Tag Archives: Short story

Twitter Fiction: “Shrapnel”

24 Oct

This week I’m posting my first ever fiction story to appear on this blog. It also happens to be the first short story that I have ever written to fit the  140-character Twitter format.

My inspiration for this form comes from Jennifer Egan’s short story “Black Box,” originally published on Twitter and then in The New Yorker.

Voila. Hope you enjoy.

Glo-Buddha

Shrapnel

The day before my grandfather’s entire platoon was wiped out—all except for him—they spent the afternoon digging trenches in a Korean graveyard.

A man from a nearby village had begged them to stop. It was bad luck, he told them. No good would come of it. They would be cursed.

But the Chinese were on the other side of the hill. It was war. They did what they had to do, and my grandfather was the Lieutenant.

He told them to keep digging.

In all likelihood, they unearthed bodies as they dug. Yellowed bones, human hair. But my grandfather didn’t talk to us about those things.

He was a storyteller. He told us instead of another discovery: a jade Buddha, sea green and the size of his hand.

When the Korean man from the village saw it, he started crying.

Who knows how long the Buddha lived there, under the earth—centuries? My grandfather was the Lieutenant. He put it in his knapsack.

A souvenir.

That night the men used the grave stones for washboards. They ate from their mess kits, joked about home—how they’d never eat rice again.

A private in my grandfather’s unit, Eddie from Kentucky, stayed up one night to finish a book. Get some sleep, the guys told him.

It was a damn good book, though, and he’d wanted to finish it. Eddie read the last chapters by the beam of his military-issue flashlight.

The next morning, the Americans were overrun. Bullets strafed the air. Smoke rose in plumes, then clung to the ground in low, dark clouds.

A bullet slid through Eddie’s chest and pierced his lung. He died choking for breath, unable to speak.

But he finished it, my grandfather said. What was the book? I asked. The Call of the Wild, my grandfather said.

The rest of my grandfather’s unit died around him.

My grandfather was lucky. He heard the grenade as it dropped over the wall of the trench, as it danced down the concrete steps.

One, two—and he lunged sideways—three.

When I was young I ran my finger across the scars, over the jagged shrapnel that racked his body and crawled like spiders under his skin.

By the time he died—62 of cancer—he’d had 12 operations. At 58, the metal still wriggled inside his leg, searching out an artery.

After the war, my grandfather came home and went back to college. He met my grandmother, they married, and life happened.

They had three girls. One, two—and a gap of six years—three.

My grandmother still tells the stories my grandfather told her about the war, about his childhood.

I try to pay attention to how they warp and bend over time. How her memory matches up against mine, against my aunts’, against my mother’s.

Who’s to say who’s right?

Memory works like shrapnel. Long after a callus has grown over a wound, memory still cuts inside you. Drawing up new pain or lying dormant—for a time.

Often, my mind goes back to that jade Buddha. My grandmother says it was stolen from my grandfather on his way home from war.

And yet I can’t believe this.

Did I not see it as a child? That soft, green belly, that laughing mouth? Winking at me from some high shelf, or the back of a dark cabinet?

The last few days he was in the hospital, he hallucinated that he was back in Korea.

I was only six at the time, but still. Hadn’t I seen the Buddha, clenched in the grip of his sweating hand?

Begging for one last miracle, all the while still crouched in the trenches, the ping of the grenade hitting against the concrete steps.

One, two—yes, hadn’t I seen it then?—three.

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The Power of Imagination Against Oppression

10 Oct

Why do we read literature?

No, really, why?

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Good literature goes beyond entertainment—it reaches down into the core of us and jerks us back into the heart of the world, into the heart of humanity, into the whirling depths of the human soul.

That is what we need to remember.

Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, came to speak at Vanderbilt today, and I had the chance to attend a student-led conversation with her this afternoon.

Nafisi’s book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, is the memoir that describes her experiences as a professor of literature under the rule of the Islamic Republic of Iran. After the revolution of 1978, Iran became a place where religion was a forced act of state rather than a personal, spiritual belief. Reacting to these changes—the enforcement of the veil and the brutality of the Taliban—Nafisi used literature, from Nabakov’s Lolita to The Great Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn, to help herself and her female students understand their situations and deal with their own personal traumas.

