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In Conversation

Katharina Volckmer and Eliza Clark discuss monarchy, violence, and writing that gets beyond the concept of ‘vulgarity’.

 

Katharina Volckmer:

There are many things I would love to talk to you about, but one thing (and this might be the heat talking) was lipstick. I am currently working on something new, and I watched YouTube tutorials on how to apply lipstick for the first time in my life. It’s an important theme in my new project, and I felt like lipstick and make-up in general were an important theme in your novel too. I feel like they’re one of those things in our everyday lives that we don’t talk about much because they are not deemed intellectual enough, but they carry so much meaning and so many different meanings, and I was fascinated by the way you wrote about them and how much space you granted them, avoiding polarising discussions of whether make-up is a weakness or a strength, but instead addressing it almost like a cultural practice I am grateful for your descriptions because it’s a world that – for various reasons – I never had much access to. Your depiction made me think of how I use the English language as a layer between myself and the world, almost as an alternative to make-up, and how I feel much more vulnerable when I have to express myself in German.

 

Clark:

I am very interested in thinking about make-up and beauty itself, as a labour and a skill. As you said, I feel it’s often deemed unintellectual, shallow or embarrassing to be a person who has effectively developed ‘The Skill Of Make-up’. I was chatting to a friend the other day, about how the practice of beauty can be compared to playing the piano. It is nice to be able to play the piano and it is wonderful to be able to play it to a high standard, or even professionally. But at the end of the day, you don’t have to be able to play the piano, and no one really looks down on you for not being able to play. It’s strange that the practice of beauty, something I essentially view as skilled work, is something you’re expected to opt in to, and will be looked down upon for not engaging with – but that you’re never supposed to mention or value it. The way women groom is so woven into our engagement with capitalism that you can be chastised or prevented from getting a job for looking messy – but you’re not supposed to talk about the work involved. It’s insane that I can miss out on a job for failing to wear lipstick, but if I put great effort into selecting and applying my lipstick, I’m dull and unintellectual. It’s always been such a bizarre doublethink for me.

The way opting in to play piano has its pros and cons, I think opting in to beauty has its pros and cons. I feel like I should opt out. But at the same time, on a low level, beauty gets me the occasional free bus ride or coffee, and on a higher level, it’s gotten me jobs and attention I don’t think I’d have had otherwise. It’s a valuable commodity, which I feel bad about having because it seems inherently anti-feminist. I’m reminded of that comic, with the peasant saying ‘we should improve society somewhat’ and a man pops up behind them announcing ‘YET YOU PARTICIPATE IN SOCIETY! CURIOUS! I AM VERY INTELLIGENT!’ In this context I am the peasant, participating.

I’m interested in the vulnerability you feel in German. I don’t speak a second language, but have always wanted to, and having a second tongue to work in has always fascinated me. I was taught French at school from around nine, but the English education system lends itself so poorly to learning a language. I’d like to hear more about your relationship with Germany in general. In The Appointment, your narrator is very open in her complex confrontation with Germany’s past. I have visited Berlin just once, and, coming from the UK where our colonial crimes are largely glossed over, barely touched on by our education system, I was surprised by how long the spectre of Hitler and the Holocaust loomed. It felt very important to me to acknowledge the history of the city. We went on a walking tour, and I dragged my very hung-over, very tired friends to the Topography of Terror, and we spent almost two hours there.

It was until I read The Appointment that I’d really considered the effect this level of confrontation could have on a psyche. I recently read Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, and she dedicates her last chapters to the erasure of the massacre in the Japanese, political and historical spheres. Japan has paid only a tiny per cent of the reparations Germany has. Collectively, few have faced up to the fact that thousands of Japan’s sons, husbands and brothers went to Nanking and raped and pillaged and tortured their way across Manchuria. Britain is terminally unable to paint itself as anything other than history’s great civilising hero. I was wondering what it must be like to grow up surrounded by intentional, bleak acknowledgement of your nation’s history. To walk down a street in your hometown and see a monument to murdered people, instead of one that glorifies its murderers.

I don’t feel I have much of a national identity. I think my identity has always been more strongly connected to being a person from working-class stock, a person from the north-east, and even then I don’t think I really had much of a sense of that aspect of my identity until I moved to London, where it became very clear that that is what I am. Did moving to England make you feel more German?

 

Volckmer:

Before coming back from Berlin last night, I visited a fairly new museum/memorial site that is housed in the former barracks of one of the 30,000 (!) camps that could be found in Nazi Germany to house zwangsarbeiter (forced laborers), who were brought in from all over Europe to work in all kinds of German industries. Thirteen million of them. I was struck by the perverse irony that some of these former barracks are now used by companies such as a Bosch and BMW (companies who heavily relied on forced laborers during the Third Reich) and even a nursery. One exhibit that I am still struggling with is an instrument that was used to carry out abortions on women, especially those from the Soviet Union and Poland, because they were deemed racially inferior and the authorities didn’t want them to have offspring. It had the same effect on me as the glove made from human skin that I saw in a museum in Kiev, or the ravine in Babi Yar where the Nazis rounded up the entire Jewish population of Kiev, executed them within forty-eight hours and buried them. Or the lake near the former concentration camp of Sachsenhausen where nobody wants to swim until this day because that’s where they dumped the ashes of the people that they burnt – they remind me of where I’m coming from. What our history is, that the pain we have caused is simply never ending because there are so many continuations of fascism and we only know a fraction of what we think we know.

Brexit has made me feel more aware of being foreign, but I think I was always very aware of being a descendant of the perpetrators, the Tätervolk (nation of perpetrators) as we say in German. And in the beginning, living in a different country didn’t make a big difference – I thought, at least, that it was possible to ignore those differences – and I studied modern languages so most of my friends at uni were either foreign too or had a foreign background and it took me a long time to work out how closed-off English society really is. How people can live very separate lives while sharing the same space. To some of my friends the idea of having an ‘English’ friend is still rather bizarre. It just doesn’t happen. With Brexit these lines of separation became more pronounced, and I felt for the first time that the place I considered my home had started a process of rejecting me. My foreignness is, of course, very privileged, but there are things I have in common with all my fellow outsiders. And I have yet to decide whether to claim this space or to return to the continent I left so long ago.

The intentional, bleak acknowledgement of our past that you mention is of course there, but I think the Germans are also very good at feeling smug about themselves. There is an unhelpful sense of complacency when it comes to the way they think they have dealt with their past. It was not until I read Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction that I allowed myself to think that maybe the Brits didn’t always get everything right either, that they weren’t just our lovely liberators (I grew up in the former British Zone) and that it was possible to criticise their warfare, that ‘winning’ the war didn’t mean they were intrinsically good. When I now look at the way the British look at their own history (yes, I absolutely hate Downton Abbey) it just leaves me bewildered, and I wonder how it is possible that someone like Jacob Rees-Mogg can get away with comparing the death rate in Boer War concentration camps to the death rate in Glasgow at the time. I also know that some English people get really worked up if a German criticises them (I have made jokes about the Queen before), which is why I proposed we talk about lipstick first.

The vulnerability I feel in German is based on the fact that with every language you speak you develop a different personality, and those added personalities are freer because they are something that you choose, not something you are born into. When I speak German I always feel like there is nothing I can hide behind, and there are so many things I’m supposed to know (and often don’t). English is in many ways an empty canvas that I can paint on, and I do enjoy the fact that a lot of cultural references don’t mean very much to me. I feel at liberty to use this language in ways I maybe wouldn’t in German – one of the many perks of being foreign. And from reading your book I felt that maybe make-up has a similar effect on people, it offers them an element of choice, of adding something that they weren’t born with. I was also interested in how your protagonist is othered by people in London because of the way she dresses and how people cannot cope with the fact that she is from up North but doesn’t conform to all their stereotypes. (even though historically very different we also have strong geographical divides in Germany –I always find those difference within one country/language fascinating.)

The other thing I wanted to talk to you about is another aspect of beauty. The men Irina fancies/photographs in Boy Parts are not conventionally attractive (and thus form such a strong contrast to her own beauty), and the fact that you portray this as controversial is in itself interesting to me. I was wondering what you think about ideals of beauty and whether our concept of what constitutes beauty is changing?

 

Clark:

I’m not surprised that people have gotten upset at you for criticising Britain before. Or for joking about the queen. I’m quite shocked by how misty-eyed people get over the queen, perfectly logical people who suddenly fully endorse the divine right of kings because they think they love the lady on the stamp. She drove past me once when I was going to buy cough syrup in Pimlico (where my uni was based); it’s a bizarre that the image of An Old Woman In A Car on a completely ordinary day is burnt into my brain forever, now. I don’t know why we, as a society, decided to collectively identify with our aristocratic overlords instead of beheading them 300 years ago like the French. Does it seem awfully strange, as a non-Brit, the way we seem to genuinely love them? Because the way we love the taste of boot-leather, the complete lack of true political revolution in this country’s history is so strange to me. We revolted once and changed our minds and re-installed a king. Imagine!

Imperialism is baked into our media, our education system. I’m shocked by how aggressive the reaction to any non-nationalist sentiment has become. I feel like nationalism has gotten worse, but I was a child during the Labour years (Gordon Brown got the boot two days after my sixteenth birthday) so I may have just been too young to be aware of the kind of jingoist, right-wing sentiment that seems more common now. I wonder if these things are allowed to build because, in Britain, we do not see ourselves as a Nation of Perpetrators, when perhaps we should.

