Minneapolis Convention Center | April 11, 2015

Episode 90: Joshua Ferris and Dinaw Mengestu: A Reading and Conversation

(Joshua Ferris, Laurie Hertzel, Dinaw Mengestu) Join us for a reading and discussion with two of contemporary literature’s brightest stars, Joshua Ferris and Dinaw Mengestu. Joshua Ferris, a finalist for the National Book Award and named one the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" fiction writers worth watching, among other awards, will discuss his latest work To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Dinaw Mengestu is the best-selling author of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, How to Read the Air, and most recently All Our Names. He was also named a "20 Under 40" writer by the New Yorker as well as included in a short list of "5 Under 35" by the National Book Award Foundation. The event is moderated by Laurie Hertzel, Senior Books Editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Published Date: August 12, 2015


Speaker 1 (00:00:04):

Welcome to the A W P podcast series. This event was recorded at the 2015 A W P conference in Minneapolis. The recording features Joshua Ferris, Lori Herzl, and Dina Menga. Stu, you will now hear Vice President of AWPs, board of Trustees Oliver de la P provide introductions.

Speaker 2 (00:00:33):

Hello and welcome. I'm Oliver Dela Paz, vice President of AWPs Board of Trustees. Thank you. Before we start today's presentations, I need to ask you to please turn off your cell phones and remember, no flash photography allowed during the presentation. Please allow 15 minutes after the discussion to allow the writers to go to the book table for their signing after the event. And now it is my pleasure to introduce the moderator of tonight's featured presentation, Lori Herzl, senior book editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Laurie Hertz.

Speaker 3 (00:01:27):

Good evening and thank you for sticking around. It's been a long three days, but a fun three days, so thank you all for being here. It might seem that writers Dean Tsu and Joshua Ferris are not terribly similar. One writes about Ethiopians in exile in America about the African diaspora, about the lasting effects of displacement and war, and one writes about modern upper-class American men in New York City professionals who seem to have it all, but who are facing a profound existential angst. But if you take a closer look, some commonalities emerge. Both writers are exploring the question of where in the world their characters belong about fitting in and finding some sort of home. Both have been highly honored, often with the same awards. One was a National Book award finalist. The other was named one of the National Book Foundations 30 under 35. One won the Dylan Thomas Award. The other was a finalist in a different year. Both writers were honored by the New Yorker magazine with their 20 under 40 award in 2010, and it must be said both writers have really great hair.

Speaker 3 (00:02:42):

Joshua Ferris grew up in Florida and Chicago and now lives in New York. He graduated from the University of Iowa where he had initially intended to study engineering and later earned an M F A in writing from uc, Irvine. He's the author of three novels. His first was then we came to the a darkly comic novel told in seamless, first person, plural about office workers in an advertising agency at the end of the boom. His second novel, the Unnamed, is a strange and haunting book about a successful attorney who is afflicted with a condition that compels him to walk without stopping. And his new novel to Rise again at a decent hour is a story of a dentist in an existential crisis whose internet presence is taken over by people who are part of a strange, very old, almost secret culture. Ferris has won the Penn Hemmingway Award, a Barnes and Noble Discover Award and was a National Book Award finalist.

Speaker 3 (00:03:37):

His new novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Dylan Thomas Award. Dino Tsu was born in Ethiopia and came to the United States with his parents at the age of two. He grew up in Peoria, Illinois and graduated from Georgetown University in Washington DC. He holds an M F A from Columbia University. He's both a journalist and a novelist and is reported on Joseph Coney and Congo and on the violence in Dfor for Rolling Stone. He's the author of three novels, books that shine a light on the lives of Africans who have fled the violence and chaos in their home countries for a new life in America. His first novel, the Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is about an African man who runs a small grocery store in a DC neighborhood that is beginning to become gentrified, how to read the air. His second novel is about a young man trying to understand and come to terms with his immigrant parents and their violent relationship, his new novel.

Speaker 3 (00:04:33):

All our names follows two tracks, but alternate between Revolution in Uganda in the early 1970s and life a few years later in the American Midwest. That story is told by two narrators, a young man eventually known as Isaac, and a woman, a social worker in the United States who falls in love with him. Tzu's work has been published in the New Yorker, Granta Harper's, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere he's won The New York Times. Notable book award was selected by the National Book Foundation as one of their five under 35, I think I said 30 under 35 earlier, I apologize, has won the Guardian First book award in the Los Angeles Times book prize, and he was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas award In 2012, he received a MacArthur Genius Fellowship. We'll begin with each of them reading from their new book for a bit. So we'll start with Joshua Ferris.

