@

photo+-+MakkaiIn her essay “Other Types of Poison” (in the July issue of Harper’s, released mid-June) novelist and short-story writer Rebecca Makkai explores the legacy of her Hungarian grandparents—well-known leftist Hungarian novelist Rozsa Ignacz, and her divorced husband, Janos Makkai, principal parliamentary author and proponent of Hungary’s infamous Second Jewish Law of 1939.

Near the beginning of your book, you say that the fact that you never knew your father who had been blown dead off a destroyer at Okinawa was no big deal.

It was just the first fact of my life and I never dwelt on it, never shed a single tear over it. But around the time I turned 28, as old as he ever got, I told my story to a French couple who had lived through the war and they started weeping. They couldn’t believe that my mother and stepfather changed both my names—from Peter Simmons to Craig Vetter.  Somehow that kicked my father’s ghost loose and I decided to read the hundreds of letters he and my mother had exchanged over his four brutal years at sea in the Pacific war.

You can tell from the shipboard notebook my father started when he was twenty-three years old that he wanted to be a writer. You can read him practicing, can feel the young soul that wants to render the world into words, wants to get better at it, wants to have readers.

By the time I’d become a professional writer, I had no idea that my father had had the same ambition, because I never knew him. He was blown to pieces off the fantail of a destroyer into the shallows near the Japanese island of Okinawa.

*Author’s note: Students in the University System of Georgia must take and pass a Regents’ Exam in writing. I’ve taught a Regents’ Exam prep course, and in freshman composition I have generally been required to teach students how to pass this test. There are 635 approved essay prompts. When a student takes his Regents’ Exam, a random selection of four of these prompts shows up on the test instruction sheet. From these the student chooses one prompt.

As a writing exercise–warming up before jumping into whatever book I’m working on each day–I’ve been randomly selecting a prompt from the list of approved essay topics and writing a short essay–about the same length that an actual Georgia college student might compose when taking this test.

I don’t know if I’ll end up writing 635 essays, but this is a start. I’m calling this project “Writing Sample.”

 

 

What is one of the worst things that people do to one another?  Explain.

 

 

Every time my mother talks to her brother he reminds her that he is the “sole trustee and executor of the St. George family trust.”

 

When I was a boy I used a magnifying glass to burn insects.

 

I once shot my brother with a BB gun when he was walking into the yard, coming home from school. He spun, looking for cover, finding nothing, while I took aim, and waited, lining up the sights, before I squeezed the trigger. When he cried I called him a faggot.

 

I once burned alive a San Francisco alligator lizard with gasoline then dissected its cooked remains.

 

My best friend is what Nietzsche described as a “free spirit,” and I get pissed at him because he cancels classes, gets in trouble at work, runs out of money, and lounges on his porch drinking beer when he should be writing poems.

 

This classmate of mine and his buddies wouldn’t do calisthenics in PE one foggy day in our freshman year, so our teacher made everyone run the cross country course and I waited for this kid and broke his arm.

 

“Paul Broussard (1964–1991), a twenty-seven year-old Houston-area banker and Texas A&M alumnus, was beaten and stabbed to death in a gay-bashing incident outside a Houston nightclub on July 4, 1991 by ten teenage boys. The youths had driven from the northern Houston suburb of The Woodlands to the heavily gay area of Montrose solely to “beat up some queers,” in the words of one of the convicted teens.”

 

Once, when my wife and I fought, I threw an empty Budweiser bottle at the wall.

 

Sometimes when my mother calls and rambles on about nothing I can’t hide my boredom and desire to get off the phone and get on with my day even though with said rambling it’s obvious that my mother only wants to talk to her firstborn, hear my voice, know that I’m alive, the baby she brought into the world, nursed to viability, watched grow up safe and happy.

 

In high school I took this girl out who liked me and I knew that she liked me and I didn’t really like her back but still I took her out and I knew that I could and that I could take her shirt off and I did and I knew that I could and that I could not talk to her afterwards and I did and all of this I knew.