The North/South divide is a strange thing. It’s funny that even after drawing up arbitrary borders, we need to create further in-groups and out-groups. It must just be baked into the human psyche to do this. Essentially, I come from a historically poorer part of the country and have a funny accent, but this does lead to all sorts of weird behaviour from people from (particularly) the south-east. Inappropriate questions about if your Dad is a miner, or head-tilted, ‘What’s it like up there?’, waiting for you to describe some Threads-style hellscape, and general assumptions that it’s far worse than it actually is.

I do wonder if the vulnerability you feel in German could be compared to the vulnerability I feel speaking in my accent and dialect in front of southerners, particularly those from very middle-class or upper-class backgrounds. I feel like I have to  put up a great account of myself as intellectual and knowledgeable about the city so as not to be labelled pitiable and provincial. Without the privilege of a private, classical education, there are words and phrases and cultural references that feel placed into conversation almost as if to intentionally catch you out, to pin you as a pretender.

In my book, this becomes a thing which makes my protagonist feel powerless. She’s obsessed with domination, with making it clear she’s in control, and in charge, which is so hard to do when people patronise you about something as basic as your accent. I always felt her targeting of not-conventionally-attractive men was part of that need to dominate – that she wants men she can control, and that she knows will behave  around her.

But I do think male standards of beauty are very interesting. In a lot of ways, the bar is kind of on the floor for men, but (to speak purely about very masculine-presenting men) they don’t really have the benefit of being able to hide behind clothes, or make-up. I think beauty standards are getting stricter across the board. I recent read If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha, which explores the high standards of beauty and conformity in South Korea, and how South Korea is very much leading the world in skincare and beautification surgery at the moment.

With the advent of Photoshop and easily-accessible editing technology, we are beginning to fear bodies that look imperfect, like they’re aging and functioning. Doing anything other than looking beautiful. This is even sliding over to men, now, who previously were granted more grace about their ugly hair and bad skin. There was a piece in the Guardian last year about teen boys spending hours and hours in the gym in the hope of getting a six-pack. Men and women on Instagram airbrushing out their pores! I catch myself looking in the mirror in summer and thinking about how terrible and large my pores look! As if we’re not even allowed to have pores now!

I noticed this, too, in The Appointment, this running theme of a fear of an adult’s body, an imperfect body. The page where your protagonist feels sickened and threatened by her mother’s very average body as a child in the changing rooms of swimming pools stands out in particular. That feeling of horror when looking at an average adult woman’s body as a little girl is quite visceral, and quite universal. Scarring and hair and cellulite are coming for us all. Or most of us, anyway. The way you write about bodies is so visceral. Why do you think discussing body parts inspires so much revulsion? Were you hoping to inspire discomfort?

 

Volckmer:

To come back to the monarchy, (I don’t want to go off on a complete rant about because I’m aware of the immensity of that taboo), I can’t relate to the feeling of devotion that some people experience here. For me it’s in some ways similar to when Notre Dame caught fire and some of my French friends were in tears. I had to admit to myself that there is not a single building in Germany I would mourn for in that way, partly because, with a few exceptions, we don’t really have buildings like that anymore. I was fortunate in that respect – because of our history some of us were raised without the kind of patriotism that is so normal in other countries (sadly this tendency has mostly disappeared in contemporary Germany). I grew up in a country that was always so much easier to despise than to love, and it remains one of my deep-rooted convictions that it is always wrong to worship a human being, in any context. When I see the kind of coverage and attention the monarchy gets here (I have referred to this as propaganda in the past but again people get very upset), I’m just bewildered and unable to understand. It makes me sad, because you see people clapping at the reason/justification for the classism and social injustice that is so prevalent in this country. You see them applauding their oppressor, which is always tragic. But I do love the fact that you saw the Queen in Chelsea! It reminds me of how I once saw the mad German fashion designer Rudolph Moshammer being chauffeured around in his car in Munich with his little dog Daisy, pretending to be some kind of reincarnation of Ludwig II. (Moshammer was later found, strangled with a black telephone cable, at his flat, Daisy safe and unharmed in the living room. The murderer was a twenty-five-year-old Iraqi asylum seeker who claims that Moshammer refused to pay the right amount in exchange for sexual favours. A story so full of uncomfortable power dynamics and so revelatory that it has never received the kind of attention it deserved.) I will refrain from talking about Prince Andrew here, but I do find it very interesting how this domination of people we have othered/or feel superior to for other reasons extends to a domination of their bodies in the most frightening ways. How we manage to sexualise and discriminate against people at the same time has always left me speechless.

But this brings me to another aspect of Boy Parts that I wanted to discuss, and that is violence. It’s so unusual to see male bodies being subject to female violence, and for their bodies to be so disposable – something that we are usually only familiar with when it comes to female bodies and the universal violence that affects them. It’s probably the aspect of your book that got me thinking the most, because one of the questions I ask myself is whether or not women should emulate male behaviour or not, and I was intrigued by my reaction to those scenes in your book. We have become numb when it comes to violence against women, but when it’s a woman violating a man it turns everything upside down and has a much stronger effect. Those depictions of violence in your book are very strong, but they also made me wonder what you think about the connection between sex and violence and whether, to a certain extent, sex is always violent? I’m asking this because I was struck by how all of your protagonist’s sexual encounters result in different forms of violence, either towards the men she is with or towards herself.

As for the fear of talking about body parts – I personally dream of a world in which we let go of that obsession with having perfect bodies that don’t really exist, and try to go beyond the visual and arrive at a more inclusive concept of beauty. But I think you are right that if anything this tendency is getting worse, and is beginning to affect men in ways that are similar to women. Capitalism has finally discovered that male insecurities are valuable. But it is also about control, a so-called healthy body signals to the world that we have our shit together and that we have somehow gotten over our own mortality. Because we do not just have grey hair and sagging skin coming our way but, ultimately, death, and if you talk about that openly people are put off. (‘The Three Ages of Man and Death’ is a very good visual example of that). It’s hard to accept that our time on earth is really just a fleeting moment, but I think that’s what’s behind the horror we experience when we look at ageing bodies.

 

Clark:

The Notre Dame stuff is weird. Honestly, all worship of cultural idols is inherently strange, be it your archaic monarchy, your old church, or the nations we live in. Humanity’s need to worship something apparently higher and better than ourselves seems hardwired into us, and is very easy to take advantage of. I genuinely feel like monarchy mania was dying off, post-Diana and pre-Kate-and-Wills. Because Prince Charles is so unpopular, it really felt like we might just collectively not bother with him, but, alas. As you said, it’s propagandistic, and I think the rise of Will and Kate’s popularity can’t be ignored in its capacity for distraction during this bleak period of austerity.

I’m very interested in violence – I think it’s one of my book’s core themes. I wanted sexual violence in the novel to feel a little quotidian – because it is, it’s a day-to-day thing for so many people. I wanted people to be confronted by a protagonist who is repeatedly subjected to sexual violence, and I wanted people to see the way she picks up and goes back to her life, that this event, while terrible and wrong, is not always a world shattering. I always wanted to show the way violence can slowly chip away at you. I’m interested in the way that sexual violence is so quotidian that we often fail to realise we’ve been a victim or a perpetrator. I do believe we can separate sex from violence, and that one can have a truly consensual non-violent experience – but I think those are less common than we’d like to think they are. As with the story about the fashion designer and the refugee – differing power dynamics affect our sex lives in all sorts of different ways, and many of them are uncomfortable to consider. Many people simply do not understand consent, and I think my protagonist is one of those people.

It’s interesting that you mention the imitation of male behaviour. Irina was, for me, a sort of thought experiment, my version of the answer to the question: what would it be like if a woman acted like a misogynist man, if a woman treated men the way some men treat women?

I feel like men (largely referring to gender-conforming cis men) don’t see themselves as performing gender, but just as ‘neutral’, when they are obviously also performing a gender. I find that some of the cishet men who’ve read the book have said that Boy Parts made them most uncomfortable when it was picking apart things like the way men at a party behave (affecting top hats, referencing films, providing drugs and drink etc.). And those behaviours are ones I consider very gendered, part of the performance of masculinity in that context. I think the discomfort comes from the fact that they don’t think about being watched the way women are watched, they aren’t as aware of the performance they’re putting on, or of the people observing. But we are watching – and they are certainly performing.

What do men think of The Appointment? Have you also had reports of male discomfort?

Beauty as delay-of-death is very interesting to me – as are our attempts to visually and physically preserve ourselves. I think this is partly why I wrote about a photographer – there’s something profoundly disturbing to me about the photograph. It’s a physical impression of a moment we lost. It’s an attempt to grab and keep it for ourselves. And that so easily tips into violence when we’re trying to capture something beautiful, or something erotic, it’s why the photograph is so inherently intrusive. It’s always chasing after something which is trying to pass it by.

In terms of capturing things which are erotic, or violent, or a little taboo: how did you feel writing about genitals and Hitler? Were you worried about how people would react? I ask because I genuinely was with my book – particularly about the way that readers, bloggers and the media seem obsessed with projecting an autobiographical narrative onto women writers.

