International Ballroom South, Hilton Chicago | March 2, 2012

Episode 47: New Prose from Northwestern University: A Reading

(Eula Biss, Stuart Dybek, Marya Hornbacher, John Keene, Alex Kotlowitz) Writers who teach in Northwestern University's English Department, the Medill School of Journalism, and the MA/MFA in Creative Writing program will read new work. Their writing varies widely in subject and style, but they all investigate the world and themselves. Their fiction and nonfiction are based on research, reporting, reflection, remembering, and imagining.

Published Date: August 8, 2012


Speaker 1:

Welcome to the AWP podcast series. This event originally occurred at the AWP Conference in Chicago on March 2, 2012. The recording features Sandi Weisberg, Eula Biss, John Keene, Marya Hornbacher, and Stuart Dybek.

Sandi Weisberg:

Hi. We're going to start. Is that too close to the mic?

Speaker 3:

It's in front of your face.

Sandi Weisberg:

I'm not Alex Kotlowitz, I'm Sandi Weisberg. I'm the director of the MA/MFA in Creative Writing program at Northwestern and that is here in Chicago in Evanston. Some people think we're in Boston, but that's Northeastern. Reg Gibbons is right there. He's in the VIP row and he is the founding director of our program. And thank you for coming to listen to what some of our instructors have written lately and I'm glad you found the room.

Eula Biss is going to speak first. He's going to read first. Eula has an MFA in nonfiction from Iowa. Is the author of two works of creative nonfiction, The Balloonist, and also Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays, which won the National Book Critic Circle Award for Nonfiction. She has also won awards for her writing, including fellowships from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Howard Foundation, and the NEA. That's not listed here. Okay. She is working on a new book about myth and metaphor in medicine.

Eula Biss:

Thank you. Thanks for finding your way to this part of the second floor, the secret part of the second floor. I'm going to read a short excerpt from a work in progress and this work is so much in progress that this is actually still quite rough.

Speaker 3:

Can you get closer to the mic?

Eula Biss:

Yeah, is that better? Good. So this is from what's rapidly becoming a book. It was supposed to be a long essay about vaccination, but the essay is getting longer, and longer, and longer and now it's looking a little more like a book. And the surface subject is vaccination, but that has drawn me into lots of auxiliary subjects. Dracula, Kierkegaard, Voltaire, Wendell Berry. It seems that the whole world is encapsulated in vaccination it turns out. So this is just a very tiny little bit from the middle, early middle of the piece.

Soren Kierkegaard was my age in 1847 when he wrote in his journal, deep within every man there lies the dread of being alone in the world forgotten by God, overlooked among the tremendous household of millions upon millions. That was the year he finished Works of Love in which he insists that love is known not through words but only by its fruit.

From somewhere deep in my childhood I can remember my father explaining, with enthusiasm, the principle behind the Doppler effect as an ambulance sped past our car. And when we watched the sunset over the river where we lived, he described Rayleigh scattering, the removal of the shorter wavelengths of light by the atmosphere that results in reddish clouds and grass that looks more intensely green at dusk. My father marveled at the natural world far more often than he talked about the body, but blood types were a subject on which he spoke with some passion.

People with blood type O negative, he explained, can only receive in transfusion blood that is O negative, but people with O negative blood can give blood to people of any other type. That's why a person with type O negative is known as the universal donor. My father would then reveal that his blood type was O negative, that he himself was the universal donor. He gave blood, my father explained, as often as he was allowed because blood of his type was needed every time, for example, the victim of a car crash needed an immediate transfusion. I suspect my father may have already known then what I would only discover later that my blood type too is type O negative.

I understood the universal donor more as an ethic than as a medical concept long before I knew my own blood type, but I did not yet think of that ethic as an ingenious filtering of my father's Catholicism through his medical training. I was not raised in the church and I never took communion, so I was not reminded of Jesus offering of his blood that we all might live when my father spoke of the universal donor. But I believed even then that we owe each other our bodies.

Every time my father went out in a boat during my entire childhood, he brought a life preserver with his name and organ donor printed hugely on it in permanent ink. It was a joke in which he believed quite sincerely. When he taught me to drive, he gave me this advice from his own father. You are responsible not just for the car you're driving, but also for the car ahead of you and the car behind you. Learning to drive all three cars was daunting and inspired an occasional paralysis that plagues my driving to this day. But when I earned my license, I signed under organ donor.

I read the first 50 pages of Works of Love in college before giving it up out of exhaustion. In those pages, Kierkegaard unfolds the commandment, you shall love your neighbor as yourself, parsing it almost word by word so that after exploring the nature of love, he asks what is meant by as yourself and then what is meant by your neighbor and then what is meant by you shall. Overwhelmed, I stopped reading shortly after Kierkegaard asked who then is one's neighbor, which he answered in part with neighbor is what philosophers would call the other. That by which the selfishness and self-love is to be tested.

The very first decision I made for my son, a decision enacted within moments of his body coming free of mine was the donation of his umbilical cord blood to a public bank. At 30, I had still only donated blood once back in college when I was reading Kierkegaard. I wanted my son to start his life with a credit to the bank, not as I already felt a debt, and this was before I, the universal donor, would become the sole recipient of two units of blood and transfusion. If we imagine the action of a vaccine, not just in terms of how it affects a single body, but also in terms of how it affects the collective body of a community, it's fair to think of vaccination as a kind of banking of immunity. Contributions to this bank are donations to those who cannot or will not be protected by their own immunity.

