Darcie Friesen Hossack, Letter from the Editor
On my desk is a copy of D-L Nelson’s coat hangers & knitting needles, Tragedies of Abortion in America Before Roe v. Wade.
The book is heavy for its size—not for the weight of its bindings—and has been accompanying me from room to room since it arrived here last week.
Having corresponded with the author since September, since the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I knew what to expect. And yet, there’s a whole human history’s worth of more, including this from a doctor, on the horrors women faced before the landmark ruling in that country, which secured a woman’s right to her own reproductive decisions:
The hospital kept 32 beds on the fourth floor for patients who had botched abortions. Knitting needles, bicycle spokes, anything metal might have been used, he said.
Ages of patients varied from teenagers to women in their forties.
Women tried potassium permanganate tablets, he said. “It was a strong oxidizing agent and it burns the tissue. We would see these women with a black hole in the front and the back of the vagina… If the woman was lucky, it didn’t burn through into the rectum or bladder.”
Tissue would be so damaged it couldn’t be sutured. “It was like trying to suture butter. Awful,” he added.
With the loss of Justice Ginsburg, a return to these days appears to be a realistic possibility in the United States. Already, in countries such as El Salvador, women who miscarry are imprisoned under suspicion of having had abortions.
More on Donna-lane Nelson’s book is coming up. Due to the urgency now felt by the author and the editorial board at WordCity, however, the publication in its entirety has been made available by the author, as free as Amazon will permit: $0.73 USD for a Kindle download, for the month of October. It is also available in hardcopy. With this, and other pieces you’ll find throughout our issue, we at WordCity Monthly honour the life and work of the Notorious RBG. May her memory be a blessing, and may we collectively carry the torch she left us.
Of our fiction this month, Sylvia Petter, our Contributing Editor of Fiction, writes:
This month we travel from Africa to Canada via novel excerpts from Farida Somjee’s prize winning indie novel,The Beggar’s Dance and Doreen van der Stoop’s cli-fi novel Watershed. Also on board is a piece of political satire by Bernard Gabriel Okurut and a story debut by Nightingale Jennings in which women in a painting come to life with stories they exchange with the author.
October’s poetry, too, circumvents the globe, taking us from a Kenyan call to action in the name of RBG, to an Iranian-Canadian lament at the putting to death of a political dissident. Beauty and ashes are both well represented, and we count ourselves blessed to present to you each and every poem in this collection.
Olga Stein, Contributing Editor of Non-fiction, offers this primer before inviting you to delve into the Russian-themed pieces you’ll find as you read:
This issue of WordCity has autobiographical stories by Alta Ifland and Katia Kapovich, as well as an interview with Erma Odrach regarding Wave of Terror, which she translated from Ukrainian to honour her father, Theodore Odrach, the novel’s author. All three pieces, although dealing with the past, appear timely, given the current focus on Russia’s and Belarus’s regimes, and their dictator presidents. Recently in the news is the poisoning of Alexei Anatolievich Navalny, a Russian politician, jurist, and anti-corruption activist, who appears to be head of the only party capable of threatening Vladimir Putin’s 20-year reign as the most powerful man—literally, strongman—in Russia.
Also happening now are the mass protests in Belarus in defiance of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has served as the country’s first and only president for 26 years. Like Putin, but on a smaller scale, Lukashenko has reprised the role of Russia’s KGB-era autocrat, and seems bent on digging in his vote-rigging heels come hell, high water, or the more than 100,000 Belarusians who want him gone as their country’s head of state. Ukraine and its conflict with Russia over the Crimean peninsula, and Ukraine’s independence in general, have also been in the news in the past few years.
All this is to say that Russia’s totalitarian imperialism, historically a behemoth, continues to threaten the present with its spawn and an impetus that just won’t dissipate. Moreover, anyone who was born in Communist Russia or one of its satellite states, and who was there as an adult, would have a permanent memory of what it’s like to live in a police state and experience Russia’s brand of Communism on a daily basis. It’s an understanding that comes from deep down. It’s felt in the bones, and it undoubtedly shapes the creative output of authors and artists who managed to emigrate to the West. The stories contributed by Ifland and Kapovich, and the conversation with Erma Odrach about Wave of Terror are very different; they represent different lived experiences, in different countries, and even different eras. Yet all are marked by the encounter with Communism and its political, social, and economic repercussions. Consequently, all three offer thoughts and observations whose relevance is all too obvious.
Also in non-fiction, Olga Stein has given us literary journalism with a retrospective of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, as made for television. Gary Fowlie has graced us with important and gripping journal entries of his having lived in New York during the worst of its Covid-19 outbreak. His account will continue beyond this issue.
And now, with a slightly different format that September, which allows readers to jump to stand-alone pages that feature several of October’s longer pieces, and then back to this page, we begin by presenting Faleeha Hassan, in Conversation with WordCity’s own Jane SpokenWord.
In this month’s podcast we introduce you to Ms. Faleeha Hassan. A portrait of strength in the face of dire circumstances, she invites us to feel the fire of a heart that refuses to accept defeat. Sharing her personal insight of life as a single mother, refugee and educator, she teaches us that although we cannot control the pain and anguish that comes with tragedy, we can determine our response to rise above the challenges. ~ Jane SpokenWord, WordCity’s Contributing Editor of Interviews and Podcasts
Faleeha Hassan is a Cultural Ambassador – Iraq, USA, a poet, teacher, editor, writer, playwriter born in Najaf, Iraq, in 1967, who now lives in the United States. She received her master’s degree in Arabic literature, and has published 25 books. Her poems have been translated into English, Turkmen, Bosevih, Indian, French, Italian, German, Kurdish, Spain, Korean, Greek, Serbian, Albanian, Pakistani, Romanian, Malayalam and the ODIA language.
Ms. Hassan has been the recipient of awards in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, as well as publications in a variety of American magazines. She garnered a Pulitzer Prize Nomination in 2018, a Pushcart Prize 2019, and IWA Winner of the Moonstone Chapbook Contest 2019
Email : firstname.lastname@example.org
FOR RUTH( A WOMAN OF SUBSTANCE) AND ALL THE ‘RUTHERANS’.
The swan sung, a quietude so plaintive,
Oceans picked it up and whipped it to shores afar,
Details of humility of a guarantee soldier,
Robed in tons of tones of resilience,
From ages of flower tribes peripheral tirades,
Being seen and unheard,
Toys for boys and casualties of love,
To tangle with law, time spoke nefarious displeasure of elders,
Didn’t stop dear Ruth from toppling the dominant dominos of her time,
Coming first didn’t guarantee an easy entry into the sure herd of biased minds,
But tutorials and homage to learning added a feather to an angel on a mission,
A flower bloomed large and bright and hard as steel,
An era made for a passionate advocacy of right light,
Who can make music to a musician who sung, played and danced to a tune of chipping rocks to flatten old curves.
Who can write an epitaph made from the stars before a baby was born.
Who can light a candle on a soul who in life was the sun for an entire specie’s.
We mourn flesh as its meant to be,
But a joy bubbles out from all the ‘Rutherans’ who with ease reach for the mellow fruits from an old gnarled tree,
With trembling sorrow wrapped with praise we sigh with the wind of change now rested from a race well run,
An epic soul floats in successive generations diploma papers and legal pads ready for war,
For each battle Ruth fought and won,
Is a marker and a tool to spur resilience and resolve ahead,
So yes, this morning mourns as flesh must tend to do to flesh,
But richer is the heritage that across the divide of living,
A legacy stands tall and proud for the dare of a soul,
That saw opportunity and not mountains,
So go with a waltz into this goodnight sweet guardian angel,
Our tears water the wind bearing you back to sunrise,
Where wisdom of your birth and mission,
Shall form the foundations of where tomorrow shall build its Castle.
We are richer for the scars of your battles and wars.
Nancy Ndeke is a multi-genre writer. She writes poetry, hybrid essays, reviews, commentary and memoir. Ndeke is widely published with four collection of her full writings Soliama Legacy, Lola- Logue , Musical Poesy and May the Force be With you. She has recently collaborated with a Scotland-based Writer and Musical Artist, Dr. Gameli Tordzro of Glasgow University on the Poetry Collection Mazungumzo ya Shairi, and also co-authored the poetry anthology , I was lost but now am found with USA Poet Renee Drummond -Brown . She contributes her writings to the Atunis Galaxy Poetry ( Belgium), TUJIPANGE AFRICA( Kenya, USA), Ramingo Porch, Africa Writers Caravan , WOMAWORD Literary Press, BeZine for Arts and Humanities( USA), Andinkra Links 5, Wild Fire Publication, Williwash Press, The poet by day webzine, Writers Escape at Poetry, Different Truths, ARCS PROSE POETRY. Nancy Ndeke also works as a literary arts consultant, copyeditor and Writers’ Clinics Moderator.
On Justice Ginsburg’s Passing, and Why I’m Seeing Red
As I started to write this, I kept an eye on the live broadcast of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Lying in State ceremony. Justice Ginsburg, who died on September 18, is only the 35th individual to be granted this honour since 1852. Holding the ceremony in the grand Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol requires approval of a resolution passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. After all, it’s meant to mark the passing of an exceptional individual—one whose service has had a transformative effect on the nation. Taking gender out of the equation, we can see that a Lying in State happens, on average, once every half decade. Yet Justice Ginsburg is also the first woman ever to be paid this tribute. It’s fair to compare this occasion and Ginsburg herself, it seems to me, to some rare celestial event—kind of like the passing of Halley’s Comet, only far more rare.
Olga Stein holds a PhD in English, and is a university and college instructor. She has taught writing, communications, modern and contemporary Canadian and American literature. Her research focuses on the sociology of literary prizes. A manuscript of her book, The Scotiabank Giller Prize: How Canadian is now with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Stein is working on her next book, tentatively titled, Wordly Fiction: Literary Transnationalism in Canada. Before embarking on a PhD, Stein served as the chief editor of the literary review magazine, Books in Canada, and from 2001 to 2008 managed the amazon.com-Books in Canada First Novel Award (now administered by Walrus magazine). Stein herself contributed some 150 reviews, 60 editorials, and numerous author interviews to Books in Canada (the online version is available at http://www.booksincanada.com). A literary editor and academic, Stein has relationships with writers and scholars from diverse communities across Canada, as well as in the US. Stein is interested in World Literature, and authors who address the concerns that are now central to this literary category: the plight of migrants, exiles, and the displaced, and the ‘unbelonging’ of Indigenous peoples and immigrants. More specifically, Stein is interested in literary dissidents, and the voices of dissent, those who challenge the current political, social, and economic status quo. Stein is the editor of the memoir, Playing Under The Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile by Hernán E. Humaña.
Olga Stein is WordCity Monthly’s Contributing Editor of Non-fiction.
Excerpt from Watershed (Freehand Books, 2020)
Written by Doreen Vanderstoop and reprinted with permission from Freehand Books
The faint hiss of airbrakes sounded above the wind. Willa Van Bruggen looked eastward and shielded her eyes against the May morning light. The sun lay low in the sky—a beautiful, terrible, celestial raspberry coloured by dust and by smoke drifting in from forest fires in Northern Washington State and British Columbia.
