Liza Monroy_005Wait, you did what?

I married my best friend for his green card shortly after September 11, 2001. He’s gay and from a Middle Eastern country I call Emiristan to help protect his identity. His student visa was expiring and he would have had to return to live in the closet in a homeland where he could be killed were it found out that he happened to share a gender with the person he romantically loved. I much preferred for him to stay in West Hollywood and with me. In Emiristan, he would likely have had to enter an arranged marriage with a woman, so he entered one with me, instead. Ours had fewer restrictions and no expectations.

Saved by the Scallop

MarriageAct CATMy mother’s generous offer to take us to a restaurant we couldn’t otherwise afford would not have been cause for a panicked frenzy under typical circumstances. The night before her arrival, Emir and I scurried around the apartment like squirrels preparing for winter. We buried banking paperwork bearing both our names, photographs of us with the red-suited Elvis impersonator, and Emir’s I-485 forms. My mother had only to see the code I-485 to know what we had done, and we worried she would sniff us out like a German shepherd and fifty-two tons of cocaine at baggage claim.

What’s your dream job?

Well, I think writing is pretty darn dreamy. But if I were to do something else I’d be in a rock band.

 

Really?

You sound surprised.

 

I just didn’t expect that answer from someone of your cultural background.

If I had a choice of rock bands I’d be with AC/DC playing a tambourine alongside Angus Young. Does that sound more like what you expected?

In our apartment life was a rotten potato lost between the fridge and the counter. No matter where you went, the stink followed. But at Dad’s, excitement and novelty made our troubles invisible. My step-mother proved a riveting distraction, a mischievous sprite out to grab your soul. I understood why Roxy shot down the stairs like an arrow every time Dad came to pick us up, but I was still avoiding his house as much as possible.

Years ago, when she was around my current age, my mother went to Mexico and was robbed.  She had just been granted American citizenship, so it was very important that she was able to find her papers.  The story has been passed down to me since puberty, as a word of caution for a woman entering the world: freedom is a risk.

Hi, Eric. We are here to discuss your epic poem, Takaaki. 66 sonnets, 924 lines. Can you tell us a little bit about Takaaki, the person, and how you came to write about him?

Sure. Takaaki is my boyfriend. Takaaki is a Japanese citizen. He is descended from samurai on his mother’s side. His father was (is) a kamikaze. Takaaki is a championship Scrabble player. He is a cook and an interior designer. He translated the Joy of Gay Sex into Japanese. He tells me to go to Hell whenever he feels that is necessary. It sometimes is. Takaaki makes me indescribably happy. A few years ago, he was forced to move back to Tokyo because his visa ran out and he couldn’t get a green card and we couldn’t get married. His departure nearly destroyed me. I suppose the poem sprang from that terrible moment of devastation—when I came home from work one night to an empty apartment. An empty life.


You knew he was leaving, didn’t you? You knew what was coming? He didn’t surprise you, did he?

No, no. Nothing like that occurred. We knew what was happening. Imagine watching a war slowly unfolding in the daily papers and looking up at your husband over coffee. How does one prepare to lose a loved one? We did our best to find some way for him to stay. The love we felt for each other was not sufficient legal justification for Uncle Sam. So, we resigned ourselves to being separated for an indefinite period: long commutes between Tokyo and New York once or twice a year, phone calls, birthday packages, cards, e-mail, letters.


Why didn’t you look for a job in Japan?

I did look for a job in Japan. I started studying Japanese. I ceased reading books in English. I stopped writing poetry altogether. I had to focus on what was truly important to me. Him. There was not one sacrifice I was unwilling to make for him. Even so, I couldn’t find a job in Japan.


How long did this go on? Didn’t you ever feel like giving up?

It is still going on. For a while, I tried to give up. I tried to be practical. First, I tried sex. It plugged a certain hole, but only temporarily. Soon, a great silence fell across the Pacific. I didn’t call Takaaki for months. I started dating again. But nothing ever worked out. I always wound up opening my wallet and rereading the note Takaaki placed under the plastic daikon grater he gave me (he is always giving me strange gifts) a few days before he left for Japan.


