All posts tagged: 2017

The Hat


Budapest, Hungary


At this moment, it is night in Budapest, and a woman has left her hat in a restaurant. This restaurant is in Buda, yet she is already crossing the bridge into Pest. Yes—perhaps you didn’t know—Budapest is not one place but two places split by a river. Like the woman separated from her hat. Perhaps we are all schizophrenics.

Debbie WenThe Hat

Visit TC at the Brooklyn Book Festival!

BBF logoLove reading The Common and want to see our staff’s smiling faces in person? Stop by our table at the Brooklyn Book Festival this Sunday, September 17 from 10am-6pm at Table 347 in front of the courthouse. We’ll be giving away a special, tasty something while supplies last! For more information about the Festival marketplace and all the events and authors, visit

Our festival table location

Flavia MartinezVisit TC at the Brooklyn Book Festival!

Review: The Golden Legend



Golden Legend Book Cover

Some writers present us with a slice of life. Others create a universe. Pakistani novelist Nadeem Aslam, the author of five novels who has been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize twice, is a universe creator. His novels are steeped in the culture, history and traditions of the Muslim worlds of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Kashmir. Aslam emigrated to England from Pakistan with his family, political exiles on the wrong side of the military junta, when he was fourteen. He learned to read and write English by hand-copying his text books. His father was a poet/activist, and his parent’s marriage was arranged, so he experienced first-hand the issues of a society that offers few prospects for advancement for women and scarcely more for a man not from the monied classes.

Like many fine South Asian writers including Arundhati Roy (God of Small Things, The Ministry of Happiness) Daniyal Mueenuddin (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders), Mohsin Hahmid (Exit West) and Amitav Gosh (In an Antique Land), Aslam explores the disjuncture between Western and Muslim societies as well as the communal hatreds on the subcontinent that have provoked genocidal atrocities on the scale of the Nazi Holocaust or American slavery. There is rich dramatic material in these situations: illicit passions defying societal strictures and the pursuit of enlightenment and personal freedom at immense cost and danger.

In his earlier novels, especially The Wasted Vigil (2008), Aslam made a good case that freedom was incompatible with the medieval mores of fervent Islam, and anyone who could should escape in any way they can. In The Blind Man’s Garden (2004), he seemed to conclude that escape, even by emigration, was impossible. In that book, an unmarried couple who live together openly in a Pakistani community in England are murdered, victims of the community’s morality enforcers. The belief they had left the old world behind proved an illusion.

The world of Aslam’s novels shimmers with beauty ruined by cultural isolation and aggrieved sense of that life is supposed to be a constant ordeal. Fundamentalism is a recurring theme.

The Golden Legend is set in Pakistan, where a sophisticated, worldly couple, Nargis and Massud, both architects, live a westernized life in a community riven by religious and cultural schisms, where Christians are a persecuted minority. It begins on what should be a triumphant day for Nargis and Massud. Their masterpiece—a library to house masterworks of Pakistani and Muslim literature, including sacred texts—is to be stocked in an unusual way. Instead of trucks and movers, who might accidentally defile the books, city school children will form a human chain and pass them through the streets from the old library to the new. Watching, Nargis marvels that they are moving as quickly “as objects rushing along on the rapids of a great river.”

Two extraordinary things set events in motion: A book that Massud’s father wrote the year he was born (the only other known copy is in the rare books division of the New York Public Library) is passed along the chain into his hands. The long-lost book is “a meditation on how pilgrimage, wars, trade, and curiosity led to contact between cultures. Tracing the umbilical connections between places.” It is a deeply humanistic manifesto which proposes that all societies are inextricably linked and condemns intolerance and prejudice. The book had been a touchstone for Massud and Nargis before its disappearance more than a decade before. Massud steps away to leaf through the book and motions to Nargis to fill his space in the chain.

