TMR Editors’ Prize
Our new, enhanced online anthology
Current Issue: 36.1 (Spring 2013)
Featuring the winners of the 2012 Editors' Prize as well as work by Cara Blue Adams, Jennifer Anderson, Aaron Belz, Jerry Gabriel, Darren Morris, and Brad Wetherell... along with a conversation with Steve Almond and William Giraldi and a look at the art of Al Hirschfeld.
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- Surazeus Simon Seamount on The Collaborative Poem
- The Nifty Trick of Dan Chaon’s “A Little Something to Remember Me By” | Rebecca Meacham on Here’s A Little Something to Remember Me By
- Francesco Sinibaldi on Short Story Month, Day 31: “Babylon Revisited”
- Francesco Sinibaldi on Working Writers Series: Darci Schummer
- Francesco Sinibaldi on The November Story
This coming weekend, The Missouri Review—along with our partners: the Museum of Art and Archaeology, the University of Missouri Film Studies Program, and the Department of Student Life—will be hosting an early screening of the upcoming film Copperhead. Set during the Civil War, the film tells the story of the “Copperheads,” a New York group of pacifists, and the price they paid when they refused to take sides during the bloodiest war in American history. The main character is Abner Beech, a stubborn and righteous farmer of upstate New York, who defies his neighbors and his government in the bloody and contentious autumn of 1862. Unlike typical Civil War movies, this is set far from the battlefields in the middle of the country, and instead examines the devastation and loss of war on families and a community.
The movie stars Billy Campbell and Peter Fonda, and is based on the 1893 novel by Harold Frederic and is set to release in theaters all across the country at the end of June. Edmund Wilson praised Frederic’s creation as a brave and singular book that “differs fundamentally from any other Civil War fiction.”
You can check out the film’s website here.
In addition to the screening of Copperhead, attendees will have an opportunity to meet director Ron Maxwell. He’s directed several terrific films, including Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. Several local organizations, including The Blue Note, True/False Film Festival, Citizen Jane Film Festival, and many others, have been kind enough to donate free items that will be available to attendees.
We’re also thrilled that director Ron Maxwell will be in town to meet moviegoers and challenge you in a game of Plinko. Okay, we made that Plinko part up. But it might happen! You’ll have know if you don’t come hang out with us!
Copperhead will be screened at Jesse Auditorium in Jesse Hall on the University of Missouri Campus at 7 p.m. on Saturday June 8th. The event is open to the public; admission price is $10 for MU students and $12 for the public. Tickets are available through the MSA/GPC box office on campus or through www.ticketmaster.com. We hope to see you there!
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from managing editor Michael Nye.
When I first decided I wanted to be a writer, way back when I was an undergraduate at Ohio State, I gravitated toward F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t know why. I bought and read all his novels. His collected stories was my Bible. When people asked me who my favorite writer was, I said Fitzgerald. Without thinking much about why. Fitzgerald is now best known for The Great Gatsby, but during his lifetime, he was a short story writer, writing stories that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Red Book, Liberty, and McCall’s.
I’m thirty four years old, and have only recently reached (some) level of comfort with admitting I haven’t read The Famous Book You Want To Talk About and Are Shocked I Have Not Read. I’ve also begun to question the books I have read. When I read The Grapes of Wrath, I didn’t like it: would that be true if I reread it today? Moby Dick was brilliant when I was in my late twenties; how would I feel about the book now? How many other books do I need to revisit, reconsider? Fortunately for me, this is National Short Story Month, not National Novel Month. So it seems appropriate to close May by rereading my favorite (allegedly!) short story writer and what’s considered one of his greatest stories.
“Babylon Revisited” is the story of Charles Wales, an American living in Prague after the boom years of the Roaring Twenties have crashed and burned. The story is set in Paris, and when the story opens, Charlie has just arrived. He finds the city is, of course, not the way he remembers it; old friends are broke or just flat out gone; all his old haunts are still and quiet. None of it feels right to Charlie: nothing is quite recognizable and he’s softly embarrassed by all the things he can’t remember or never did when he lived in Paris. He tries to convince himself that the past doesn’t matter. Instead, he focuses on his nine-year-old daughter Honoria, who he hasn’t seen for ten months, in the hope of convincing her guardians, his sister-in-law Marion and her husband Lincoln, to let him take his daughter back to Prague. He hopes they can forgive him for what happened to his deceased wife Helen, which Fitzgerald is careful not to reveal too soon.
