Described as “boldly conjured,” The Water Dancer is the debut novel from non-fiction writer and National Book Award-winner Ta-Nehisi Coates. It tells the story of young Hiram Walker, son of a slave and a slave-owner, who struggles with the competing poles of freedom and family, of memory and power, and of duty to self and duty to the greater good.
The story begins with a memory, or perhaps more accurately, the memory. It is the root and the truth that offers Hiram, called Hi, unparalleled power, but also the burden of deep pain. Just as Hiram is described as having a “magical gift,” the book’s opening is a magical gift to its reader. I was immediately drawn to this boy’s story, to his circumstance, and to the promise that is his destiny, made clear from the narrative’s atmosphere without so much as a word of it being spoken, or written. But then that magic, that promise, gets lost somewhere, and for most of the book, I read on only in hopes that it will return.
Much as I appreciated Ta-Nehisi Coates’s brilliant memoir, Between the World and Me, something about his prose fiction left me less invested and even a little bit skeptical. There are two major struggles I had with the book that made it both a bit of a trudge to get through and a concerning experience. In the first case, Hiram narrates much of what happens to him through the perspective of others. So, although the story is told in the first-person, the reader relies on what other characters think and feel and say about Hiram in order to get any real understanding of who Hi is supposed to be. Maybe that’s intentional, as Hiram is indeed lost to himself for most of his journey, but the problem is that it does not feel intentional. It feels like a lack in characterization. Hiram’s power; Hiram’s promise; Hiram’s goodness; Hiram’s appeal. The characters tell Hiram he has all of this, but this reader never saw it developed on its own. In other words, if someone in the story wasn’t relaying how remarkable Hiram is, how would we know it?
And a little sociopolitical concern (not a critique of the narrative itself):
The second concern is one that I’ve been debating about including at all, and that is that this book falls into what seems to be a new trend in contemporary historical fiction, which is to treat real lives and real times with elements of fantasy or science-fiction. Other recent works that come to mind are Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Kasi Lemmon’s 2019 film, Harriet. As someone who is not a person of color, I don’t feel qualified to critique this trend, but as an ally, I can’t help but admit I’m concerned about how many real historic events and historic heroes, like Harriet Tubman, are being recast in fantasy roles, with magical abilities. Someone much smarter than me can probably explain the appeal of this, but I worry about how this might open the door for coordinated, bad-faith re-framing of historical truths. What I mean is, we know there are already alternative (false) narratives surrounding American history, particularly as it pertains to the treatment of non-white, non-straight, non-male persons in the United States (i.e. slavery, women, immigrants, indigenous people, homosexuals, etc). At first, these stories were simply muted; now, however, as various diverse cultural communities have begun to assert their voices and to tell their stories, they have been met with responses ranging from simple dismissal, to violent opposition, to assaults on their value or truth.
We see this in the way some people treat the Civil War as, for example, “the war between the states,” or even more disingenuously, “the war of northern aggression.” There are people who now argue that slavery was a good thing, that black people were better off in the antebellum era, etc. We see this, too, in the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who believe (or who for reasons of politics and religious prejudice pretend to believe) that the Jewish holocaust of World War 2 was a hoax. A more optimistic reader might be thinking, right now, “Oh, come now, people can tell the difference between the historical figures and events and their fictional depictions.” Are we sure, though? And are we sure that in 50 or 100 years, after a couple of generations of recasting powerful, heroic historic figures like Harriet Tubman–who did real human work with real human skill–as fantasy figures, that their legacy won’t begin to be diminished by the very attempt these re-tellings make to elevate them? As a teacher/scholar of the history of narrative, I’m not convinced that the truth which becomes legend which becomes fantasy does much justice to the true history of a time and its people, but this is especially true when there are concerted efforts being made by powerful and organized forces who very much intend to capitalize on any opportunity to deny the narrative of traditionally marginalized and oppressed people, or to change it altogether. If they can make people believe it was fantasy, without any help from representative writers and allies, what will they be able to do once those very writers write-into the mode? If the original story and all its struggle is already lost to contemporary audiences, what makes us believe they’ll be able to simultaneously separate the fantasy fiction from the real story at its foundation?
[A Note: Just a few years ago, I taught The Book Thief to two sections of College English–Freshman-level. The majority of my students in both sections had no basic knowledge about World War II or the Holocaust to begin with; I found myself having to teach the history in order to teach this one novel’s treatment of it. How do we expect most casual readers, then, to take a book about Harriet Tubman, which affords her magical powers, and not expect the ensuing cultural interpretation of that person to become the fantasy version? I’m thinking, now, of the way my generation used to think of Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan, when we were young. How long did it take most of us to learn about the real people behind those tall tales? How many of us bothered?]
I suppose I want these figures to be legends for the right reason, heroes for the right reason. I worry that if we turn them into something they are not, in the cultural lexicon they will become fantasy figures. And fantasies can be much more easily disregarded than historical facts.
Anyhow, those are the two challenges I had, personally, reading this one. The first was, I thought, a problem in the narrative itself, particularly in characterization. After the initial connection the early chapters make, the romance fizzles out for me and I struggled to carry on, to feel invested, or to even believe in this Hiram, who so many other characters seemed to have such expectations for but without much articulated reason. The other challenge for me is, as explained, one about the larger conversation rather than about the story itself.