This is the principle of herd immunity, sometimes called the herd effect or much more rarely the flock effect. It's through herd immunity that mass vaccination becomes far more effective than individual vaccination. Any given vaccine can fail to produce immunity in an individual and some vaccines, like the influenza vaccine, fail to produce immunity quite often. But when enough people are vaccinated with even a relatively ineffective vaccine, viruses have trouble moving from host to host and cease to spread sparing both the unvaccinated and those in whom vaccination has not produced immunity. This is why the chances of contracting an infectious disease are much higher for a vaccinated person living in a largely unvaccinated community than they are for an unvaccinated person living in a largely vaccinated community.

The boundaries between our bodies begin to dissolve here in the fact that vaccination protects those who have not been vaccinated. Blood and organs move between us exiting one body and entering another. And so too with immunity, which is a shared resource as much as it is a private account, those of us who draw on collective immunity owe our health to our neighbors.

And I'm going to stop there and introduce my beloved colleague John Keene. John Keene was born in St. Louis, where he grew up, and has a BA from Harvard and an MFA from NYU. For a number of years, he's been teaching at Northwestern University. He's the author of Annotations, an autobiographical novel, which I highly recommend, and a collection of text Seismosis accompanied by drawings by Christopher Stackhouse and many uncollected stories and translations. He has an encyclopedic range as a poet, fiction writer, translator of contemporary writing from Brazil, Francophone, Africa and elsewhere. He's won a Whiting Foundation Award and other honors for his writing and is a graduate fellow of Cave Canem. You can find his very lively blog by searching J's Theater and I do highly recommend J's Theater. John Keene.

John Keene:

That was a lovely introduction. Thank you Eula and thank you to everyone for coming out and thank you Sandy and Reg for creating the program and organizing this reading. I'm just going to read a sliver of the first chapter of a new work called Wound, and I'll just say it's in the voice of a 12-year-old boy who lives in Chicago who refuses to go to school and you'll see why.

Only it wasn't really a week because when the weekend was over, I got back on as soon as I got home. After turning right around like always in the vestibule, the guards looking right through me as if I was a plexiglass itself and I said I would set my watch so I wouldn't forget to make dinner. And when I made dinner, I would let the computer sleep and before I knew it, I had gotten to the 40th level of one game that was based in Austria.

I could tell from the URL I was in the series of flash and marble tunnels of holograms that popped up every time you took a step and all these viking skinhead zombie creatures who could send out death rays with their eyes, and tongues, and hands, were trying to kill me. I'd gotten through third line of the levels in this game, which could have been on service anywhere that the URL was in Austria. Not that I checked the DNS registration and it might've been written by programmers in Austria, a country I'd never thought about before. But then why would I be thinking about Austria? And I figured out what [inaudible 00:11:33] mayor and vinegar men, Alf and hen. I figured out what strawman and how to use them, how to activate the key combos to access this viable straw and a hoover straw and an ultra straw and an autonomous straw, which were all Toda straw and with their man and I was so psyched.

I told mom when she got home, I told her and she said, "That school is teaching you German? For real, German?" She frowned. And I told her that it was part of my multicultural unit. It was a German unit because Germany was a powerhouse in the world economy. After I'd heard about Germany in class, I learned online, but we'd only learned a few things like how to say hello and goodbye. And she said, "That doesn't sound right." And then she said, "What are you really learning in school?" And I made up some stuff about language arts, and math arts, and science arts, and social studies and Spanish, all the classes I was supposed to be taking, all the stuff I'd already learned months ago online. She looked at me and said, "Is that really what you're learning?" And I said, "Yes, mom." And she just looked at me, "Is that what you're really learning? Because I can call that school because I don't hardly ever see you doing enough homework and you better not be lying to me."

"I do it as soon as I get home," I told her. And she looked at me, she got up from the table and sat down in front of the TV and looked at me and she called her coworker or grandma, I don't remember, and I've told myself I have to be careful, and she was looking at me. I got my books and went and acted like I was doing my homework. I opened the math book and looked at the algebra questions. The class was probably still on page one or something impossible like that. So I looked at the whole first chapter, and then the fourth chapter, and then last chapter, and I could solve all of those questions, if you took three fourths of my brain out solving for Y instead of X, like I couldn't, and then she wasn't looking at me anymore.

One evening when I was just about to get past the last of the zombies on that level in that Austrian zombie skinhead game, I could smell something starting to burn and I ran in the kitchen. Had to add a little water to the pan so the chicken wouldn't turn black, the pan sizzled and there was little gray balloon of smoke, but I opened the window and everything was okay. Mom didn't say anything once she got home. She smacked her lips like it didn't taste so good and she drank two glasses of water and ate extra half slice of Wonder Bread, but she didn't say anything. When we were done, I put the dishes in the sink and washed them up and she turned on the TV and called her friends or grandma or one of my aunts. I knew it wasn't Cherise, his sister, because mom was trying to be careful with long distance and she could always get grandma to call her back.

