The More You Matter: ‘Hunger,’ by Roxane Gay

by Alison Buckholtz (author, Navy spouse)

When I turned the last page of Roxane Gay’s new memoir, Hunger, I took a picture of the cover and posted this to Facebook: 

Have you ever thought about your weight? Have you ever thought about someone else’s weight? Are you a human being who comes into contact with other human beings? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should read this book. 

Image result for 'hunger' roxane gay

That same night, I gave the book to someone who needed it—they didn’t know they needed it, not yet—and bought a second copy.  That’s because there’s an urgency to Hunger just as there is to hunger: Gay is compelled to help readers understand and feel what it’s like to be “caged” (her word) in a body that’s “super morbidly obese” (her doctor’s words). She puts a number to it: In her late 20s, at 6 feet 3 inches tall, she was 577 pounds, though now she is a few hundred pounds less. 

As she warns us early in the book, this is not a success story, nor the text equivalent of those grainy before and after photos where a skinny person poses in one leg of their former fat pants. It’s simply “the story of my body…not a story of triumph.” She says this in the stripped-down prose that conveys the excruciating difficulty required to extract and display the truths that reside in that body.

Image result for 'hunger' roxane gay

Her weight is the sum of her traumatic past. At age 12, she was gang-raped in the woods by a boy she liked, who had brought along a posse of friends to hold her down and take turns with her. She’d first developed a crush on this boy because he reminded her of a character from the Sweet Valley High series she devoured. When he asks her to the cabin and she sees his friends there, she’s so young and inexperienced that she doesn’t know enough to be scared—she’s simply hurt because “I loved him and thought he loved me.”

The brutal relentlessness of this rape is trackable in the way her real-time reaction to it evolves.  She tries to run, but it’s no use. She screams, begs, and fights. She prays, believing God will save her. The pain is constant. Finally she huddled into herself, shattered, silent, and unable to process what’s happening, but already filled with the self-hatred that she would carry for the next two decades. 

She doesn’t confide in her parents, successful Haitian immigrants and practicing Catholics, because she has already internalized her own guilt. Looking for comfort elsewhere, she finds it in food. Family members try to talk to her about why she has become more withdrawn, but she refuses their overtures and keeps eating. In high school she starts to grasp at understanding when a counselor sensing the depth of her pain gives her a copy of The Courage to Heal, and she can put words to the horror. But it takes many more years—including her “lost years,” after she drops out of Yale and follows a series of lovers around the country—to work through the feelings that compelled her to wall herself off from anything or anyone that promised to be good for her. 

So far – at least for those of us who read a lot of memoirs—it’s a compelling tale, well told.  Like many good memoirs. What separates it from the rest is the way Gay explains the day-to-day details of living as an overweight person in our culture. If you’ve ever been on an airplane where you’ve watched a flight attendant offer a heavy person a seatbelt extender—or if you’re the person who needed the seatbelt extender—you’ve already witnessed one humiliation among many that must be endured. Because this book is a memoir of her body, Gay explains not only why her body feels like a prison, but how she feels, as its inmate. 

This is where Gay’s acuity as a cultural commenter (including as a New York Times columnist) is especially valuable. By situating her perspective in a much broader context, she offers readers a path to identify with her. In one typically short chapter, for example, she reflects on the way female celebrities’ figures are celebrated in gossip magazines and how blame is implicitly assigned to the rest of us who can’t achieve such standards. These skinny stars, she writes, “are thinspiration – thin inspiration – a constant reminder of the distance between our bodies and what our bodies could be with the proper discipline.” As for the celebrities, “The less space they take up, the more they matter.”

The inverse is true for Gay: the more space she takes up, the less she matters.  Even as she proves herself as a writer, professor, and public intellectual, people ignore her, berate her looks, call her names, neglect her physical needs, react as if she is repulsive, and treat her roughly. They see her rolls of fat and rule that she is not only unfeminine, but only half human. 

But Hunger is not a litany of complaints. It’s a spare, stripped-down statement for the cultural record, a document that is determined to chronicle how life feels from the inside of a body that’s been battered by forces beyond its control. Its humility is authentic and its grace is hard-won.  Gay’s voice manages to beseech those who can’t yet understand, and comfort those who already do by assuring them that they are not alone. 

Flipping through my second copy of the book, spotting passages that speak to why we are hearing this particular kind of story for the first time, no matter how broad or deep our bookshelf, I was reminded of an essay in Bad Feminist, Gay’s 2014 collection.  In it, she talks about her own quest, mostly unsuccessful, to be liked, then shifts to a discussion of defiant women in film and literature. 

“When women [characters] are unlikable,” she writes, “it becomes a point of obsession in critical conversations by professional and amateur critics alike. Why are these women daring to flaunt convention? Why aren’t they making themselves likeable (and therefore acceptable) to polite society?”  And she concludes, “Perhaps, then, unlikable characters, the ones who are the most human, are also the ones who are the most alive. Perhaps this intimacy makes us uncomfortable because we don’t dare be so alive.”

Intimacy is certainly what Gay gives us.  And by daring to be so alive—emotionally imperfect and ready to admit all—she helps us to become more alive to people around us, and the many different kinds of weight they may be carrying.

Gay, Roxane. Hunger (Harper, 2017).


Buy Hunger here, or anywhere books are sold

About the reviewer: 

Alison Buckholtz is author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin, April 2009; in paperback April 2013).  She wrote the “Deployment Diary” column on Slate.com from 2009-2010, and her other articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Real Simple, Parenting, Washingtonian Magazine, Salon.com and many other publications.  As an advocate for military families, she has appeared on NBC Nightly News, NPR, and in national news stories.  Her L.A. Times op-ed, “An ‘It Gets Better’ for the troops,” was the inspiration for a national public service announcement campaign about military suicides.

