Totoro’s Sad

By Mara Cohen

Essay

 

I jump at the sound of my husband’s voice, am doubly startled when I turn to encounter the unblinking eyes of our daughter’s puppet peeking around the kitchen doorway. “Totoro’s sad,” Puppet says.
My heart, bruised and swollen shut, relaxes slightly at what I assume is my husband’s gesture of reconciliation after a weekend when the prospect of divorce had been broached by each of us, more than once. I cross the kitchen and step into the hallway where I find him, his eyes moist with tears.

Photo credit: Camera RAW photography

How did writing this book change you?

I started to drink coffee and booze for the first time in my adult life during the writing of this book. There isn’t a direct correlation—the book didn’t drive me to drink—but it feels connected. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I never regularly drank coffee or alcohol until I was 45—an age when many friends are cutting back on both—but it’s true. I started when my husband and I were separated for six months in 2013, and I was feeling a little reckless, a little wild. Part of the reason I hadn’t imbibed for most of my adult life is that for many years, I thought I had acute intermittent porphyria, a genetic metabolic disorder with a long list of contraindications, including alcohol, and my mother, who was working on a documentary about porphyria and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome at the time of her death (a documentary named The Art of Misdiagnosis, whose title I stole for my memoir, a documentary I transcribed and wove in to my memoir) had me convinced a glass of wine could kill me. Coffee isn’t on the forbidden list for porphyria, but when my first cup in college made me feel as if my bones were going to shoot out of my skin, I took this to mean I was too sensitive to enjoy caffeine. I believed this for decades. I had come to see myself as a fragile flower—a label I once took great pains to paste to myself, a label I’ve found challenging but satisfying to peel away. I still don’t consume much of either, but drinking coffee and the occasional glass of wine has helped me see myself as an adult, helped me realize I am far more sturdy than I had imagined. Writing this memoir did the same.

Thirty-seven weeks pregnant and I can’t seem to stop crying. This is unusual for me. I tend to be an optimistic person. Relentlessly so. Probably obnoxiously so. I tend to be not just a glass-half-full kind of person, but a person who may just point out that the rest of the glass is filled with sunlight; an everything’s-going-to-be-okay, go-with-the-flow, isn’t-life-amazing type of person—in the world, at least, if not always in my own head.

Part of the reason my first marriage fell apart two years ago was because I didn’t know how to let my husband know when I was upset. I spent way too much time smiling when I should have been honest with him. I kept so much frustration and anger pent up inside, so many silent things accumulating until they turned toxic under my skin. I’ve told myself I won’t make the same mistake with my new marriage, and it appears my body is holding me to that, at least for now. My habitual smile is starting to fracture; whatever has been hiding behind it is seeping out.

Now playing on the Otherppl podcast, a conversation with Elizabeth Ellen. She has a new story collection out called Saul Stories, available from Short Flight / Long Drive Books. Earlier this year she published a novel called Persona, and a poetry collection entitled Elizabeth Ellen is forthcoming.

Elizabeth first appeared on this program on August 26, 2012, in Episode 99.

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So Improvement is your eighth book of fiction. The last three books—which have done just fine, in my opinion—are books of linked stories. How come you decided to write a novel?

I wrote novels before I wrote stories (I was very backwards that way). At a certain point, I began working on long short stories, and I fell into my own way of connecting them—a minor character in one was major in the next, and the stories were moving toward the same theme. After three books in that form—a form I felt I’d done my best work in—I wanted to return to the novel, to write something with the intensity of a line carried through—while still using the skills I learned in spreading across a web.

My first advance review, in Kirkus, called Improvement, my alleged novel, a story cycle, and I was not at all insulted. Actually, they called it a “kaleidoscopic story cycle”—who would mind that?

Everyone knows this can happen. People travel and they find places they like so much they think they’ve risen to their best selves just by being there. They feel distant from everyone at home who can’t begin to understand. They take up with beautiful locals of the opposite sex, they settle in, they get used to how everything works, they make homes. But maybe not forever.

