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Big Loves: Devin Murphy on Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children

DevinMurphy-300x200Every so often a book I have yet to read makes me nervous. I think this is a self-defense wall my writer-self intuitively constructs to steer wide of new voices that may influence me when I already have my own narrative voice locked into a project. This is why I circled Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children on my shelf for a while before I picked it up. I was afraid it would contain some sort of tick-like voice that would burrow under my skin. When I finally opened the novel, I knew I was right to be cautious.

This book makes us all culpable. We consume news, culture, and images that touch us but we swipe them away, or turn the page. We have our own lives. The image of some other life in the news may be poignant, but on the other side of the world, they seem so far removed it may as well be fiction. These photos may even become iconic but rarely cause us to act. Think of the naked girl in Vietnam running after napalm stripped off her clothing. Or the stirring green eyes of the Afghan girl on the cover of National Geographic whose life had been upturned by invading Russians. These images keep coming. In The Small Backs of Children, the central image is a picture of a girl in Eastern Europe being uplifted and tossed from an explosion at her back, an explosion that atomized her family and thrust her into a cold, brutal life.

Small Backs of ChildrenWith this upheaval we begin to see the world this girl is thrust into. Yuknavitch writes, “This is a world of men. They come into your country, they invade your home, they kill your family. They turn your body into the battlefield—the territory of all violence—all power—all life and death.”

The girl also enters into the consciousness of a woman on the other side of the world who is dealing with the paralyzing loss of a stillborn child. The grieving woman cannot let go of the image of the girl launched into the air and is so empathic that she is willing to sacrifice and act because of the photo. She looks at the fire-rimed girl and feels hurt. The woman decides the image is worthy of trying to make another’s existence less tragic, and sets out to save her.

Yuknavitch’s novel does not let us turn away from this image. She is fearless in her gaze and delves into all the cultural and personal culpability such an image masks. In doing this she slips into the grotesque, overtly sexual, and dislodged longings of her characters. The characters don’t have names. We know them as The Girl, The Writer, The Photographer, The Widow, The Poet, The Playwright, The Filmmaker, and the Writer’s Husband. Maybe real names bring accountability and hold us back from revealing our vulnerabilities, our deep, dark truths. Those truths are what this author spills onto these pages.

Boat Runner

This is at times a shocking book. Though what shocks us these days? Pictures of dead children don’t seem to. Bleeding children? Angry white men hoisting old Confederate flags? Black men being choked to death? It is all at our fingertips. We have a smorgasbord of suffering to tune out, to block away. Yuknavitch confronts us on this: “All the artists we admired from the past came out of the mouths of wars and crises. Life and Death. We come out of high capitalism. Consumerist monsterhood.”

Reading this book, we realize that it cannot be good for us to harden and remove ourselves from the lives of others outside our lanes. This book wants to swerve in and out of that mindless traffic, to disrupt, to raise the heartbeat of everyone nearby, to remind us that we are human and messy and so are those depicted in flat images we so easily swipe away. This is a book that aims for a difficult goal: To make us really see.

Devin Murphy‘s debut novel, The Boat Runner, is out now with Harper Perennial/Harper Collins. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University. His fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, The Chicago Tribune, New Stories from the Midwest, and Confrontation, among others. He lives with his wife and children in Chicago.

For original poetry, fiction, interviews and art song, visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Literary Ventures

Rochelle Hurt, the founder of the new poetry review website The Bind, kindly answered a few questions for us about this new literary venture. Hurt is the author of two books of poetry: In Which I Play the Runaway (2016), winner of the Barrow Street Book Prize, and The Rusted City (2014), a collection of linked prose poems and verse selected for the Marie Alexander Series from White Pine Press. She is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Slippery Rock University.

Tell us about The Bind.
The Bind is a website that reviews recent books of poetry and hybrid work by women and nonbinary authors. We post a new review each week, and many of our reviews are creative.