She received an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Virginia and a B.A. in English Literature (Honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She also completed a year of undergraduate study at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1997-98 she lived in Jerusalem, Israel as a recipient of a Dorot Foundation postgraduate fellowship. She now lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband, an active-duty Naval officer, and two children.

Homefront Journal: The Ever-Changing Normal

by Lisa Stice (poet, Marine spouse)

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For a long time the normal of our household was that Daddy was gone a lot. Our daughter heard his voice in utero a total of three months (if you put all the scattered days together). Just two weeks after our daughter was born, Daddy left for a five-week out-of-state training. And that’s just how things were for the next six months. Daddy was gone a lot.

Whether it was a non-disclosed place just miles away from home or a training on the east coast, Daddy spent far more days and nights away than at home. Then, he deployed, which didn’t seem all that different than the previous six months. I filled all that training (nothing predictable and often short notice) and deployment time up with lots of outings for baby and, whenever possible, dog. I came up with an easy routine of moving baby and dog in and out of the car and became a pro at managing them both in public. I even dressed both baby and dog up in costumes and took them to a Halloween party at the pup’s training school. I bought year pass for the Zoo and Safari Park, and baby and I alternated between the two each week.

Our daughter’s first word was Mama. She added dog, more, bye-bye, but not Dada. I really wanted her to learn it before he came home. Say Dada, I’d say. Dog, she’d say. For some reason, it made me feel bad. I felt guilty that I was the only witness to rolling over, sitting up, first words, and that the most common first word for most babies hadn’t been said yet. Emotions are sometimes so illogical. And really, she probably did have her own name for Daddy, but just lacked the motor skills to say it: That-Guy-Who-Used-to-Occasionally-Eat-Dinner-and-Stay-Overnight-with-Us.

Even when Daddy came back from deployment, he still was The-Guy-Who-Visits-from-Time-to-Time. Trainings took him away often, and he moved out east more than a month before the rest of us. The good thing about this new station, though, is that the new normal became Daddy is usually home for dinner and to say good-night, and he gets to spend most weekends with us. Our daughter starts saying Dada, and things are in a new flow. This station has more predictable training, and we all like this new normal.

Really, though, the only true normal in the military is that everything changes. I was already used to my husband being home more when he hit me with the news that he’d be gone half the week every three weeks and it would be a late-nighter one night a week every week and he’d miss every third weekend, I didn’t take it very well. But then, we get used to that. Our daughter adjusted quickly and never asked, Where Daddy, on the nights he didn’t come home. I didn’t feel guilty anymore.

Now, our daughter is three. Those first years of Daddy spending so much time somewhere else are blurry fragments in her memory, and what’s fresh in her mind is a Daddy who had a three-month break from a training cycle and from his weekly class. For three months, he was home every weekend, ate every dinner with us, and even came home early enough in the evenings to play for an hour or two before dinner. He even got two weeks leave for a family trip to grandparents in Nevada and adventures in Alaska. To a three-year-old, the most recent three months is the perspective on which to base everything. Open my juice together she’d request and smile as we one parent held the container and the other turned the cap. Daddy read this story, and Mommy read this story, she’d say before bed.

So yesterday, when the new training cycle started, my daughter (and dog) expected Daddy to come home. Daddy at work? and I said, Yes, and he’ll be at work all night. And so it began. First came a song. Where my daddy be? That was the chorus, refrain and verses. A dance accompanied this song that went on for nearly a half hour, then started up again after a milk break. I want Daddy open juice and I want Daddy cut my food, she said at dinner. I kissed her good-night, and she ran her hand over her mouth and wiped her hand on her pajama. No, I want Daddy.

Why did I ever feel guilty that it took so long for her to say Dada? It’s going to be a rough few weeks until she adapts to this new normal.


 

Lisa Stice is the author of the poetry collection Uniform (Aldrich Press, 2016).

Recently, her three poems “Zelda,” “Downpour,” and “Rare and Used” have appeared in Moledro Magazine. Shantih Journal also recently published her poems “Such Is the Art of Warfare,” “The Dog Dreams,” and “The Box Maze Swallows a Birthday.” In June, five of her poems appeared in Escapism.

Stice currently lives in North Carolina with her husband, daughter and dog. You can find out more about her and her publications at lisastice.wordpress.com and facebook.com/LisaSticePoet.

‘Clamor,’ ‘Sweet Insurgent,’ and ‘Uniform’: Three Collections of Poetry from Before, During & After Wartime

Regarding the literature that’s been written by military spouses over the past ten years, I’ve noticed a difference between what authors write “in the midst of” — during wartime, during a deployment — and the writing that comes after. The “midst-of” writing tends to have a stunned, raw urgency that’s making meaning on its feet. (I’m thinking Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, or Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside.)

The writing that comes later, on the other hand, is somewhat quieter, like a gathering-up of the things that, over the past decade, have been scattered far and wide.

I was happy to get to delve into poetry from both sides of the experience recently, as I read three collections: two from Elyse Fenton (Clamor, 2010, and Sweet Insurgent, 2017) and Lisa Stice’s 2016 collection, Uniform

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uniform

sweet insurgent

Both Clamor and Uniform, written during their authors’ initial experiences becoming military spouses and getting through their husbands’ deployments, have that “in-the-midst-of” feel. Sweet Insurgent, on the other hand, reads like a continuation, a “Part II” –to Clamor, of course, but also like the Part II that Stice might approach should she write a second book.

In an even broader sense, it reads as a Part II for the lives of any military families who’ve shared the same recent timeline of separation and homecoming — or a Part II for anyone after the main events of their particular war have passed.

So I’ll pair Uniform and Clamor first, and close with Sweet Insurgent, which feels like the perfect coda for what these two poets are saying about life during wartime and the life that carries on.

