Sometimes visiting a new neighborhood can change your life. While scouting locations for a fashion shoot, filmmaker Naomi Yang happened upon a boxing gym in East Boston. The modest second-generation family business, with its sparring ring and wall of framed black-and-white photographs depicting local boxers, seemed like a great backdrop. Unfortunately, the gym’s owner and head coach, Sal Bartolo, Jr., disagreed, citing aprevious photo shoot that had gone badly, with high heels destroying his mats. There would be no fashion shoots in his gym. Instead, he gave Yang his pitch to all visitors, telling her to come back for a free boxing lesson. In voiceover, Yang confides to us that she did not take the offer seriously and didn’t plan to return. And yet, a few weeks later, she did. Part of her was holding out hope that Bartolo would change his mind. But another part felt drawn to boxing, and Bartolo’s gym would soon become the center of her life. Yang’s documentary tells the story of how this chance meeting at a boxing gym brought her into a deeper understanding of herself, and of the ways bullying forces can leave their mark on places as well as people.
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The first time Lilian saw her siblings’ hands sprout from the fertile earth, she hid behind her father’s leg and begged him to be careful. She tugged his fingers as the infant-cries rang through the twilight of crickets and fireflies, telling him that they should hurry before mom came back from the store, but he didn’t listen. Her father looked down with watery eyes and knelt to the ground, trembling. He removed the soil from the newborn babies, took them into the kitchen, and placed them in the sink. Monoecious plants, one boy and one girl. Her father cleared all the dirt from their bodies. With a fresh towel, he cleaned their tiny hands, wiggling feet, faces, their grumbling stomachs—dusting off the tiny ants and soil stuck to their eyelids.
The village lay on the south coast of Cornwall. Every day the fog came over the ploughed fields and sucked at what lived beneath. Gweek would have been called a fishing village, if there were any fish or fishermen left.
There are people who express with songs what they can’t express with their own words. My grandfather is one of these people.
Papá José, as we grandchildren call him, is a reserved man, but he has a unique way of talking about his life and expressing his feelings. His hair is now covered in white and his face in lines. He usually wears a pair of gray pants, a flannel shirt, his old sandals and his light brown sombrero. He’s a working man of the countryside.
I visit him only once a year. Like many people from my country, I go to Mexico every December to spend Christmas and New Year’s with my family. It has been twelve years since I left home, the house where I grew up, the dirt streets and brick houses where I spent my childhood on the outskirts of Morelia, the capital of Michoacán. I went to elementary school there, then junior high school, until my family and I moved to the United States. So much time has passed since then. And now I have repeated the family history. Three years ago, I left my parents’ house in California to go study on the other side of the world. I can travel only once a year. The distance and time make me miss my family a lot. I question why we are constantly moving: Why do we keep looking for a better life somewhere else? This is why, for some time now, I have felt the need to talk more with Papá José, to know more about his life. I try to take advantage of every visit to talk to him and listen to his stories.
A fruit tramp family of the 1930s stayed in many places for short periods of time. We arrived, picked the crop, and moved on. That’s why we were called tramps, nomads, and many other things not nearly as complimentary. Our shelters while picking could be the loft of a barn, a converted hen house, or a small sleeps-two tent. On occasion if you were in an especially nice place, you might have a cabin or a large canvas-covered dwelling with a wooden floor. If we had a place of permanency, it was the car or truck that took us to the next job: we might spend the winter in California or pick apples in Washington State. It was all dictated by the season. Packing and moving was as much a part of our life as picking the crop.
In this conversation-in-correspondence, TALIA LAKSHMI KOLLURI and VAUHINI VARA discuss Vauhini’s electrifying collection, This Is Salvaged, and its themes of connection, the evolution of the self, and the incomprehensible nature of grief. Kolluri and Vara explore craft, how work evolves over time, and the ways time infuses stories with emotional depth.
This Is Salvaged: Vauhini Vara in conversation with Talia Lakshmi Kolluri
We went to the bathhouse because it was Dorian’s thirtieth birthday and, being the kind of friend he was, he wanted to do something for himself—partying at Chicago’s Boystown, a neighborhood we’d frequented when we’d been undergraduates at Iowa—and then something for us, especially for Aviraj, who was Dorian’s closest friend and still a virgin. He had flown for this, Aviraj had; I had flown, too, but it wasn’t as big of a deal, because I had come from New York—costing me around $250—and he had from Mumbai—which could’ve cost shy of $1,000 (not that I asked). This infamous holding-out on Aviraj’s part had come, on the one hand, because of his spiritual beliefs and, on the other, because—idealistic as he was—he had never been able to keep a man, which had brought about that soothing old joke of ours where we told him not to worry; he was surely the type of guy who never dated and then, bam!, he’d marry on his first try. The group would laugh at this jealous joke, yet a jealous silence would always follow, for not only did we believe it to be true, but we also believed Aviraj to be the only one of us who had marriage in him.