Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Candace Jane Opper, author of the debut memoir Certain and Impossible Events. It was selected by Cheryl Strayed as the winner of the Kore Press Memoir Award.

 

Opper is a writer, a mother, and an occasional visual artist. She grew up in the woods of Southern Connecticut. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Longreads, Guernica, Creative Nonfiction, LitHub, Narratively, Brevity, and Vestoj, among others. She is a Creative Nonfiction Foundation Fellowship recipient and a member on the advisory council for Write Pittsburgh, a program collective that empowers writers to amplify their voices and strengthen their communities. Certain and Impossible Events is her first book.

Instagram

Email the show: letters [at] otherppl [dot] com

The podcast is a proud affiliate partner of Bookshop, working to support local, independent bookstores.

Don’t Go Crazy Without Me is partly about being raised by a father who taught you and your brothers to be hypochondriacs. What’s it like living during a pandemic?

At first, I felt like an expert at handling the anxiety because I’d been worried about diseases taking me out all my life. But this is  a hypochondriac’s nightmare: a disease that behaves capriciously, that causes no symptoms in some and total organ breakdown in others, a virus that is so tiny it can float in the air for hours or linger on an innocuous looking surface. Just the words CYTOKINE STORM — when your own immune system goes into overdrive and kills you — puts my nervous system into overdrive. 

M.J. Fievre’s memoir A Sky the Color of Chaos (Beating Windward Press, 2015) chronicles Fievre’s childhood during the turbulent rise and fall of Haiti’s President-Priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide—a time of nightly shootings, home invasions, robberies, and the burning of former regime members in neighborhood streets. During the late 1980s and 90s, from when Fievre was eight-years-old to 18, Haiti’s government changed forms eight times; the Haitian people endured fraudulent elections, three military coups, a crippling embargo, and a United Nations occupation. A Sky the Color of Chaos will be featured at the Miami Book Fair International on Nov. 21.

In connection to the release of the book, Fievre had a conversation with writer Jan Becker. They addressed some of the themes explored in the book, including domestic violence, father-daughter relationship, and PTSD.

michaell098300Michael Landweber’s debut novel, We, which will be released on September 1 by Seattle-based Coffeetown Press, has already gotten wonderful blurbs from writers such as Jessica Anya Blau (“a family story…wrapped in a suspenseful, gripping, and totally original sci-fi narrative”), Dave Housley (“a captivating, genre-bending psychological mystery”), and Jen Michalski (“a suspenseful and emotionally engaging novel”). We follow 40-year-old Ben Arnold as he regains consciousness following an accident, only to discover that he is inside his seven-year-old self—and his younger self, whom everyone calls Binky, is not happy about it. Ben would just as soon not be there either, until he realizes he is three days away from the worst day of his childhood—the day his sister Sara was raped, setting into motion the slow, painful unraveling of his family. Somehow, he has to figure out how to get Binky to save Sara.

glasseslennon

I was what — two years old.  It was a nightmare.  I was running.  Somehow I was near a giant hole.  And I fell.  It was a death dream.  My earliest memory.  But was it actually a death dream and did I actually know what death was at that age.  And do I now.

lizro234

The first time I had a full-blown episode of depression I was seven years old. I knew that this was odd, but I was used to oddity. My sister had taught me to read when I was two, so I had become a parlor trick prodigy, marched in and out of rooms at my elementary school and made to read aloud to the “big boys and girls.”  I had the vague uncomfortable sense that I was being used to shame these kids, so I tried to underplay my performance. In return I was petted, praised, invited to eat my lunch with the huge sixth graders and generally protected.

Gravity

By Mag Gabbert

Essay

When I was nine years old my Gran and I took a cruise to Norway. We stayed in the Presidential Suite, which was the biggest suite on board. It was bigger than my Mom’s house. It had fountains, and mirrors, and balconies spread out over five different rooms. It had Tiffany blue carpet and thick, cream-colored down comforters. Gran said she didn’t want us to stop traveling just because Granddad was gone. Gran had survived a brain tumor that year, and her mother and husband had died within just a week of each other—Granddad was only sixty-four. I’d lived through a life-threatening heart virus that year, and watched my dog get run over.

We called it the barrel; it was basically a hamster wheel for human children. Five feet in diameter and constructed of wood, it was already gray and weathered by the time we got it. During recess, most of us would ignore the swings and monkey bars and head right to the barrel. About five of us could fit inside at once. The rest of us would stand on the outside and use our hands to speed the barrel up. Those of us inside had to be fast runners. If we weren’t, the price we paid was bruised knees and splinters in the fleshy parts of our palms. If one of us fell, the rest would soon go tumbling, too, those of us inside yelling for the others to stop pushing.