Crystel Canada’s double water-tanker hove into view at the top of the hill, the shine of its silver barrels dulled by the dusty air. Airbrakes again—intermittent now, like sharp intakes of breath—as the rig inched down toward the Van Bruggen farm. Drivers had to keep their speed in check, so water surges didn’t send the vehicles careening out of control.
Last night’s conversation with her only son had been running through Willa’s mind all morning. Daniel had video-called her to share the news about getting an interview with Crystel Canada.
“I’ll be working for the federal Crown corporation keeping Southern Alberta from turning into Death Valley,” he said. Daniel shook his head as if his point were obvious and he didn’t understand why she wasn’t getting it. She wasn’t. She wanted him back. Needed him to help them keep the farm afloat. Daniel tried again. “It’s like a banker getting a job with the Bank of Canada or an art dealer with the National Gallery of Canada. Crystel operates for profit at arms’ length from government, but the feds guarantee the cash flow in case of financial trouble. They won’t let the water pipeline fail.”
Doreen Vanderstoop is a writer based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada whose short fiction has appeared in Prairie Fire Magazine and online at Montreal Serai, prairiejournal.org, epiphmag.com, and Alexandra Writers’ Centre, among others. Doreen’s debut novel, Watershed, was published by Freehand Books and released in May 2020. Watershed has received critical acclaim, appearing frequently on best seller lists in Alberta. Doreen has participated in author panels at Word on the Street Toronto, Victoria Festival of Authors and the Calgary Public Library. She also appeared on the National Arts Centre’ Canada Performs series. Watershed was picked as the second book in the Alberta Reads Book Club hosted by the Book Publishers Association of Alberta. Doreen also sings, plays guitar, and performs oral stories of all kinds for audiences of all ages.
Poem Written During Australian Bushfires
Treasure of the world,
little animal boy,
you and you and you,
wombats and kangaroos,
my love for you is so huge,
let it revive you,
let it give you rain,
let it give you green leaves,
thriving eucalyptus trees galore!
Singed koalas and wallabies;
although I rarely pray,
I pray for you now,
heal, breathe, eat, multiply,
teach us how to save you,
teach us how to live
so no fires can harm you ever.
Why should I belong to the species
that multiplies at your expense,
treasure of our world,
marvel of the far-away continent,
don’t die, little animal boy,
stay, be, teach us,
but don’t forgive us our cruel stupidity.
You hear me?
It’s your turn now:
stay and multiply,
* * *
An angel who thought he was a spider said:
Hello happy rose.
My love is a spider.
My dog is a mouse.
I hear it bark.
Hello, hello spider.
You and the rose are wind.
Wind, wind. We won.
Who ever heard it bark?
I’ll go down the way of a rose.
I’ll switch from a song to a blue.
I’ll marry a violet.
I’ll whine at the moon and cry.
I am a happy flower.
My name is Spider.
I eat whispers.
I drink the best.
I know an angel.
His name is Tom.
God looks at me through your wings.
He wishes to help me whisper.
So many cats.
We angels hide in them.
We are not bats: we are cats.
We are not bad, not good.
We are last.
We sleep in the grass.
We know who you are.
You are a fool.
You are warm.
Your bones are skin.
Your skin has a look.
You look а bully.
–Bully yourself, you!
–We are Angels!
–Angels don’t flap their wings at cats.
Angels do not say meow.
Angels… angels… God’s angles,
That’s what they are!
God folds them angly.
Don’t tell me you are an angel.
You are a dog.
Just like I am.
We are like little violets.
We fret and grow.
We like frog concerts.
Sometimes we look green.
Perhaps then, perhaps we are frogs…
We like green snow.
When we go for walks,
Mosquitoes bite us.
It shows that we’re not them.
Certainty is what makes an angel.
When it rains cats and dogs,
* * *
Time had no claim on him
and beauty had no hold:
in the dried-out backyards of the mind
his soul flowered and observed
the sun setting early on the morning glories,
their petals closing for a day-long sleep,
the dark, arriving full of shadows, concealing
the flowers’ future in the opening leaves…
And who was he, to urge them to unfold,
if sleep was what they were meant for in this life,
if their immortality came wrapped in somnolence,
when the air was made of witching words
and sprouted blue and purple petals
that folded into themselves and withered
before he had a chance to see them face to face?
* * *
Moscow born, Nina Kossman is a bilingual writer, poet, translator of Russian poetry, painter, and playwright. Her English short stories and poems have been published in US, Canadian and British journal. Her Russian poems and short stories have been published in major Russian literary journals. Among her published works are two books of poems in Russian and English, two volumes of translations of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems, two collections of short stories, an anthology, Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myth, published by Oxford University Press, and a novel. Her new book of poems and translations has just been published. Her work has been translated into Greek, Japanese, Dutch, Russian, and Spanish. She received a UNESCO/PEN Short Story Award, an NEA fellowship, and grants from Foundation for Hellenic Culture, the Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, and Fundacion Valparaiso. She lives in New York.
Coat Hangers and Knitting Needles
Tragedies of Abortion in America Before Roe v Wade
The landmark US Supreme Court decision in favor of legal abortion did not affect the number of babies delivered in the years following; there was, however, a drastic decline in maternal mortality.
There has always been abortion on demand for those women who do not feel they can have a baby, either by do-it-yourself with drugs or by instrument self-inflicted or assisted. There always will be abortion on demand. If abortion becomes illegal again, women will once again seek the backrooms, the motels, the shacks, the coat hangers and knitting needles. The only difference will be when abortion is illegal, will the mother die too?
Based on extensive research, including interviews with documentary filmmakers and activists, D-L Nelson describes the crusade against botched illegal abortions through the personal stories of the women who suffered, those who preyed upon or vilified them, and doctors and clergy who cared enough to get the laws changed. From Sarah Grosvenor, at the center of one of the first abortion trials in the New World … to popular children’s TV star Miss Sherri … to Madame Restell (“the wickedest woman in New York”) … Anthony Comstock, Lawrence Lader, Bill Baird, Curtis Boyd, David Grimes, Henry Morgentaler … the Clergy Consultation Service and the Jane Collective … to Norma McCorvey, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, you’ll learn the backstories of men, women and organizations who were key players in the abortion and birth control debate across the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
The book features a detailed timeline of abortion milestones from 3000 BC to the present, plus a bibliography of books, periodicals, films / videos and websites.
To purchase a Kindle or hard copy of D-L Nelson’s Coat Hangers and Knitting Needles, at a steeply discounted price (as low as Amazon would permit), reduced especially for WordCity Monthly readers in the month of October, please click on this hightlighted text, and consider adding copies for your family and friends, or to give when times seem right.
7th St, Garden City, Starbucks
Jeans and turtleneck, then lick cappuccino froth off a
plastic lid. Watch the slick man by the door, cigarette
hanging from pouting lips. Bask in the indulgence of
a warm pretzel. Milk teeth clouds and a glitter sun
glued to his hair. Mulch moist to instruct the senses.
At the back of your mind, a poem ready to stain the page.
Between the silent dahlias and hushed dust mote words,
the day, as éventail plisse. Here we are, awake and awed.
I haven’t thought about my mother in months
just me, these days in every window’s reflection,
same hair, different way of wearing the face.
My mother’s, thick with febrile caution. Mine,
falling into itself, a millipede kind of movement.
For a long time, pain lived in the zippered pocket
of my purse, ruffling its silver scales. Every time
an alone spell came to an end, her image would
fall and accumulate without notice, a residue
of grief, and those flakes of skin hardened even
more, until my brains cratered and I would sleep
for days, numb dawns on a string, vacant flesh.
Among the living, I stride with others, lumpy fish.
A tincture for wounds
Four months and counting, in a freefall, clocking time between
teeth. Silences fat with longing, while August feverishly unfolds
its gifts, from bursting fruit to evenings swathed in violet. This
summer pilfers our open hearts, while we gaze into old maps
where and what countries we could have held into the eyes and
mouths. The Greek sky running out under our twitching eyelids.
The saltiness of the Thassos mornings burning a hole into our
wanting tongues, children shriek into the turquoise waters, you
and I holding breath, the way one listens to something that is
always ending. The ghost of foreign voices surfacing each morning,
smell taunted by ripening flavors, body following the slow mechanics
of the swindling island, allowing us to inhabit a sheer layer of its
abundance, while swiftly satiating our cravings with more promise
of the days to come. Instead, flaky edges of our backyard thinning days.
Clara Burghelea is a Romanian-born poet with an MFA in Poetry from Adelphi University. Recipient of the Robert Muroff Poetry Award, her poems and translations appeared in Ambit, HeadStuff, Waxwing, The Cortland Review and elsewhere. Her collection The Flavor of The Other was published in 2020 with Dos Madres Press. She is the Translation/International Poetry Editor of The Blue Nib.
A Covid Recovery Road Trip
I’m sharing this with you because as a member of your family, or your friend, or fellow Covid ‘Long Hauler’, I want to thank you for your support during the past pandemic months. Obviously, Covid didn’t kill me. Not so obviously, I wasn’t able to escape its clutch.
My last dispatch from New York, the pandemic epicenter, was sent on Easter Weekend, a day or two before Covid and I had our rendezvous. That dispatch went like this:
May Easter bring strength to the young couple upstairs fighting Covid; peace to a friend whose mother passed and he couldn’t be with her; thanks for the health care workers fighting for us; courage for family and friends facing financial challenges; selfless leadership and protective equipment for all.
Count your blessings and stay safe.
We are; XO G&K
At the time, it was heartfelt. Today it sounds sanctimonious. I stand by the missive to count your blessings and stay safe, but the morally superior tone of we are—that should definitely have been changed to we are trying to.
If you read beyond this, you’ll find out that no matter how hard you try to avoid this insidious illness, it can sneak up and attack you despite your best efforts.
I’ve called this chronology of events a recovery road trip, in hopes that the journey to our cottage in Canada would do just that. It began on June 5, 2020, when we were able to rescue our car from its isolation in Yonkers and load it up in Manhattan. But to do this tale justice, I need to go back to early March, when we were unloading the same car in the same spot, after a winter road trip to the south.
What follows are the events which marked mileposts on the Covid expressway.
The Siren before the Storm
On arriving in our neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, we were greeted by police cars and emergency vehicles racing past us—an all too obvious omen of the steady stream of emergency vehicles to come. This noisy welcome turned out to be just some idiot on the next street with an attitude and access to a gun.
The first New Yorker with the virus had been confirmed five days earlier, and we would have the first Covid fatality in the city five days later. Less than two weeks after that, there would be 18,000 confirmed cases, and 200 New Yorkers would be dead. The infection rate was five times greater in New York than in the rest of the country, and it would still be five weeks before my own Covid symptoms appeared.
Gary Fowlie is a Technology Economist and Consultant. He is on the Advisory boards of ID2020, a non-governmental agency that is working toward secure digital identities for all and of ‘Geeks Without Frontiers’, which brings emergency telecommunication services to disaster relief efforts. Gary was formerly the United Nations Representative in New York for the UN specialized agency, the International Telecommunication Union. He led an inter-agency UN effort to ensure information and communication technologies were recognized in the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda. Previously, he served as Chief of Media Liaison for the United Nations in New York and was responsible for communications and advocacy for the UN World Summit on the Information Society.