The melancholy and the hopeful stubbornness Charlie shows in the first scene resonates in each of the story’s five sections. The large, bustling city he remembers is gone, and Charlie is both relieved and nostalgic for the days when he was filthy rich and frequently drunk. It was a party that never should have ended.
Helen haunts the story. Naturally, Marion is unconvinced that Charlie has changed. Every word she speaks, every gesture she makes, is cautious, icy, a thinly veiled contempt for her brother-in-law. Charlie’s mind never focuses on Helen, too painful to linger on, too incompatible with his hopeful view of the future. Helen reminds both characters of their past—my wonderful and flawless sister; my carefree partner-in-crime wife—that no longer exists and probably wasn’t a true image of Helen anyway. They both need Helen to be a martyr, to serve their own needs.
But the story gives Charlie, and the reader, a second type of ghost: Duncan Schaeffer and Lorraine Quarrles, “one of a crowd who had helped them make the months into days in the lavish times of three years ago.” They are doppelgängers for Charlie and Helen, the presence of the past that can be shaken off and turned into pretty memories. They are still drunk and lascivious, and Charlie tries and fails repeatedly to duck them. All of which brings the story to its apex when they corner Charlie by storming into Helen and Lincoln’s living room.
Honoria is more of a device than a character, and I wondered more than once how deliberate this characterization was. To see her as a token to be fought over seems to fit the story, fit how Charlie wants possession of her (of his past, of his change) without really contemplating why. There is little signs of love for her from Helen and Lincoln, who are simply doing their duty more than anything. It’s American of them, in the most derisive of ways, to want to have something solely for the purpose of having it, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Even of their own lives.
This week, after rereading “Babylon Revisited” once, I wrote one of my friends and said that Fitzgerald’s story really seems to be of an era rather than timelessness. I’m less convinced this is true now. All great stories are of their time … and of our own. Experiencing Charlie’s decadence and decay recalls our recent booms and busts. Whether it was the Great Recession and the housing bubble, the tech boom, Dow 36000, the Post War Boom … well, you’ve seen and heard this dance before. This time it’s different, they say. It never is. Any student of history knows better. Any reader of fiction.
Charlie’s collapse, both mental and financial, could be from any era. So too could his stubborn American view of the morning—”football weather”, he calls it—when anything is possible, anything can be done. But Fitzgerald shows us what Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This constant fragility of our lives, of what we’ve done, is the kind of tragedy that Fitzgerald orchestrated these moments better than any other writer of his era. The story’s devastating last line perfectly captures this fragility. I won’t give away the ending of this story, just in case, but close with this from the end of the first section:
It had been given, even the most wildly squandered sum, as an offering to destiny that he might not remember the things most worth remembering, the things that now he would always remember—his child taken from his control, his wife escaped to a grave in Vermont.
If you haven’t already, you can read “Babylon Revisited” here.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from author Scott Garson.
Italo Calvino’s “Theft in a Pastry Shop” has the illustrious distinction of being the story I’ve most often read aloud to people on road trips.
Probably that’s not incidental. Calvino’s narration—an all-knowing 3rd—makes it easy for listeners to orient themselves. And the story’s not hard to find your way around in the first place. It’s whole and direct, like a melody, and gives pleasures, I think, much the same.
So what is there to say about it? What’s there to say about an infectious tune, beyond stressing your enthusiasm?
I’ll start with some bibliographical stuff. The version I have—translated by Archibald Colquhoun and Peggy Wright—is from the 1984 HBJ collection DIFFICULT LOVES. According to a brief foreword, the story was written sometime in the mid-to-late 1940′s and first published in book form in 1949, in ULTIMO VIENE IL CORVO.