Passage

I write across distances, from the gray waves of the Irish Sea to the blue-green waters of California’s Pacific coastline. More than this, I write across the elapsed seconds, minutes, hours, and years of my life. Only the other day I looked at the sweeping second hand of my watch and thought, how many times in my life has this perfect circle turned its course and marked time’s passage? In that time I’ve lived on two different continents, been married twice, have two children, three college degrees, and fallen in and out of love more times than I can admit. early evening, and across the tops of avocado trees, the spiraling of a red tailed hawk, the scent of the plumeria, grafted from an ancestor’s garden. A new world unfolds.

DeWitt Henry is the author of the novel The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts (winner of the inaugural Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel), and a mid-life memoir-in-essays, Safe Suicide: Narratives, Essays, and Meditations.  Both are sequels to his latest memoir, Sweet Dreams, about growing up on Philadelphia’s Main Line.  The founding editor of Ploughshares literary magazine, he is a Professor at Emerson College in Boston.  (For more details, please visit www.dewitthenry.com.)

We sit at my grandparents’ long dining room table, the worn green tablecloth unfurled, revealing years of red wine stains. My mother places a cassette recorder in the middle, trying to get it exactly center between the roast beef and the string beans, presses ‘play’ and ‘record’ at the same time. Nobody pays it much mind as the plates are passed, the gravy ladled over lumpy mashed potatoes, the pearl onions in cream sauce we all fight over. Father, we thank thee for this food. Bless it to our use.

The scene is cut from of the movie of our lives, a table full of cameos. There is my great-grandmother, her hair bobbed and dyed its purplish-blue. There is Uncle Bobby next to Aunt Kerri, who cuts his meat into bite-sized pieces. There are my grandparents at the head of the table, my grandfather inspecting a bottle of Cabernet. Beside him is my father, busting Bobby’s balls. “Does she tuck you in at night, too, asshole?”

I am two and my mother asks me if I want to sing. We pick “Frosty the Snowman,” but I can’t remember all the words, so we switch to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Uncle Chuck makes me stop when I start again unprovoked a few minutes later. “No singing at the table,” he says.

Dinner conversation is entirely normal, everyone expecting perfectly well to be exactly where they are. On the tape, my mother is preoccupied with how much I’m eating and when I’ve eaten enough to be excused. My father and grandfather talk about wine.

“Did you know they’re making more wine in California than anywhere in the world?” my grandfather says. He is trying to impress my father. He thinks my father has connections to the mob, or at least knows people with connections to the mob. He assumes that men with connections to the mob know about wine. My father responds politely, says, “Oh yeah? No kidding, Doc.” He knows about wine, but pretends my grandfather knows more. It is a move of deference, an acknowledgment of the thin ice beneath my father’s presence at the table. His voice treads lightly.

At two, I have recently learned a valuable skill. I shove a final spoonful of peas into my mouth, and my mother releases me from the table so that I can show everyone my amazing discovery. “Jump?” I say to my family.

“Jump, Aunt Kerri?”

I circle the chairs. My grandfather, whose sternness occasionally breaks with his affinity for me, says, “Her mind is always at work.”

“Her mouth is always at work,” my great-grandmother says.

“Jump, Uncle Chuck?”

“Jump, Daddy?”

My father laughs, but not at me. “Yeah, right, let me just break my hip,” he says to the rest of the adults. He knows they are watching him. He was away for a while, and now my mother has let him come back.

When I listen to this tape with my mother and my husband two and a half decades later, each of us clutching a glass of wine, I recognize everyone but that tiny voice, my voice. I don’t know how I discovered jumping, or how I really felt about peas, but I’ve heard my grandfather talk about wine my entire life, and I know the sound of that silver on that Corelle ware, that collective, civil laughter periodically breaking up the silence of our eating. I know my uncle’s chiding and my mother’s assessing of my plate. But like my own, my father’s voice startles me, like somebody spliced the tape with a recording from someone else’s house.

“Jump, Grammy?”

My grandmother takes the bait, as she always does. We move into the background and begin our game. “Ready? One, two, three. Jump!” she says.

There are a few indications of the year. The California wine, my father and Uncle Bobby discussing Hill Street Blues. Someone asks my mother what she got for Christmas and I hear her fork clatter onto her plate.

“I got a microwave!” she says, and I picture her arms shooting into the air, her face scrunched with happiness. It’s a gift from my father, something to help around the house, and it’s expensive for 1984, my father writing out his love in a check. I do not mean this cynically. This is how he makes us happy. It is the only way he knows.