Speaker 4 (00:05:30):

Can you hear me? And back

Speaker 5 (00:05:34):

I was

Speaker 4 (00:05:34):

A joke. If you look back, you'll see quite a lot of empty chairs. There's a competing poetry reading right now, but I think the thing we're probably really competing with is the bar. So it's nice of you all to be here. I'm really honored to share the stage with you now, and you're probably all talked out and listened out, but you're here and I'm very grateful. So I'm going to read for about 20 minutes from Tara again at a decent hour. It's about a dentist. I'm just talking to a dentist friend recently and she said that she was going to rename my book to Bill again at a decent rate. Please encourage the person to your right and the person to your left to laugh that will help me.

Speaker 4 (00:06:26):

Betsy Convoy was my head hygienist and a devout Roman Catholic. If ever I was tempted to become a Christian, which I never was, but if I was, I thought I would do well to become a Roman Catholic. Like Mrs. Convoy, she attended mass at St. Joan of Arc Church in Jackson Heights where she expressed her faith with hand gestures, genuflection recitations, liturgies, donations, confessions, lit candles, saints days, and several different call and responses. Catholics speak like baseball players in the coated language of gesture. Sure, the Roman Catholic Church is an abomination to man and a disgrace to God, but it comes with a highly structured mass, several sacred pilgrimages, the oldest songs, the most impressive architecture and a whole bunch of things to do whenever you enter the church taken altogether, they make you one with your brother. Say, I would come in from outside and go straight to the sink to wash my hands. It didn't matter which sink. Mrs. Convoy would find me. She'd sniff at me like a bloodhound and then she'd say, what exactly have you been doing? I'd tell her and she'd say, why do you feel the need to lie to me?

Speaker 4 (00:07:49):

I'd tell her and she'd say, scrutiny does not kill people. Smoking kills people. What kind of example do you think you're setting for your patients by sneaking off to smoke cigarettes? I'd tell her. She'd say they do not need a reminder of the futility of it all from their dental professional. When did you take up smoking again? I'd tell her. She'd say, oh, for heaven's sakes, then why did you tell everyone you'd quit? I'd tell her. She'd say, I do not see how the occasional show of concern is utterly strangulating. I would like to see you live up to your potential. That is all. Don't you wish you had more self-control? I'd tell her. She'd say, of course I will not join you. What are you doing? Do not light that cigarette.

Speaker 4 (00:08:36):

I'd put the cigarettes away with an offhand remark. She'd say, how am I a trial? I am not the trial here. The trial is between you and your addictions. Do you want to ruin your lungs and die? A young man? I'd tell her. She'd say, you are not already in hell. Shall I tell you what hell will like? I'd answer. She'd say yes. As a matter of fact, any conversation can turn into a discussion on the salvation of the soul. It's a pity more don't. What are you doing at that window? I'd tell her, she'd say, we are on the ground floor. You would hardly manage to sprain an ankle.

Speaker 4 (00:09:15):

I had come out of the bathroom and she'd be standing right there. I've been looking all over for you. She'd say, where have you been? I'd tell her the obvious. She'd say, why must you call it the thunder box? I'd tell her adding a few details and she'd grow severe. She'd say, please do not refer to what you do in the bathroom as making the Pope's fountain. I know the Pope is just a joke to you. I know the Catholic church is nothing but a wedding stone for your Witt, but I happen to hold the church in the highest regard. And though you can understand that if you had any respect for me, you would mind what you say about the Pope. I'd answer with an apology, but she'd ignore me sometimes I honestly wonder whether you care about anyone's feelings other than your own and she'd walk away.

Speaker 4 (00:10:02):

I'd never learned why she was standing outside the thunder box unless it was to bring grief to the both of us. Later, after letting it fester, she'd say, well, tell me, do you care about anyone else's feelings? Do you have any respect for me at all? Of course, I had respect for her. Let's say the days scheduling worked out as planned and we had five cleanings to perform all at once to minimize wait times and to maximize my turnaround, I would normally require three, if not four dedicated hygienists. But I had Betsy Convoy, Betsy Convoy, with the help of one or two rotating temps, could manage all five chairs. She could x-ray, chart, scale, and polish tutor each patient in preventive measures, leave detailed notes from my follow-up exams and still manage to supervise the staff and oversee the scheduling. Most dentists won't believe that.

Speaker 4 (00:11:01):

But then most dentists have never had a truly great hygienist like Mrs. Convoy. Well, she'd say, why aren't you answering me? But most days I would've cheerfully stood by and watched her die better her dead. I thought than being around, I would never have found anyone to replace her. But Betsy Convoy being around there was the true calvary. Poor Betsy. She was responsible for our efficiency, our professionalism, and a good portion of our monthly billing. Her internalization of Catholicism and its institutional disappointments suited a dental office perfectly where guilt was often our last resort for motivating the masses, handing out a toothbrush to a charity patient, she'd tell that person be faithful in small things. Who does that? But then out of nowhere, I'd imagine her getting fucked doggy style by a muscular African on one of the dental chairs. Of course, I respect you, Betsy. We couldn't go on without you. Later at the bar, I'd be the last one to leave. She'd be second to last. She'd say, don't you think you've had enough? I'd tell her. She'd say, how are you going to get home? I'd tell her. She'd say, Connie's gone, dear. She left two hours ago. Come on, let's get you home.