What motivated you to start a site that both focuses on work by women and nonbinary poets and creates a space for new kinds of reviews?
I think creative responses and unorthodox reviews can make the work of reviewing less daunting, and the work of reading reviews more rewarding. I’m especially interested in the ways that creative reviewing can draw out a reviewer’s excitement or obsession with a particular thread in a book, which I think is more engaging than a simple overview and evaluation. At The Bind, we like analytical reviews that take this approach as well.

As for the focus women and nonbinary authors: It seems that these books still sometimes get ignored or forgotten in conversation, especially by men. I hope that The Bind, as an online conversation about new books, can serve as small gap-filler.

What exactly is “creative reviewing?”
Our creative reviews have included lyrical responses, drawings, calendars, centos, games, quizzes, and plenty of other forms, usually accompanied by critical explications. Many of these forms remix an author’s lines in order to draw out a critical point the reviewer wants to make. I see this process as not all that different from the critical review process of collecting significant quotes and then linking them together through your own lens as a reviewer. In creative remixing, however, there may be a higher risk of misusing an author’s words, so a creative reviewer has a responsibility to remain aware of this and write consciously in service of the book being reviewed.

What can we expect to see from The Bind in the year ahead?
We’ve just added a few folks to our team of occasional reviewers and our submissions are increasing, so we’ve got a lot planned. A few reviews in the works right now: a natal chart, a lyrical index, a guided tour, a shopping list, a roadmap, a family tree. In the future, I’m hoping to incorporate more digital media like videos, games, and Twine stories. I’ve also been thinking about adding a feature on classroom exercises or pedagogical tools to accompany some reviews.

How can reviewers, or authors, become involved?
We post a new review every Thursday, and readers who sign up for our email list can get that review delivered directly to their inboxes each week. In addition to our weekly reviews, we sometimes have extra features, like Katherine Webb’s Bad Drawings for Good Poetry. We’re always looking for new features and creative reviews, so I encourage readers to submit. Anyone (of any gender) can submit reviews or pitches to the.bind.reviews@gmail.com. More guidelines and examples can be found on our website: www.thebind.net.

Readers can also follow us on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram. Look for us using the handles @thebindreviews and @bind_reviews.

For original poetry, fiction, interviews and art song, visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Fiction Spotlight: Contributor and former Memorious Fiction Editor Ian Stansel

Ian Stansel’s debut novel, The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is fire, smoke, and bursts of illumination against the open sky. It’s classically American—a Western with some serious literary chops—and it’s everything it should be considering the July 4th, 2017 publication date. Critics and readers alike have showered the novel with praise, which is a follow-up to his 2013 PEN/Bingham Prize–nominated collection of short stories, Everyone’s Irish. Stansel has published stories in Ploughshares, Ecotone, Cincinnati Review, and many anthologies, and his nonfiction has appeared in Cutbank, Salon, and The Good Men Project. Memorious had the honor of publishing the title story from Everything’s Irish in Memorious 19. Stansel also later served as Memorious Fiction Editor. Suffice it to say, we jumped at the chance to talk to Ian about his new novel, alternate endings, reader appeal, and willfully committing the biggest writing sins.

The alternating point of view is a driving narrative force, an unlikely dance between predator and prey. It generates tension and deepens characterization—the kind of win-win that’s hard to come by. Most importantly, perhaps, seeing this landscape from the perspectives of both Silas and Lena affords the reader a greater understanding of the Van Loy brothers’ relationship. Did you begin the novel with this structure, and how hard was it to pull this off?

First of all, thanks for taking the time to read the book. As far as structure, etc. goes, something I’ve said many times to my students is that story, plot, character, and structure are really indistinguishable. We separate them for the sake of workshop conversations, but when it comes down to writing a novel, these things are so overlapped that you can’t say one is doing this and another is doing that. In the case of this book, I came up with the Lena character and the idea of an alternating structure and the overall story of the chase simultaneously. Without the alternating structure (or something like it) there is no Lena, and without Lena there is no story, just a situation.

The alternating POV allows a certain level of dramatic irony because the audience is aware of things that the characters are not, but the narrative also does not reveal everything to its reader. This is something I struggled with. I was trained to front-load everything. To withhold information is about the biggest sin a writer can commit. But at some point you have to say, Okay, I’ve internalized all the workshop training I can retain—now which rules do I need to follow and which might I need to break in order to tell this story most effectively? Whenever I see rules that say don’t do this or don’t do that, I always imagine a little asterisk next to each one with a note that says, “Unless it works.”

