My study has a new patroness: a fiber optic Virgin of Guadalupe! It’s a birthday present from my sister Julie. I put her in the fireplace, to watch over my city of blocks, which are just blocks I play with whenever I’m stuck or need to figure something out in 3-D. And it’s all the more apropos for Novel #2, which concerns the Maya, who revered the goddess of healing Ix Chel, of whom, let’s be honest, the Virgin of Guadalupe is a direct reincarnation.
I think this is the beginning of a shrine.
I’m teaching myself Spanish. It’s for Novel #2, but more broadly, so that I’ll be able to communicate more when traveling in Spanish-speaking countries (including the States). To do this, I’m reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe en Español for a half hour a day. I’m so familiar with it in English that I have a general idea of where the story is going, which helps.
La niña miró hacia el interior. Había numerosos abrigos colgados, la mayoría de piel. Nada le gustaba tanto a Lucía como el tacto y el olor de las pieles.
I was reminded, watching the World Cup, how much I love the sound and feel of Spanish. Isn’t that the reason why so many people learn another language? They just love the rhythm of it? My mother did, too—in addition to her love affair with Belize, she adored Julio Iglesias, which was a source of considerable embarrassment when I was growing up but now, of course, is nothing but adorable.
Había dejado la puerta abierta, por supuesto, pues comprendía que sería una verdadera locura encerrarse en el armario.
Here are my rules: I can’t ever reference the English version. I have to learn in media res. If I don’t understand a word even after looking it up in my Spanish-English dictionary, I don’t sweat it, and keep going. Just like my parents encouraged me to do when I first learned to read as a child.
Avanzó also más y descubrió una segunda hilera de abrigos.
To help me remember vocabulary, I say it over and over, in a tone, or use my hands to indicate a word, whether it drops or rises, or to glue it to an image in my mind. I sit on my balcony with my eyes closed, waving my hands. The other day I realized I’d read an entire paragraph without having to look up a single word. Not stopping and starting. Just reading.
—¡Éste debe de ser un guardarropa gigantesco!—murmuró Lucía, mientras caminaba más y más adentro…
Y salgo de verano, y voy en el ropero.
This is my sister Clare holding a picture of our parents on their wedding day.
When I was growing up, my parents’ social lives revolved within a small bubble of Lebanon Valley College where my Dad taught religion. Their friends were faculty couples. I observed them and observed my Dad observing them. Once he privately remarked how uncomfortable it made him to watch them snipe at each other at social functions, a discomfort I absorbed. But now that I’m older, I see a more subtle form of it: members of a couple anticipating each other’s contribution to the conversation, finishing it for them, cutting each other off, policing each other. It’s a form of ownership: the assumption that they know each other. The assumption that they can.
I’m not sure what intimacy is. But whatever it is, I don’t believe it’s a function of time. My Dad says that the longer he was married to Mom, the more he realized how profoundly Other she was. That as much as he loved her, he could not possibly know her—why she liked the things she liked, or did the things she did, or said the things she said. I guess that may seem like a desolate concept, but to me, it feels liberating. We don’t have to know each other! We just get to let each other be.
Recently an actor friend and I had an intense conversation about Romeo and Juliet. He’d first read it in ninth grade, like I had, and the teacher had posed the same question: “Was it really Love?” And in both cases, the whole jaded classroom of fourteen-year-olds had said no, no, not possible. They’d only known each other for a week. They were too young. It was just a crush.
But we both thought it was real love. I still do.
What are love and intimacy a function of, then, if not time? Sometimes I think it’s a function of presence. Romeo and Juliet experienced radical present-ness, and just didn’t live long enough to keep practicing it. Lately I keep being reminded of how hard it is to be present to a person, in front of me, changing in time and space and fundamentally unknowable, instead of merely reacting to the construct of them I have in my head.
But somehow, that practice seems like the key to everything else.
I forget where I heard the term “vomit draft,” but it’s another term for “first draft,” and it’s so apt. I’m working on the second novel, the Belize novel—whose title I’ve already chosen, but feel strangely superstitious about saying out loud—and trying to shoehorn my life back into something resembling a steady schedule. After everything. After the trip, the play, the novel, and the floods of sweetness in their wake.
Morning pages every day.
Work out every day.
Half an hour of research reading a day.