I also feel like the mechanical aspect of writing about sex and other taboo topics is rarely discussed. Do you find writing about this sort of thing as technically challenging as I do? I feel like there’s never a good word for any intimate part of the human body – everything is clinical or vulgar and sometimes you want neither. I feel like you leaned into vulgarity to great effect.

 

Volckmer:

I think your depiction of the issues surrounding consent and sexual violence is very important, but I can imagine that some people find it challenging. Have you had any negative responses? I agree that sexual violence is more common than we think, and that it makes much more sense to show it as an everyday occurrence that comes in many forms – something that I also admired about I May Destroy You – rather than as a one-off event/an exception. But I also think that approach makes it more difficult to stomach, because people have to ask themselves whether they might have been either victim or perpetrator at some stage. Anything that makes people look in the mirror and reconsider their views/question themselves can be perceived as a provocation, and labelled as something outside of mainstream culture.

But I personally think that art is not meant to flatter the soul (stealing from Socrates here), and that this whole concept we seem to have of wanting to be comfortable is problematic and potentially dangerous. We cannot spend our lives wearing woolly socks and drinking tea and expecting books and art to broadly reconfirm what we think already – I’m much more in favour of thinking of art as some sort of ice pick.

Something that can fill you with disgust, make you angry in short, react. When I wrote The Appointment I didn’t really think that it would be published (I sometimes write short stories that people enjoy but I ultimately find too problematic to publish, and I thought this book would suffer the same fate). Writing in a second language allowed me to take greater liberties, and I didn’t think too much about how people would react. It’s only been recently that I’ve learned some people find my ‘sexy Hitler’ offensive. I do find that people often ask me whether it’s autobiographical (there is another parallel between our books I guess, in both cases there are parallels between author and protagonist), and I personally don’t understand the purpose of that question.

I don’t understand what it adds for people if they know that it’s a ‘real life’ they are reading about. The human mind is notoriously unreliable, and I don’t actually believe that there is a real distinction between reality and fiction when writing a novel, after all, it all came out of my strange mind. But we seem to have a complete obsession with things that are ‘based on a true story’ (though mostly that’s a lie, people can’t even adapt novels without falsifying everything, let alone correctly adapt someone’s life – it’s always just someone’s interpretation). I find that disappointing, because it makes me feel like all people want to know is whether I did, or did not, try to masturbate with a banana. Like the writing is somewhat secondary.

I’m not entirely sure what men think of The Appointment. I sometimes get the feeling that not only women but also men (at least some men) are tired of living their allocated gender roles, and that the idea of a less binary world also appeals to them. But that might just be my delusional mind talking. I have had arguments with hairdressers over whether it’s ‘acceptable’ for women to have short hair, so I know that many people have never got beyond the 1950s, but I’m secretly hopeful that things might be a little more in flux these days. You are right that men often perceive themselves as neutral (like all ‘oppressors/people in power’ do, I guess. It’s like white people not having a race, for instance), and that’s why I think it’s important for men and women to engage with each other outside of a sexual/erotic context. To have the kind open conversation that so rarely takes place. I’m always amazed by how many topics are apparently not covered between straight couples. (I read somewhere that only one in five women talks to their partner about her period). And I like to think of my writing as being part of that conversation somehow.

Regarding the technical side of writing about taboo topics – I think that we need to get beyond the concept of ‘vulgarity’, because that’s part of the problem. I agree with you that a lot of written sex scenes are painfully bad and awkward, but I wonder if that’s because we are all awkward about the subject in general? That’s just a wild thesis, but I’m trying to embrace vulgarity while at the same time not forgetting that there is such a thing as intimacy and that the two are not mutually exclusive. But the space of intimacy is something we seem to be increasingly afraid of. Your protagonist’s fear of intimacy felt like it was touching on a wider issue, where on the one hand we crave to make even the most banal aspects of our life public (I’m just thinking of the deluge of crap on Insta/Twitter), which is accompanied by an epidemic of loneliness and an inability to be intimate. I thought that theme was very powerful in your novel.

 

Clark:

I’m yet to have a negative response to my book, but I think this may be down to the protections granted by a smaller audience. It’s strange, I almost feel like I’m willing the book not to get too popular. The idea that we’re surrounded by sexual violence at all times, I think, breaks people’s brains a little. It’s how we end up (at one end of the scale) with people going out of their way to vehemently deny the existence of rape and abuse, and (at the other) mass hysteria, like the satanic panic in the 1990s. It’s much easier to either aggressively pretend it isn’t happening, or to blame people who are shadowy and sinister and possibly linked to the devil himself, than it is to accept our own husbands, fathers, mothers and friends as undertaking abuse.

I agree that any media which asks its audience to reflect too heavily can provoke hostility. I agree, art for adults should be allowed to function as an ice-pick – one which forces us to question our world views.

We hate self-reflection, but we should not coddle ourselves. We hate to think of ourselves as bad people, particularly on the political left, which I think had led to a re-emergence of a culture of purity and pearl-clutching in our media ‘analysis’. For all our talk of ‘unlearning’ and ‘working’ to change our world views, the left is increasingly refusing to engage with challenging content. We must be careful not to ally ourselves with the right in this regard. For example, take the recent Twitter controversy around Maïmouna Doucouré’s debut feature Cuties; a film looking at the clash between a young Muslim girl’s traditional culture and family, and the hyper-sexualised dance troupe she joins.

The first post I saw decrying the film was outraged about the perceived Islamophobic narrative portrayed in the trailer, despite Doucouré being from a Senegalese Muslim background. (The author hadn’t seen the actual film.) Two days deep into the controversy, I saw far-right, anti-choice, racist accounts celebrating Doucouré being harassed off Twitter. For a day or so, the political left and right were united in trying to pull the debut film of a Black woman director from Netflix – essentially because they were uncomfortable with content they’d seen in a trailer.

Knowing a world is autobiographical allows the audience to condemn or excuse the work more readily. It’s very easy to say ‘well we know she’s terrible because she’s confirmed that she personally finds Hitler very attractive’ or ‘we know the director can’t be an Islamophobe because she’s a Muslim woman’. I think this is part of the purpose of the question of whether or not content is autobiographical. People are obsessed with authenticity – in a post-reality-TV, post-confessional-journalism world, fiction is simply not enough.

I do hope you’re right about people largely tiring of a binary world. It’s unfortunate to be living through something of a cultural backlash to the breakdown of traditional gender roles and concepts of gender (as we can see in the volume of transphobia happening in the UK media), but we can, at least, take from that backlash that things are changing – no matter how much certain parties would like to dig their heels in. Breaking down this binary is important to opening a greater line of communication between men and women. For me, this is part of the failure of feminism that operates under the umbrella of biological essentialism – treating men and women as two aggressively separate classes serves no one, and liberates no one. And I do think The Appointment is part of the conversation which works toward bridging this gap, and breaking down a hard-binary border.

The linguistic binary between the vulgar and the clinical is one The Appointment is tries to break down, too. Perhaps it’s difficult to forge a space for physical intimacy in our writing, because part of us knows we intend to display it in public. Writing about sex is very exposing. While my protagonist’s fear of intimacy is palpable, and she is intentionally very lonely, I must admit that writing about violent, un-intimate sex is far easier for me to approach than writing something tender or romantic! I wonder if, in a post-Covid world, we’ll struggle even more with physical intimacy, while continuing to overshare our increasingly banal lives on social media. I’ve been thinking a lot about the E.M. Forster short story ‘The Machine Stops’, where humanity is largely confined to individual apartments, and communicates through a sort of 1900s prediction of the internet. Perhaps if we weren’t in the midst of this pandemic, we might’ve met up to write parts of this. Alas, we’re confined to trading messages from our individual apartments, a little like Forster’s story.

 

Katharina Volckmer’s The Appointment is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions.

 

Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts is available now from Influx Press.

Cover Image Photographs © J F Paga and Robin Silas Christian

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5 Ways to Surprise Your Reader (Without It Feeling Like a Trick)

Readers love to be surprised, but they’re not fans of being tricked or manipulated. Author John McNally shares his five tips for surprising your readers without it feeling like a trick.

I began writing my new book The Fear of Everything: Stories when I was given an assignment to write a short story for a Ray Bradbury tribute anthology, and when I revisited Bradbury’s work for the first time since childhood, I discovered stories full of not just wonder but genuinely moving surprises. Re-reading Bradbury pushed me toward writing stories that took greater risks with more emotionally impactful surprises for the reader.

But surprises aren’t easy.

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In his essay “On Writing,” Raymond Carver writes, “I overheard the writer Geoffrey Wolff say ‘No cheap tricks’ to a group of writing students. That should go on a three-by-five card. I’d amend it to ‘No tricks.’ Period. I hate tricks.”

Similarly, crime writer Charles Willeford gave students in his “Classic Detective Novel” course a handout that began, “The detective story is a kind of intellectual game. The author must be fair with the reader, because games should be fair. The author may outwit the reader, but he should not cheat by trickiness or deceptions.”

(Plot twist ideas and prompts for writers.)

And so in the spirit of “no tricks or no deceptions,” I offer five ways to surprise your reader.