OK I give up … here’s … My f*cking virus poem
in the city of the undead
6 ft apart
your cough I dread
where’s your mask
get the fuck away from me
I’m busy not touching groceries
locked down in my room
as the hero’s work through doom and gloom
in the city of the undead
we wait instead
there are corpses
death by viral sources
all looking for protection
“orange man boasting perfection
death from oblivious discombobulation”
Street poet Jane SpokenWord’s performances represent the spoken word as it is meant to be experienced, raw, uncensored and thought provoking. From solos, to slams, duos, trios, and bands, including a big band performance at The Whitney Museum with Avant-Garde Maestro Cecil Taylor which garnered All About Jazz’s Best of 2016. Other collaborations include: Min Tanaka, Miguel Algarin, Beat Poet John Sinclair, her son HipHop musician/producer, DJ Nastee, and her partner in all things, Albey onBass. Combining the elements of spoken word, music, sound and song “Like those of the Jazz poets, the Beats, The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron and others – she is usually accompanied by Albey onBass Balgochian’s moaning, groaning, rumbling contrabass – adding double the gut-punch to her words.” (Raoul daGama) To preserve the cultural heritage of wording to document life, and foster a broader collective community, she brings her poetry and spoken word to a diverse set of venues including museums, festivals, libraries, slam lounges, art galleries, clubs, busking street corners and living rooms everywhere. She has authored two books of poetry with art and music by co-author Albey onBass: Word Against the Machine and Tragically Hip. Publications include: TV Baby A collection of Lower East Side artists – OHWOW, Shadow of The Geode, Bonsia Press, Stars in the Fire and Palabras Luminosas – Rogue Scholars Express and We Are Beat in the National Beat Poetry Anthology.
Jane SpokenWord is WordCity Monthly’s Contributing Editor of Interviews and Podcasts.
In Praise of Colour
pink and red
yellow and brown
and inbetween, blue
dark purple, pale green
these are the colours we hurt in
red, blood flowing through veins
menses from the womb
creamy, the vernix of a baby’s birth
colourless, the liquid salt from our eyes
be they brown or blue
green or grey, hazel
amber, topaz, ruby
sapphire, lapis, jade
fields of poppy, fields of lavender
brome swaying in the breeze
blue spruce, white spruce, wintergreen
long blue shadows on January snow
the wolf, grey, grizzled
tawny, auburn, silver, black
shades and scents of roses
pink to peach, damask, vanilla
burgundy, carmine, plum
horses dappled, bay, buckskin
chestnut, dun, grullo, roan
blue, paint, pinto
I think the creator revelled in colour
the contrasts, nuances, the shades
but instead of seeing beauty in colour
we draw lines us and them
haves and have nots
enough and not enough
cut us, and the blood flows always red
strike us, and we bruise the same colours
pink and red
yellow and brown
and inbetween, blue
a pearl in this diamond world … Josephine LoRe is the author of two collections which integrate poetry and photography, ‘Unity’ and the Calgary Herald Bestseller ‘The Cowichan Series’, as well as the short story “Cornflower”. Her words have been read on stage, put to music, danced, and integrated into visual art. They appear in anthologies and literary journals in nine countries, including FreeFall Literary Magazine, Japan’s Mount Fuji Tanka Grand Prix, Pendemic poetry in Ireland and the upcoming (M)othering Anthology. https://www.josephinelorepoet.com/
Three excerpts from The Beggar’s Dance, a novel (CreateSpace 2015)
Three excerpts from The Beggar’s Dance, a novel, CreateSpace, 2015.
Africa 1977. Age 11.
I drift away and start dreaming of such a life.
Mama yangu, my mother, frowns at me, squinting with intense effort. “Stop dreaming, you maskini boy.” The anger in her voice reminds me that I am a maskini, a beggar, and I am not allowed to dream.
“Slouch and sit like a maskini, Juma,” she whispers when an expensive car approaches the parking spot. Mama likes us begging on the footpath next to the ice cream parlour, a paradise for Muzungu, European children, where their reality becomes my dream. Mama tells me, dreams waste our time and poison our souls. Dreams do not feed us. Seated against the wall of the ice cream parlour, I cup my palm and wait in anticipation. Coins drop, though not enough for a meal. Mama is still hopeful.
Children gather outside and lick different flavours of ice cream cones. They are lost in joyful conversation and laughter. Some of them sing to the music playing inside the parlour. I do not understand the words, but the voice is almost magical, the magic that I see through the eyes of these privileged children.
Once again, I drift away and start dreaming of such a life.
I wrap Mama’s kanga over her shoulder to comfort her from the shivers. Every so often, I hear her teeth chatter, or a grunt whenever she jolts. I hold on tight to her so that she does not move towards the edge. In the middle of the night, her body breaks into sweat. I feel the heat from her burning body as it touches mine, as though I am standing next to the charcoal pit at the barbeque vendors’ spot. Ignoring the discomfort, I hang on tight. What else can I do? It is too dangerous to find help at this hour. This has been the longest night of my life.
As soon as it is dawn, I ask Mama to climb down. It takes her a long time to hang her body over the container. She loses her grip and drops hard to the ground. I stretch her body and massage her legs and hands to relieve the pain. After a while, with much effort she manages to crawl to the front of the parlour.
I run to the bay and wait for the morning ferry to arrive. I am hoping that Samuel will be able to help us. He has refused to talk to me for the last two seasons. Every time we came across each other, he looked the other way. So many times when I tried to say hello, he snubbed me and walked away. I know he is still my friend and he will help me when he finds out how seriously sick Mama is.
Samuel finally arrives. I rush to him and grab his arm. “Hey! How dare you,” he says and pushes me away.
“Mama is very sick, Samuel. Help us, please,” I say.
He makes an aggressive stop. “You betray our friendship and now you decide to come to me for help?” He kicks at the stone by his foot so that he won’t have to look at me.
“Please, my friend, help us. I don’t know anyone else.” My voice trembles. I run towards the parlour and do not give him a chance to say no. He follows me.
“Mama,” I call her in a soft voice. “Samuel is with us, he will help.” Her body is limp, and she is unable to talk. I touch her forehead with my palm; the fever is still high. “What shall we do?” I ask Samuel.
“You have to take her to the government hospital. It is the only free hospital, but that is too far, brother,” Samuel says. “The taxi will be costly. You may not be able to afford it.” I untie a knot from the edge of Mama’s kanga where she saves her begged money and hand it over to Samuel. “What is this? This will not even get you beyond two streets.” He drops the coins on the ground in disgust.
“Help me, please!” I plead.
“I do not have space in my heart to pity people like you. You should have joined my partnership and you could have saved your mother.”
I kneel and touch his ankles, begging him to help us. “I will pay you back.” Samuel pulls his foot away from my hands and walks away without a word. “Samuel! Samuel!” I call out after him as he disappears in the distance.
“I will be fine, my son,” Mama manages to say with barely any strength in her voice. “Let me stay here for the day.” She crunches her body further and goes to sleep.
“You need to see a doctor. I will find you help, Mama,” I assure her.
I knock on the front door of the church. I know it is closed at this time of the day, but I will take my chances. To be sure, I check the side door, knock and call out to anyone. “Help! Help!” There is not a soul in the building. I am sure God is. After all, it is God’s house. But God does not help me.
I was in love with Josephine the first time I saw her. My heart skipped a beat and then it beat faster than normal. I gave it a thump with my fist and sat on the path admiring this seventeen-year-old beauty. I clearly remember her wearing a white dress with a thick leather belt tightly wrapped around her waist—shiny black—which made her hips look fuller. Her smooth skin did not need any makeup; her beauty shone through without it. Everything about her was perfect—except for the sadness in her smile. She stood at the corner all by herself, away from the other night ladies. I was not sure why no one talked to her, so I introduced myself to make her feel more welcome on the street.
Her pimp showed up unexpectedly and stood right in front of my face. “She is very expensive, you shitty little bastard,” he said. His coarse voice and big, red, drunken eyes scared me so much that I stepped back at once. Josephine ran to the other side of the pole, almost tripping even though the path was clear. She stuck her fingers in her mouth, biting her nails, and swayed her upper body forward and backward. I realized right away that I had got her into trouble. The pimp pointed his finger at me. “You want to have some fun there, boy? There are plenty of men interested in young boys too.” He stomped heavily towards Josephine and slapped her. What surprised me was that Josephine had no expression on her face—she showed no emotion at all. One slap, two slaps, she stood there, accustomed to it all.
Every time I witnessed those slaps, I thought of the man who tortured me and was prepared to pull out my testicles. Would I have become accustomed to the pain and beating if I had let him? If so, then maybe I would not have needed to give them the Keshavjis’ name. But there I was, at fifteen, back on the streets, a pathetic beggar. I was weak, a boy without courage, who could not even stand up for Josephine. Or was I selfish? The last thing I needed was another problem added to my life—the pimp.
Knowing what he was capable of doing to me, I kept my distance and stayed in a lit area. He was ruthless and carried a knife, which I am sure he would not have hesitated to use. Josephine ignored me when he was around. Once in a while, she would glance at me. She knew I was watching her all the time, but not even once did we exchange a smile.
One night the pimp passed out on the street drunk, his big, muscular body lifeless. The night ladies and their customers dragged him to the back of the parking lot and dumped him by the trash. I was tempted to break a bottle of beer on his head. No one would have known. Then again, I had sinned enough, I had wronged enough. God had given me a second chance; there would not be a third, so I left the scene. Was I wrong to make such a decision? I regretted it at times, especially whenever I saw Josephine suffer. But then it also made me work harder to get out of the street life, which was the only way to save Josephine too.
Later that night, I knocked on Josephine’s door once her customer had left. I told her about the pimp getting dumped by the trash. She burst into hysterical laughter. What a change in her mood; I was not expecting such a reaction. I thought she might run to tend to him, out of fear or because she really did care for him, but instead she kept laughing. She was happy, happy to know that he had suffered. Then she let me in the room. That was the night Josephine and I became secret friends.
We spoke of Dada Zakiya. Josephine loved her, even though they had never met. “She is a goddess,” Josephine would say.
I told her about Samuel, how selfish he had always been and how I got myself into bad situations with him. “You are lucky,” she said. “At least he is gone. Look at me. I am still stuck with the devil.”
—The Beggar’s Dance available on Amazon—
Farida Somjee is an award-winning Canadian author and novelist. Her novel, The Beggar’s Dance, won the Whistler Independent Book Awards (2017) for best fiction. She was born in Mbeya, Tanzania, and grew up in the coastal city of Dar es Salaam. Many of her childhood memories resonate with her and come across in her writing. She moved to Canada in her late teens with twenty dollars in her pocket, a lot of dreams and God on her side. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.
