein on young women and yet others only nibbled because they were aspiring anorexics who refused anything that yielded over two hundred and fifty calories but some kids had such a sweet tooth that they actually came back for seconds and in no time she was little more than crumbs but still the bullies weren’t fed so they took her bones and ground them into fine powder that if analyzed was 75 percent pure calcium and fortified their nerve even better than milk could so the bullies started spreading rumors about why she had so many bites taken out of her and she tried to stop them saying look how many mouths I’ve fed how many people I’ve nourished how many bellies I’ve warmed but some jealous old boyfriend had swallowed her voice box sometime during one of their last kisses before they broke up a few months back and then he gave the still fluttering voice box to his new girl so the bullies were free to tell everyone that she had in fact been rotten and mushy under her rosy pretty skin and don’t we all hate it when girls like that pass themselves off as something fresh when in fact they bruised on their way to the market and she was so thoroughly sucked brittle that all she could do was listen to the bullies say this and eventually started to believe it a little and then believe it a lot that she was an expired unhappy fruit with a scrambled up brain that no one would want even for free and she was still thinking this when she got into her dream college and still thinking this as she delivered her graduation speech and still thinking this when she got on a plane and still thinking this when she unpacked her bags in an empty dorm and still thinking this when the winter melted quicker than it ever had up in the North and was in the middle of thinking this one day when her class was assigned a book called Frankenstein and she read it in a day first in her head and then out loud and now that she thinks about it wasn’t the creation called The Creature and the human called Frankenstein and wasn’t Frankenstein the villain of the book after all?

Kat Tan is a spoken word poet, wannabe-psychiatrist, activist, songwriter, reformed shy-person, cactus-enthusiast, & read-&-walk-er. She is a Robertson Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill & Duke University. Her work has appeared in The Health Humanities Journal of UNC-Chapel Hill, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, & elsewhereShe twice represented UNC at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational & was UNC’s 2017 Grand Slam Champion. Tan is the current director of the Wordsmiths of UNC-Chapel Hill & a graduate of the Yale Writers’ Conference. Every day, she falls in love with your smile. Follow her work at www.katoutofbag.com.

With EXIT WEST, Hamid turns eye to Europe’s mishandling of asylum seekers

 

(Riverhead Books)

BY NICHOLE L. REBER

Once again Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid has captured the zeitgeist. In his latest novel, Exit West, he continues to pull no punches. His earlier novels put the US and “rising Asia” under the microscope, but this time the culprit is Europe. In this novel he puts us in the shoes of the Middle Eastern refugees and we get a glimpse into what it must be like to be forced to flee from one’s homeland, the perils faced at the hands of other terrified, desperate asylum-seekers, and then being cast aside by Westerners, who prove they’re not as glamorous or as kind as Hollywood movies portray.

Hamid’s rigorous observations and capacity to represent diverse perspectives come from having lived in London, the US, and Pakistan. Those experiences appear throughout his corpus as examinations of the turbulent bumps of globalization. Altogether, he writes compelling, if not cutting, stories. His talents result achieving universality in observations and compassion of the human condition. That’s surely helped him achieve international acclaim.

Let’s consider Exit West. His latest release, based on the Syrian refugee crisis, features Nadia and Saeed, two young sweethearts thrust prematurely into a relationship when unrest roils through their city. With a bit of magical realism the couple finds secret doors leading to the safety of Greece, England, and then the US. (See if these doors don’t conjure thoughts of Being John Malkovich.)

Hamid’s essays in The Guardian and Time also take Westerners to task. In fact, most readers will find themselves looking at their patriotism in a way they’ve never been challenged to do before. His scathing essays raise a mirror to us, causing us to wonder if/when we stopped being the land of opportunity. He writes:

“A pair of runaway slaves fleeing the antebellum South, arriving in Boston. A family of Jews fleeing the Third Reich, arriving in New York. A baby boy fleeing the destruction of his home world of Krypton, arriving in Kansas. Most Americans know what must be done with such people. They must be taken in. Given a chance. Allowed to become an equal part of the ­American story.

“How many Americans today would think it right to send the slaves back to the plantation, the Jews back to Europe, the infant Superman back into space? The very idea seems abominable, absurd—un-American.