I had showed her how to use Skype, and Messenger, and AIM and she said, "I don't trust that computer one bit. I don't and I don't want you to be doing that either." She made me throw all that software in the trash and delete it. She watched me, only I downloaded it as soon as I could when she wasn't home like I didn't. I don't know who she was talking to. Her voice was getting loud and I put my books on the table in front of me. I opened the Spanish book to the third chapter since I think that looked right. I already already knew the answers to the problems and glanced over at Mom who was deep in conversation and watching TV. She was deep in discussion about work. Her boss was driving her up the wall. Why was she always up on the ladder, or going to the store room, or complaining about her boss was commenting on her hair or looking at her behind, or being reprimanded for being a minute late back from her break.

She had to keep her mouth shut because she couldn't afford to lose a dime, let alone a job. Certainly, not this job she had been lucky to get, which meant we didn't have to go live with grandma or any of the aunts or uncles. She already lost everything only three years ago and it seemed to take forever just to get back up and running. She had to work the half shift just to keep us in this apartment and be able to send Cherise some money for her books. Mom was deep in her conversation, so I looked back at the Spanish questions. It was all about adjectives, how you put them after the word or before the word they modify, the noun. It was so simple. I bet those kids in class, even the ones who spoke Spanish, couldn't figure it out. [foreign language 00:15:09] and the answer was B, [foreign language 00:15:12]. Not A, [foreign language 00:15:13] or C [foreign language 00:15:15]. Or D [foreign language 00:15:16], or [foreign language 00:15:17] and the answer was D Blanca, not A Blanco or the rest of them and some didn't have a mask on the thing at all, like Azule. I got it. Like, I wouldn't.

Why couldn't the other kids pick it up? Why do we have to go over and over it again? Even the ones who spoke Spanish couldn't get the right letter. Why do we always have to go over everything a thousand times? Just get to the next level, which made me think about the game and I started to feel bad because I was skipping out on school, but I'd hated it for so long, hated it for such a long time and a month or maybe more had already gone by and nobody had called mom, so it wasn't a big deal. I would just show up when it came time to take the state tests. I'd pass them and then go on to the eighth grade. It wasn't a big deal and mom would never know.

It wasn't a big deal. I was going to show up for the test and pass and that was her plan. Then one day mom came home. It was starting to get cold outside, so cold your lips would freeze shut if you tried to spit and we kept the heat low because it was so expensive. I was playing a new game. I'd come across Astronomica and the lock turned and mom walked through the door. I said, "Hey mom, how was work? How's dinner? Dinner's ready?" And she walked towards me. I said, "Hey mom, guess what we talked about today at school." She walked towards me and she wasn't saying anything. I said, "Mom," as she dropped her purse to the floor and another bag to the floor, as she tore off her coat. She tore off her coat so fast it was like it steamed off her body and she wasn't saying anything, not a word. She walked right up to my face and she grabbed it with one of her hands.

Her other hand was on my shoulder, gripping so hard she could have plucked it right off my body. "I have had it," she said. "Do you hear me? I cannot take it anymore. I cannot take it. I cannot." I didn't know whether she meant me or her job or something else. So I said, "Mom, mom." "I learned today that you have not been in school since the end of September. Do you hear me?" I didn't say anything. I just looked at mom's eyes, which are full of rage and disbelief, and disgust as think as our iron. "I've learned you have not been in school since September and I told you this wasn't going to happen again. You nearly flunked the fifth grade and the sixth grade just because you weren't in school, you lost a whole term because of that God damn Flood and us having to move and our whole life was thrown upside down and I lost one child to the world out there. We nearly lost our lives and I lost everything I had except your sister and you and yet you think, you still seem to think this is a joke."

I didn't think it was a joke and I tried to think of an explanation, but before I could say another word, mom was on top of me and she was shaking me with both hands. She was shaking me so hard. It was like she was trying to shake the skin off me to shake something out of me. She was trying to shake something into me and she hollered, "If you weren't sick, if you had nearly died and didn't have to take those pills every single day, if I didn't have to take you to the doctor every single month from now on until you're old enough to get the hell out of here and destroy your life, I would kill you myself. I would rather not have a child than raise what you're turning out to be. Do you hear me?" "Mom," I tried to say, "Mom."

"I don't know whether you think this is a joke, but I go to those jobs every single day so that you won't have to end up like me. I go to those jobs so you won't ever end up finding yourself with the mercy of nobody with no home anymore, and no job anymore, and everything you work for washed away and you're sitting in a stadium with only the clothes on your back, rags on your back, and you don't even think you have to go to school. You don't think you have to listen to me. You don't think you have to listen to anyone." "Mom," I tried to say, "Mom." She shook me some more with those iron hands and said, "I have one other child who tries my last nerve and I lost the other one and I would move heaven into hell to get him back and I love you more than life itself, but I could still kill you myself faster than any disease or flood. I swear I could. Maybe I don't need to do anything. You can destroy yourself if you want to, maybe you want to drown."

Then she stood up and picked up her purse and her bag. She picked up her coat and her gloves and her hat. She picked up her scarf. She went into her bedroom and closed the door. She stayed in her bedroom for a while. I was still on the floor and I didn't dare move. I couldn't see the kitchenette clock. I couldn't even move my arm. I just laid there and waited and then she came out. She was still in her uniform and she looked like she had been crying and she didn't say anything to me. She went to the telephone and called grandma and said, "You've got to take this one. I can't take him anymore." She spoke to grandma for a long time, maybe an hour, maybe an hour and a half, sometimes hollering and sometimes whispering as I laid there.