At that moment, gunfire bursts out. Two young men on motorcycles chase a speeding car. Shots ring out from the motorcycles and the car. The children flee in terror, books spill to the ground. In the mayhem, Massud is shot and dies in Nargis’s arms. Both young men are killed by the man driving the car. The driver is taken into custody, but demonstrations erupt. The Pakistani media insist the driver is a CIA agent who was carrying photographs of a secret Pakistani military base. The government claims the American is a diplomat, the target of an assassination attempt by jihadists.

Nargis and Massoud lived in a cultural bubble of their own making. Their intellectual interests encompassed both worlds. They filled their architectural studio in a renovated paper factory with treasures from all around the world:

…shelves of books, a metal helmet for a stallion from the times of the crusades, and there were the vertebrae of a whale from a bay in Antarctica. In one alcove was the earliest known photograph of a snowflake.”

Massud was from a wealthy, aristocratic family. Nargis, an orphan, is the daughter of educated and persecuted Christians who slipped free of her identity when she left home for college. She lost her past almost by accident, assuming a Muslim identity at a sports event after being mistaken for a girl who didn’t appear at registration. The experience liberated her from constant persecution towards Christians among the polarized Muslim orthodoxy on the rise in Pakistan. When she met Massud in university she could not bring herself to tell him who she really was. She conceals this lie throughout their long marriage.

After Massud’s death, Nargis enters the fugue state of sudden tragedy. She takes refuge in her beautiful house and tries to avoid the turmoil and political unrest that follow the shooting. There is no possibility of learning the truth about her husband’s killer, let alone seeing justice served, in this swirl of rumors and demonstrations.

A colonel comes to Nargis with the demand that she “forgive” the American. It is his goal, and that of the generals who run Pakistan, to have the American released under Sharia law, which can be accomplished if the victims of a crime ritually forgive him. Nargis refuses. The colonel douses her with kerosene and threatens to set her on fire. He gives her one week to change her mind, after which he will return to escort her to an appearance in court where she will deliver her pardon. Nargis is well aware how easily people disappear in Pakistan. Massoud’s brother, a young dissident, was tortured and murdered when they were in college. She is as powerless as the poor before the military junta.

Helen, whom Nargis and Massud raised as their surrogate daughter, moves in to comfort her. A writer for a progressive newspaper, she narrowly escapes death when a jihadist attacks the staff for blaspheming the prophet Mohammed, and becomes a target herself of a fundamentalist group.

The night after the colonel’s visit, Nargis wakes up to find her studio and its treasures destroyed, her father-in-law’s book torn to shreds. She and Helen, disguised in hijabs, flee to an island in the remote countryside that Massud’s family owns. Nargis and Massud had long ago built a monument there to an integrated religious community, with a mosque and a Hindu temple, a social experiment that failed.

Along the way, they meet a young deserter from a militant group in Kashmir seeking refuge in Pakistan The Indian government had killed his family and viciously terrorized the Muslim community of Kashmir, and now he is pursued by the militants he joined to avenge his family. Injustice has many rooms in Aslam’s literary mansion.

Imram becomes Nargis and Helen’s protector, venturing into town for food, to charge cell phones, and to monitor the turmoil. They ride out the political upheavals roiling Pakistan there, a poignant, startlingly lovely, and improbable idyll. Love blooms in the lush gardens planted long ago for an unrealizable ideal. Nargis pieces her father-in-law’s book together in the house she designed when she and Massoud thought they could change their world. From here, Nargis plans their escape, hoping to send Helen and Imran into exile by bargaining with the Colonel.

Nargis and Massud’s inability to extend their credo of fusing the intellectual freedom of the West and their culture leaves her with a deep sense of futility but also humility. That they tried is as important as success, Nadeem Aslam seems to say.

In The Blind Man’s Garden, a father, trying to calm a child frightened by a fairy tale, asks: Have you ever heard a story where the evil one wins? “‘No,’ the child said, ‘but before they lose, they harm the good people. That is what I am afraid of.’” That is what we are afraid of, too, for Nargis, Helen, Imran, and the people who have helped them along the way. One prays for their survival in Aslam’s stark universe.