The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo comes in at a slim 200 pages, and this reader got the sense that you wouldn’t dare waste a word. Tell us about the words you had to scrap; for example, what was the hardest scene to lose?

The only major deletion was the original ending, which was very different and very weird. It was a strange experiment that didn’t really fit with the rest of the book. My agent rightly pointed this out and it was not too difficult to cut it and write an ending that makes more sense. Other than this, the revision process was more about adding and clarifying. This is largely due to the fact that I wasn’t envisioning this as a novel through most of the writing process. I had set out to write a novella, aiming at seventy or so pages. This, I suppose, goes to show that you need to be open to what the story you’re writing wants to become.

In 1993, I gave a book report on The Red Pony. Since, I’ve had little-to-no experience with horses, literary or otherwise; even still, your novel never made my lack of equine knowledge an impediment to connecting and engaging. What challenges did you and your human characters face in sharing the page with their animal companions?

The specifics about horses and horse life are, I suppose, a bit about establishing the world and some semblance of authority for the narrative. But they are more about being true to the characters and their passion and expertise. I was aware, though, that I was not writing solely for horsey people, and that there was a balance I needed to strike. I don’t expect the average reader to know every particular term—horse breeds or uses for pieces of tack—but hopefully those moments of detail, one, don’t distract or confuse, and two, serve to communicate how deep into this world the characters are and how much they care about the animals.

The other challenge I faced was how to make the horses feel like actual characters, albeit secondary ones. I think I succeeded most with the horse called Disco, who carries Silas. Their relationship evolved on the page mainly because through a large chunk of the book, Silas and the horse are alone. Lena has her riding companion, Rain, to talk to, but Silas has only Disco, so their bond needed to be a bigger part of the narrative than the bonds between the women and their horses.

How did you so deftly balance literary and commercial/genre appeal?

I wasn’t thinking so much about commercial appeal as reader appeal. That might sound like I’m splitting hairs, but what I mean is that I did (and generally do) think a good deal about how a reader would engage with the book, but I didn’t think about how a potential editor would. I think this is the way to go. After all, editors are first and foremost readers, right? So you might as well just write for readers. That said, I did understand that I was writing something with a lot more “plot” than previous projects, and plot, in general, is more commercial. I wrote a novel in grad school that never even got to the point of being “shopped around” because everyone who saw it said the same thing: love the writing, love the characters, but there’s no story. I did not want that to happen again. And, honestly, the older I get the less tolerance I have for plotlessness. I love stories and I wanted to write one that readers could really get into. You know those moments when you’re reading and the story is really running along and you’re so wrapped up you kind of forget that you’re in a chair in your living room or whatever? Hopefully there are a couple moments in this book that do that.

What overlapping obsessions, themes, similarities between The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo and your PEN/Bingham Prize-nominated story collection, Everyone’s Irish (the title story appears in Memorious 19), most surprised you? (I love, for example, the way you incorporate landscape—whether it’s the lapping of the Chicago River or the “shush of the wind purling over the grass.” I also noticed your characters’ yearnings for justice despite the overdetermined nature of blame and the strained choice between solitude and distraction. What, if any, would you say are the constants in your writing?

I don’t generally think of my writing as being that concerned with landscape, but I do spend a lot of time on it, probably because I’m insecure about my ability to fully convey this place or that. So in my collection, most of which takes place in Illinois, I did labor over ways to show the flatness of the cornfields or the river running through Chicago. I tend to focus on what I feel are my deficiencies, and I don’t think that’s a terrible habit for a writer. With the novel, so much of it depends on the landscape that I spent even more time obsessing over phrasing.

I think the most direct connections would be between the novel and the last story I wrote for the collection, “Introduction by the Author.” Both stories involve two brothers, betrayal, and an overabundance of ambition. I find ambition fascinating and dangerous—which are two good starting points for a story. I also find myself coming back again and again to sibling relationships. And grief. And betrayal. And regret.