Do you mind if I ask you what that note said?

[With some hesitation.] Well, I can’t imagine it will mean very much to your readers, but if you think they might be curious, okay. His handwriting is much better than mine. [Reading aloud.] “Dear Maru-chan, Thank you for your hospitality. I shut the window because it looked like raining. I see you this weekend. Love, Takaaki.” How do you parse that, if you don’t know Takaaki?


I can’t. I don’t know Takaaki. Explain what that note means to you.

The strange mix of intimacy and formality makes me laugh. That phrase “it looked like raining” always goes right through my heart. Maru-chan is Takaaki’s nickname for me. Maru-chan is the smiling bald boy with a big red bowl and a big hungry smile who advertises a Japanese brand of miso. Takaaki thinks I look like this creature. [Rubbing the top of his head.] I think he might be right.


Love and war. Intimacy and formality. Joy and sadness. Japan and America. It sounds like you are describing a pair of slippers. How would you say these elements figure into Takaaki?

Would that be Takaaki the person or Takaaki the poem?


Good question. How do you distinguish the two in your mind?

Easy. [He hands him a book, a copy of Takaaki.] Imagine you are me. Imagine you had a choice. Which would you rather grab at a really scary movie? A book or a hand?


A hand. I would probably start the tearing pages out of a book. Any book. Even yours. Even The Bible. None would survive. Fingers are harder to pull off, I have noticed. But what does this say about art and life?

It says nothing new. Art takes us only so far. I was lonely. I wanted to recreate Takaaki in verse—to keep me company. We live, we love, we play games, we win, we lose—we scrub each other’s backs in the bath. I call the poem an epic, but it is really a Harlequin Romance. We make the best of life that we can. Art attempts to fill in the gaps. If art is anything, it is a beautiful failure. This is what I try to describe in the poem.


Do you think you succeeded?

[Smiling.] No. I set myself an impossible task. Takaaki is not here. The void is here. I come home to it every night. But I am learning to live with it. These days my apartment feels a little less empty, at least on the weekends.


Why? What happens then?

I call Takaaki in Tokyo every Sunday morning. We have made some decisions. Last Sunday, he proposed to me over the phone. We plan to get married the next time he is in New York City. [Cocking his head.] You know, if you are free, you should come to the wedding, too. [Cocking it further.] Bring your significant other. Bring your brother. Bring your father. Bring your mother. If you bring your own booze, you can bring every friend and relative you can think of. All will be welcome. Consider this interview your invitation.


I will be there. I can’t vouch for the rest.

Good. I will tell Takaaki that you are coming. I think you will really like Takaaki. When we are together, as we are in the book, you should hear us laugh.

This is a continuation of a series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1. For items 17-32, see part 2. In this final installment I include a few observations I’ve culled from my father’s memoir of his life in Nigeria and abroad “Seeing the World in Black & White.” (SWBW) (AWP, 2006)¹

33. Modern Nigerian literature, ever vibrant, is certainly on the up. Young as it is Nigeria has already had an early generation of great writers, household names such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, not to mention the likes of Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, and even the prolific pulp novelist Dan Fulani. It’s almost too much to ask for more, but as it happens, we have much, much more with new generations exploding on to the scene, including poets Chris Abani, Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe and lesser known contemporaries such as Chinweizu. But the real earthquake manifests in novel form, with the emergence of the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Sefi Atta, and Nnedi Okorafor. I can’t pass without a word for the recently deceased poet and playwright Esiaba Irobi. One of the neat aspects of these 21st century blossoms is that so many of them are young women.

When I arrived in Finland, my beautiful future wife was waiting for me outside the airport. Unfortunately, the saddle on her polar bear was only big enough for one, so I had to ski alongside them. I hastily tied my luggage to my waist, glanced at my Donald Duck compass, and kicked off. Soon I was gliding across the infinite whiteness while my typewriter bounced along behind me, making autonomous clacking sounds. Everything smelled like frozen cookie dough and pine. I was home.