Francesca de Onis-Tomlinson is an Emmy and Cine Golden Eagle award-winning television producer and a writer. She is currently working toward an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College.


Debbie WenReview: The Golden Legend

Our Quest for Safety: an interview with Jill Eisenstadt


Jill Eisenstadt at the beach

Jill Eisenstadt by Beowulf Sheehan

Jill Eisenstadt’s latest book, Swell, was released to acclaim in June—Rolling Stone called it “the literary comeback of the year,”—thirty years after her debut novel with the same setting, From Rockaway.

In Swell, Eisenstadt tells the story of the Glassmans, a family of four who relocate from Tribeca to Rockaway, New York, in the aftermath of 9/11. The house they move into, like the Glassmans themselves, comes with a fraught history; their confrontation with this past reaches a crescendo that will make readers rethink what it means to love thy neighbor.

In this month’s interview, editorial assistant Julia Pike and Eisenstadt discuss marginalized communities, emotional truth, and the author’s return to Rockaway.

Debbie WenOur Quest for Safety: an interview with Jill Eisenstadt

Leslie McGrath’s Poem for The Common Wins Gretchen Warren Award

Congratulations to TC contributor Leslie McGrath! Her poem “Encountering Franz Wright Along the Way,” published by The Common, has co-won the Gretchen Warren Award at the New England Poetry Club. It was published in September 2016; you can read it here.

Poetry Award

The Gretchen Warren Award was judged by Donald Vincent. Leslie shares the award with Hilde Weisert for her poem “Ars Poetica.” View the full list of winners for all New England Poetry Club awards here.

Leslie’s work first appeared in The Common in Issue 07. Read those poems and more on our website.

Leslie McGrath

Leslie McGrath is a poet and literary interviewer. Winner of the 2004 Pablo Neruda Prize for poetry, she is the author of Opulent Hunger, Opulent Rage (2009), a poetry collection, and two chapbooks, Toward Anguish (2007) and By the Windpipe (2014.) McGrath’s satiric novella in verse, Out From the Pleiades, was published by Jaded Ibis Press in December 2014. Her poems have recently appeared widely, most recently in The AwlAgniSalamander, and The Common. She teaches creative writing and literature at Central Connecticut State University and is series editor of The Tenth Gate, a poetry imprint of The Word Works press (Washington, DC.) She lives in Essex, CT with her husband Bill Taylor, a shipwright.

Debbie WenLeslie McGrath’s Poem for The Common Wins Gretchen Warren Award

Jennifer Acker Writes About Issue 11 in Amherst Magazine

Amherst Magazine recently published a piece by Editor in Chief Jennifer Acker about the difficulties and delights of bringing Issue 11, Tajdeed, into the world. The first of its kind in the US, this issue contained all Arabic fiction in translation – the work of 26 authors, five artists, 18 translators from 17 countries. It was a “labor of love” from start to finish.

Jennifer Acker photo

“Tell me the story of your romance with the Arabic written word.” The journalist asking was from The National, Abu Dhabi’s English-language newspaper. She wanted to know why we’d devoted an issue of The Common, Amherst’s literary magazine, to Arabic fiction. Editing Tajdeed: Contemporary Arabic Stories had been a labor of love, but it had not been romantic. Just as setting off naively for “the West” or “the Far East”—destinations that are grand notions rather than findable locations—is romantic in inspiration, but in reality involves a lot of getting lost and stuck in the mud.

Magazine Cover

The inspiration to create Tajdeed came while my husband, Amherst philosophy professor Nishi Shah, and I were teaching for a year in Abu Dhabi in 2012–13, and my return this past April was cause for celebration and reflection.