That would put it in the heyday of Neorealism, and you can definitely see the signs. The leader of the gang, Dritto, “[walks] along in silence, through streets empty as dry rivers, with the moon following them along the tramlines.” The lookout man, Uora-Uora, has to stand out in the cold, hungry. He’s dressed “in his best, God knows why, complete with hat, tie and raincoat,” but with his long wrists “jutting out of his sleeves.”
If there’s the stark, social poetry of Neorealism in “Theft,” however, there’s also something more immediate and more easily identified: genre. Like the title says, this is crime fiction, and we run into certain conventions right away. We learn that the men are accustomed to the life: they’re out with “two jobs to do.” We observe in their group rigid hierarchy: Dritto, the leader, is imperious and grim; the two underlings, Uora-Uora and Baby, ask questions we might end up taking as dumb—because Dritto sees no need to answer.
Have I given you enough for you to imagine you’ve pegged this story by now?
“It was then that he became aware of the smell; he took a deep breath and up through his nostrils wafted an aroma of freshly baked cakes. It gave him a feeling of shy excitement, of remote tenderness, rather than of actual greed.
Oh, what a lot of cakes there must be in here, he thought. It was years since he had eaten a proper piece of cake, not since before the war perhaps. He decided to search around until he found them. He jumped down into the darkness, kicked against a telephone, got a broomstick up his trouser leg, and then hit the ground.
At this in point in the story—two pages in—things take a definite turn. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the story goes more Chaplin’s way than De Sica’s. And if you were thinking that the men would either get the desired lire or become subjects of a meditation on iniquity—no. The crime-fiction scaffold goes sailing. We get something wild. Psychological. Metaphysical. Both. Or neither. Vital, anyway.
Calvino’s “Theft in a Pastry Shop” is a story of happenstance liberty, fleeting deliverance in a garden of instinct. If you’re like me, you will pretty much never forget the last line, which involves Baby and Tuscan Mary. If you’re like me, this story will keep calling your name. It will seem the kind of story you can always use.
Scott Garson’s collection of stories–Is That You, John Wayne?–is just out from Queen’s Ferry Press.
During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from our own technical editor, Patrick Lane.
Only one story I’ve taught has made a student cry in class. Moreover, it wasn’t even a particularly moving passage in the story whose lyricism plucked the heartstrings and brought a tear to the eye; it was the discussion of the story that made the student cry. I reckon that to be some serious narrative power. The story is Judy Budnitz’s “Guilt,” from her 1998 collection Flying Leap.
Budnitz is an accomplished fabulist, and “Guilt” is built on a straightforward “What if?” conceit. Arnie’s mother has just had a heart attack. The story opens with him and his two aunts sitting in the hospital waiting room.
The doctors told us her heart won’t last much longer. Her old ticker is ticking its last, unless something is done. “What can be done?” the aunts cried.
“We can’t fix it,” the doctors said. “She needs a new one, a transplant.”
“Then give her one!” the aunts cried.
“It’s not that easy,” said the doctors. “We need a donor.”
The doctors went away. The aunts looked at me.
“Arnie,” Nina said, “what about your heart?”
Unlike the fantastical conceits of a lot of fabulism, the premise of “Guilt” is disturbingly plausible. When I teach this story some student almost invariably asks, “They can’t actually do that, can they?” In fact, I’m not entirely sure that they couldn’t; but advances in medical technology are not really the crux of “Guilt.” The “What if?” here is not really “What if it were possible to donate your heart to your parent?” but rather “What if you were expected to?”
Arnie is not onboard with this particular form of self-sacrifice. He protests that he needs his heart, that it’s not right that he should give up his life to for his mother:
“We can’t both have my heart,” I say.
“Of course not,” says Nina. “You could get one of those monkey hearts, or that artificial heart they made such a fuss about on the news awhile back.”
“Why can’t Mother get one of those? Or a transplant from someone else?”
“Do you want your mother should have a stranger’s heart? Or a monkey’s heart? Your poor mother? Do you remember how she never used to take you to the zoo because she couldn’t stand to see the filthy monkeys? And you want her to have a monkey’s heart? It would kill her!” Fran cries.