Half an hour of Spanish translation a day.
Half an hour of pleasure reading a day.
A thousand words of the new novel a day.
And in writing them, whenever I get frustrated or stuck, I have to keep reminding myself of a very basic lesson: they don’t have to be the right words. They’re just the raw material. Shaping comes later.
So there’s the clay metaphor, but even that is too pretty: I like “vomit draft.” I have to permit myself to be awful.
*Trigger warning: Child abuse and rape*
*SPOILERS for The Girl in the Road, Open City by Teju Cole, and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie*
There’s a scene in The Girl in the Road that’s upsetting a lot of people. Understandably so. It’s a scene of child abuse. I was told several times, by prospective agents and editors, that I needed to “dial it back” or “tone it down.” One of the reasons I chose my agent was that he was the only one to confirm my instinct: that I was telling the truth, and needed to leave it be.
In the words of one Goodreads reviewer, “describing a child molestation event as some sort of religious event for a child automatically earns a zero score.” She, like others, confuse reportage with advocacy—that I’m somehow condoning the abuse by describing it as anything but the horrific act that it is, and in a stern authorial voice. But the event occurs within the first-person perspective of a fifty-year-old mentally ill woman whose emotional growth was stunted, in part, by things that happened to her at age seven. Like the scene in the hotel room. The rest of her life, as described in the novel, witness that what happened in the hotel room was incredibly damaging, no matter the story she tells herself about it.
Child abuse rarely occurs at the hands of strange men in dark alleys. It usually occurs with adults—including adult women—who are beloved figures in an intimate caretaking relationship with the child. That is how they get to abuse. Protectiveness of, and even reverence for, an abuser well into adulthood is part of the spectrum of abuse survivor behavior. That is an extremely painful truth of the human experience.
So. Kill the messenger?
I understand the feeling, actually. I remember two distinct instances where I got really, really mad at the author: Teju Cole for Open City and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for Half of a Yellow Sun. In the former, the first-person protagonist is confronted by a woman he raped in high school; his reaction is basically “meh,” and he continues with his long walks and pithy observations. I was furious at him, and at Teju Cole for writing him, thinking, “I liked this character; now I’ve completely checked out of his narrative and don’t care about anything that happens to him.”
But. Mr. Cole was telling the truth. Many rapists would have exactly that reaction; it’s consistent with someone who was emotionally disconnected enough to rape in the first place, to also have no emotional reaction when confronted about it. That is also an extremely painful truth of the human experience. Mr. Cole was not advocating for it, but he was reporting it. He wrote about it here.
Similarly, in Half of a Yellow Sun, the sympathetic “soul” of the novel, Ugwu, participates in a gang rape after conscription into the Nigerian civil war. Again, I completely checked out after that happened. I didn’t care what happened to Ugwu anymore. But that reaction was deeply instructive to me. As Ms. Adichie says in a talk with Zadie Smith (see here, at 24:35), “It would be false to pretend that we go into war and we somehow emerge as pristine beings.”
In other words, people we love commit evil acts. Sometimes we commit evil acts. Sometimes those acts go addressed in the lifetime of the story we’re reading. Sometimes they don’t.
As in life.
I went to my Dad’s this morning and tried to describe what last night—the closing night of Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo—was like. “We were all seated at long tables, outside in the warm night air, thirty or forty of us, sitting with our hips touching, drinking and laughing, friends and lovers all, saying goodbye one by one in little duets, saying beautiful things to each other, like I hugged Nicola and could hear her heartbeat and told her so, and Kyma’s leaving tomorrow and Kana’s catching a plane and Allen and Ishai and Cameron are all leaving too, and Hankla bought everyone tequila shots, and we toasted to life starting over again.”
Dad said, “It’s Pentecost.”
I thought he only meant it figuratively.
“No!” he said, “Today is really Pentecost.”
And so it is. Pentecost is the Christian feast commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit on humankind, appearing as tongues of flame on their brows, which made them speak to each other in different languages, but each could understand the other as if they were speaking their own mother tongue.
So we scatter to the winds. What do we do with all this love?
My debut novel, The Girl in the Road, hits stores today. Above is the dedication at the front of the book.
I wish I could perform an integral function so I could somehow appreciate all of the work, doubt, fears, and tears of the last seven years at once. But that would be quite impossible. And also violate our mortal sense of time.