Between sips of warm lingonberry juice, my wife Raisa asked how my flight had been. I told her it had been uneventful until I stepped off the plane. I wasn’t prepared for the weather, and was wearing only a thin sweatshirt and some socks with embroidered American flags (my pants had been stolen while I slept). I was then greeted by the Finnish Welcoming Committee, which consisted of a black lab in an orange vest and a stout frowning woman with a large gun.

Hey poochie,” I had said as the little guy assessed my aura (and studied my socks). Seconds later I was escorted to the customs office and told to explain my existence, and  then my reason for visiting Finland, in that order.

Fumbling, I changed the subject to hockey, which I heard that Finnish people love about as much as they hate smiling. While one customs guard went through my belongings, the other helped me into my spare pants. He then wrapped a scarf around my face, leaving only a narrow opening through which I could watch as his comrade sniff-tested each Pez dispenser and typewriter ribbon. Turns out that these guards preferred American football over hockey, so they were done with me. They secured my luggage shut with glue made from reindeer spit, handed me a sack full of Nokia cell phones, and told me not to sit in the sauna for more than six hours at a time.

Thus I stepped out of the airport and began the stage of my life known as “illegal alien.”

My wife and I had agreed via lengthy typewritten letters that if I moved to Finland she’d give me a year to figure out my shit. To her that meant I’d learn Finland’s impossibly frustrating language, file for residency via their ludicrously complicated immigration system, and search for a nonexistent job. To me that meant I should write a novel, keep the bed warm while she was at work, and grind each coffee bean by hand with an icicle.

It was a tough year. Especially when I had to leave the country for fear of being arrested. Seems that my paperwork had been lost in their system of vacuum tubes, which the rest of the world phased out around 1985. Or perhaps I’d never filed the papers at all. Regardless, everything was rectified when Raisa popped into the U.S. for a visit and we got hitched. I was allowed to return to Finland a couple months later .  Once I finished my novel and got an agent, my wife and I celebrated by attending the World Air Guitar Championships in northern Finland. It was fun until a reindeer dove off the stage and gored a few audience members with his antlers.

But now my wife says I have to get out of the house and make some friends before the next snow, which is scheduled for fifteen minutes from now. Since she owns the house and I don’t pay rent, I don’t really have a choice.

I do think she’s right that I need someone else to talk to. though Often when she arrives home from her job at the factory where the Northern Lights are manufactured (which is owned by Santa Claus, or as he’s known in Finnish, “Yule Goat”), she finds me in the same fetal position in which she left me early that morning.

It’s not entirely my fault though. Because Finland is the third-most sparsely populated country in Europe, you can do all of your shopping, dining, and socializing without even seeing another person. It  truly is the ideal place for an introverted writer such as myself. If J.D. Salinger wanted to be left alone, he should have come to Finland, a place where eccentric and angry people are not only welcome, but invited.

So, I asked Raisa, how does one meet people here? She said I should join a club or take up a sport. Turns out Finland has a competitive activity for nearly everyone: the World Milking Stool Throwing Championships, the World Cell Phone Throwing Championships, and the World Wife-Carrying Championships (the Wife-Tossing Championships ended in 1999). But these are very exclusive clubs, and Americans are always chosen last (since we tend to sort of take things over).

My applications are pending. In the meantime, I’ve got to go clean out the polar bear’s stall. Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds, but at least it’s not mating season. That’s next week.

The waiting room of the Côte D’Or préfecture de police has but one open seat.It’s beside a mustached older man in a knit cap holding a green passport.Around the intimate space of plastic chairs arranged to allow for the minimum amount of leg room, I see other green passports along with various shades of red.Mine appears to be the only blue.  I don’t get the sense that any one member of this colorful international coalition desperately wants to obtain the brown passport emblazoned with the words République française.But this is what has brought us together.

We are not expectant, we’re resigned.Whether we think procuring the right to stay in this country is just a matter of procedure or whether we assume it’s almost pointless to try, we wait for our number to be called.I’ve torn “46” from the machine at the door.I sit down with it and my own renewed doubt about my prospects here today.

