All posts tagged: 2020

The Wall: A Short Story Excerpt

By MERON HADERO

Meron Hadero is a finalist for The Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.

Original version published in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern Issue 52, finalist for the 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing

 

When I met Herr Weill, I was a lanky 10-year-old, a fish out of water in –, Iowa, a small college town surrounded by fields in every direction. My family had moved to the US a few weeks earlier from Ethiopia via Berlin, so I knew no English, but was fluent in Amharic and German. I’d speak those sometimes to strangers or just mumble under my breath to say what was on my mind, never getting an answer until the day I met Herr Weill.

The Wall: A Short Story Excerpt
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Mama from the Other Island

By NATALI PETRICIC

Natali Petricic is a finalist for The Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. 

 

We were the only family in the village to spend a few dinars on a photo. This was right after the second World War. Dalmatia was freed of Italian rule, and we were all poor, but I had a feeling I’d need that picture one day. I sat on a boulder, holding little Tomislav, bundled in woolen blankets, not more than a year old. Branko stood beside me, his hand on my shoulder. He was eight. A pile of wilted dark leaves were strewn around the large rock. Even though it was cold, I made Branko wear his good shorts with suspenders. His long pants were worn thin and patched at the knees. We all stared ahead, even Tomislav. It was as if he understood something important was happening and this wasn’t a moment for fussing.  

Aloysius is missing. The thought flickers through my mind each time I look at the photo. I never mention the baby I lost. Why burden others? But I think about him every time I hold the black and white, willing him to appear.

My sister-in-law criticized me about the photo, cackling in the fields with others. “She spent money on a photo, while he slaves away on the boats. My brother’s wife, from the other island…” She began all of her laments about me like that. As if in the polje voices don’t echo. As if I were deaf. As if sooner or later, one by one, the villagers wouldn’t absorb me as one of their own in spite of themselves, as people do in these parts.  They called themselves Catholics—church-goers, all of them. In my village, they warn of the self-proclaimers. If you do something, just do it. Don’t announce all over the hamlet that you never miss church. Don’t announce the amount you place on the plate passed around. 

Mama from the Other Island
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Until the Deer Return

By ALISA KOYRAKH

Alisa Koyrakh is a finalist for The Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.

 

On February third, 1966, a Soviet spacecraft reached the moon. Zhenya read about it on February fifth. The newspaper lay on the stool next to their bed for two days before she looked at it. The headline: The Moon Speaks Russian. 

Until the Deer Return
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The Weight of the Clearing

By JUSTIN HAYNES

Justin Haynes is a finalist for The Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.

 

Zaboca Clearing’s zabocas were always ripe and ready, on season or off; we tried not to think about this as we added them to our stews and salads. We suspected a tortured past with the silk cotton tree, some twenty yards beyond the wooden picnic tables, that we know better than to mess with. But the oddest thing of all about Zaboca Clearing, beyond the perma-green grass and the silk cotton tree, or even what might be buried beneath, was the pervading smell of oranges that floated through the Clearing even though there’s no oranges planted anywhere near Zaboca Clearing. It confounded us, raised short hairs on our necks and goosefleshed forearms. Tingled the edges of our ears and moistened tear ducts. It itched our collarbones. All of us except Binary Clem, who could never smell the oranges because of the beating he’d once received for not paying off gambling debts that wrote off his senses of smell and taste and the ability to speak in anything other than ones and zeroes like a corrupted code-breaker, which we suspected was the final straw that chased off his wife Anisa, her no longer able to understand the sweet-nothings whispered into her ears. Binary Clem would watch us cover our noses with the tops of our t-shirts, tank tops and mesh shirts whenever the smell would overwhelm us and would ask, 1-0-0-1-1-0-0-1-1?

The Weight of the Clearing
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Writers on Writing: Ama Codjoe

This interview is the second in a new series, Writers on Writing, which focuses on craft and process. The series is part of The Common‘s 10th anniversary celebration.

Read Codjoe’s poem, “Burying Seeds.”