I didn't move. "Mom," I said, "Mom." I still couldn't hear anything she said and I couldn't move. I didn't dare. All I heard was her voice rising and falling and sometimes she was crying. Her voice, but I didn't hear anything she said except principal, and broken promises, and addiction, and lingering trauma, and psychologist, and grandma obviously didn't ask to speak to me. Mom didn't look at me, she didn't speak to me. She hung up the phone and turned on the TV and she didn't look at me as I lay there. She didn't speak to me. She didn't eat a thing that night, not a single thing. Three weeks after that, I came to live with my grandma. I didn't go back to my school. I thought I would go back, but I didn't. Mom didn't speak to me once. She barely looked at me.

I thought she would speak to me, but she didn't. Instead, I could see that her eyes were still as cold as iron. Her jaw was like iron. Her hands her back, all of her turned into iron and saw mom had bought a suitcase for me and put most of my clothes in and she put the rest of my clothes in a box, my old sneakers, my old Saints cap, my old winter coat. She put all my toiletries into a plastic bag in the suitcase. She put my CDs and my Harry Potter videos and anything that belonged to me in two boxes if they wouldn't fit into that suitcase. I woke the morning after she packed up all my stuff except my toothbrush and a set of clothes and my sneakers. I saw my computer was gone, my computer was gone, the computer that had all my stuff on it, all my music, and games, and movies, and bookmarks, and downloaded files, all my avatars, and anime, and pictures, and dirty pictures, and video clips, all my passwords, and game wins and scores, all my code, months and months of code, everything.

I wanted to say something, but I didn't dare. My computer was gone. I didn't dare open my mouth. Mom got a coworker to let her hold her car and she put the boxes in the trunk and the suitcase and my backpack in the backseat. I didn't have that much stuff, but they filled the trunk and backseat. She drove me to the airport. I hadn't been to the airport since we had left from down there. I don't think mom had been to the airport since we came up from down there and she looked nervous, but she followed the signs and she found the parking lot and parked the car. She got the suitcase out of the trunk and went to the ticketing desk. She got a ticket. She walked me to the area where you get on the plane. She gave me the suitcase and my passport.

I hadn't even seen since we left from down there on a cell phone I'd never seen before. And finally she said, "I didn't want to have to do this, but you pushed me." That was the first thing she had said to me in weeks, the first thing, she looked at me, but her eyes were still all metal and she was looking at me but not looking at me, looking through me. "I love you more than life itself and I didn't want to have to do this to you, but I can't handle you. I can't handle you. I can't handle a sick 12-year-old who refuses to go to school even though he would be a straight A student if he actually made the effort. I can't handle a sick 12-year-old who doesn't even listen to reason or beating, who thinks that the only thing he needs to do is sit in front of a computer screen and let the rest of his life go to waste."

She was looking through me with those metallic eyes. "You're going to go to Gate 42 and get on that plane and get off that plane and when it lands at Reagan National Airport and walk out to the pickup area, your grandmother's number is on that phone. You know it by heart, but it's on that phone." And I can only say, "Mom." "I'm sorry. You call your grandmother, she will call you. I'm sorry I have to do this right now. I lost your brother and I'm determined not to lose you. I'm sorry. And believe me, if you're not on that plane or off it when it lands, I will get on the next plane out of this airport and I promise you, I will make you wish you would never push me to this point. I'm sorry." And I could feel the tears of my lashes or iron eyes turning to smoke and she almost started herself, but she didn't.

She hugged me tight to her chest off the smoke and said, "You don't talk to anyone, especially no men, and keep that ticket in your passport deep in your pocket and don't let that suitcase out of your sight, and you would better get on and off that plane just like I told you. I'm sorry. You would better get on and off that plane and if you don't, so help me Jesus, I will make sure you can never fly anywhere again." And as she pushed me towards the line, I was sure I heard, "Because I love you." Thank you.

Our next reader is Marya Hornbacher. Marya Hornbacher has published Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, a novel the Center of Winter, a second memoir Madness, A Bipolar Life, and also Sane, Mental Illness, Addiction, and the 12 steps and has a new book Waiting, a Non-Believers Higher Power. Both of these last two published by Hazelden in support of recovery from addiction and mental illness. Marya Hornbacher.

Marya Hornbacher:

Thanks. Wow, what a pair to follow. Thank you so much for allowing me to be here today. This is exciting. I'm new to Northwestern. This reading is from my new book, which is called Heat, A Reading of Desire, which comes out in early 2014. As I carefully explained to myself last night, the book is an exploration of desire in a woman's life. As the title suggests, the content is both literary and erotic, so if you are troubled by other books or sex, please cover your ears and I mean that. Thank you for being here today.

Kate. Kate was one of those pixie esque girls, a little Audrey Hepburn, a little Betty Boop, and she bumped up next to me at the bar of Pizza Luce late one night, maybe 1993, I would've been 19. She ordered a shot, rubbed her hip against my hip, tossed back the shot, sighed with boredom and turned to me. It was loud in there, so she had to shout and she shouted, "So, do you masturbate?"

