Today was on fire. I drove under a mountain on fire, the sun red in winter trees.
The cars on the two-lane highway stopped to watch the sun and smoke. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the traffic usually just stops for bears, which you might see far off, a black rustle in leaves or branches, or not at all.
On a recent trip to Côte d’Ivoire, I walked into the Librairie de France, the crowded, chaotic bookstore on the Plateau, the downtown business district of Abidjan, and asked for books by Fatou KeÏta. They directed me upstairs, where I found most of a bookcase filled by the popular Ivoirian writer’s works. Fatou Keita has written 25 books for children and two novels, including Rebelle (Rebel), about a young West African woman who escapes genital excision, which remains common, despite efforts to eradicate the practice. According to a 2013 World Bank report, “To Be a Woman in Côte d’Ivoire,” 14% percentage of Ivoirian girls under 14 have experienced infibulation, the most traumatizing form of genital excision.
An Ivoirian Writer Takes on Genital Excision: An Interview with Fatou Keïta
Born in New York City, Elizabeth A. I. Powell is a Vermont-based poet and editor in chief of the Green Mountains Review. She is the author of two poetry collections: The Republic of Self and, most recently, Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances. Her work has appeared in the Pushcart Prize Anthology 2013, Alaska Quarterly Review, Harvard Review, Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, Ploughshares, and many other eminent publications.
The Drama of the Will: an Interview with Elizabeth A. I. Powell
In seventh grade, your friend Megan invites you to go raiding, which means sneaking around in dark clothes and throwing feed corn on other people’s houses. This is rural Pennsylvania, a small town of rolling fields and old steel mills. It’s fall, cold. The point is trespassing, minor vandalism, the fact that you are twelve and living in a place where nothing ever happens.
You start at Megan’s house in a damp wooded valley not far from the river and walk toward the highway. It’s dark out, though probably not any later than seven or eight o’clock. Back here, in her neighborhood, there are steep hills, one after another, and the houses are set too far back from the road for an easy escape, and so for a while, the three of you—Megan, you, her neighbor-friend Derek—just walk.
In Abidjan, the principal city of Côte d’Ivoire, Africa’s fastest-growing economy, the air is black and nauseating on the Boulevard des Martyrs in the upscale Deux-Plateaux neighborhood at morning rush hour. My mouth tastes of diesel already. The light changes. Orange taxis, yellow taxis, trucks, busses, vans belch exhaust in unison. Traffic surges; two lanes fracture into four as drivers maneuver anarchically to break through, and the jam gets worse. When the cab I’m in reaches the chokepoint, I see a man lying on his back on the pavement, head to one side, the wheels of a stopped car inches away. His overturned motorcycle blocks a lane. When I pass a half an hour later, he’s still there, and traffic is backed up to the Boulevard François Mitterrand.
When the storm’s coming, you can feel it. The atmosphere’s tense, quivering the leaves, hot, damp air close up to your face, the cloud doubling and darkening, metallic grey, sucking in the light. There’s a portent in the frenzy of birds and the cat’s retreat into the bottom of the clothes cupboard. Sometimes night falls and everything is still on edge, pending. The child loves to hear the thunder sneak up in the dark with a low growl. She counts the seconds after each cannonade. When the rain finally falls, you can’t hear much else, even when there’s shouting. She likes to climb out of bed into her window and get gooseflesh in the wind, then to jump back, shivering, under the covers to get warm. Then she does it again. Once there were hailstones, thrashing the asbestos roof. The noise obliterated everything, like a drug; she slept.
On October 24, 1956, the day I turned 9.8, my grandmother came to take me out of school in Budapest’s 6th District. We were in the middle of reviewing decimal points because of a mistake a classmate named Mary had made. Other parents and grandparents were arriving too with the same aim, although no one had come yet to get Zoli, the boy who sat beside me.
When your partner comes home with you for the first time, try to prepare her. Explain how they still see you as a child: cake and candles, streamers and balloons, bubblegum and colored pencils as parting gifts. Though you’re twenty-three, your father insists, “You won’t be grown up in my book until I’ve walked you down the aisle.” Expect jokes about Clinton’s impeachment and Hillary’s headbands. Anticipate talk of bootstraps—how “some people” have never learned to pull themselves up. On the refrigerator, George and Laura Bush grin inside a heart-shaped magnet. The radio plays Rush Limbaugh all afternoon.
11 Warnings: How to Avoid Talking Politics at Parties