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/.
A woman who I’ve always known as mother taught me how to wear a sari when I was ten. The purpose of my lesson was only partly for a connection with Bangladesh, my birthplace. Who knows when the excuse to learn such an involved task might have occurred if it wasn’t for a school project. My assignment was to research a famous person and dress the part. I’d picked Mother Teresa because she was from India and that was close to Bangladesh.
My white British mother took yards of white fabric and died a blue stripe on one side. When the cloth was ready, I stood in the middle of our living room wearing a tight fitting white tee shirt and underwear with a piece of white rope tied around my waist.
“Here’s where you tuck the corner of the cloth in,” my mother said. She pointed to the rope above my right hip.
I began to tuck clothing into the rope from right hip, to left, behind my body, and back around to the front of my right hip.
“You have to do that again.”
The process was already feeling tiresome and the cloth, though fairly thin woven cotton, had a lot of weight to it due to the amount fabric it was going to take to make me look modest.
“Okay, now make three pleats and tuck that into the front in the middle of your waist.”
I had no idea how uncomfortable a sari would be. Once I had what felt like a massive sailor’s knot against my stomach, I wrapped the rest of the cloth around the left side of my body and brought it around over my left shoulder. It seemed impossible to imagine having to go through this process on a daily basis.
At ten years old, wearing a sari felt like a fun game. I was adopted into a British family who moved to a small town in New Jersey. I didn’t have much of a reason to think about what it might symbolically mean to wear so much fabric. It seemed elegant, and I felt like a slightly different version of myself.
When I entered graduate school at age thirty-three to complete my MFA in creative writing, I wanted to learn about memoirs and more importantly, my goal was to find a memoir written by a Bangladeshi author. I honestly didn’t even know if I’d find something in English, but I tracked down the title of a book called Meybela, My Bengali Girlhood, by Taslima Nasrin.
In Nasrin’s memoir, two different stories unfold, one is the story of Bangladesh’s fight for independence and the other is a little girl longing for women’s freedom.
Bangladesh gained its independence from India for the first time in 1971. Through a poetic voice, distant from the narrator’s emotions, the reader is educated about the historical climate of the country at the time. The atmosphere of daily life is blanketed with the constant feelings of unrest. However, despite many fears about the state of Bangladesh, there is hope for a future that will be better.
The narrator is a little girl during a formative time in Bangladesh’s history. Freedom for the country was supposed to mean promises of new practices in life, but as Bangladesh became free, change barely took place in a nation where women suffer from constant abuse. Her mother continues to eat scraps for dinner and isn’t respected. The narrator is raped by at least three different men, two of whom are uncles. Fathers want smart daughters and mothers want good religious wives for future mates. The desire to dream about a new life for the narrator is stifled in a culture that has no intention of changing.
The song “Joy Bangla! Bangla joy!” is chanted in the streets when the nation is finally free, but for the nation’s women, these words should have meant more. Women do not become free to fall in love and take jobs. Instead, their suffering becomes awkwardly intertwined with the nation’s freedom to show how even hopeful change may not result in transformation for everyone.
My own childhood didn’t include watching my nation be birthed. However, the circumstances of my actual adoption were at one time threatened. I was born in 1982 and there was talk about closing the doors to adoption. My dad, being a climber, planned routes over the Himalayan Mountains to get me out of the country if my British passport didn’t arrive. Nothing as extreme ever did take place because the paperwork to finalize my adoption did go through, but a few years later this would not have been the case. With my adoption, I was also freed from a culture that I still wanted to understand.
Years after my parents had moved away from Dhaka when I was nineteen years old, I went back for a visit. I was faced with the task of putting on a sari again. Yards of delicately patterned pink cloth surrounded a woman, who on the outside blended in with the women around me. People whispered about my perfect American accent and the way I walked so freely. They knew something was different about me even if I tried my best to fit in. Despite the sari, I knew what it was like to unravel the cloth and simply put on a pair of jeans and a tee shirt. True Bangladeshi culture for me would only be experienced through other people’s words.
Marion Ruybalid lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and seven children. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from UCR Palm Desert. Her work has also appeared in The Manifest-Station.
Marcia Butler’s memoir The Skin Above My Knee begins with a domestic, Sunday morning scene. The author, four years old, is listening to the soprano Kirsten Flagstad singing the aria Liebestod from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, while her mother is vacuuming the house with a thunderous Hoover. The writer’s two loves, music and her mother, thus make their entrance into the book.
