The night Barack Obama was elected president, Roger Sinclair and his family gathered in his living room to watch the results come in. And there Roger—lifelong Democrat, city councilman, local party chair—drank a bottle of Merlot and elbowed his granddaughter Emily in the cheek, breaking her orbital socket.
Before the incident, the evening had been a happy one. Roger’s son Joel and daughter-in-law Colette were as rapt as he by the momentous events. All agreed that John McCain (a patriot, to be sure) was mired in the past, while the young candidate from Chicago—his beautiful family, his dazzling smile—represented an optimism the country hadn’t seen in a generation.
“It’s a return to Camelot,” Roger said, lifting his glass, though Joel’s and Colette’s puzzled faces told him they missed the reference.
Latifa Baqa’s gripping stream of consciousness short story “Adam’s Apple” is a highlight of Issue 21’s portfolio of fiction from Morocco. A feminist, human rights activist, and award-winning author, Baqa is interviewed by The Common interns Sofia Belimova, Olive Amdur, Adaku Nwokiwu, and Eliza Brewer. They discuss editing, the devil in the details, and countering the traditional expectation of the male gaze. Nariman Youssef translated the interview, as well as the original story. This is the first of two interviews conducted by the summer interns with Issue 21 contributors; the second will be with Abdelmajid Haouasse.
TC interns (TC): What inspired “Adam’s Apple?” Can you describe your process of writing and revising it?
Latifa Baqa (LB): The idea behind “Adam’s Apple,” like pretty much all ideas you may find in any of my fictional texts, began with a sentence. Meaning that one sentence preceded the idea, in a way not unlike how one note might resonate in a musician’s head before the rest of the tune. This is how it often happens: before I begin writing, a lone sentence rises up in my thoughts, for no obvious reason. I remember how this one stuck in my head for days: “We shouldn’t lay bare what we carry within us more than once.” The rest of the story followed from that sentence, beginning with a minor character who barely features in the narrative: Alzamourie, the neighborhood’s baker, who was a real person in the working class neighborhood where I was born and raised. To be more precise, one element that started making its way into the story was Alzamourie’s teeth. I just could never forget his teeth. It seems almost absurd, but I find more reassurance in the foggy arbitrariness of memory than in the clarity of conventional reality.
I Will Be in the Place You Least Expect to Find Me: 10 Questions with Latifa Baqa
Anna Lidia Vega Serova’s stories make my mouth quirk and make me wince, usually not simultaneously. The pitiless sweep of her narrators’ gazes spares no one, not even the characters they’re latched fastest to. When my own eyes are fixed on the task of translating her words, of scooting puzzle pieces around until they snap satisfyingly into place, I forget how unblinking that narratorial gaze is, how its effect sometimes abuts brutality, and sometimes tips straight in. I remember when I watch other people react to my translations, after it is too late to offer content warnings or make excuses for unlikable women. (What can I say? I like unlikable women—or, more accurately: I admire them.) Vega Serova’s stories brim with them, which is one reason I am drawn to them.
Once upon a time I lived at the beach, and not just any beach, but one of the good ones: Newport Beach in Orange County. A hashtag search delivers 2.3 million Instagram hits; if you stand at the end of Newport’s wood-planked pier on winter mornings, Catalina Island looks close enough to touch. I was not there the day a masked booby showed up, but I have seen a sea turtle, a bloom of moon jellies, and a stout man paddling a paddleboard completely naked. Coffee in hand, sitting on the front steps of my rental cottage, I would admire the early surfers jogging past in neon-trimmed neoprene, shortboards clamped under blond arms. I envied their urgency and zeal. According to their wet suits, their names were O’Neill and Rip Curl. Their girlfriends were even prettier and more fit than they were. I had a surfboard too, but it didn’t do me much good. Any wave obvious enough and slow enough for me to catch just petered out in the kelpy slop thirty seconds later. Mostly, I used it to prop open the door when I brought in the groceries.
The farmer’s daughter began her fifth period, more excavating, more mortal than the previous. The toilet under the stairs flushed half-heartedly, returning red-brown effluent. Go down, go away, be off to the underworld! She pumped a second time, jangled the handle to make her point. But there would be more. Dark clumps and entrails, another six days of the end of the world.
“Saudi wastemen came over the bridge for boozy orgy celebrations.” —Noor Naga
The horror of the city. As Dhari tapped the steering wheel, he calmed himself by visualizing the beautiful woman who should be sitting next to him soon: shoulder-length blonde hair and sky-blue eyes. He eyed the two security guards idling at the gate of the hospital, joking with each other. The gangly one spit on the ground, then turned to the one with long hair, who handed him a cigarette. Dhari’s friend Dawood got caught with a woman he wasn’t related to once. Dawood was actually lucky to spend only a week in jail, but Dhari knew he couldn’t handle prison for even a day. If only he could have been born somewhere else, where people weren’t separated from one another like this. Whenever he watched American movies, he marveled at how men and women got together, threw dinner parties, clinked glasses. Relationships, dances, first kisses, all these things were taken for granted. How would they view Saudi weddings? Separate ones for men and women. At a wedding, all one did was shake men’s hands, drink tan Saudi coffee in small ceramic cups, and sit, waiting for meat and rice to be served.
My father teaches ethics at a university. My mother teaches ethics at a university. They save. Their money. Buy a large bungalow in Connecticut. They continue. Saving. Enough to support the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and their baby. They read the news and wish kindness into our laws. One of them will say Sweden hasn’t been to war since 1812. The other says you can start a business in Sweden and get free healthcare. They’re excited. About my arrival. They remain. Calm. When midnight cries wake them. My father waits. For my mother to heal. Before asking for sex. She’s good. At saying no. She throws meditation and exercise and intense therapy at her trauma. Still goes to AA. When wrong. She promptly admits it. Every night she arrives home from the university. Her soft. Low voice. Builds a replica in my throat. She wears minimal. Makeup. Cuts her nails down because who needs the fuss. When I walk. Into a room. And see my father. I continue walking in. When my father and I leave. The house. Lots of women introduce themselves. When we get back he tears. Their numbers over the trash. On weekends my father and I dig in the dirt. I watch him plant lilac bulbs around the spruce. He lets my small hand pack the ground. Affirms it as help. When my father puts. me to bed with true stories of him sewing clothes for new mothers in Ukraine. I fall asleep fast.