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Perhaps by now—if not within minutes or hours—most discussion of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, will be crowded from the news cycle. What on earth could be more compelling to Americans than serious talk about the role of bias in jury deliberation, or gun laws and cultural codes of firearm manliness, or voting rights, or who really gets to stand their ground in America?

“Bang, bang from the closet walls,
The schoolhouse halls,
The shotgun’s loaded.
Push me and I’ll push back.
I’m done asking, I demand.” –
Rise Against, from “Make It Stop”

“I’m not afraid of machines. I don’t think the robots are taking over. I think the men who play with toys have taken over. And if we don’t take the toys out of their hands, we’re fools.” – Ray Bradbury

 

When I was in grad school, I usually stopped in Paducah, KY as a halfway point between my parents’ home in North Carolina, and my own home in Iowa. The first time I stopped in Paducah, it was late afternoon, and I asked the woman who checked me into my hotel for suggestions of things to do. It was a blustery late December day, the type that didn’t make me want to do things outside – except for the fact I’d been stuck in my car for the previous 10 hours.

unbearable

By J.E. Fishman

Poem

Oh, my America

what do you say to the little boy in kindergarten who lies bleeding on the classroom floor?

what do you tell the parent fallen to her knees in grief at the unspeakable loss?

what more do you ask them to bear so that your right to firearms may live unimpeded?

In light of today’s tragedy in Newtown, CT, TNB is re-running this essay, originally published on August 28, 2012.  Thoughts and prayers go out to the victims, their families, and survivors. —Editors

 

Early in the morning on June 25th, about a week before I arrived in my new hometown in western Pennsylvania, police here opened fire on a car of three black man speeding towards them, killing the driver, 27-year-old Elip Cheatham.

According to eyewitness accounts, the events of the night are as follows: A shooting occurred at Edder’s Den, a bar in what most of us would euphemistically call a “rough” neighborhood. One of the victims was a friend of Cheatham’s. Cheatham and another friend loaded the 20-year-old with a leg wound into the back of Cheatham’s car and drove towards the hospital. Blocks away, they encountered a police blockade, and this is where accounts begin to splinter.

 

I have measured out my life in sentences: composing, reading, revising and discarding them; talking to students about how to write, interpret, and edit them. I have dreaded the sentence that doesn’t come easily. I have learned at times to play with words that feel like nonsense in order to discover and organize thoughts, teasing words to make clarity appear.

There are sentences with gaps and missing pieces. Redundant sentences. Muscular sentences. Transitional sentences. Sentences that sing. Then: stylistic fragments. Intentional run-ons. Does the reader trust your sentences? If you break the rules, will the reader follow? Sentences that capture complicated feelings or thoughts by uniting verbs with precise subjects and prepositional direction. I’m lost in this sentence. Is this the best place for this sentence? Could these sentences be combined?

The troubled boy attends school, drops out, stocks up on guns and paramilitary gear, stages his siege–from a bell tower, in a cafeteria, down a lane of classrooms, in a parking lot or a theater. Secret diaries are found, blog rants or videos discovered. We just can’t believe it. Then we believe it. We shudder and weep and damn things. We forget that we’ve already forgotten.

Places that know their variation of the story, that have suffered human wreckage and been left behind, must ache from the next round of oblivious headlines that repackage each event as if it’s a new sensation, Like Nothing You’ve Ever Seen Before.

#9 Dream

By Jim Simpson

Humor

“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” – Robert F. Kennedy

“Oh it’s too sad to be true
Your blue murder’s killing you.” – Elvis Costello, “Shot With His Own Gun

 

Basically, I am equal parts realist and dreamer. In most cases I know I am powerless to effect change beyond my little corner of the world, if even that. Still, I often concoct schemes to make the wider world a better place, at least in my mind. But what I am about to propose is much bigger than any “Occupy” movement. This could be the beginning of a utopian paradise. Join me in my excitement.

Put a gun in your hand, open the chamber. Take a revolver, an assault rifle, a shotgun. Load it.

You’ll first feel the dense mass of steel, polymer, or wood weight in your palms. You’ll roll the cylinder, if there is one, pop it open and snap it shut. You’ll learn the distinct snicks and clicks of safety levers and shells and the hammer. With a shotgun, you’ll beware the bite of the spring snap after you shove the last round in the loading port. You’ll see that it takes time for untrained fingers: slipping single bullets into the chamber, loading multiple cartridges into the magazine. You’ll count as you shoot. The sound of each shot will be extra startling if you shoot indoors the first time: WHOUUM for the 357 Magnum. TAP TAP for the 22. You won’t help but wonder about all the pockmarks in the ceiling and sidewalls from previous bullets poorly aimed. Gunpowder will make a shocking cloud. You’ll leave with black marks on your hands, and you’ll smell faintly of fireworks.