Butler’s memoir blends together stories about girlhood, sexual abuse, and an overwhelming passion for music. Against the gritty backdrop of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, the author struggles with abusive relationships, drug addiction, and unsuccessful attempts to reach out to her family. Butler’s account of her life as a musician is no less realistic, ranging from nearly starving as a student to maintaining a grueling performing schedule. These experiences, however, are redeemed by galvanizing moments when performing in orchestras felt like being a part of a larger, living and thinking, organism.
I spoke with Marcia Butler about creativity, competition between mothers and daughters, and the corporeality of music, in December 2016.
Florian: How did you start thinking about writing a memoir?
Butler: Well, that’s an interesting question because I didn’t set out to write a memoir at all. I was writing about creativity, actually. I’d been a musician for about 25 years, and then was an interior designer for 15 years. As a designer, I began blogging and quickly realized that the more fertile subjects for me were the overarching principles of the universality of design, aesthetics and creative thrust. How all this binds us together as a society and how we live and enjoy life. What are we drawn to, and why?
For example, I became fascinated with the power of three. It’s never two, it’s always three. This is born out in everything. In religion with the holy trinity, in myth with the third or evil eye. In the nursery rhyme – Three Blind Mice, in comedy and film – The Three Stooges. Through the masters in artwork, subjects are framed within a triangle formation to set up ideal proportions. Within physics, threes appear in sound waves and I’m sure on deeper levels as well, which I certainly don’t have the expertise to speak about. I could go on and on – there are so many examples in all cultures. But this always brought me back to music and a strange phenomenon in the fact that when two violins play together, they don’t sound very nice. But when you add a third violin, the beauty doesn’t increase by just one third; rather the resonance improves on an exponential level and with exceptional beauty.
This reminded me of my performing days and thinking about peak moments on stage with specific, memorable concerts. I wondered what made them so wonderful. So, I began writing about my own performance experiences. This naturally led me to write essays about my life. For instance, my very first essay which begins the narrative section of my memoir, is about being four years old and hearing the music of Richard Wagner – his Liebestod from the opera Tristan and Isolde – for the first time. This is my very first memory of hearing music. Kirsten Flagstad was the singer and it was a startling moment for me and actually began one trajectory of my life. Even at four years old!
Now to return to your question of how I came to write my memoir. I had amassed these pieces, woke up early one morning at about 5:00 a.m. and realized I was, in fact, writing a memoir. It wasn’t necessarily a happy sensation at all, but the epiphany kind of galvanized me and I managed to write it in about three years. I suppose, in retrospect, this moment was another one of those peak moments or a creative impulse that prompted me to continue and I’d eventually understand why.
Kirsten Flagstad – Wagner Liebestod
Florian: This early moment of understanding music is extremely powerful, both because of this passion for music that you’re discovering at an early age, but also because, in the book, your mother is present in the background at the moment you have this revelation. Your relationship with her, and with your family in general, forms a counterpoint to the story of your artistic career. Butler: My mother was an exceptionally talented person. She could draw figuratively very well. And she was just super intelligent. I mean, there were so many things about her that I found intriguing. I think that’s why I put her on a pedestal for so long. At work, she was a beloved schoolteacher and taught French, Latin and Spanish. She read voraciously; always had a book in her hand. She was a lively person on the outside but did not display that persona to us at home. I remember feeling baffled when I was young, and later on angry, because she’d present herself so differently when we were in public. She had so much interest and energy for others, but not for me. And it wounded me terribly.