Budnitz has some fun with the stereotypes of Jewish mothers and sons as the aunts continue to needle Arnie, but what’s at stake is the very definition of what it means to be a loving son. The language of love and debt is soon inextricably entangled. The aunts remind Arnie of the sacrifices his mother made to put him through college and of the fact that since graduating all he does is “sit in front of a typewriter all day, call yourself a writer, smoke those cigarettes, never get a haircut–” The accusation is clear: Arnie has been a bad son, a burden on his saintly and long-suffering mother. Donating his heart goes beyond simply the duty of a good son. It becomes the means by which Arnie might finally redeem himself.
Or so the aunts say. Arnie sees the absurdity of their argument and expects reality to come crashing down on them when they present him to the doctor as a potential donor.
“Surely you don’t do that sort of thing?” I say incredulously.
He gazes at me. “It’s very rare, very rare indeed that a son will be so good as to donate his heart. In a few cases it has been done. But it’s so rare to find such a son. A rare and beautiful thing.”
At this point the story adopts a pattern familiar to any fan of The Twilight Zone, in which the rules of the world have changed, but only our protagonist recognizes the difference. Even Arnie’s girlfriend, whom he thinks must surely support him, must surely reject the madness of his relatives, sees the heart donation as not a sacrifice, but a wonderful opportunity:
“Isn’t technology incredible?” Mandy says. “These days doctors can do anything. Now you can share yourself, really give yourself to someone else in ways you never thought were possible before. Your mother must be thrilled.”
In workshop, one of the axes that we use to track tension is connection/disconnection. Are characters growing closer or pulling apart? “Guilt” takes this axis and ties it into knots. We normally think of connection as the positive value and disconnection as the negative. In the classical model, comedies, which end in marriage, are ultimately stories of connection, and tragedies, which end in death, embody disconnection (at least from one perspective). But in “Guilt,” that polarity becomes the point of view of the upside-down world that Arnie finds himself trapped in. It is the aunts and Mandy who insist that Arnie’s reluctance to give up his heart for his dying mother is proof of irredeemable selfishness, who praise connection as the highest virtue, and yet we (at least most of us, I hope) empathize with Arnie. We shiver when Arnie’s mother, ostensibly taking his side and excusing him from any obligation, lays the ultimate guilt trip on her son:
“You have your whole life ahead of you, after all,” my mother says. She looks down at her arms, at the branching veins that creep up them like tendrils of a vine. “I never expected anything from you, you know,” she says. “Of course nothing like this.”
Connection becomes emotional extortion, and disconnection takes the form of a kind of outlaw freedom. Is it right for our parents to expect anything from us? Is it wrong for us to disregard our parents’ expectations of us? Essentially, we all owe a debt to our parents that cannot be repaid, short of repaying a life with a life. Arnie doesn’t get to decide or even debate what he owes his mother; no one will listen to his arguments about whether or not it is fair to ask him to give up his heart. Arnie is left only to decide whether he wants to live in debt or get free of it. As such, the option of giving his very own heart to his mother becomes not the ultimate act of connection and intimacy that all our symbolic traditions would assume it is, but is rather a route to being truly free from her forever.
It was working out this brutal calculus that brought my student to tears. He was trying to articulate what he would say to his mother if they found themselves in such a situation. He didn’t quite get through the whole equation. As he began to get choked up, he simply said, “She wouldn’t — she couldn’t — ask that of me.” For him, Arnie’s dilemma was a “what if?” that had to be kept firmly in the realm of fable and fantasy.
For those aurally inclined, a recording of “Guilt” as read by actor Matt Malloy was featured on This American Life as part of episode #256, “Living Without.” Audio of the episode with the performance of “Guilt” (which is how I first encountered Budnitz’s work) is available at the This American Life website.
Patrick Lane is the Missouri Review’s web editor.
During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from writer Elliott Holt.