“Why, then, is there such an outcry over accepting refugees from places like Syria?”

Hamid’s other novels are also tales sprung from today’s news headlines. Consider The Reluctant Fundamentalist. (Director Mira Nair turned it into a gripping film starring Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, and Riz Ahmed.) This story takes place primarily in New York before and in the months after 9/11. Told from the perspective of Changez, a Pakistani immigrant who graduates from Princeton, earns a position with an elite Wall Street firm, and falls for WASPY, wealthy Erica. Changez exemplifies the American Dream we still want to pretend exists. Until two planes tear into the World Trade Towers, transforming him overnight into a persona non grata.

“I ignored as best I could the rumors I overheard…: Pakistani cab drivers were being beaten to within an inch of their lives; the FBI was raiding mosques, shops, and even people’s homes; Muslim men were disappearing, perhaps into shadowy detention centers for questioning or worse. I reasoned that these…(things) were unlikely ever to affect me because such things (didn’t) happen to Princeton graduates earning eighty-thousand dollars a year.”

Quotes like this give us a refreshing perspective from an immigrant, a non-American in the country’s saddest moment in almost 60 years. It sheds light on that line between nationalism and patriotism, imploring readers to more deeply consider which side they stand on.

Next comes How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, also published by Riverhead. It’s a modern day version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, structured in twelve mocking steps on how to rise to the ranks of the middle class. The author has left the setting deliberately unclear: is it India or Pakistan? Nonetheless setting matters only insofar as we get to know a young man, born into a destitute family, the kind who live in the slums that Westerners often assume are the only kind of housing in India. As the man becomes street smarter, he builds a lucrative water business and climbs the social ladder in ways that would have made Ayn Rand beam.

Hamid plugs into humanity’s natural tendency to envy/dislike the wealthy. He allows us to coast on our assumptions that they got that way by skipping morality, respect, and integrity, by marrying for convenience rather than an emotional engagement. He captures the zeitgeist by making us feel like we’re reading about a country transmogrifying before our eyes.

His use of the second person brings us still deeper into the action. Such is the case in a particular scene depicting backroom deals and corrupt alliances that form the backbone of capitalism:

“Yet he suspects it is not these obstacles giving you pause. No, the brigadier thinks, you are wary because you know full well that when the military-related businesses advance into a market, the front lines change rapidly. We get permissions no one else can get. Red tape dissolves effortlessly for us. And reappears around our competitors. So we can move fast. Which makes us dangerous commercial adversaries.”

Hamid’s debut novel was Moth Smoke. He’s also written a collection of essays, Civilization and its Discontents. His work has won or been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Foundation award, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and others.

 

 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2032557/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

The Reluctant Fundamentalist film

 

http://www.mohsinhamid.com/trfexcerpt.html

Excerpt of the book

 

http://www.mohsinhamid.com/htgexcerpt.html

How to Get excerpt

 

http://www.mohsinhamid.com/ewexcerpt.html

Exit West excerpt

 

http://time.com/collection-post/4527253/2016-election-refugees/

Hamid’s essay in Time

 

Nichole L. Reber picked up a love for world lit by living in countries around the globe. She’s a nonfiction writer and her award-winning work has been in World Literature Today, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Lunchticket, and elsewhere. Read her stories on a Chinese cult, wearing hijab in India, and getting kidnapped in Peru at http://www.nicholelreber.com/.

Something Cannot Breathe

BY DAVE K

I don’t buy cigarettes from the man downstairs anymore. No, not anymore, not since he stopped selling them. “Paper, son,” he told me, “paper is what the future holds for me.” I looked inside his boxy storefront and saw crates full of dead wood and flower clippings.

At night, there’s a buzzing I can’t place. It keeps me awake. I stare at my gray plaster ceiling and think about everyone else in my building, this lattice-work of single rooms, doing the same thing.

My neighbor’s room nests into mine; our walls slope into one another. I see her scrubbing dark smudges of travel stain from the carpet in front of her door and see red welts on her shoulders and neck. I don’t mention them to her, the same way I don’t discuss the welts under my downstairs neighbor’s chin as he carries wood in from outside. I say nothing about the buzzing to anyone, as if only I could hear it.