Some people have asked me what writers I felt were influences on this novel and many assume I’ll say Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry—Western writers. And they’re right. I was influenced by them, as well as a number of other Western writers (Paulette Jiles, for instance). But it was just as influenced—perhaps even more so—by books like James Salter’s Light Years and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and others that tackle the inner turmoil associated with those themes I just mentioned: grief, betrayal, regret.

Would you be willing to tell us a little about what you’re working on now?

I have a number of things started, but nothing I can say is my “new project.” I’m confident there will be another book in the not-too-distant future. I just couldn’t say right now what it’ll be.

We’re grateful for the work you did as a former Fiction Editor for Memorious; you have a history of supporting writers and championing new writing. What great work have you recently read, and what’s in your reading queue. Are there fellow debut novelists you think our readers should be looking out for?

Honestly, I’m often woefully unaware of what is coming around the bend. The vast majority of my reading is determined by whatever I’m working on or teaching or just obsessing over. So I just bought a book about oyster farming because I like oysters. And I’m reworking my advanced fiction workshop wherein we read linked stories, so I’m reading books like Nami Mun’s incredible Miles Form Nowhere. I am excited to read N.J. Campbell’s Found Audio, which just came out. And Impossible Views of the World by Lucy Ives looks cool. So, yeah, those and the oyster book.

Assistant Editor Wendy Oleson is the author of Our Daughter and Other Stories, which won the 2017 Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Award (Map Literary). Her stories, poems, and hybrid text have appeared recently in Cimarron Review, Calyx, Copper Nickel, and elsewhere. She teaches for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and the WSU-TriCities English department. Wendy lives in Eastern Washington with her wife and their irrepressibly-delightful dog, Winston.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poem: Michael Bazzett, “Icarus”

For Father’s Day, we bring you this new poem from contributor Michael Bazzett:

 

ICARUS

The wings were indeed a cunning invention,

not bird-like

as most supposed but sweeping and feather-light

with a clear

understanding of lift and drag.

Daedalus knew what was up.

There would be no white legs

          disappearing into green water

this time.

No, he would use woven hair

instead of wax and let

the lad get singed, if need be.

   Nothing like the acrid scent

of burning hair to pull the body of a boy

     back into himself.

Daedalus said the myth

would still prove useful.

           A bit more laconic, perhaps. Its heavy

hands now softened inside gloves.

              The two of them

would live

 

long enough to sit quietly through the evenings,

     watching swallows

looping manic over the pond

while they sipped their whiskey, without a word.

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Think Music: SJ Sindu

Sindu-5-3-300x248When I talk about music I listen to during writing, I’m really talking about two things—the music I put on while I’m physically writing at my desk, and the music I listen to for the duration of a project. In other words, there’s the writing music, and then there’s the other music—the stuff I listen to while driving, cooking, exercising, and dancing with my partner. The first kind I call sustenance music; the second, inspirational. Both shape my writing process and voice.

My novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, began with a Coyote Grace number called “Forever’s Song.” I started with images produced by these lyrics:

This life ain’t going no one’s way

Sweet Goddess, she’s gonna do what she do

Miss fickle rolls with God in the hay

And leaves him sleeping under the moon

The harvest is done and she ain’t coming back till June

In these lyrics are images of autumn, and a strong woman who has little use for a man. These images turned into a short story about a young South Asian American woman who runs away from home. But the story grew and grew, and pretty soon I was writing about the woman’s sister, the kindred spirit she leaves behind, the one who dreams of escaping but is too bound to her family. This is how I met Lucky, the protagonist of Marriage of a Thousand Lies.

1497235All through the writing of this novel, I listened to Coyote Grace and Chris Pureka on repeat. Coyote Grace is an indie roots band made up of Joe Stevens (guitar and vocals), Ingrid Elizabeth (cello and vocals), and Michael Connolly. The band is trying to reinvent and bring a radical progressive perspective to roots music. In their work, Coyote Grace often explores queer sexuality and gender transition with nuance and insight. Chris Pureka is a guitarist and vocalist whose work is inspired by bluegrass and folk music. Like Coyote Grace, she also explores queerness and gender in her music.

