By the time the car stops at the end of the dirt road, we’ve been jolting along for an hour. Before us is the banyan tree we have come to see—its giant trunk surrounded by hanging roots, its distant crown shutting out the sky.
It is summer in Kerala, and the world is liquid and shimmery with heat. The roads and fields are parched, waiting, suspended in a burning delirium for the moment the monsoon will break. My aunt Sudha and I have just driven through miles of sun-blasted paddy fields, but the abrupt immensity of the tree makes the light feel shadowed, as if dusk has fallen at noon. A hushed feeling comes over me as the dark, looming presence asserts itself.
My mother and I are on a chlorinated river that’s somehow simultaneously the Amazon, Congo, and Nile, floating languidly so we don’t run into the boat in front of us and “don’t scare the wildlife”: the kind of joke the Disney guide, in his safari hat and over-pocketed explorer outfit, keeps making.
I could tell you, If I wanted to, What makes me What I am.
But I don’t Really want to— And you don’t Give a damn.
—Langston Hughes, “Impasse”
There are two cops from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department standing in my grandmother’s kitchen. We are all gathered around the kitchen island silently negotiating the power dynamics. Two Black women, two White cops. The cops have come to collect the details for the report, but I’m doing most of the talking. Grammy bears witness.
I walk slowly, each step sinking a little into the ground. With every footfall, a puff of ash curls upward, dusting the top of my boot and disappearing into the soft stillness of the day. It is a clear day with no clouds, but the air around me has a gentle haze, a film that sometimes resolves into particles, pinpoints of ash in a slanting ray of sunlight. It has been two months since the fire, but the rising ash and the smell of smoke are strong, stinging the back of my throat and settling into a familiar ache in my temples.
I had one recurring nightmare as a child: I am standing in the dry bed of a creek looking upstream, the sun shining and the stones warm on the bottoms of my feet. Suddenly, a roaring wave rushes toward me around a bend and I have no choice but to be swept along with it. The water drags earth from the river banks until it is so thick with sediment it has turned the color of Swiss Miss.
For nearly two years of my life, I lived with a ghost. It was when my father, a civil servant, was posted in Sambalpur, a now forgotten town in northern Odisha, a state in India’s east. Newspapers then, and even now, always added the descriptor “India’s poorest state” whenever Odisha made the headlines. This happened in the late 1980s, when several hunger-related deaths were reported in a tribal-dominated district in the state’s west, and a decade later, after an Australian missionary was burnt to death, along with his two sons, by a group led by a Hindu fanatic.
He pulled up as I walked on the side of a busy Lyon road, the type that becomes a highway once it hits the outskirts of town. Ignoring the thick traffic behind him, he stalked me slowly in a compact car, beckoned to me through his open window, across the empty passenger seat.
Even as a child, I could see no way of staying in my hometown. The edges of the broken and breaking city never quite held themselves in place, and my own family life mirrored those fractures. There was just so much loss all around me. Everywhere I turned seemed stabbed right through, constantly punctured by the outside world. The past, present and future all seemed to blend into one, and every single part of the story held sorrow that I couldn’t get rid of, no matter how deep I tried to bury it. So many different things—situations, times of year, people—made the bad things rise up from inside to bite me again. Triggers, I know that now. It left me feeling scared, hollowed out and with no control over any of it, not really knowing how to make it—any of it—stop.
The Bridge of Sorrows: An Excerpt From Thin Places
Malika Moustadraf (1969–2006) lived, worked, and died in the major port city of Casablanca, on the Atlantic west coast of Morocco. She published just one novel, a single short story collection, one other short story, and a few articles during her short life. After her death, three more short stories were published in a literary magazine. The short story collection and the four subsequent stories are what make up Blood Feast, the first ever full-length translation of her work. This slim volume is but a snapshot of a gifted maverick writer in her ascendancy, creatively going from strength to strength even as her health deteriorated during the final weeks before her death. Had her life not been tragically cut short, Moustadraf would undoubtedly have gone on to reach great artistic heights. In 2022 she would have been just fifty-three, eight years older than me. I would have certainly visited her in Casablanca over these last six years since I’ve been reading and translating her work, and would have gotten to know her. We would have spent time hanging out in her favorite café, working through the innumerable fascinating linguistic and cultural questions any serious literary translation project generates. Perhaps we would have enjoyed ranting to each other about the patriarchy, exchanging music, making each other laugh? And surely, by now, she would have become more widely respected and less persecuted for her feminist activist sensibility than she was at the turn of the millennium. But she did die in 2006, and so this modest oeuvre is all we have—the culmination of her life’s work, all but lost to the world over the last fifteen years since her untimely death.
Blood Feast: Translating the Troubled Life and Troubling Work of Malika Moustadraf