Speaker 4 (00:12:25):

She'd put me in a cab. She'd say, can you handle it from here? I'd tell her. She'd say to the cabbie, she'd say He lives in Brooklyn. And then I don't know what,

Speaker 4 (00:12:38):

We'd take a one-off trip somewhere far flung. I'd fight and fight and say, no fucking way. But somehow she'd get me on that plane. We once flew from J F K to New Delhi and from New Delhi to Bej Patak, and from there I took a train 50 kilometers inland where we walked through the cesspool streets and sweltering heat as Limbless beggars crushed behind us, issuing soft exhortations. The clinic was a little more than two armchair under a luncheon umbrella. We were stationed right next to the cleft palate. Folks, it was enough just to see them at work. I'd say to her, I can't believe I let you drag me to this goddamn country. She'd tell me not to take the Lord's name in vain, I'd say, might not be the best time to demand a show of respect for the Lord. How much respect did the good Lord show these kids?

Speaker 4 (00:13:30):

Pulp, necrosis, tongue lesions, goiter like presentations on account of the abscesses. I could go on. I will go on. Stained teeth, fractured teeth, necrotic teeth, gingival discharge, open sores, dry sockets, trench, mouth, and the malnutrition that follows from the impossibility of eating. A sane person doesn't stick around in the hopes of making a dent. A sane person takes the next plane home. I stayed for tax reasons. That's it. A solid write-off. And I liked the roasted lamb. You can't find lamb that good even in Manhattan. Mrs. Convoy said that we were there to do God's work. I'm here for the lamb. I told her as for God's work, I said, seems like we're undoing it. She disagreed. This was the reason that we had been put on earth, pessimism, skepticism, complaint, and outrage. I said to her, that's why we were put on Earth. Unless you were born out here, then it's pretty clear that your only purpose was to suffer.

Speaker 4 (00:14:32):

A finished biography appealed to Mrs. Convoy more than a work in progress. All of the important men in her life were dead. Christ the Savior Pope John Paul II and Dr. Bertram convoy, also a dentist before his fatal stroke. Betsy was only 60 but had been widowed 19 years. I always considered her alone, if not chronically lonely, but she was never alone. She was in the tripartite company of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, as well as the irre approachable presence of the virgin mother in fellowship with saints and martyrs. One in spirit with the Pope in Rome, deferential to her bishop, confessional to her priest and friend and comfort to all fellow members of her parish. If the Catholic church had come under assault for its many sins inside the church, the bonds had never been stronger and Betsy Convoy needed no one's sympathy for widowhood, solitude or the appearances of a bear in life.

Speaker 4 (00:15:30):

I was convinced that she would never die. But if she did and though her funeral amount to a very modest affair, she was bound for happy reunions in a better world in the brotherhood of a loving multitude. While her tombstone was still fresh with wreaths of Everlastings, she'd order a book. It was called Stop the Scheduling Madness or The Way of the Zero Balance Office or the Million Dollar Dentist. This last was written by someone named Barry Hallow. He was not even a dentist. He was a consultant. He sits in Phoenix, Arizona and writes a book. He's proven methods can change your practice, your financial health, and even your life expectancy. Most of all he writes, he can help you achieve happiness. Hey, who doesn't want that? Anything less than complete happiness is for complete losers. Really depressed people, old people losing their eyesight and child actors who turn out to be weird looking.

Speaker 4 (00:16:28):

It wasn't going to happen here, not with Barry Hallow. We schedule inefficiently, treat insufficiently and Bill Ineffectively. Mrs. Convoy concluded after reading Barry Hallow, I took exception to the claim that we somehow treated insufficiently. We do not spend enough time. She countered instructing patients on preventative measures, which in the long run would make them healthier. Preventative measures, don't pay the bills. I said, we're running a practice here, not a masterclass. And besides, I said, we do in fact spend a hell of a lot of time on preventative measures relative to other practices. But remember who you're talking about here, Betsy, human beings, lazy, shortsighted, knock backs who you try rousing the brush after four glasses of merlott on a Wednesday night ain't going to happen. No matter how much we preach preventative measures every time they deed to remember an appointment and drag themselves in here like children sent to pick up their toys just ain't going to happen.