Part of the problem with my mother was that she was competitive with me. I see this only in retrospect many, many years later, of course. I believe that she felt, to a large degree, marginalized in her marriage and in her family life. Quite frankly, I don’t think she really wanted kids and could not reconcile where her life ended up. And she would not allow a closeness between herself and her daughter because I represented a barrier to her dreams. This competition was subtle and certainly not understood back then. At the end of the day the young girl, the young woman, the middle-aged woman wanted her mother, and I kept trying for years. I tried to be the best daughter I could be. And it was never the right way. Never. I was unimaginably sad. Florian: Did your parents ever divorce? Butler: They’re dead now, but they stayed married until the end. I believe that she was going to leave my father a couple of times through the years, but never did. I’m sure she felt she couldn’t make it on her own first emotionally, because underneath, of course, she felt incredibly deficient. That had to be the case. But financially too. She earned a schoolteacher’s salary, but you know how it was. Women of that generation didn’t feel empowered to take those steps. “He might be a creep, but he’s my creep.” That kind of thing. Florian: Your expectations were very different from the very beginning. You were trying to follow something for which you had passion and that was real and affirming for you, and you just allowed yourself to grow, in spite of lack of encouragement. I’m thinking of the years you spent at Mannes College of Music, and how you were trying to survive without much help from your family. Butler: One of the best days of my life was getting that call from the Mannes College of Music telling me I’d received a full scholarship, because otherwise I would have ended up at Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School. My internal trope was: “Just get to New York City. Just get into conservatory. I’ll make it work.” When times were tough and I had no money, I made it work in any way that I could. That meant I became a sneaky girl. For a period of time I ate only one head of lettuce a day. Gradually I lost my period because I wasn’t getting any protein at all; I was going into that state where young girls lose their estrogen. I felt a lot of shame as well, because I didn’t have the wherewithal that other students did; family support. As a result, I kept everything secret: eating only lettuce and all the rest of my considerable shenanigans. At the same time, I was around my fellow students who understood me on a musical level, and that was thrilling. When you’re 18 years old, that’s everything. Florian: This brings me to my question about your experiences as a woman and a musician. It’s not difficult to notice that there are, and traditionally have been, fewer women musicians in classical orchestras than men. What are your thoughts about that? Butler: In the first half of the 20th century, women had not been encouraged to seek careers in general, let alone one in the arts. That has changed a lot over the years. During 50s, to 60s, to 70s, and even into the 80’s, there were still very few women in orchestras. In any case, in the US it started to really change during the 1980’s with the advent of blind auditions, which are held behind screens. Vienna Philharmonic was the last holdout and accepted their first woman in 2003! Florian: Unbelievable. Butler: So true! But I’ve always been curious as to how the actual sound of an orchestra might be influenced by gender. I listen to a lot of really old recordings on YouTube of various orchestras from the 1940’s, 1950’s – and even older. These orchestras were made up entirely of men. There is no way to codify this notion, but I wonder how the sound of an orchestra has changed through the years with the inclusion of women. That’s not to say that women play in a ‘feminine’ way at all. In fact, if you close your eyes, it’s impossible to glean gender from someone’s playing. I just think there may be a subtle quality brought to play by a re-balance of testosterone and estrogen. Impossible to determine, I’m sure. But it’s along the lines of, what if women ruled the world. How would that change our planet.
Fast forward: I just recently heard Berliner Philharmoniker and Royal Concertgebouw from Amsterdam, both at Carnegie Hall. The string section in the Concertgebouw is at least half women. Berlin has a large percentage of women now, as well.
Berlin Philharmonic – 1950 – Richard Strauss, Don Quixote
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra – 2010 – Gustav Mahler, 6th Symphony
Florian: Your book talks a lot about music as an embodied, physical act. You mention a conductor who can communicate in a nonverbal way with the orchestra and a conductor who had to tell the orchestra what to do. I also remember reading about you standing up, taking the correct breath, and then playing the oboe… Tell us a little bit more about that. Butler: Playing any instrument, whether it’s an oboe, or a flute, or a tuba, is tremendously physical. It may look like we’re just sitting there blowing, but there’s a great deal of focused physical energy that goes into playing an instrument. It’s hard to imagine: you must blow to produce the sound, but also create an extraordinarily beautiful sound, and further, interpret highly complex music. Then you must sustain it over a long period of time – usually more than an hour. Imagine being an Olympic hurdler who must jump for an hour non-stop. The stamina is colossal, exactly like an Olympic athlete, and that’s not an exaggeration. It’s such a rarefied channeling of human energy.
But that’s just the physical part. When you put a group of people together there is a synergy that needs to happen which occurs on the intuitive level. You’re listening and looking and getting cues from those obvious senses. But there’s also the attuned knowing amongst the group. Another way of putting it is this: the top mental process is when you’re fully aware of what’s going on, but then there’s the underbelly, where you unconsciously understand what the unspoken impulses are; the things outside of and below those obvious senses. When you make music, you fuse the combined energies of the group: physical, mental, emotional and intuitive – all creating something artistic, simultaneously.
This is something that musicians learn to do, but it’s also a gift. If you are talented and have the right training and the right ears, and if your intuition is exceptional then all these extraordinary abilities will float to the top. But music must be at the helm. The question is rhetorical but always present: Why are we sitting here playing? It’s because there’s an opportunity at every moment to communicate something to the listener and for that person to be moved. That’s the raw experience. It’s an act of love actually.