All that being said, Ta-Nehisi Coates is without doubt a powerful writer and thinker, and an insightful one. His philosophy, even the very conversation he has with his son in Between the World and Me, comes through in the telling of Hiram Walker’s tale, too. There’s a heavy focus on two elements, for example, which are the importance of memory and the importance of names or naming. Throughout the story, the narrator reminds us that without facing our own memories, especially the painful ones, we cannot really expect to develop into our full being or to take ownership of our own lives, choices, and destinies. Coates seems to suggest, rightly, I think, that to avoid where we came from is to deny from ourselves a complete future. Similarly, as makes sense with a story about slavery, is the power of one’s name, which sometimes means choosing a name for ourselves. This, too, is an ancient trope of fantasy fiction: the hero must know the villain’s name in order to disarm him. In this case, a free person must decide for him or herself by which name they will know the world, and let the world know them.
This was an odd journey for me. I appreciate this book very much and particularly its philosophy. The idea that freedom isn’t free for everyone, and that it is indeed different for everyone at any point in his life, is a point well-taken and one that Coates weaves masterfully in and out of this story, from multiple perspectives. But the book is also part of a trend that troubles me. It’s strange for me to feel so conflicted about a novel, but hey, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time.
Peter Watson’s The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God is a book that I had long wanted to read and one that took me about as long to actually read it, after finally getting my hands on it! The time was well-spent, however, because this is one of the best books on religion or non-religion that I have read. Since the book is so long and complex, though, I would like to point out just a few of the things I appreciated about it, and then end with one minor note about something that may be challenging for others who are considering reading it.
The first thing I like about the book is that it proceeds somewhat chronologically and that its chapters are thematic. This makes reading a long, complicated work a little bit easier, as if there’s a road-map to be followed and convenient rest stops along the journey. I never read more than one chapter at a time, for example, because each one is packed with information that requires time, attention, and reflection. To further clarify, there are three major “parts” to the book and each “part” has about 8 chapters in it. Each chapter is a closer look at something related to the larger part’s purpose. The book begins with Nietzsche (rightly so, since its purpose is to explore humanity’s relationship with religion since Nietzsche’s world-shaking statement that, “god is dead”) proceeds through the world wars, modernism, and postmodernism, and pretty much everything in between, up to about the present day. The book is certainly focused heavily on western civilization, but it is not without some insight into perspectives from around the world, including other religions and political systems.
The second component that I enjoyed and that kept me invested is that this book covers a range of issues; its focus is of course on those influential historical figures who either openly or privately lived and produced (created?) without a belief in god; however, this generalization doesn’t do justice to the incredible depth of knowledge in here. Watson explores science and religion, politics and history, art and literature. There are some particularly wonderful chapter sections on relationships between all of these, such as his synthesis of the 1950s “culture of spontaneity,” where he investigates the inter-connectedness of music, poetry, literature, dance, and even the physical arts, like pottery. This is an element of the Beat Generation that I hadn’t had much insight into before now, despite having read so many of the Beat writers & poets. And I think this is one of the things that Watson does best, illuminating the many ways that people were responding to different events and during various moments in time.
The third item I want to point out specifically as an achievement in this text is its tone, set by Watson from the start and which persists throughout, right up to the end. Many texts written by atheists and which are designed to propel a pro-atheist perspective are, let’s admit it, rather combative in tone. (Not all of them, of course, but atheist philosophy has gotten a reputation for being harsh and arrogant for a reason). This book is not that, thankfully. Instead of going on the attack, Watson creates a rather inviting environment, one of open-mindedness and curious exploration. Yes, I think there are moments where his argument becomes more pronounced, but there is very little if any whiff of superiority. Instead, I think people of any religion (or none) could feel, if not comfortable, at least secure in reading this text as a fascinating, in-depth, and illuminating perspective on history and philosophy that does not get nearly as much attention as some of the more mainstream, Christian/Western texts have for the last many hundreds of years. Indeed, there is even a section where Watson explains how and why religious belief developed logically. In any case, Watson seems to be posing, quite genuinely, some open-ended questions about humanity’s nature with religion(s) and faith, none of which he answers definitely, but all of which are supported by the intensive study he has performed and the synthesis of thematic ideas he presents for the reader’s own edification and consideration.
Lastly, a cautionary note of sorts. There are a lot of Goodreads reviews suggesting that this is a difficult read, and I don’t deny that. Readers have found it to be either too complicated/dry for the average reader and/or too much of a survey, meaning it lacks much depth and context for the many people, places, movements, and thoughts it covers. I can’t disagree with that, but I will say, I think Watson had every intention of this being a survey text. It reminds me of something one might read in an introductory college course on any subject, in that it exposes the reader to a great number of important figures and concepts, supports these with an excellent bibliography, and provides important connections between these figures, their times and places. It is certainly a challenging read and it is not meant to answer all questions or to be an endpoint for study. Personally, I’ve added about 45 texts to my reading list because they were mentioned or referenced in this one. I don’t find that to be a failing on the book’s part, as many have, but I’ll concede it’s something a reader should probably know before beginning it. (The book is 556-pages long and, according to Goodreads, it took me almost 5 months to read. I’m a very fast reader, usually, so this is saying something; namely, be prepared to take your time.)