 

Ama Codjoe is the author of Blood of the Air (Northwestern University Press, 2020), winner of the Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize, and Bluest Nude (Milkweed, forthcoming 2022). She has been awarded support from Cave Canem, Jerome, Robert Rauschenberg, and Saltonstall foundations as well as from Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, Crosstown Arts, Hedgebrook, and MacDowell. Her recent poems have appeared in The Yale Review, Massachusetts Review, Southern Indiana Review, and elsewhere. Codjoe is the recipient of a 2017 Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, the Georgia Review’s 2018 Loraine Williams Poetry Prize, a 2019 DISQUIET Literary Prize, a 2019 Oscar Williams and Gene Derwood Award, a 2019 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship, and a 2020 BRIO Award from the Bronx Council on the Arts.

 

Writers on Writing: Ama Codjoe
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Ask a Local with José Pinto de Sá: Maputo, Mozambique

With JOSÉ PINTO DE SÁ, translated by Jethro Soutar

José is a contributor to our Luso portfolio coming out in the fall issue.

maputo ask a local

Your name: José Pinto de Sá

Current city or town: Maputo, Mozambique

How long have you lived here: Seventy years, albeit with periods spent abroad as a political refugee or for family reasons

Three words to describe the climate: Tropical, hot and humid

Best time of year to visit? Between May and July, when the humidity and rainfall drops considerably and the average temperature is about 20 degrees Celsius, with a few daily fluctuations

1) The most striking physical features of this city/town are . . .

The light and the sea breeze. The city is built on a red sandstone headland that sticks out, at an average height of 80 meters, into Delagoa Bay, where five rivers from the savannah reach the sea. Up the coast to the east are beaches as far as the eye can see, while to the south the bay is home to an important port, one that is vital to southern Africa’s hinterland. Opposite the city, across the bay, are the Katembe lowlands, now connected to Maputo by the largest suspension bridge in Africa.

2) Historical context in broad strokes and the moments in which you feel this history . . .

Like hermit crabs, different inhabitants have occupied the conch shell of Maputo since the Portuguese first built the city in the late nineteenth century. Back then, the colonists lived in the Cement neighborhoods on the upper side overlooking the bay, in streets bordered by crimson acacias and jacarandas and with pretty houses surrounded by gardens. The black population, meanwhile, inhabited the Reeds,” living in huts made from reeds and sheet metal, with no roads, or electricity, or drinking water, or sewage, or garbage collection etc… After 45 years of independence, this shocking state of affairs has barely changed. A scandalously rich black elite now occupies the Cement, while ordinary Matupenses live in poverty in periphery neighborhoods that grow exponentially due to a rural exodus caused by war. The Maputo metropolitan area has a population of around three million people and the vast majority live in these periphery neighborhoods.

3) Local political debates frequently seem to center on . . . 

The most recent government corruption scandals. The degree of corruption is ridiculously high at every level of Mozambican society, from cabinet ministers to police patrols. The other hot topic is the worsening political-military situation in the northern province of Cabo Delgado. The region, home to the largest deposits of natural gas in the southern hemisphere, has suffered a number of terrorist attacks from alleged Islamist insurgents since 2017. The conflict, which has already caused over a thousand deaths and the displacement of 250,000 people, is well on its way to degenerating into a large-scale war and the government is clearly incapable of containing the situation.

4) Local/regional vocabulary or food?

The day-to-day lingo of Maputo is a mixture of Portuguese (the country’s official language), English (the language of business and a by-product of having a powerful neighbor in South Africa) and two Bantu languages, XiRonga and XiChangana, which are both spoken in the south of Mozambique. This linguistic variety, allied to the harmonious co-existence, in ethnic and religious terms, of Africans, Asians and Europeans, gives the city a heavy sense of Indian Ocean cosmopolitism.

5) The stereotype of the people who live here and what this stereotype misses . . .

