In his thirty years of work in publishing, my grandfather never once revealed to his colleagues he was gay. Doing so could have cost him his job as a children’s book editor at a prestigious house, or at the very least, his reputation as an honest, hard-working family man. It took me only ten minutes, in a phone interview with the same publishing house, to accidentally out him.
The walk to the outhouse was some thirty yards—across the bare back yard, past a fishpond filled in with sand after a turkey had drowned there, and through a gate at the garden fence—to a little unpainted hut behind two salt cedar trees. It was quiet inside, the murk tempered by sun slanting in between weathered boards. The hush was lovely—breezes outside cocooning the silence inside. When I was seven years old, I discovered solitude there. And the pleasure of staring. At men. In lieu of toilet paper, our outhouse was stocked with last year’s mail order catalogs, with pages of men’s underwear for me to hover over. I was several years shy of learning about sex—from a Roman Catholic booklet so primly informative that I pictured two fully clothed adults just returned from Sunday Mass, facing each other in straight-backed dining chairs and holding hands while some kind of mystical transference occurred between their covered laps. Though I had been to confession, I hadn’t yet discovered that my body could be an instrument of sin, of shame. Somehow, I had absorbed the need for privacy, for keeping the secret of my mail order fascination.
Three weeks ago, my 11-year-old Indian American cousin woke me up with a series of heartbreaking text messages. Didi you up? Mom dad and everyone else can’t stop watching the news. Theyre thrilled. Kashmir sounds like kishmish. Whats the lime of control btw? Why do hindus dislike muslims? I had not yet gotten out of bed in my small, sleepy university town in Western Massachusetts. But my aunt and uncle were up early in the morning as friends and neighbors, fellow upper-caste pajama-clad Indian Americans with unbrushed teeth and undemocratic hearts, had gathered in their New Jersey apartment to watch the Home Minister of India officially and unilaterally revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, live from the parliament.
Part of what makes Jammu and Kashmir special is what makes India special. As a kid, I used to mug up from my school textbooks that India is the land of festivals, colors, dances, languages, religions, so on and so forth, but I was unable to appreciate the water in which I was a fish. Now when I go for months without hearing words that I don’t understand, as every cashier in every store asks me to ‘have a good one’ in the exact same tone and pitch, I have to listen to a Rajasthani or a Tamil song just to reorient myself. I need to know that there will always be so much that I don’t know. Therefore, I must constantly remember India, much of which is sort of me but not quite me, because it makes me feel bigger than myself.
Start small. Your brain created this mess; it can get you out. Right?
The key must be to think the right thoughts. Your elaborate rituals have so far kept the airplane from nose-dive and tailspin, but they don’t prevent that boulder of fear from implanting itself cozily in your gut weeks ahead of any flight. You first notice its presence the year your annual life tally reaches nineteen, the year the solid base of your adolescent invincibility begins to erode under waves of ontological dread—like this whole time it was just made out of stale bread, not stone at all, and now it’s sogging apart.
An introductory essay to Stories from Syria, a portfolio published in English by The Common and in Arabic by Akhbar Al Adab (Egypt).
Today, in the second installment of a transatlantic literary collaboration which I hope will last for many years to come, Akhbar Al Adab publishes the original Arabic texts of stories by Syrian writers whose English translations appear in a special portfolio in Issue 17 of The Common, a literary magazine based at Amherst College. The first portfolio in the series contained stories by Jordanian writers and was published in Issue 15 of The Common, which followed the collaboration’s inaugural project: an issue of the magazine (Issue 11, Spring 2016) entirely dedicated to contemporary Arabic literature in translation entitled Tajdeed (Renewal), in which editor-in-chief Jennifer Acker and I selected stories and artworks by twenty-six writers and five artists from fifteen Arabic-speaking countries, with eighteen translators bringing the work into English.
The first time I went to China was in 1984. I didn’t need a map. You could only travel in groups back then with a government handler to navigate the way and guide thoughts. We travelled from Beijing to Xi’an in a decommissioned military airplane reserved for the exclusive use of Party leaders and foreign tourists. From Xi’An to Luoyang we took a train that required eight hours to cover a distance that now needs just half that.
Blood seeps through the gauze on Salima’s foot. It’s what we notice first: the dark, rusty seepage a sharp contrast to the pastels of her pajamas and room. She’s thirteen, we learn, but the distant look in her eyes belongs to someone much older. She sits squat on the bed, chin resting on her knee. She seems mindless of her burns. Her mother and sister also survived, but three others in her family were killed when the American helicopter opened fire on their tent in Kandahar.
My grandfather, Luis A. Ferré (1904-2003), was the third governor of Puerto Rico and the founder of the Pro-Statehood Party. When I was little, he used to say it is better to be a big fish in a little pond than a sardine in the big blue sea. It was a reminder of how good we had it on our little island, and a warning against leaving it in pursuit of a bigger and impossible dream.
Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.
—Elizabeth BennettPride and Prejudice
Nobody wants to hear about your trip.
—Amherst College Professor of English Theodore Baird
We don’t travel as a couple anymore, Bill and I, except for the shortest jaunts to Boston maybe once a year, in the summer to the Adirondacks to visit Bill’s brother and family, and to the Berkshires, where friends sometimes take us to indoor concerts at Tanglewood (Bill doesn’t listen to music outdoors). So I travel on my own, but more and more rarely: day trips with a friend, twice-yearly visits to Oregon to keep in touch with son Will and family, once a year or so to the Washington, D.C., area to see my sister, rare overnights to New York. I also dig in more closely here at home—not as closely as Bill does with his piles of books and constant reviewing and teaching at Amherst College, but still, closely.
Urbino, a Renaissance jewel in central Italy. My first visit there in many years. I knew no one there, nor was I in touch with anyone from my grandmother Antonia’s family—assuming any were left.
One evening, as I was ascending a cobblestone street towards the city’s outer walls, I noticed a group of people gathered around an uncovered manhole. Intrigued, I moved closer. A group of amateur speleologists was about to begin a nocturnal exploration of underground Urbino; to my surprise they asked me if I wanted to join them. Squeezing down the manhole’s narrow, vertical, metal stairs, I found myself in a long tunnel. The guides began talking, but I wasn’t listening, mesmerized by the scattering flashes of their helmets’ lights. I felt I was physically penetrating the past—an imagined past. My father’s city’s past, unknown to him and to me.