That line kept running through my head when I saw Sarah Polley’s beautiful documentary “Stories We Tell” last weekend. The film is an investigation of her late mother and the secrets she kept. Polley interviews all of her siblings, her father, and her mother’s friends in an attempt to make sense of her family’s past. I often think about secrets, about how hard it can be to know another person completely, and about how much we humans need our hidden, interior lives. And so it’s not surprising that I return again and again to my favorite Chekhov story.
On the surface “The Lady with the Little Dog” is a love story, and a romantic one at that, but it’s also about the tension between the person we show the world and the one we keep to ourselves. The older I get, the more the story resonates with me.
I must have been in high school the first time I read “The Lady with the Little Dog.” Chekhov’s story can be found on many syllabi, of course, so I read it again in college and again in Russian at the Middlebury language school one summer. In college classrooms, I learned about what the critic D.S. Mirsky refers to as Chekhov’s “lyric constructions” (he notes the musicality of Chekhov’s stories, which tend to end on a minor note) and the “leitmotif of mutual isolation” (there is a lot of loneliness in Chekhov stories). I learned about how Chekhov revolutionized the short story and about his influence on modern American writers. And when I read the story in Russian, our professor, Lyudmila Parts, pointed out its intertextual relationship with Anna Karenina. Tolstoy’s novel about an adulterous love affair was published in 1877, a full twenty-two years before Chekhov’s story. And aside from their shared subject matter, and the fact that both women are named Anna, there are scenes in “The Lady with the Lap Dog” that directly reference Tolstoy’s book. As my sister Katharine Holt, a Russian literature scholar, recently reminded me, one could read “The Lady with the Little Dog” as a lower-stakes version of Anna Karenina. It’s a short story, not a novel. It’s an affair in which the woman feels guilty and sad, but doesn’t kill herself. We don’t see the unhappiness of the heroine’s home life the way we see Anna Karenina’s misery in the novel. It’s a snapshot of an affair, rather than the full narrative, yet it’s still deeply affecting.
Gurov is “not yet forty” when he meets “the lady with the little dog,” while on holiday in Yalta. His wife and children are at home in Moscow. Gurov’s marriage is not a happy one: “he secretly considered [his wife] none too bright, narrow-minded, graceless, was afraid of her and disliked being at home. He had begun to be unfaithful to her long ago, was unfaithful often…” From the very beginning, “the lady with the little dog” is his target, and we know that he will succeed in sleeping with her.
I have read this story at least thirty times, but I still think of her as “the lady with the lap dog.” And that is surely Chekhov’s intention because he doesn’t reveal her name until the third page. At the beginning of the story, she is introduced as “a new face on the embankment: a lady with a little dog.” She is “a young woman, not very tall, blond, in a beret, walking along the embankment; behind her ran a white spitz.” People at the hotel refer to her as “the lady with the little dog.” When he finally learns her name once the flirtation is well underway, it’s an after thought: “And Gurov also learned that her name was Anna Sergeevna.”
Anna is married, but has never before been unfaithful to her husband. Gurov’s romantic history is more complicated. He observes that most of the women who have loved him didn’t really know him:
Women had always taken him to be other than he was, and they had loved in him, not himself, but a man their imagination had created, whom they had greedily sought all their lives; and then, when they had noticed their mistake, they had still loved him.
But earlier in the story he admits that he doesn’t let anyone in completely. Intimacy “grows into a major task” and “becomes burdensome.” When Gurov loses interest in women, “their beauty aroused hatred in him, and the lace of their underwear seemed to him like scales.” (That is a brilliant description, not just because it’s a surprising, specific image, but also because it tells us so much about Gurov’s character.)
Gurov is detached from the people around him. He’s surprised that he falls in love with Anna. And despite his professed love for her, Anna Sergeevna remains an abstract figure in the story. Gurov projects romantic notions onto her the same way women have projected things onto him. When he goes to find her in the city of S., he sees her in the theater (a place of projections and roles) and thinks, “this small woman, lost in the provincial crowd, not remarkable for anything with a vulgar lorgnette in her hand, now filled his whole life.” Gurov is convinced that he has never really been in love before, but he doesn’t know Anna very well.
