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The Poetry Vaccine

‘If I’d listened to you, we’d be dead by now’ my father told me as the coronovirus carried one peer of his after another to their grave. I had wanted him to stay in London in February, while coronavirus was still being downplayed by English politicians and their ‘special advisors’. Father had just retired from his radio station in Prague, and was visiting London with my mother – wouldn’t they like to spend more time with my wife and the kids? But they’d insisted on going back, saying something about renewing a contract on their apartment. In retrospect, it was a close shave. My wife and I, as well as our kids, succumbed to corona later that month. We must have been walking around with it for weeks before, little infection engines. One misplaced breath could have done for my parents. In Prague they were safer: lockdown had happened much earlier than in ruthless England.

My first job after recovering from the illness was to make a BBC Radio 4 documentary about the pandemic. I’d pitched it as an investigation into whether Covid-19 was bringing society together or driving us apart. The program was related to my research at the London School of Economics, where I investigate ‘polarisation’ and how to overcome it. The last few years had been defined by social divides around Brexit, pitching Remainers versus Brexiteers, which, when you look at the underlying polling, is very much a war between the generations: the elderly vote Brexit, the young Remain.

Making the program was more of a struggle than I’d anticipated. Even after the most intense coronavirus symptoms – fevers, panting, sweats, deliriums – had faded, I was still listless, and would lose focus halfway through interviews. The covid brain, starved of regular oxygen by crappy lungs, frazzles fast. One of the first successful interviews I managed was with the psychoanalyst Josh Cohen, who detected elemental tensions in the relations between generations during Covid-19:

‘You have this notion in Freud that the band of brothers club together in some notional ancient time to kill the primal father. And then they are filled with remorse for it. And that remorse is the basis of repression which is the basis of civilisation. So civilisation is really about the internalisation of guilt at our aggression towards those we would like to topple or get out of the way. We become morally evolved by caring about the very people we feel this secret aggression towards.’

Cohen saw this logic playing out during the Covid-19 crisis – particularly around whether to pursue herd immunity, the idea that had been so popular in England at the start of the pandemic. ‘Part of the rhetoric was that it would be an efficient cull of the elderly and the infirmed and it wouldn’t affect anybody else,’ Cohen said. Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, discussed the herd immunity strategy in interviews with Sky News and the BBC, saying ‘our aim is to reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely . . . to build up some kind of herd immunity’. Later, the Sunday Times would report that Boris Johnson’s chief political adviser, Dominic Cummings, had been overheard at parties describing the government’s strategy: ‘protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.’

But as the data began to show that far more people could potentially die, there was a turnaround. The government rowed back on the idea of herd immunity, claiming it was never part of their official strategy, and called the Cummings quotation a ‘highly defamatory fabrication’.

I asked Cohen what he made of all this.

‘We went from a kind of cavalier “it’s only the old and the infirm” to “we must protect the most vulnerable, most precious members of our society”. It was a massive leap in cultural attitude. An invocation of the remorse and guilt that comes around any intimation that aggression towards our parents is making its way into the public conversation.’

After our interview, I found myself thinking again about my parents visit, and the way I’d insisted they stay. Had there been some sort of Freudian urge underlying my desire to keep my mother and father in the UK?

My father certainly thought there was something in the idea that coronavirus showed children’s hidden instincts towards their parents. Back in Prague, he was writing poetry on the subject. He’s been a poet all his life, but his radio career had meant that he was only able to produce one book or so per year. Now, hemmed in between retirement and the plague, he was tinkling out a books’ worth in a month:

In the good old days
Children and virgins were offered as sacrifice.
How wise!
A civilisation should sacrifice its future,
Or else what’s the point of the sacrifice?
But these days
They come for us . . .
Do they think the Gods are blind?
Senile?
But here we stand on the sacrificial altar,
Shivering, sniveling, farting.
Can’t you tell that we’re useless?

Father had often joked that because he wrote in Russian, and I in English, we’d avoided having an outright father-son confrontation over literary territory. We had different languages to fill with our ambitions. Perhaps in order to avoid a collision I’d also swerved away into different genres: first television in contrast to his radio; then the plod of social science and very Anglo-Saxon, grounded reportage in contrast to his Russian poetic flights. Whenever I publish an article about politics and propaganda he always sighs and complains: please try to remember that deep down, you’re a poet.

For my father, poetry had been a way to rebel against the oppressive power he grew up under, the soviet system, which crushed the individual voice under the weight of ideology. In an early novella, written when he was twenty-seven and being interrogated by the KGB for handling censored literature, his fictional narrator, a young writer, discovers his own father’s imperial, impersonal, official writing and compares it with his own. The battle of ideologies is represented by another generational struggle.

First, the narrator’s father, in firm socialist style:

This country has thrown off the chains of Capitalist Slavery! Bourgeois culture was always far from the people! Now it has revealed its true face: the face of the maidservant of monopolistic capital! Welcome the Socialist Sun! Let the Darkness be gone!

And then we see the writing of my father’s narrator:

Just a minute ago you were walking the street, breathing in air and breathing out words; now you have burst through to the page, now it will pour out, like wild berries you’d been carrying inside your jacket. Is there any joy greater than writing in the first person?

