Amherst College’s sixth annual literary festival will take place virtually this year, from Thursday, February 25 to Sunday, February 28. Among the guests are 2020 National Book Award fiction winner Charles Yu and longlist nominee Megha Majumdar. The Common is pleased to reprint a short excerpt from Yu’s novel Interior Chinatown here.
Join Megha Majumdar and Charles Yu in conversation with host Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint (visiting writer at Amherst College) on Friday, February 26 from 7 to 8pm.
Amherst College’s sixth annual literary festival will take place virtually this year, from Thursday, February 25 to Sunday, February 28. Among the guests are 2020 National Book Award fiction winner Charles Yu and longlist nominee Megha Majumdar. The Common is pleased to reprint a short excerpt from Majumdar’s novel A Burninghere.
When my marriage ended I moved to an apartment building that was mostly uninhabited. I never saw the other tenants. There were traces of them here and there—a sock left in a dryer, muted weeping down the hall, ambulances flashing out front—but I couldn’t have told you what any of my neighbors looked like.
There was a serious cockroach infestation in my unit. In the kitchen, the roaches chewed through boxes of crackers, fresh fruit, bags of rice. They crawled over the counters, peeked up through the sink drain, and burned in the oven. In the middle of the night, I’d spot them on the ceiling, circling the kitchen light like planets in a model solar system.
Through radar, the Americans made contact with the moon, which of course is exciting. But the most important event of the week happened with my cornstalk.
In my backyard, in a pile of dirt the gardener gathered, something was born that might have been just plain grass—but that I discovered was a cornstalk. I transplanted it to the narrow flowerbed in front of the house. The small leaves were dried out; I thought it was dead. But it revived. When it was the size of a palm, I showed a friend and he declared disdainfully that it was actually grass. When it was the size of two palms, I showed another friend, and he confirmed that it was sugar cane.
As soon as I saw Katie, I wanted to live there. Concrete steps led up to the front door of the house, past a flower bush, fallen petals caught like fish in a net of branches. She opened the door and said, with her cartoon heigh-ho enthusiasm, “Well, you must be our Emily,” and led me in past the living room, down the stairs to meet James, her boyfriend. I had found the room through a handwritten ad tacked up in the University of London student union, and they had invited me over right away.
James was tall, long-limbed, with dark hair he had to brush away from his eyes before shaking my hand. Katie busied herself cleaning, washing a frying pan whose nonstick surface had burnt off the middle and then rinsing the plates under a swan-necked faucet. She used huge squeezes of soap for each piece and put the dishes onto the drying rack with suds still sliding off. A candle burned in a glass jar by the sink, sending out its perfume like a small, hot bouquet.
The sea was unfurling bolts of cotton on the beach.
But now, at least in this cove, the sea is muddy. The waves sprawling on the sand, under the spotlight of an intense sun, exhibit a strange hue—a corrupt, corrosive red that might be called ocher, as if the sea, in its incessant flow, had passed through steep, muddy ravines before subsiding here, and dislodged clumps of earth that dissolved to contaminate green water, bluish water.
The apricot tree in my childhood yard would sieve the night. Pouring through the openwork of the leaves, the moonlight littered the ground with patches shaped like bats. Because we lived in the Sunset District of San Francisco, sea drafts kept ruffling the leaves, so the bats were always fluttering their wings. Sometimes I would lie down and let the light-bats tap all over me. We lived in the bottom flat of a spindly three-story house, and there was a fig tree too, and blackberries on brambles thick as the Lord’s crown of thorns, right in the heart of the city. We had picnics with the queijadas my father made—the coconut tarts that were a specialty of his family’s bakery on the island of Terceira in the Azores. His job while raising me, his only child, was fulfilling dessert orders for restaurants, and he rented a tiny industrial kitchen in Chinatown from three to nine in the morning. Once, a triumph, the Tadich Grill requested his alfenim to decorate their pastry cart—the white sugar confection molded into doves or miniature baskets.
On December 5, 1976, I arrived in Madrid from Argentina. I flew Iberia airlines, caught the plane in Montevideo because I was afraid of the disappearances happening at the border. I left wearing summer clothes, as if I were a tourist heading for the beaches of Uruguay, then, two or three days later, landed in Madrid, where it was winter. My father and sister saw me off. It took me six years—the years of the dictatorship—to return.