We'd met perhaps twice. I crunched my eyes. "No, I shouted back. I don't. "Me neither," she shouted. "Everybody says we should." "I know," I replied. "I think we ought to learn how," she said. Putting her chin in her hand and pouting at the bartender with her Audrey eyes. I took the drink the bartender was setting down in front of me trying to sort out exactly what was being suggested. I crunched more ice. "All right," I said. We left the bar. In the falling dark of a summer night, we tooled around town in her beat up old Pinto and acquired the following items. One, two Hitachi magic wands purchased at the feminist bookstore, $55 each, shelved in erotica. Two, a porn the sales guy at the Broadway Adult Superstore insisted we'd love. Three, a six-pack of Pabst and four, a bag of Ruffles.

And so it came to pass that Kate and I got into her bed, half dressed, plugged in on either side, put the Pabst and the Ruffles between us, pressed play on the porn and sat there waiting for the magic we'd heard would happen to, you know, happen. We watched the porn with furrowed brows. We drank the beer and ate the chips. We turned the magic wands off and on and off and wondered what you were supposed to do with them really. The porn came to an end. "Well," Kate said, turning to me. "That was kind of a bust." "Maybe it was the porn," I said. "Maybe women aren't as visual." "Maybe," she said. She sighed, flopped back against the pillows. "Maybe I'm just not destined for orgasms." "Maybe not," I said sadly. I got out of bed, put my shorts back on and tucked the magic wand into my purse.

I stood there a minute. "Well, good luck," I said. "You too," she said, staring at the ceiling looking bleak. I wandered home, vaguely heated in the wet Midwestern August night. In my apartment, I went straight to the left-leaning secondhand bookcase that groaned under the weight of secondhand books. The general idea was to read myself to sleep. I grabbed Madam Bovary from the shelf. It was an old favorite, an old friend. I got into bed thumbed through the yellow dusty pages till I found a decent starting place and settled in to read. Hard to say when exactly or how or why the magic wand found its way into bed with me. It seems to me that it took some doing to organize the turning of pages with one hand while the other did the considerable work of managing the roaring machine.

Hard to say exactly when I dropped the book to turn out the light and focus on the project underway, hard to say, but then all at once in a flurry, I was assaulted by a flushed and smiling Madame B, a pixie rubbing her hip against mine and I was also flushed in closing in on something like knowing and then for one second I knew what James Joyce had been up to when he ended Ulysses with Molly Bloom dissolving into sighs of yes, and yes, and yes.

Ruth. There are separate books for tops and bottoms. One shows on the corner, a cartoon sketch of a grinning woman with a whip. One shows a sketch of a wide-eyed woman shackled at the wrists. There are feathers, paddles, cat o' nine tails in various methods for tickling, or stroking, or spanking, or beating a thing with each. There are cuffs made of leather lined with satin, covered with cheap pink fuzzy stuff that itches or wrapped in thick velvet. There is velvet rope. There are uncomfortable synthetic straps with Velcro in a variety of spots which come with directions for positions, so complex and varied they make twister look easy.

There are slings and there are harnesses, and most of these would fall under light equipment. The heavy stuff, the hardcore toys and outfits and chains we won't go into here. And then there are thigh highs, and garters, and merry widows with elaborate pushup boning, that sort of femme thing. And there are butches and there are femms. There are lipstick lesbians and baby dykes. There is an incredibly baroque system of colors and shapes of handkerchiefs in the back or hip or breast pocket that when worn are intended to say what you want, who you want it with, where you want it. Bedroom with a bull dyke or bar bathroom with a stone butcher in the bed of your red truck with a high femme under 25 and there is the semi femme baby dyke, so fresh and blooming her flesh practically bursts at the seams and she wears fancy Dock Martins.

And one day in a coffee shop, she sees a girl with a shaved head and lipstick wearing an absurd pair of rainbow tights underneath ripped daisy Duke short shorts. And this girl bats her eyes at the semi femme baby dyke who is instantly, utterly done in. "The minute I got them pierced, it was like someone paved a freeway between my nipples and my clit," said the woman with the blue bandana tied over her shaved head. She laughed a throaty laughed that shook her chest in its bulky denim men's work shirt. It was awesome. My own on unpierced and sans bra perked up with interest. The club was called Ground Zero. It was new back then, early nineties, and it was crowded, summertime. Ruth was sitting to my left, too close, making it hard to breathe or speak, but not sitting nearly close enough. I kept wiping my hands on my cutoffs.

I was sweating a little and flushed. "Pain is a kind of pleasure," said Lori pushing her tortoise shell glasses up on her nose and peeling the label off her beer. "Pleasure and pain exist on a continuum, obviously," said Ruth and tossed her head, and rolled her eyes, and blinked her inch long lashes, and crossed her bare legs, and scooted a teeny bit closer to me in the high back booth with the torn red seats. It was hot as hell. The back of our thighs and our bare shoulders stuck to the sparkly leatherette. "Foucault's limit experience," I mumbled looking down Ruth's minimalist shirt. "Exactly," said Lori vehemently. "Exchanges and uses of power, whatever," said the woman with pierced nipples looking out onto the dance floor, bored. Ruth waved her hand, her lit cigarette sketching a scribble on the smoky air. "It's all just a matter of language." "You haven't even read Foucault," Lori scowled.