 

I have killed my own dinner before, but always shellfish. Oysters and clams from a raw bar are alive until swallowed, about which my conscience troubles me not, and I have done terrible, terrible things to lobsters to prep them for grilling. I learned from the great Jeffrey Steingarten that the most humane way to kill lobsters is to guillotine them, lengthwise and abruptly, with a chef’s knife.  It’s gruesome, but it gets easier with practice.  I’m okay with the violence, not least because grilled lobsters are fucking delicious. If lobsters tasted like balsawood airplanes I would be more supportive of their right to life. But my previous exposure to guns has been limited to shooting the ones usually wielded by movie terrorists at a gun shop in Las Vegas, and my previous experience with hunting comes from thirty-five years of watching Bugs Bunny and from a deep admiration for Woody Allen’s standup routine about moose hunting. So I was a little trepidatious when my friend Jon suggested a handful of us go pheasant-hunting at his hunt club. But I’ve heard pheasant is delicious.

The evening of January 8, Tucson marked the one-year anniversary of last year’s tragic shooting with a vigil on the mall at the University of Arizona. Funerals and memorial services for individuals had long passed, and the vigil was mostly a community celebration of healing, remembrance, and resilience in the face of violence and death. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords embodied this spirit, rising to the stage with her radiant, childlike smile and bright red scarf. Her energetic recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance drew chants, cheers, and even tears of goodwill from the crowd. Other shooting survivors and family members participated in a candle lighting ceremony. A local symphony and choir performed, and the Band Calexico, reportedly a longtime favorite of Giffords, sang “The Crystal Frontier.” At one point, on cue, the crowd transformed into a swaying ocean of blue glow sticks in the darkness.

Francine Prose is way more prolific than you or I.  She has written fourteen novels, three short story collections, one children’s book, and four books of non-fiction.  Additionally, she teaches, writes book reviews for the New York Times, is a a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine, a Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bard College,  has won a Guggenheim award, has been nominated for a National Book Award, and has been president of the PEN American Center.  Her subject matter ranges from her fascination with Anne Frank, to the sordidness of faculty affairs at colleges, to Caravaggio, to 911, to death, life, and love. Her work is often funny, sometimes irreverent, occasionally serious, and always smart and beautifully crafted.  I sat down with Francine at Japonica in New York City to chat with her about writing, publishing, her new novel, marriage, and the semester she was my teacher in graduate school.

I bet it’s hard for some people not to be jealous of Madison Smartt Bell.  He published his first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble, in 1983 when he was only 25.  Since then he has published 20 more books and has been named a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for All Souls Rising. Additionally, in 2008, Madison was awarded the Strauss Living Writer Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  Aside from all the awards, Madison has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, he plays guitar, and he sings like a cross between John Lee Hooker and Johnny Cash.  And let us not forget that  Richard Avedon took a very cool photo of him once for The New Yorker!

Young men in purple bandannas stare at us, younger mothers with toddlers draped like minks over their necks glare while pumping their worn fists into the air. Who the fuck are we, indeed. In the stomping of countless feet, caught somewhere in the middle of this river of people, our hearts are clobbering our chests, hearts that have seen Chicago, and are now seeing this. An old man so clean-shaven his cheeks bear the sheen of a newborn puts his arms around us, we novelty gringos, and tries to shout something into our ears above the roars of the mob and the megaphones. He fails. His voice reaches us all creaky basement door, wordless and unoiled. His arm feels damp like snakeskin on my neck.

We can’t quite see beyond the crowd now, walled in by scarred bare shoulders and flailing bronze forearms. The sky flashes its body above us, indecent, pleading for beads. Behind us, a strange commotion, panic, defiance, and I pray no one has died. Louisa pulls her blonde hair into a ponytail with her right hand, holds it a moment as if a life-raft, then lets it go. The crowd behind us begins to part, fissured as if by a series of barges with flashing red lights, sirens calling like wounded crows. The police cars charge into the belly of the protest, and a family of twelve, each in straw hats of varying sizes rushes toward the curb to make room for them. Others, behind the squad cars, kick at the slow-going tires, spit onto the rear windshields.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

At set intervals, the cop cars discharge teams of officers in riot gear, machine guns raised in their hands. They begin to line the sidewalks, facing us, trapping us, their guns at us, black-gloved fingers on the triggers. Their heavy boots, jangling belts, underscore our chanting with some evil bass note, dissonant, threatening to kill the song.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

“This is not good,” Louisa says.