I would argue that this story is less about Anna than about Gurov’s need to escape his conventional life:
He had two lives: an apparent one, seen and known by all who needed it, filled with conventional truth and conventional deceit, which perfectly resembled the lives of his acquaintances and friends, and another that went on in secret. And by some strange coincidence, perhaps an accidental one, everything he found important, interesting, necessary, in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, which constituted the core of his life, occurred in secret from others…
He needs his secret life. It sustains him. It’s like the watermelon he eats after he has sex with Anna Sergeevna for the first time. Before you slice open a watermelon, you can’t see the juicy, bright red fruit inside. I can’t help but wonder if such a “secret” life is essential to artists, who need to preserve private emotional space in which to compose or write or paint. The “secret” life is one where the imagination flourishes. Perhaps Chekhov’s own marriage worked because he and Olga Knipper saw each other so rarely—she was in Moscow acting in his plays, he was in Yalta because of his poor health. They conducted most of their relationship by letter.
Gurov lives in Moscow, Anna lives in the provincial city referred to as S. She visits him occasionally in Moscow, but they know they can’t continue to live this way, married to other people and seeing each other only in secret. The secrecy is not sustainable. It’s making them miserable. (In Sarah Polley’s film, someone wisely observes that love affairs “need witnesses” to legitimize them.) Yet if the relationship were not secret, I can’t help but think it would lose its appeal to Gurov. Gurov doesn’t know himself as well as he thinks he does. The story ends on an ambiguous note:
And it seemed that, just a little more—and the solution would be found, and then a new, beautiful life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far, far off, and that the most complicated and difficult part was just beginning.
Even after reading it dozens of times, this strikes me as a really ballsy way to end a story. (After all those years reading this story in literature classes, I now read it as a writer. I admire Chekhov’s craft; it’s enormously instructive.) He finishes a story by saying that the end is far off and that the most complicated part is just beginning. He subverts traditional notions of endings by putting the word “beginning,” at the end. And in doing so, he underscores the fact that for all the hope that Gurov and Anna have for their future, this relationship is doomed. As readers, we know their love can’t last. Gurov and Anna really believe that it will work out, but Chekhov’s minor key suggests otherwise. It’s heartbreaking because it’s true.
 Like most people I know, I refer to this story as “The Lady with the Lap Dog” because the first twenty or so times I read it, the title was translated that way. But Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation, “little dog,” is closer to the Russian title.
 All quotes are from Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation.
 It is worth noting that Chekhov was thirty-nine when he wrote this story and that I am thirty-nine now. As a writer who appreciates this story more every time I read it, I can only hope I will write something half this good. As a human being nearing her fortieth birthday, I am familiar with the restlessness that Gurov experiences in the story.
 And oh what letters they are! I read the romantic correspondence between Chekhov and Olga Knipper when I was about 22 and I remember wanting a love affair like that: conducted entirely by letter. The obstacle of distance made them more passionate and appreciative of each other. Better yet, they expressed this passion on paper. At 22, this seemed ideal. I suppose this reveals a lot about me. I need my space and I love writing.
Elliott Holt’s debut novel, You Are One of Them, is out this month on Penguin. She was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and has lived in cities all over the world. A former copywriter who worked at advertising agencies in Moscow, London, and New York, Holt attended the MFA program at Brooklyn College at night while working full time in Manhattan during the day. Her short fiction has been published in Guernica, Kenyon Review, Bellevue Literary Review and The Pushcart Prize XXXV (2011 anthology).
During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from writer Misha Rai.
When I came across Taiye Selasi’s short story “The Sex Lives of African Girls” in GRANTA’s The F Word issue, I found, in the beginning, that I couldn’t get past the title to the story. Those six words—the sex lives of African girls— had made me restless, instantly. My brain was agog with activity. My first thought (a writerly thought, read selfish) was, why hadn’t I come up with such a title? My second (again writerly, selfish), I needed to appropriate the idea and write about the sex lives of Indian girls. My third, fourth, fifth ad infinitum thoughts (for a while), as I plunged my nose between the pages of the journal chasing the often sought after olfactory high of ink and paper and glue, were that of wondering what was the sex life of an Indian girl like? I made notes on the page where the title (GRANTA devotes an entire page to the author’s name and title of the story) appears. I sent a semi-coherent, overly-exuberant email to various friends and colleagues asking them about their experiences and perceptions of women and sex in the India of today. Six words, from a writer I hadn’t heard of before, had got me thinking, drafting and asking questions.