"It is so totally about social construction and limitation reclaiming words," Ruth went on peacefully, exhaling like a lovely dragon. I wanted to drink her. I drank instead my beer and held the cold bottle to my cheek. "Identity," Lori said, getting mad. The performative nature of sexuality and self. "Dyke," Ruth continued. "Queer." She looked down at my nipples, then up at me and smiled, blinking slow. Pinned by her gaze. I sat there mute. "Don't you think," she said leaning one shoulder forward slightly so my view down her shirt was unobstructed. Caught, horrified, I stared into my empty beer. Lori nearly shrieked, "Gender is a construct. Pleasure is socially informed. Identity is fluid." She fell silent and sulked. "What are you people talking about," said the woman with pierced nipples. "Foucault," Lori snapped. Palea et al. "Sex," Ruth said cheerfully shaking another cigarette out of her pack, lifting it to her lips and turning to me.

I lit it not knowing what else to do and sat tapping my lighter on the table. "Crazy writer types," the woman said. She stood up. "I'm going to get a beer. Anybody want a beer?" We all said yes, and I watched the woman shoulder her way through the crowd. Lori looked at Ruth and then at me and then at Ruth and slumped in a huff. Ruth swiveled to face me in the booth, leaned back against the wall, swung her legs up and lay them in my lap. She rubbed one foot against the other, wiggling her toes. Kneaded my legs with her feet like a cat. Tiptoed slowly across my lap, tucked her toes in between my thighs, sighed happily tipping her head to the side and said, "Is it hot in here," and yawned. I newly died. I looked around for someone to save me.

I picked up my beer and put it down. I lit a cigarette. I exhaled upward. I turned to her finally. "You're a flirt," I said. "Yes," she said and grinned. And at night, in the light of my secondhand store lamp curled up in a monstrous torn magenta secondhand chair next to my single mattress on the floor. I set Ulysses aside, tired of Joyce's minutia and put down Elliot's metaphysics in all its hyper cerebral lack of sense, and threw Foucault out the window onto the alley with a satisfying clanging onto a trashcan's lid and with a sigh, picked up Virginia Wolf and settled back into her arms. Reading Mrs. Dalloway again and again. I fell asleep in my single bed and dreamed of Clarissa's garden of the anxious trembling flowers of the match of flame in the crocus sweet fragrant dreams. And I wore shoes that Ruth insisted upon calling my fucking Mary Jane's.

Absurd things with a fierce looking soul of rubber treads in a dainty black patent leather upper complete with ankle strap and tiny silver buckle as ridiculous a shoe as I could have hoped for, and I wore them dancing at the saloon back then. It had no sign but did have rooms for rent upstairs. Inside were throngs of impeccably, sexily, perfectly dressed men who gathered like moths, the bar drunks, and lovely boys, and older, wiser men. All of them vamping, all of them dancing past us, pausing at most to say how much they loved our shoes. And then they were gone and Ruth and I danced and danced, moving closer and then closer until we were flush up against one another's bodies. Curve fitting hollow, hollow holding curve, our temples and spines running with sweat, black eyeliner smearing. I could feel her breath blowing the small hairs on my neck and she nibbled me and I thought, "Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me." And she looked up, her eyelashes flickering like moth wings and leaned in and in a rush, heart pounding so hard, it hurt my ears.

I thought of Clarissa Dalloway in her garden. Wolf had written only for a moment, but it was enough. It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush when one tried to check, and then as one spread, one yielded to its expansion and rushed to the farthest version there quivered and felt the world come closer, swollen with some astonishing, significant, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores. Then for that moment, she had seen an illumination, a match burning in a crocus, an inner meaning almost expressed, but the close withdrew, the hard softened. It was over, the moment.

And Ruth yelled, "I have to pee. You?" I tripped over my feet and I said, "I'll get us another round." She headed for the women's room. It dawned on me, we are the only women in this club. Belatedly, I realized she'd an extended and an invitation, and I had stupidly turned it down. The Club Ed Eden pounded around me as I froze. I bolted after her, threw myself against the green bathroom door and found her leaning toward the mirror ass out redoing her lipstick. She caught my eye in the mirror and smiled. She rubbed her lips together. She put the cap on the lipstick. She turned and sauntered past me out into the club. I leaned my head against the damp sickly green painted concrete wall. It was over, the moment. Thanks.

Thank you. S. L. Sandi Wisenberg directs the MA/MFA program at Northwestern. She's the author of a short story collection, the Sweetheart Is In. An essay collection, Holocaust Girls and a chronicle, The Adventures of Cancer Bitch. S. L. Wisenberg.

Sandi Weisberg:

Okay, so three hard acts to follow. Okay. I'm writing down my time so I won't have to pull the hook on myself. I try to be useful, and so I present this next piece as a guide in case any of you end up in a certain situation. And for those of you who are not from Texas, mishigas means craziness. Okay.

How not to tell your class, I'll say it again. How not to tell your class about your breast cancer. One, be grateful that during class you don't think about your cancer except during free writing when they're making lists that begin with because. Using as a model, a poem by Susan Donnelly called Why I Can't. The title of your list is why I don't trust doctors who are very good-looking.

Two. Tell them as soon as you know. On the day you get your terse diagnosis from the cold and good-looking blonde at the hospital. Don't wait until you have concrete information that your students will need, such as dates of classes you will miss.