Speaker 4 (00:17:28):

You have a low opinion of humanity she'd say, and ignoring her, I'd say, and it's not like we're asking much. The hands take care of themselves. The feet more or less take care of themselves. The nostrils require a little attention from time to time, as does the sphincter. That's about it A little. Laurel upkeep ain't a lot to ask in exchange for the good times. The Bonobos spend their days picking themselves free of ticks and lice. They could be the Bonobos. Oh, for heaven's sakes, you've gone off the rails again. Just listen to me for one second. Will you bury Hallows? Methods are proven and if you just follow the 12 steps he lays out, then he guarantees I have it written down here somewhere. Take the time, the teeth will shine and the patient will sign on the dotted line. That's some swell little posey.

Speaker 4 (00:18:17):

I said that clown's not even a dentist. I would like permission to put some of his methods into practice. She said, will it require any more work from any of us? It's likely to require a little more work from some of us. Yes. Are any of them me? It's likely. She said, no chance. I said, I kept a deliberately low profile online. No website, no Facebook page, but I'd Google myself. And what came up every time were the same three reviews. The one I wrote, the one I nagged, Connie Underwriting and the one anonymous wrote, don't think I didn't know who anonymous was. I'd given the guy every opportunity to pay me. He was into me for eight grand. I did the work. I made it possible. Listen, I made it possible for this jerk to resume eating. I was owed costs at the very least.

Speaker 4 (00:19:11):

So what does he do? He gets on a payment schedule of 20 bucks a month and then promptly broadcast his resentment that someone demand. He act honorably by posting a review, calling my work shoddy and overpriced. And on top of that, he says, I have caved dwellers. I don't have caved dwellers. I make it a point to inspect my nostrils in the mirror before I go and hover over a patient. It's common courtesy, but now the world thinks that I have caved dwellers. If somebody's doing a little research on the internet for a new dentist, and are they likely to choose the guy who might gouge them for lousy work while showering them with his caved dwellers? No. But there is no countering, no appeal, no entity to whom I complete my case to have the post removed. So I'd Google myself every month or so. And when the review from anonymous came up as it did without fail, every time I'd curse out loud and feel the victim of an injustice, and Mrs. Convoy would say, stop Googling yourself.

Speaker 4 (00:20:11):

She'd say, what do you have against other people? And I'd say, I'd be sitting at the front desk in one of the swivel chairs at the front desk doing paperwork or something and I'd look up from the paperwork and I'd say, what do I have against other people? I have nothing against other people. And she'd say, you alienate yourself from society. And I'd say, I'd turn physically in the chair to look at her and I'd say, who alienates himself from society? You don't have a website. She'd say, and you refuse to create a Facebook page. You have no online presence. Barry Hallow says, and this, I'm being accused of alienating myself from society because I don't have a Facebook page. All I'm trying to say is Barry Hallow encourages everyone to have an online presence. An online presence guarantees more business. It's proven. That's all I'm trying to say.

Speaker 4 (00:21:03):

No, that's not all you're trying to say, Betsy. I'd say that's not at all, all you're trying to say. If it was you wouldn't have accused me of alienating myself from society. You have misunderstood. My intentions should say, I think you have willfully misunderstood me. I don't have anything against other people. Betsy, do I understand other people? No. Most people, I don't understand what they do mystifies me. They're out there right now playing in the fields, boating, whatever. Good for them. You know what, Betsy? I'd love to boat with them. Yeah, let's boat. Let's eat shrimp together. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, she'd say, how did we start talking about eating shrimp? I'll never forgive myself for bringing this up. No, don't walk away, Betsy, let's hash this out. Do you think I can just willy nilly without a care in the world, go out there and go boating?

Speaker 4 (00:21:56):

Who said anything about going boating? She'd say, think I can just toss everything aside and go tanning and rock climbing and pick apples and shop for rugs and order salad and put my change in the same place night after night and wash the sheets and listen to you two and drink shali. What on earth are you talking about? She'd say, I was only trying to convince you to build a website and get on Facebook to improve our buildings. I have no idea why I can't do those things. I'd say, but I can't. I want to do them those ordinary night and weekend things, holiday things, vacation things. Please stop stepping on my heels. She'd say as well as anyone, just how small this office is, don't I'd say how much? I'd love to go to a bar and watch a game. You know how much I'd love a whole bunch of buds, A whole bunch of dude buds hollering yo at me when I came through the door, yo and mofo and beer, me and bro and all of that.

Speaker 4 (00:22:49):

All of my best dude buds on bar stools, drinking beer, watching the game with me. I am going inside to tend to a patient now. She'd say, I'm afraid we'll have to continue this conversation at another time. I would really like that Betsy to cheer and cheer and hoot and root alongside a band of brothers. I would love that. But do you have any idea how much attention you have to pay to a Red Sox game? Even a regular season Red Sox game? I have decided that I'm going to stand here and listen to you until you are quite finished. She'd say, because I feel I have touched a nerve, but just because I choose not to have a bunch of dude buds, don't think I don't worry about what I'm missing out on. Don't think I'm not haunted knowing that I might be missing out on things that I'd much prefer not to be missing out on. I am haunted, Betsy, you think I alienate myself from society? Of course, I alienate myself from society. It's the only way I know of not being constantly reminded all of the ways I'm alienated from society. That doesn't mean I have anything against other people. Envy them. Of course, marvel at them constantly. Secretly study them every day. I just don't get any closer to understanding them and liking something you don't understand, estranged from it without reason, longing to commute, commune with it. Who'd ask for it? I ask you, Betsy, who would ask for it?