*

The poems in Lisa Stice’s Uniform are told primarily from the point of view of a new military wife — a Marine wife, to be exact, perhaps the branch of the military it would be hardest to enter from the outside, though I can only guess at that.

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Poet Lisa Stice at AWP 2017

After spending her life as a civilian — a schoolteacher and a poet — Stice marries a Marine and finds herself thrust into a world she could not quite have imagined. Even as a committed officer’s wife and, from what I can tell, a very good sport, Stice finds herself an outsider — a status highlighted by everything from the larger, hyper-martial culture of the Marines to the seemingly-inconsequential divisions military wives make for themselves. (“She’s no moto wife. She doesn’t/ even run. Her dog is just a little, tiny thing. /She doesn’t plan to join the softball team.”) Sure, these hair-split observations might not matter unless you realize that everyone around you, from the women you hope will be your friends, to the man who shares your bed, feels more at ease with this culture than you do:

and you saw the other wives

cordoned off inside the beast’s belly,

and your husband ate ribs and laughed.

With her husband in league, however unintentionally, the act of eating ribs at a BBQ becomes a small betrayal.

There’s always that sybillant whisper in the ear, however, to which Stice is keenly attuned: “This is what you chose.”

Unlike Stice, up to her neck in the Marine Corps, Elyse Fenton seems to endure much of her husband’s combat deployment(s) alone. She alternates between the effort to calmly endure — planting bell peppers, reading — and tormenting herself with what her husband must do (“the day you spent shoveling human remains into a body bag”), the paralyzing possibilities of bombings and friendly fire. She suffers the familiar anxiety dreams of breaking teeth. (The poem “Endurance” consists of only two powerful lines: “I used to stand in doorways and know/ There was no human way to go on or through — .”)

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Poet Elyse Fenton

In Uniform, Stice writes of her husband’s “wooden fearlessness,” how disorienting it can be to see someone you love force the appearance of being unafraid to die. Fenton notes that same strangeness, bringing to life the new vocabulary of lovers’ wartime conversations:

…I don’t yet register the casual solemnity

of newscast banter

 

falling like spent shells

from both our mouths, nor am I

startled by the feigned evenness

in my lover’s tone, the way

 

he wrests the brief quaver from his voice

Deployment may be a grinding purgatory, but homecoming — supposedly the great, long-awaited relief — is no less fraught. Fenton and Stice evoke the almost dizzying expectations, and the quieter realities, of a soldier’s return.

Stice’s poem “Retrograde” is the only one I can identify as being in her husband’s voice, as he goes through an elaborate code, which must seem ridiculous to civilians, trying to suggest when she might reasonably expect him home. “Your birthday month minus two,/ Our anniversary date divided by five…..  that is when I will retrograde,/ but it could change.”

That casual “but it could change” is everything.

Both Stice and Fenton use the image of doorways in their homecoming poems. Fenton chooses a haunting, almost fable-like voice for her prose poem “After the War:”

They lived like revenants, just outside the gate. He was The Returned. She was the one who propped the storm door to watch the empty street.

After holding down the homefront on their own, when does a woman stop being watchful? Does her husband’s homecoming mark the return of happy, domestic safety, or is a different kind of watchfulness required? Here’s Stice, in her beautiful “The Amazons Prepare for Retrograde:”

We put our quivers and bows,

broadswords and shields

back in pantries…

 

We paint our faces.

Shine our disguised armor:

necklaces and lockets,

 

secure them over our hearts

because we never know

 

what might hurl

through our doorways.

*

“The War Ends/ Offstage, if it ends at all,” writes Fenton in the opening lines of Sweet Insurgent, and thus begins her Part II.

Of course, the charged, embattled language of “The War Ends” (“zip-tied,” “tortured corpse,” “draggled body”) shows that war is not far from Fenton’s mind, even as she plants asparagus, zinnias, and dahlias, ruminates on Picasso, and cares for her daughter. Sweet Insurgent reads like scar tissue, the “keloid shore” of aftermath. You get the sense that the poet almost wants to retreat, to protect herself — but life, motherhood, the harsh beauty of nature, and the knowledge that injury and death don’t end with wartime keep pressing her words and thoughts forward. Some of the poems seem to unfurl almost reluctantly before going in for the kill. There’s a pure thin vein of ferocity that runs through these poems, too, just enough to make them crackle and spark as you read.

Fenton is a gutsy writer, the kind who’ll f*ck all conventions by ending an entire book with the words, “the gas lines, the mutilated voles.”  (!!)  Peter Molin, writing on Time Now, notes Fenton’s “survivalist rhetoric,” and that seems an apt way to describe her style, the way her stark words twist the knife. In fact there are many places that Sweet Insurgent reminds me of The Dog Stars, Peter Heller’s post-apocalyptic-survival novel — and that’s a good thing.

After all, Fenton’s family has survived — military service, new motherhood — and now she has more space to ponder those who, sadly, did not: a friend whose child has died, victims of sexual abuse (in “Surrender”), and even the intriguing but truncated life of Amal Ahmed al-Sadah, fifth wife of Osama bin Laden, who was originally reported to have been used as a “human shield” in the raid that killed him. “Human Shield” comprises all of Book III, and I had to read it several times to fully appreciate what it does; it’s larger than merely al-Sadah’s life (“Kevlar-Spined Goddess of Guardpost & Wait”) but very close inside her imagined consciousness, too.

The worst part wasn’t blindness

but the lack of news. All-day static like a sonic cut-

lass licking its blunt way through blighted groves.

The poem appears to open at the moment she’s summoned forth for her grisly task — “I was ready when you wanted me / shadow-polished severe & human as a lie” (Brilliant – “human as a lie!”) — and then goes back into the preceding weeks. The “you” here, initially bin Laden, also seems to morph and widen into the lens of an American soldier’s gaze, the public gaze:

How else did you think you’d find me

but lacquer-blacked & bandoliered

inked back to the vernacular just after

you’d looked at me and looked away?