Strikingly, for me, Watson ends his tome with a discussion of narrative and of our (human beings’) purpose in life. What does make a good life? What constitutes a good person? Ultimately, he ends where I’ve been sitting for some time, which is with the idea of our responsibility to one another; he suggests that the only way forward is through action–meaning living for now rather than some hoped-for future–and, specifically, action that, through language, creates communities and societies that are more inclusive and have greater equality, liberty, and fairness. After a long trudge through history, philosophy, politics, science, mathematics, and art, Watson ends on a message of hope and togetherness. I understand that’s antithetical to the perception many have about atheism or atheists, but it’s exactly the kind of temperament I’ve seen in people who choose to live for people. What is it that Dumbledore says? “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
I’ve seen so many wacky, dangerous, and downright ignorant things being said about the current state of pandemic affairs, that I couldn’t sleep last night for my agitation over it. I won’t go into all the issues, like conspiracy theories (Trump did it! The DNC did it!) and ridiculous anti-human, pro-capitalist Darwinist points of view, because they don’t deserve attention.
I know all of us come to every situation and every decision we make with our own prejudices and biases, and operating from our own personal, political, and professional interests. I’m going to do my best to strip my biases here and look at some cold hard facts that I think are being misremembered, willfully misapplied, or dangerously corrupted, right now, either out of frustration, boredom, or, most egregiously, self-interest. Will you lean in with me for just a few minutes?
My biggest concern right now, as we begin to reopen or “phase in” all across the country, is that there continue to be two wildly erroneous narratives being pushed: 1) That so many people have gotten sick, died, and/or recovered, that clearly the preventative measures didn’t work; and 2) That if everyone is going to get sick anyway, we might as well just get it over with.
I understand why folks would begin to believe one or the other of these arguments. On the surface, they sound logical. They are not.
Let’s begin with the first argument, that the extreme number of cases and deaths in the United States, particularly as compared to the rest of the world, means stay-at-home orders, preventative practices (masks, hand sanitizer, hand-washing), and social distancing, have not worked. As of May 8, the United States has 1,248,040 confirmed cases and 75,477 deaths. That’s a 6% fatality rate. (Admittedly, chances are that there are many cases that have gone unconfirmed which would mean the fatality rate is probably more like 3%.) Yes, these numbers are disturbingly high. Yes, we probably should have done better and acted sooner. But let’s focus on those numbers a little bit closer and imagine what they would look like if we had done nothing for the last eight weeks.
I want you to imagine that the United States had ignored the spread, as had been seriously suggested, and gone about business as usual. I want you to take that number—1,248,040—and think about what it would be today if everyone kept crowding onto city buses and trains, going to and from work every day. If young people had continued to cram into school classrooms and lecture halls. If people had been flocking by the thousands into standing-room-only concert halls. If air travel continued uninterrupted before, during, and after spring break, filling to the brim our airplanes and airports, hotel rooms and casinos, resorts and restaurants and bars. What does that number look like, right now, with 60-days of free spread? Is it double? Triple? Octuple? Really consider this for a second. What do you think that number is? 5 million cases? 6 million? Have you settled on a likely amount? Okay.
Now tell me what a 6% fatality rate looks like. How many people are dead? Is that just the cost of doing business in America?
Now, I agree that it can be discouraging to be sitting at home, bored, broke, life disrupted, work disrupted, income disrupted, and see a number like 1.2 million cases. Even more disheartening is to see 75,000 deaths. “What was the point!?” I urge you to keep perspective. It is exactly because we hit the brakes and because so many of us have been doing what was asked of us that the number is only what it is right now. Let your imagination do some work, here, and calculate 60 days of “normal living” against that number.
Now, let’s take the second argument. It’s either some version of “everyone is going to get sick anyway” or “we need to build up an immunity to this anyway,” with the subsequent suggestion that we should just get it over with in one fell swoop. This again seems sensible on the surface, but it would be a disaster. No one ever promised that social distancing and preventative measures were a panacea that would keep all of us from ever getting sick. So, then, what was the point of all this? Well, in fact, the doctors and experts made it clear very early on that we were not staying at home to protect ourselves, but to protect others. Specifically, to protect our healthcare workers and our healthcare system from total collapse.
Consider the imaginative exercise from above. What number did you come up with for total cases and total deaths, had we done nothing? Now, imagine how many of those bodies would have needed to be hospitalized? At the very least, almost every single one of those fatalities may have had days or weeks of health decline, where they needed care and attention from nurses and doctors, surgeons and anesthesiologists, etc. If we had “just gotten it over with” and all gotten sick at the same time, it might have allowed us to build up our collective (herd) immunity faster, if that’s even possible with this virus (that is as yet unproved), but at what cost? This is exactly the choice Italy made at first and why that country became the picture of failure and disaster, the warning sign to the rest of the world. It was that picture that caused American leadership to finally take note and pursue the path that we did. After all, if our hospitals and doctors’ offices had been overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases alone, where would the 300+ million of us needing care at any moment for other reasons, like stroke or heart attack, broken bone or deadly allergen, toxic ingestion or severe injury, get the help we need? How many accidental casualties?