At the beginning of the conversation, she took out a manila folder of old family pictures and passed them around the conference room. There was her grandmother as a young woman, and there was her mother, and there she was, too. All of them with full lips and black arched eyebrows, none of them wearing the veil except for the grandmother—who thought of it as a personal choice, and was appalled when the government enforced it on all women.

“Imagine,” Nafisi told us, “if suddenly the United States enforced Babtism— a single denomination of a religion—on an entire country, and told you that you—no matter who you were—had to wear a cross around your neck.”

Imagination—it’s a powerful thing. As Nafisi told us today, imagination is what allows us to have empathy. Imagination is what banishes blindness and unwavering ideology. Imagination is the thing that threatens dictatorship and frightens oppression.

And great literature—Lolita, Gatsby, Pride & Prejudice, Huck Finn, and the rest—is the door that allows us to tap into that imagination and those greater human truths.

“That, of course, is what great works of imagination do for us: They make us a little restless, destabilize us, question our preconceived notions and formulas.” – Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi autographs her book

I loved Nafisi’s analysis of the way stories work—the chambers that they open inside us, the thoughts they stir to the surface, the questions they cause us to ask of authority—and specifically of ideological authority.

The past few weeks I’ve been following a blog, Reading the Short Story, by a retired literature professor named Charles E. May. His blog is rather technical, and not altogether engaging unless you are interested in the components of the short story.  I read May’s blog because I am interested in the techniques of story, and how these techniques can be applied to my own fiction.

In one of his more interesting posts, though, May writes about C.S. Lewis’ distinction between “good” art and “bad” art, and this distinction is at the heart of what Nafisi differentiates as the narrative of the state vs. the goal of literature.

May writes, “Bad art may be “liked,” but it never “startles, prostrates, and takes captive,” says Lewis. “The patrons of sentimental poetry, bad novels, bad pictures, and merely catchy tunes are usually enjoying precisely what is there.  And their enjoyment, as I have argued, is not in any way comparable to the enjoyment that other people derive from good art.”

an imagining - photo of the day for May 13th, 2010Good literature—the literature Nafisi read in Iran—allows for complexity.

Too often these days, we’re polarized, shuttled into different “types” of people and frozen into these limited, suffocating identities. White vs. Black, Republican vs. Democrat, Christian vs. Muslim.

In an essay on the illuminating powers of imagination, Nafisi wrote that, “… a culture that has lost its poetry and its soul is a culture that faces death. And death does not always come in the image of totalitarian rulers who belong to distant countries; it lives among us, in different guises, not as enemy but as friend.” –

Good fiction, then, is our escape—an escape route that leads us back into the wonderfully twisted, amorphous human heart.

Where else do we find the ambiguity we so desperately need? The complexity we shy away from, but deep down—so desperately desire?

Read “Accident” by Etgar Keret

26 Sep

In India, there are Hindu women who shave all of the hair from their heads. These religious pilgrims—many of them peasant women—offer up their long, black tresses as a religious sacrifice. It is an opportunity to both renounce the ego and express gratitude for the blessings they have received from the gods.

Later, the locks are sold—sometimes overseas to America, where they are in high demand—and the hair is then styled into wigs and hair extensions for women who wish to augment their beauty.

It is hard to imagine a woman in poverty giving thanks for the blessings she has received. It is especially hard to imagine when another woman on the other side of the globe examines the silkiness of various hair extensions with the ends of her hot pink, acrylic nails, struggling to decide which set of strands she will purchase.

The sacrifices of the smooth-headed Indian women are a reminder of blessings taken for granted, and the subjective lenses that filter our world-views through various shades of light and shadow.

This week Granta published “Accident,” a new short story by the critically-acclaimed Israeli author, Etgar Keret, that explores the notion of persistent hope amidst despair, and the way that the relative nature of tragedy often works to remind us of our own blessings.

(If you plan to read the story, but not now, beware: the rest of this post has spoilers).