 

Where Coyote Grace brought me inspiration with their poetic lyrics, Chris Pureka brought me sustenance. There’s a hypnotic quality to Pureka’s music and voice that helped me into the writer’s trance. I can’t help but think of her when I think about my protagonist Lucky’s internal mindspace—alternatively zen and energetic melodies that simmer over a painful, roiling interior.

But the actual rhythm of Lucky’s voice was inspired by Bharatanatyam beats. Lucky’s passion in the novel is dance—specifically, an Indian classical form called Bharatanatyam, which she and her lover Nisha have danced since they were little. Their whole relationship is based around this dancing, and Lucky muses on it often.

When I met Tony Amato, an author and writing coach in Boston, he offered to read the novel in its mid-stages. I remember meeting with him in his study in Somerville to discuss the manuscript. I sat curled in an armchair with Tony’s ancient cat on my lap and a cup of coffee (which I’d defiled, as Tony called it, with sugar and cream). We talked about a lot of things, but my most vivid memory of that afternoon was when Tony turned to me and asked why the voice wasn’t taking its cues from Bharatanatyam. It was one of those lightning-strikes moments.

I went home and started listening to Bharatanatyam songs. Bharatanatyam music is normally headlined by a miruthangam—a double-sided drum that produces a large variety of tones. The thaalam (rhythm) of the beat can be slow or fast, but may sound chaotic to an untrained ear. There is also a certain amount of improvisation. The central thaalam forms the foundation of the music (which often has accompaniment from vocalists, violins, and other instruments). And for my protagonist Lucky, who was trained in Bharatanatyam from the time she was little, it makes sense to me that part of her internal music would be formed by a foundation of this same thaalam.

sindu-white_1000-2I compiled a list of traditional melodies, and re-wrote every single line of the novel with those beats in the background. A lot of things fell into place—Lucky’s voice, her personality, her longing. All the things that seemed barely in my grasp before came into clear focus. If you read closely, you can hear the thaam thakka tham of a miruthangam in the cadence of the novel, but ultimately that’s not the point. The point is to infuse the book with the music that rules Lucky’s life. Without this music, Lucky’s interiority would’ve never fully developed.

 

Now, as I work on a new novel, I’m always thinking about inspirational and sustenance music. There’s a lot of jazz, Fleet Foxes, and Ravi Shankar in my life right now, and I can see those beats and codas working their way into the voice of my current novel project. Of course, the process of writing transforms this music, just as the music transforms the writing. It’s a beautiful, wild cycle.

SJ Sindu was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Massachusetts. She was a 2013 Lambda Literary Fellow. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University. Her work has be published in Brevity, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and other journals and anthologies. She teaches and writes in Tallahassee. Marriage of a Thousand Lies, her first novel, is out now by Soho Press.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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In Memoriam: The Things They Buried in the Yard

hartnett-author-photoThere was a story my grandfather liked to tell, and it was my favorite one for bedtime. When my grandfather was a kid, a skunk got into the basement of The Women’s Club in town, nobody knew how. He had volunteered to help, had tried to get the skunk to walk up a ramp and out the tiny basement window. My grandfather didn’t want the skunk to be killed. He wanted to safely lead him outside. That was one reason I loved the story, because of how gentle and big-hearted it proved my grandfather to be.

But the ramp plan didn’t work, as best-laid plans never do; the skunk sprayed my grandfather straight on. He came home defeated, and his mother wouldn’t let him in the house until he buried his clothes in the yard.

Our yard?” I always asked, because it amazed me that my grandfather had grown up in the same house I was growing up in; my parents bought the house from the great aunts. It’s still in the family now. My father says he’ll die there.

Your yard,” my grandfather said. “You should dig those smelly clothes up,” he’d laugh.

I did look for his clothes, dug hole after hole after hole. Of course they’d disintegrated over the decades, but I didn’t understand that then. My mother still finds things our family buried when she gardens, glass shards mostly. “They buried everything in the yard,” she says, in a disapproving tone. We didn’t bury much when I was growing up. We buried tulip and daffodil bulbs and one deceased family pet, a rabbit. The fish we flushed, the dogs we had cremated. I wonder if my grandfather buried his dogs in the yard. Our family always had dogs.

