My mother called to me but I stopped my ears with my fingers so I couldn’t hear her. I took one step forward, waited, and then kept going. The blood was pumping in my ears against my fingertips like I was under water. The mill floor had been swept and I could see the broom marks and where they piled and scooped up the dust. It was cool and silent inside and crammed with machinery. I’d heard the mill sounds for as long as I could remember. It was strange, it being so quiet. I thought: I’m a little machine and when I go silent I’ll be silent and I’ll be dead.
- Guernica: Your novel has many elements of noir fiction—we follow a melancholy sleuth of sorts who comes up against the law, doesn’t always remember how he got home, and may be seduced by a beguiling woman. This plays out against the backdrop of the first months of US occupation in Iraq, in the second half of 2003. Why did you choose this genre of storytelling to depict this moment in Iraq?
- Elliott Colla: The novel is really interested in a moment of ambiguity. Setting it in the fall of 2003 is not an accident; this is a moment that is important for us to return to, and this is what the book is asking us to do. To go back to the moment where the clarity of war, and the sharp divisions between us and them, good and evil, lovers of freedom and Baath Party, break down. And they break down precisely because the US has gotten itself into a situation of military occupation where in order to rule and to occupy it has to deal with the people it has just spent all this effort to demonize.
- This is why it’s so suitable for the book to be in the noir genre—it has to do with the actual murkiness of a situation. Noir is where the clarity of moral divisions break down, the black and whites turn into grays. So as I was thinking about this particular moment of compromise on the part of the US, where it was learning how to make alliances with all sorts of Shiite groups in order to occupy, and creating all sorts of new divisions that didn’t exist before. Just as certain Cold War binaries were collapsing, new binaries of Sunni versus Shia or Arab versus Kurd were being created by the new occupation force. It’s the corruption of that moment that I am really interested in.
In some of the reaches of literary fiction, I feel like there is still a kind of prudishness around female appetite. That it’s somehow a problem, or it’s only interesting if it’s a problem—if it’s the source of suffering, betrayal, someone getting a bottle cracked over her head, someone self-mutilating. It must have harm attached to it to be considered serious. It’s not necessarily true in other media. In television right now, there are some amazing female characters who are very robust. It’s not necessarily true in music, it’s not true in a lot of places. But in literary culture, there’s this idea that female appetite is only the stuff of serious literature if it’s connected to damage. And I object. I object as a writer. I object as a human being. It’s just simply not true. It’s a kind of censorship masquerading as taste.
I think there’s over-telling sometimes, in fiction. For instance, I’m a big fan of horror movies, but I could always lose the last third of them. There’s the brilliant exciting scary thing that’s going on, and then they have to show you the monster, and the monster turns out to be a giant spider from space and then you push it over and it’s dead. It becomes mortal and it has human needs and it always sort of feels like a shame.
The man wore a three-piece suit and a white, collared shirt. We were close enough to see that his shoes were not new, but still clean, well kept, buffed to a Sunday shine. People did not dress this way in Wilmington. It was mostly farmers in blue jeans or women in stretch pants with the cuffs stuffed into their shoes. The only people who wore suits were the town’s two lawyers on Water Street and Mr. Reeves, who owned the funeral home behind the diner. Even so, the man did not look like any other man we knew. He did not have the large, bony nose of my father or his sandy blond hair or short stature. He did not have my father’s casual, sloppy way of sitting, and he did not have my father’s extra beer flesh around his middle or his sleepy blue eyes.
Instead, the man was tall and slender, with a head of thick, wiry hair that might have been brown or black, his eyes no color I could name.
Um, excuse me, Ronnie said. She used her adult voice with her nose up, hands folded in her lap.
Moving only his head, the man looked down to regard us, his face the gray of a stone worn smooth by water.
Girls, he said. As though he were about to address us. Girls… Or with merely a sense of recognition, as though we were a pack of gazelles and he a man viewing us through a lens, pointing a long, thin finger out: I see… girls. Just there. And he said, Girls, not Girl, which is how I know that I was not alone that day, probably never alone in that room, despite my wont to blot out Mary and Ronnie and even the man himself from any of these memories.
Image by Rudy Cremonini, Swimming pool party, 2013. Courtesy Galerie Thomas Fuchs.
But the worst by far of all the imam’s decrees was the one that brought a tear to my father’s eye the day the Confiscator paid us a visit: the Orphan’s Decree. It called for any orphaned Jewish child to be confiscated, converted, and quickly adopted by a Muslim family if a father died. This meant that Jewish children were ripped out of the arms of newly widowed mothers. That’s why the Confiscator had lingered in my father’s stall—because of my father’s cough. The Confiscator had a quota to fill. Perhaps he had heard that the shoemaker was sickly.
Our dad was a drinker—a drinking man, I would overhear my mom say—and during his last weeks before leaving, he drank more. I remember but one night from this time. Mom was working late at a dentist’s office an hour out of town, and Dad was on the living room recliner, tilting his head back to drink from a can of beer, then setting it down on the side table. His drinking seemed to coordinate with the setting of the sun: one gold can and then another disappearing, the light outside moving from blond dusk to dark. I felt uneasy, but couldn’t say why. We were doing just what we always did—Ronnie and Mary and I sat drawing quietly at the dining room table, looking up from time to time to the TV in the other room—but our movements felt slow and intentional, as men floating weightlessly in space.