*****

Discover how the seven core competencies of storytelling—concept, character, voice, plot, theme, scene construction, and style—combine to create compelling narrative in The Art of Storytelling 101.

Click to continue.

*****

Welcome Readers With Humor

Humor is a tool that I use in most of my work, the effect of which is that the reader puts down their defenses. Humor is my invitation into the story, much like the freshly-baked apple pie that a Realtor tells you to set out for your open house. But humor can be subterfuge for the darker moments in the story, and once the reader has put down their defenses, the impact for the surprising moment becomes greater. 

(Thrilling Humor: 5 Tips for Incorporating Humor Into Thriller Novels.)

Think of it this way: A story that’s dark from the get-go is foreshadowing that something darker is to come. A story that welcomes you in with humor doesn’t tip its hand to the reader, and so any changes to tone catch the reader unguarded. The switch in tone must feel organic to the reader—both tones must be part of the same fabric—but when done effectively, the surprise can really pack a punch.

Use Exposition to Reveal Information

Exposition is information. Fiction is full of information. A character grew up in Cincinnati; she has green eyes; she has three brothers; she was adopted. How and when you choose to reveal information is crucial to surprise, but you run the risk of being manipulative or, worse, predictable. 

How many undergraduate stories have I read where the last line reveals that the narrator is dead? That’s not a surprise; that’s a trick. And remember: No tricks. But if you dole the information out judiciously, the effect can be powerful. 

For instance: In chapter one, we learn that a young man steals a loaf of bread and then sits on a street corner and eats it. How do we feel? Well, that depends on you. Exposition forces the reader to situate themselves morally within a story. If we have sympathy for someone whom we believe is homeless, we may feel sympathetic. 

But if in chapter two we learn that the young man has a trust fund, our feelings may shift toward anger. The surprise, therefore, comes in how our own feelings shift for this young man, and it’s all because of one piece of exposition being added to the puzzle of who he is.

Shift Point of View

I typically don’t recommend shifting point of view in short stories for the purpose of plot because you’re likely to do so at the expense of character development, and shifts are more likely to come across as manipulative. Short stories are, after all, short. The more compressed something is, the more you sacrifice. But in a novel? Have at it! 

(John McNally: Renewed Interest in the Magic of Short Stories.)

You have hundreds and hundreds of pages to play with in a novel, so you have more than enough room to experiment with shifting perspectives. What one character knows, another character doesn’t. But the surprise comes in the arrangement of the chapters. 

Here are two useful definitions: Story is “what happens” whereas plot is “the arrangement of what happens,” and any surprise that you achieve is in that arrangement. If the movie Jaws was told in reverse chronological order, there wouldn’t be any element of surprise, and yet a movie like Pulp Fiction generates surprises because the story is told out of chronological order and shifts perspectives.

Move From Micro to Macro

Whenever someone ends up on TV for having done something spectacular or surprising, a reporter will often find a neighbor or distant family member or teacher who will cite some small detail—a hobby or a behavior—in the subject’s life that hinted toward what was to come: “He was always a collector—you know, stamps and beer cans,” says the old classmate about the man who now owns six islands. 

(10 Questions You Need to Ask Your Characters.)

In fiction, if you establish something early on at the micro level (stamp collecting), it becomes more credible to the reader later when we see the larger, more surprising thing (a man who collects islands). This tip has less to do with creating surprise and more to do with how to avoid making any surprise feel like a trick. What you’re doing is planting the seed in the reader’s head so that the more shocking detail is more palatable. 

Even if the reader doesn’t remember the micro detail, they’ve filed it away in their unconscious mind, just as we store thousands of details about the people we know, allowing us to say things like, “It doesn’t surprise me that Jimmy just moved across the globe without telling anyone. He used to do the same thing when we’d go out to bars in college—excuse himself and then never come back.”

Surprise Yourself

In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People,” a Bible salesman steals a young woman’s wooden leg. Discussing this story in her essay “Writing Short Stories,” O’Connor admitted that she didn’t know that he was going to steal the leg until 10 or 12 lines before he did: “This is a story that produces a shock for the reader, and I think one reason for this is because it produces a shock for the writer.” 

The most surprising moments in my own fiction are those that I didn’t plan. The challenge is to surprise the reader in such a way that the surprise feels organic to the reader and not manipulated. I tend to think of the writer’s role as a method actor in that we submerge ourselves deeply inside the narrator’s consciousness. And if we do that successfully, you create a character that has options, just as a real person has options. 

When a character is faced with a choice between those options, the reader may find herself saying “Oh no, don’t do that” or “The author isn’t really going to go there, is she?” And yes, sometimes a Bible salesman will steal a woman’s wooden leg.

The Secret Lives of Yoga Instructors

“Pros and Cons” by Jenny Bhatt

For the first session of the day, Urmi stands next to Jaideep on the dais.  He  makes  eye  contact  with  the  five  students—holding each one’s gaze for a couple of seconds before moving to the next. In Hindi, he murmurs to her, “As if their limbs are about to break off,” and then that flashing brilliance of a smile.

Urmi scans the room too. It is near the end of the week-long yoga retreat. By this point, almost every student’s face is marked with the ascetic suffering of an ancient saptarishi. They rarely imagine yoga to be hard work—more so emotionally than physically. And this class has had more of a strenuous workout because of the atypically smaller size.

Ankita rests against a wall massaging a lavender-infused lotion onto her hands and, as if absentmindedly, the red and black fleur-de-lis tattoo around her belly button. Her branded yoga wear draws the eye to every curve and swell. Next to her, Bernd, the German, flexes his biceps and keeps shaking his bow legs out as if getting ready for a run. His bald head glows redder under the fluorescent lights. Behind them, the two American women whose names Urmi cannot keep straight—Blonde and Blonder, she has named them privately—titter to each other. They’ve nested themselves with bricks, belts, bolsters, and bottles around their mats. And at the very end, Farrokh, who is either from Oman or Yemen, slumps against the back wall. His hooded eyelids confirm that he has already enjoyed a pre-class spliff.

Urmi looks down at her feet, sucking her stomach in so she can see more than her toes. They often pair her with the newer instructors like Jaideep to “break them in.” And though he comes with some teaching experience, Jaideep has made her more aware of how, with each such break-them-in instructor—mostly male, mostly good-looking—she gets older while they remain about the same age. Enunciating each English syllable carefully because Blonde and Blonder always remind him to speak slower, Jaideep describes again why sun salutations are important in every kind of yoga practice. Demonstrating the twelve-step sequence as if he hasn’t been doing it every day of his career, he calls out the names of each asana in both English and Sanskrit and points to the placement of each foot and hand, and nods toward the direction of the eyeline. In each asana, his entire being ripples with a strength that seems to nourish them all. As they join him, Urmi walks around to check their form—adjusting a drooping arm, nudging a straying foot, aligning a tilting head.

Ankita, not quite twenty yet, needs the most attention. Although, Urmi suspects, it is not her attention so much as Jaideep’s that the girl seeks with her audible grunts and shallow breaths.

“How much of this basic stuff do we have to do?” Ankita says as Urmi straightens her knee. She has asked this every morning although she can’t get through even three rounds without those cries and gasps.

“How many could you manage a week before?” Urmi says. 

“What?”

“At least twelve rounds done in full,” Urmi says, placing a finger on her lips.

The girl opens her mouth to speak again but turns to Jaideep instead. After a couple of beats, she drawls, “Oh . . . ‘kay . . .” still staring at him. His silhouette is radiant from the light of the rising sun behind him. The ocean beyond is a writhing sheet of blue-grey silk.

As she scatters her gawky limbs along the floor for Chaturanga, Ankita’s hair tumbles down from her topknot and she wobbles to her left. Jaideep steps off the dais and goes over immediately.

“Straight hips, Ankita,” he says, placing his hands on her waist before lowering them to her hips to twist and thrust them down. As he steps away, his hands round over the small firmness of her butt. “Good,” he says with a pat.

Her expression is fragile and with a joy-like shimmer on it.

Very suddenly, he lays down on the floor beside her and raises his palms and feet. “Here,” he nods at her.

Ankita widens her eyes. Urmi sees the rush of red to her cheeks. He nods again. The girl moves sideways over him, mapping her fingers and toes to his so they interlock. The rest stop to watch. Grasping, he lifts her even higher. She is looking down on him with about a foot between them. Her hair grazes his shoulders and chest. She teeters a bit. He grips her harder. She giggles.

“That’s it!” Jaideep bellows. “See the balance now!”

They all look. Urmi looks too and feels the entire room focused on the two figures. There is something about the way they are clutching at each other with all fours: her faith and his power holding them together.

“Up,” Jaideep commands.

Ankita arches her shoulders so that her breasts thrust forward and her face rises like a fresh blossom.

In that moment, she is any young, skinny girl: eager to please, alternating between simpering and simmering modes, contorting herself readily for the world’s approval. An approval that, Urmi has come to realize, never lasts and is never enough.

The pose holds; Ankita’s focus and balance are flawless. Then, she collapses onto Jaideep and the moment passes.

Urmi watches as Jaideep stands, helping the girl to her feet as well.

“Excellent,” he beams at everyone.