My agent and editor warned me that the actual book release day would probably be anti-climactic. So I’ve just planned a quiet pseudo-celebration of getting henna done at my favorite neighborhood coffee shop, Cocoa Cinnamon, and then heading across the street to rehearsal with my hands bound in rosewater and gauze. We’re on our fourth full run. Our actors make new leaps every night. We grow more intimate, more sweet, more comfortable, more bold.
This is a day like any other. And that’s a wonderful thing.
Yesterday me, my director Jay O’Berski, and my actors Caitlin Wells and Nicola Bullock went on WUNC’s The State of Things to talk about Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo, which premieres on Thursday. The segment is here. It was my third time on the show, and I introduced my friends to my pre-show ritual of doing a headstand right before going into the studio. It gets all the blood up into the brain and makes me feel zen.
The segment went well. In live radio, though, you have to choose one direction in which to answer a question and then stride boldly until you start repeating yourself, at which point the host steps in. So of course you don’t get to talk comprehensively about your topic, or say all the things you want to say, and that’s okay. For a lot of people it was probably just their first introduction to the idea that polyamory isn’t just something immature assholes do.
But if I could have longer, and it could be edited down so that I’d sound intelligent, I’d talk about so many more things…my “conversion experience” in Belize. How love, monogamy, commitment, and sex are not bound together. How jealousy is an entirely bearable and in fact transformative experience. How everyone I’m with brings out different sides of me that I might not have ever discovered otherwise. How the emphasis on monogamy cheats both women and men. How true intimacy is possible in any relationship where kindness, honesty, and respect are present. How I feel deeply cared for, and care for others, deeply, in turn. How many dear friends I’ve made this way.
How happy I am to be a solo polyamorist.
How my saying that causes a huge range of reactions in people.
On April 19, 2010, I sent out an email to about six hundred friends, family members, and “travel companions”—people who had requested to receive my travel letters—asking for financial support via Fractured Atlas to start writing the novel while I continued looking for a job. It was before the advent of Kickstarter and IndieGogo, and even now, asking for support to write a novel is rare. What happened is chronicled here.
Tonight I signed a hardcover for every person who contributed and provided a mailing address. I’m putting them in the mail on Monday so (inshallah) they’ll get their copies before the official release date. They’re also all thanked in the Acknowledgments at the end of the book.
Thank you for having faith in me. It meant so much. It still does.
At 5am this morning I was woken by tornado sirens. I put on a bathrobe and went out onto the balcony; the night was unnaturally warm and the sky was purple. I took my iPhone and Mac Air and went downstairs and knocked on all my housemates’ doors and then sat against the wall in the innermost hallway. My housemate Kiki joined me, and we spent the time talking about the mundaneness of gunfire in neighborhoods we’ve known.
It’s hard to summarize what’s happening in my life right now. What isn’t happening? Buzz is growing around The Girl in the Road, which got amazing reviews from Kirkus and Booklist, and a starred review from Library Journal. I set up an Author Page that’s been getting a ton of traffic. I’ve been corresponding with the producers of the audiobook, tracking down correct pronunciations from “Ouagadougou” to “Muthashi.” I’ve been interviewed by phone and by email, I’m giving the first of several author talks tomorrow night, and I’m writing a half dozen essays my publishers are placing in advance of May 20th. A piece just came out in Glimmer Train.
Meanwhile, I’m at rehearsal every night for Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo (trailer here, NSFW). I feel like I should show up in ball gowns every night because that’s how I feel. That this is sacred extraordinary time and must be marked as such. But I stick to jean shorts, and try to act casual, and watch people perform my words, but not just any people, but a group of absurdly talented and charismatic people whose bodies I watch Jay direct in space with such rare genius. My collaborators seem to know what I want before I do. They seem to know what I didn’t even know I wanted. I have an acute sense of Thisness: THIS is what I want to be doing with my life. THIS THIS THIS. Making art with friends. THIS. I am doing it RIGHT NOW and it’s so pleasurable I’m almost not present. It reminds me of the existential games of chicken I used to play as a child, where I’d stand in front of a mirror and think, “That is me. I am me. I am the one looking out from behind the eyes staring at me.”
No tornado came this morning. The storm moved to the northeast, and left me and Kiki to go back to sleep.