SALAAM MY MOTHERLAND AFRICA
Last night I dreamed of arm stretched Africa
Last night I dreamed of borderless Africa
Last night I dreamed of brothers and sisters living in harmony
I dreamed of thriving vitenge industries in Africa
Salaam, Salaam my mother land Africa, Salaam
Last night in Kenya I saw spears and arrows turned into farming hoes
Last night cotton, coffee and tea industries steamed
I saw genuine smiles with sparkling white teeth in Sudan
I saw brothers in Nigeria disarming and disowning Boko Haram
I saw a serene Somalia soldiering on building Al-Shabaab ruins
Salaam, Salaam my mother land Africa, Salaam
Last night, Africa in unison echoed political stability
Last night, Africa in unison echoed social cohesion
Last night, South Africa was umbrella for all blacks in the rain
Ethiopia in black mourned Hachalu Hundessa raising a white dove
Salaam, Salaam my mother land Africa, Salaam
Last night black trader bought jewellery from Djibouti
Last night black trader bought oils and perfumes from Tunisia
Last night black trader sold exquisite African style fabric from Dakar
Last night black trader sold beautiful baskets from Zimbabwe
Salaam, Salaam my mother land Africa, Salaam
Last night African leaders kissed Africa, we loaned west
Last night Africa imported and exported within
Last night African industries revived, African sweat streamed
Last night corruption was hanged we sang freedom songs
Salaam, Salaam my mother land Africa, Salaam
Last night P.L.O Lumumba reminding us of modern slavery
We condemned vestiges of slavery in Sudan and Libya
He paved path for Pan-Africanism and asked pertinent questions
Last night we asked why African conflicts are manufactured outside Africa
Last night I saw one Africa, one heritage loving our language and culture
Salaam, Salaam my mother land Africa, Salaam
Today rise Africa, from the grave W.E.B Dubois chant RISE
Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, George Padmore chant RISE
Haile Selassie, Mwalimu Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda chant RISE
Aime Cesaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Nelson Mandela chant RISE
Bob Marley and Miriam Makeba melodies echo Africa unite
Salaam, Salaam my mother land Africa, Salaam
I CRAVED PEACE
I whispered, hoping it will crawl to the bush
Auch! An arrow fell on its side, my heart bled!
Getting from the bush was courting death
The innocent child played with the arrow
I still whispered, but clothed in God’s suit ,it played on
Lying next to it were bodies chopped
Nearby bodies wrapped in cloth were tied to long poles
Screams of women being raped echoed in the desert_
My heart was lame!
Why fight for soil they soaked with blood?
Another arrow missed the child’s head by a whisker
I threw my camera, crawled towards the baby
Three years gone by, I watch him draw
He draws dead bodies, guns and arrows
He doesn’t talk or smile.
I lost my arms but I am teaching this poor soul
Teaching him to draw a dove
How would peace look in his silent troubled world?
Jerusha Kananu Marete, a Kenyan writer, is the author of power-packed-package anthology of poems titled Echoes of Military Souls.
She has her heart in narrative poems
Jerusha is a graduate from University Of Nairobi (English & Literature) and currently a MA student at Kenyatta University. She’s a teacher, a performing artist & a film and theatre enthusiast. She is also a loving mother to Emmanuel. Her poems have been published in anthologies and journals, including Libero America Journal, Reconnoitre: Official Magazine of the Kenya Military Academy 2019, Best “NEW “African Poets 2019 Anthology, African Writers Caravan Journal and Millennial Voices; East African Poetry.
I Am Afrika
I am the deep abyss of the dark continent
the loneliness of the shifting Saharan sands
the birth of the Nile
and the pounding rhythm of the jungle
I am the quiet heart of the elephant’s graveyard
and the desperate thunder of vast grasslands
I am the golden sun dripping into Atlantis
and the burning rain of ancient blood
I am the shores of oceans and seas
and the migration of endless skies
I am the Uud, the Djembe and the Kora
dancing in the Kalahari midnight
I am descendent of first woman
and ancestor to the end of man
I am the precious diamond of a forgotten treasure
the moonlight falling upon crumbling pyramids
the sleepless dream of Marrakech
I am the last cheetah running until my life explodes
I am the gazelle and the lion
stolen to a far horizon
I am sorrow sold into slavery
I am Afrika
Norman Cristofoli has published several chapbooks of poetry/prose plus two audio compilations of spoken word performances. He published the “Labour of Love” literary magazine for 25 years and was the co-founder of the “Coffeehouse” artist networking site. His play “The Pub” was recently published with CanamBooks. A new poetry book will be available this fall.
LEGALIZE EMBEZZLEMENT TO ALIENATE POVERTY.
A PRAGMATIC REMEDY TO THE ENDEMIC POVERTY IN UGANDA
We live in a jungle and man has to be a lion in order to survive in this hostile universe. Man is an accident in nature and has to struggle to be identified in a meaningless world. It doesn’t matter whether he steals, kills, robs or cheats on his way to the top of the ladder.
It is a very bad sin and a moral crime if a public servant had the chance of stealing public funds and does not use the opportunity. A public servant who does not use his position to earn wealth by hook or crook does not deserve a decent burial. Imagine a traffic officer working all day under the hot sun on busy roads yet he does not even own a wheelbarrow! Police and army officers spend sleepless nights and endure bad weather guarding the nation from possible danger yet when it comes to being paid, they are rewarded with ‘bitter leaf’ soup while the people they guard are busy enjoying ‘nyama choma’ and drinking cold Nile beer. Their families sleep like refugees back at the barracks while their bosses snore in air-conditioned storied houses. The question is, why not legalize embezzlement to save such hardworking and patriotic civil servants? If corruption, bribery and embezzlement were legalized, traffic officers, policemen and soldiers would be able to build nice houses, by new cars and afford to take their children to better schools.
The same thing applies to bank officials who yawn of hunger while counting bank notes all day long. Why not secure a few bank note like the bank of Uganda officials who managed to jump off from below the poverty line by minting a few more coins that could run their families for a lifetime? Imagine working as a bank teller but still fail to pay your ailing mother’s hospital bills! It is really unfair, most financial workers count large sums of money for their bosses, they ensure that it is safe yet back at home their wives beg the neighbors for salt. It would be justifiable if a bank teller in that terrible condition stole some of his boss’s money to help solve some financial problems at home. I mean why should his wife beg the neighbors for salt yet her husband can steal money to stock food stuffs at home? Why should his fridge be empty yet he could steal some money to ensure that it is always full?
Bernard Gabriel Okurut is an enthusiast of creative writing, he is a poet, singer, songwriter, freelance journalist and a published author with amazon.com and spillwords.com. He published his first poetry collection ‘The Noisy Silence’ at the age of 23 years. Currently a student of English language and literature at Kyambogo University Kampala Uganda. He writes a poem a day. He is a Rastafari by faith and most of his works are philosophical and aimed to emancipate the reader’s mind. Bernard Gabriel Okurut’s pieces of satire are published all over the world by different literary journals, blogs, websites and magazines.
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Amazon: Bernard Gabriel Okurut.
It is 1994, and after my first year in the MA program in French at one of Florida’s public universities, my English is good enough for me to attend classes in the English department. I had been eyeing classes in this department with envy because many of them include books and authors we never study in the French program, many of them French philosophers. It is the time of “French theory,” which, it turns out, in the States is being taught primarily in English departments, not in French or philosophy departments, as one would expect.
After three years of life in the US, I can’t shake off myself the smell of poverty. If there is something that defines poverty, it’s smell. In fact, I smell worse than ever—I stink. I live in a graduate student apartment complex twenty minutes away from campus, and my apartment has a stench that, for the life of me, I can’t identify. It is, clearly, a residual smell from the previous occupant, and it clings onto all my clothes, my hair, my skin. When I open the apartment door it hits me like an animal waiting for me—no, not a loving pet, but some wild monster lurking in a corner. (A year and half later, while living in a student dorm, this time in France, I would open a drawer with notebooks from Florida, and the odor would jump at me from the sheets of paper, grabbing me by the throat.) I wish I could move out, but there is a waiting list for student apartments, and I can’t afford to rent a place that is not part of the university.
I have no transportation, and so I walk under the burning Florida sun, with my skin constantly clammy from the humidity. I walk and I walk, with a few homeless people and the odd foreign, “ethnic” graduate student as my only companions. With rare exceptions, my classmates come to class in brightly colored, fancy cars, brands I am not familiar with because I don’t know anything about cars and can only distinguish them by color.
I feel like an alien among my fellow graduate students. In Communist Romania, a country where one needed connections to buy a book, and where the only available forms of entertainment were reading and drinking, all my friends were voracious readers, and it was shameful not to be familiar with the latest published translation. Here, by contrast, the students only read the books they study in class. Actually, as I find out, after I begin attending classes in the English department, many of them are also voracious readers of magazines. Little by little, I begin to socialize with a group of graduate students in the English department, thanks to my new boyfriend, who is doing a PhD in English.
One day we are at his place—a nice apartment in our small town’s downtown, paid for by his father. Also there is a newcomer, a nymphette from the East Coast, let’s call her Z, who doesn’t tire of narrating her amorous adventures in various locales around the globe. I, who have never travelled anywhere—except, of course, to come to the United States—listen with fascination. I make an effort to imagine the many places she’d seen, trying to invent their smells, the streets full of roaming pedestrians, the dishes she’d tasted, but her stories are very frustrating because they are all focused on the men she’d had sex with and their countless manly skills. Nothing about the places themselves. Eventually, the discussion turns to our teaching responsibilities (we are all teaching assistants) and the methods we use. Z declares that she asks her students to do Marxist interpretations of articles from The Cosmopolitan. The more she talks the more fascinated with her I become. Having arrived from a country where all my life I heard the words “dialectic materialism,” “the engine of history,” “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” and other similar phrases, I can’t quite put together the ethos of Marxism (whose principles included something called “socialist morals,” and behavior that had to accord with them) with this girl—or should I say woman (it took me many years to realize that in this country females are offended when they are referred to as “girls” because they perceive it as “sexist,” even when the word is used by other females).
I could bet my life that Z hasn’t read a word of Marx, and a week or so later, I arrange a pretext to pay her a visit with my boyfriend. Well, she too lives in a nice apartment—definitely not covered with her $1,000 per month student income. The apartment is sparsely furnished, but all the available shelves are full of glossy magazines, and on closer inspection, I see that almost all of them are issues of The Cosmopolitan, with a few copies of Vogue among them. There isn’t a single book in the entire apartment. I wonder what Marx would think of this young woman, whose entire life reads like a sex travelogue, and whose intellectual pursuits revolve around The Cosmopolitan. I confess I am a little jealous. How could I not be jealous of someone who has found a way not only of reading the only thing she is clearly interested in, these glossy magazines with articles about feminine beauty, but also of making the English department pay for it and of convincing her students that they are studying “Marxism”? How could I not be jealous of her when I, working in the French department, am being obligated to teach by applying the latest methodology in language acquisition, which requires wholesale rejection of critical thinking—a point that is emphasized over and over in our pedagogic training—in favor of the immersion experience. I am being expected literally to jump up and down in class in order to teach through role playing, which forbids the teaching of grammar in an analytical way.
It also turns out that Z isn’t the only one with a passion for Marxism. The instructor in my new class in the English department—a very charming young man—gives us a list of things we can all do to “subvert the system.” As I recall, this included the suggestion that we buy a Che Guevara T-shirt for the modest price of seventy dollars. Some of my classmates point out that they don’t have enough money to subvert the system, and, very quickly, the instructor comes up with something else: working class forms of entertainment. It is the first time I hear the expression “working class” since leaving Communist Romania, and the expression bounces off the walls of my English classroom in a strange way, almost like a mésalliance. The working-class type of entertainment my instructor is so fond of is bowling, and he invites us to go bowling with him on weekends at the university club. After all these years, my memory is not very reliable, and I remember vaguely that I only went once. What I do remember very clearly is the instructor’s insistence that what we were indulging in was “working class.”
