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.
We demanded, we begged, we guilt-tripped our parents for money. We had reached the age where we cared about our image. We no longer accepted garage sale clothes or Kmart blue-light sale items. We wanted the hip-hugging, sailor-pant flap Chemin de Fer jeans, we wanted the upside-down-U-stitch-on-the-butt Dittos, we wanted the iconic Ralph Lauren polo, and we wanted the clunky Connie Clogs. We wanted the clothes our American middle school classmates strutted around in.
When I was finally allowed to leave home on my own, my sister accompanied me on the train from Moscow. For the first leg, anyway. In the morning, she would get off and I would go on to Croatia, alone. We knew the instructions well. No sooner were we inside the sleeper cabin than my sister set to blocking the air vent with clothes and duct tape. It was 1998, and, along with the first popular elections and counterfeit jeans, the Russian Wild Nineties had brought rumors of enterprising thieves who pumped sleeping gas through trains’ ventilation systems, and then went through the cars relieving unconscious passengers of their valuables. Local friends had cautioned us to keep our passports on our persons at all times. But at sixteen, I was short, shy, self-conscious, and prone to vivid imaginations. The prospect of strangers running their hands over my body—unconscious or not—seemed far worse than that of losing my passport, so I left mine in my bag on the seat as a decoy.
In 1976, when I was eight years old, my Korean American father, a produce wholesaler and former farmworker, decided to become a full-time farmer. My Japanese American mother, descended from a long line of farmers and farmworkers, wanted it too. They had spent their childhoods dreaming of a home on the land, so we moved from Los Angeles to a tenant farm thirty-five miles away.
I live on a wooded road posted with NO TRESPASSING PROPERTY OF GEORGE FUDGE signs. In addition to being a large landowner, George Fudge rents out dumpsters, and is rumored to be an ex-con and confirmed to be a minister. When the season is right, he plows snow. He’s plowed my driveway more than once for free. I am surrounded by good intentions. On the wall of the post office there is a note that says, I am an honest girl, written by a customer who took a card costing $2.99 and left $3. The town maintains a free rack of clothing outside the dollar store, kids’ jumpers and XL T-shirts fluttering brightly.
I work on a small vegetable farm carved out of hayfields owned by the local high school and woods owned by the local commune. The other young farmers and I grow food for a hundred families that come each week to get shares of vegetables, which begin in spring as ephemeral greens and end in winter as sacks of beets and potatoes.
Home from work with a heavy trash bag of compost for my pigs, I find the escaped animals locked in the chicken coop. They got out in the unwatchful summer afternoon, their snouts bending up the bottom of the fence to roam undeterred past illegible PRIVATE PROPERTY signs. They were escaping their squalid pen out of pure misery, I think. I had been watching them get shocked trying to push through, seeming genuinely angry, for the past few days, putting off moving the fence out of laziness or a desire to escape the drudgery of what I’d taken on.
Before I learned about his utopian philosophy of expat writing or his scrappy resistance to publishing-market forces, I knew David Applefield as the marketer of the HAPPY CAP—the world’s first mess-free way to cover a toothpaste tube. This was, of course, completely by chance.
I was thumbing through his papers in the Amherst College archives as The Common’s inaugural holder of the David Applefield ’78 Fellowship, an Amherst College student internship endowed in Applefield’s honor by his friends and family. Tucked among sheets of poetry, reviews of Applefield’s two novels, and other literary artifacts, I was surprised to find a series of letters typed on the official stationery of “A.R.A. Industries.”
Cowboys aren’t remnants of the Wild West. Today they herd cattle across state lines, national borders, and now even oceans. From the feedlot to the slaughterhouse and from pasture to greener pasture, a cowboy’s travels feed the food industry machine.
Your modern cowboy sits on eighteen wheels with six hundred horsepower and saddles up truck stop to truck stop. They trot along the asphalt and follow the commands of reds, greens, and yellows.
The teeth of the excavator are wet. The cage opens, hovers, and grips a mouthful—some floor, some outer wall, some window frame, the glass disappearing with a tiny, tinkling sound.
Now, suddenly, the bedroom of the upstairs flat is revealed. A ragged cut-away, leaving just one perfect wall, wallpapered. Poppies on a purple field. The room, when it was a room, was probably small and ordinary; now, illuminated, it is the envy of all other rooms, the ultimate mezzanine. Light pours in from everywhere and the window frames blue sky.
When In Anne Frank’s House (Al-Mutawassit, 2020) was published, it was met with near radio silence—a strange reaction to a new book by a celebrated author. In an interview I conducted with Hassan in fall 2021, she suggested that this reaction was one of fear. The fact that many in the Arab world conflate Judaism with Zionism—and Israeli oppression—means that writing about a young Jewish martyr like Anne Frank was automatically taboo, and any response to Hassan’s book would be wading into murky waters. Hassan was accused of writing about Anne Frank to court international favor, and the memoir was automatically labeled as political. In my later attempts to locate a publisher for the English translation, I came across a similar hesitation and mistrust—concern, among other things, that an author from an Arab country might not treat Anne Frank with the respect she deserves.
“Clouds are like cotton candy,” Obasan says. “I could reach up and grab a piece.”At this, she pretends to pluck a cloud out of the wide summer sky and drop it into her mouth.
We’re in the beach chairs in the backyard, afternoon heat washing over us. After a pause, Obasan continues, “My grandfather, he was a fisherman. And he used the clouds to tell what kind of fish he would catch that day.”
I point up at a grey mass that’s about to block the sun and ask, “What does that cloud say?”
Obasan says, “That one’s too big. Too dark. But sometimes, he would look up at a cloud, and it would be a big sardine day…”