On my way home, I swat a fat wasp out of the air with my rolled up newspaper. Soon afterward, ants form a thick, circular perimeter around my building. I crush them underfoot with my comings and goings, enough that I can smell it; dead ants smell like juniper. More ants swarm over the fallen, but none of them advance within two feet of the front door.

Articles of furniture pile up outside as, floor by floor, my neighbors clear out their apartments. The man down the hall from me used to play his wireless set late at night. Now he sits outside his room and drools into a clod of pulp, shaping it with his bare hands and spreading it across the wall and ceiling. I ask him what he is doing and his response is a low, droning sound, his jaw slack. Other neighbors mimic his behavior.

The buzzing is louder now, and apneal. Something cannot breathe. I ask the maintenance man if there’s a problem with the building’s steamboiler or pipes, and pulp falls from his mouth like gruel. The next evening, the building’s electrical power shuts off, and no steam hisses from the pipes. They buzz instead.

The only thing that drowns out the buzzing is rain, and if I had a large enough gun I would commit my life to shooting holes in the sky.

I’m almost hit by a red-panel steamcoach as I cross the street, and the driver jumps out to curse at me. His eyes are clear and I can understand the words leaving his mouth.

“I’m sorry,” he says, “it’s these goddamned bees.” He swats one away, then shields his face from possible retaliation with his arm.

“Wasps,” I say. I never could stop myself from correcting people.

“Whatever they are,” he says, “I’m not letting them near my family. I sent my wife and children out of the city already. With any luck, I’ll be gone by sundown.” He swats three more away, but they hover above his head.

“Where are the flies, is what I want to know,” I tell him. I haven’t seen a fly or mosquito or even a cockroach in weeks now. The man tells me he isn’t sure, hadn’t even thought about it. His chin sinks toward his chest. I tell him to be careful and make haste to my apartment. Insect husks rustle under my shoes.

My floor is completely shelled in by paper, and so are all the floors below me and at least one floor above. Men and women on ladders are plastering the building’s exterior, and when the rain falls it bounces right off their handiwork.

There used to be an advertisement for an undertaker and embalming service on the side of my building, painted right on the bricks. It’s been papered over now. I buy a pastel crayon and do my best to recreate it from memory, but an old woman who lives on the first floor swats the crayon out of my hand. I turn and yell at her, and when she opens her mouth, a single wasp floats out like a soap bubble. I smash it with my bare hand and she bursts into tears. Ants scramble up from where her tears hit the ground and join the squirming ring of their fellows holding vigil around the building.

I can hear the buzzing during the day, now. I open my door to leave and tear through a thick paper carapace one of my neighbors smeared over it in the night. When I return, a group of them is pulling my door from the hinges altogether. My landlord is among them, her thin face and asthenic body bloated with welts like all the others. I chase them away and run from the cloud of wasps they leave behind, pulling my jacket up over my head and neck to shield my face from them.

From a distance, my building fans out above the others like an umbrella. It looks brittle and delicate. I suppose it is.

I find a new apartment, and a new man to sell me cigarettes. I watch the paper husk over my old building creep down the block. Continuous buzzing muffles the normal hubbub of city life and no longer interrupts my sleep. Newspapers detail the medicinal benefits of wasp stings.

Someone on the wireless reports a red-panel steamcoach abandoned on the railroad tracks with both doors open. They found blood spattered on the seat. The rest of the report is drowned out by buzzing, then abruptly halted by the music they play during technical difficulties.

I keep dreaming about stripping naked, walking outdoors, opening my arms to them. One day, I will wake up to find myself doing it. Until then, I pray for rain.

– 

Dave K’s work has appeared in Front Porch Journal, Cobalt, The Avenue, Welter, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, TRUCK, and on the LED billboard in Baltimore, MD’s Station North Arts District. He is the author of The Bong-Ripping Brides of Count Drogado (November 2017, Mason Jar Press).

Myriam Gurba’s MEAN traverses a vast world

 

(Coffee House Press)

BY NICHOLE L. REBER

It’s hard to say which quality makes Myriam Gurba’s Mean such a stellar read. Her dark sense of humor? Her unique perspective as a queer Chicana from California? It could also be her structure. She compels the reader through her nonfiction novel without letting us merely settle into the book as entertainment. Instead she engages our intellects, which makes an altogether enjoyable experience.

