“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”
On a Pacific Northwest wild-fire summer evening, Emmett and I drive the babysitter while the edges of the world burn. She’s chatty and optimistic about fall classes, but I’m distracted by the sun, which is Crayola-Orange, perfect circle, unnatural and eerie. The sky is a muted monotony of ash, like gray-brown construction paper. She prattles away, while I think about being trapped in a naughty child’s apocalyptic crayon drawing.
This story about how history and imagination infect one another unwittingly began a week after I arrived in Delhi for a month-long writing residency. The Sanskriti residents were told that we would have a chance to visit the newly restored Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb. It was about to open to the public. O.P. Jain, the founder of Sanskriti, was a major supporter of the restoration, thus this outing.
Our bus arrived at an overgrown park entrance where we traipsed alongside a river full of plastic garbage, climbed through hills of brush, stumbled over unrestored ruins, and finally arrived on top of a hill, a plateau, where the Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb stood. At its entrance, a brand-new sign informed visitors that the tomb held the remains of Jamali, a sixteenth-century Sufi court poet and saint, and a person named Kamali whose identity was unknown. The conservator of the restoration would guide us at the site.
When we entered the small space of the tomb, I was stunned by its beauty. Two white marble graves sat side by side on the floor. The red and blue circular ceiling was decorated with sunbursts and floral forms carved in plaster. A band of Jamali’s verses encircled the ceiling. The conservator spoke, “Some have thought Kamali was Jamali’s wife or perhaps his brother. Others have thought that Kamali was a disciple of Jamali, the saint. The undisputable fact is that both were men. A symbolic pen box, traditionally a sign of a male, is carved on each of their tombs. It is believed, through our oral tradition in Delhi, that Kamali was Jamali’s homosexual lover.”
“But,” I said, “the new sign out there that you just put up says his identity was unknown.”
The conservator explained that in India a public sign would never mention homosexuality.
“Why did you come to the United States?” That’s the first question on the intake questionnaire for unaccompanied child migrants. The questionnaire is used in the federal immigration court in New York City where I started working as a volunteer interpreter in 2015. My task there is a simple one: I interview children, following the intake questionnaire, and then translate their stories from Spanish to English.
But nothing is ever that simple. I hear words, spoken in the mouths of children, threaded in complex narratives. They are delivered with hesitance, sometimes distrust, always with fear. I have to transform them into written words, succinct sentences, and barren terms. The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.
This piece is excerpted fromCheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge by Ted Conover, a guest at Amherst College’s 2023 LitFest. Register for this exciting celebration of Amherst’s literary life.
It begins with a moment of contact—of driving up to a homestead and trying to introduce yourself.
The prospect is daunting: a lot of people live out here because they do not want to run into other people. They like the solitude. And it is daunting because many of them indicate this preference by closing their driveway with a gate, or by chaining a dog next to their front door, or by posting a sign with a rifle-scope motif that says, “if you can read this you’re within range!”
The local expert on cold-calling is Matt Little, charged by the social service group La Puente with “rural outreach.” Matt has let me ride around in his pickup with him so that I can see him in action. Distances between households on the open Colorado prairie are great, which gives him time to explain his approach, which he has thought about a lot, as he does this every day and in three months has not gotten shot.
This piece is excerpted from The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness byMeghan O’Rourke, a guest at Amherst College’s 2023 LitFest.Register for this exciting celebration of Amherst’s literary life.
The stories we tell about illness usually have startling beginnings—the fall at the supermarket, the lump discovered in the abdomen during a routine exam, the doctor’s call. Not mine. I got sick the way Hemingway says you go broke: “gradually and then suddenly.”
Excerpt from The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness
This piece is excerpted from Imagine a City: A Pilot’s Journey Across the Urban World by Mark Vanhoenacker, a guest at Amherst College’s 2023 LitFest.Register for this exciting celebration of Amherst’s literary life.
I’m thirteen. It’s after school. I’m in my room, at my desk. I look out of the window over the drive and towards the garage. It’s late autumn and it’s almost dark outside. There’s frost in the corners of the window and snow is falling.
I look across the room, at the light-up globe on my dresser. I go to it, flip the switch on its cord and watch as the darkened sphere turns blue in the failing light and starts to shine as if it were in space.
I return to my desk. I sit down, pick up my pencil with my left hand and rest its tip on the sheet of graph paper. I love airplanes and cities and so, not for the first time, I’ve drawn a simple map of the world. I’ll draw a line that begins in one city and ends in another. But which city to start from?
Excerpt from Imagine a City: A Pilot’s Journey Across the Urban World
They say the accident that left me with temporary amnesia is my inheritance. No house or piece of land or chest of letters, just a few weeks of oblivion.
Mami had temporary amnesia as well, except: where she was eight years old, I was twenty-three. Where she fell down an empty well, I crashed my bicycle into an opening car door. Where she nearly bled to death in Ocaña, Colombia, in darkness, thirty feet below the earth, I got to my feet seemingly unharmed and wandered around Chicago on a sunny winter afternoon. Where she didn’t know who she was for eight months, I couldn’t remember who I was for eight weeks.
They say the amnesias were a door to gifts we were supposed to have, which Mami’s father, Nono, neglected to pass.
The basement crawl space is tinged with dread. And a little bit of pride too. Because both my late husband John and my father—and even the firefighter I had to call when it flooded—hated the idea of having to go in. The dimly lit space is only eighteen inches high, a tight spot for a grown man, and full of spider webs. The floor is dirt; overhead is crumbled fiberglass insulation. You climb a ladder and go through a small rough hole in the house’s fieldstone foundation, then crawl about seven feet to reach the valve that supplies water to the outside faucet. This needs to be turned on in spring and off in late fall so the pipes don’t freeze and burst. To get out, you have to crawl backwards and reach a foot through the rough hole, searching blindly for the top step of the ladder. That last six inches is hell on the knees, all sharp rock and crumbling mortar.
This woman in the airport is neither catching a plane nor meeting one. (…) Why is this woman in this airport? Why is she going nowhere, where has she been? —Joan Didion, “Why I Write” (1976)
In the margins of the Strip, planes shimmer in and out of Las Vegas. I photographed this periphery, populated by plane watchers. Why they watch and why I write seem to be connected by a tenuous link that became clearer as the afternoon transpired.
Sundown marks the time and the place for a discreet show among Las Vegas locals. At the golden hour, vehicles on Sunset Road veer toward McCarran International Airport and park in front of the runway. While the casino-jammed stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard known as the Strip blinks itself awake in the background, the airstrip stages a steady stream of landings and take-offs. Every day, new and seasoned plane watchers come here to view the aircrafts rolling between the sky and the Vegas skyline.
Launched in 2022, Outpost is a residency for creative writers of color from the United States and Latin America. Each September, we welcome two writers and award them with a stipend as well as complimentary travel, lodging, and meals to spend a month cultivating a generative writing community in the mountains of Southern Vermont. STEFFAN TRIPLETT and MARICEU ERTHAL, whose work you will encounter below, are exceptionally talented, and we feel quite privileged to have had them represent Outpost’s inaugural cohort. Thanks to the ongoing support of our funding community, we have been able to increase the stipend to $2,000 for our 2023 cohort. Applications are open and will close January 15th.