Now, I can’t claim I did a survey of all my classmates’ backgrounds, but those that I did get to know came mostly from the homes of professionals, business people, university teachers, university administrators, and so on. Judging from their cars, pretty much all of them were far from “working class.” As far as I could tell, I was the only one. My parents’ combined incomes amounted to less than one hundred dollars per month. And yet, neither my parents nor I, nor anyone I knew, ever went bowling. Well, you’re probably saying, but he wasn’t talking about Romania. Different country, different pastimes. Correct. But even in an Anglo-Saxon context, I bet you won’t find a working-class person proudly asserting their working-class credentials in the form of bowling. Or any form. I think I know something about the “working class” because, until several decades ago, in Romania, about 85% of the population consisted of peasants and factory workers, and almost all of my friends came from such families. One thing a working-class person would never do is profess having any kind of pride in his or her social status. Only someone from the middle- or upper-class would project such romantic ideas about this “Noble Savage” of our times onto the suffocating walls of one’s office.
I did experience being “working class” in the New World too. My first job as a newly arrived immigrant was at McDonald’s, where I was being paid $4.25 per hour—that is, when I was being paid. At some point, I was told that the punching clock where I had to clock in and out was broken, and that I had to enter my working hours by hand. Well, for a few weeks the records with my working hours kept being lost, and so I worked almost for free for about two months. During this time, I was close to starving, and so I asked my manager if I could have some of the hamburgers that they, according to the restaurant’s policy, had to throw away after a few hours. I was informed that if I wanted a burger, I had to pay for it.
Eventually, I got tired of working for free and found another “gig” at Wendy’s. It was while working at Wendy’s that I began to study for the GRE, hoping that I could be admitted into the MA program in French at the closest public university, the only university where I could afford to apply. Since I couldn’t spare even one dollar for anything, instead of buying a manual to study for the test, I went for a whole summer to a Waldenbooks, where, armed with a pencil and an eraser, I would hide among the shelves and study for the test. As an unexpected side effect of my surreptitious studying, I ended up being hired as a bookseller.
And this has been my life story ever since. One side effect after another.
Alta Ifland is a Romanian-born American writer who has a PhD in French and currently lives in Northern California. Her novel, The Wife Who Wasn’t, and her translation (with Eireene Nealand) of Marguerite Duras’s film script, Le Camion/The Darkroom, are coming out in Spring 2021. www.altaifland.com
From “Three Samizdat Winters” by Katia Kapovich, an autobiographical account in the style of a Künstlerroman of Kapovich’s youth in Russia’s former Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic
I entered the bedroom I that shared with Larissa, lay down on the plaid-covered low bed, and began to scrutinize the ceiling. As I did this, I asked myself what I was going to do about all of it: about love, and poetry, about my dad being in jail, mom’s heartaches, and the problems she was already having at work because of my reputation. Problems was putting it mildly. She had been summoned to the first section, a bureaucratic euphemism for the Soviet KGB department. But my mom is tough and does everything the right way. Eventually we would locate relatives in Israel and apply to emigrate. It was Eugene I mostly worried about. Were he to say to me, Katia, this is how it is, I love you, let’s do something about it—that would be one thing. But he wasn’t saying anything of the sort. Apart from the inopportune, out-of-place proposal to “get married,” he never mentioned “us.” I recalled the clichéd joke: “Not now, silly, we’re at war!” War indeed: à la guerre comme à la guerre. He’s only twenty, and frightening things are already happening to him, I thought to myself. He has no time for you and your love.
At that moment Andrei entered the room a second time with a summons to the table.
“Which table, the one in the kitchen?” I asked. He shrugged and exited.
I’ll interrupt my narrative for a minute here to say a couple of words about something else. Namely, about why I bothered to write all this down in the first place. What is the point of describing cops, KGB agents, and provincial boys playing at being dissidents? What is the point of lavishing attention on the minutiae of those three long-ago years?
Life is an intricate matter. I knew several people who were once brave and brilliant. In time they grew weary and faded. They wasted their bravery on squabbles with their superiors at work. As for us, life couldn’t do very much about us. It might either let us be or kill us. So enough about our lives: let me say a few words about his poetry.
Katia Kapovich is the author of ten Russian collections and of two volumes of English verse, Gogol in Rome (Salt, 2004, shortlisted for England’s 2005 Jerwood Alderburgh Prize) and Cossacks and Bandits (Salt, 2008). Her English language poetry has appeared in the London Review of Books, Poetry, The New Republic, Harvard Review, The Independent, The Common, Jacket, Plume and numerous other periodicals, as well as in several anthologies including Best American Poetry 2007 and Poetry 180 (Random House, Billy Collins, Ed.) Katia Kapovich, the recipient of the 2001 Witter Bynner Fellowship from the U.S. Library of Congress, and a poet-in-residence at Amherst College in 2007, lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the recipient of the 2013 Russian Prize in the category “Short Fiction”. Also, in 2019 she received an international Hemingway Prize for her book of short stories, that includes fictionalized documentary proze.
photos: Erma Odrach and her father, Theodore Odrach
Interview with Erma Odrach, translator of Wave of Terror
Theodore Odrach was born Theodore Sholomitsky on March 13th, 1912, near Pinsk, Belarus (the area was then a part of Czarist Russia; between 1921-39 it fell under Polish rule; and between 1939-41, it became part of Communist Russia). At age nine, guilty of some minor offense, and unbeknownst to his family, he was sentenced to a reform school in Vilnius, Lithuania (then a part of Poland). Released as a teenager, Odrach remained in Vilnius doing odd jobs around town, and put himself through university. He earned a degree in ancient history and philosophy. With the Soviet occupation of Vilnius in 1939, Odrach returned to Pinsk, and worked as a school teacher as well as an editor of an underground anti-Communist newspaper. Targeted by the Soviets, he fled to Ukraine. He changed his name from Sholomitsky to Odrach, acquired the necessary papers, and escaped through the Carpathian Mountains into Czechoslovakia, where he wound up getting married, and later divorced. He moved to England. There he married Klara Nagorski. In 1953, the couple immigrated to Canada and settled in Toronto’s west end. They had two daughters, Ruta and Erma.
It was in his Toronto home that Odrach was most prolific, writing short stories, novels and plays, all in the Ukrainian language. The Toronto literary scene was pretty dismal in the 50s, and even more dismal for an immigrant writer. Odrach’s books were banned in the Soviet Union, and his readership in Canada was limited to a handful of fellow-immigrants, but he continued to write nonetheless, driven by the need to record the injustices committed under Joseph Stalin. He wrote novels, short stories, and articles for local Ukrainian newspapers. When Erma was born, he told his wife Klara that Erma would one day translate his works, and this strangely gave him some consolation.
Erma began translating Wave of Terror in 1998, but her efforts were on and off (due to work and family). Theodore Odrach had planned a trilogy, with Wave of Terror being the first installment; he felt that if he ever finished this trilogy, he would feel complete as a writer. But he just barely finished the first book. Odrach died on October 7, 1964, of a massive stroke. He is buried in Prospect Cemetery. Wave of Terror was the first of his novels to appear in translation.
This interview was conducted with Erma Odrach in early 2008, for the literary magazine, Books in Canada. Because the publication folded in March of 2008, the interview wasn’t published. Yet Wave of Terror, and the historical record it offers, remain timely and relevant. Library Journal said of the novel: “Wave of Terror is news that stays news and should be on the shelves of libraries where patrons care about the world beyond their immediate ambit.” Indeed, given the current-day horror transpiring in Belarus, these words couldn’t be more true. A list of Odrach’s other published works is appended at the end of the interview.
Erma Odrach, an author in her own right, went on to write Alaska or Bust and Other Stories, which was published in October, 2015.
Olga Stein: Your father passed away when you were nine years old. When you visited Pinsk in 2005, did you discover things about your father that surprised you? Who was Theodore Odrach?
Erma Odrach: I traveled to Pinsk, Belarus, to do research for Wave of Terror. Pinsk is a beautiful town spread over the high banks of the Pina River, about 100 kilometres east of the Polish border. It never occurred to me to look for family, as I had always been told my father’s relatives had perished during the war. I was stunned to learn that this was not the case at all. With the help of an aid, we (husband and teenaged daughter) ended up meeting thirty or forty people, all claiming to be related to me in some way or another. Unfortunately, this all happened on the last day of our stay there, so it was a lot to absorb in a very short time. One second cousin pulled out a photograph of my father at age of maybe twenty. Another cousin called him by his patronymic, Theodore Damianovich. And another still held a book by him that had been published in Winnipeg in 1953. Everybody was crying and hugging, and they seemed just as shocked to see me as I was to see them. But there was something not quite right about it all. My father was Ukrainian and none of them spoke Ukrainian, only Russian or Belarusian. When I asked why this was so, shaking their heads and looking at me rather oddly, they answered that they spoke no Ukrainian because they weren’t Ukrainian. They were Belarusian, and my father was also Belarusian.
It was at this point that my father’s past, at least in part, started to unfold. During the Soviet occupation of Belarus he had been a teacher, writer, and an editor of an underground newspaper, and because of this, he was deemed an “enemy of the people.” In order to protect his Belarusian family, and save himself from arrest and possible death, he fled south to Ukraine, where he changed his name from Sholomitsky to Odrach and took on the identity of a Ukrainian. When my father immigrated to Canada in 1953, he did so as a Ukrainian, still fearing for the lives of his family back home.
Who was Theodore Odrach? From the eyes of a child, he was tall, mysterious, a little scary, and somehow he seemed to me more like a stranger than a father. But he was kind, gentle, and loving—all the things a father should be. My sister had more of a bond with him than I did. The two of them regularly went off on outings to the park, art galleries, and the museum.
OS: Is Wave of Terror the first work you translated? It amazed me to learn that your Ukrainian was weak before you began working on this book. You’ve essentially turned yourself into a translator of Ukrainian text in the process. Is this right?
EO: I don’t consider myself a translator of Ukrainian text, or even a translator for that matter, at least not in the normal sense of the word. Translation is purely a personal thing for me, a labour of love. I was always aware I had a certain facility with words, so I was confident that sooner or later I would be able to do my father’s work justice.
My Ukrainian still isn’t the best. Just to decipher Wave of Terror was a very long and arduous process. I had to look up every fourth or fifth word, and when working on a text of four hundred pages, that’s a lot of words to check. My mother was a great help, as my father had read all of his manuscripts to her, and she remembered much and in great detail.
OS: Author and literary critic, T.F. Rigelhof, writes in his Introduction to this novel that Wave of Terror shows the influence of Anton Chekhov and Isaac Babel. I wonder whether your father drew on Kafka as well. There’s a very modern appreciation, like Orwell’s, of the powerlessness of the individual in confronting the ubiquitous and all-powerful machinery of an authoritarian regime. Such novels do not have heroes, at least not the traditional kind of hero. The most an individual can do heroically is avoid becoming an instrument of the State. Ivan Kulik, the main protagonist of Wave of Terror, decides to flee in the end, even though it breaks his heart to leave behind the people he loves. Some of these people are destined to perish. How do we interpret Kulik’s flight in the nightmarish context created in the novel?