Now, back in Prague, the quarantine and the closure of borders was giving my father Cold War flashbacks. And while Covid-19 was reducing life and death to statistics, father was again using literature to affirm individuality, a voice.

However much you try,
However much you hope,
You always end up as some set of statistic.
Homeowners or heterosexuals or failed writers.
How pointless these numbers are! What have statistics got to do with your life?
But now we have new sets:
The number of infected
(the counter is ticking)
The percentage of those infected who have died
(the counter is ticking)
The percentage of the dead over seventy
(the counter is ticking)

He was worried about my individual voice too, though not because of Covid-19.

When I told him about the radio program I was making for the BBC, he said, ‘Take care. You will end up sounding like a BBC person. They all sound the same. In your last program you sounded like an imitation of Andrew Marr. It’s horrific to hear you lose your voice this way.’

Radio, for father, has always been about the magic of the voice, the almost mystic properties of sound. My father had worked for the BBC himself, as a Soviet political refugee in the Russian Service during the height of the Cold War. At that time, sound was the only way to break through the physical walls and barbed wires of borders that had cut the world into different geopolitical zones. The rare phone calls he and mother had with their parents in the USSR took hours to arrange through a dispatcher, the secret services eavesdropping on every word. But barriers fell away when he entered the BBC radio studio; he felt himself piloting through censorship:

‘The hermetically sealed and soundproofed booths, the control panels, the lack of outside windows make radio studios like spaceships. And your voice alone is capable of unlocking this closed space. I am convinced that, as they sit by the radio, many listeners are on a voyage round the world, no, into outer space, more like. I too am a travel maniac: I jump from wave to wave.’

After decades in his spaceship studio he had come to see radio as a way of overcoming not only censorship, but death itself. The voices he recorded were immortal, once transmitted they travelled on infinite radio waves into the universe, like disembodied souls reverberating in the stratosphere. He once wrote a book of poems where the main character is a radio producer who goes mad thinking he can bring people back to life with the power of the wireless. In his ‘Covid Cycle’ he turned to radio once again as a metaphor of overcoming glum reality:

Only radio never shuts up during quarantine.
The world has become like a sunken submarine
Where a sailor inside needs to keep beating a hammer on the hull
Hoping to be heard upon the surface.

He imagines ‘a man, who looks a lot like me’ going around a spectral Prague with a magic Dictaphone which has the miraculous ability to record sounds that still existed before Covid-19: the tinkle of bottles in a bar; the whistle of skipping rope and squeak of swings at an empty playground

Back at the BBC, my own program was proving a more prosaic affair. It was, however, at least progressing, as I shrugged off the shortness of breath. Most of my interviewees were academics, who had conducted long, empirical, detailed experiments about how we can communicate with each other in a world no longer divided by physical barriers as in the Cold War, but by extreme polarisation, where people live in different social media ghettos of self-selected reality. Covid-19 now made those polarised divides a health risk – with groups tumbling into online worlds of wild conspiracies about the virus and quack cures.

Talia Stroud, a Professor of Communications at the University of Texas, told me about an experiment she had designed where you replace the ‘Like’ button on Facebook with a ‘Respect’ button. People in one political bubble were more likely to engage with content from the other tribe when they were asked whether they respected them, which was less a sign of partisan loyalty than ‘like’. Just a small tweak in the way a computer program creates metaphors for our emotions and relations could already change society.

Stroud had also experimented with how journalists can win trust from audiences convinced their claims to objectivity are a cover for their biases; that they are just ‘fake news’. One way was for journalists to reveal more about themselves when they present their content, welcome the audience into their process of composition. Trust levels could go up when journalists explain their personal background; how they collected the information; why the piece was commissioned. By revealing one’s subjectivity, you could have a more objective conversation. However, she lamented, as soon as you find one way of refreshing this relationship with the audience, it gets staid again, another set of clichés that again becomes a calcified wall between people.

One needs to be constantly finding new ways to break through; incessantly refreshing viewpoints that shake people out of their bubbles of identity. Only by constantly rewiring how we look at the world can one create enough movement to break through the barriers of seeing the world purely as ‘Democrats’ or ‘Republicans’, ‘Remainers’ and ‘Brexiteers’. Imagination, rather than fact-checking, is the path out of polarisation and, paradoxically, towards a shared reality.

I’ve spent the last few years of my life in a university building full of social scientists, trying to use polling and focus groups, data analysis and digital targeting to investigate whether a piece of content breaches the Berlin Walls of partisanship. It’s slow work, often worthy, but it only leads me back to how secondary sociology is to poetry in the project of reopening identity: poetry is the place where we experiment with changing ‘frames’ and points of view most radically.

While writing my last book I came across a PhD study that showed how the one thing that connected disparate Chinese people who did not accept government propaganda was that they had read fiction voraciously growing up: they could imagine a different way of experiencing the world to the one doled out by the CCP. It reminded me of my father in the Soviet Union, for whom poetry was a path to political rebellion, a way of changing ‘frames’ so radical it undermined the edifice of identity all around him. Perhaps poetry is the vaccine from the information virus.

Even today my father was still overturning perspective with every new poem he posted on his Facebook feed: he told the story of the virus from the point of view of rats undergoing vaccine experiments; of an information virus jealous of the coronavirus. He imagined trying to record the voice of the virus, bursting into a laboratory and breaking a test tube to gather its triumphant tones. Other poems satirised the quotidian. There was one about not being able to get through to a solicitor to make his will . . .