After the local news, Ronnie rose and turned on the tall lamp in the corner. It was like someone folding shut a large book, the pages closing heavy and certain—upstairs a door creaked open—because with the lamp on I realized what was bothering me: all the shades were up. The night had fully darkened and the lights were burning in the house so that we could not see the world outside, but it could see us. Ronnie squinted at her reflection in the window. She was tall and slender, already moving past the white-blonde hair Mary and I still wore, the soft flesh of our adolescence. Because of Ronnie’s height and graceful posture, people often thought her older than ten. She occupied that maturity most naturally in our mother’s absence, giving Mary her baths and telling us—as with a guiding hand on the smalls of our backs—when to brush our teeth, when she thought we hadn’t eaten enough. I often felt myself waiting for her to tell me what to do.
And again, big grating hacks racked my father’s body. The Confiscator’s eyes narrowed, he stepped back until he was halfway out of the stall and screwed up his face in distaste—no he wouldn’t catch this plague, not if he could help it. And yet my father’s obvious weakness clearly gave the Confiscator pleasure. A smile played on the corner of his mouth. He tipped his head foreword to get a better earful of the miserable sound. And still he stared at me—looking at me, seeing me live a different life. For that was his job, to pluck children out by the roots from the soil of their birth and replant them in a different garden.
I stared back at the wealthy stranger. I wasn’t afraid of him yet. I was really only afraid of my mother. No one’s wrath or whims—not even the Confiscator’s—could scare me by comparison. Even then, at only five years old, I saw him perfectly for what he was: a thief, an evildoer, and a descendant of Amalake. I wanted to spit at him, but I knew I would be punished for it in this life and in the World to Come.
Raccoon, Pronghorn, Mule Deer, Ring-necked Pheasant, Fox
By Chelsea Biondolillo
Brought to you by the Guernica/PEN Flash Series
I’m sorry for driving past and driving past and driving past all winter and into spring, and for watching, with interest—even, I’m ashamed to say, a kind of gross curiosity—as you became less and less of what you were, as you were ground down by innumerable tires into bone, fur, and dirt, as you were picked apart by magpies and crows.
I would like to be the kind of person who looks away from the slumped backbone, the twisted leg, the handful of feathers, flickering without flight in the gusts of dusty farm-to-market traffic. But I’m afraid I’ll always stare.
By Sally Wen Mao
Brought to you by the Guernica/PEN Flash Series
Four-year-old Mailin was drawing a picture on the wall of her grandmother’s guest room. First, she drew a profile. It was a man’s face. Then she drew his legs. She skipped the body because that moment she forgot that men had bodies – chests, torsos, bellies and all. She drew a hat to cover the head. She drew a princess in a ballgown—the bride. She drew a kid with a balloon in his hand. She drew a bowl of peaches. Then she drew the apartment complex. Bricks because she was told that wooden houses burn quickly. Stairs because she had never lived in a place with more than one floor.
She used a ballpoint pen and the lines were shaky. She knew she was violating the clean white wall, that her grandmother would discover her soon, see her for the criminal she was.
Footsteps started down the hall. They rang, they thudded, a slow pulse. Her wrists went limp. She wanted to keep drawing the place they could all live in together. One that fit a family. Freaks, sure, with no torsos or bellies or chests. But these freaks had legs and nice shoes. These freaks had a three-story apartment made of bricks and ballpoint ink.
The door clicked open. She had it coming. Her grandmother scanned the walls. Her eyes rolled over the bride, and the kid, and the man with a hat but no body. The walls harbored wishes she could not grant.
Mailin knew she’d be punished. She closed her eyes, waited for the whip of her grandmother’s hand across her face. She thought of the house she lived in with her parents in the city—how the three of them slept together on the floor of the living room, how on the weekends they would gather in the front yard with tiny bowls of fruit and she could hear the laughter over the wall between her family and the next door neighbors. She took a bus to school every day with Susu, the girl who lived beyond that wall. She wished they could all live together in the countryside, they could all drink from the same freshwater well and breathe air as sweet as this, as sweet as the air here, on this porch in Xianning, taste peaches as ripe as the peaches here, the peaches in her drawing, so plump her lines could barely contain them. She closed her eyes and breathed in. Suddenly her drawing dwarfed her tininess. The apartment she drew was big enough to fit her whole body inside.
“Why did you do this?” her grandmother asked slowly, but the next moment, her face softened. “What is this? Why doesn’t this man have a body?”
Mailin answered, “He lost it in an accident. He doesn’t have one.”
Decades later, Mailin returned to Xianning. A bowl of peaches was set beside the gilded picture of her grandmother. Mailin lit incense and thought of the bodiless man in the bowler hat. He would have been directly in front of the bed where her grandmother had died. She wondered if when her grandmother was bedridden, the drawing of the man disturbed her. She imagined her grandmother’s envy. It would be a marvel to rid oneself of a body. Mailin learned this from her mother, who once told her, if I were my mother, I’d love to be dead. Unmoving, in a bed—what kind of life is that? It is no life.
In the future, Mailin would meet a lot of men without bodies. No torsos, no chests, no bellies, just eyes that gazed at her, craved her, carved her into something unnatural, something ugly and immortal. Mailin chased this version of herself in the mirrors. The body always deformed, resembling not a peach, but a stalk—inedible and tough. She loved and despised the weight of the bodies she didn’t know: the torsos, the ribs, the stray hairs above the stomach.
Her grandmother once warned her mother to marry a nearsighted man, for his eyes would not stretch far. He’d keep his peripheral vision inside, the apartment as far as his eyes could look. But Mailin could not imagine a future like that. She had long left the city with the wall between her and SuSu. She had long left California with the date palm and the tiny yard. She had long left the ballpoint apartment complex in Xianning, with the freaks dancing around the dining table, their imaginary laughter spilling onto the streets.
Originally published at Guernica Daily.