As a writer what keeps me coming back to “The Sex Lives of African Girls” is Selasi’s use of the second person point-of-view narration or rather her choice to exercise restraint, in some parts of the story, and not (over) use the second person personal pronouns as the only vehicle to tell a story as other authors employing the same point-of-view have done often. In the first section of the story the word “you” appears only twice in the first two hundred words. In the fourth section it appears twice in the whole page. Selasi achieves this by having a clear narrator for the story, eleven-year-old Edem, and by weaving in dialogue amongst the other characters and creating scenes that do not necessarily focus solely on Edem. The burden of narration is placed beyond the “you.” Often when I read this story I find myself forgetting it is a second person point-of-view story. Selasi doesn’t try to get the reader to follow a set of rules or create a sense of intimacy or jolt the reader or make them feel guilty instead she carefully chooses moments that may be relatable—She doesn’t know your first name so keeps calling out, ‘Child!’ You’ve never thought yourself as this—‘child’—neither a child nor someone’s; you’ve always simply been you—and melds them with somewhat unrelatable moments—You’ve heard the Sad Story in pieces and whispers, from visitors from the village, whence the rumours began: that your mother got married and is living in Abuja with no thanks to Uncle and no thought of you. Not for a minute do you believe what they say. They are villagers, cruel like your grandmother.
Another aspect I find fascinating, and a wonderful echo of oral storytelling, is Selasi’s use of repetition of phrases and sentences. The first section of the story ends with the words—Enter Uncle—exact words that appear again at the start of the last section tying in the beginning with the end. Selasi repeats phrases and whole sentences a lot—In the peculiar hierarchy of African households the only rung lower than motherless child is childless mother—throughout the story at crucial moments. This works because each time a change has manifested in the story before she duplicates a phrase or sentence. Additionally, what I love about her writing is how whilst this repetition helps me keep track of the various sections of the story since “The Sex Lives of African Girls” unfolds non-linearly, Selasi jumps back in time and then jumps farther still and seems to be in no hurry to get back to the point at which the story started or to continually provide crumbs for the reader to keep that first section in mind. My joy is always trebled, if not more, to come across creative work that not only flouts the norms of conventional wisdom but also, hopefully, creates frontiers for other writers to push against, question and rework.
Swadesh Deepak, an Indian playwright, novelist and short story writer, once told me that a good story will always perpetuate another, even if the other is simply the telling of how that first story affected the reader. For me, as a reader, at its core “The Sex Lives of African Girls” is a story about the discovery of strength women find in themselves and the hope carried in the choices they can ultimately make even if the result of that choice takes place off the page. I think about the consequence of that choice for days. I write multiple stories about these women in my head. I find connections with them even though Selasi’s story is set in Ghana and Nigeria and I am from India and currently live in the United States. And whilst this story is not representative of every girl on the African continent and I don’t represent every woman on the Indian subcontinent, I, like most readers feel empathy and like some readers have insight. I know what it feels like to be constantly aware of the vulnerability of my female body, to have that body need protection, to realise that for most of my life I will have to make choices that should ideally protect me from sexual assault, to come to the realization that my best efforts may not be enough and to hope that I too will find unlikely allies in women who may scare me but also give me the courage to help them when their strength fails and keep moving on. Taiye Selasi’s “The Sex Lives of African Girls” has done more than just give me simple pleasure in reading it or talking about it, it has taken me down multiple roads of inquiry—imagined and real. I look forward to discovering what other gifts this story holds, as good stories always do, each time I re-read it.
Misha Rai is a PhD student in Fiction at Florida State University. Her fiction will appear in The Indiana Review. She is a former Assistant Fiction Editor for the Mid-American Review. She is currently writing her debut novel.