I’ve attempted to explain this complex phenomenon in my book through describing my performances. Music is truly a miracle. And it is why, in my opinion, music is an art form that all people relate to and want to be close to. You want to be on stage with the Grateful Dead; you want to be in the front row at a Billy Joel concert; you want to be enveloped by the sound of an orchestra. In all cases, the universal desire is to be in touch with that exact moment when the good stuff is happening on stage. That’s what musicians do. And the listener can experience it too. So, there are always two points in music: the person making the music and the person hearing it. Then the connection is fully embodied.
Florian: Speaking of sound, and person, and embodiment. There is another theme that reappears through your book… making reeds for your oboe, a practice that you engaged in every day. It made me wonder, because you talked about having your own sound. How was your sound related to the reeds? And what are those mysterious reeds, really? Butler: Right, those evil, evil little devils (laughs). First, for oboe players or for any instrumentalists, sound is like DNA. It’s a thumbprint. Now, for me it began with Kirsten Flagstad’s voice when I was four years old. That was a template of sorts for how I heard an artistic utterance. Florian: Were you hoping your oboe would sound like Flagstad’s voice? Butler: Well, it wasn’t even that specified. I was a young oboist who, at four years old, heard her first music produced in a certain way. Florian: Maybe in terms of emotion? Butler: Yes, but I wasn’t conscious of it when I first heard her voice, or even when I started playing the oboe, but her sound was my tattoo. So, when you’re making the reed, you’re fashioning it in a way that will give you your sound.
Marcia Butler – oboist – Keith Jarrett, Adagio for oboe and orchestra
But reed making remains yeoman’s work for the oboist. Basically, you’re making reeds every day. Constantly. They wear out because you’re playing them all the time. I would have 20 reeds in a box at any time and I understood which ones I would play for which music. The acoustic of the hall made a difference too. Alice Tully Hall vs Carnegie Hall. So, it’s all about the reed. If you don’t have a good reed you’re up the creek. It’s a high wire act and very annoying! Occasionally I’d have a bad reed for a concert. Perhaps it wasn’t speaking in a certain way, or wasn’t producing my sound. It felt just awful. But you must be a good enough player and artist to actually manage that bad reed and play beautifully in spite of it. Florian: Against the reed, basically. Butler: Yes, exactly. I sometimes hear people playing at places like the MET Opera Orchestra and they say, “Oh my reed was terrible,” and they sounded great to me. So that’s the testament, they played beautifully in spite of a bad reed. It’s always this balance of trying to make a reed that’s going to do everything for you. Yet, at the end of the day, you have to do it for the reed. It’s weird, you just can’t imagine it. Florian: I want a picture of the ideal reed. Butler: The picture means nothing (laughs). But are you feeling my pain? Florian: Yes, I am. Butler: Imagine it this way: if a violinist had to make a bow every day in order to play, and the bow hair was crappy, and the wood is awful… that’s what we oboists are dealing with. Plus, as soon as you make the reed, it begins to die. The reed is made of bamboo, which was a living organic thing. Because you are blowing into it, your saliva, which has enzymes that helps destroy the food you eat, is also destroying the reed too! Eventually the reed will just die – the vibrancy is gone because your saliva has killed it. You can’t resurrect something that enzymes have literally eaten away. The little soldier is gone. Florian: And, as you said earlier, you’re only as good as your last performance. I’m curious about your experience as a freelancer. How did it feel to be a freelance classical musician in New York City in the 1980s? Butler: I came into freelancing after college, in the 80s, 90s and the 2000s. I retired in 2008. Back then, there were many orchestras in New York City and the surrounding areas that had concert series of four to eight performances a year. I held positions in many of these orchestras. We had a robust performing community. One of the unique things about freelancing is that I played with a wide variety of fantastic players. The personnel of these orchestras were always changing. Say you’d have three concerts in one week – four rehearsals for each concert. One job is a certain group of musicians, the other job is another group of musicians, and you know them and their playing very well. This requires flexibility and is extremely interesting on a musical level. And I did make a good living – always paid my bills. Florian: How about your current projects? You mentioned that you’re writing a novel. What is it about?
Butler: Yes, this is a work in progress. It is set in New York City about a man named Pickle, and features the George Washington Bridge. Florian: It seems that you’re fascinated with New York City. Butler: This city has a heart and soul like no other. I’ve lived here since 1973 and I adore every nook and cranny of New York City. The culture is so diverse and somehow every single last person makes an impact. Goethe said music is liquid architecture and architecture is frozen music. All I need to do is look up and there’s the skyline – the buildings – making their own music. I turn the corner, and there’s another symphony for my eyes. It’s a great place to live.