Or else I thought that was a poem – but then the next day he called and asked why I hadn’t gotten back to him. ‘Can’t you see we’re facing a crisis with how to plan for death?’ he asked me. I apologised and explained I’d read his post as poetry, rather than as a cry for help, confusing his regular voice with his poetic one. I said I would help source a solicitor in London as soon as my radio work allowed.

I asked a friend of mine, Devorah Baum, about how our relationship to our elders, or just the elderly, had shifted during Covid-19. ‘We have both put our parents onto a pedestal and protected them, but at the same time that protection and worship is a way of controlling them,’ she mused. ‘Now they are the helpless ones who, much like when we were infants, depend on us.’ We had gone from ‘herd immunity’ to protection, but that protection was also a form of control.

I wasn’t surprised to see that father’s latest poem was all about this new dynamic:

‘It’s cold. Steam comes out of her mouth.
The doctor says she has the Spanish Flu.
A shadow passes over my mother’s face. She’s dead.’

That’s by Mikhail Zoshenko.
But who will describe my cough?
Zoshenko’s mother was lucky.
Though –
Isn’t my son a writer too?
Yes – but the borders are closed.
He won’t be able to fly here
As they say, in good time.

It’s all very well thinking of radio as a metaphor to overcome death, but it’s children who guarantee immortality, and who are truly in power.

After I had finished my radio show, and it was released, my father messaged me. ‘I listened to your program. Very good. Your voice sounds personal. Born for radio by me.’ I told him I now felt fully recovered from Covid-19, and had been asked to make a new, ten-part series for the BBC. It had been nice to get away from the social science and just work on recording voices and storytelling. I felt at ease spending my days in the ‘spaceship’ of the studio: when Covid-19 has ruptured so many patterns, I felt like I was continuing my dad’s.

In Prague, his poetry seemed to have made peace with being made the sacrifice – or perhaps he was now playing with the idea that risk was a better fate that being controlled by his own children. I couldn’t tell.

It is good we are the prey.
We walk slowly. Sit in the sunshine. Pause in the window (without masks)
He doesn’t hurry. Aims. Wipes the sweat from his brow.
He takes pleasure in choosing who to hit and where:
In the sinuses, lungs, throat.
Yes it is good we are the prey.
Because if it were the children
Where would we hide them?
In the cellar? The loft?
We would shout: ‘I will tear your ear off if you dare peak out!’
And afterwards we would walk around with an ear in the hand:
That is not something you can just throw in the bin.

And this sniper is a sophisticated type.
He loves his job.
He shakes the moth balls from his suit.
Picks up a retro suitcase.
Comes round and rings the doorbell.
‘You have mice?’
‘No we have a cat. The cat catches the mice.’
‘What about Bats?’
And he just stands there quietly.
Refuses to leave.
While you hide the children in the pantry.
To summarise: we are lucky.
Let me open the window. Let him take aim.

After work at the BBC the other day I came home to find my own children, ten-year-old twins who haven’t seen a school room for two months, on a Zoom call with father. He’s been giving them lessons while school’s been off. Largely, he spends the time teaching them to write poetry. He thinks one, at least, may be a poet like himself.

 

Image © Dean Hochman

The post The Poetry Vaccine appeared first on Granta.

Quick! Here’s How To Write Great Flash Fiction | Writer’s Relief

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Quick! Here’s How To Write Great Flash Fiction | Writer’s Relief

Flash fiction is an increasingly popular genre that more literary editors are looking to scoop up for their journals, and many well-known authors have jumped on the bandwagon. The word count for flash fiction often varies by journal and can range from the length of a tweet to 1,500 words—with 500 – 750 words the most common rule of thumb. But how do you write a whole story in such a condensed form? Writer’s Relief outlines the best tips and pointers to help you write great flash fiction.

How To Write Flash Fiction

Flash fiction is sometimes confused with prose poetry. However, a flash fiction piece should contain all of the narrative elements of a traditional short story, while prose poetry emphasizes imagery, rhythm, and expression. Here’s how to get started writing flash fiction.

Plan: Since it’s so brief, you can just scribble out a few lines and boom—you’ve written a flash fiction piece, right? Wrong. It’s just as important to plan out a flash fiction piece as it is a traditional-length short story. Determine your key plot points and story arc. Remember: Flash fiction is a complete story in micro-form.

Use Your Title: Since the word count is so limited, it’s important to use everything in your writing arsenal to complete your story. Here’s a tip: Make your title part of the story! Your title can be an introduction to the piece, a statement about the story’s purpose, a concise plot summary, or even the first line of the piece itself. You can show your creativity with a great title while cleverly shaving off a bit of your word count.

Limit The Number Of Characters: In this case, we’re talking about the number of people in your story, not spaces you’ve typed (although this is about flash fiction, so keyboard characters should be limited too!). Keeping track of multiple characters in a standard short story is almost impossible—it’s definitely out of the question when you’re writing flash fiction of no more than 1,500 words. If you want to write a story about how all of Santa’s reindeer meet Snow White’s seven dwarf buddies, this isn’t the genre. Focus on one or two characters so you can develop a full story without going over the allotted word count.