In the story, a man travels in a cab from Beersheba to Tel Aviv. The night before, his wife nearly died of a miscarriage, and three days earlier, the narrator learned that his father’s cancer has returned, and the only way to fight the tumor effectively would be to remove the tongue and the larynx, which would render the father unable to speak or eat.

Photographic portrait of Israeli author, Etgar...

Israeli author Etgar Keret (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, the cabbie has his own problems—he’s never had a wreck in 30 years, but he’s recently been in a minor fender-bender, and the guy he hit tires to cheat him out of 200 shekels (about $50) which he says he doesn’t owe.

Finally the narrator, consumed with his own anxieties, boils over, and screams at the cabbie, telling him of his own problems. Now the cab driver understands, and tries to get directions to Tel Aviv by parking in the right-most lane of the highway rather than on the side. The narrator waits in the car—and smash—glass shatters around him, cars fly, and the narrator is in the back of an ambulance. When his father calls, asking him how he’s doing, he doesn’t tell him that he’s in the hospital, that his wife has had a miscarriage, that he’s been in an accident. Instead he lies, telling his father that they’re at home, that his son is tucked in bed already.

Why?

His father was a Holocaust survivor, and the trauma of the event—still a living entity some 70 years later—makes life itself into a blessing, even if it brims with tragedy.

The narrator puts it best: “I don’t want to cry. I don’t want to feel sorry for myself. I want to be positive, like my dad. My wife is fine now and we already have a wonderful son. My dad survived the Holocaust and has reached the age of 83. That’s not just a half-full glass; it’s a glass overflowing.”

In an interview from Critical Mob, Tracy O’Neill questioned Keret on the role chance played in the lives of the characters that populate his fiction, and to what degree these individuals have the ability to control their own fates.

Keret’s answer, not specific to this story, illuminates the reactions of characters in “Accident” to the forces that continually disrupt their lives:

To what extent does anybody control his destiny? Life is very much like falling of the edge of a cliff. You have complete freedom to make all the choices you want to take on your way down. My characters choose to yearn and not lose hope even when the odds are completely against them it doesn’t make the landing at the end of that fall any less painful but, somehow, it helps them keep a little dignity their bone broken body.

After the accident, the EMT in the ambulance tells the narrator that as soon as he’s out, he “should run to the nearest synagogue and give thanks for still being alive.”

What seems to be operating within this text, too, are varying levels of communication and expression. The cabbie spews complaints about his fender bender, and yet the pain the narrator faces at the loss of his unborn child that for most of the ride, he cannot say anything: he is rendered speechless by the depth of his grief.

English: A sculpture in memory of the holocaus...

A sculpture in memory of the Holocaust in Tel Aviv University (TAU). The narrator in “Accident” works at a university.

The father, soon-to-be most silent of all, after his surgery, has suffered most of all, yet he does not complain as the cabbie does, but instead avoids speaking of pain, lying to his son one day over the phone that he is at the grocery, instead of at the hospital, just as his son deceives his own father in the end, too.

Throughout the story, Keret reiterates in subtle intonations that tongues should be waived in gratitude, rather than complaint—that every syllable should be an expression of thanks, a words of recognition for every blessing, even if it is cloaked in tragedy.

Read Drunk; Analyze Sober

12 Sep

It’s time to declare the new age of the short story.

It’s time to laud the concise.

It’s time to realize that in this day and age of blogs and online journals and YouTube videos, print media—books and newspapers, especially—are falling behind our modern needs. What is it about these online mediums that we find so compelling?

For one, it’s brevity.

We read fewer books these days, and it’s not that we’re less educated, or less intellectual, or stupider than our forebears. We’re busy. Driving on clogged highways from one place to another, working long hours at the office, shopping for groceries or catching up with the daily updates on the presidential campaign. I’m overwhelmed myself, and as an aspiring writer, it’s my job to read everyday. Yet any time I get the chance to relax, I find myself unwilling to begin a novel when I know that I won’t have time to read it.