Marcia Butler was a professional oboist in New York City for over 25 years. In 2002 she formed her interior design firm, Marcia Butler Interior Design. Now as a writer, her memoir, The Skin Above My Knee (Little, Brown) will be published February 21, 2017. She is currently at work on a novel. Ileana Florian is a Romanian American author. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Mulberry Fork Review, and edited collections. She is the essays editor of ducts.org and is currently at work on a nonfiction book about growing up in socialist Romania.
Publisher: Catapult Publication date: November 1, 2016 Number of pages: 276 Price: $15.25
REVIEWED BY Mandy Shunarrah
To label Am I Alone Here? as any one genre is to do it and the reader an injustice. Part memoir, part literary criticism, and all love letter to literature, Peter Orner’s essay collection is the kind of book readers can’t help but cherish. My copy of Am I Alone Here? has as many flags and sticky notes as the stylized book on the collection’s cover. I read it with splendor.
With each essay, Orner measures his life in books—namely how, as a book lover, the literature he’s reading informs and intersects with his life. Reading is the lens by which Orner looks back on teaching law in Prague, the dissolution of his relationship with his ex wife, and his now-deceased, emotionally unavailable dad who haunts the stories like the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Bibliophiles will recognize the seamless neural connections that inextricably link existence and books in each piece.
You need not have read all the books and authors Orner mentions to appreciate the resounding influence literature has had on his life. He only tells you what you need to know to understand each essay and doesn’t burden the reader with extraneous details. Even if you haven’t read the stories the essays hinge upon, you get the impression you’d enjoy them just as much as Orner does. In none of these essays is Orner attempting to prove a supposed superior taste in literature—you can tell he genuinely delights in these stories and wants to share them with others who might enjoy them, too.
When you read Am I Alone Here? you feel as though you’ve read a hundred books and lived as many lives. For bibliophiles, the question of whether we are alone here is a rhetorical one: a question we ask ourselves with every book we read. The question “Am I alone here?” is at the heart of why we read and why literature is an art essential to life.
I talked to Peter about his reverence for the written word and the process of writing his first full-length work of nonfiction. (This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Mandy Shunnarah: Tell me about how these essays came to be. Since this essay collection bends genres and your past works are fiction, I’m curious to know if these essays poured forth organically or if a change of direction was something you’d been planning.
Peter Orner: Writing, any kind of writing, is hard for me. I’ve always felt it was like squeezing blood from a stone. These essays began (and ended too) with me sort of talking to myself in the very early hours of the morning. I think of them as morning notes to myself. I never plan very much. But after a certain point I realized these notes were speaking to each other.
MS: When you would discuss where you were in your life at the time you were reading a particular book or story, I believe the youngest age you mentioned was 19. Were there any books you felt a connection to before that time?
PO: You know that book about the little bird who’s born while his mother is off getting food? And he flies around asking every other animal and a bulldozer, too, if they are his mother? [Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman] I remember holding that book and wanting to hear it again and again. What a sad, beautiful book that is. I think it all started with that one. What would a psychologist do with this answer?
MS: It’s clear you’re an expansive reader. Was it difficult to choose what authors and stories you would include in the book? Are there other books you’re deeply fond of that didn’t get mentioned in your essays?
PO: So, so many. In the introduction to the book I list a few including Bessie Head (wonderful, deadly writer from South Africa/Botswana), Evan Connel (the great story writer from Kansas City), Calvert Casey (a Cuban Irish story writer), and Penelope Fitzgerald (the British novelist whose work, all of it, floors me)…There is also a piece I’ve been working on in my head about Primo Levi for many years about reading Levi in a cemetery in Bolinas, California. One day I’ll actually write it. Or maybe not; it is better in my head.
MS: Since completing Am I Alone Here? have you read anything you wished you’d read sooner so it could’ve been included in the collection?
PO: I recently read Patrick Modiano’s weird memoir, Pedigree, and took a lot of notes in the margins. Got me thinking. And earlier this year I discovered the work of the American story writer and novelist William Goyen. Goyen’s been largely forgotten. He deserves some serious resurrection because he’s an original. He’s fearlessly vague, and like Modiano, obsessed with memory.
MS: Your contentious relationship with your deceased father is a recurring theme in many of the essays. Did writing about him after his passing help you understand him in a way that wasn’t possible while he was alive?
PO: I wish I did. I think I’m more confused about him than ever. But I’m suspicious of answers in general, and much prefer questions. Will I ever get to the bottom of the strange person who was my father? Probably not. Writing about him made that question less even less answerable.