After breakfast, the students wander about the private beach. Blonde and Blonder wade into the water, letting off peals like twin temple bells; Bernd settles with his iPad on the open porch, staying close to the weak wifi router; and Ankita and Farrokh fling a frisbee about on the sand, neither managing to catch it before it falls each time.

It is Urmi’s first time at this location and she has not been sleeping well in this storybook palace with its high-ceilinged rooms and uniformed staff. Time seems to have slackened as if dragging itself forward from the previous century. Every night, she has lain on the Victorian bed in her room, staring at the full-length mirror across for hours. In the dark, the reflection of the iron bed-frame—with its intricate floral flourishes, opulent scrolls, and antique knobs—floats and shifts about like some hulking otherworldly creature.

The breeze, though cool, carries traces of sand that feels gritty against her skin as she sits on the porch steps. She had read online that, after September, the weather gets unpredictable in this part of the country and most of these fancy resorts close up till after the New Year. A raggedy old man, hunched over with a cattail basket filled with football-sized green coconuts on his back, appears trudging as if from nowhere. The women run to him. As if frightened by their excitement, he mumbles and hurries on, one heavy step after another on the gold-white sand.

The session before lunch is their last anatomy lecture of the week. The local doctor, hired at an exorbitant rate for a daily hour and a half, arrives fifteen minutes late. She hands out square booklets with cartoon figures and dense paragraphs in tiny typography. Chuckling nervously at her own jokes, she keeps asking for Jaideep or mentioning his name. Urmi sits in the back with her headphones on, trying to hold off asking one of the staff again to hunt down the frequently disappearing instructor.

Lunch is a quick meal, then everyone lazes about on the bamboo recliners in the shaded corner near the coconut grove. At some point, the women bury Bernd to his stomach in sand while Farrokh keeps saying, “Duuuude,” as if a terrible thing is happening. When Jaideep finally shows up, he sits on the recliner next to her and pulls off her headphones.

“Welcome, O Moon of Eid,” Urmi lights two cigarettes and hands him one. They watch the women skipping around Bernd’s bare torso while he tries to catch a leg or two. After savoring a couple of drags, she asks, “What are the pros and cons of doing this?”

Jaideep raises his eyebrows. “This?”

He has changed into a rose-colored kurta, unbuttoned and crumpled. Closer, he is like those old-school Hindi movie heroes from the ’60s and ’70s with their studied, practiced charm.

“This. All this.” She draws a large circle in the air with both hands. He shakes his head so she continues. “Teaching yoga for a living to rich men and women who won’t remember any of it—or you—in a month.”

Placing a pair of sunglasses onto his nose, he waggles his chin in a droll, dramatic manner and says, “All is fleeting. Time flows endlessly like this ocean.”

“Oh, come on.” Urmi smirks. “You can do better than that. There are plenty of perks, obviously. There must be some cons too.” 

The wood creaks as Jaideep lies back as far as he can go. “Sure,” he says, “as with everything in life, hain na?

“Tell me,” says Urmi.

A wind has picked up, making the trees behind them swish and sigh. The women have changed to swimwear and are shrieking as they run into the tossing waves.

“You don’t think it’s a decent way to make a living?” he asks.

She clicks her tongue at him, annoyed that he has turned the question around on her.

Flicking away his cigarette butt, Jaideep signals a uniformed man closer and tells him to bring lemon sherbet. When the cold, sweating glasses arrive, buzzing flies land on their rims. He swats them away and gives her a glass.

“To making pros out of cons,” he says, raising his glass to her.

Urmi sits up and throws her head back, exposing the length of her neck. She feels him watching her throat move as she swallows. “To conning the pros,” she says back.

The students come over, clustering in twos on the available recliners. Ankita, dripping wet from the dip, perches on the edge of Jaideep’s recliner. They talk about going out as it is their last night. 

“There are no restaurants or clubs nearby,” Jaideep tells them again, removing his sunglasses. “The driver will have to take you close to the airport and wait.”

Ankita pouts with the perfect duck face and slouches next to his arm.

“My back,” she moans.

Jaideep glances at Urmi and presses a palm on Ankita’s slick back, then runs it up and down. She shivers and scrambles closer so that her head is almost nestling in the crook of his shoulder. With blazing adoration, she looks up at him. A hush falls.

She squirms against Jaideep, trying to get his hand to go lower. It does not. Giving up, she scrambles back onto her feet. “Well,” she says, her voice brittle, “Another swim. Come one, come all?”

The others join her as if obeying an order.

Ankita squeals and jumps onto Bernd, making him stumble forward. Jaideep says, “Oye hoye, patakha guddi . . .” in a guttural, singsong tone.

When he lays back with his arms under his head, Urmi reaches over and touches him. Lightly at first, then with urgency.

Jaideep blinks sharply at her and his lips part.

How you can just do this to a man, she thinks, and get his complete attention. Even though that attention does not always work to your advantage. She was probably younger than Ankita when she had discovered the first of those two things.

Lifting her half-empty glass with her free hand, she sips without removing the other hand.

“What are the pros and cons of this?” she says.

His face flushes to almost the same shade as his kurta. “Let’s go upstairs,” says Urmi.


They walk into the hotel and climb the single flight of stairs to the rooms. Urmi sways her hips against his. She is more nervous than she has been in a while. At the top, Jaideep tugs at the fastening of her pants. Heat erupts between her legs and rises up through her belly.

“Your room,” she says, pushing him to the end of the corridor.

Jaideep’s room is considerably larger than hers and the bed is a mahogany four-poster with thick burgundy damask stripe bed linens. There are screened floor-to-ceiling windows and distant yelps and shouts drift up along with humid, fishy odors. He closes the bedroom door and goes into the bathroom. She stands by one of the windows and sees boats and nets laid to dry out below, toward the left. An endless expanse of water spreads to the right.

When the toilet flushes, she stands up straighter, waiting for him to come up behind her. Instead, the bed groans as he pitches himself across it.

“There’s good and bad about this view,” she says, leaning out. 

“Everything has to be about pros and cons?”

“Maybe. Yes. Why not?”

“Why not . . . just take things as they come?” 

Arrey . . . because you want to be prepared.” 

“Are you always prepared?”

“Nope,” she raises her arms high to the top of the window frame, standing on her tippy-toes, and leans further out.

Jaideep is quiet.

Pivoting away from the window, she catches herself in the wall mirror opposite the bed.

“Well, then?” He also looks at her reflection.

Urmi takes off her top. Her breasts are round, if not perky; full, if not bouncy. She tries to take care of herself but the aging process continues to astonish her.

She turns around to him. “But at least I’m ready for the worst then.”

Sprawled on the bed, his arms and legs are flung wide. His longish, uncombed hair is more tousled than ever. And his quick yoga instructor’s eye assesses her.

She knows he has seen better form. She wants to cover herself up again. Instead, she asks, “Changed your mind?”

He shakes his head.

A gust of salty air from the window is like a blow on her naked shoulders and back. Nearby, on the edge of the TV stand, there is a cigarette pack. She walks to it, takes two out, then sifts among the notes, coins, cards, and crumpled payment receipts for a lighter. A battery-thin platinum one has the letters “ANKITA” spelled out with sparkling rhinestones.

“What do you think of her?” She says, picking up the lighter and brandishing it.

“Pros and cons?” He laughs.

“She’s mad about you,” Urmi says, “It’s more than a crush.” 

Patakha Guddi?” he says, “She’ll be married off to some lakhpati-crorepati in a couple of years.”

Urmi twirls the lighter. She is reminded of the first time she saw the girl hand it to Jaideep—at the airport when they were all waiting for the bus that would bring them here. The two had instantly become friendly and sat together in the back for the two-hour journey. She had sat in the front, just behind the driver but had listened to Ankita’s giggling and Jaideep’s gravelly murmuring almost the entire way.

“So. All yours now?” she asks, flicking her thumb so that a flame jumps up.

Jaideep props himself up on one arm. “No, baba. Too dhinchak for me.”

“Sure, boss,” Urmi says.

She puts the unlit cigarettes and the lighter back and moves toward him. Lust and jealousy, she thinks, always make a good combination. Sitting on the bed, she wonders what it would have been like if he had made the first move. She would have liked him to. But men like him don’t do that with women like her.

She lies down beside him, easing into a stretch that releases some of the knots in her. “So,” she says, “are you going to show her your Kama Sutra asanas?”

“What?”

“Ankita.”

“Are you always so . . .?” he asks.

She puts her hands around his face, brings it down to hers, and kisses his mouth with a fierce hunger. It tastes of mint against her smokiness. Should she have gone to her room and brushed her teeth too? Pulling his kurta up, she presses herself against his skin, which smells of the ocean. His chest is not as hairy as she had imagined.

“What is it, yaar?” he peers at her. Then, he pushes her back and, with a single motion, removes her pants and underwear so smoothly that she wants to congratulate him. Instead, she runs her nails down his arms—the arms she has been watching all week in various asanas—leaving long, white scratches on them. He doesn’t make a sound. His eyes are half-closed as if intoxicated. She could be any woman. And yet, she has him in this moment now.


Later, when even the noises outside have died down in the evening twilight, they lie side by side. The sweat is drying off their bodies in the now-cooler breeze from the windows.

“I stayed in a palace like this once in Jaipur. When I was in the salon business and went to weddings to do bridal parties,” she says, licking her dry lips.