I had an aunt who was such a person. She went to Istanbul when she was in her twenties. She met a good-looking carpet seller from Cappadocia. She’d been a classics major in college and had many questions to ask him, many observations to offer. He was a gentle and intelligent man who spent his days talking to travelers. He’d come to think he no longer knew what to say to Turkish girls, and he loved my aunt’s airy conversation. When her girlfriends went back to Greece, she stayed behind and moved in with him.   This was in 1970.

Hybridity

By Ariel Gore

Essay

 

For Beachcombers

Who Are Tired of Performing Normal

 

Surrealism runs through the streets.

—Gabriel Garcia Marquez

 

I stood in front of the bank teller this morning, trying to perform normal.

Wishing I could just go home, get back to work.

See, I’m building a dream library under the house. I’m modeling it after that book hostel in Tokyo. We’ll climb ladders to sleep in shelves. We’ll metamorphose into books. We’ll wake with bent spines.

But here now instead I’m wasting my time standing under these harsh florescent lights, tying to perform sign-here like I’m not re-living the shame of so many years of bounced checks and closed accounts and begging forgiveness for the overdraft fees that mean the difference between rent and no rent and I’m breathing hard even though I have enough money now and all these blackbirds under my skin start pushing to break themselves out, beaks pressing out from the thin peel of my sun-burned chest, and I keep shifting my position, hoping the teller won’t notice the sharp protrusions.

I just want to go home. Get back to work on my dream library. Burrow and write.

The last time I interviewed you you were in the midst of a nasty breakup.  You were nervous, constantly looking over your shoulder, scouting for an exit. I thought, this guy is either a crackhead or he is being hunted. I’d heard about your proclivities and I was ready for a little weirdness, but nothing prepared me for the reality. We were only together for half an hour and it seemed like days. The entire time I felt like we were on the precipice of some great violence. I mean, it was innocent enough in the beginning. You were wearing a white dress made of an unusual fabric, plastic or latex, but with the flow and flexibility of cotton. I remember thinking, I would like a dress like that but I’d be embarrassed to wear it. Your face was all scratched from an accident. Or at least that’s what you said. You’d said you’d been on a bus and there was a crash somewhere in downstate Illinois. You insisted on the term “downstate.” You mentioned a Deer tractor and a forklift and a staple gun. You also mentioned “corn people.” And I thought, Hey, I’m the interviewer. It’s not my job to fact check this motherfucker. So I let it slide. I mean, I’d just gotten out of rehab myself and I didn’t want any trouble. It may sound stupid but I was happy to have this job.

I don’t care about your problems. You think you’re not responsible because you’re an addict, because many people you’ve passed traveling your uneven highway have decided against loving you. To me you’re just like any other narcissist working for some international literary conglomerate thinking that every interview you’re assigned is secretly about you. You should just cash your paycheck and go home to your wife (who doesn’t even like you) and your 2.4 kids and pray that nobody ever does decide to pay attention to your petty bullshit because you would burn like a dry leaf under a magnifying glass.

 

So you have a new essay collection.

Yep.

Available from Dzanc Books

Sign up now to receive your copy! (Sign-up deadline for this title: November 15, 2017.)

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This Book Is Not For You introduces the world to Neptune―a self-destructive and overly self-aware hero for our times. Neptune’s misadventures are funny, harrowing, thrilling, and sweet, and the novel’s recurring Chapter Ones give a fresh start to the story on each page. Neptune’s bad decisions might make you cringe, but you’ll cheer for him…. An exciting and inventive novel.”  –Craig Finn of The Hold Steady

Utilizing an innovative mashup of genres, ranging from pulp fiction, dark comedy, and metafiction, This Book Is Not for You charts the actions of nineteen-year-old Neptune, a misfit and punk haunted by the death of his parents. Having fallen in with an anarchist group determined to blow up a university building, he steals the dynamite instead, igniting an entirely different brand of trouble: the murder of his mentor; a three-way manhunt; and the mystery of the Ghost Machine, a walkman that replays snippets from his own twisted past. Told in a nonstop chain of Chapter Ones, Daniel A. Hoyt’s debut novel explores the clash between chaos and calm, the instinct for self-destruction and the longing for redemption.