MS: What are you working on next? Since you’re primarily a fiction writer, do you anticipate writing nonfiction again in the future?
PO: This will be my last book that incorporates specific aspects of my own life—he said, hoping it was true. I live and die by fiction… But in a way nonfiction is just fiction with a little more literal facts. Either way, like I say, it’s all hard for me.
Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though she calls Birmingham, Alabama, home. She writes personal essays, book news, and historical fiction. Her writing has been published in The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, PANK Magazine and Deep South Magazine. You can find more of her work at her website, offthebeatenshelf.com.
MJ Fievre’s first English language book opens with a blast of swirling, sticky, language so descriptive and powerful you’ll break a sweat before you’re one paragraph in.
“Port-au-Prince, Haiti—where the sun burned, and the clouds didn’t break into rain. Collars melted against necks and Eskimo ice creams melted down hands. Grass withered. Madansara birds fell into parched silence. Taptap and kamyonèt shot by, honking, and the clouds of dust they stirred up took hours to settle.”
A Sky the Color of Chaos is the author’s own story, set in a politically unstable and dangerous Haiti where gunshots and power outages are a part of daily life. Fievre begins with seven-year-old Jessica (as she calls herself in the memoir) who lives in an apartment in the thick of Port-au-Prince where she wastes no time introducing the unpredictable violence both in the streets and in her home. Jessica’s abusive father is central to the book, and so much of her world revolves around him as she grows up in their middle class home, as a student in a strict but encouraging Catholic school, and later, as a rebellious teen in the rusted out cars of her teenage boyfriends. Jessica’s coming-of-age is darker than most, not only because it is set in the turbulent landscape of Haiti, but also because she grows from a child who both loves and needs love from her father, to a pre-teen who despises him and fears she is like him, to a young adult who realizes that, as her mother tells her early on, “Things are not always black and white.”
The most remarkable thing by far in Fievre’s memoir is the rich language, written with a poet’s ear and eye for description and rhythm. Fievre’s astonishing similies and metaphors, heaped upon each other for paragraphs at a time are dazzling, like this passage about her sister, Soeur:
“I looked a Soeur in the stutters and twitches of sleep, her arms in disarray like fish confused by waves. Her body flinched, and it clicked, and it dreamed. The flickering of eyelids, like moths that slowed their flight before landing.”
Even the most gruesome passages, where a young Jessica is confronting death—the burning of a man in the street, the stack of decomposing bodies in the morgue, are painful and lovely. The backdrops of Jessica’s life shine with incredible clarity and heart.
Fievre’s beautiful language is sadly absent from the lengthy footnotes that sometimes creep across multiple pages, informing the reader of historical facts in a professorial tone that seems at odds with the rest of the book. There is an obvious urge to cover a vast amount of information in a relatively short time, both in the footnotes and the way Fievre races through the years, sometimes devoting an entire few years to a single short-paged chapter. In particular, we speed by the moment when Jessica’s father goes from raging, controlling patriarch to indulgent, checked-out father who allows drinking, partying, and much free time with boys. Jessica the narrator is, rightfully so, caught up in the heightened drama of being a teenager in Haiti, where your love interest could also be a member of a deadly, torturous secret police force. But, it is still a shame that the core tension of the story—that of her relationship with her father—fizzles out so soundlessly.
The description of Jessica’s three boyfriends, each wonderful and threatening in their own way, come fast and indulgently, and they are a pleasure to experience. Fievre taps into the emotional and physical experience of being a teenager, with descriptions of Jessica’s inner turmoil that are both highly specific to her and universal at once. It is hard to read them and not feel tinges of recognition at the angst and attempts at self-realization that come with teenage years. She writes masterfully of emotion, giving concrete weight to words that are otherwise just floating, fluttering ideas.
Even if A Sky the Color of Chaos were only the story of a remarkable girl surviving and overcoming violent and overwhelming odds to reach her dream, it would be worth a read. But it is also an incredible portrait of Haiti in a time where much of the world only associates the country with its devastating earthquake. It is tough and wistful and empowering all at once. In other words, it’s the kind of book that you could (and should) read over and over again.