Gurba weaves topics together in the forms of found poems, prose poetry, news reports, memoir, and lists. Once we’ve connected enough strands we see patterns emerging: racism, misandry, class, and sexuality.

The story begins with a young, petite Latina with long clothing walking in a Little League baseball diamond at night. A man follows her, chases her then bludgeons and rapes her. News reports leave her nameless, call her a transient. Gurba finds out this woman’s name is Sophia (Torres) like Sophia the capital of Bulgaria, like Sophia Loren, like the Sophia in the Bible; she’s 5’2” and Mexican, and the young migrant worker had already had a rough life before it came to a close there in Oakley Park, not far from Gurba’s house. It’s what the two women have in common that allows readers to connect the strands Gurba weaves into a larger picture, especially in the chapter “Strawberry Picker,” where we see race, misandry, and class.

“Sophia is always with me. She haunts me.

“Guilt is a ghost.”

Guilt ties in to the multiple meanings of privilege Gurba shows us. Daughter of a Mexican teacher/mother and half-Mexican school administrator/father, she and her siblings enjoy a middle-class life. There’s a large gap between her family and the Mexican migrant workers who pick produce in the California fields. Privilege, she intimates, isn’t just for whites.

Privilege doesn’t, however, equal invincibility. It couldn’t save her sister or Gurba herself from eating disorders. Nor could it shield her from the grade school classmate who repeatedly molests her and fellow female classmates; or the history teacher who, despite witnessing the boy’s actions, does nothing. Nor could it shield her from having an unfathomable empathy for Sophia Torres.

Not all is tragedy though. The author’s sense of humor gives this book an equal amount of levity. Sometimes that means taking pot shots at race and gender: “Of course an elderly white dude taught anthropology,” she writes in the chapter “Nicole.” “Who better to explain all the cultures and peoples of the world than he who is in charge of them?”

Sometimes humor means taking pot shots at sexuality, eating disorders, feminism, misogyny: “Good girlishness resists pleasure. Good girls prove their virtue by getting rid of themselves,” she writes in a Catholic-heavy chapter. “Death by anorexia is a fail-safe sexual-assault prevention technique,” a line that reverberates like a nail-studded boomerang later in the book.

Gurba continues to bust balls, provoke, and raise readers’ eyebrows throughout the book, and she traverses a vast world. She takes us from the Japanese style of art known as Ukiyo-e, her great-great-grandfather’s role in a 19th-century Mexican revolution in support of Communism, and masturbating to the Diary of Anne Frank. She makes us ponder what would make an appropriate gift for the grave of the rape victim. Even Michael Jackson makes an appearance.

Read Mean for its humor and stimulating structure. Read Gurba for her unique perspective and literary stylings.

 

Nichole L. Reber picked up a love for world lit by living in countries around the globe. She’s a nonfiction writer and her award-winning work has been in World Literature Today, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Lunchticket, and elsewhere. Read her stories on a Chinese cult, wearing hijab in India, and getting kidnapped in Peru at http://www.nicholelreber.com/.

Will the film adaptation of Loung Ung’s FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER do the heavy lifting of the memoir?

(HarperCollins)

BY NICHOLE L. REBER

Regardless of your opinion of the Hollywood celebrity, Angelina Jolie’s latest cinematic offering from the director’s chair might just be worth watching. Netflix will release her cinematic version of Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers on September 17. It is not her first time bringing a book to the silver screen but what makes this film different will hopefully be Jolie’s ability to see the historical lessons Ung’s book inspires. Even moreso, let’s hope the cinematic and/or film version inspires us to see the connections to today’s American climate.

Originally published as a memoir of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in Cambodia, the movie comes to us in the form of a biographical historical thriller. More important than the celebrity behind the camera, however, Americans don’t often hear—much less think— about the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal sweep through Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Few of us remember or even know that they are rumored to have killed up to a quarter of the nation’s population. Seventeen years ago we were reminded of the atrocities when Ung’s memoir hit bookstore shelves. It’s time to check it out again.