I meet your other wife, the one
who lives in your home country:

she sits on the flowered couch
in your living room and glares

at me. Her hair is long and brilliant:
it shimmers like TV hair, like its own

advertisement. The room fills
up with women, all wearing short

clingy dresses, all showing abundant
fluttering cleavage. The TV shouts

Latin music, classic guitars
and pipes. There’s no glass

in the windows, no bars, and I
can see glossy leaves outside

the size of small aircraft. The air
is full of waving black and yellow

wings—birds sing to each other
in whistling cat calls. I smell

something dirty and sweet decaying
outside. I wonder where you are,

if you are hiding again in the closet
with your whiskey and beer.

I really really meant to write something about how sweet it is to be in Spain writing stories and reading all the things I’ve been meaning to, but I went for a coffee, opened the paper and BOOM!

Yesterday’s article in El Pais, Spain’s biggest national paper, had a rundown of the immigration debate in Arizona. Oddly, the article seemed most outraged about Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s strange demand that the prisoners in his system wear pink underwear. That quirky bit of homophobia has never really struck me as central to the debate, though it is troubling, and if not cruel, certainly unusual.

Of course, they also showed photos of the march and rally in support of the law. Signs reading ‘go home illegals’, and ‘for English press 1, for deportation press 2’ and somewhat out of place ‘an armed society is a civilized society’ and even more confusingly ‘Karl Marx was not a founding father.’

These are not things I overheard, but signs waved high for all to see.

The article made the clever choice to introduce Arpaio as ‘of Italian origin’.

The rally was in a football stadium where a majority of the workers were of Latino (which determination, ironically enough is also Italian in a sense) origin. They were the only visible attendants, according to the article, that were not white.

“Can you hear me Mexico? Can you hear me from here? You should be clear that this land is our land, not your land. We paid for it. We worked for it,” said Larry Wachs, a journalist from Atlanta.

Who are we? I don’t mean that in any national existential angst sort of way, but seriously, who is this mythic ‘we’ that ‘paid for’ and ‘worked for’ this land? The bold and industrious English, who sailed over here and set up shop in a way that is not unambiguously heroic? The Germans or Italians or Irish or Norwegians or Danes or Czechs or Poles who came for myriad reasons at different historical moments? The Africans who were dragged here, only to suffer three centuries of slavery before being released into a battle for equality that’s still underway? The Indigenous who wandered here God knows when and have suffered indignity after indignity since the establishment of the colonies? The Chinese who labored in the construction of our nation’s infrastructure and later sat in prisons for the crime of being Japanese? Who are we? And why did only the white ‘we’ show up to this battle (covered/sponsored by Fox News)?

Conservative, I mean here the word itself not the ideology or the people who ascribe to it, refers to the preservation of something, no? It means to limit change. It is tied to an ideal and static moment, an edenic past, an originary place that depends on mythology to make it more pure than the present. To conserve something is to save it as it is, which in a world subject to physical laws and the perpetual movement of time, is impossible. So, I guess my question is, what exactly is it that people are trying to conserve? Was it represented by the homogeneity of that rally’s attendants? At what moment exactly do you locate the United States that is escaping into some threatening new entity, the United States that is and can remain ‘our land’.

That type of thinking, the type that leads people to concrete imaginings of some certain, codified establishment of borders between nations and people, of the investing of nationality with a substantive reality beyond the coincidence of location and time, is to me, well, totally foreign…

And so, I want to establish a nation for people who fear those who believe fervently in nations, and to draw up a long, meandering and in places nonexistent border that can be respected or ignored by the UN and all its constituent nations at their whim. The border will probably loosely trail the equator. Which side of the equator is ‘ours’ will remain undetermined until some future congress, which shall meet at an undetermined time and which shall consist of undetermined members, convenes…

We will have passports drawn in crayon and stamped with lipstick-y kisses. Our origin myth will be that one day from the chaotic ashes of beaurocracy and hate rose a Phoenix who flew drunkenly around the planet with a crayon in its beak dividing the world roughly in two, but not indicating which side was inside of the border and which side was out. We will wander back and forth until we are certain, which may be forever. Also, in honor of the bird (Is a Phoenix a bird? or does it enter into dragon territory?), their shall be regular festivities which will include hefty amounts of drink and failed efforts to draw straight lines. We will seek that bird until we die. One day, we hope, we can all be just as free as that bird. Oh, I’ll leave you to guess as to our national anthem, ahem…

Oh, yeah, and at the suggestion of that duder from the rally’s sign, Karl Marx will be our founding father, or at least one of them, possibly the other Marx Brothers will be asked to sign our Declaration of Complete and Utter Dependence… on What We Are Not Sure.