Speaker 4 (00:24:10):

Are you quite finished now? She'd ask. This is turning out to be one of the longest ordeals of my life, but do you want to know what I don't understand? Even more than I don't understand the boating and the tanning reading about the boating and the tanning online,

Speaker 4 (00:24:25):

I was already at one remove before the internet came along. I need another remove now. I have to spend the time that I'm not doing the thing they're doing, reading about them, doing it, streaming all of the clips of them doing it, commenting on how lucky they're to be. Doing all of those things, liking and digging and bookmarking and posting and retweeting all of those things and feeling more disconnected than ever. Where does this idea of greater connection come from? I've never in my life felt more disconnected. It's like how the rich get richer, the connected, get more connected while the disconnected, just get more disconnected. No thanks man. I can't do it. The world was a sufficient trial. Betsy, before Facebook. I take back my suggestion that you have something against other people she'd say, and I'll never suggest a website or a Facebook page ever again. I was a dentist, not a website. I was a muddle, not a brand. I was a man, not a profile. They wanted to contain my life with a summary of its purchases and preferences, prescription medications and predictable behaviors. That was not a man that was an animal in a cage.

Speaker 4 (00:25:31):

She'd say, when was the last time you attended church?

Speaker 4 (00:25:36):

I'd tell her. She'd say never is not an option. Everyone has been to church at least once. Try being honest. I'd tell her. She'd say, oh, for heaven's sake, no one worships a little blue leprechaun. First of all, leprechauns are not blue. Second of all, as well as anyone that leprechauns did not make heaven and earth. I see no reason to believe in leprechauns and every reason to believe in God. I see God in the sky and I see God on the street. Can you really sit there and suggest to me that you do not feel God at work in the world? I'd tell her. She'd say one cannot feel the work of the Big Bang. Why must you always bring up the big bang when we're trying to have a discussion about God? I'd tell her. She'd say, but you can't be good on account of the big Bang. You can only be good on account of God. Don't you want to be good? I'd tell her. She'd say, metaphysical, blackmail my patootie. I want you to answer me. Do you think you're good? I'd say, yes. I thought I was good. And then she'd think about that for a minute and she'd say her voice would drop. She'd put her hand on my arm and she'd say, but are you well? She'd say, are you well? Thank you.

Speaker 6 (00:26:59):

Good evening. I was doing a reading a couple of days ago and over the course of the q and a, people kept asking me questions that felt strangely similar, and they would come back to certain ideas like, why are your characters so sad? And do your characters want to kill themselves and do you want to kill yourself? Which I don't. I'm fine. Don't worry about it. So it's really lovely to read after Josh and to read with Josh, and I think only on the surface of it do we not share a lot, but we actually share I think a ton in common because with all that humor, there's this great sadness and despair and his characters and we live really close to each other, which no one ever mentions. But I think we're going to insert that into our bios is that we live three blocks away from each other. I'm just much happier and funnier than him in real life. I'm going to read to maybe or at least one small passage from this book. This first section takes place from the point of view of a social worker named Helen. And Helen is responsible for introducing this man Isaac, who's just come from Africa to this small town in the Midwest in the early 1970s. So this is Helen.

Speaker 6 (00:28:11):

I knew my time with Isaac was temporary. His visa granted him one year, and we never discussed the possibility of extending it. I did despite my best efforts to stay grounded, sometimes imagine that one day we drive together to city hall, nicely dressed, carrying simple silver bands picked up from the town's largest grocery store in our pockets so that we could declare our marriage in front of a judge and the hope that by doing so we would be able to make something permanent as shared life, which as the saying goes, no man or woman could tear us under. I imagined just living on a large farm far away from any town and family with only chickens and acres of corn for company. How would you feel about living on a farm? I asked Isaac. That depends. He said, are you there with me? Maybe if you were good, I'd come visit on the weekends. I said, when it came to more domestic fantasies, however, we fell apart, the distance between what we had and what we wanted was too close. If we dreamed it was too obvious. If we dreamed too close to home, I remember taking him to the post office once so he can mail a letter to his mother. While we stood in line to buy stamps, I asked him what her name was. He looked up as if he no longer knew the answer to that question or had lost the right to answer it.

Speaker 6 (00:29:31):

Her name doesn't matter. He said, everyone only calls her Aya. It means mother.