So, it is true, we will all probably contract this virus at some point, or already have. It is in that way (though not in other ways) very much like the flu that comes back at least once per year; but unlike the flu, we do not have vaccines and antibodies for this yet. We had to create the buffer ourselves. We had to be the temporary vaccine so that we could somewhat control the rate of infection by slowing it down, just as the flu vaccine slows down the rate of infection but doesn’t stop the spread completely. To have allowed the virus to run rampant for the sake of getting it over with would have resulted in not just higher numbers of COVID illnesses that are probably going to happen at some point anyway, but it would have caused a total catastrophe for our healthcare systems around the country; this means too many otherwise treatable injuries and illnesses would turn fatal because the system simply wouldn’t have been able to keep up. (And guess what, doctors and nurses get sick, too. Now we have a system that’s over capacity and under-staffed. Sounds good to you?)
If you were feeling like all of this was pointless, I hope you understand that it wasn’t. Either by force or by choice, we did help to flatten the curve, but we’re not done. I went out for a coffee yesterday, wearing a mask and keeping my distance, and noticed that there were two dozen people walking the outdoor mall completely without care. Not a single person besides me, except for the employees, was wearing a mask. Our Governor announced that as of May 9th we would begin PHASE 1 of EASING restrictions. People take that to mean: it’s over!
This is not over.
You, I, and our loved ones are going to get sick. Hopefully our cases will be mild or even asymptomatic. But we don’t know. And we don’t know what will happen to the family members, friends, or the front-line workers, like our neighborhood barista we apparently literally can’t live without, if we give our “mild” case to them. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want that on my conscience.
This isn’t about living in fear. It’s about loving our neighbor.
This is isn’t about hoping we will never get sick. We will get sick.
But don’t you want a doctor, a nurse, an ambulance, a hospital bed available to you or your loved ones when it happens? Wear your damn mask. Wash your damn hands. Use your damn brains. There are only two reasons why you wouldn’t. Either you refuse to understand. Or you refuse to care.
What kind of person do you want to be? Yes, it’s your choice.
Dear Diary: May 6, 2020. I guess it’s fair to say that I’ve been going through something. As the Indigo Girls so rightly sing, “Darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable. Lightness has a call that’s hard to hear.”
It’s a stressful time and we’re all trying to handle it as best we can, but I find all sorts of problematic things happening. My moods seem to come in waves, with minor “up” times and long-lasting “down” times. On the bright side, I have gotten back into a regular exercise routine because I’ve been feeling better for the last month or so, as far as physical health goes. The treatment they put me on seems to be working; something for which to be grateful! But it’s clear that I’ve been missing my students (in person) and that totally online teaching is not for me. As of today, I’m also scheduled for an online schedule in Summer and in Fall 2020. Better safe than sorry, but I’m going to be completely redesigning my classes so I can at least get virtual face-time with my students.
I’m also tired of social media. I keep saying that, I know. But for all its perks and possibilities, it mostly just depresses me. I continue to see people at their absolute worst, and I honestly can’t take it anymore. So, I’m getting rid of Twitter and Facebook by end of the week. I’ve already made both private. I’ll keep Instagram because I love seeing peoples’ photos and keeping up with their lives that way, but otherwise, I’m focusing on my writing from here forward. That’s that! (Reader, he did not focus on his writing.)
Does anyone else wonder what has happened to us as a species? I was trying to have this conversation on Twitter last night, but I feel like no one really engages in social media anymore, except to complain or bash other people. Or “cancel” them. It’s definitely not what it used to be, and I don’t know if that’s because of what’s happening right now with the pandemic or because of how we’ve changed as a people. Or maybe it’s just me?
Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way we treat each other; perhaps mistreat is the better word. For all our desires for “self-help” and focusing on living up to our potentials, promising that everyone has a chance, etc. etc., it seems that we’ve come full circle into a culture not of support or positivity, but of complete narcissism. Me, my, I. Look at these people shouting down healthcare workers in the middle of the street; people are putting their lives on the line, and you’re out there screaming in their face because you can’t get a $50 haircut? Who are we, really?
I know, I know. You’re probably reading this thinking, “that’s not me!” And you might be an exception. I might be an exception. A lot of us, I know, love very much and very deeply, and we really do want what’s best for people, not just ourselves. But we are we. This world as it is spinning out of control is spinning out of control because of us, and that includes you and it includes me. We’ve either been too passive, too apathetic, or (some of us — okay, not you and not me) we’ve been too actively antagonistic, selfish, and self-involved. I’m at my wit’s end. I think we’ve reached the end of our human experiment. I think we used up all of our chances. I don’t see a path back from this, really, and the only consolation I have, in the deep, far reaches of my subconscious, are tiny little reminders that other people have felt this way in other very difficult times in human history. That’s the only nod to perspective that I’ll make, because mostly, I feel absolutely helpless and almost completely done with it all. (Sorry, the cheer has gone.)
Hey, that’s not bad for a month’s reading! I just realized, though, that I haven’t touched my BACK TO THE CLASSICS challenge list. Drat! Fortunately, I don’t have to do any re-reading this summer (for courses I’m teaching), because I’ve recently read everything I’m assigning. My general rule is, if I’m assigning it to a class but haven’t read it myself in the last year, then I need to go back and re-read. Anyway, I’ll devote some time and attention to my B2TC list this summer. Maybe I’ll start with Little House on the Prairie. What do you think? (P.S. Did you know Goodreads has added “setting” to the book description area? That’s freaking awesome!)