Jump Into The Action: Begin your flash fiction with the story underway—there’s no space for lengthy detail or backstory. Unless it’s integral to the plot, no one needs to know that your protagonist has flashing green eyes or that his cousin twice-removed lives on a dairy farm in Delaware and they haven’t spoken in months. Immediately give your characters something to do and move the story along quickly.

Experiment: Just like any genre, it’s okay to get experimental, especially with your story arc! Maybe you want to start at the end of your story and work your way back to the beginning. Or you can play around with the standard elements of a genre: For example, write a romance like it’s a true crime story. Do something unexpected to make your flash fiction pop!

Choose Your Words Carefully: When you have only a few hundred words to work with, every word is important. Skip uncommon or unusual words that would require explanation or pull readers out of the story. Our pro-tip: Scrap the word “very.” Instead of saying a character is very hungry, use the word famished. Very tired? Say “exhausted.” Make smart use of the thesaurus in your word processing program or crack open your copy of Roget’s.

Nail The Opening And Closing: In flash fiction, the two most important lines are the first and last. Your first line hooks the reader into your story, while the last line offers a final impression. You may even consider writing those two lines first and then adding everything in between!

Flash fiction isn’t a genre for everyone, but it can be fun—and helpful in developing your overall craft as a writer. Writing flash fiction is a great way to train yourself to keep short stories short. Next time you sit down to write, give flash fiction a try!

 

Question: What do you think is the hardest part of writing good flash fiction?

The Great Indian Tee and Snakes

In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta publishes the regional winners of the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Kritika Pandey’s ‘The Great Indian Tee and Snakes’ is the winning entry from Asia.

 

The girl with the black bindi knows that she is not supposed to glance at the boy in the white skull cap but she does. The boy moves restlessly on a stool as he cradles a cup of chai in his hands. The girl has flavored it with cardamom for no extra cost before swallowing the leftover pod so her father won’t find out. He is the mustachioed owner who cleans his ears with Q-tips at the cash counter. The girl looks up from the boiling contents of the saucepan, pretending to notice new customers while examining the contours of the boy’s stubbly chin, the kite-shaped birthmark on his neck. He mostly watches the speeding vehicles on the road. Once in a while, he meets her gaze and his ears turn crimson. At such moments the girl and the boy realize that they must immediately look away but never stop noticing each other wherever they go.

 

*

 

It is September. Hawkers appear with baskets of tomatoes. They are overpriced but surprisingly red. The girl’s father asks her to buy two kilos. They would keep tomato chutney on the menu until tomatoes become wholly unaffordable in the winter. She squats at the water pump outside the stall to wash the tomatoes, facing the boy, gazing at the stubbed toe sticking out of his sandals. He is one of the few customers who prefer eating keema samosas to aloo samosas but it is the least of the girl’s concerns. Their stuffings are somewhat different but the girl makes both types of samosas with the exact same batter. They are the same thing unless one absolutely wants to differentiate, which most people do, including the girl’s father who has strictly warned her against eating keema samosas.

A chilly breeze leaves the girl covered in goosebumps.

‘Why does it have to get cold?’ She says to no one in particular.

‘Seasons change,’ says one of the men sitting next to the boy. They are daily wage laborers who ask for aloo samosas with their chai, not keema samosas, never keema samosas. They carry grimy shovels and miss no opportunity to talk.

‘Because this is how it is.’

‘Because this is how it’s always been.’

‘Because the earth moves around the sun,’ says the boy.

The girl breathlessly punctures a tomato, then washes the red mush off her fingernails. She has never heard him speak before.

A man eyes the monogram on the boy’s shirt. ‘Go to school?’

He nods yes.

The girl’s father had pulled her out of school after a couple from Class 10 eloped to Bombay.

The man chuckles. ‘I went to school myself. Now I shovel cement and sand.’

Later that night, the girl can’t stop wondering if the earth really moves around the sun. Why had no one told her that? Who was making it move? She sits up in bed and thinks about endless fields of cauliflower and tries not to throw up, like she has to do on the Giant Wheel at the funfair. Dreams take over when she falls asleep. She grabs the boy’s stubbed toe as they fly off the face of the earth.

 

*

 

The town is on a plateau formed by colliding land masses when the dinosaurs were still around. It is big enough to have a Domino’s but too small for traffic lights. The traffic policemen take breaks from signaling vehicles to rub lime and tobacco in the palms of their hands until drivers yell at them to regain control. The girl’s father had moved here when growing onions in the village farmlands stopped being profitable. It was raining less and less each year. For a while, he tried to find work at the department store with glass walls, live in a house with bedrooms. Then he gave up. He got bamboo sticks and tarpaulin and set up the stall outside their shack. It unsettled him to include keema samosas on the menu but he wanted to make whatever profit he could. A painter demanded rupees 500 for adorning the aluminium anterior of the table where the chai was prepared on a coal stove. ‘It better be a nice and important name,’ the girl’s father had told the painter, who could hardly spell, and so the tea and snacks stall was christened The Great Indian Tee and Snakes. The painter had promised, ‘Anyone who loves this country will love this name.’ Some passersby point out the sign to each other and have a good laugh. Others nod in admiration of what they take to be high literary nonsense. Many click pictures.