“Salon business?”

“Yeah,” she says, “I’ve had a few different careers.” She rolls on her side, facing him. “I used to be young and pretty then. People thought I was one of the rich and famous too when I got all dressed and made up.”

“You don’t think you’re pretty now?” Jaideep says. Urmi says nothing.

Jaideep places a hand at her waist, moves it at a measured pace up her arm and shoulder, and lets it stop in the curve of her neck.

“How old are you?” he asks. 

“Forty-five.”

“Wow.”

She touches the cradle of her hips, where his hand had not been. “I did the teacher training course ten years ago. Thought I would have my own yoga studio by now.”

“What’s stopping you?”

Silence fills the room. Urmi thinks she should leave. This conversation is not what she wanted. What did she want? Whatever it was, the good part—the pro—is over. This is the con part.

“What were the other careers?” His fingers are playing gently with her earlobe now.

She moves his hand away and sits up. “Don’t do this.” 

“You don’t like conversation?”

“Yeah,” she says, swinging off the bed. “Too many questions.” 

Going to the TV stand, she lights two cigarettes and offers him one. It’s a useful trick she learned from a past lover. Smoking means less talking. Though, it doesn’t prevent other undesirable, even dangerous, things from happening.

“Which was your favorite job of all?” Jaideep asks, stubbing his out in a glass, unsmoked.

“None. Dunno. Never stuck at any long enough to really find out. If I got bored or I wasn’t good at it, I left.” Urmi shrugs.

“You’re good at this—teaching,” Jaideep smiles, holding out both arms to her.

Relenting, she stubs out her cigarette and goes to him.

“I don’t think so,” she says, lying back down. “I might find something else. With less travel.”

“Travel? Part of the pros, hain na?

“Only if you’re an instructor.” She sighs. “Anyway, I’ve never even led a class on my own since the certification exam. I don’t have that expert confidence.”

Jaideep nods. “I never have enough confidence in front of a full room. But I love to push my body as far as I can and to show— teach—others what theirs can do too. So, bas, that’s what I do.”

As if he has shared an intimate secret, she whispers back, “Yes, that’s what I love too.” She should have left ages ago, probably. She might stay only a few more minutes.

Spinning onto her side again, she puts a tentative hand out toward him. He grabs it and places it onto his stomach, holding it there.

“Did you never . . . want to settle down?” Jaideep asks.

This question is one of the reasons she hates getting into any question-and-answer game. Sooner or later, it comes up. She tries to take her hand away but he holds it tighter.

“I was. Settled. Once. I left him,” she says. “That’s all you’re getting.”

Jaideep relaxes his grip on her hand and moves it up to his chest. A low hum vibrates from his diaphragm.

That sudden resonance and the even rhythm of his heart are soothing. She feels the tension of her clenched jaw and loosens it.

When Jaideep lets her hand go, she leaves it there.

“It’s not everything people say it is—being settled.” He uses air quotes for the last word. He speaks so softly now, she could cry.

Moving up close, he slides a leg between hers. Raising her chin, he says, “Pros and cons, hain na?

He’s teasing her now, she knows. She cannot speak; her throat hurts.

They remain still like that for three, maybe five, minutes—her hand on his chest, his leg between hers. Then he whirls her up above him and laughs, “Well, then. Show me what you can do, Miss Yoga Instructor.”


The group assembles the next morning, their exhaustion tinged with relief because this is the last class before everyone leaves for separate destinations. At this hour, the light from the windows all around the studio is so pale, it has also bleached the ocean almost white.

Jaideep and Urmi are a full ten minutes late. The room’s restlessness is palpable when they enter. As they take their usual spots on the front dais, Jaideep scratches his overnight stubble distractedly. Urmi, standing alongside, feels his every movement as if he is touching her. Five pairs of eyes stare curiously at them. Urmi wonders if they have guessed. She hopes so.

“Asleep on their feet,” she murmurs to him in Hindi. 

“Them? Or us?” His sense of humor, at least, is still alert.

“Both.”

She flies out tomorrow to another part of the country to assist another instructor. He leaves today to instruct some other group in some other place too.

“Pros and cons to that,” she adds after a beat.

Hand still on chin, Jaideep grins at her, “Yes, true.”

He steps forward and addresses the group. “Urmi is teaching this last class. I must see to some travel arrangements. My apologies.”

Reaching an arm back, he takes her wrist and draws her forward. She looks at him, mouth slightly open.

“Well, then. Show us what you can do, Miss Yoga Instructor,” he says and her stomach flips over. He squeezes her fingers before letting go.

As he walks out, Urmi notices Ankita’s eyes narrowing into slits of ice. The girl sags against the wall.

Urmi takes a deep breath. But there is something thrilling in having the room all to herself; in having everyone’s attention to herself. She hasn’t felt like this in such a long time that she cannot even recall when. She starts them off with six leisurely rounds of sun salutations.

Ankita shows her rebellion by not holding any asana for the required duration and acting as if she’s only going through the motions. When Urmi goes over to encourage her to raise her arms straighter, the girl does not respond. There is something wounded in her, something unyielding. Her chin juts out so that the line of her jaw is sharp, and her eyes are glittering bright.

Urmi marvels at how the girl’s infatuation or crush or whatever it is for Jaideep has developed so rapidly in a matter of days; how it is as savage as a wild animal inside of her. And, just as easily, in a couple of months or so, Urmi thinks, she will recall this time only when she sees the photos on her phone. In a year or so, she will likely not even remember the names of people she has met here. Several years later, she will share the story of her luxury beachside yoga retreat with that lakhpati-crorepati husband’s friends over some elaborate dinner, joking about how the male instructor flirted with her in class.

“Come on, Ankita,” Urmi coaxes, “a few more rounds.”  

“I’m aching all over,” Ankita glares past Urmi at the liquid gold of the ocean through the windows.

“You’re going to let a bit of pain stop you?” Urmi signals to the rest to continue.

Ankita’s mouth tightens.

Next to that sulky gloom, Urmi allows herself a little surge of pride. “It’s a good kind of ache. I mean, you get beyond a point and it stops hurting. You’re stronger then. Here, let me help you,” she says.

“Jaideep knows how to help me.” Ankita says, looking every bit the frail child she is.

How easily, Urmi thinks, we place our trust everywhere except in the one precious sanctuary that is ours alone, ours forever. She smooths the stray hairs away from Ankita’s forehead and the girl startles like a bird.

Going back to the dais, Urmi sits cross-legged on her mat, waiting while the class follows suit. Then she announces, “We’re going to do something new. A parting gift from me.” She pauses carefully before adding, “Let your body’s wisdom guide you. Trust your body—it knows you best.”

And she begins to take them through a slow Yin yoga session, guiding them through deeper stretches than they have done all week. Holding each floor-based asana for a longer duration than the one before, she encourages them to loosen and relax various individual parts of their bodies. Speaking in a low, languid tone, she asks them to let everything—thoughts, emotions, sensations— flow and fall away.

Sunlight streams onto their supine forms. Like a single body, they all inhale and exhale together. The energy in the room becomes so calm and still that the only sounds, other than her voice, are the waves breaking and birds chirping.

Something is shifting and changing within her too though she does not try to identify what or why. A deep-rooted hardness is thawing inside. An ever-present weight is lifting away. She feels light enough that she could glide in mid-air.

Without moving, she senses that Jaideep is standing in the doorway. A warmth washes over her as they look at each other. Between them, the students lying on the floor are like gossamer threads connecting them. When he lifts an arm in farewell, the ache that begins inside her is, she knows, the good kind. The need it reveals has nothing to do with him.

In a month or so, Urmi thinks, she will still remember this week as vividly as the day before. In a year or so, she will still recall the man in his crumpled rose kurta and sunglasses lying back on a recliner as if he is right next to her. And, a couple years later, when she is running her own studio, she will still evoke the touch of his hands on her skin and the sound of his words: “Show me what you can do, Miss Yoga Instructor.” But now, as she looks away from the empty space he has left and back to her class, she knows this is her moment to make all those future ones possible.

The post The Secret Lives of Yoga Instructors appeared first on Electric Literature.

Interview With An Author: Branden James ∣ Writer’s Relief

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Interview With An Author: Branden James ∣ Writer’s Relief

In our Interview with an Author series, Writer’s Relief asks professional writers to share their tried-and-true secrets for publishing success.

When Branden James became a finalist on season eight of America’s Got Talent, he used his time in the spotlight for more than just singing—he also shared details of his personal life, including coming out to his religious family and the resulting broken ties.

The overwhelming positive response to his personal story inspired Branden to continue being open and authentic. After blogging about his life experiences, he decided to write a memoir. His book, Lyrics of My Life, has just been published and is available now at his website.

In his memoir, Branden shares what it’s like to struggle with depression, contract HIV, and be a victim of sexual assault—all while maintaining his Christian faith.

BONUS: Leave a comment by September 17, 2020, and you’ll be entered to win a copy of Branden’s book, Lyrics of My Life! U.S. residents only.

Will you tell us more about your book, Lyrics of My Life?