Al-Sadah listens and waits, plots how she might save herself from the expected “double-tap” when the Americans inevitably come. Her thoughts are simultaneously cutthroat and uniquely feminine.

If I have to, I can wait. I can

hold this naked pose for years.

*

While Fenton’s poems certainly challenge any mainstream representation of daily life — no sitcom families or Hallmark cards here! — her evocations of motherhood and marriage still feel, to me, redemptive and strangely hopeful. (They can also be profoundly affectionate. Take, for example, this sketch of a toddler’s walk: “Your daughter walks…/on new legs. Head a buoy, body a line / fed down ….”)

I’ve always thought that women have an ease with both the good-and-bad sides of parenting that can be slightly startling to men, that we can talk about both in the same breath with no diminishing of the joy we take from our children. Fenton’s version of motherhood often takes the form of a snapping-to-consciousness, a quiet moment interrupted by a monumental realization of a mother’s responsibility and the child’s fragility, a lulling-into-peace that suddenly perks the survivalist-poet’s ears again: warning, warning, this may not last, this is where you must be extra careful. “I never planned to love like this,” she writes. That guardedness, the “relentless” vigilance of early motherhood, may not be the most pleasant part of the whole deal, but it is certainly familiar to mothers, especially those who have parented alone for any length of time, and I would also offer that is its own kind of beauty: the care to continue a small life separate from yours no matter what it takes, the lighting of a tiny candle for which you are solely responsible (“you, the god who put it there”) and the obsessive drive, against all circumstance or personal cost, to keep it from going out.

In a sense this reckless, unreasonable love is not all that different from the care and fear Fenton and Stice feel for their husbands in their first collections, set in wartime, when they were the gatekeepers who “propped the door to watch the empty street.”  There are many ways, these poems seem to say, that we can be both watchful and guarded but also, thankfully, startled by life again and again, we women who “never planned to love like this.”

*

Fenton, Elyse. Clamor. Cleveland State University Press, 2010.

—————–Sweet Insurgent. University Press of New England, 2017.

Stice, Lisa. Uniform. Aldrich Press, 2016.

*Click here to purchase Clamor, Sweet Insurgent, and Uniform. *


About the Authors:

fentonElyse Fenton is the author of Clamor (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2010), selected by D.A. Powell as winner of the 2009 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize, and Sweet Insurgent. Winner of the 2008 Pablo Neruda Award from Nimrod International Literary Journal, her poetry and nonfiction have also appeared in American Poetry Review, Pleiades, Bat City Review, The Massachusetts Review, and The New York Times. In 2010, she received the University of Wales Dylan Thomas Prize for Clamor.

Born and raised in Brookline, Massachusetts, Elyse Fenton received her B.A. from Reed College and her M.F.A. from the University of Oregon. She has worked in the woods, on farms, and in schools in New England, the Pacific Northwest, Mongolia, and Texas.

She currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

stice_profileLisa Stice  is a poet/mother/military spouse who received a BA in English literature from Mesa State College (now Colorado Mesa University) and an MFA in creative writing and literary arts from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She currently lives in North Carolina with her husband, daughter and dog. You can find out more about her and her publications at lisastice.wordpress.com and facebook.com/LisaSticePoet.

 

Truth in the Spaces: Siobhan Fallon’s ‘The Confusion of Languages’

by Alison Buckholtz (author, Navy spouse)

“Transaction” is a word that wears a beige trenchcoat. It’s harmless in most contexts, like anything associated with banking or business. It’s that nondescript guy you pass while wheeling your cart into the grocery store.

But when you’re talking about marriage as a transaction — as Siobhan Fallon does in describing the relationship between a husband and wife in her new novel, The Confusion of Languages – that milquetoast man opens his raincoat to show he’s naked underneath. Suddenly, “transaction” seems threatening, even sinister. But it’s really just exposing a truth that’s always present – if you choose to look.

Fallon looks. Her new book delves deep into the transactional nature of marriages, friendships, and the in-between mountain of feelings that build up between men and women who connect deeply with each other, either soulfully or sensually, while remaining (or striving to remain) platonic. As in her award-winning collection of short stories, You Know When the Men Are Gone, Fallon’s literary world is peopled with military wives living in communities where boundaries breathe life into each tour, deployment, or posting. These military wives (just like real-life, nonfictional ones) are women whose roles are culturally circumscribed and yet in flux, bound by convention while open to possibility.

But how open, exactly? In our generation, military spouses are technically emancipated from the strict rules that dictated the behavior of past eras’ “waiting wives,” but still wedded to the institution that created them. So there’s no definite answer. That’s simultaneously the promise and the problem of being a military wife today.

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Fallon knows this because she’s a military wife as well as a writer (as am I). Her husband’s Army service has deposited her at overseas embassies in the Middle East throughout the last decade. That’s shaped her understanding of how the military spouse culture-within-a-culture mirrors the experience of Americans living abroad as they try to navigate seemingly simple situations that end up disarming or destroying them with the complexity of unwritten assumptions and unintended offenses.

Fallon cannily chose to place her newest military spouse characters in an overseas embassy – in Jordan, at the start of the Arab spring, when the Middle East began convulsing with change. Like a set of nesting dolls taken apart, played with too roughly, and cracked beyond repair, Fallon shows how each character’s experience damages them past any possibility of fitting neatly back into their allotted slot.

In The Confusion of Languages, Margaret and Cassie are the military spouses who start out wanting to fit in. Margaret is newly married (to Crick), with a baby that came before the engagement. She’s young and pretty, and because she devoted her adolescence and what started to become adulthood taking care of her sick mother, she longs for adventures and new experiences. Marriage to Crick, who wasn’t ready to settle down and had already decided that if he did it wasn’t going to be with Margaret, offers her the promise of something entirely different from what she has known. As a new mother, and a military/embassy spouse in a conservative Arab country bubbling with unrest, her freedom is limited. But she refuses to resign herself to sitting at home.

