Pharaohs, Distorted Body Parts, and Eclectic Symbolism
From her home in Syria, Colette Bahna has been producing short stories, novels, plays, television scripts, and journalism since the 1980s. Despite the raging war in her home country, Bahna remains tenaciously attached to staying there.
Bahna’s writing is infused with symbolism: ancient Egyptian history, biblical stories, and folk tales all allow her to write about life under despotism. With dark and piercing irony, she manages to go beyond the confines of the Syrian experience to compose timeless stories about injustice, tyranny, freedom, and love.
Lebanese journalist, translator, and filmmaker Raed Rafei spoke with Bahna about her short story “و/Waw,” which appears in Issue No.17 of The Common; interconnectedness in her texts; writing during times of oppression; and her decision to remain in Syria.
Free Expression Under Tyranny: an Interview with Colette Bahna
Chinga la Migra. Fuck ICE. So begins Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s The Undocumented Americans, a book that is equal parts curse words and incantation, burn it all down and bleeding heart, punk rock and very good girl. The literary nonfiction book that unfurls from this epigraph—and that interlaces autobiographical essay and anti-impersonal investigative journalism—is heavy and gorgeous and astoundingly humane.
To write the book, Cornejo Villavicencio spent time with Spanish-speaking immigrants living in cities across the eastern United States. What she created from those interviews is a gut-punching, many-peopled portrait of undocumented Latinx working-class life. Not what it looks like, what it feels like.Don’t come here looking for DREAMers and sweet dreams. The Undocumented Americans is a book sleepless with the knowledge of how racialized divisions of labor are actually lived: as trauma and as slow death, unspooling in real time. If you’re going to tell this story, Cornejo Villavicencio writes, you “can’t be enamored by America, not still.” That “disqualifies you.” So she begins by giving ICE the finger—a brown middle finger with a snake tattoo undulating up to its knuckle and ending with a gold-painted aqua-tipped fingernail.
Review: Dispatches from the Land of White Noise—The Undocumented Americans
This is a story about stacked tenses. It is an essay about the present tense: a now that is continually layered with what is coming and what is going, what is half buried, and what may bear fruit.
It is about seeing more than is comprehensible and learning to make sense of it. It’s about the dance between receptivity and agency. It’s about history in the present, clairvoyance, and freedom. It’s about destiny and release; side chicks and the sacred; questions that untangle themselves in their response. And circularity: a facet of both life and its records, of which this is one.
Early in quarantine, I subscribed to the Criterion Channel with the optimistic thought that I would have more time to watch old and obscure movies. But it took me a while to turn away from the news and Netflix’s latest offerings. At some point, however, a nostalgic desire for the past crept in. I started perusing Criterion. Losing Ground wasn’t the first thing I watched, but it was the movie that got me hooked on the channel, for the way it brought me into what felt like a lost world.
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I create an occasion for my grandmother. I don’t call it anything, but it’s an occasion nonetheless. For the occasion we travel in her car to the park she shared with me when I was small, a little piece of valley we call the ice cave. For the occasion she chooses her blue flannel and a white fleece hat with flaps that would shield her eyes from the sun, except it’s misting. I wear one of her old coats, a black jacket with Mayan floral weave on the chest, a jacket I haven’t seen in decades. One of the effects of Grandma’s dementia: all of her coats are equally unknown to her now—one is not younger or older, one is not her good coat, none remind her of that fight she had with her son or her husband’s beer drunk resentment. Her husband is the reason for our occasion. Because he is not here. He is in a nursing home she cannot enter due to a highly contagious and sometimes deadly virus she calls the Corawhatever. He is stranded—cramped room, Fall Risk band on wrist—and she should be able to get to him, should be able to help. It’s all she can think about. And so, we go to the ice cave. Do you know how to get there? she asks. I think I do. I drive her car. I tell her at the top of a ridge that feels like my entire childhood, I used to be afraid of this hill. It’s still pretty scary, she says. At the bottom, the bridge is wider than it used to be, but it still bumps us, and in the valley, we pass the schoolhouse where, for a few years, my sister and I lived with our dad, putting scratch-and-sniff stickers on tooth-brushing charts. They painted it red, I say. Sure enough. Pine trees grown up on the hill where we used to sled, the last bend in the road, and we’re there. Small gravel lot by the sagging faces of sandstone and rushing creek. I don’t know if Grandma can make the mile-long trek, but I tell myself it doesn’t hurt to try. We go slow, notice the shape of the land without ferns and foliage for cover. I bend down and touch the lace of white fungi on a rain-soaked log. The warm days have brought the cranes back and melted all snow from the hollows, but ice in the cave is still possible. We won’t know until the end, until we’ve crested the hill obscuring the mouth. Is this it? Grandma asks. I can tell she’s tired, but I say, No, it’s a little bit further. I speed up on the last incline of rust-colored pine needles. White. Ice! I say.
The wine finally whittling at the burr of her thoughts, Alice read descriptions and assessed fabric content before selecting her size. Partial to leafy green and navy blue, cautious of dressing as a lamb when she knew she was close to mutton and yet not ready for Eileen Fisher–baggy old lady, her fifty-one years compounded the shopping challenge her considerable height posed. Even if she wasn’t actually buying, the clothes must potentially fit if the process were to give her any satisfaction. The virtual acquisition required less than possession but more than pure abstraction. The clothes and shoes and bags must be plausible purchases were she to decide to purchase them—always a possibility. But not even wine, an empty apartment, the tiresome BBC drama of Brexit unpardonably mixed with the devastating news of another Ebola outbreak overlain with repeated clicks of not-quite-complete acquisition could keep her from thinking about the dog.
On a crisp fall day in 1974, you are walking with your third-grade class up Central Park West to the museum. You smell the hot pretzels just before the statue comes into view. You want to pass by quickly in an effort to avoid the poop from flocking pigeons, but your best friend and partner for the trip, who is white and blond, slows your pace and squeezes your hand. She is frowning up at the statue, red-cheeked, the way she gets when she is angry.
“How come the Black man and the Indian man don’t get horses too? They’re just as good as the white guy.”