One dog, a golden retriever named Frisky-Frisbee, got sprayed by a skunk once, and our neighbor told my dad to wash the dog with douche wash from the pharmacy. “Yes, that’s what I said,” she nodded, when he asked her to repeat herself. So that’s what my dad did, mixed douche wash with tomato juice and washed Frisky-Frisbee in the garage. My grandfather came over to help.

My grandfather was always over to help, and I wonder which house felt more like home to him: his house where he’d raised three children, or the house where he’d grown up. Of course, the house wasn’t exactly the same. My parents had the kitchen redone, a back porch added on, a new bathroom. But some of the furniture was still there, and the horsehair plaster walls still felt a little bumpy to the touch. Plus, there’s so much family history in the house. My great-grandmother died in my bedroom, I was told, and I wondered which corner she kept her bed in. I wanted my bed in the same corner, because I wanted to feel a deep connection to my family past. I believed in ghosts, but wasn’t afraid of the ones I was related to. I heard them all the time in the attic, or I did until my parents found out we had bats.

Irabbit-cake-cover’m thirty years old now, but that house still feels like home for me, in a deeply rooted way, a way that can probably never be fully replanted elsewhere.

For the past few years, my husband and I lived in an apartment a mile from my parents, a mile from the yard where my family once buried things they no longer wanted, not knowing the yard and what was buried there would stay in the family for a long time coming, an accidental inheritance. My grandfather died thirteen years ago, but first he made me a dog-lover, and a storyteller too, and I learned from him that it’s better to tell a good story than it is to tell the truth. He once told a bar full of people that he was Terry Bradshaw’s quarterback coach; really, he was a mechanic.

I don’t smell skunks as often as I did when I was a kid; I think the population is down. When I do catch the scent, I hold my dog’s leash a little tighter, and I breathe in.

Annie Hartnett is the author of Rabbit Cake, released this March from Tin House Books. She was the 2013-2014 Writer in Residence for the Associates of the Boston Public Library, and currently teaches at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with her husband and border collie. Read more at anniehartnett.com.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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In Memoriam: Fuck Whale

Memorious is excited to introduce our new column, “In Memoriam,” in which a writer pays tribute to the memory of something or someone now gone.  For our first post, fiction writer and poet David Ebenbach tackles the complexities of (that’s right) Fuck Whale.

220px-david_ebenbach_005Do you know the story of Brigadoon? It’s a movie, actually, and the way it goes is that two Americans wandering through Scotland happen across a town called Brigadoon, a magical town that appears once every hundred years and only for a single day, after which it disappears again.

Fuck Whale was sort of like that.

When I was a junior in college I spent a semester abroad in Strasbourg, France. My reasons for choosing Strasbourg were vague and, in retrospect, not extremely compelling. Number one: I felt that, as a college student, I was expected to study abroad. Number two: I had some knowledge of French. (Specifically, I had studied it in high school but not at all since, which meant that I couldn’t speak the language, and my recognition skills were such that I could usually recognize whether a person was speaking French or not, but didn’t know what they were saying.) Number three: my Ohio college ran a study abroad program in Strasbourg.

So, I went, and, although I found good friends among my fellow students, I was still mopey and homesick pretty much the entire time. For most of my life, I had lived in one place—the inner-city neighborhood of West Philadelphia—and so even Ohio had been foreign to me; Strasbourg was another planet. Plus I was very, very, broke. In order to save money that semester I skipped so many meals (and the student meals were only like two dollars each, somehow) that I lost ten pounds. Plus I was actively pining, because I was in a long-distance relationship with a woman who did not, I think, realize that we were in a relationship at all.

Well, I tried to keep myself busy. I did a lot of journal-writing that semester, and I also took a lot of pictures. In particular, I took pictures of graffiti. I think the graffiti reassured this West Philly kid in the same way that a beautiful mountain range would have reassured a person from, what, Colorado? Maybe. It was familiar, is my point.