Speaker 6 (00:29:38):

When we reached the teller, Isaac handed me the envelope. He was shy speaking in front of strangers, so I was the one who asked how many stamps were needed to mail the letter. While we waited, I tried to pronounce her name the same way he had. I said out loud, Emah, you not even close. He said, he pronounced it once more so I could hear how far off I was. And finally, after failing two more times, I laughed and said, forget it. When we meet, I'll just call her mother. Isaac became silence. What I had said bothered him, but I didn't know well enough yet to understand why, but I felt the distance expanding between us. We paid for the stems and left the post office, and it wasn't until we were alone in the car that he told me what he was thinking. It doesn't do us any good to talk about things that will never happen, he said, and so I promised myself I would never ask him about his family again, and by and large, I stayed true to that.

Speaker 6 (00:30:37):

I thought as well, however, that if we couldn't have a future, I could at least try to make the most out of our present. We were running out of errands and tourists to complete, and it was time. I told him, we moved on to something else. We're going to have to find something else to do. I said, except go to the grocery store, but would you like I thought of all the possible options open to us. I thought of what normal couples did. They went to the movies, dinner. They invited friends over on the weekends and they had beach vacations. I knew we couldn't get away with any of that, so I told Isaac, I don't know, but I'll come up with something. I decided over breakfast with my mother that certain risks had to be taken if Isaac and I were going to have any sort of life together.

Speaker 6 (00:31:26):

I didn't make that decision lightly. She asked me that morning while setting the table, do you have a new friend, Helen? She was dependent on gentle phrasing. That was the register we carried all our conversations in. Would you like to help me with the shopping this weekend? Helen, do you think it's time we change the curtains in the living room? Helen and I always responded in kind knowing that I know of. I said, but I promise to keep looking. We weren't divided like the south and had nothing to do with any of the large cities in the north. We were exactly what geography had made us. Middle of the road, never bitterly segregated, but with lines dividing black from white all over town, whether in neighborhoods, churches, schools, or parks. We lived semi peacefully apart like a married couple in separate wings of a large house.

Speaker 6 (00:32:18):

That was the image I had in mind during breakfast when I decided something different had to be done change. It seemed to be everywhere except Laurel. I set my sights low. Incremental progress was my philosophy. Isaac and I didn't have to be heroes. There had been enough of those already, and in many ways, reasoned, Isaac and I had already picked up the fight. We just had known that was what we were doing. I made a list of all the places we had gone to in the three months since we'd met the grocery store, mall, post office bank, goodwill. I thought of them while sitting at my desk and tried to remember if any obvious signs of affection had passed between us. I came up with a crude value system to measure each trip by one, shopping for food after sex in children. What could be more intimate in America than choosing what kind of meat to cook?

Speaker 6 (00:33:14):

The grocery store was the first place in our town that I knew for certain we had conquered. We went once, sometimes twice a week. We laughed in the aisles, took turn, pushing the cart. I gave Isaac cooking lauson at the meat counter. Those were all important victories. Two, the post office. I had to admit that had been a terrible loss, and because it was a government office, I felt I had to weigh the defeat a bit more. One post office defeat was the equivalent of two grocery store victories. Mail was dangerous. Personal letters especially, they pointed to great distance. As in old, mysterious lives I knew nothing about. There were tellers instead of clerks forms that had to be filled. It could be difficult if not impossible to win into a place like that. Three, anything else that was related to shopping, furniture, plates, cutlery.

Speaker 6 (00:34:09):

We had chosen all that together right under the skeptical eye of the clerks and had Isaac and I touched each other once. I would've said We dealt an important blow against segregation, but I had to be honest. I knew we never touched except by accident. So I had to temper the victory with the knowledge that we could have done better. What I needed next were new targets. The first one that came to mind was the most obvious, and I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of it earlier. A week after our defeat at the post office, I called Isaac from my office and said I wanted to take him out to lunch. To lunch. Yes, I said, for lunch, I'm tired of eating at my desk alone. I chose the same diner my father had gone to every morning and whereas a child, I joined him on Saturday afternoons.

Speaker 6 (00:34:56):

The diner was never officially segregated, but I couldn't remember anyone who wasn't white eating there either. In this case, it was etiquette and not a sign that served as the cover for our division. Before I left to pickup Isaac, I wrote down on a piece of paper in case I forgot it later. We have every right to be here. We arrived shortly afternoon when I knew the count of the restaurant would be crowded. Isaac said he could meet me there, but I insisted on picking him up so everyone could see us walk in together. The lunch counter was already full of the half dozen men sitting there. I knew three by name and the others were familiar. Bill whose chest and were known throughout Laurel for the strong black hair that sprouted from them was leaning over the counter, smiling half-heartedly at everyone who came and left.