The book came about by complete accident, really. I was told by my social media manager at the time that I should write more blog posts to improve my SEO score for the online presence of the musical duo I play in called Branden & James. I was writing them regularly for quite a while. The blog posts began to resonate with people, and I was approached by a couple of literary agents. The rest is history! I never intended to write a book. But the story I told when I was on America’s Got Talent was quite impactful to many, and I realized the power in sharing my story.

Lyrics of My Life is a memoir that chronicles what my life was like growing up in the ’80s and ’90s as a closeted gay male Christian in an ultraconservative, hetero-centric family. I had no one to turn to, nor anyone I trusted to talk about my feelings, so I turned to music. My piano was a place of solace; then came the singing, and my confidence slowly built up from there. Music shaped me into a complete person with an identity and self-worth. I understood that my talents were worth something; therefore, I was worth something too.

So many kids reached out to me after AGT explaining that they also had problems in their homes. I understood that it was more common than I thought, but still often not talked about. I wanted to help these young people, and this opportunity presented itself. The book is a road map of sorts, for others who are in similar situations. My story is one of triumph over trial; most people don’t have it that easy. After many years, I was able to reconcile that it is more important to love my family and have a relationship with them than it is to be angry and bitter toward them for the things they did. My parents were nineteen years old when they were married. They were just kids raising kids, really. Times were different, even in progressive Southern California. People didn’t openly speak about homosexuality outside of the TV show Ellen and a few other Hollywood outlets.

I made some bad choices along the way: I let someone take advantage of me sexually, I got caught up in the party scene, and eventually I contracted HIV. I felt like a statistic, like a failure, after that happened. It was like going back into the closet again. I feared my life would end early, and lived a hard and fast life for a while, running away from the reality that I might someday die from complications related to HIV/AIDS. It wasn’t until I was on AGT that I was able to reconcile things with my family. It’s as if seeing me through the TV screen filtered out their usual judgment of what they referred to as my “lifestyle choices.” I realized then that my parents were genuinely proud of me and never stopped loving me, so why would I stop loving them?

Music continued to be my savior and my place of solace; it was at times my only friend. It took me eleven years before I was able to tell my parents about my HIV status. After I did it, I woke up one day and realized I didn’t hate myself anymore: I was actually pretty damned proud of who I was. My relationship with the church was rocky to say the least: it still is. But I also realized while writing the book that God doesn’t discriminate and never stopped loving me.

Today, I’m happy to know that I’ve set myself free by being authentic and transparent about who I am. The lyrics of our lives are written along the way through the hardships, joys, pains, and trials we all experience. It’s up to us as individuals to find a way to love ourselves enough to forgive ourselves for the things we might hold ourselves to blame. I hope that the readers will see this powerful lesson and always remember to fight hard for the things they believe in—and above all, treat others with compassion and kindness.

What role did social media play in staying connected to readers, building an audience, and getting noticed by the publishing industry?

I’ve always had a social media presence since I was on AGT in 2013. It morphed from my work as a solo artist to a full devotion to the work of my duo with my husband, Australian cellist James Clark. It’s a tricky game, but I think we’re finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and we’re engaging more people, both musically and relationally. We’ll see what happens when people read my story and the reviews start coming in.

How did you move from your music career to publishing a book?

Although my longtime friend and social media manager, Justin Baker, says, “Writing a book was always the objective,” I never saw it that way, but sometimes you need other people’s eyes to really understand things about yourself that you cannot see on your own. In 2014, I appeared in the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. After my performance, a perfect stranger came up to me who knew who I was and said, “You are an agent of change. Don’t forget that your story means something to many people.” I started a conversation on AGT, and realized then that someday I would find a way to finish it. I turned to songwriting, but it wasn’t the best way for me to express my feelings and the story I wanted to tell.

The blogging was a much more comfortable outlet for me, so I just ran with it and decided I would ignore whatever I perceived as shortcomings in my own life and tell everyone about how my failures are actually what have helped me.

What has been the biggest stumbling block or frustration for you so far, and how did you overcome it?

I had writer’s block for about a month during the process of getting this all down. That was tough. The hardest thing was so vividly reliving some tense incidents throughout those tumultuous years: feeling betrayed by my family, being molested, getting thrown out of the car by my father, my HIV diagnosis, and the process of shedding that old layer of skin that was hanging on to me, but wasn’t the essence of who I am anymore. I remember being angry when I wrote sections of the book. I cried a lot. I called my mom and said some things that weren’t necessarily kind. I was in a funk for about a month, and it was over the period of my fortieth birthday. God bless my husband, James, for helping me through it. It was intense at times.

What patterns, habits, or motivational techniques have best served you on your journey to success?

I wouldn’t say I have any patterns or habits. I’m an artist. I’m driven by creativity and by whatever is happening in the moment. My lack of self-esteem, I can compare to the struggles of an alcoholic. It is there every day, and I have to remind myself that I’m good enough, I’m brave enough, and people will find value in the things I have to say or sing about. Those skeletons will always be in my closet—I’m committed to dealing with them on a daily basis in order to simply survive. I take an antidepressant, which has helped me stay in a positive mindset. I am predisposed to depression, and that’s okay. My motivational techniques lie mostly in choosing to ignore that voice of self-doubt in my head and reminding myself that I’m happy, healthy, and worthy of any aspiration I may have. Medicines have changed: I no longer worry that I’m going to die from HIV/AIDS complications. I have a “new lease on life” as Jonathan Larson wrote in the score of Rent, the musical.

In one sentence, what’s your best piece of advice for getting a book published?

Write from your heart, be authentic, be kind and compassionate, tell your story with pride—and then throw the cards up in the air and see where they land. That’s what I did.

About Lyrics of My Life

Lyrics of My Life is authentically Branden: a memoir highlighting the conflicts of growing up gay in a world that looked upon his true self and beliefs as an impractical, sinful way of life. Branden spares no details about his unstable life as a young adult, estrangement from his close-knit family, and, despite it all, his unbreakable will to overcome adversity. In a quest for his own personal freedom, Branden finds reconciliation with his family, rediscovers his faith, and realizes that affliction and hardship are not what define us as human beings.

Praise for Lyrics of My Life

“Branden’s bravery and willingness to share his most personal experiences are going to help so many people struggling with similar issues. This book is very necessary for the times we are in to help others see the light and have hope.” — Pia Toscano, American Idol finalist and touring recording artist with Jennifer Lopez, David Foster, and Andrea Bocelli

“Branden’s book is needed for these times. Being true to our soul and living with courage are required for survival, and his moving story will certainly inspire others, as it has deeply inspired me.” Michael Feinstein, Grammy and Emmy-nominated singer, pianist, and music revivalist

BONUS: Leave a comment by September 17, 2020, and you’ll be entered to win a copy of Branden’s book, Lyrics of My Life! U.S. residents only.

For more information on Branden James, please visit his website.

 

Messrs. External & Bodily

House and Heart

 

What happens here goes on for some time. Has gone on for some time. Trees used to grow with wood so hard it lined the walls of all the capable buildings in town. Sometimes the sky is so black it looks cleaner than anything could ever be. Now it’s rather sheep and puddles and stomachs never in need of a laxative push.

The allotments are cracked and studded with broken buckets. Space is marked and people do their best, but somewhere somebody made a false prophecy for the land that is roasted by degrees of heat and sun, washed up in weather and nobody tames it. We’re all out measuring weather’s weight, factoring the pulse of weeds against the waft of rooms that stink of pancakes, steak and orange juice.

Today it is mud. If it were flooded with water, you might row around in a wide loop with little ducks everywhere because we love them. Instead some leaves shuffle by with indecision, others suck up the breeze, scooting past the plastic rims, licking their rounds before bedding down to nestle, stuck in wet straw. That is the bottle’s play of plastic light, how it flits like a tiny disc in all the hollow things, like a clock or a memoir or the moon.

Prudence plays a small role in the conduct of this place – there is grass that seems able to converse with everything – with the rabbles of dogs and rabbit hutches, with the new trains and their slick blitz, the older ones all mechanical clang in the air’s draft – puffed out – and further across the earth just a big sleepy ventilation. This one is a landscape sold on the merits of all the other landscapes, on the nice horizontal sketches of museums and the peculiar power of invented lives that look very much like our own.

The animals know more, we think. They happen upon their information in the manner of the barn with its sure cocks and happy roosters. They know the remedy for this mental trick is buried in another trick, the joke of substance in absentia. He tells us so: one bird with his squawk, yellow beak sideways, no blinks, mocking the other birds for even thinking about landing. Whole suburbs are founded on these gestures of claiming territory. On claiming inconvenience.
In the year when there was snow all over and only the beakers and a few stalks cracked a path through the whiteness, people brought their horses here and pounded their pubics around on brown leather saddles. There was no dust to settle in, no ridges of mutual support for the overlooked physics of dirt. It was wet and white and a little green, like salt or coriander.

People lost their keys from pockets and the losers would scrabble around, fingers frozen, realising they could no longer justify their margins of existence, their fragile positions of simply being a breathing vessel on this giant blue planet. The creases and stains of other people roughed up the land. A time of frozen plenty. Feet shod dirt on carpets. Worms fattened, buried deep till summer. And with all the necessary authority of it coming, weather went off again, falling right off the edge of the Earth’s sinking bowl. Rarely did anyone stop to note even a finger or a foot, and if we did, we were not factoring in the occurrence of the shared skin and creases, the truth that all this same stuff covered each of us, stopped us leaking out, held us soft and terrible like fragile enamel.