Resilience is perhaps the easiest characteristic to attribute to Maputenses given the manifold difficulties they make do with and overcome simply to survive. Mozambique is 180th out of 189 on the United Nations Human Development Index. From precarious housing in shanty towns that flood whenever it rains to public transport that treats them like cattle, life is not easy for most citizens of Maputo. To keep on smiling after all the years of colonial oppression and the successive wars, droughts, floods and epidemics that have plagued the country since independence, shows that we Maputenses are possessed of immense stoicism and an undefeatable sense of humor.

 

José Pinto de Sá is a Mozambican writer, playwright and journalist. His short stories have been published in Mozambique, Portugal, Brazil, France, Belgium and, now, the United States.

Jethro Soutar is a translator of Spanish and Portuguese. He has a particular focus on works from Africa and has translated novels from Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Cape Verde. He is also editor of Dedalus Africa and a co-founder of Ragpicker Press. Originally from Sheffield in the UK, he now lives in Lisbon, Portugal.

Photo by José Pinto de Sá.

Ask a Local with José Pinto de Sá: Maputo, Mozambique
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Dr. Hope

By EMILY CATANEO 

dr. hope 

Białystok, Poland

Nine hours to Białystok from Berlin, to a city teetering on the Polish border. The train noses through fields of yellow flowers, which to me are eternal reminders of Europe in spring, but which are actually new additions, planted in recent decades for the rapeseed harvest. On the way to Warsaw, we sit in a car with a classical musician, our age, with a confident nose and sculpted, striking eyebrows. “She looks like Anna Karenina,” we whisper. She tells us about witches in Podlachia, because we are going to Podlachia. Past Warsaw, on a hotter train, portly men in cheap suits flank the compartment, carrying the odor of polyester, sweat, spirits.

I’ve brought us east to find traces of that universal language, Esperanto, created by a man from Bialystok named L.L. Zamenhof, a Jewish man, born here when this land was Russian Empire. Legend says he went to the city market as a child, eavesdropped on Yiddish, Russian, German, concluded that division by language was the great tragedy of mankind. What if we all spoke the same tongue? Wouldn’t pogrom and war fall away? He gathered 28 Latin letters, prefixes and suffixes, and he tried to share this with the world, and they called him Dr. Hope.

In Białystok, we stay on the Kozłowa in a high-rise with an ample balcony that reminds me of apartment blocks in St. Petersburg. We are north of the city, past a roundabout sheltering a prewar house, blanched and boarded up. Downtown, buses and cars jostle through sweaty intersections and at the edge of a park, a war memorial tilts over the street, reminding us what happened here. The war, which ended decades ago on this day, was not kind to Bialystok (seventy percent gone) or to Zamenhof: he died of a broken heart during the first war, they say, and during the second, Treblinka came for his daughters. One other child survived by pretending at death in a cemetery.

My friend claims that speaking Esperanto must feel pleasantly empty, unburdened of colonial projects, but I do not think this can be true anymore: the language is too old and it has become freighted with some missed, misplaced promise, even though few have spoken it.

They are proud of Zamenhof, here, at the center that bears his name, a white building straining over a sidewalk, past a maze of inset canal and knotted trees. Here, historian Agnieszka, her hair nearly magenta, points crisp and efficient at the holograms they have arranged to tell the story of Zamenhof and his city (they have few artifacts left, for obvious reasons). Klezmer music floats after us, a cliché and yet it shivers me. This side of Europe, the eastern side, has always held sway over me, maybe because of my mother’s Ashkenazi forebears or just because I’m drawn to sad stories.

Białystok’s Esperantists—those who speak the language—are also proud. These last speakers gather in the basement of the city’s last synagogue. We find them behind a door marked with a green star, Esperantists from France and Holland and from Białystok too, some of them sleeping on the floor and cooking in the pocket of a kitchen, some of them learning the language the way I learned German at an adult education center years ago. The Esperantists cry out “Saluton!” and tell us to pull up a chair.