EO: Kulik’s life is torn apart by forces beyond his control, and he lives in fear and insecurity, trying to make sense of the chaos and violence around him. In many ways the book can be read as a study of the psychological effects of oppression, where one can easily succumb to hallucination, even madness. But Kulik proves to have an independent inner voice, one that protests against the new regime, and it is this voice that gives him the strength to go on. And so, he becomes a sort of spokesman for the truth, and in his flight he takes this truth with him, turning it into an exposition. It is through Kulik that the reader comes to learn about the atrocities committed in his part of the world.
I don’t know which writers my father drew on, but I can certainly see Chekhov as a possibility. According to my mother, the Norwegian author Knut Hamsun and Franz Kafka were among his favourites. This is not surprising, as both focused on the inner workings of the mind, often with themes of alienation and persecution.
OS: Wave of Terror works on several levels. On one level it’s an account of the terrible things that happened to ordinary people—in cities and villages—when communist apparatchiks thought—or found it convenient to think—they were encountering resistance to the new Soviet regime. It’s an account of the brutality of the Communist system. On another level the book is a satire. There are moments of hilarity, when representatives of the new system trip up on some of the absurdities of the ideology they’re preaching. This happens especially when ‘theory’ is put into practice—as for example, when teachers in the schools in the Pinsk marshes (historically part of the Ukraine) are ordered to abandon their native Ukrainian, and teach in Belarusian which neither the teachers nor students speak. The satire also pokes fun at the low cultural level of those who were recruited as functionaries of the new regime. In the novel they are portrayed as extremely uncouth, the very dregs of society, and what they say and do provides moments of comic relief. Did you reflect on the wonderful balance between humour and the tragedy portrayed? It takes enormous skills to pull off this kind of combination.
EO: The novel is set in the Pinsk Marshes of Belarus, a land of ancient settlement. It is also Europe’s last great wetland, very flat and monotonous, covered by dense forests with many ponds, moors, swamps and streams. Though today much of it has been reclaimed and thoroughly modernized, in 1939 the marshland was virtually impassable, thus cutting off the inhabitants from nearby towns and cities. The people were poor, uneducated, and regarded as backward and degenerate. They survived mainly as subsistence farmers and fishermen. It can be easily understood that people from such remote rural areas could sometimes become a great source of entertainment. Very much aware of their independent spirit, my father played on this comical side of his characters. As an example, he writes of Dounia—an oversized, oversexed fishmonger turned teacher, turned Deputy of the Village Soviet—that her appetite was said to be so great and insatiable that she was capable of accommodating the entire Red Army.?[dh1]
Wave of Terror has scenes of violence and horror, but it is also often sarcastic and ironic. The dark humour is meant to make things more human and moving in the novel, but without making the prose sentimental. For a translator, this balance of humour and horror was a pleasant surprise.
OS: My own mother tongue is Russian. The first works of literature I was exposed to were written in Russian. But more to the point, I now realizse [dh2] that I had been taught to think from an early age that Russian was the most beautiful and richest of the Slavic languages. I had no awareness of any other national literature that could have existed within the USSR. It was an attitude which no one I knew, who spoke and read in Russian, ever seemed to question. So Wave of Terror was truly eye-opening. It made me realize that such an attitude was the result of, for want of a better phrase, a concerted policy of cultural imperialism on the part of Communist Russia. Coincidentally, a friend of mine who was born in Kiev, and speaks Russian and Ukrainian fluently, recently recited and then translated lines from Ivan Kotlyarevski’s The Eneida (1798), and it blew me away. As far as you know, to what extent was Ukrainian literary culture suppressed during the Communist era? Is there a revival happening now?
EO: Local nationalism was always a main threat to Soviet unity, and Ukraine always tended to be more nationalistic than other republics. Ukrainian language schools were closed down, Ukrainian teachers were arrested, and works of literature were removed from libraries. It is estimated that during Stalin’s Great Purge of the 30s, 250 prominent Ukrainian writers were either killed or driven to suicide. At the same time, there was a glorification of everything Russian, suggesting that all non-Russian languages fostered ignorance and provincialism. Wave of Terror touches on this theme when Kulik says to the lovely Marusia, “In spite of all that’s happening, you still insist on speaking Russian. And your Russian isn’t as good as you think it is.”
In the 1960s, during Khrushchev’s political thaw, Ukrainian literature was revitalised. It continues to develop with such writers as Yuri Andrukhovych and Mykola Riabchuk.
OS: Your father had a wicked sense of humour. The threesome he describes between sexually insatiable Dounia and her two besotted admirers, the Communist functionaries Kokoshin and Leyzarov, is extremely funny. I’m not sure that even by today’s standards the escapades of this menage à trois wouldn’t come across as risqué. Perhaps this was your father’s way of demonstrating their, as you say, independent spirit, or maybe he was aiming to show, by way of their sexual depravity, the absence of a moral centre, despite the ideological pedestal to which they aspire (another character, the NKVD man, Sobakin, is also a sex maniac). In any event, there’s a great deal of humour in all of this. You’ve been translating some of your father’s other works. How prevalent is this humorous touch, this ability to make fun of human foibles?
EO: Dounia is quite the character and it is through her sexuality that she is able to work the system. In some ways, she is representative of the new Soviet woman—taking it upon herself to challenge single-handedly, and in her own special way, patriarchal oppression. Of course, sexuality, whether subtle or overt, was a forbidden subject during the Stalinist era, and my father deliberately pokes fun at the hypocrisy of it all. But as far as political satire in general goes, one doesn’t have to look far to see its importance in the development of Stalin-era literature, beginning with Zoshchenko and Bulgakov. I don’t believe my father’s aim by any means was to show an absence of a moral centre, at least not consciously. He was inspired by people, and rather than inventing characters or even situations, he drew from the wealth of material around him. Being thrust into this moment in history certainly worked to his advantage. Ultimately, he simply wanted to bring the people of his world to life and tell their story, as horrific and violent as it was.
Some of my father’s other works have similar humorous touches, but others are quite serious. Though most of his fiction takes place in Eastern Europe during WWII, toward the end of his life he started dabbling in stories set in Canada, namely the Toronto Islands (which he loved), and the Ontario countryside. I believe that at last he was starting to get the horrors of WWII out of his system.
OS: Thank very much Erma for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope to read more of your father’s translated works very soon.
This is a list of Theodore Odrach’s publications. Some books have been available in a few libraries for many years, including the Toronto and UofT libraries. There are also unfinished manuscripts of plays, a children’s story, and another novel.
Voshchad (Wave of Terror). Toronto: Y. Sokolyk – The Committee Voshchad, 1972. (published posthumously)
Na Nepevnomu Grunti (On Precarious Ground). A memoir. Toronto: O.O. Basilian Publishers, 1962. (Have begun translating)
Pokinuta Oselia (Forsaken Land). Short stories. Toronto: O.O. Basilian Publishers, 1960. (Some are now translated. These stories are largely set in Ontario)
Pivstanok Za Selom (Stebly Station). Short stories. Buenos Aires: Julian Serediak Publishers, 1959. (All translated)
Shchebetun (Wood Warbler). Novel. New York: Organization for the Defense of Four Freedoms of Ukraine, 1957. (Untranslated)
Nashe Polissia (Our Polissia). Historical/geographical text. Winnipeg: Research Institute of Volyn, 1955. (Untranslated)
V Dorozy (On the Road). Novel. Buenos Aires: Peremoha Publishers, 1953. (Translated)
Erma Odrach is a Canadian author and literary translator. Her book, Alaska or Bust and Other Stories (Crimson Cloak Publishing), is available on Amazon and other places. Her translation of Wave of Terror by Theodore Odrach (depicting the era of Stalinism in Russia) is available at most places online (Chicago Review Press), and can be purchased from Amazon. Publishers Weekly has reviewed the book as follows: “Odrach’s delightfully sardonic novel about Stalinist occupation … is rich with history, horror and comedy.” More can be glimpsed of the author and her work on: https://ermaodrach.wordpress.com/about/
Trapped or Glowing
After execution of Navid Afkari
another human rights activist in Iran.
I saw dew drops on a spiderweb
glowing, in this beautiful morning.
Are they trapped,
or it’s a place for them to glow?
First thing as you woke up
in the spiderweb of social media,
was that another young brave man
is executed, is killed
because of rising his voice.
He did nothing but cry out
our rights, our basic rights.
Now, he is killed in favour of
while we were silent, smothered.
I look at the dew drops
which will never last
after sunshine comes up,
but are telling me,
glow as yourself,
even in your last moment.
176 Valentine’s Day
(To 167 passengers and 9 crews killed in flight 752 Tehran on 8th of January 2020)
Lying is easy, acquittal is absurd
they cannot steal what we dreamed
Liars blocked our texts, but
cannot torture light if it’s beamed.
So, you never find such messages
In any black box suspects
“Kiss you, I should turn off my phone”
“We have fastened our seatbelts”.
“So, intimate have we become
With their dear retrospect” *
You have received all messages
that no devices may direct.
Received to who it was sent to
right to the target, deep into heart:
in every light of Sun or Moon
I will retrieve, I will restart.
In every beam of light, dispersed
with restless dance I will fall
flowing down, looking for you
into your room, I will stroll.
In every beam of light, I’ll come
rejoiced my restless dancing
right to your cheeks, composed with love
for one another warm kissing.
*Emily Dickinson, Final Harvest, by Thomas H. Johnson, Back Bay Books, P 318.
Mansour Noorbakhsh writes poems and stories in both English and Farsi, his first language, and has published books, poems and articles in both languages. His book length poem; “In Search of Shared Wishes” is published in 2017. He tries to be a voice for freedom, human rights and environment in his writings.
He is an Electrical Engineer, P.Eng. and lives with his wife, his daughter and his son in Toronto, Canada.
While getting on the boat at Shangu river,
The glaring of the olive dressed people toward us…
At the opposite of a tempered sun
Our shadow gets shaken,
Then our hunting knives get sweated
What if we got on the hand of spy
After crossing the colorful Stone kingdom,
We get stop at the last of a river in front of an amazing water fall
The sky was getting red, it is evening
Shakna Mro makes us stand in front of a stateless nature!
We got an amazing night at Thanchi Market
At the upper floor of a duplex shop
the night was settled down over a torch light.
Again, the word’s of Shakna Mro about Barma travel we were looking at him with his own Bangla, he was seems to Krama at that time.
A forest cock cried out in the kitchen.
At that night there was no meat on the table
Only we were hearing cloud’s sound from the ice-factory.
We and the sky
We look at the sky in our isolated pages
we look at the sky while tortoise warms itself under the sun.
We look at the sky
rather bearing our achievement or carrying exhaustions of being defeated.
All those heaven words come from the sky
death thought is also related with the sky.
We haven’t been there where there is no sky
even there remains no breath-flower-air.
A little piece of sky remains inside our eyes
Peculiar starry mind has taken the sky over its heart
Silent mind knows the sky; but we don’t !
Masudul Hoq (1968) has a PhD in Aesthetics under Professor Hayat Mamud at Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is a contemporary Bengali poet, short story writer,translator and researcher. His previous published work includes short stories Tamakbari(1999), The poems Dhonimoy Palok(2000), Dhadhashil Chaya which translated version is Shadow of Illusion(2005) and Jonmandher Swapna which translated version is Blind Man’s Dream (2010),translated by Kelly J. Copeland. Masudul Hoq also translated T.S. Eliot’s poem, Four Quartets(2012), Allen Ginsburg’s poem, Howl(2018), from English to Bengali. In the late 1990’s for 3 years he worked under a research fellowship at The Bangla Academy. Bangla Academy has published his two research books. His poems have been published in Chinese, Romanian, Mandarin, Azarbaijanese and Spanish languages. At present he is a Professor of Philosophy in a government college, Bangladesh.