Currently Reading: Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire (poetry); The Age of Atheists (nonfiction); and just beginning Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer (fiction). I’m almost done with The Age of Atheists and it has been pretty wonderful. Really enlightening, though I feel like it’s just a jumping-off point for a lifetime of learning. Isn’t everything? Doty’s poetry always gets me going and I’ve really been enjoying some of this collection in particular. He has a set of themed poems running through it, too, which will be fun to write about at some later time. And I’m on PAGE 1 of The Water Dancer, so I can’t say much about it except that I’ve been looking forward to it. Have you read it? What did you think?
Currently Listening To: Tegan and Sara, Hey I’m Just Like You (2019). Tegan and Sara are wild and brilliant and fun. They’re one of my favorite bands for good reason, and this, their ninth studio album, is their second-best after their 2004 release, So Jealous. Both albums are of the don’t-skip-a-single-song variety, which is the only kind of album worth listening to, isn’t it? At the moment, I’m spinning, “Don’t Believe the Things They Tell You,” one of the psychologically darker of the album, though just as honest and blunt as every single track on this one. “I don’t want to be a liar / But I do it every day / I don’t want to be so tired / But I can’t sleep any way.” I suppose any song about insomnia pulls at me, but with a haunting melody that reminds one of those three a.m. automatic writing sessions, this one stands out.
Teaching Updates: This is the penultimate week of the semester and I’m ready to breathe one big sigh of relief. There’s been a lot that has been absolutely inspiring about this term and these groups of students, but so much that has been completely and utterly exhausting. I won’t have much time to relax or recover between the time when spring term ends and the summer term begins, but I’ll find a way to use that time wisely. I hope I will, anyway. We’re thinking of moving, and that does not seem like a wise use of the time. Nevada hasn’t decided yet what will happen with schools, though UNLV and UNR seem prepared to open in the fall as usual; I think there may be some modifications, though, like smaller class sizes, hybrid classes, or an abundance of online courses. As for me, I was told that I could plan for whatever would be best for me, and what’s best for me is causing the least possible disruption for my students. And that means I’ll be online.
Current Status: We have 5,491 confirmed cases and 266 deaths. The Governor’s order is set to expire on May 15th but there’s some confusion because he joined the western states’ coalition, which is not prepared to open on the 15th. The Governor himself has said he wants to see a daily decrease in cases for two full weeks before considering reopening, but we’re not seeing daily declines yet. So, what does that mean? I have no idea. I think we will probably begin a very slow/soft reopening based on types of business and even those businesses that do open will probably have to operate under certain conditions that comply with social distancing. I thought I’d be dying for a haircut at this point but, to be honest, I might grow it out for a while. In any case, I’m glad my state is one with a Governor who listens to the scientists and the experts and who tries to do the right thing for peoples’ health and the economy. I just wish we could be doing more to help people in need; from what I understand, our state unemployment system is not even close to keeping up with the demand.
Positive Thoughts: Fine, here’s a nugget: I watched the new Michelle Obama documentary for Becoming this morning. She ends on a message of hope. If she of all people, having been through what she has and treated the way she was, can still be hopeful, then I can try to do the same. At least for a moment, and maybe that’s the only way. Try this moment. And then try again the next.
Today, I’m honored to welcome back to the blog the brilliant Kathe Koja, author of some of my favorite works, including Under the Poppy and Christopher Wild. If you’re not yet familiar with the author, Koja is one of our greatest and most daring living writers. Her fearless ingenuity of form and style, and her creative insights into society and humanity, are unmatched since, probably, the British modernists. It’s a thrill to (re)-introduce you to Kathe Koja today as she celebrates the release of her latest, a remarkable collection titled, VELOCITIES.
The difference between short fiction and long, between a story and a novel, between a poem and a story, between an aphorism and a poem, is velocity. The shorter it is, the faster it goes.
This might seem pretty obvious, and it is. It’s the obvious difference between a walk on the breezy cliffside and a leap into thin air, the days spent in another’s company and the quick chance meeting, the long savor of a bottle of wine and the eye-opening heat of a shot of whiskey. What’s short goes fast.
So a piece of short fiction has to be indelible. This doesn’t mean it needs to go for the shocking twist, although it can, or totally over the top, although it can—just like with any writing, the only unbreakable rule is it has to be good; everything else is a suggestion. But something pared down, cooked down, to an essence, brings all of its savor at once, so everything that matters has to be present, and nothing at all that doesn’t. You don’t get a second chance when it’s short.
What speed gives us, too, is intensity. When you’re going very fast, you have to pay real attention, because so much is coming at once, and it’s too easy to miss something essential until it’s much too late. That tightrope intensity is one reason I especially love reading short fiction, and writing it.
Writing a novel is definitely different (I’m busy with my 17th right now, DARK FACTORY), and I always know whether whatever I plan to write needs to be a novel or a story: the germinating feel is different, the width of the inner landscape, the characters’ complications, and to try to make one into the other nearly never works, at least for me. And a short fiction collection has one great advantage over a novel—every story is a new chance to connect with a reader.