But not everyone is proud. I hear that some in the city government didn’t want to celebrate Zamenhof on the centennial of his death in 2017, because they said he wasn’t important enough, or because, so run the rumors, his promise-tinged, pre-war ideals were dangerous. And now, just the year before, skinheads had come to a church, a priest had shouted nationalism from his pulpit. These counterideals are seeping up everywhere in this continent, bubbling through the world.

When we leave the synagogue, the sky still holds light. At this time of year, this corner of Europe—Berlin, Stettin, Danzig, Białystok, Pomerania, forests and frozen coasts—keeps the sun late, ten o’clock dusk washing the platzes, the chestnuts, the black spray paint, the steeples, the umbrellas and the outdoor benches, shivering on the knife-edge of hopeful and sad. We settle in on the edge of Kosciuszko, where as a child Zamenhof hatched his idea, and we order beer. The waiter points at us. “Beginning of tourist season!” he declares. Tourists come here to find ghosts of their families, on the edge of nations. They come to find out what was once here, what is here now, and what will be here someday, a question that is hopeful and terrifying. There are skeletons in Poland’s closets, a journalist tells me, but no one will face them.

Esperanto here is both smaller and bigger than I expected. It’s just a hobby, says the president of the Esperanto club, just some statues and a handful of linguistic nerds, and yet he admits that after the centennial controversy more new Esperantists came to the center than ever before. Just a hobby, but pull on the thread and what will you find? And I wonder, what will our actions, our passions and enthusiasms, mean more than a century on? Who will imitate us? Why will people come to our houses, what might they know when they cross our lintels, what might they forget or what might they hope? We drink our beer and the sky cups the sun, refusing to let it set. 

 

Emily B. Cataneo is a writer and journalist from New England. Her fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from Indiana Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and Lightspeed, and she’s written nonfiction for Slate, NPR, the Baffler, Atlas Obscura, and more. She holds an MFA in fiction from North Carolina State University and she’s the cofounder of the Redbud Writing Project, a creative writing organization based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Find out more about her at emilycataneo.com or follow her on Twitter @emilycataneo.

Dr. Hope
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Reading Black Voices: TC Staff Picks V

This is the fifth in a series of features highlighting the Black writers our editors and staff have been reading. To read The Common’s statement in support of the nationwide protests against anti-Black racism, white supremacy, and police brutality, click here.

Recommendations: semiautomatic by Evie Shockley, Wandering in Strange Lands by Morgan Jerkins, and How Are You Going to Save Yourself by J.M. Holmes

Reading Black Voices: TC Staff Picks V
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Princess Ixkik’

A Retelling from the Popol Vuh by ILAN STAVANS
 

Popol Vuh Retelling Cover


The archetypal creation story of Latin America, the
Popol Vuh began as a Maya oral tradition millennia ago. In the mid-sixteenth century, as indigenous cultures across the continent were being threatened with destruction by European conquest and Christianity, it was written down in verse by members of the K’iche’ nobility in what is today Guatemala. In 1701, that text was translated into Spanish by a Dominican friar and ethnographer before vanishing mysteriously.

Princess Ixkik’
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Free Expression Under Tyranny: an Interview with Colette Bahna

RAED RAFEI interviews COLETTE BAHNA.
Translated from the Arabic by Raed Rafei.


Pharaohs, Distorted Body Parts, and Eclectic Symbolism 

From her home in Syria, Colette Bahna has been producing short stories, novels, plays, television scripts, and journalism since the 1980s. Despite the raging war in her home country, Bahna remains tenaciously attached to staying there. 

Bahna’s writing is infused with symbolism: ancient Egyptian history, biblical stories, and folk tales all allow her to write about life under despotism. With dark and piercing irony, she manages to go beyond the confines of the Syrian experience to compose timeless stories about injustice, tyranny, freedom, and love. 

Lebanese journalist, translator, and filmmaker Raed Rafei spoke with Bahna about her short story و/Waw, which appears in Issue No.17 of The Common; interconnectedness in her texts; writing during times of oppression; and her decision to remain in Syria.

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Free Expression Under Tyranny: an Interview with Colette Bahna
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