Like a single sick giggle, everything was doomed with early disillusionment. What happened was whole cycles of people feeling murderous about one another. What happened was pale bodies full of cheap wine. What happened was cultural shoes snapped at the heel, men and women run ragged whipping their heads and exposing teeth and hair to the sky for breaking. Most people in their small houses got through each day simply by hating their neighbours. Days clocked up and it was hard to tell if we were charmed by time or the weather.

It was a season of communal malaise. Of narrative struggle. People looked how the seasick look at maps and dream of land. How the hungry see a wrapper, a skeleton fish and trace the edges of their own bones with a slow finger feeling morose and giddy-eyed.

Many people in towns grew fat, whilst those in the country stayed thin in apology to nature, their bodies a solemn alignment of the dignities of careful growth, clever promises made to make the trees carry on with buds and fuzz and lichen. In the town there were idle feet, often centigrades rocketing to one impossibility or another. It was slums and edifices, murky sky and gin palaces; it was idle land, fresh air, bright sunshine and no public spirit. Infidelity kept them warm and cold. Couples split and rearranged, with mouth-first landings somewhere moist and unusual. There was always somebody half naked, congested in their cubbyhole homes like so many shrews and voles and mice.

In the country they’d never fell a tree and make an axe handle. They were reverent and slow-fingered. In the towns, they stuffed anything that would burn into their fireplaces and carried on breathing the rotten air. The table was laid and they were divorced in time for tea. They didn’t look after their bones and would do anything to escape the house. People paid each other to keep at a distance, living out their own gloomy ironies of feeling connected via transaction. They humped their sofas and each other, mislead in their conception that heat meant empathy and therefore intimacy. When fingers got stuck in bottles and limbs stood grey-clothed in empty bathtubs they wondered whether this was the plunge of great erotic feeling, of unparalleled velocity.
We acquire our own versions of happiness. We pick them up at the chemist. We will meet the daughter of a pharmacist, a magician, the unwitting farmers, the florist, dusty curates, all of them touched by the blow of a fortune teller. Which body belongs to the future mother? Which tousled hot head to the boy with the battered bottom? The big hands and squeezed hearts belong to the busted marriage pair, their molars hanging out unhinged, their intestines blocked with impotent sludge, spud skin and unzipped flies. Once the sore of domestic morbidity cracks, it tends to spread at speed.
There is a house in the distance. A few all around. It’s big like a town. Some buildings with their backs ripped off send staircases sloping right out into air. They’re covered over with boards and belts of warning orange, but people go in and out, their decisions predicated, naturally, on conditions of weather. We stay put and look up at the trees and the blocks of buildings overlapping them, taking little time to calculate the degrees of calibration offered by either god or architect. There is no looking at the corners with their nice bricks or cornicing, thinking how neatly one inorganic block folds into the bright breast of natural things. No. Not that. We drink coffee and gallop from building roof to tree canopy, barely noting the difference between slate or leaf.

From where we can see it now, the view is stretched out. If we lie on our side or close one eye the view feels heavy, looser on the edges. We can angle our own choice perspective. What should feel like pollution feels rather like a suggestive hanging on, as though all these silhouettes of everything and nothing that float on by in layers could be caught and dragged back into a shapely form. We could pull time from the top or bottom and should choose a landscape suitable to our condition.

The sun whips the railway into little shards. The smell of hot tracks, their groan in the heat. We watch the train lines black and unmoving and make chromatic rhymes with the mashed-up flies and spiders of autumn, black too but talcumed now in the dust. We could imagine ourselves packaged aboard those trains, finally chopping the scene to bits in escape, seeing anew something ravishing, some palomino horses in a field or cement in factories with their piles scooped and troubled like concentric hairdos. Those troubles not designed to trouble us, or not yet anyway.

Anachronistic heavens, we all stood under them. The HaHa house stands too in rubble like some murderer in ruins. We called it that when the two top windows fell out and in absence of a door or in fact any certain relationship to soil or sky it sagged downwards in a crudely propped guffaw. Each step around the house had a different hue of desperation. And each brick, with all its acid brothers and acid sisters of mortar and their uniquely aggregated pity, had its own melody.

Golden Gingko used to blossom all around. Grass bent as it shouldn’t, snapping off in the wind. Grass turned to hay, sweet straws, battered-blown across the land. Only recently some amicable nobody folded plastics over the windows, coarse ridge-sewn plastics – banners for breathing – and now all the condensation hangs in the bottom edges with weed decks thudding and daily unravelling threads so you can’t pick window from wall.

They used to be touched by light, the windows; not broken by it, but opened up, polished. The house was named a wonder with its hyacinths, sloping grounds and happy rush of folks about. Not a burglar’s dozen like now with the copper wrenched out and carried away for cash. Something of structure had made an invisible leap out the window with those burglars, its own soiled body visible for just a moment as water had lurched out where the copper was sawn and the radiators rang themselves cold against the wall in alarm.

We wondered whether the house mourned for a repossession of indoor and outdoor space, or yins and yangs and all the half-hidden parts that no longer got their shapes to rhyme together. That rather just rested in a foggy doze. In times of rain and wind, the house accommodated for mood by flinging tiles off its roof, a cascade of roofs, onto the ground, the roof garden. The physics of the roof with its mimicry of the physics of breasts was always on a slow downwards fall. In summer – a hoppy brew – it stank of ferns; the only yeast of subversion. The little place sat there in weather taking its whacks.
We have been watching for some time. May we be forgiven. We Messrs. with eyes all over. When we took a jug with both hands and scooped its heavy bottom up to pour, the weather flowed out of it. We looked at the water in our glass, observed the specks and their impossible swirl and knew answers lay in an observation of closeness that sometimes meant staring at nothing much at all.

 

This is an excerpt from The Boiled in Between by Helen Marten, out with Prototype. 

Image, Helen Marten, Untitled, coloured pencil on paper, 2020, Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ. 

The post Messrs. External & Bodily appeared first on Granta.

5 Writing Tips To Improve Your Final Draft | Writer’s Relief

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5 Writing Tips To Improve Your Final Draft | Writer’s Relief

You’ve been writing, editing, proofreading, and rewriting your short story, poems, or novel. At long last, you’re at the point where you feel your WIP (work in progress) is done! Pat yourself on the back, do a happy dance, get a celebratory snack—but don’t start submitting just yet. The experts at Writer’s Relief know that there’s a good chance you still have more work to do before you’re ready to submit to literary editors and agents. Use these writing tips to improve your final draft and boost your odds of getting published.

Writing Tips To Improve Your Final Draft Before You Make Submissions

Let your work sit untouched for a few days. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s a crucial step to get yourself in the best headspace for editing. While some writers jump into edits the moment they’ve typed “The End,” it’s better to put the draft aside for a few days, weeks—or even longer. You’ll come back to your draft with fresh eyes and will be able to see any needed changes you didn’t notice before.

Ask someone to read through the draft. Whether you have a friend or family member who’s a grammar geek, or a standing relationship with another writer or critique partner, it’s helpful to have another reader review your draft. By the time you’ve finished a draft, you’re so close to the work that you may find it hard to remain objective, and you may miss plot holes, clunky lines, or passages begging for character development. An outside reader will notice these discrepancies and ask questions you might not have considered—but an editor or agent definitely would.

Research publishing industry guidelines for your genre. Though you should never write solely to satisfy trends, it’s also a good idea to make sure your writing is following the current publishing industry standards for length, topics, and format. No matter how strong your writing is, a literary journal editor or literary agent may simply have to pass it up if it falls too far outside the submission guidelines. If you’re writing prose, take the time to research how long pieces should be (whether they’re stories, essays, or books). If you’re writing poetry, find out whether editors are interested in rhyming poetry, prose poetry, free verse, or other forms. Knowing if your draft meets the criteria for the markets where you plan to submit will ensure you’re sending your work to the right places!

Cross your t’s, dot your i’s, and check for typos. You say you’ve proofread? Okay. Proofread again. We can’t say it enough: Proofread, proofread, proofread! Though a single spelling or grammatical error isn’t likely to make or break your draft’s chance of publication, multiple errors and typos probably will. Even if you’re a naturally gifted grammarian, it’s easy to make small mistakes or typos as you’re writing. If you’ve already proofread and aren’t finding any issues, try reading your piece aloud—you’ll be more likely to catch errors the eye flits over while reading! Again, ask someone with grammar skills to review your work for you. The Writer’s Relief proofreading experts can help.

And The Best Tip For Improving Your Final Draft…

Know when to stop. It’s tempting to keep returning to your piece to edit…and edit…and edit. Maybe you wake up in the middle of the night with a brilliant new idea you want to add, or you find yourself spending days trying to reword one pivotal line. While editing your draft is always necessary, eventually you have to stop editing and start submitting.

After You’ve Submitted Your Final Draft

Once your final draft is polished and submitted, you can do another happy dance, get another cookie—and start working on your next project! Don’t sit waiting and worrying about responses. Move on to writing your next draft, and use these tips to make sure your final draft is always your very best work. Remember, the more well-written submissions you send out, the better your odds of getting your work published!

 

Question: What is your favorite go-to editing tip?