I titled my new collection VELOCITIES, because that’s how these stories should operate: the reader is immediately given a moment, a situation, a character, and what happens next is what needs to happen, the resolution, or mystery, or darkness is achieved; and then it’s done. What I’ve tried to do with each story is offer that savor and speed in different ways—historical stories, contemporary stories, weird stories, horror stories—and in different places—the lonely desert, an ordinary strip mall, a high fashion atelier, a long-ago morgue, the quiet back steps—and hope that each story makes its own impression, that its taste lingers, the feeling is still there after the words are gone.
Look, he said. Look at all the stars.
She liked them young, young men; princes.
My job, senhor, was the pull the drapes.
Once, I said to Davey, I saw the Devil plain.
What he carried to her he carried in a red string bag.
Each of these begins one of the stories in VELOCITIES, starts in one place and ends in quite another, each with its own trajectory, each waiting for a reader to come and take the ride.
VELOCITIES: STORIES by Kathe Koja
RELEASE DATE: 4/21/20
GENRE: Collection / Dark Fantasy / Weird Fiction / Horror
SUMMARY: From the award-winning author of The Cipher and Buddha Boy, comes Velocities, Kathe Koja’s second electrifying collection of short fiction. Thirteen stories, two never before published, all flying at the speed of strange. Dark, disturbing, heartfelt and utterly addictive.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kathe Koja writes novels and short fiction, and creates and produces immersive fiction performances, both solo and with a rotating ensemble of artists. Her work crosses and combines genres, and her books have won awards, been translated, and optioned for film and performance. She is based in Detroit and thinks globally.
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It’s hot in here, and the air smells sweet, all sweet and burned, like incense. I love incense, but I can never have any; my allergies, right? Allergic to incense, to cigarette smoke, to weed smoke, to smoke in general, the smoke from the grill at Rob’s Ribs, too, so goodbye to that, and no loss either, I hate this job. The butcher’s aprons are like circus tents, like 3X, and those pointy paper hats we have to wear—“Smokin’ Specialist,” god. They look like big white dunce caps, even Rico looks stupid wearing one and Rico is hot. I’ve never seen anyone as hot as he is.
The only good thing about working here—besides Rico—is hanging out after shift, up on the rooftop while Rob and whoever swabs out the patio, and everyone jokes and flirts, and, if Rob isn’t paying too much attention, me and Rico shotgun a couple of cans of Tecate or something. Then I lean as far over the railing as I can, my hands gripping tight, the metal pressing cold through my shirt; sometimes I let my feet leave the patio, just a few inches, just balancing there on the railing, in thin air . . . Andy always flips when I do it, he’s all like Oh Jani don’t do that Jani you could really hurt yourself! You could fall!
Oh Andy, I always say; Andy’s like a mom or something. Calm down, it’s only gravity, only six floors up but still, if you fell, you’d be a plate of Rob’s Tuesday night special, all bones and red sauce; smush, gross, right? But I love doing it. You can feel the wind rush up between the buildings like invisible water, stealing your breath, filling you right up to the top. It’s so weird, and so choice . . . Like the feeling I always got from you, Baby.
It’s kind of funny that I never called you anything else, just Baby; funny that I even found you, up there in Grammy’s storage space, or crawl space, or whatever it’s called when it’s not really an attic, but it’s just big enough to stand up in. Boxes were piled up everywhere, but mostly all I’d found were old china cup-and-saucer sets, and a bunch of games with missing pieces—Stratego, and Monopoly, and Clue; I already had Clue at home; I used to totally love Clue, even though I cheated when I played, sometimes. Well, all the time. I wanted to win. There were boxes and boxes of Grampy’s old books, doctor books; one was called Surgical Procedures and Facial Deformities and believe me, you did not want to look at that. I flipped it open on one picture where this guy’s mouth was all grown sideways, and his eyes—his eye— Anyway. After that I stayed away from the boxes of books.
And then I found you, Baby, stuffed down in a big box of clothes, chiffon scarves and unraveling lace, the cut-down skirts of fancy dresses, and old shirts like Army uniforms, with steel buttons and appliqués. At the bottom of the box were all kinds of shoes, spike heels, and a couple of satin evening bags with broken clasps. At first I thought you were a kind of purse, too, or a bag, all small and yellow and leathery. But then I turned you over, and I saw that you had a face.
Many thanks to Kathe Koja for stopping by Roof Beam Reader again! If you’re already a fan of Kathe Koja’s work, I hope you’re as excited for VELOCITIES as I am. If you’re new to her work, welcome aboard! You won’t want to miss this.
Dear Diary: April 9, 2020. It’s funny what a little time and quiet can do. I lay myself down to sleep at night and experience the most random memories. I’m a relatively sleepless person. I’ve suffered from insomnia all my life and am now medicated for it, but despite the stressors of this current situation, it seems some of my regular, recurring sleep challenges have dissipated. I don’t lie awake all night thinking about work, for example. I guess I’ve accepted that I’m doing my best to roll with whatever happens this semester and my students are doing the same, so what’s to fuss about? Instead, I’m returning to oddly specific moments in my life and almost lucidly reliving them in my waking dreams.