Three. Wait until five minutes before class ends. While they are standing with their coats on. Say that you have something to tell them that you have breast cancer. Expect your voice to be calm. It will not be. It will break. You will be in danger of crying. Tell them you will find substitutes for any classes you'll miss. Tell them you're going to talk to a surgeon the next day, but be unable to continue leaving them stunned. Then exit.

Four. On the way home. Think about how irresponsible you were.

Five. At home, send an email to all of them telling them you're sorry if you freaked them out. Become paranoid when only one of them replies.

Six. Have a friend tell you that it's all about what you need. So whatever you needed to do was okay. Know that she is wrong. Your job in a way is to protect your students from your own mishigas.

Seven. Post this on the class's website and see what happens. Okay, I do need to add that it's not like Alex just sort of blew this off. He is covering a trial in St. Louis for an article he's writing and that's why he's not here.

I've been working on a novel for more years than I'm going to tell you, and I'm going to read a little bit of it. It's all in pieces and I thought once I had the pieces, I could just put them together, which I'm doing.

This is called [foreign language 00:37:36] or The Uncle of the Cousin. The summer her brother died, Mandy Silverman went to Paris. She stayed with someone's shirt tail relatives as her father referred to them. The uncle and aunt of a cousin of an uncle by marriage of a business friend of his. Mandy was 15. The French people paid her airfare in exchange for her anticipated work. She felt like a girl in a fairytale, sent away from her family to a strange place where no one knew her. The trip was supposed to take her mind off her brother. She would develop a new vocabulary, one without the words she'd heard over and over the last weeks. Coroner, suicide, Bloody Mary's, suicide, gone. The friend's, uncle's, cousins uncle [foreign language 00:38:27].

It had the sound of an exercise to it like [foreign language 00:38:37] the first French tongue twister she learned later, was a tailor and her job was to make small repairs. Mandy's mother had performed all the sewing at home. She would make costumes for school and quickly sew new buttons back on. She learned all that working at the department store in Texarkana when she was their age, she would remind them. Mandy knew how to thread a needle, but Lonkla had to teach her how to tie the knot at the end. She couldn't get the hang of using a thimble. After she got blood on an ivory colored silk shirt, he whisked the skirt from her, yelled at her in French, and ran out the door. He came back an hour later and said, not unkindly, quite relievedly, "You will to work for my sister on the lingerie, it makes best for you."

He carried her suitcase down the street and still feeling like an exiled princess, she woke up early the next morning, not 100 years later, and her curse was the most ancient one. Adams, to earn her bread by the sweat of her brow. Promotions. Mandy grew up lower middle class though no one in the family seemed to recognize that's what they were. They thought about Europe and history and read more books than most petty bourgeois Texans did. They were elite, lower class. Her father was a salesman. Her mother was a bureaucrat in the hotel industry where she is still and is still rising up in the hierarchy. She was definitely white collar. Her brother was a genius, but unfortunately, that was not a job available to teenage boys then and there or maybe anywhere, and he suffered for it. Mandy's father said he was from Poland, but he would usually mention Argentina too.

Sometimes he said he immigrated from the one to the other. Sometimes he said his parents had been the immigrants. He sold promotional trinkets to companies. Key chains, and hot pads, and headbands, with their logos on them. Mandy's mother was austere. She tried to distance herself from the rest of the family and usually succeeded. She came home from work each evening tired. Mandy's father spent many nights on the road with his trinkets. He did best with entrepreneurs in small Texas towns. Her mother had grown up along the border with Arkansas in the divided town of Texarkana where she had gathered bitter memories which she generously shared with her children. As she described to them the shabby department store where she had worked and carefully rebuffed the advances of the manager, having to be polite enough so he would not fire her. She did not tell them about the nights she let him take her to dinner, drive her home, and stop on the way at the local lover's lane. Those nights she would brush her teeth twice, three times.

Fourteen families. It started as class war. "There were 14 rich families who owned all," Andy told his sister Mandy. The story of El Salvador was like a fairytale. Once there was a rich cabal of families who owned all the land and the peasants worked for them and were grateful. And then along came peasants who were pushed too far or as the landowners would say, "Peasants who were treated just a bit too nicely and they grew cocky." They thought they deserved more and they turned on the bosses and brought chaos into that world. And after rebellion, as so often happens, came the Americans, Andy being one of them. He lived with the people during the fall and winter. In spring, he returned to Texas, drank those Bloody Mary's and jumped.

Potiphar. Biblical. Joseph and Potiphar's house he has trusted. Potiphar is the chief of the cooks. He is a chef. There are gleaming knives and copper pots hanging in the kitchen from a brick wall. His wife's friends say she is so lucky to have a man who cooks and cleans too. Potiphar is an artist. In his anticipation of needs, he creates new dishes, oversees the banquets. Joseph becomes his security guard, his secretary, his manager. Every great man needs a manager. The Pharaoh has many secretaries, many men in his cabinet, but the man does not give his wife enough attention. He is nearing 70. She is 50. Joseph is a young man. He is lonely but still speaks the language haltingly with an accent. She offers to help him learn. She will tutor him. She likes the idea of this young man who watches her lips with such complete interest. He is without guile.