Take Richard Ford’s new novel, Canada. After I read a New York Times book review purporting it’s genius (and it is terrific, so far), I downloaded it onto my Kindle and began on the first of 400 or so pages. Then school started, with it a flurry of papers and assignments, and I tried to fit it in where I could. On the elliptical. In the car while driving to class. Shampooing in the shower. Yeah, exactly. It doesn’t work. By the time I’ve cracked open the Kindle again, I have to spend the first ten minutes just trying to reorient myself within the pages. Sorry, but that’s not the literary experience I want.

So how do we adjust to our modern time?

I vote the short story. What better form to occupy the tenuous space between long-form literature and fragment-style online writing? What better form to offer us the rejuvenating experience of one writer’s pure, individual (edited) voice, as compared to the frenetic copy-pasting, quoting, and linking of blogs? What better form to supply a complete literary experience within a compact, tightly packed unit, all the more powerful for its quick, sharp punch?

Yes, I vote the short story. There are so many fantastic works, in so many fantastic styles—not just contemporary authors, but our classic literary heroes, too. Just this month The New Yorker published a Fitzgerald story.

Only a few months back, they published a very different kind of story, “Black Box,” by Jennifer Egan, which was originally published in short bites of prose on Twitter. Egan’s project demonstrated how the fragmented form of internet writing can create a new kind of literary experience. (Though she worked through a very new medium, she did plan out the story for months beforehand with the trusty pen and notebook of writers of old.) Still, the story works well with the form, and it is a chilling, wonderful piece. You can read it online at The New Yorker here if you subscribe.

Esquire holds a summer short fiction contest. The Atlantic has its yearly short fiction edition. Every year, The Best American Short Stories collects the best of the best from the nation’s top literary magazines, and both new and familiar names grace the pages.

Not to mention there are thousands more online from zines to short story data bases to the websites of standard literary magazine, and they’re one of the only things you can find online for free. Yes, some stories are “subscriber only” but have you ever read a novel online for free? Ever? Yeah, me neither.

My goal for this blog in the future, then, is to engage the short story, especially those written by our contemporary authors. How are we defining ourselves, these days? What can our authors tell us about the world we live in, our systems of values, our means of perception?

I don’t want to write a book review for a novel you won’t have time to read. I don’t want you to simply take my word for it, my own personal analysis that could exalt or condemn a book.

What I’d like to offer you is an opportunity not only to read, but to engage. A fireside chat of a sorts, but let’s call it a coffee break, or better yet—a bourbon break. The goal is to enter together into a discussion of the works that affect us (and affect us because we have time to read them).

Here’s what I plan to do: read short stories from a variety of publications, post the links, and discuss. No author wants you to simply move your eyes across the page and afterwards post on Goodreads about your accomplishment. When they construct a story, they desire you to think, and to continue thinking.

A story is a silent conversation that passes from the writer to the reader. You may read about a character with a talking pig, but the situation will hopefully imply a far deeper meaning than what appears on the surface.

My goal is to explore, explicitly, this implicit conversation between the writer and the reader.

So with that, I’ll return to this blog’s title. Write drunk and edit sober, an adjustment of the famous Hemingway quote that I’ve adopted to have a new meaning—to write with the heart and to edit with the mind.

For this project, I propose a similar mantra. How about “Read drunk; analyze sober”? Let’s engage with literature. Let’s get drunk off it, drunk on emotion and the reverie of words and phrases. But then let’s analyze. Let’s look at author Q&A’s. Let’s consider what this literature does for us in our modern time.

Why am I right for this job? The same reason you are. We’re interested minds who wish to engage with story—that wonderful place where an author can craft art out of communication and reveal meaning in a series of contiguous events.

Quote

All Writers Need Windows

18 Jun

“I can’t play bridge. I don’t play tennis. All those things that people learn, and I admire, there hasn’t seemed time for. But what there is time for is looking out the window.” – Alice Munro

Alice Munro, a Canadian author, is one of the greatest writers of our time. She also wrote one of my favorite short stories, “Gravel,” published in The New Yorker last June.

The house behind my house, where ivy clings to the fading paint, and you can look out the window, but not in.