Cassie continually reminds Margaret of those limits. She is Margaret’s sponsor in Jordan, assigned to shepherd her through life in a new land: the military spouse world as well as the embassy world as well as the American-woman-in-Arab-world world. It’s a lot to do, but Cassie is ready and able to instruct. Cassie, who longs to have a child but can’t, feels ostracized from the rest of the embassy families, and although she feels burdened by the responsibility of looking after Margaret, she also sees the opportunity for an intense friendship — a one-on-one, exclusive pairing that could “keep the desolation away” during her husband’s deployment.

Cassie sees from the start that Margaret is a little off. Margaret says the wrong thing to her husband’s boss’s wife, befriends the Jordanian guards at the embassy, feeds stray cats outside her apartment building, and shows her arms and ankles in public, despite urgings to cover up and comply with local norms. There’s nothing in writing that says DON’T DO THESE THINGS, but they’re against the rules nonetheless. When Cassie schools Margaret in how to behave, Margaret chafes, but she’s been lonely her whole life and is glad to have a friend. So the unlikely pair, like mismatched socks worn to stay warm, stick together.

Except that Margaret gradually creates a life in Jordan that Cassie knows nothing about. When Margaret goes missing, Cassie finds her journal, and throughout the course of a day and night, Cassie discovers how far astray Margaret has gone. Other things are revealed, too: Margaret’s sad past; a double betrayal she can’t forgive herself for; two very different cultural collisions with local Arab men that spiral into life-altering nightmares for everyone involved, whether they’ve tried to follow the rules or not.

Fallon’s fast-paced, compelling story doesn’t sacrifice nuance or sensitivity when it comes to portraying the way well-meaning Western women and well-meaning Arab men, striving to understand each other as fellow humans and friends, confound each other. And it doesn’t flinch from showing how not-so-well-meaning Westerners and Arabs steadfastly refuse to acknowledge nuance, choosing instead to reinforce their worst beliefs in each other and enforce social compliance at all costs.

It’s to Fallon’s credit that we understand and sympathize with even those characters who are not very well-meaning, who impel the plot toward its very real, not just cultural, collision. Unlike a car accident, no one here is at fault. Just as phrases in other languages can be impervious to translation but still understood, so are these characters’ motivations. What we do understand is enough to draw us close to them.

siobhan3

author Siobhan Fallon

Fallon is at her best when Cassie and Margaret are struggling to confront the truth about themselves and those in their inner circles. But it’s worth noting that descriptions of Jordan, where the women live and where Fallon and her family were posted for a few years, are equally piercing and precise – the scenic nation is a compelling character playing a starring role. During one of Cassie and Margaret’s hair-raising car trips, for example, Fallon lays urban, chaotic, Amman at our feet: “The speed bumps, the unmarked construction that shut down lanes or entire roads, the taxis weaving with white doilies on their headrests, the jaywalkers suddenly stepping out in front of you, and the cars, dear God, the cars driving as if there were blind men behind the wheels. You couldn’t help but be flooded with adrenaline.”

Readers are also granted a glimpse behind the scenes at the work of American embassy personnel in a Middle Eastern country undergoing a seismic identity shift. Each night, Margaret’s husband Crick lays out before him that day’s Arabic-language and English-language newspapers, scanning to check which outlets run certain items and what gets left out. “He thinks the truth is in those spaces,” Margaret thinks as her husband compares and analyzes. “He knows an awful lot about how to read what’s meant to be hidden.”

Fallon does, too. And as she exposes what people try to hide from themselves and each other – and the consequences of those selective omissions – she prompts us to look more closely at the elements of our own lives that we publish in one place but not another, or omit from public view entirely.

Fallon, Siobhan. The Confusion of Languages. Putnam & Sons, 2017.

buy The Confusion of Languages here and visit Siobhan’s web site and blog. [There’s a particularly amusing & informative slide show of Fallon’s own Jordan photos here, featuring everything from the Amman Citadel to Hijab Barbies and “fresh lamb balls.” You want them fresh or not at all, I hear. –Editor]

About the Author:siobhan_new

Siobhan Fallon is the author of the 2012 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction winner You Know When the Men Are Gone. She is also the recipient of the 2012 Indies Choice Honor Award and the Texas Institute of Letters Award for First Fiction. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, Military Spouse, The Huffington Post, and NPR’s Morning Edition, among others. She was raised in Highland Falls, New York, just outside the gates of the United States Military Academy at West Point. She graduated from Providence College and spent a year at Cambridge University in England. After teaching English in Japan, she earned an MFA at the New School in New York City. She and her family moved to Jordan in 2011, and they currently live in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Her new novel, THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES, out on shelves June 2017, can be pre-ordered now. Booklist has given it a starred review, calling the novel “an incisive examination of friendship and betrayal and a skillful mingling of cultural and domestic themes.”

About the Reviewer:

Alison (1)Alison Buckholtz is author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin, April 2009; in paperback April 2013).  She wrote the “Deployment Diary” column on Slate.com from 2009-2010, and her other articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Real Simple, Parenting, Washingtonian Magazine, Salon.com and many other publications.  As an advocate for military families, she has appeared on NBC Nightly News, NPR, and in national news stories.  Her L.A. Times op-ed, “An ‘It Gets Better’ for the troops,” was the inspiration for a national public service announcement campaign about military suicides.

She received an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Virginia and a B.A. in English Literature (Honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She also completed a year of undergraduate study at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1997-98 she lived in Jerusalem, Israel as a recipient of a Dorot Foundation postgraduate fellowship. She now lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband, an active-duty Naval officer, and two children. You can follow her on Twitter at @alisonbuckholtz and visit her web site here.