Speaker 6 (00:35:46):

My father used to tell me to be careful with my food. When Bill stood over us, he sheds, he told me like a dog and the scripted version that had played in my head. During the five minute drive from Isaac's apartment to the restaurant, the entire diner fell silent. As soon as we entered, all eyes turned towards us and we ignored them. We didn't hold hands. That would've been too provocative, but we did pause to look at each other with what I thought of as an abundance of affection and the version we lived. No one stopped talking. Bill saw me as soon as I walked in and pointed to a table in the middle of a diner. Isaac followed me, but I was so focused on making it to the table that I never stopped to notice if anyone was staring at him. We took our seats when I picked up my menu as a cover so I could look around the room.

Speaker 6 (00:36:37):

I realized no one had noticed yet how remarkable we were. Isaac saw my gaze wandering. Why are we here? He asked me. I looked around the room again. I thought I saw Bill and two of the men at the counter staring in our general direction. No reason I told him I just wanted to get out. I asked Isaac what he had done all day. I was at the library. He said he described the book on contemporary American architecture. He had been reading. I told him twice that it sounded very interesting, fascinating. I said What they can build these days, chitchat. Simple conversation. When Isaac put his hand on the table, I took his pinky and index finger in mine and I held them for two, maybe three seconds. While looking at the menu, I used a strand of loose hair as an excuse to let go.

Speaker 6 (00:37:28):

A waitress came and took our order. I ordered the fried chicken. Isaac pointed to the Denver omelet and then me order for him. After our waitress left, I turned my attention back to the counter. I wanted to tell Isaac what my father had said about Bill, but he was no longer there, and with him gone, the men at the counter stopped pretending they weren't staring at us. I tried to ignore them, but then our waitress came back empty handed and I felt certain if I looked over again, I'd see those men smiling. She was young, fresh out of high school. Had I been younger, I would've known who she was. She had a kind round face and wore her dark brown hair in a bun. She leaned over and whispered to us, bill wants to know if you would like to take your food with you.

Speaker 6 (00:38:15):

She was doing her best to be kind. Isaac understood immediately what was happening, and in the same breath knew how to respond. Before I could answer, if he told her no, we would rather eat here. Polite, yet determined. She nodded her head. She had no idea what else she can do. Isaac his lips and waited until she had turned to the kitchen before turning his attention to me. Do you come here frequently? He asked. I nodded yes, and then changed my mind and said, no, not really. Which one is it? I used to come when I was younger. I said, but I don't that often anymore. It was true. The Dina was a few blocks away, but I went there once a month. At most we should go. I said Isaac hadn't stopped staring at me since the waitress left. I was tempted to confess my reasons for bringing him, but I realized it didn't have to.

Speaker 6 (00:39:13):

The best intentions didn't change what was obvious. I should have known better. I'm not going to run. He said, I'm going to eat my lunch. And briefly, I felt bold again. I saw myself adding this lunch to my column of victories once I returned to the office. If we made it through this, then perhaps there was nothing in the world that we couldn't conquer from post offices to movie theaters and the all too perilous family dinner at home. I was imagining what my mother would say if Isaac were to show up one Sunday evening when his lunch arrived. The same waitress brought it, although this time she didn't look at either of us. Her embarrassment was evidence. Isaac's omelet was on a stack of thin paper plates, barely large enough to hold the food. A plastic fork and knife had been wrapped in a napkin and placed on top a strangely delicate touch that she must have been responsible for.

Speaker 6 (00:40:05):

He enwrapped the knife and fork and placed the palm size napkin on his lap. Do you mind if I start? I hate my aches when they're cold. He said he spoke so calmly. I assumed he was joking, and I suppose to some degree he was. I tried to laugh. Ha ha. But then he cut his omelet into seven even pieces before taking the first bite. He chewed slowly with every bite. I was reminded that we were no longer if ever on the same side. He had finished his omelet by the time my order arrived on the standard cream colored plates used for everyone other than Isaac. The waitress tried to walk away quickly, but I grabbed her by the wrist and told her I wanted to cancel my order. Tell Bill that I don't want to eat here. I said, the poor child. She was struggling not to cry.

Speaker 6 (00:40:57):

We didn't make it any easier on her. Leave the plate. Isaac said, we're going to stay and eat it. She hurried back to the kitchen. I stared at the plate of chicken and mashed potatoes and blinked twice. Childishly hoping I could make it vanish. Please. I said, let's leave now. He shook his head. No, not until we both finished our lunch. He said, that's what you wanted, isn't it? If that was his way of settling the score, then I thought I could play along just as well. For the next 10 minutes. I slowly took my food and with my first half-hearted stab into the chicken, all the momentum was gone. There was nothing we could change. I felt a regression back to my mother's kitchen table where I'd spent nights in afternoons laboring to finish a meal and my father had never shown up for and that my mother had refused.

