Recent Work By Sabina Murray

A lot has been written on Junot Díaz lately.  For several weeks starting in September, he appeared in at least twelve publications that showed up at my house.  He was in everything from the unsolicited Time Magazine, apparently intended for my fifteen-year-old son, to Vogue, where Díaz appeared in costume, dressed as a member of Edith Wharton’s circle.  Díaz’s face smiled out from Entertainment Weekly, and he appealed for understanding from the pages of the New York Times Magazine. Online, the Guardian Blog stated that the term “genius” was inadequate praise.  Seemingly everywhere, his big glasses, smooth head, trim beard, and tentative smile greeted me. If Andy Warhol still lived, he would use Junot Diaz as a subject.

Recently I traveled to Peru to research my next novel.   Peru rattled me, although I am not a nervous traveler.   When I was thirteen, I made the trip from Manila to Boston, including a required overnight stay in Los Angeles, by myself.  There was hitchhiking in Italy in my college years and other bold and ridiculous travel adventures; once I landed in Ravenna with no money and had to work two days at a communist beer festival to make train fare back to Florence.  I drove through the Texas Panhandle in an ice storm and had to sleep in a church.  I’ve negotiated public transport in Bangkok, often alone, and somewhat confidently.  In recent years, I waited out officials at the Zimbabwe/Zambia border as they attempted to extort one hundred dollars—something I would have given them, but which I didn’t have since, as I explained to them several times, only a stupid woman would travel alone and with lots of cash. I didn’t sweat it.  I had time, and I survived through those moments composed and sustained by the notion that, at some juncture, this would make a funny story.  But Peru made me nervous not because of danger, nor lack of money, nor corruption, nor alien culture, but because of language.  Peru made me nervous because of Spanish.  Spanish makes me nervous because I can’t speak it.  More clearly (not speaking Thai doesn’t bother me) Spanish makes me nervous because I can’t speak it, and I look like I should.  I call this particular anxiety “The Spanish Thing.”

In a distant incarnation of self, circa 1991, I was a member of the grunge scene in Portland, Maine. This did not entail much. I frequented bars, stayed razor-edge thin, and was sort-of (although I could be mistaken) dating a drummer from a band called Otis Coyote. One evening, we attended a party. Instantly, the crowd sorted itself into the musicians (males) and the people who had shown up with the musicians (females). I could only wonder what the musicians were talking about. I imagined they were discussing the things that the drummer talked about—music, books, wild stories from the not too distant past—while I pretended interest in the canned food drive that socially-conscious metal band Tesla had organized in coordination with their upcoming concert: whoever brought the most cans got to meet the band. My forays to join the musicians were met with a silent curiosity or the statement, “there’s more beer in the fridge.” This was a fight waiting to happen—which I promptly initiated at first opportunity—and I anticipated every word leveled at me in the car on the way home: snob, elitist, snob. I knew to steer clear of talking gender because I didn’t need “harpy” added to the others.

I.

The light filters through the window into the still, dark air. In the whirling dust, Mary can make out the fairies, winking, disappearing, toes pointed and wings tensed. She hears them whispering her name, tormenting her. “Mary, Mary,” they say, and then are gone. There is nothing left to break the silence but the sluggish tick from the thick hall clock, its pendulum swung in lethargy, like a fat man swinging his pocket watch: and both pass time. Mother has bricked all the windows over but this one and the house presents its sleeping face to the street, where heels click by and dogs raise their legs to the rusted wrought-iron fence. Women’s rustling skirts drag on the uneven paving stones and thieves, or so Mother says, stand in shadow stropping their knives, sucking on their yellow teeth, waiting and waiting for something worthwhile to come within arm’s reach.

Tales of the New World is supposed to be about explorers, so why are Jim Jones, Anton Chekhov, and someone that seems likely to be your father doing as subjects of the stories?

I use the term explorers very loosely, and I also believe that exploration and colonization go hand in hand, so Jim Jones running off with the Rainbow Family to Guyana, an act of colonization, becomes relevant, and particularly bizarre as we’re watching it happen in the modern age. Of course Jim Jones made the act of wearing sunglasses look beyond the pale, so I guess he brings a level of weirdness to everything. But I do think that if the Plymouth pilgrims had committed mass suicide, we would be making all sorts of parallels. And couldn’t Jamestown be read as mass suicide, or at least a massacre—an obvious harbinger of things to come? Did Jim Jones know from the start the narrative of Jonestown? Looks like I could keep going with that story…Anyway, Anton Chekhov was writing a play about Arctic explorers when he died, and he had a fascination with the explorer Przhevalsky, so he seemed an obvious choice for me. Also, because explorers usually write accounts, or have someone close to them that does (Magellan has Pigafetta) I wanted to lens Chekhov this way, although Chekhov’s book about Sakhalin—non-fiction and the longest thing he wrote—is overshadowed by things like The Cherry Orchard and Lady with A Pet Dog. I felt like I was turning over rocks and finding bugs with this one. And as for my dad, the story revolves around the writing of his undergraduate thesis, which is on the Carthaginean explorer Hanno. And my father’s the kind of guy who goes after life with an explorer’s curiosity.