At the book’s beginning we learn how America’s bombing of Cambodian borders to destroy neighboring Vietnamese military bases fanned the flames of Cambodia’s civil war, already brewing for decades when the Khmer Rouge deposed the Lon Nol government, which Ung’s father worked for.

Khmer Rouge, an army of impoverished, generally uneducated Cambodians, formed a government called the Angkar, led by Pol Pot, a despot not unlike Uganda’s murderous ruler Idi Amin or China’s Mao Tse Tong. The Angkar executed, starved, and stole from the country’s citizens, forcing them into rural camps, labor camps, and military-training camps. The Angkar purged the country of technology such as radios, televisions, watches, and eight-track players. It denied other indications of social class such as jewelry, education, and money. It spread anti-American, -Vietnamese, and -Chinese propaganda throughout the camps and wrote songs deifying Pol Pot. Ung’s details about those camps in which kids and young adults were forced to see the songs will ripple your skin with goosebumps.

“‘The soldiers walked around the neighborhood, knocking on all the doors, telling people to leave. Those who refused were shot dead right on their doorsteps,’” Ung’s father tells her. Her family, a middle-class Cambodian family with seven children, was forced to leave their home, the capital city of Phnom Penh, and relocated to various types of camps. Instant death would have been imminent if any family members inadvertently revealed anything that bespoke their middle-class status (anathema to this supposedly Communist movement) and connection to the former Lon Nol government.

A reader wouldn’t be hard-pressed to find at least thread connections to the xenophobia, racism, sexism, etc. that has characterized many recent American news reports. The us-versus-them propaganda, the fault-finding in harmless characteristics, the incitement of angry and uneducated masses of the Khmer Rouge People indicate a country in crises. That’s only exacerbated when its people, encouraged to spy and tattle on others, grew suspicious of each other. The mother, for instance, has to live an all-but-mute life in the refugee camp because of her Chinese accent.
An odor of nationalism wafts from the pages of First They Killed My Father. It reminds us that racism isn’t something brought with babies into the world; it’s taught and reinforced by society. That’s why it’s possible for five-year-old Loung to find false security in believing that bad people look one way and good guys look another.

Ung writes: “Many have almond-shaped eyes, thin noses, and light skin, which suggests they might be of Chinese descent. Pure Khmer have curly black hair, flat noses, full lips, and dark chocolate skin.” (In Asian culture noses without bridges are considered inferior and, of course, the darker your skin the more maligned you’ll be.)

The new regime has no law and order and executes helter skelter. “‘The Khmer Rouge are executing people perceived to be a threat against the Angkar,” the father tells his family. “Anyone can be viewed as a threat … monks, doctors, nurses, artists, teachers, students—even people who wear glasses.” Why eyeglasses? Well, as the cliché goes, eyeglasses demonstrate intelligence. As dictators from Pol Pot to Fidel Castro know, an educated population threatens tyrannical rule.

The Khmer Rouge’s genocide came to a close when the Vietnamese, whom Cambodians were brainwashed into thinking were the enemy, entered the country and began rescuing citizens such as the five remaining Ung family members. The Youns (an ethnic slur for Vietnamese) smiled, talked to children, and sometimes patted them on the head, Loung wrote, saying they were not the “devils” she’d been taught they were. They freed their neighbors from the camps and quelled the Khmer Rouge.

It’s a curious thought to see how Jolie will handle the transition from memoir to Netflix Original movie. Until it’s September 17 release, though, you can learn more about Cambodia in the movie The Killing Fields (not to be confused with the Discovery series). To find out more about America’s connection to it, check out Noam Chomsky’s thoughts on the matter and why The Daily Beast claims both sides got Cambodia wrong.

Nichole L. Reber picked up a love for world lit by living in countries around the globe. She’s a nonfiction writer and her award-winning work has been in World Literature Today, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Lunchticket, and elsewhere. Read her stories on a Chinese cult, wearing hijab in India, and getting kidnapped in Peru at http://www.nicholelreber.com/.