He does not desire her. He desires her language. She's moving her lips and he's watching them and trying to pronounce the way she does, but he's dreaming of men who will bring him gifts for what he will do, what he will let them do, who will proffer coal to line his eyes and perfume for his hair, and honey they will spread on his lips. "Are you listening," Potiphar's wife asks, perturbed and pouting. He can see the wrinkles that connect the sides of her nose and edges of her lips. He does not want her. He could see her as a mother if he had had a mother, but his mother died long ago and she is lost to him. She says, "I love your eastern coat, though it is tattered some. Here, give it to me. I want to wear it and then I'll have it cleaned and repaired for you. The trim is breaking down here. Your nice gold trim. You are such a lovely young man to have such nice gold trim, curly like your hair."

"I love exotic things," he sighs. "You Hebrews are so sensuous and gentle. My husband touches me the way he chops onions." She wrinkles her nose, laughs harshly. He does not know exactly what she means, but thinks of the gleaming knives, the blades hanging in the kitchen. She rubs herself against him. She says her husband wasn't interested and that they sleep in separate bedrooms. He wonders what a woman would be like, but he is a gracious guest in the house. He says no and then she yells loudly and tears off his coat and he runs away. Then she is yelling, "Rape, rape," and he is thrown in prison. Thank you.

It's very, very, very true that the next person needs no introduction. But since I have it, I'll read it because Stuart Dybek is the quintessential Chicago writer. He was born in Chicago and grew up in Little Village in Pilsen. Received an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and has published three works of fiction, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, The Coast of Chicago, and I Sailed With Magellan. And two books of poems, Brass Knuckles, and also Streets in Their Own Ink, as well as many, as yet, uncollected stories and essays in the leading magazines of our day. Among his many awards are short story prizes, including the Rea Award and a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation.

Stuart Dybek:

Fiction. Through a rough in the mist, the moon, the shade of water stained silk. A night to begin. To begin again. Someone whistling a tune impossible to find on a piano. An elusive melody that resides perhaps in the spaces between the keys, where there once seemed to be only silence. He wants to tell her a story without telling a story. One in which the silence between words is necessary in order to make audible the faint whistle of her breath as he enters her. Rather than a sound or even the absence of sound. The story made at first be no more than the scent. A measure of time spent folded in a cedar drawer, detectable on a silk camisole. For illumination, other than the moonlight now momentarily clouded.

It's lit by the flicker of an almond candle against the bureau mirror. That imprisons light as a jewel does a flame. The amber pendant she wears tonight, for instance. A gem he's begun to suspect has not yet fossilized into form. It's still flowing indiscernibly like a bead of clover honey between the cleft of her breasts. Each night it changes shape. One night an ellipse, and another, a tear or a globe. Luminate her gibbus as if it moves through phases like an Amber Moon. Each morning it has captured something new. Moss, lichen, pine needles. And one morning he notices a wasp, no doubt extinct from the time before the invention of language. Preserved in such perfect detail that it looks dangerous, still able to sting.

And another morning the faint hum of a trapped bee. And on another there's a glint of prehistoric sun along a captured mayflys wings where she grazes down his body and her honey colored hair and the dangling pendant brush across his skin. He can feel the warmth of sunlight trapped in amber, or is that simply body heat? The story could have begun with a faint hum of a bee. Is something so arbitrary as a beginning even required?

He wants to tell her a story without a beginning. No, rather a story that is a succession of beginnings. A story that goes through phases like a moon. The telling of which requires the proper spacing of a night sky between each phase. Imagine the words strung out across the darkness and the silent spaces between them as the emptiness that binds a snowfall together or turns a hundred starlings rising from a wire into a single flock or countless stars into a constellation.

A story of stars of starlings. A story of falling snow of words swept up and bound like whirling leaves, or after the leaves have settled a story of mist. Which chance did words have beside the distraction of her body? He wanted to go where language, couldn't take him. Wanted to listen to her breath, break speechless from the cage of parentheses to wordlessly travel her skin like that flush that would spread between her nape and breasts. What was that stretch of body called? He wondered a narrative that led to all the places where her body was still undiscovered, unclaimed, unnamed. Fiction, which he'd heard defined as the lie that tells the deeper truth was that once too paradoxical and yet not mysterious enough. What was necessary was a simpler kind of lie. One that didn't turn back upon itself and violate the very meaning of lying. A lie without [inaudible 00:51:34] epiphany, or escape into revelation. A lie that remained elusive. The only lie he needed was the one that would permit them to keep on going as they had.

It wasn't a shock of recognition, but the shock of what had become unrecognizable he now listened for. It wasn't a suspension of disbelief, but a suspension of common sense that loving her required. Might unconnected details be enough arranged and rearranged in any order? A scent of cedar released by body heat from a water stained camisole. The grain of the hair she'd shaved from her underarms detectable against his lips. The fading mark of a pendant impressed on her skin by the weight of his body. If not a resonance trail left by a bead of amber honey along her breasts, then it's her sweat that's honey. Another night upon which this might end, might end again for good this time. Somewhat out on the misty street, whistling a melody impossible to recreate. I wanted to tell you a story without telling the story. Thanks.

Sandi Weisberg:

You're not going to read anymore?

Stuart Dybek:

[inaudible 00:53:14].

Sandi Weisberg:

I don't know. It was great. It was great. I want to thank all the readers they were beautiful. Everything was beautiful and thank you for coming and if you have questions about our program, we have a lot of students in the first few rows and you can ask us also. Thanks. That is so lovely.

Speaker 1:

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