I was sitting outside of a coffee shop in Phoenix which sold what was advertised as ‘Fair Trade Coffee.’ That seemed like a reasonably decent product to me. Certainly nothing that could inspire ire in anyone. And the price was good. Not skyrocketing like the radio said about the prices of so many other things touched by liberal fingers. These prices were ground low and seemingly wingless.

“God damned liberals have gotten everything around here… Fuck’n coffee too?” said a woman in a green felt sun-visor walking hand in hand with a man in a beard.

The bearded man shook his head as if he could hear the breath leaving the last of his father’s generation.

People were gathering for the Reverend Sharpton’s speech opposing SB 1070. I imagined this couple wasn’t present for that.

Before I moved here, my image of Arizona was filled with cute adobe archways, artists colonies producing annoyingly pastel-only creations that spoke to the soft palate of local souls and a unique intermingling of Southwestern cultures that would surely include, if not a generally open-hearted community, at least some interesting foodlets.

I was wrong. Except about the annoyingly pastel-only creations. Those, thanks be God, are everywhere, alongside a general bigotry, a willful closed-mindedness and some of the shittiest food a major metropolitan area has ever boasted. Come on people. You’re bigger than Philly now. It’s time to come up with a sandwich… or might I suggest… a taco?

A quick list of the complete insanity that has recently ravaged my adopted home thanks largely to the known fascism of sheriff Joe Arpaio and that lesser known fascism of the unelected governor Jan Brewer (she took office when Janet Napolitano went to the White House to head up Homeland Security): There is the famous SB 1070 which requires police to demand papers of anyone they deem ‘reasonably suspicious’ of illegal immigrant status, and simultaneously makes it legal for citizens to sue their government if they think local authorities are not upholding immigration laws stringently enough; then we have the lovely right to carry a concealed weapon without a permit; and the new law BANNING ETHNIC STUDIES in public schools

But, lady and her bearded cohort, I concede, the “God damned liberals have gotten everything around here… Fuck’n coffee too.”

A quick retort: You are mad at what? At the fact that South American farmers are getting a fair price for delivering you a superior product? Retort abandoned. It seems unnecessary.

I have quite sincerely tried to see both sides of most issues for some time, and despite liberal tendencies, I’ve always been careful to attempt to understand conservative ideologies and respect differences of opinion.

But conservatives, you gotta work with me on this. You are looking way too stupid to try to understand.

Stupid things overheard in Phoenix this week:

“I’m just glad we don’t have no unions turning us into D-troit.”

Phoenix… you wish you were Detroit.

“I don’t know why we gotta spend taxes to build public transit just to move illegals around the city.”

Not worthy of response.

“If people can’t carry guns, you’re just gonna have more violence.”

Seriously?

“What don’t people understand about the word ‘illegal'”

This is exactly the question I would like to ask Joe Arpaio and Jan Brewer in regards to what strike this legally uneducated citizen as totally outside the confines of legal.

By the way, thank you Al Sharpton for coming out here and assembling such an awesome resistance to what is undoubtedly one of the least American laws imaginable.

And thank you everyone involved in turning what could have been nothing but a shameful moment for all Americans into one of the best organized campaigns against rampant idiocy we’ve seen since W. left office.

And seriously, Phoenix, if you’re going to keep calling yourself a city, embrace the taco.

The Jerusalem File

 

A late Southern writer used to lecture his students to “never compete with the camera.” Discuss.

The relationship between film and fiction is a complex one. If you happen to be a fiction writer, sooner or later, civilians will ask you when you are going to pen a screenplay (which is a little like asking a painter when he or she plans to take up sculpture). Still, the common engine of novels and movies is the simple act of storytelling, and the best examples are a cross-pollination of the two.