What’s Important is What Moves Us: Kazim Ali’s “The Secret Room”

by Lisa Houlihan Stice (poet, Marine spouse)

I’m not usually one to go for hybrid or experimental, but when I passed the Kaya Press table at the AWP Bookfair, the modest purple cover of Kazim Ali’s The Secret Room humbly said, “I think you’ll love me.” I bought a lot of other books at AWP. Ali’s was the last that I read of the bunch. I found myself a little intimidated once I had it home. I’m a meat and potatoes kind of girl, and each time I opened The Secret Room it looked more and more like one of those super modern gastro pubs.

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The Secret Room is part novel, part poetry, and part string quartet. There are four characters: Sonia Chang (first violin), Rizwan Syed (second violin), Jody Merchant (viola), and Pratap Patel (cello). Some pages are laid out as sheet music with the character on their own lines, while some pages are solos with a more conventional prose look. At first, I had to figure out how that book should be read. It took a little bit (it would probably take less time for someone who more about reading music than I). Reading from top of page to bottom made no sense, but then I started to pick up the rhythm of the book, and I also stopped needing to reference back to the front key of which character goes with which musical symbol.

Alone each character’s story is compelling and draws out sympathy and empathy.

  • Sonia lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment where she eats and drinks from a single bowl. She practices her violin in preparation for a concert.
  • Rizwan struggles with the sudden death of his aunt and his cancer diagnosis. Alienated from the rest of his family because of his departure from their cultural, his aunt was the only person to whom he felt close and now he has only his social worker, Jody, for support. Even in a room full of his yoga students, he feels alone while he tries to return a sense of peace and rhythm to his life.
  • Jody is a busy mother who devotes her time and heart to her children at home and to counseling cancer patients at work. She mourns the death of her old self and finds herself lost in routine.
  • Pratap lost his younger brother, a child of eight, to cancer eight years ago. Grief defines his life. He searches for the meaning of his own existence.

Together in the musical score, the lives complement and contrast on emotional levels that can only be experienced through reading The Secret Room. I felt my own life intertwined with these four characters through all the high and lows, quiet moments and crescendos.

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Kazim Ali (via Kaya Press, kaya.com/authors/kazim-ali/)

In the end, Ali reveals all of the physical links among the four characters (I don’t want to spoil any surprises), but the physical connections are not what is most important. What is most important is what moves us.


About the author:

Kazim Ali is a poet, essayist, fiction writer and translator.

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His books include several volumes of poetry, including Sky Wardwinner of the Ohioana Book Award in Poetry​; ​The Far Mosque, winner of Alice James Books’ New England/New York Award; The Fortieth DayAll One’s Blue; ​and the cross-genre text Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities. He has also published a translation of Abahn Sabana David by Marguerite Duras​, ​Water’s Footfall by Sohrab Sepehri, Oasis of Now: Selected Poems by Sohrab Sepehri, ​and (with Libby Murphy) L’amour by Marguerite Duras. His novels include Quinn’s Passage, named one of “The Best Books of 2005” by Chronogram magazine,​and The Disappearance of Seth​. H​is books of essays include Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence and Fasting for Ramadan. In addition to co-editing Jean Valentine: This-World Company, he is a contributing editor forAWP Writers Chronicle and associate editor of the literary magazine FIELD and founding editor of the small press Nightboat Books. He is the series co-editor for both Poets on Poetry and Under Discussion, from the University of Michigan Press.

Ali ​is an associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College.

About the reviewer:

lisa

Lisa Stice  received a BA in English literature from Mesa State College (now Colorado Mesa University) and an MFA in creative writing and literary arts from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She taught high school for ten years and is now a military wife who lives in North Carolina with her husband, daughter and dog. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, the author of Uniform (Aldrich Press, 2016), has had poems published in several literary journals, and is an associate poetry editor for 1932 Quarterly.

Existing for Our Own Sake: Adin Dobkin’s Take on the State of War Writing

Yesterday, Adin Dobkin published a longform piece in the ever-terrific Los Angeles Review of Books evaluating the current state of war literature. “The Never-Ending Book of War” looks at recent war literature as part of a very long literary and historical tradition, one that, sadly, seems destined to forever repeat itself.

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There are aspects of Dobkin’s article that I appreciate tremendously; for one, his attention to the state of the “forever wars” in our new political climate. The regime change has not left Dobkin optimistic, something he shares with most veterans and active-duty service members I know.

I also am grateful that he poses a question that will outlive these wars, one which has existed throughout any of the “hot” or “cold” wars that have come before:

Alongside the end of each war came a new opportunity to never forget. But to what degree do we do anything with these memories besides allowing them to exist for their own sake?

It’s an excellent question, and one that quite frankly haunts me as we pass from one series of war literature to another.

Have we learned anything? Does reading war literature actually make the literate public more cautious about war, or do they read each book or memoir as its own, particular, lessonless experience? How on earth can we ever make our society more hesitant to commit its young men and women (and the citizens of whatever far-flung countries they are sent to) to warfighting when even great works such as the Iliad and our own national Book Award-winner’s collection have, so far, not?

As Simone Weil asks, is is possible to learn “not to admire force, not to hate the enemy?”

The recent election has left me with little hope that our voting public can make any reasonable judgment calls about international conflict, or (indulge me a little, please) about basically anything whatsoever. So I greatly appreciate Dobkin’s statements on the fine line war literature walks: its duty to render without glorifying, to produce critical thought without crass patriotism or jingoism.

War writers, he says, “must confront those who stand to gain from simplifying [war’s] complexity.” We have now seen the harrowing power of the simplification of service and sacrifice. It can take on a meaning all its own, one in which veterans actually participate very little.