Jimmy Wallet Is Buried Alive

Here is a photograph, undated. Jimmy Wallet is seated, his face turned, the sharp lines of his chin and jaw like an alligator that doesn’t bite. He’s terrifically handsome, with a boyish nose and cheeks, a sly smile, a little patch of beard below his lip, long black dreadlocks past his shoulders. His oldest daughter, Jasmine, sits next to him. People say she should be a model. Hannah is sprawled across Jimmy’s lap, looking at the camera, laughing, Jimmy’s hand covering her stomach. Behind him are his two younger girls, Raven and Paloma, and his wife, Mechelle. Raven looks up to her mother, who is turned and kissing the baby, her lips against Paloma’s mouth and nose. It’s a perfect picture, and soon it will be all over the news.

Jimmy Wallet is in motion now. He’s walking to the store. He has a loping, lazy, long-legged walk, arms bouncing near his waist. He’s wearing baggy jeans, a red sweatshirt, and a sleeve- less leather vest. The day is serene. Jimmy breathes deep, smells the Pacific, the sage from the hillside, the jasmine from the yard. When he left Mechelle, she was cleaning up the house, packing boxes, organizing the children’s things. There’ve been tornado warnings, and Mechelle is worried they’ll have to evacuate.

Now playing on the Otherppl podcast, a conversation with Carmen Maria Machado. Her debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is available from Graywolf Press. It is a finalist for both the 2017 National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize, and is the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize.

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Kingdom of Women’s main character, Averil Parnell, is the world’s first female Roman Catholic priest. We learn early on in the novel that she’s the lone survivor of a massacre of 22 women who were about to be ordained. Why give her such a traumatic backstory?

It wasn’t a conscious decision. The backstory was part of what came to me with the character. And since it shaped her life, it shaped the plot in fundamental ways. She probably wouldn’t have started to have religious visions, or had an affair with the most unsuitable man possible, if she weren’t so traumatized.

Prologue: Make Straight the Paths

 Ciara Neal, bleary eyed at the bar, was vaguely aware that her friends had left. In fact, all the customers were gone except her, and still Fran didn’t call closing time. She hovered nearby, clearing off glasses and muttering. Something about a priest. Then a word that managed to penetrate Ciara’s brain fog.

“Did you say ‘vigilantes’?”

“Drink this.”

Fran slammed down a coffee mug in front of her. It didn’t smell like coffee. Didn’t taste like any tea Ciara knew of. Presumably it was the same stuff that Fran swilled down every night. If she had to guess, she’d have said it was brewed from tobacco leaves.

“I’ve been listening to you mouth off all night,” Fran said, “louder and louder with each beer you put away. And here’s what I have to say to you: quit your whining. How many people even have the chance to go to college?”

 

I am watching a dance segment on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, three black males in their late teens or early 20s, performing physical feats that leave me breathless with amazement. They explain that they began street dancing to earn money to help their mother make ends meet. Per usual, Ellen hands them a wad of bills, $10,000, and per usual, I tear up. But then I hear my uncle sneer, “Now don’t go spending it on dope.” My uncle has been dead for years, so I hear this in some dark unquiet corner of my mind, and I immediately scold myself. What? I don’t think that way!

I’m watching a rerun of last year’s BET awards, and in my head I hear, or I should say I remember hearing, “Those blacks, they sure do sing nice.” I am appalled, again. In a drawer, I have tickets for Bruno Mars; we saw Hamilton and are saving up to buy tickets again. I know that these last two things mean nothing, even though I want them to mean something.

Why do you bite your nails during interviews?

I’m nervous. Actually, I’m terrified that someone will think I’m narcissistic. Or maybe that they will recognize that I am a bit narcissistic. Either way, I have to eat my feelings. Fingernails will do.

 

It’s a disgusting habit. You know that, right?

So is voting for idiots into influential political positions. I feel my minor defilement is forgivable, considering.

 

Fair enough. Tell us about your book, The First Church of What’s Happening. How did you come up with the title?