It was also an opportunity to meet Hisham Bustani, my co-editor, who lives in Amman, Jordan. For four years, we had worked together electronically to conceptualize, edit, publish and promote Tajdeed, coordinating 26 authors, five visual artists and 18 translators from 17 countries.

After publishing his short story “Freefall in a Shattered Mirror,” The Common’s first piece of literature translated from Arabic, Hisham and I discovered a shared idea for an English-language compendium of new Arabic writing. Superficially, we were an excellent team, with complementary skills and contacts. Still, we did not know how well we would work together over a long and improvised journey. Most important: Would we agree on the literary merit of the writing?

This question was doubly vexed because we experienced the texts in different languages. Hisham could judge the originals, but I had to rely on translations.

Read the rest here:

Browse, buy, or teach Issue 11 here:

Debbie WenJennifer Acker Writes About Issue 11 in Amherst Magazine

What We Were Like Then


poetry room bookstore

We agonize over breakfast choices in the towering Ferry Building food market, then walk the piers eating flaky empanadas. But it’s cold and too windy, February, so we turn inland toward North Beach. Our cousin, a local, will meet us there for lunch. He’s suggested a tour of the neighborhood’s old Beat Generation haunts.

My twin sister and I are visiting San Francisco, ostensibly to see a concert but also just to see each other, since a year ago she moved away to the suburbs of Philadelphia. For the few short days we’re here, the West Coast experiences torrential rain. LA is flooding and the Bay Area is even drizzlier than usual. Becky and I are strategic—Saturday is going to be the driest day, and we want to see everything.

Emily EverettWhat We Were Like Then

Ask a Local: Kayla Rae Whitaker, Louisville, Kentucky

With Kayla Rae Whitaker

Louisville bridge

How long have you lived here: One year. Still feels very new.

Three words to describe the climate:
Because it’s July, humid – on some days, the air feels like drinking cotton. In the winters, damp. But in the fall – particularly the long falls – and the spring, it feels forgiving.

Best time of year to visit? NOT DERBY. May is a beautiful time in Kentucky, but Derby snarls Louisville traffic in the worst possible way. I say this as a newcomer to the city (while I wrote about Louisville, I had never lived there until this year). It only took one Derby weekend for me to see some of the most ridiculous displays of driving I’ve ever seen. Early summer is a good bet. Fall’s nice too.

Flavia MartinezAsk a Local: Kayla Rae Whitaker, Louisville, Kentucky

Nobody’s Home


Louisville, Kentucky

Louisville protest

I hear the call, one voice:

Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge. This simply cannot be allowed to happen.

Then the response, many voices in unison:

Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge. This simply cannot be allowed to happen.

Light from cell phone screens illuminate clusters of people standing in the street. Around two hundred of us, young and old, parents and children, stand in front of our senator’s condo. The road is blocked on either side by police cars, who mute their lights so they don’t hurt our eyes.

Flavia MartinezNobody’s Home

August 2017 Poetry Feature

This month we welcome back long-time contributor to The Common, John Matthias. His poems previously published by the magazine can be found here.

John Matthias has published some thirty-five books of poetry, translation, scholarship, criticism, and collaboration. He taught for many years at the University of Notre Dame and is a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge. Until 2012 he was poetry editor of Notre Dame Review, and is now Editor at Large. Shearsman published his Collected Poems in three volumes in 2011, 2012, and 2013. More recently, they have published a new volume of poems, Complayntes for Doctor Neuro, and a collection of memoirs and literary essays, At Large (both 2016). His most recent book is a collaboration with printmaker Jean Dibble and critic Robert Archambeau, Revolutions (Dos Madres, 2017).  Two collections of critical essays have been published on Matthias’s work, Word Play Place, edited by Robert Archambeau, and The Salt Companion to John Matthias, edited by Joe Francis Doerr. “Prynne and a Petoskey Stone” is part of a new book now taking shape, which will be called Acoustic Shadows.

Isabel MeyersAugust 2017 Poetry Feature