 

The uncle mentioned above, a gay man, suffers the chagrin of most family members for his admittedly pompous behavior. However, these family members repeatedly make light of this uncle’s sexuality and often comment on “how hard” his parents had it, dealing with his homosexuality, never once considering how hard it might have been for this uncle, brother, son, etc., to have “come out.”

 

Last week a college police officer calmly and without any apparent remorse pepper sprayed at point-blank range a group of students who sat on the ground with their arms linked in solidarity.

 

Some estimates say that as many as 78 million—nearly twice California’s population—died as a result of World War II.

 

My son Milo started reading when he was three. Almost seven now, he reads everything and anything–with the exception, he explains, of “fiction.” If it’s not based upon something tangible in the world he’s not interested, which makes him a strangely knowledgeable authority on things well beyond his years.

Milo knows about many subjects, but like his father he’s got a remarkable memory for dates, maps and events over the course of human history. And while he’s still very much a seven-year-old, thus making historical context a little complicated for him, he can tell you with fair accuracy the major events of both the First and Second World Wars. He knows about shipwrecks, which ones went down when, what the differences in their destruction were, why the passenger liner Lusitania is suspected of carrying weapons destined for England (a second explosion in her hull after the Germans shot her–a suspiciously huge blast which sunk her in eighteen minutes).

Last week over waffles in Hawaii, Milo was reading a souvenir newspaper I bought him from Pearl Harbor, a tiny little grownup pouring over the tragedies of December 7, 1941 with the gravity of a concerned citizen. “It’s so nice to see a kid reading the paper,” a gentleman told my brother, no matter that it was several years out of date and had the headline WAR! across the top in 200 point type. “No-one reads the paper anymore.”

My brother, not having kids of his own yet, readily recognized the opportunity to brag. “That’s nothing. Check this out.” He turned to Milo. “Tell me about the mongoose.”

Milo considered for a moment. “Well, they hunt during the day unlike the palm rats, which means they’re not nocturnal. So they’re diurnal. Yep. Diurnal. Also, they’re invasive here in Hawaii.”

The man just stared. “Okay, then!”

My brother laughed with pride when he told me the story.

This is what we have to deal with around these parts: a seven-year-old who is extremely seven-ish when it comes to his emotional maturity but can pull facts out of the clouds like rain. His insatiable quest for knowledge keeps us up long past his bedtime with his queries about historical events. Last night, in the dark, looking at the mottled shadows, he said: “Tell me about the French Revolution.”

The French Revolution isn’t one of my stronger suits. I admitted to Milo that he really should ask Dad about it, but the short of it is this: people were sick to death of monarchs and took matters into their own hands to create a republic, but then everyone got a little carried away and started slaughtering people mercilessly from all quarters. Then a little short guy led the French army throughout Europe, taking over a great deal of it until they got to Russia, which by its very nature defeated Napoleon and his troops.

“That’s the 1812 Overture,” Milo said.

Good grief, I thought.

So you will understand when I explain that his head doesn’t work within the realm of superheroes and sports figures. He works with historical heroes and villains, Nazis and Napoleon, U-boats and the Blitz, air raids and invasions on land and by sea. This is what he knows.

The other day he drew a picture in class on the back of his spelling test. It features two people in a fire truck driving up to a burning building, at the top of which is a tiny figure, apparently caught in the fire. One stick says to the other stick, pointing a little stick finger at the building, “That’s a Nazi.”

Which, if you know my kid, makes perfect sense.

But his teacher somewhat frantically pulled Lars aside to point it out. “I wanted to show this to you,” she started. “I didn’t even notice it at first, but some other parent saw it and was really upset by it.”

Lars took a look at it. “It’s what he knows,” he said. “He knows about World War II and he knows who the Nazis are.” She looked unmoved. “Our family is Jewish,” he said, a strange sort of justification when you get down to it.

“It’s just one of those things we need to be sensitive about,” she replied. But she was rattled and didn’t know how to deal with it. She wanted it to go away.