Amye Archer has lost herself—or she’s determined to, at least the parts that weigh heavy. That is, the pounds. But losing yourself, even parts, even pounds, is a dangerous business. In Fat Girl, Skinny, we watch Archer watch Amye, her younger self—spiraling. First down, then out of control. A crime has been committed in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Her husband of two years, Jack, has been entangled with one of his coworkers. There are texts. Texts Amye finds and cannot ignore. These texts mark the final transgression of their difficult relationship. Amye was tethered to Jack by his need for her to hold him through his anxiety—to act as both witness and antidote to his disease. “I was needed, and so long as Jack needed me, he would never leave me,” she says. But Amye didn’t need Jack. Not really. “I was unhappy,” Archer tells us, “but I wasn’t ready to be without that unhappiness yet.” And so there are boxes and breakdowns. There is anger, guilt, fear. Eventually, there are divorce papers. Eventually, there is a void so wide Amye cannot see out. She nearly drowns. Maybe she did need him, because one thing is for sure, she needs something. So, Amye forks over the discounted membership fee for Weight Watchers, steps on the scale and stares at the number. 265. She writes 165 beside GOAL. Because, she figures, if she ever wants to have the life she’s always wanted—the good man, the baby, the two cars parked outside, the books of poetry, or at least a tolerable job, and not to mention the sweet revenge against Jack—she must get skinny. “Being skinny is a Utopia,” she tells us. We know Amye is going to lose—we just don’t know what.
Archer does not look away, and so neither can we. “I’m only 28, but time is growing thin in my mind,” says Amye. She is left with nothing but the losses that lay at her feet. Jack and their home, the life they built together during a relationship that spanned across his illness and her weight gain. And then her sister, Jenny—the skinny one, smart one, pretty one—moves from across the street to New York City with her boyfriend. In the midst of so much losing (the love, the life, the weight—swiftly at first as grief steals her appetite and leaves her craving cheap beer and dead-end men), Amye begins to lean. She leans on the community of courageous, frustrated women at her Weight Watchers meetings. There is a solidarity in their small talk, in the language of female bodies. The guilt and shame and envy and knowing. For Amye, there is a past marked with pain and rejection and dependency. “This is the face of food addiction. We promise, we disappoint, we eat, we feel bad, we repeat,” she says after falling into a black hole of fast food breakfast staples one morning. And so until she can stand on her own, if ever, Amye keeps leaning. Georgia, a friend since the two were five-years old, is always on the other end of the phone—or the other side of the table at the bar. They begin walking, talking—about men and marriage and desire and sick mothers, about what they will do and where they will go once their bodies are skinny. They dream in bikinis.
There are stumbles—no, there are falls. Amye joins the long tradition of intelligent women who repeatedly choose the wrong objects for their deep desire, and heavy need. She drinks. She chooses tipsy evenings that bleed into mornings over healthy, balanced meals and exercising. She is frustrated at work, but resists her creative yearnings to get back to writing poetry, or try something new entirely. As readers, we begin to feel tired, yet desperately committed—like Amye. We want to grab her by her slimming limbs and ask her how she hasn’t noticed that none of this is working. The weight is trickling off, but does it mean anything if her insides are still quaking with the trauma of repeated wounding? If a part of her is still hanging on to Jack and making it impossible for her to inhale new life? We want to ask her why she keeps seeking validation from everything outside of her body, when we’ve heard it begins inside the self. We wonder how she can’t see what we see. We’re rooting for you, Amye! we want to scream. But Archer knows our satisfaction cannot come easy. She carefully, continually reminds us of the truth about loss, about being lost. And about grief, and loneliness, and rejection—and how these states of being do not dissipate but transfer like toxic energy inside our bodies. About the self-loathing, self-hating trap that imprisons women who want to disappear—who want to be seen, but only in an entirely different body. “This is the life of someone so desperately trying to be someone else,” she says. Fat Girl, Skinny is a story about a survivor—Amye. “Things end and begin again, and people survive these breaks. And I was determined to be one of them: a survivor,” Archer says. This is the language of a battle familiar to so many women. And Archer portrays this battle with a necessary fearlessness.
Archer is relentlessly self-reflexive as she carefully layers scenes of triumph on top of scenes of struggle.
She weaves Amye’s memory with a narrative voice that is privy to a series of realizations and sources of hope that Amye has not yet found inside herself. Archer’s vivid, precise telling calls to mind a line of thinking about what and how we tell ourselves our stories—and write them into memoir. Archer’s work suggests that not only recalling, but vigilantly excavating the ways in which we have survived, which bodes well for a future of surviving.