Perhaps those simplifying the meaning of war are not, in fact, reading war literature; I’m willing to bet they aren’t. But is that a solvable problem? And is it our veteran-writers’ problem to solve?

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For all his historical and literary thoughtfulness, to my mind Dobkin misses the boat on a few critical issues. Now, this isn’t my favorite kind of response to make, because it is “easy” and doesn’t require an engagement with what the author is actually saying, but: I can’t help wonder what made Dobkin feel like he could write an “update” to the state of recent war literature without accounting for a single female veteran-writer, or writer of color. He does not limit himself to novelists, and he mentions the recent collection The Road Ahead, which features fiction by several well-known and well-respected female veteran writers and writers of color, so it’s mysterious to me why he cannot try to make a more cohesive and inclusive account of the state of war lit.

When he does mention one woman writer — the highly acclaimed fiction writer and military spouse Siobhan Fallon — she’s called “informationally privileged.” I see what Dobkin is getting at — that Fallon’s attempt to bridge the military-civilian divide is being made by a writer on the “inside,”  not some unusually well-meaning and astute civilian, thereby giving her informational “privilege” — but, on the other hand, I don’t consider it “privileged” to weather multiple yearlong stints on the home front, with very small children, while trying to create intelligent and meaningful art, and I doubt Dobkin would have actually referenced any male veteran-writer in the same way. Because that would be ridiculous. But this also shows an ignorance as to what military families actually give, and continue to give, when their service members are active-duty for careers that span these long, long wars.

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In any case, as a military wife and a novelist myself, I consider any attention to the mil spouse community a sort of “extra credit”; I never expect it and would never think to demand it, though I am pleasantly surprised when a reviewer pays us any mind at all. To leave female veterans out of the equation, however, is a far more grievous error. The whole “Welllll…..they aren’t really writing fiction the way the men are” argument is wearing thin, and in fact The Road Ahead, as well as numerous print and online publications, has nullified it entirely. If nothing else, an article that lauds the cross-cultural attentiveness of Eliot Ackerman (and goes so far as to compare him to Erich Maria Remarque) would read as far more informed if it also considered Kristen L. Rouse, whose short story, “Pawns,” does what Ackerman’s novels do equally well, and arguably in a more potent fashion. It seems that Dobkin is at this point proceeding on willful ignorance, and that concerns me.

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Over the past few years, I have learned a few things about war literature. One: that it is a small community, devoted and highly intelligent, but one that does not always extend vastly beyond its own boundaries. It is easy to read the community’s own enthusiasm for a larger national enthusiasm which cannot match it. People on the outside are frequently tacitly supportive. But the length to which their support goes may illustrate the larger national problem: war fatigue; an exhaustion with celebrating heroes who rarely ask for it and who in fact are more often than not embarrassed by it; a simple desire to turn to more fun, escapist subject matter, the “Gone Girls” and “Twilights” of the past ten years. Will we, then, see a veteran-vampire saga, or a straight-up, highly sexed murder mystery set among active-duty service members? (These books surely exist, but have not hit the mainstream.) Will that, then, be progress?

More optimistically, the communities Dobkin fails to reference may be the very communities from which we’ll see the most, and most experimental, writing over the next few years. Women veterans are writing with a focus and drive like never before, and as for us military spouses, well, we are still plugging along. The pressures of this new administration, and what our families are asked to do (or not), could be the crucible which brings forth a new era of mil-spouse writers, a new cast of characters, a new urgency. Hell, maybe we’ll see the first male mil-spouse novel. Who knows?

For better or worse, the pressure cooker is still on high, and veterans/service-members who write, and their writing family members, can either hunker down and wait it out, or churn out that goddamn pearl from within the oyster.

‘Your Name’

In ‘Your Name’ — Japan’s top film of 2016 — a teenage girl named Mitsuha lives in a remote, traditional fictional town called Itomori. Itomori is beautiful — mountains rimming a huge lake — but Mitsuha longs to get out.

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Mitsuha is a sweet girl, not naturally rebellious, but the opposing roles of her family members’ public service have begun to stress her in different ways. Her estranged father’s mayoral candidacy makes her feel exposed, while her grandmother’s traditional religious beliefs bring mockery upon Mistuha by some of her mean, “cool-girl” classmates — particularly when they spy her helping to prepare the ‘kuchikami no sake,’ traditional sake made from the spit of a virgin, for her grandmother’s offering to the gods.

In frustration, Mitsuha runs to the bottom of the shrine’s stairs and screams, “I wish I were a handsome, teenage boy in Tokyo!” The wind whips her words away and her cheeks redden, anime-style, with a vertical scribble of blush. But her wish will come true, with a twist: she begins a regular, involuntary swapping-of-bodies with a teenage boy named Taki. Suddenly she finds herself waking up in Taki’s bed, riding the Tokyo subway, navigating by cell phone.

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And Taki — who does not seem to necessarily have had any prior wish to inhabit the body of a rural adolescent girl, but is remarkably game about it once he figures out what’s going on — finds himself, for a day at a time, living in Mitsuha’s body, wowing her PE basketball team with sudden major skills, walking to school along rural roads, and every morning (in an understandable sight gag for what’s, at its most basic level, a YA film) groping his newfound breasts.

It sounds a little comical, and as a plotline would not necessarily have lured me in on its own merits, except that writer-director Makoto Shinkai makes some decisions that elevate the film well above typical rom-com or animated-film fare. The second half of the movie opens into a much larger rumination on human connection, empathy, and the delicate interplay of individual and collective memory. “I feel like I’ve been living in a dream about someone else’s life,” Mitsuha thinks — and what is reading a novel, or watching a film, if not that?

On an immediate level, the plot hinges on a not-unheard-of cinematic question: What if you could go back in time and prevent a tragedy, save the life of someone you love?