 

*

 

The girl is frying samosas. Today the boy is being questioned by the men with grimy shovels about what brings him to this part of town every weekend.

‘I water an old man’s geraniums,’ he says.

‘Gera-what?’

‘Flowers.’

Thanks to the laborers’ interest in him, the girl can now hear the boy talk.

‘Germium,’ she says to a golden samosa floating in the oil, pleased that the boy knows such words. Her father glares at her. She sighs. If only she were allowed to talk to the boy, she wouldn’t have to talk to the samosas.

‘Pays well?’ A laborer asks.

‘600 per month,’ says the boy.

‘For watering flowers!’

‘Kya kismat hai.’

‘Lucky bastard.’

The boy says that his wealthy employer lives by himself and reads magazines with high-definition photographs of wild felines. When someone brings up the new prime minister’s yoga moves, the boy silently nibbles on his samosa. The girl mumbles things that she wishes to say aloud to him.

‘Plants make their own food. I know because I used to go to school as well . . . I also know that we can’t see air but it’s there . . . Do you like summer or winter? I like summer for the mangoes. I don’t like winter because the cold makes me feel more feelings . . . I don’t care if you eat this samosa or that samosa. Just saying. People should eat whatever they want to. Why is it a big deal? . . . You have nice fingers, you know . . . Every morning, some men gather in the park with Gandhi’s statue and force themselves to laugh. If you look at them, they’ll make you laugh too. They say it makes you happy . . . You have really nice fingers . . . Do you like me?’

 

*

 

The girl’s father wants the boy to be served chai in stainless steel cups only. If the girl mistakenly serves him in ceramic, her father waits for the customers to leave, then smashes the cup. ‘Steel can be washed with soap and water,’ he says, ‘But you can’t wash a keema-eater’s saliva off of clay.’ The girl used to follow her father’s orders and throw away the ceramic pieces. But now she collects them as if they are artifacts. When her father is snoring at night, she steps out of the house, glues back the broken cups under the streetlight, and hides them among the tangled roots of a Banyan tree.

 

*

 

The girl believes that her father is kinder than he appears to be. He could have tossed her into the river after discovering that she was not a boy but he did not. Not even after her mother, his wife, died a week later from excessive bleeding. The girl obviously doesn’t like that he expects her to be up around five in the morning to open the stall, calling her the ‘Queen of England’ when she sleeps in. However, he lets her spend on nail polish and newspapers from which she cuts out pictures of the oval-faced woman with shimmery eyelids. The man at the newspaper stand says that her name is Beyoncé. The customers at the stall eat samosas from scraps of newspaper with Beyoncé-shaped holes in them.

At times when the girl gets a bridal mehndi assignment – she is a decent henna artist – her father takes care of the stall so she can spend hours painting the hands of brides. She hides the names of their future husbands amid swirly, intricate henna patterns.

Nevertheless, as far as the keema-eater is concerned, the girl must not get ahead of herself. Her father doesn’t need to tell her that girls with black bindis are not supposed to feel this way about boys in white skull caps. She knows.

 

*

 

The girl wakes up with cold toes. She gathers twigs, leaves, bits of paper, cloth and empty Lipton cartons before setting them on fire. Her father fans the flames. The girl, the boy, four of the laborers and the girl’s father sit around the fire with their chai, yawning. Sun rays are trapped in fog. The morning feels like evening. The unbroken-broken cups hidden among the Banyan’s roots must be covered in frost, the girl thinks, wondering if she should show them to the boy. But what if he has a girlfriend at school? What if he has held her hand? When a laborer coughs, the boy says that his mother coughs all the time. Something is wrong with her lungs.

‘I’ll become a doctor and treat her,’ he adds.

‘Treat us also,’ jokes the laborer.

The boy smiles. ‘I will.’

The chai has finally awakened the men. They won’t stop talking now.

‘People should be able to become whoever they want to be.’

‘But the problem is that there are too many people.’

‘And too few things one can become.’

‘And fewer things one can sell to buy rice.’

Their laughter is followed by silence.

‘I want to become Beyoncé,’ the girl says.

‘Who?’

 

*

 

The new prime minister’s face is everywhere. On telephone poles and park benches and garbage cans and the back of cars and even on the faces of so many people who wear masks of his face with tiny holes for eyes. The girl doesn’t know how his face appeared on the water pump outside the stall. Sometimes she is unable to flavor the boy’s chai with cardamom for the fear of the prime minister watching her. Other times she skips the cardamom because, for all she knows, the boy doesn’t even care.

 

*

 

The Great Indian Tee and Snakes is out of sugar. The girl walks to the grocery store. Tiny rocks push into the soles of her feet through the cracks in her chappals. Once she had stolen a pair of cat-printed chappals from outside the temple, but they have been lying under her bed ever since. She worries that the owner may spot them and take them away.

The grocer is an old man who is partially deaf. The TV in the store needs to be pounded from time to time to keep the images from splintering. The place is packed during the cricket season when people stop by to watch an over or two, praise or curse Dhoni. After purchasing the sugar, the girl is too caught up watching on TV the magnified insides of somebody’s mouth being cleansed by a toothpaste that tastes like turmeric to notice when the boy appears next to her. He asks the man for chewing gum.

‘Hey,’ he says to the girl.

‘Oh, hi.’