Fat Girl, Skinny puts chronic struggle with weight and self-worth on the same plate as questions of what it means to be a woman both stuck and drifting. It does not shy away from contradiction and complication. Archer asks her readers to consider whether the life they’ve built (or fallen into) can support their weight. She wonders if there aren’t things we can lose. She begs us to take control of what and how we gain. And to look both back and forward—relentlessly. To not only see, but to try then try again to make sense. In prose that balances the precise with the ornate, Archer provides those who are struggling with a place to lean. She cracks open a conversation we need to be having about struggling with weight. Because Amye’s particular problem is particularly female, Fat Girl, Skinny is a decidedly feminist text. Archer refuses to shield our eyes from the harsh truths of what it means to be starving in a life that so often feels pre-determined by the way in which we fit into skinny jeans, by the way in which others’ gaze all but controls the ways we see ourselves, and how this reflection can become like a prison sentence. For all of these reasons, Amye cannot find her way to an existence that is completely free of body pressures and pressuring. But what Archer does with language, and with remembering and considering, is far more in harmony with reality. Amye loses the weight, but what the fuck does it mean to be skinny?
Just when I needed it, when I’d planned to write about Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, for “Books We Can’t Quit,” the book quits me. I couldn’t find my 1994 edition in my own bookshelves (had I loaned it to someone?), I went to the Saratoga Springs library and it was listed as “lost” in the catalog. I found one copy, a reprint, and the last one on the shelf at a local, independent bookstore. How, I wondered, could I have allowed one of the most important books in my life to vanish?
Was this a metaphor for what Grealy’s book has meant to me? Why has it haunted me since I first read it in 1994?
Autobiography of a Face is an excavation of Grealy’s soul. In it, she dissects the pain endured by multiple surgeries to her face as a result of a Ewing’s Sarcoma discovered when she was just nine years old. Skin grafts, bone grafts, tissue expanders, chemotherapy, and radiation, these are all physically painful, but it was the emotional agony that resonated with me: her throbbing, metaphysical pain. Continue reading →
When I first heard Jason Carney read in a small, sweaty room on the south side of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, he read a story about pie, the kind his Mamaw made for him, and how one act of kindness by his Mamaw melted him into a million pieces. He cried. I cried. We all cried. This is the Jason Carney I know: the brilliant poet who can hold a crowd in the palms of his gentle hands, even in the most desolate of moments. But this is not the Jason Carney we meet in his new memoir, Starve the Vulture – not at first anyway.
Jason Carney was not born, he was built. Starve the Vulture, is the story of that process. A braided narrative takes us through three separate journeys: a bipolar childhood in which a young Jason bounced between an abusive father, a desperate, young mother, and the soft glow of his grandparent’s home; an adolescence fraught with violence, addiction and despair; and, finally, a single day – the day that would come to mark the end of Jason’s drug addiction. All three threads combine to create the three-dimensional world of an addict who would overcome a lifetime of emotional and physical brutality. Continue reading →
Gina Tron, regular VICE columnist and no stranger to the darker sides of human behavior, has a voice that deserves listening to. In You’re Fine, her autobiography and first book, Tron leads readers on a twisted path through her own personal history detailing events both humorous and dark with a consistent candidness that is excruciatingly honest and magnetic. Tron’s insight into the world around her is often cut with sarcasm and humor, but it carries a depth as she tries to give meaning to the chaos:
“Sometimes people don’t want to understand how a person has become the way they are, they just demonize their current behavior.”
Tron seeks help from a psychiatric facility after being rejected by friends and family following heavy cocaine use and a brutal rape, yet she quickly finds out that the ward she’s entered into has an atmosphere of extreme apathy and neglect. Patients roll around in various states of drugged-up stupor, some shitting themselves so frequently that they are caked in their own excrement. The staff is brutal and negligent, the doctors are cold and mostly absent. Her personal narrative provides insight into how poor the approach to mental health, addiction, and sexual abuse treatment are in this country. Most of us are not aware of these people or fail to acknowledge their existence altogether, as if ignoring fixes the problem. Continue reading →
When June Melby’s family decided to buy the Tom Thumb Miniature Golf course in Waupaca, Wisconsin, nobody understood the myriad ways such a game would affect and influence their family. Melby’s memoir, My Family and Other Hazards, details their relationship with the game of mini-golf, both as a business and as one of the constants in their lives. But Melby’s narrative isn’t merely childhood reminiscence, and although Melby reports about the interesting history of mini-golf, it’s so much more than an historical account.
Melby’s cleverness should be noted in many ways, most obviously with the book’s framework—eighteen chapters, one for every hole in the course. But the beginning of the course isn’t exactly the beginning of the story. The force behind this recounting of Tom Thumb’s history begins with a moment of crisis when Melby’s parents plan to sell the course. Continue reading →