On a larger level: What connects us? How do things that have happened to other people — tragedies so large they reach the level of legend, that are buried deep in cultural memory — often feel so resonant to us, so moving and so huge? Is that empathy? Is it something else?

My personal entry point into the film: I’ve had a soft spot for Japan ever since taking place in an exchange program there in the 8th grade. A dozen other 8th graders and I got to travel to the town of Otofuke (O-TOFE-kay — not Oto-fookey as our well-meaning principal helplessly called it, no matter how many times we corrected him) on Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, after having hosted Japanese students in our northern California hometown earlier that year. Otofuke toed the line between suburban and rural, with modest houses, potato fields, mountains, schools. We twelve bumbling, slightly pimply and awkward American pre-adolescents were welcomed with an openness and generosity that was humbling. We even had to put on kimonos (at least, the girls did) and deliver speeches to the mayor, written out phonetically, in Japanese. Then we had a talent show that ended with everyone singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

In feel, if not quite in visual splendor, Otofuke came to mind again as I watched Mitsuha tend to her chores and walk to school with her little sister. She calls Itomori “the sticks,” and it must feel that way to her, but it’s based on Japan’s breathtaking Lake Suwa and the artwork for it is stunning: watercolor vistas of mountains, layered clouds, shimmering lake and fields which provide a respite from what, in other scenes, feels to me like an occasional stylistic over-cropping.

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Likewise, the film’s cityscapes of Tokyo are gorgeous, featuring many real locations such as the Suga Shrine and Shinanomachi Station, and are rendered in exquisite detail — a brisk contrast to the sleepy natural/spiritual world of Itomori.

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The underpass in Shinjuku, Tokyo, as shown in ‘Your Name’

Luminous and layered, the artwork actually reminds me a lot of the images from anime-inflected Big Hero Six, for which a whole computer was dedicated just to the development of the world of Sanfransokyo. Interestingly, the two films also share a concern with time-space travel and lost loved ones.

In any case, ‘Your Name’ is worth watching for the visuals alone. I’m no expert on anime, and perhaps for that reason I find some of its conventions a little distracting (the occasional gaspy breathiness and penchant for overreaction, the enlarged quivering eyeballs and slightly fetishistic schoolgirl thing). But, Taki and Mitsuha are so endearingly rendered that I could easily move past what must be an American English-major’s desire for gritty realism and enjoy their characters in all their fumbling, well-meaning, adolescent confusion and joy.

The score is entirely written and performed by the Japanese band, the Radwimps, a name that makes me chuckle every single time I think of it.

The Radwimps have plenty of talent (I listened to them for a whole afternoon, and you can, too – within minutes you will easily forget that you cannot understand a thing they are saying, unless of course you speak Japanese) and they match the emotional tenor of the film perfectly.

At first shocked by the body-swapping that’s taking place, Mitsuha and Taki soon move into attitudes of genuine friendliness and curiosity. They write notes for one another to find when they wake up. They coach one another through life decisions — particularly Mitsuha, who finds that, to Taki’s slight chagrin, his female crush at work is suddenly charmed by his new “feminine side.” Mitsuha — a little delighted by her unexpected power — uses this to arrange a date for Taki, who struggles to live up to the femininity he’s accidentally acquired. The joke is funny but meaningful, too.

Director Shinkai links all that is natural and gentle with the feminine — as with Mitsuha’s all-female family (her sister and grandmother), tending to the shrine and to nature, whereas Taki lives in the bustling, sharp, angular city — in an essentialist way that might make some hard-core feminists raise an eyebrow. But the generous nature of her and Taki’s gender exchange, the primacy of Mitsuha’s point of view to the story and her strength which equals Taki’s, gradually make that less pressing. Shinkai, anyway, seems much more concerned with the idea of union and connection. He uses thread as a visual nudge toward this idea throughout the film. Mitsuha, her sister, and grandmother weave at a traditional loom, and the red ribbon she wears in her hair (with its parallel in Taki’s red bracelet) is prominent in scene after scene. Mitsuha ties it into her hair every morning; when Taki’s inhabiting her body it serves as a little sight gag, always tied haphazardly and falling to the side. In more urgent moments of the film it takes on a much larger and even dynamic presence, sweeping around them and connecting them.

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You can only imagine my delight, poking around on Google Translate, upon learning that the Japanese word ito means “thread or string,” while mori, of course, is self-explanatory.

Which leads us to the serious part of the film: During Itomori’s annual star festival, the comet the townspeople gather to watch will split, and one part of it will fall upon the town, destroying it and leaving a vast crater in its wake.

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Taki realizes that he has been living just ahead of Mitsuha in the future — three years, in fact — and that he has a chance to save her, if only he can go back, find her, and convince her.

This is where the film lifts into something larger than a teenage love story and into a commentary on tragedy, humanity, and cultural memory. You can’t help but feel the horrible inevitability as the comet splits and dives toward Itomori, the broken thread. The visuals from the star festival are breathtaking, the Radwimps are on point, singing their hearts out; and the gentleness with which the message is delivered is so touching and genuinely humane that [can a reviewer admit this without losing face?] I was a little choked up.

Shinkai’s brilliance lies in the fact that his references have multiple touchpoints. While the moment of the comet’s strike clearly suggests the hit of a bomb — a few brief seconds, but very powerful ones, of billowing clouds and irrecoverable, monumental loss — there are other, more recent references that a Japanese audience might feel very keenly, such as the 2011 tsunami, in which nearly 16,000 people died.

In what seems a very Japanese fashion, there is no overt finger-pointing from Shinkai. We all know that, at least when it comes to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what took place was no natural disaster but its polar, man-made opposite. Shinkai is perhaps more gentle and more generous, here, than he needs to be. But his focus on the human side of loss is undeniably moving.