The boy is standing right next to her in a place where her father’s gaze is not upon them. She can touch the kite-shaped birthmark on that neck if she wants to. The man has left a pack of gum on the counter before returning his attention to the TV.

‘Nice to see you outside the stall, for a change,’ the boy says.

‘Same.’

‘You’ll make a good Beyoncé. Probably better than Beyoncé herself.’

The girl touches her bindi, smiling, telling herself that she was wrong about the boy having a girlfriend at school. ‘Won’t you offer me chewing gum?’

‘Absolutely.’

The girl chews the gum until it’s time to go to bed, then she swallows it.

 

*

 

The girl examines ordinary objects with newfound fascination – a matchbox, a potato, freight trucks on the road, the ground beneath her feet – thinking that nothing is bigger or smaller than it should be. Everything is the perfect size. She air-dries her shampooed hair in the afternoon sun instead of twisting it up in a towel. She wonders if this is how girls become women. One night when she is putting a broken cup back together, soiled with the keema-eater’s saliva, blood gushes out of her finger like water from the pump. Nevertheless, unlike the brides whose hands she paints with henna, she feels no need for a husband and a house and a washing machine and a baby and a mixer grinder to be content. All she needs is for the boy in the white skull cap to drink chai and eat samosas at the stall so she can watch him watch her.

 

*

 

The laborers are talking about an upcoming cinema hall in town that will play three movies at once. The boy is eating a keema samosa, waiting for his chai. Around a dozen young men with saffron bandanas arrive on motorbikes. They order chai and aloo samosas. The girl’s father tells them to leave because they never pay.

‘This isn’t a wedding you can crash anytime,’ he says.

‘Don’t be so touchy now,’ says a young man. His T-shirt is just as saffron as his bandana. He looks like a carrot.

‘Extra spicy samosas, please,’ another young man tells the girl.

When the girl’s father stands up to protest, the young man who looks like a carrot pushes him into his chair before noticing that his companions are still struggling to park their motorbikes.

‘Who the fuck left this bicycle here?’ He hollers.

‘It’s mine,’ says the boy in the white skull cap. He starts moving his bicycle but the young man stops him.

‘You think this is the fucking Olympics?’

‘I am sorry. I’ll move it.’

‘Sorry won’t do. Say, “chai is great”.’

‘Haan?’

‘Say it.’

‘Chai . . . chai is . . .’

‘You don’t like chai?’

‘I drink it every day.’

‘So say it! ‘Chai is great’!’

‘Chai is . . . great.’

The girl whips the batter slowly. She would poison the samosas if she could.

‘Good. Now pick up your disgusting samosa and throw it away.’

‘What?’

‘You deaf?’

‘No more keema samosas for you,’ says another young man. ‘Only aloo samosas from now.’

‘But I like keema samosas,’ says the boy.

The young man who looks like a carrot slaps him. The girl stops whipping the batter.

‘Throw your samosa away or we’ll boil you with the chai.’

The boy does as he is told.

The young man takes off his saffron bandana before handing it over to the boy. ‘Now get rid of that dumb skull cap and put this on.’

‘I won’t.’

‘You won’t?’

This time the boy looks into the young man’s eyes.

‘I will not do that.’

The young men beat up the boy, calling him a fucking keema-eater, asking him to go back to his keema-country, as one of them makes a video on his phone. The girl’s father and some of the laborers try to intervene unsuccessfully. The girl begs the men to let the boy go. ‘All he does is water flowers!’ she screams. Nobody listens. A couple of laborers join in after some time, calling the boy names, thrusting their shovels into his stomach. ‘But he is going to become a doctor and treat you!’ The girl pleads. ‘How could you forget?’ Her father yells at her to go into the house. The boy looks like a punctured tomato and dies.

 

*

 

December is almost over. The girl with the black bindi weeps when she is cold. She cannot stand straight. She cannot hold her head high. She cannot feel her nose. When her father wakes her up in the mornings, she turns her back towards him. ‘No,’ she says. She sneaks out keema samosas from the stall before eating them hidden behind the kangaroo-shaped trash cans at the park. She has never eaten anything with keema before. It tastes like tears until she realizes that she needs to stop crying while eating. After that, it tastes like food. Newspapers carry front-page pictures of the boy in the white skull cap, sitting against a plain grey background, in even lighting, unsmiling, but alive. He looks straight at her. Now, instead of Beyoncé’s pictures, the girl cuts out every picture of the boy from every paper before burying them under her mattress. She wipes the frost off the unbroken-broken cups under the Banyan tree.

 

*

 

When the wedding season arrives, the girl has too many henna assignments and not enough time to grieve. The brides talk while getting their hands painted because the girl listens. One of the brides points to a picture on the wall. Her fiancé is holding the Taj Mahal in the palm of his hands. Another bride tells the girl that her fiancé’s name is Adithya with an H. She wants his name on both her hands, front, and back. Another requests her to feed her chocolate after her hands are covered in mehndi. Yet another suggests the girl play hard-to-get if she ever wants her boyfriend to propose for marriage. ‘Love requires you to be something of an asshole,’ she says. And yet another woman looks uninterested in all such matters despite her Banarasi saree and eye makeup, despite the jasmine flowers in her hair, as she spreads her hands before the girl. She doesn’t even remember her fiancé’s name. The girl tells her that it doesn’t seem like she wants to get married.