A note from the editor:
Laurel Deedrick-Mayne’s novel won first place in the Whistler Independent Book Awards in 2018, a year I was a judge. We’re pleased to bring you the short review that accompanied the announcement, along with a new poem that is a tribute to one of the characters, drawn from real life, in the book.
A Wake for the Dreamland review, by Darcie Friesen Hossack
A Wake for the Dreamland by Laurel Deedrick-Mayne is exquisite. With a voice that seems to echo straight from the heart of World War II, Deedrick-Mayne’s prose almost pleads to be read aloud. Often enough, I found myself whispering passages as I turned from page to page, just to hear the way they’d sound.
Contained within the achingly beautiful writing, however, is so much more.
It’s the summer of 1939, World War II is raging in Europe, and three friends are coming of age together in Edmonton, Alberta. Annie is a whip-smart young seamstress. William and Robert are students together at the music conservatory. Annie and Robert are in love, but so is William. Even before the boys join up, losses begin to mount. When they reach the devastation and death of war in Italy, the losses soon strain human ability to carry them any farther. And yet, the love (romantic, brotherly, erotic) that weaves the story together remains the strongest of the novel’s themes.
Told partly though letters, A Wake for the Dreamland‘s authenticity comes, in part, from the author having plumbed her own family’s treasured correspondence to bring the novel to life. Like some of the best fiction, it leaves the reader wondering where the line between story and reality may actually lie; knowing it to be a work of imagination, while wanting it all to be true.
With Remembrance Day only a month away, A Wake for the Dreamland is a must-read between now and November 11th. While the story begins almost 80 years in our past, it is also very much a book for our time.
This poem was inspired by the photography of Ed Ellis: an empty chair in an empty room, the ravages of time evident everywhere. I could picture its former inhabitants in my heart and mind; I could hear their voices. My novel, A Wake For The Dreamland, was inspired by a letter written to my grandmother from a former suitor, then a soldier in France during the first world war. It is from the well of old images and letters that I draw the heartbeat of lives lived long ago. I write so the beat goes on. ~Laurel Deedrick-Mayne
The Road Home
All I could find for an address was from
that postcard that said
English Bay, PNE, Stanley Park, Sylvia Hotel
and the postmark that said
That’s a long time ago.
Lindy said not to bother trying
to reach you.
She and Paul went back to Ferryland
because Paul said he missed the Rock too much
and they could live in a mansion in Newfoundland
for what a trailer in Fort Mac would cost
Golly, my blood flows from sea to shining sea
if you’re still out west.
Did you know Lindy wasn’t short for anything?
We called her that because we used to dance the Lindy
out at the hall before it burnt down in 1939 and I
joined up and never met her till after
and she was nearly six
Not too much has changed around here except
that damn elm has pretty much taken over the place.
I finally put up wallpaper with pretty coloured roses
because your mother always said the walls felt so bleak
so much of the year
and the climbing roses she planted
alongside the house would never reach the window
where she might not see
if you were coming up the path.
The rose wallpaper would remind her that you might
In the spring, Or summer, Or Fall
She had a fall and I got her a better chair
where she could rest a cup of tea on the arm
while she watched
She wasn’t herself anymore
and one night she was just sitting in her chair peering out the window
and she said,
Les, my head hurts
She called your name
like you might have been walking towards the house.
She sounded so sure I had to look.
No suffering, they all said
and I didn’t know how to reach you till
I found this postcard in her pocket after
she was gone
and I stuck it to the kitchen cupboard
with a thumbtack
For awhile I let everyone do for me
with the house and all.
But then I didn’t let anyone but the Mennonites
But I even put the run on them
But after I gave them her piano.
After all, I don’t need much.
A cup of tea. A can of soup.
I took up watching for you.
It was the least I could do for her.
Even hauled the mattress down when my knee played up.
I’ll try to post this tomorrow.
The elm has grown so you can hardly see
Once an Arts Administrator, Laurel Deedrick-Mayne has been a dance publicist, concert promoter, and ad copywriter. She has served on multiple arts boards while maintaining her ‘day job’ as a massage therapist. Her independently published debut novel, A Wake For The Dreamland won the Alberta Readers’ Choice Award (ARCA) in 2016, the Whistler Independent Book Award (WIBA) in 2018 and has been on Edmonton’s Best Seller List for over 80 weeks. She has been a guest at over 60 book clubs and other book-related events. A late bloomer to publishing but a life-long third generation letter, poem and story writer, Laurel celebrates the ‘love that dared not speak it’s name’ while paying tribute to the generation who took the time to hang on to family letters, clippings, stories and poetry — all those ‘treasures’ that inspired A Wake For The Dreamland.
Laurel is also a supporter of YouthWrite http://youthwrite.com through her workshop, “Writers of the Lost Art”, offering young people hands-on experience in letter writing and mailing using multiple mediums from quill and ink to typewriters.
Currently Laurel is exploring short story and poetry writing while dreaming up another venture into historical fiction.
In Your Office
You were my comfort,
the warm arms I trusted, and
willingly, I followed you
into your trap.
You held me close and
breathed down my neck.
Your hands travelled places
forbidden to go.
I ignored the red flags
that went off in my mind.
I craved your attention
so, I sat there still.
It was not until later
as I walked on home
that I felt the truth
of what you had done.
A Rose Without Thorns
Beauty is no defence against wandering hands.
The Rose knows she is beautiful
and so, she blooms for all to see.
But beauty unfortunately cannot protect
against hands that would seek to enter the garden
and take her for their own,
petal by petal.
Perhaps that is why the Rose grows thorns.
To protect herself from any who would dare
to pull her away from the garden
and hide her from the sun.
It is the only way she can
Jordan Lide is a senior at the University of Wollongong studying Management and Theatre. She freelances as a writer and has had works published with the Tertangala, Hyde Magazine, and the blog Less Talk, More Writing. Additionally, Jordan runs a travel blog Little Fish, Bigger Pond, capturing her international adventures. When not writing Jordan enjoys going for walks on the beach.
Conversation with a Painting
A long frame, 90 x 40 inches, is suspended from just below the ceiling at the far right-hand corner of the living room. The colours match the pastel background of a painting on thin canvas. It is an overwhelming montage of an entire city under construction.
Walattaa’s eyes zone in and out of focus through the detailed, multiple, construction sites that are packed with mountains of steel, cement piles, rocks, boulders, cranes, crates, rubble, trucks, cars, workmen, people, mud and streets that neither resemble squares nor roads but are clearly market places and bus terminals. She is drawn to the detail and loses herself in hours of brooding over impact and change in neighbourhoods and slums. Aspects of life and its extremes flash through her mind offering new meaning in words that suddenly hold magical significance – transformation and change. The whole that is never the sum of its parts makes sense and, in this painting, breaking apart and coming back together appears relevant to things wonderfully both great and small.
She has a fantasy about interactive paintings . . . that they come alive and respond to the thoughts and feelings of the admirer . . . it’s an absurd idea that sends Walattaa off into loud giggles – it sets her adrenalin going and lights up her face in a sparkling smile. The smile lingers in memory of the work of great artists some of which she has heard about and others she has experienced first-hand. They proved that interactivity is limited only by the boundaries of the imagination.
Walattaa turns to examine the piece of art on her wall more closely. The foot of the painting is where the composition starts and ends. Two women are centrally positioned in the midst of the bustle. One, standing in profile, is dressed in brown, looking towards Walattaa, with her right hand on her chest. Her shawl is sliding down from her head onto her shoulders. The other, clad in white cotton garments, strides forward, looking sternly at the woman in brown. Walattaa’s thoughts are elsewhere and initially she is not aware that she is talking out loud to the women in the painting.
“You remind me of the barefoot women who trudged into the hills to make a living from the forest clearing,” she says staring at the woman in brown. “You know them, everyone in the city does. They have appeared in newspapers and magazines, thanks to the ferenjis – the foreign tourists, journalists, aid workers – who stop to photograph them. Then they pass around the pictures, bitterly complaining about women’s degradation, usually over glasses of whiskey or bottles of beer. Some sneak out later to pick up one of the girls from the dark street corners of the night. Is it possible, could you possibly be… one of the beautiful daughters they have dared to humiliate?”
For a moment, the woman in brown who stares back at her appears real, her hand no longer gently resting on her chest but clutching at her.
“Ok, maybe you were not one of the daughters,” Walattaa mutters. Her tightly pinched lips relax, and her expression softens as she studies the discreet yet purposeful stride of the woman in white who stares sideways at the one dressed in brown. A Toyota pickup approaches from behind and a white Sedan emerges from a right angle struggling to get past the puddles heading towards the woman in brown.
Walattaa’s eyes hover between the two women. She peers at the one in white and asks “Are you going to tell her off? What has she done? Are you trying to stop her from getting into one of those cars? I think she’s likely to jump into the pickup truck. That’s what my buddy Joy said she did to get away, to escape from open lavatories, flies; and insect bites. She did it, you know, she managed, but it cost her. She thought it was a matter of a ride but once she got in the car, they had a conversation about fast money. Everyone is tired of currency that never lasts and it’s not enough to speak a foreign language with no notion of how to read or write it. That’s partly how she was blindsided, and they sold her off to a family. That’s what I heard. Yes, they sold her for money, like a slave.”
Walattaa had met Joy on a bus after she broke free. The residue of her experience was still fresh, and the consequences continued to scar her. For years, Joy spent her days shining marble tiles at the family mansion. She was loaned to the neighbours when she finished so they could have their own slabs done. Her friend, who was not as subservient, was shoved from behind and sent hurtling from a terrace on the fourth floor onto a concrete pavement. Her neck snapped. Her funeral was not the first or the last kind Walattaa would attend.
“Of course, they told us it was suicide,” Walattaa says to the woman in white, “You know that story, don’t you? Is that why you look so stern? Is that what you are trying to stop?”
The woman in white gives nothing away. There is no movement to hold onto beyond her stride and sideward gaze. It was as though she is unable to take on that responsibility, it is the woman in brown who has her eyes fixed on Walattaa.
“It was Patience I pleaded with. I asked her not to go,” said Walattaa to the woman in brown. “She wouldn’t listen. I couldn’t stop her. It wasn’t as though she were poor. She used to sip Grappa with her stepfather after dinner and together they smoked shisha. She walked out of one trap straight into another. I’m sure you’re better at understanding these sorts of things. You look like you do. What do you know? Can you tell me?”
Walattaa’s throat tightens and she tries to swallow but her mouth has gone dry. She feels her pulse thumping in the nape of her neck, her ears, and her head. She breaks away from the painting and raises a glass of water to her lips. Some of the tension leaves as the cool liquid swirls in her mouth and trickles down her throat. Her eyes shut for a moment.