There was great graffiti in Strasbourg. Some of it was stenciled and layered and actively beautiful, but the bare-bones freehand stuff was pretty charming, too. Most of the graffiti was in French, of course, like “Quand on est mort, on peut difficilement se beurrer une tartine” (i.e., “When one is dead, it is difficult to butter toast”) and “FAITES CACA PARTOUT” (“Make caca everywhere”). So, that was good motivation for me to learn French. But there was also a little graffiti in English, such as in one half of this mini-debate about public transportation that I found on a wall:

NON AU TRAMWAY!” (“No to the Tramway!”)

“Tramway it is a better machine.”

So, public discourse across linguistic barriers. Even better, at one point that semester, when I was in an underground tunnel in Berlin, I came across “WEST PHILLY 89” written on one wall.

But nothing beat Fuck Whale. Or, I should say: “FUCK WHALE,” spray-painted freehand in black letters on a wall somewhere in the center of Strasbourg. But I mean it when I say “somewhere”—I didn’t seem to be able to find that wall on purpose. I would search and search through all the weird zigzag streets and not find it, especially when I wanted to show one of my friends in the study abroad program. But then, when I particularly needed it (say, on an especially homesick night), I would stumble across Fuck Whale. Out of nowhere, there it would be, like Brigadoon.

It was always a reassuring sight, even though (or maybe because) I didn’t know what the thing meant. Was it an expletive? (e.g., after hitting thumb with hammer: “Fuck whale!”) Or was it advice? Was it a smackdown of a particular whale? Was it actually a species that I’d never heard of? Who knew? Fuck Whale was a beautiful graffiti mystery.

fw1

A very young David Ebenbach

One thing I felt sure of: Whoever had spray-painted those words had what is commonly called joie de vivre (i.e., “not homesick”). I wanted joie de vivre, too. And if I couldn’t have it (I couldn’t), I wanted to be near it, spray-painted on a wall.

And so the semester went like that. I wrote in my journal; I traveled a little bit, as cheaply as possible; I skipped meals; I checked my mailbox constantly for letters from the woman I probably wasn’t dating; I took pictures; the city of Strasbourg moved from winter to spring; I learned some French. And eventually I did figure out where Fuck Whale was. I could get to it reliably when I wanted to. By then—the end of the semester—it was like visiting a former teacher for new wisdom. Though actually the wisdom was always the same:

FUCK WHALE, it would say.

TOTALLY, I would say in return.

In the end, I survived that semester, of course. I returned to the United States with enthusiasm (joie?) that was only slightly dampened by two initial encounters: one with an angry customs official, who was incredulous that I’d spent a semester in France because, if I’d wanted to learn French, I should have done it in America since “we’ve got better schools,” and then my first sighting of a t-shirt with the English language on it, which read Hangin’ and Bangin’. But anyway I made it, and I got on with my life. I was still pretty mopey (i.e., “mild depression that would ultimately respond nicely to therapy and some helpful pills”), but I was mopey at home, and that was nice.

screen-shot-2016-12-29-at-9-29-51-pmI have thought of Fuck Whale from time to time over the ensuing years. I still don’t know what it means. I still love it. And when, recently, a student of mine told me she was about
to spend a semester abroad in Strasbourg, of course I told her to look for Fuck Whale. But then she got back and told me she had never been able to find it.

More than twenty years has gone by since my own semester abroad, so the most likely thing is that someone has blasted the words off that wall. But I like to think that Fuck Whale has only temporarily vanished. That it will reappear one day, if ever there is someone wandering through that city, lost and glum, someone who’s missing something undefinable but crucial, someone who really needs it.

David Ebenbach lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches at Georgetown University. His fiction collections include Between Camelots (winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize) and Into the Wilderness. He has also published poetry collections, We Were the People Who Moved and Autogeography, and a collection of essays, The Artist’s Torah. He’s the Fiction Vice President at Washington Writers’ Publishing House and the blog editor at AGNI. His new fiction collection, The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy, winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction, is out now from the University of Massachusetts Press. 

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