‘I don’t.’

‘What do you want to do then?’

‘Paint pictures of the sky.’

‘You can do that even if you’re married.’

‘I can do that even if I’m not.’

‘But why the sky?’

‘Because it is infinite.’

 

*

 

Newspapers are covered in pictures of a high-speed train by the time the weddings are over. There’s a nationwide ban on keema samosas, keema naan, keema parathas, keema pakoras and, basically, keema everything. The girl loiters in the park with Gandhi’s statue.

In the mornings, a group of men stand in a circle and force themselves to laugh. They are loud and self-assured, the type that eat aloo samosas. At first, they go, ‘Ho-ho, ha-ha, ho-ho, ha-ha’. Before long, however, they are laughing uproariously, teeth bared, arms raised in the air. The girl wonders if they had seen the front-page pictures of the boy in the white skull cap. In the evening, young men and women take too many selfies against the fountain. The young women wear lipstick, the young men have their hair sticking up. Their faces change when they point their phone cameras towards themselves. The girl wonders if they have ever tasted a keema samosa.

Men in blue uniforms water the plants in the park. One of them is watering a bed of flowers. The petals are more purple on the inside than the outside. She walks up to him.

‘Sir, are these germiums?’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Are these germium flowers?’

‘There are no flowers by that name.’

She walks up to another man who is watering potted yellow flowers with long, spaced-out petals, and repeats the question.

‘No,’ he says, ‘but nice tits.’

 

*

 

The girl sits on a park bench and tries to fall in love again. She tries to fall in love with the boy in an oversized T-shirt who is kicking a football, or the one who is doing push-ups, or the young man with the shocking blue earphones, walking with his hands in his pockets, or the boy who is holding hands with a girl who has streaks of red hair, or the one lying on his stomach, reading a book, or maybe even the one who is ogling at the women practicing yoga. Nothing happens.

Then she lies on her back and stares at the infinite sky. She hopes the woman who didn’t remember her fiancé’s name is painting as many pictures of the sky as she wants to. But infinity is not the girl’s type. She needs something more measurable than that, something smaller than the sky but bigger than a samosa.

 

*

 

It is a pleasant April morning. The men who force themselves to laugh are laughing like there’s no tomorrow. One of them notices the girl sitting by herself and invites her to join them. ‘Guaranteed to make you happy,’ he says. She reluctantly accepts. In the beginning, she stands there, wanting to disappear. Then, encouraged by the men, she smiles a small, confused smile. Then she laughs softly because everyone else is laughing. For a few minutes, it feels insincere, but after that, she is actually laughing aloud. She bookmarks this as an important skill.

A man turns to her when it’s over.

‘So, young lady, are you happy now?’

She looks at the beads of sweat on his forehead, laughter lines around his mouth.

‘Are you?’ she asks.

 

The overall winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2020 will be announced during a special award ceremony which will be broadcast online at 1pm BST on 30 June 2020. See here for further details.

Image © Cishore

The post The Great Indian Tee and Snakes appeared first on Granta.

Featured Client: Sarah Odishoo | Writer’s Relief

Our Review Board Is Open!

Submit Your Short Story, Poetry, or Book Today!

DEADLINE: Thursday, June 18, 2020

Click on the video above to hear about Sarah’s experience with Writer’s Relief!

We may be introducing you to our featured client Sarah Odishoo today, but Writer’s Relief met Sarah over twenty-five years ago! We’ve been working together almost from the day we opened our doors, and it’s safe to say the partnership has been a success. Her work has appeared in more than two dozen publications, including Michigan Quarterly Review and The Shenandoah Journal.

Read on and watch the video to hear how Writer’s Relief opened so many publishing doors for Sarah—and even helped her nab some impressive awards and nominations!

In Sarah’s Own Words

As a professor of literature at Columbia College Chicago, I needed to publish. Although I had always been writing, I never had the time to send out my work, nor did I know where to send it. Then I found Writer’s Relief, and I have been working with them since December 1995. That was twenty-five years ago!

In that time, seventy pieces of my work have been published, and I have received a number of awards.

I have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of Net Anthology, and Amazon Anthology.

In 2012, I received a cash award for my nonfiction essay in The Literary Journal’s “Best Nonfiction Essay” publication.

I was also a finalist in the following competitions: Nelson Algren’s Short Fiction Competition, Nimrod Poetry Contest, and the Eve of Saint Agnes Poetry Contest, in which the judges included James Dickey, Joyce Carol Oates, Gwendolyn Brooks, Stanley Kunitz, and Margaret Atwood.

I am indebted to the community of writers, proofreaders, and writing professionals at Writer’s Relief who have given me what I couldn’t have accomplished on my own.

Writer’s Relief proofreads essays, poems, and stories for errors, makes suggestions, and keeps track of the work submitted and the work accepted. Most importantly, they have the comprehensive knowledge of the publications they select for my stories. Their staff has always been responsive and helpful. They are true professionals.

I will be forever grateful to the staff at Writer’s Relief. I could never have published seventy works without them. They continue to support me and my work with professional “joy.”