It is dark behind her eyelids but not for long. Geometric shapes flicker in and out of a band of white. A face she cannot place appears in the upper left corner. She contemplates the possibility of the young image belonging to her grandmother or aunt, but before she resolves that puzzle another vivid appearance disappears as quickly as it emerges. She inhales deeply as a medium-height woman surfaces sitting on a high stool with one foot on the floor and the other propped up higher on a foothold. A smile lights up her distinguished chin and accentuates her jaw. Her nose follows her eyes into the distance. Her smile disappears as she rises from the stool, stretching to look out of the window behind her. From one moment to the next she steps out of a door and onto a dirt road lined by false banana trees. A small child with a runny nose crosses her path flashing its bottom bare as it digs its toes in the dirt to jump across the path, in and out of the trees. At the end of the road a woman with a headwrap lifts a wooden pestle high above her head and brings it down hard onto the hot, red, chilli peppers lying in the mortar. Another woman appears from the background, an ornamental cross tattooed on her forehead, dressed in a tailored military green frock and black, dusty, plastic shoes.
Walattaa’s eyes blink open and land on a grey, concrete building in the centre of the painting. She rises from her chair to take a closer look at the detail and follows the lines the artist has used to stop the streets from overlapping. She finds what she is looking for and points to it.
“That’s where he lived,” she says to the woman in brown pulling herself back slightly so that she can hold her gaze without losing a general view of the rest of the painting. “He said Sophia was his sister and the only condition he imposed, apart from payment, was that she would work during the day and go to night school, to learn to read and write. I was impressed by her tattoo when I first met her. She had a habit of pulling out a stick from her bosom and put me off when she used it to clean her teeth – a bit like a refreshment every time she completed a chore. The up and down movement of her stick against her gums was accompanied by a high volume of opera-like singing. It drove me insane. I was alarmed and had enough when she squirted her spit through the gap between her teeth, across the bedroom straight into the bin–that just couldn’t be allowed. Then I found out.”
Walattaa sinks back into her seat. The woman in brown fixes her eyes on Walattaa, who now feels uncomfortable. She shifts in her seat. “Whaaaat?” she asks the woman in brown, not expecting to receive an answer.
There was no sound. However, Walattaa senses some kind of pronouncement.
“Why are you so interested in my story?” says the woman in brown. “Everyone falls in and out of a trap like Sophie did. Her brother protected her after she left the village, she told you that, but he wasn’t there to stop her so-called admirer from following her to the spring every day. She was strong when he took his chance and leapt at her. He had no idea that she would defend herself and will never know what it was that hit him on his head for it put him to eternal rest. She kept her story secret, what use would it be for her to bring that up in court? She’d get caught for it. She simply had to get out of there.”
Walattaa never fully recovered from the shock of that story. She shakes her head and looks squarely at the woman in brown. The tone of her voice rises with the force of her gesturing hands and tensing body.
“You remind me of someone younger. Zenebu. Tricked by her own parents to believe that she would go to school if she helped her city-based uncle. The well-respected Catholic priest took on a child, barely 11, to clean and cook for him. She took her life because she couldn’t stand living the life of a slave. He just hired another servant and continued with his precious life. Not a word was spoken against him. Nothing was said about the poor child.”
Walattaa looks again at the woman in brown and speaks to her more directly.
“I find it hard to imagine the possibility of every woman I meet owning a story like that. What is your story? What are you running from? Rape, murder, prostitution, robbery, beatings or just slurs? Was it your father, your brother, a relative or a neighbour that gave you up for money? Why should I care?”
The woman in brown and Walatta lock eyes. “Remember the 15-year-old boy who was tricked into fathering a child so his predator could have a financially secure family? She was never charged for child abuse and he was the one who paid a price. No court room would ever have a hearing to defend him, not to this day.”
Before Walattaa can react, another example emerges like a voice in her head. “Remember the young man who was promised a wife and shelter in return for his labour. He was turned away at gun point the day he gathered the harvest. His wife left him – she was forced to marry him and then to betray him. Their new baby died of exposure in the corn fields. The plot was evil, yet no God-loving person defended the victims or took him to court.”
Walattaa averts her eyes from the gaze of the woman in brown and looks toward the flyover painted at the helm of the painting. She reaches out and takes a magnifying glass from her desk drawer. Standing on a table she closely examines the artwork. It wasn’t as precise as she had imagined but it was detailed enough for her to see where the new road meets with the old and she discovers an interesting spot that she loved to frequent on her way to middle school.
She returns to her seat, excited by the prospect of sharing a joyful moment with the woman in brown. She points to the location.
“See that? That’s where The Den used to stand. It was an old tin shed that belonged to an equally old war veteran. He loved the crackle of his short-wave radio and would let the students stop by to listen to Radio Monte Carlo – it aired the best music. We wanted to catch the scandalous pop songs – Donna Summer’s I Love to Love, Barry White’s Come On, and Hot Chocolate’s You Sexy Thing. Oh, the giggles and exaggerated dance moves . . . The Walkman simply added to the sensation.” Walattaa’s enthusiasm dies out suddenly. She stares at the woman in brown who stares back.
“Yes, I know,” says the woman in brown eventually, “the novelty wore off when Babbi, the only boarder left in the school dormitory, went mad, because there was nowhere left for her to go.”
Walattaa looks around as if to make sure nobody was listening then leans over to the woman in brown in the painting and confides, “I sneaked into the dormitories once without being announced and I caught Babbi with the others pinning a girl down on a table. Babbi had a long stick in her hands and threatened she would stick it up inside the girl if she did not cooperate. I was so frightened. I ran back to my classroom to tell the seniors what I’d witnessed. Some of them went to find out what was going on but Babbi and her friends had already dispersed.”
Another silence falls, this time for a bit longer.
“The music was indeed exciting,” says the woman in brown. “But the excitement died out after the police dragged Patience into the police car and off to the station where she was arrested. It wasn’t her fault. Everyone blamed Mr Pimp, but nobody said a word to him about it. It started like a joke, didn’t it? Mr Pimp and three foreign men started frequenting the school just before the summer break. They invited the girls to meet a challenge. Any that would go into town for three consecutive nights would in return receive a colour TV. Only Patience would fall for that kind of thing, agreeing to be driven away in broad daylight. And then, when she finally returned, the men were out to kill her.”
“I remember that. Strange cars came and left and finally the police appeared,” says Walattaa. “Patience was accused of stealing a colour TV and was arrested. It was a big deal and we didn’t know what had become of her for months. She did come back to school eventually, without the spark in her eyes. We all felt robbed of something. The only penalty the pimp and his friends received was the stones we threw at them.”
Walattaa walks to the window and looks up at the sky where the clouds start to gather. She remembers the sound of her teacher’s voice drowning under the din of hail and storm as it crashed against the school’s corrugated iron roofs, shook the high voltage power cables and eventually blinked out leaving the school in complete darkness. She shuts her eyes for a moment.
It is dark behind her eyelids and all is quiet. When she opens her eyes, the painting is once again part of the household furniture.
Nightingale Jennings: I was named Chuchu at birth, in 1968, a time when outer space was politically and scientifically significant. My parents named me Venus the year I was admitted to an English nursery school in Addis Ababa. Everyone was surprised to discover I already spoke fluent English, which I had picked up from TV and my older English-speaking siblings. At school, I had access to English language children’s books, unfortunately not in Amharic. I started keeping a diary in primary school, and wrote short stories and poetry in high school, primarily in English and in Amharic. I destroyed everything I wrote in fear of being incriminated in an uncertain society that suffered civil war and famine. I have written professionally for international organizations, and love writing both fiction and poetry. *Nightingale is my pen name, which I adopted from the bird and for the quality of the song.
She never knew she was beautiful. As a toddler and through adulthood her sister was cruel to her. She was bullied, humiliated, laughed at, and was told she was ugly and nasty. Her sister recruited others for the purpose of sniggering at and taunting her little sister.
She became a quiet child, perchance this is a signal to the unseemly and heartless ones.
Sexually assaulted by much elder brother when she was a small child. The secret was never revealed.
Incessant years of browbeating that she was ugly, and no boy would ever love her created a sullen girl. The secret was never revealed.
Extremely popular and from an esteemed family she remained insecure. She displayed no interest in boys, who would be interested in an unsightly and hideous flower?
Certainly not ever placed in inappropriate situations and always stylishly dressed, but never with a hint of sexiness. So how does rape occur?
Friends, close family acquaintances that were pillars of the community, one stranger in daylight, and all the secrets kept in her mind without sharing to anyone. She was ugly and perhaps it was the only attention she would receive from a male.
Loving and supportive parents knew she was different because of her lack of self-confidence. They loved her so and doted on her more-and-more. Her true personality of love and soul was revealed in their presence.
Living overseas, she was stunned and dumbfounded that many from the specific countries exulted her as a Beautiful Goddess. Strangers would stop and touch her and especially her blonde hair. She assumed it was just a different technique to humiliate her.
She did not date or spend time with males as a teenager or young female. After years of no interest, she met a gentleman. The married years was heavenly, but soon he became a celestial being.
An acquittance soon was chosen as a divine connection to her; he whispered to her that he loved her from many centuries. Friendship developed and soon they became lovers.
She trusted him more than anyone in the world and entrusted her dark secrets with him. He was an empath, a noble man, and a God-fearing gentleman.
Females that have encountered painful rape to include physical beatings from males have difficulty in explaining that it is overwhelming and almost mentally devastating to feel enjoyment from sex. Perchance it is a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
She made the mistake of expressing crushing emotions to her gentleman after sensual encounter for the reason she had never had such reverence for a man before. She immensely enjoyed their sensual encounters, but then thoughts of the past would reappear. Guilt on her part, because of not being married and many factors impact intimate relationships, but primarily trying to separate genuine love from the memories of vicious sex.
As time went by, she became popular with many well-wishers, as many females as males, but he became outraged over the males. She was devastated and heartbroken because she thought he understood her.
He accused her of never trusting him even though she had bared her heart and soul to him. She was trying to explain that she did trust and love him.
His response: “You have been bullied by men, so you don’t trust any man. Men have raped you and left your image tarnished.”
Words crueler than rape and the Secrets once again return to silence but will never to be shared again.
Keep in mind the reason why females do not share their Secrets.
August 21, 2020 (Ms. P.)
All Rights Reserved by Melissa Begley
Up Until Then
I hated my mother for being unwise,
Uneducated, and under his thumb
I compared her with my father
Disliked more for not knowing
Anything about my grades
My mother said she was by herself
In one corner of a dark room
When she gave birth to me
No midwife, no sterile knife
Up until then, I hated her for telling
the same story again and again
And there I was,
In a high-tech hospital room
With a lady doctor and a dozen nurses
Giving birth to my daughter
When I aligned entirely
With that excruciating pain
Breathless and helpless.
In that moment,
I was proud of my mother
Sharmila Pokharel is the author of three collections of poetry including My Country in a Foreign Land, a bilingual poetry collection (co-translated by Alice Major) published in 2014.
She is a co-author of Somnio: The Way We See It, a poetry and art book published in 2015. Her poems have been published in a few journals in Nepal and Canada. She has received various prizes including the 2012 Cultural Diversity in the arts Award and ENSAS Engineering Literature Writer Award.
Sharmila Pokharel was born in Kharpa, Khotang, Nepal and immigrated to Canada in 2010. She credits her father for encouraging her to express what she feels in words. Besides poetry, she has written short stories and articles. She has a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from Tribhuvan University, Nepal. She lives with her husband and daughter in Edmonton.
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