From the Café at the End of The World

BY ZACHARY JENSEN

I. The Café Owner

 

I think it would be best if we kept these things to ourselves

When one is dirty, there is usually a desire to become clean – to wash away the layers and coatings of one’s actions and begin anew. The ritual of it all can be rather soothing. Necessary. The turning of the right faucet valve to let the water flow, the turning of the left faucet valve to introduce the heat, waiting patiently for a time until the water has had a moment to warm up, the placing of the tips of one hand up to the water to check that the temperature is just right, withdrawing the hand because it is not, then after another moment cautiously enveloping the hands fully into the water and letting the stream flow over them for a moment, the feeling of the water as it attempts to pass through the hands in a wild cascade of futility, grabbing the bar of soap and rubbing it briskly against the hands, followed by rinsing the hands, sometimes repeating the last two steps once or twice until satisfied, and lastly,  grabbing a towel from the shelf, drying the hands with said towel, feeling the coarseness of the worn fabric against the skin as it absorbs the water, hanging the towel on a hook to let it dry for a few more uses, finally with the knowledge that it would just be a waste, throwing it in a basket with the other towels. His hands were dirty in this moment and he needed them to feel clean.

The sink looked like it had seen better days. The receptacle that was meant for cleaning hands, or faces, or sometimes in a rush (and he was always in a rush) bodies, was reduced to a sorry state. There was a blue glob of what was probably toothpaste sticking in one of the rounded corners. Large soap streaks lined the area underneath the faucet. Hair was coiled and sticking out of the trap. And if one looked closely you could almost see the pearl white texture of the porcelain that has long since been permanently stained. If that wasn’t enough, lackluster pink tiles – the results of a remodel in the sixties – with grout that has shifted from a white to permanent gray surround it, leaving plenty to be desired.

Nonetheless, he needed to wash his hands. So he did.

He did so with a vigor and frustration that dwelled quite deeply in his soul. He wanted so desperately to wash away all the faults and misunderstandings that came from his ignorance as a man. His indelicate way of misunderstanding the feelings of others, coated him so completely that the layer could not be washed off in a single scrubbing. It would take multiple washes. It would take multiple attempts. But he felt that if he washed frequently enough he could, in at least a small way, become clean. He had to become clean. If he did not succeed in this then he would surely never be able to be happy with himself. And if he could not become happy with himself, how could he be happy with another?

He looked at the mirror and sighed. It was not a sigh of resignation, but something similarly rooted in the certainty of failure. He held a gaze with the face looking back at him for as long as it took to place himself in the world. Any world. Some days it took but an instance to orientate, to know exactly where one was, others far more. Today was somewhere in-between. The face was unrecognizable at first. The hollowness of the eyes was foreign to him. For as much as he stared at himself every morning, he never really paid attention to his eyes. The eyes that held marbled irises were now a dull gray with the passage of time. They were collapsing under the weight of all they have witnessed. All that was done. The cheeks, like tiny hillsides, were succumbing to the burden of supporting the orbs above and were now concave. The rest of his face did not fare well either. It had been a while since he had shaved; leaving patchy stubble that created an extra layer of gruffness. He still had all the hair on his head, though he always left it unmanaged. His nose was slightly crooked from being broken in a fight. No one really noticed this fact, but he did. It was what anchored him in the mirror each and every time. For all his unremarkable features, he still had the occasional woman look his way as they passed through town.

You can look at something every day and never really see it for what it is.

It was time to prepare the café for the day, the final ceremony to the disquiet of solitude. To loneliness whose weight leaves a light depression on any surface that is unfortunate enough to feel its touch.

When contact is at a premium it is easier to accept what is given without questioning the cost. Without question he was short on time. Whatever remained of the town would be trickling in shortly expecting coffee, breakfast, conversation, silence, or most likely spirits.  He had to begin now. He hated it when he found someone waiting outside for him to open. It wasn’t the making people wait that bothered him. It was the fact that they watched him from outside and waited impatiently for him to prepare the café that got on his nerves. On days that it happened he would get the urge to close the blinds and tell the customer to get lost – he never did, though it did make him work slower and angrier than usual.