She’s seen her share of death in South Africa, narrowly escaped two attempted carjackings, guns held to her head both times. The cops’ faces are hidden behind plastic facemasks, pulled down from their helmets. The sun, still above the rooftops, reflects from them. They are faceless, balls of light atop torsos. Their machine guns remain dormant but poised, and I feel nauseas. I burp a quiet breath of pig brain into the wet rear hairline of a middle-aged man in a denim button-down, his cardboard sign bowing forward in the stench, his hands wrapped tightly around the tree branch upon which it’s mounted. I can see the black hairs on his thumbs dance. Alive.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

Miraculously, the crowd ignores the police presence, the machine guns merely baleful par for the murderous course. Tonight, these people—protestors and police alike—will be sopping beans with corn tortilla, sipping bottled beer and fresh watermelon juice and life will go on. This is what I tell myself, but I have to be honest with Louisa.

“No,” I say, it is not.

“We should get out of this,” she says.

But how? The cops have boxed us in, human velvet ropes with bullets inside. This is terrible potential energy, and I try to take momentary refuge in a memory more benign—my junior high penchant for flinging rubber bands against the back of Amanda Berman’s head in Social Studies; the sweet joy of the band stretched back, held, ready, not yet released. Strange how these things amplify. Today, in the emancipation of this potential, we will be machine-gunned. I am not ready to be Amanda Berman, watch people fall like trees; hear shouts morph into screaming. There’s no one here to report these guys to the principal’s office, to call their mothers at work to tell on them, to punish them with a grounding, a ban on T.V. and chewing gum for a full week.

“I know,” I answer, but panic about the how.

The protest takes a right turn and we are obliged to turn with it, part of something larger now.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

“And I’ve got to take a shit,” Louisa says, and in an instant, all perspective seems to shift away from the probable danger, and toward the celebration of all human things. We are still alive in Mexico City, young, stupid, bidding some—albeit misguided and overzealous—goodbye to the shell-selves we became in Chicago. We are being filled up again, injected with lead. Yes: Public education should be defended without military-lead recompense. An old woman waves her colorful sign in our faces and, as she pulls it back, holds it over her head like some digesting pelican, whistles what sounds like the Beatles’ “Let it Be,” barely audible over the crowd’s incantations.

And when the broken-hearted people living in the world agree,

there will be an answer…

As she passes, disappears into the sea, I see, plastered to the stone of streetside building, the blue sign depicting our location. Avenida Cinco de Mayo. And up the street, perhaps a mere 50 feet away, the shabby black and white beacon: Hotel Rioja. The river has led us home.

Taking Louisa’s hand, slick with marching sweat, we jump the line, push through the protesters, fragments of hair-bun, orange shirt sleeve, bedsheet corner, sandal, hat brim, moustache, young breath, wrinkled hand, and make for the curbs, lined with the police, and the promised land of sidewalk beyond, now larded with onlookers.

Por favor, por favor, por favor, por favor, lo siento, lo siento, gracias, con permeso, por favor…

When we approach the police blockade, we don’t think, just move.

Hola, hola, por favor… Gringos coming through…muster your dumbest smile, wave, even… Hola, hola, gracias, por favor…

We push between two flashlight-faced officers, the ample butts of their machine guns tapping our triceps. They are heavy and cold, but we are through, into the realm of the sidewalk spectators, one of whom is Juan Pérez. He sees us, and waves both hands over his head. He is in the Rioja’s doorway, one of his cinderblock feet on the inside tile, the other on the sidewalk, split. Louisa and I rush to him. He is today, our grandfather. While Louisa runs into the sepulchral lobby for the stairwell and our tiny room, her steps resonant and yawning, I stand with the man watching the crowd pound past, on and on and on, all of the earth collected into this one street now, oozily deist, and, perhaps it’s only because we’re in front of a hotel, and because we’re leaving, but something invisible that once surrounded us, warm, but suffocating, lifts, evaporates, checks-out.

Humans like to say things like ‘the human spirit’. They like to think it means something, that it’s what’s special about them. That it separates them from other animals. There’s that new movie out, 127 Hours, starring James Fracno, about that guy, Aron Ralston, who got his arm caught under a big rock when he fell into a canyon, and he had to cut the arm off with a really dull multi-purpose knife. The movie’s about, like, ‘the human spirit’.

Please explain what just happened.

I just finished the film and moved to Berlin. I have citizenship because my grandparents were German Jews that fled during WWII.

 

What is your earliest memory?

Being in the womb. What are all those bubbles mommy?

 

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what other profession would you choose?

Zoologist. Animals are a lot nicer to deal with than humans. When I was a kid I wanted to be a garbage man or junk man.