In the summer of 2002, I entered the hospital for what was to be a mostly routine operation. I was young and healthy, they said. I’d be back to normal in no time, they said. (Really, everyone was saying this.) I wasn’t so sure about medical professionals trying to reassure me through platitudes. Maybe they did it because I was young, or maybe it’s the human way of reaching someone. Those were empty promises, though, when what I wanted was specific information about what to expect from the days and weeks after, the recovery process. I didn’t get much of that. But they did send in a priest. What were they thinking? Is anyone honestly reassured by the presence of a priest in their hospital room? Maybe it’s because I’m not a religious person, but my god did I find that uncomfortable. “You’re going to be fine, you young, healthy dude, but just in case, here’s this person to pray over your soul because, you know, we want to cover all the bases.” Yeah, thanks. I’m super confident about all of this now!
It all went wrong, anyway. Late in the evening after my operation, I began to feel an unusual, building pressure in my abdomen. Luckily, my dad was visiting at the time and I was able to convince him that something was wrong. He was able to convince the nursing staff to take a closer look, and woosh. Just like that, nurses were on the phone with surgeons and I was being wheeled back down to the operating room. In my memory, it seems all of this happened in a matter of minutes, but of course it must have been much longer than that. They were acting urgently, but it couldn’t have been that rapidly. After all, somehow the rest of my family had time enough to get to the hospital again, as did the surgeons. What time was it, when I was wheeled down that sterile white hallway again? When I passed by my mom and sister and uncle, and wait, why did they call my uncle? Is it really that bad? And why is the artwork in this hospital so dull?
Healthy. Young. And still a three-day recovery turned into twenty-seven days. That’s quite the time to spend in a hospital room. At some point, your veins become to weak to give blood, which has to be taken multiple times a day, so they stick a big main line right in your neck. The scar is still there. So are the extra scars on my stomach from the second operation which never should have been necessary. I don’t mind the scars, though. It’s these damn memories. Why do they come to me in the middle of the night, and what is it that I haven’t resolved? Maybe it’s this: I remember who visited and who didn’t and how surprised I was by the balance of those two columns. I remember waking in the ICU, freezing because the bed I was on had some kind of temperature feature that had been turned all the way down; it was to help break a fever, of course, but I was still intubated and couldn’t tell anyone that my body was about to go into shock from the cold. I banged and banged on the bed, pleaded with my eyes. They couldn’t understand me and no one even bothered to offer a pen and paper. My dad was there again. Two for two. I grabbed his wrist, put his hand on the bed. And he hailed the nursing staff again.
I remember the parents of friends who came to sit with me, brought me comic books, told me how my pals were doing. I remember my dad bringing me books, Tom Sawyer and Interview with the Vampire, my mom bringing donuts for the nurses, and my sister taking “walks” with me, but really I was barely shuffling. I remember my best friend’s mom showing up at the same time as my grandparents and what a strange and uncomfortable overlap of social circles that was to me at the time. I remember that very friend calling me from Texas, where he and his sister were on vacation at the time, and how weird it was to talk on the phone with someone I spent most nights riding around with, raising hell. And there we were chatting quietly and seriously, both of us probably thinking about the thing we couldn’t say. I remember people from high school, who I hadn’t seen in over a year, showing up at my bedside in tears and thinking, I never knew you thought of me. How good it is to know and to have you here. But of course I didn’t say any of that, nor much of anything else.
I remember being too tired and sick in the months afterward to reach out to the people who visited to say “thank you.” And that’s what’s bothering me, now. When I was young, I was able to feel gratitude but I wasn’t too capable of expressing it. I think I’ve gotten better at the expression thing in general, but how late is too late to say something? Funny, isn’t it, what we think about when we have the time and the quiet? But some things shouldn’t be kept quiet.
Recently Read: Sula by Toni Morrison. What a wild ride that was. I’ll try to get some actual thoughts together on it and post a real “review.” By my count, though, I now have 4 books to write about, plus 2 ARCs. So, hm. How does that keep happening?
Currently Reading: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë . This is my third time reading it and I might actually being enjoying it more this time than I did the last two times. I’m such a proponent for re-reading. It’s amazing how time and our experiences can influence the way we read.
Currently Listening To: “Us” by James Bay, from his second album Electric Light (2018). “Used to be kids living just for kicks / In cinema seats, learning how to kiss / Running through streets that were painted gold / We never believed we’d grow up like this.” Are you paying attention to James Bay? He’s a stunning writer and his voice has something indefinable in it that is impossible to stop listening to. I’ve got both of his albums on vinyl, because he’s that kind of artist. He’s also been performing a lot on Instagram throughout this crisis.
Teaching Updates: It’s spring break, here, and I’ve spent most of it getting caught up on grading. It will be nice to enter these final five weeks without any pending work to return to my students. I’m prepping my summer courses, too, though I have no idea right now what the term will look like. We’re online, but will people even register for summer classes this year, with all that’s going on?