After Lars explained the situation to me, we were at a loss. Milo hadn’t condoned Nazism, nor written about how Adolph Hitler was a fine fellow with great ideas; he had drawn a picture with a Nazi in it. A stick Nazi. Had the words, “That’s a Nazi” not been written, it would have been just another seven-year-old artwork exploring seven-year-old anxieties and thoughts about his seven-year-old world.

And we realized, both because we were getting defensive, but also because we were genuinely angry about it, that if Milo had written “That’s the Shining Path,” or “He’s Pol Pot” or “There’s Darth Vader,” no-one would have thought twice about it.

Now we were placed in the unenviable position of explaining to Milo that his teacher was upset by something somewhat intangible. He hadn’t espoused any belief in the Nazi philosophy, nor had he made reference to anything they had done, either in support or condemnation. He didn’t call someone on the playground a Nazi. He hadn’t done anything wrong. We explained to Milo that we weren’t mad, but that he couldn’t talk about Nazis in school. “Why?” he asked – reasonably, I might add. If you can’t talk about Nazis in school, where can you talk about them? Are schools for learning about everything except the Nazis? He’d written a solitary word, one based in a period of history he knows about, in a drawing. He’d written a word. “I can’t believe my first grader is being censored!” Lars said, and while “censored” is a bit hyperbolic, I have to agree: this was much ado about nothing.

If the word “Nazi” still has the power to terrify in this knee-jerk way, it makes me extremely uncomfortable about where we’re headed. If we can’t talk about Nazis, we can’t talk about what happened in World War II. And if Mark Twain’s “niggers” are excised from Huckleberry Finn, we can’t talk about slavery or the Civil War with any realism. If we’re hair-trigger about certain buzzwords like “Nazi” and “nigger” even in their historical context while overlooking other historical atrocities, like Cortez storming the New World and Mao’s “Cultural Revolution,” we’re whitewashing all of them, either by hysterical touchiness or willful ignorance.

Language is as powerful as you’re willing to make it. To de-fang “Nazis,” who still feature prominently in popular culture despite our first grade teacher’s wish, we have to talk about what they did. Indiana Jones, made of either video game LEGO’s or Harrison Ford’s best years, still fights the Nazis in front of thousands of children every day. Children are exposed to Nazis; if we can’t explain why they’re important, we’ve lost the struggle for making meaning out of the meaningless.

Nothing was more meaningless than the Holocaust. If we cannot explore the senseless, meaningless horror of it because we can’t write the word “Nazi,” we’re in a whole heap of trouble.


*In the days that have followed, things, as they do, have changed somewhat. Milo’s teacher has talked to us more completely and we have an understanding. But certain things remain true, and it bothers me. I wrote a comment to Ronlyn Domingue which I think sums up my remaining feeling about the situation, even with the understanding with his teacher.

You know, I have to be fair here. The teacher has talked to me in the aftermath, and she’s okay. She knows that Milo is a kid whose curiosity runs from the interesting to the completely arcane. She felt she had to raise the subject with us because the other parent was sort of hysterical about it. This is coming clear in the days following–but it certainly wasn’t clear when I wrote this post. That’s the problem with internet immediacy. Facts changing to make a less charged situation.

However, having exonerated my son’s teacher I will say this: the parent who became hysterical about my son’s drawing had no jurisdiction to become so. The same truth of knee-jerk reactions about things applies as much as when I wrote it, and I’ve experienced it in other situations. People love to moralize where there is no moral.

The truth is, whatever issues this parent raised about my son’s drawing caused far more harm than good. First, there was no wrong done, and now my son feels embarrassed about it, doesn’t know what he can and can’t talk about in school, and feels like he did something wrong, no matter our assurances to the contrary. Second, what business was it of hers anyway? She’s not teaching the class; the teacher admitted that when she saw the drawing that was causing the fuss she just shrugged and knew it was Milo being Milo. The parent has no context, no history with him, doesn’t see him on a daily basis; how can she be so impertinent to think she should call him out to the teacher?

This sort of petty mischief in the guise of being a concerned citizen enrages me. It’s not the first time it’s raised my hackles and I’m sure it won’t be the last. The shrapnel from this one event is going to take a long time to remove.