I thank my grandmother for jumping with me by making her an imaginary cup of coffee on my imaginary stove. The women prepare Jesus’ birthday cake—a large sheet of ice cream and cookie layers from Pat Mitchell’s. They light the candles and we sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. As the only grandchild, I get to blow out the candles.

While we eat, my father tells a story about Christmas Eve. “So, we’re coming back from church last night,” he says. “Kathy and I are horsing around up in front, teasing, you know. Well, Amy’s in the back, and I don’t know, maybe she’s tired. Anyway, she thinks we’re fighting and gets all upset. We’re up there laughing, and she’s back there going, ‘Mommy, it’s okay, Mommy, don’t cry.’”

Everyone laughs. My mother laughs.

Nobody is rude enough to point out the obvious—that I have barely seen my parents together and can’t recognize the subtle difference between my mother laughing and crying. That this is my first and only Christmas with my father in the house, and I have been told it’s only a trial.

I finish my first piece of Jesus’ cake and ask for a second. “More?” I say. There is a pause while my plate is inspected. “Christ, Amy,” my father says, “are you even chewing?” Everyone laughs again.

The tape is an hour and a half long, and this is as much as my father speaks to me, using me for a little levity around his in-laws, a little lightness to dispel whatever skepticism lingers around the table. Why does my mother record this Christmas and no others? Does she know my father will be gone again before the next? Does she know Aunt Kerri is about to discover that Uncle Bobby fools around? Does she know Alzheimer’s is wending its way down the pathways of my great-grandmother’s brain? What prompts my mother to borrow her friend’s cassette recorder and bring it to Christmas dinner this year?

“I don’t know,” my mother says when we listen to the tape. “I guess I just thought it would be neat to have someday.”

I listen to myself eating a second piece of cake, my mother complaining about the chocolate ice cream dripping down my chin and into the neck of my knitted pink sweater. No matter. I grip my spoon in a fist and shovel. It’s like the cake won’t be there if I look away for even a second.

“Jesus, Amy,” my father says. “What, are you going to jail tomorrow?”

First Contact

By Rob Williams

Essay

Her name was Nedelia. She was a skinny, shy Hispanic girl, with enormous glasses (just like me) and a faint mustache whispering across her upper lip (very much unlike me—but more about that in a second). In my memory, she is always wearing a light blue skirt, knee-high white socks and a white blouse. She looks lovely, although I never would have said that about her at the time.

We live on a small avenue, thirty-two houses in a U-shape; all with perfectly square front gardens and identical red-bricked facades. We know everyone who lives on our cul-de-sac, and they know us. Living next-door to us at number ten are Tom Cahill and his wife, Dotty.

It would pain us, years ago, not to touch one another. In Key West, maybe a couple months after we met, Louisa and I celebrated an early-love sort of holiday—you know, the eight-week anniversary of the first French kiss, or something blissful like that—with a dinner at the now-defunct Cafe des Artistes on Duval St. Atypical for me, I remember little about the actual food, though snapshots of warm foie gras, port wine reductions, diver scallops and saffron decorate the memory, accurate or not. More than anything, I remember the size of the table, a massive dark wooden number, way too big for a two-top, Louisa and I perched at opposite ends. It took our full wingspans to reach one another across that expanse, surely dodging fresh flower, the vase that held it, and burning candle. All for a mere brushing of the fingertips, an actual, if chemical, recharging of our batteries, our blind feet searching in vain in the gulf beneath the white linen tablecloth.

It was a window table, and I remember looking through it at her standing in streetlight on the sidewalk, enjoying her mid-meal cigarette, her blonde hair glowing orange in the night. Somehow, even though it was Key West, and probably at least 70-degrees, I impose, in memory, snowfall on this scene—some dramatic anomaly, some fictional meteorological introspection, the kind of nostalgia that, for a Midwestern boy, can only reside in light ice falling beneath the orange pool of a streetlamp, smoke pouring from the lips of an early lover in the dark, through a restaurant window, at a too-big table pushing flutes of hazel champagne into the air.

Often, it’s still like this—how we’re driven by the need to touch, how our memories are inflamed sometimes by this lack, the distance we must breach. Here, on the other side of the Zócalo tracks, there is no distance at all to breach; we are wallpaper-glued together and we cling to one another not out of need, but incidentally. Actually, we cling to a whole bunch of people, the streets jammed with the chaos of familiarity—the kind that represents a close-knit neighborhood. Really close—like someone’s-knee-in-another’s-tailbone close. I think of my ancestors in the Jewish ghettoes of Poland, the wild social structures and hierarchies within. Here, in Mexico, land of living ghosts, I commune with them. Some apparitional great-aunt with ham-hock arms juggles pierogies, catching them in her mouth before they fall. Her smile bears the sheen of sour cream, bridging Poland and Mexico with a single ingredient. I want to wrap my arm around this burly ghost, sway, gather the streets into a frenzied We Are the World.