Current Status: 2,318 cases and 80 deaths. Our peak is predicted to happen sometime around April 17. I read an article today where someone argues the Las Vegas strip should stay shut down for 6-12 months. Their rationale is that the 400+ million people who travel to Las Vegas annually could mean the city is ripe for future outbreaks, perhaps more so than most other places. I appreciate that our governor acted so swiftly weeks ago to shut the state down to non-essential business. I think we’re in a much better position than we would have been other and, hopefully, this means we can begin to get back to normal sooner than later; but the idea that the Strip itself should stay closed is both logically compelling and realistically horrifying. The state economy is virtually nothing without LVS. I hope the rest of the world, the states and other places not yet taking action, start to do so now so that places like ours, and Florida, and other tourism-based locales, don’t continue to suffer longer than necessary.
Positive Thoughts: The other day, I saw a Great Blue Heron resting on someone’s rooftop. A Great Blue Heron in the desert. We’ve got snow, still, on the mountaintops, and it’s raining today. There’s greenery growing in the low hills south of the valley. The earth is breathing again.
Dear Diary: April 3, 2020. I imagined writing a post today about the difficulties of spending one’s birthday in forced isolation due to a global pandemic. I mean, that would certainly fit the theme, right? But the more I thought about it, the less I find that I have anything to complain about. Would I like to be able to go out tonight with my husband for a sushi dinner and a specialty cocktail? Sure. Is it terribly awful that I can’t? Not really.
After all, I woke up early this morning with the sunrise, which spreads in brilliant orange and purple hues across our eastern sky and breaks across the mountain silhouettes. I walked into that sunrise on my own two capable feet, listening to some of my favorite tunes and thinking about the people I love all over the world who are still well, still healthy, or who have come and gone but left their impression on me. About my parents, my grandparents, my sister and sister-in law, all my amazing nephews and my brilliant niece who is, courageously, up on her own in Oregon working on her college degree. And that makes me think of my students, current and former, and the incredible things they’re doing or that they have ahead of them. My family and friends in Illinois and California, and around the world. What’s to opine, when your birthday is filled in the only way that really matters? Knowing there are people out there who have changed your life and, perhaps, who might think a little about you today, too.
I find that it’s these shadows and whispers of time, the imperceptible and incalculable moments of being, and not those measured in days, years, or ages that ultimately change us and change the world. It wasn’t President Kennedy’s inaugural pledge that “we will see a man on the moon” that shaped a people, nor was it the proceeding months, miles, or dollars spent on achieving that extraordinary task. Instead, it was the one definable instant when Neil Armstrong’s snowy boot set foot on that cold, strange and rocky surface, and the seconds that it took for him to speak, “one small step for man.” Suddenly, the days and decades–the tasks and failures prior–were of no consequence. In a fleeting but timeless moment, we became a new race of people, not simply human or American, but titans and dreamers. We were Atlas, holding up the sky collectively, together, and looking down on ourselves from the heavens.
I think we need to keep finding ways to challenge ourselves, inspire ourselves, and love ourselves and one another, that need not be measured but simply owned. Appreciated. Remembered. If self-isolation is teaching me anything, it is that a whole lot of our experience, including what we call our priorities, has been shaped by influences that are less necessary than they are assumed. I have a new appreciation for the passing of time and for the tricks we play on ourselves about what matters and what doesn’t, about what is important and what is not. What if we learned to really measure our successes and our happiness in tiny moments, rather than grand accomplishments? Could we then begin to cherish the one true, and exhaustible, resource that is most precious to us? Each other.
Currently Reading: I’m about to finish Toni Morrison’s Sula and have continued with The Age of Atheists (which is brilliant, by the way. I’m looking forward to sharing more with you all about this one, but I’m only about half-way into the 500+ page tome, so, hold your horses!) I also have two ARCs to read.
Currently Writing: I’m revising my YA novel manuscript and working on some poetry. I had a weird (really weird) idea for a kind of eco-dystopian science fiction novel, too, which came to me in a dream. Don’t they always?
Currently Listening To: “Trouble Me” from 10,000 Maniacs’ 1989 album, Blind Man’s Zoo. “Trouble me, disturb me with all your cares and you worries. / Trouble me on the days when you feel spent. / Why let your shoulders bend underneath this burden when my back is sturdy and strong? / Trouble me.” I have a special relationship with this band and this album, and this song. I don’t want to go into it too much, but let’s say that if my YA novel ever makes it to publication and isn’t revised beyond recognition, then those who read it will learn a bit more about all this. Have I whet your appetite? Will you pre-order my not-even-scheduled-for-publication novel?
Teaching Updates: Grading for five online classes is no joke. In that, it’s not funny. What I mean is, boy, I hate grading! That’s not entirely fair, actually. I’m fortunate to be a writing and literature professor who loves both of those things. I especially love seeing students develop their own ideas, their own consciousnesses, and to learn how to find their own voices. This is the point in the semester where that starts to happen. It is wonderful and inspiring; it keeps me going even when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work there is to do.
Current Status: Nevada’s Governor updated our “essential businesses” emergency proclamation to a full stay-at-home order, effective until at least April 30. It hasn’t changed much in terms of what we are doing, but there is a bit more severity in terms of business oversight and potential penalties for ignoring social distancing guidelines. Stores like Wal-mart and Costco, for example, can no longer sell non-essential items; they can remain open if they are selling food/pharmacy items only.
Positive Thoughts: I am here. You, reading this, you are here. We are probably far apart in physical distance, but we are together here. And ain’t that something?
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