The last time it happened – about a month ago – he entered the café to find Tómas standing outside on the porch looking in expectantly. It was an unnervingly cold morning. The kind where one could see their breath become a warm mist that almost froze in the air. Perhaps Tómas just wanted to come inside so he could get warm, but that is not how it came off. Without setting up, save for starting the coffee, he let Tómas in. He got so frustrated at the situation that he snapped at Tómas for taking too long. I don’t have all day!  He yelled with an intensity that most people have not seen before. Not here at least. After taking the order, he stomped over to the coffeemaker to pour a cup, burning himself in the process. He smashed the mug on the floor causing the porcelain to create a starburst of shrapnel that flew through the air. In the cleanup his thumb was cut open leaving what is now a scar. Knowing what was good for him, Tómas made a quick retreat. No one has shown up early since.

He knew today would be no different.

He left the bathroom in his living quarters at the back of the building then sat down on his bed for a moment. The springs in the mattress had become curved and distorted. He liked to imagine that they were attempting to embrace one another lovingly. As they desperately tried to reach a partner it became clear that the distance was far too great and any further attempt would cause them to unravel. Or snap. Instead of risking it all they opted to play it safe and give up. In the end, they would just lie down resolutely, and sleep in the same position that he did – on their side. Alone. The truth was the mattress was far older than he’d care to admit and there were no means to acquire a replacement. It was still better than sleeping on the floor.

He picked up a pair of pants from a twisted pile of clothes on the floor. For reasons he could not recall, one leg was inside out – half in, half out. Split between two worlds. The fabric felt gentle and worn in. He grabbed a random shirt that was lying upon the desk opposite the bed and put it on. They felt like what he imagined home was supposed to feel like right before you burn it to the ground – Comforting and safe, although a place one knew they couldn’t rely on for long. Like the arms of a lover you are unable to be with anymore. Because of time, or space, or love, or some other specter that causes a shift. It feels right in the moment, but you know it won’t stay that way for long.  He slipped on some shoes and made his way to the café up front.

Entering the room he gave a half-hearted glance at the floor – did he need to sweep yet?  Most objects, whose size was of the inconsequential variety, would fall right through the cracks at some point. Everything fell through the cracks at some point. It was inevitable.  He opted against it and just kicked a few things around.

It’s the absence of a thing people usually notice – not the thing itself.

The café was a continuous work in progress. When he first came upon the building, it was not the least dilapidated, but it had the most potential in his eyes. By cannibalizing things he found lying around the town he was able to construct a building that fulfilled the purposes of living and working. No matter what work was done though, a perpetual state of disrepair seemed to overtake the building. Meaning that he constantly had to fix something. A barstool, the stove, a table whose legs gave out while a customer was dining, and most recently the jukebox that he had found one day on the other side of the small still watered sea he lived adjacent to. Even though it only took a quarter of a day to walk all the way to the other side not many people went there anymore, though excursions could prove very fruitful at times.

He turned on the antique jukebox, set it to random play and walked off. Outwardly, like his life, the thing looked to be held together with little more than desperation. As much as it was meant to fall apart, to cease all function, it had a will – no a need ­– to go on. And it did go on because for all its outward ugliness, its insides were not beyond an occasional tightening of a bolt, or shifting of a gear, and off it would go.

The selecting arm of the machine struggled for a moment, regained its bearings, then selected a 45, picked up the 45, placed it through the center spindle onto the platter, began to slowly spin, raised the needle arm, placed the needle onto the spinning black disc, and finally began to let the music fill the spaces in the room. The crackling from the speakers became the overlay for all that was struggling to live. Not quite perfect, but good enough.

Before unlocking the doors, there was one last thing he had to do. He pulled out a dusty bottle of scotch (the one that was not watered down) from under the counter, saved for the especially difficult days – though they have all been especially difficult for quite a while now. With a glass in hand he poured two fingers of the golden liquid in a cascade that caused tiny bubbles to rise to the top. He waited for the seas to settle before taking it all in one large gulp. In ceremony. The burn of the scotch as it slowly went down was a reminder that he was alive. That he could feel something. Time to open the doors. Time to face the day.

Zachary Jensen is a writer, journalist, and educator from Los Angeles, CA. He currently teaches English at Cal State University Northridge. His work has recently appeared in LA Record, Cultural Weekly, Entropy, and Palometa. He is the Managing Editor of Angel City Review and the Editor of the Animals chapbook series at Business Bear Press.