But all we can do is succumb to the rhythm, decide not to fight the current. My great-aunt’s ghost fades into the multitude. In these streets, the Cafe des Artistes two-top would be ground to sand. The undertow carries us into Tamale Alley, literally an entire street lined with outdoor food-stalls, each of them peddling their unique takes on the corn-husked delight, not a single one stuffed with huitlacoche. When we ask for it, utter those four corn-smutty syllables, we are, each time without fail, greeted with wrinkled foreheads and dismissive waves. We are obviously absurd foreigners, belted with occasional bursts of tamale steam as the vendors lift the tin lids of their water baths. Crowds of mid-day eaters huddle six-deep, eating together in front of the stand from which they bought their food, pulling bits of golden cornmeal stuffed with mole negro chicken, carnitas in salsa verde, whitefish in mole amarillo, from the corn husks wrapped in greasy crinkling waxpaper, laughing, arguing, working things out. One portion of the alley prepares only mole negro, another the amarillo, another the verde. Tamale Alley has cliques, cornmeal turf wars.

Cars, bikes, mopeds, garbage trucks, skinny shirtless guys hauling cardboard boxes on dollies cascade around the standing diners, swinging wide to avoid them, snaking sidewalk and street, wherever there’s a breathe-hole, a crack of space through which to push. No table gulfs here. No place to put your elbows except against your ribcage, your wrists doing the all the work, fingers pulling strings of meat from the husk, dripping with psychedelic sauces. The smells of garlic and diesel commingle overhead.

Commingling beneath, Louisa and I push to the front of a tamale stand, dare not ask for huitlacoche. Deep in her handbag, our stone knife is surely twitching, longing to halve some brave foodstuff. From a fat old woman we purchase two mole negro tamales. An old sinewy man in a dirty Chicago Cubs baseball cap begs two pesos from us for a tamale of his own. And we dine together silently, the three of us wrapped in crowd on the street. Louisa croons. The old man smacks his lips. I save my energy for the unwrapping of the corn husk, wet with a tawny grease that runs along my wrists as I lift the pillow of cornmeal to my mouth. It gives easily to my teeth, bursts with an outer earthiness—the smells of the Midwest, drives along the farm roads of Central Illinois, Indiana, the sun reflecting from armies of silos. But inside, it’s all Mexico, the molasses sap of the mole negro, penetrating as fresh oil, tar, all sweet burn and toast, the threads of chicken soaked with the charred sauce, lingering flavors of grassy chile, sesame, almond, raisin, cinnamon, chocolate. This is a tamale to span the length of all meals—it is amuse bouche and appetizer and entree and dessert. It is a four-hour meal at a giant table, and your lover pulling the last drag from her last cigarette beneath some final moon. In this tamale, the swings of Buffalo Grove’s Tartan Park regress, go squeakless again, and the tornado slide cleans itself of the old purple of all childhood blood. In this firecracker mole negro parents live forever.

With one hand, I snake Louisa’s thigh. With the other, I raise the tamale to my mouth for a second bite, wondering what this one will evoke. Louisa, nearly finished already, throws her head backward and knocks the old man’s Cubs hat to the asphalt.

Back in February, Justin Bieber was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best New Artist category. Since North America’s youth was in the throes of “Bieber Fever,” he was the odds-on favorite, though it’s worth pointing out the publicity machine behind the curtain, which timed the release of his 3-D film, “Never Say Never,” for the same weekend as the Grammies.

But something happened on the way to Bieber’s supposed Grammy coronation—he didn’t win. Instead the award went to Esperanza Spalding, a relatively unknown jazz singer and bassist.

In the hormone-addled hearts and minds of teenagers, Bieber and his $750 haircut can do no wrong. Within hours of the Grammies, an angry mob of “Bieliebers” chose Spalding’s Wikipedia page as the target of their outrage. They changed her middle name to “Quesadilla,” and added comments such as, “She now has the 2011 Grammy for being the Best new Artist! Even though no one has ever heard of her! Yay!” One even used all caps:  “JUSTIN BIEBER DESERVED IT GO DIE IN A HOLE. WHO THE HECK ARE YOU ANYWAY?”