More About Sarah

Sarah A. Odishoo, professor emeritus, is a poet, writer, and Chicago native. She served as associate professor of English at Columbia College Chicago for thirty-three years, teaching Greek mythology, film, and literature. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including Adelaide, apt, Drunk Monkeys, and The Montreal Review, to name a few. Sarah’s most recent work, which is autobiographical, focuses on her growing up as a first-generation Assyrian-American.

A Summary and Analysis of W. B. Yeats’ ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’

Divided into six parts, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ is, along with ‘Easter 1916’, probably W. B. Yeats’s best-known political poem. It is also among his longer and more ambitious works. In this post, we’ll offer a summary and analysis of the poem, taking it section by section. Nineteen Hundred and […]

The post A Summary and Analysis of W. B. Yeats’ ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ appeared first on Interesting Literature.

Is an MFA in Creative Writing Worthwhile? 7 Writers Weigh In

Many writers wonder if pursuing an Master’s in Fine Arts in Creative Writing is worthwhile. Maybe you’re even wondering: What is an MFA?

For some writers, it could mean finally workshopping a manuscript in an academic setting, networking with faculty and staff or just kickstarting the manuscript in the first place.

Others say it’s not worth the money and you could recreate the MFA experience in other ways.

Is an MFA worth your time and money?

To gain some insight, I asked a few published writers to weigh in, including those outside of the traditional creative writing realms.

Here’s what they recommended thinking through if you’re considering getting an MFA.

1. Identify your end goal

To pursue her goal of publishing a novel, immerse herself into literary culture, and satisfy a crossroads moment of her life, Jordan Rosenfield decided to apply for MFA programs. Now, as a MFA graduate, she’s a freelance writer and an author of a handful of books.

She said writers should really think about what they want — and how an MFA might help them get there — before enrolling in a creative writing program.

“While it hasn’t made my career path to publishing novels any easier, it certainly improved my craft, and my critical eye and opened doors in other aspects of my career,” Rosenfield said. “If you plan to teach, I think in a related field, an MFA is essential, but if you just want to improve your craft, you can do that through online courses and weekend workshops for a lot less money.”

Heather Meyer, a comedy writer and playwright, decided a low-residency MFA would broaden her network and increase her skill set while still working in theatre.

“The low-res allowed me to that without having to move or quit gigs I really love,” Meyer said. “That’s what this program trained me to do: to live and work as a writer.”

2. Think about the way you already write

Senior communications professional Robin Kurzer originally pursued a dual MFA/MA degree to prepare herself for teaching fiction in a college setting.

However, she realized later she had romanticized the idea of an MFA. In reality, she didn’t enjoy her program’s strict adherence to a specific way of creating art.

You needed to sit in a certain fashion, approach each and every writing assignment in the same way,” Kurzer explained.

Another professional writer, Joselin Linder, was rejected from every top program she’d heard of, so she moved to New York and focused on growing her network. Because she grew relationships in the writing field on her own, she advises against an MFA — unless, somehow, tuition is free.

“Set your own deadlines or use your writing group to set them and use any money you would’ve spent on an MFA to travel and explore,” she said. “Go to events where agents and editors meet-and-greet with writers. Take classes you find online or in your town to help you write and learn how to sell it. Go to free book readings and launches. Bartend or work on a boat for two years to pay for your life, and consider it ‘research.’”

3. Understand a program’s risk

Rachel Charlene Lewis, now the founder of the Fem and editor-in-chief of Vagabond City Lit, felt constantly frustrated because her classmates attempted to transform her writing into “black, gay ‘voice of a generation’ as if it was a complement and not a basic form of tokenization.

While she’s unsure whether to advise other writers on pursuing an MFA, she stressed that no matter how much extensive research you do, you’ll never predict how well you’ll work within your cohort and with your professors.

4. Consider an alternative academic path

Deviating from the traditional creative writing graduate programs, freelance writer and Romper news writer Annamarya Scaccia opted for a Master’s in Journalism instead.

Ultimately, the decision was financial because she couldn’t afford expensive workshops, writing residencies, or writing retreats to gain new skills. Now she focuses on news writing, investigative research and reporting.

“As a trained journalist, I know exactly what goes into crafting an article, from research to reporting to writing to editing,” Scaccia said. “I know the exact steps I have to take to investigate an incident or track down people hard to find. I know how to spot the lede, structure a story, etc.”

Following a slightly different path, book publicist and writer Alaina Leary received a Master’s of Arts in publishing and writing. Her college career, which involved upper-level nonfiction and fiction courses, exposed her to journalism and professional writing. For graduate school, she wanted a more business-oriented curriculum.

“I learned the basics of magazine, electronic publishing, and book publishing as well as honed skills in editing, publicity, marketing, freelancing, graphic design, social media, video and audio editing, business management, innovation and entrepreneurship,” Leary said. “I can now confidently talk about the process of promoting a nonfiction book as much as I can about social media management for an online magazine.”

After hearing from these seven different voices, there’s still no obvious yes-or-no answer to the MFA debate.

Ultimately, it comes down to what you want in a program and how much of a risk you’re willing to take.

It’s important to consider the path you’ll take if you don’t pursue one, too: could you better use that grad school money in other ways to reach your goal of becoming a writer?

Photo via Solis Images / Shutterstock 

This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.

The post Is an MFA in Creative Writing Worthwhile? 7 Writers Weigh In appeared first on The Write Life.