Speaker 6 (00:41:50):

I'd always known there was something cruel in her insistence that I eat every bite on my plate while my father's food grew cold next to me. She needed a victim besides herself. And when I finally looked up at Isaac after a few minutes and saw him smiling at me, I knew there was something slightly cruel lurking in his gaze. I was too busy though, creating a new story to linger on that thought. And in this story, Isaac and I were still heroes. The fact that we chose to sit there and linger when every part of me wanted to run was proof of the sacrifices we were willing to make When we left the restaurant and we're back in the car, he said to me, now this is how they break you slowly in pieces. And actually, I'm going to stop there because,

Speaker 3 (00:42:50):

So I think I'll start with a question for both of you, and either one of you can answer. First, what were your early influences? Did you come from reading families, families of storytellers? Did you read a lot and what did you read?

Speaker 6 (00:43:09):

Yeah, my family definitely read, but I'd say maybe the bigger influence what was read or not read, but there's this sort of normal trope that writers have not really trope that's not fair, but that we sort of write because we hear a lot of stories. Stories are passed down. And I felt like I started writing because I was very aware of an absence of stories in our life. There was sort of a great big hole in our family narrative about what happened after we left Ethiopian came to America, and this sort of divide in those experiences of growing up in America in a radically different way from the experiences my parents had and not ever having narratives that reflected that knowing that there weren't stories that kind of gave semblance to your experience in a narrative form that stories that you could look to that echoed your life in ways that you needed to see those stories echoed and stories that kind of helped you understand who your parents were and what happened to them and who you were and who you were becoming. So writing was one way of filling that. And then of course we all sort of read a lot. I think I hope

Speaker 4 (00:44:10):

Mean my parents couldn't shut up about interview.

Speaker 6 (00:44:13):

I was like, enough already with their story. You've told it so many times.

Speaker 4 (00:44:18):

My parents read a lot to me when bedtime stories, and that's probably where my love of stories come from, I guess. I mean, they've read a lot. And I remember going to the same books over and over and requesting the same books over and over again. But now that I watch my kid make up stories and just sort of spin little tales and these actually magnificent epics, I realized that it's somewhere, it's sort of like inborn. I, it's because when I was eight and I said to my mom, I want, I was writing these little goofy things like mad magazine things and Alfred Hitchcock ripoffs, and I said to my mom, can I use a curse word? And my mom, who wasn't, is not the most sophisticated literary woman in the world, said, if it's in the service of the story, more or less, that's what she said. And I was so floored by this, and I used the curse word, but she's extremely encouraging. But then I also remember a time we lived in Key West, and at that time there was still spindle racks of hemmingway novels in the, and I was like 12 or 13. I said, would I like these? And she said, no, they're terribly boring.

Speaker 4 (00:45:32):

So it took me a long time to discover him because I thought he's dull. So I mean, it's a mixed bag, but I really do think looking at my kid that it's a switch that gets turned on doesn't get turned off. Yeah,

Speaker 6 (00:45:44):

My youngest son at four just finished his first book called Louis the Colossal Squid. Oh, actually it's the colossal squid. And we admired the fact that the colossal squid was more important than him. He's like, that's a great sense of narrative trajectory. The squid is why you're going to read the book. You don't need to read the book about the little kid, but you're reading to read it about the squid. But maybe I was wondering, I know I had a point where narrative became vital to me, so it wasn't just only to try to fill in the gaps in my family's life, but at some point stories became, reading became the most vital thing that I had in my life. It became more important than having any relationship with people. And so when I got to college, I had my roommate was like, dude, what did you bring?

Speaker 6 (00:46:23):

And I was like, I bought a bunch of used dirty paperbacks and he wasn't really happy about that. And he's like, you were supposed to bring a tv. And I was like, I know, but I don't have money for a tv. But I got all these paperbacks. And so he went and bought a tv. And then I spent the next three years kind of using books as almost kind of like a defense mechanism because I didn't feel always settled with the people around me. But I didn't have to feel you could walk into a room and if you didn't know anybody or in the room with you, I always had a book that I could then just pull out in a slightly pretentious way, sit down. And that was a sort of armor then you had.

Speaker 4 (00:46:58):

Yeah. Well, and of course then in the shores up against barbarism, right? Books in general. But when you're younger, you use them to define yourself and to sort of differentiate yourself from the barbarians of high

Speaker 6 (00:47:08):


Speaker 3 (00:47:11):

So I'd like to just follow up a little bit with you. You were two when your family moved to the United States. And you have said in other interviews that you grew up fully American, but your home life was the life of an immigrant family. I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about what that was like and how that then has translated to your writing.

Speaker 6 (00:47:31):

Yeah. Well, I'd say the life of the immigrant is the life of the American. Oftentimes we sort of try to exclude those two things as being like that's the sort of immigrant experience and that's the American experience. And we're just waiting for our immigrants to become American. And that's the sort of false dichotomy. And as a child, you sort of grow up thinking that way, that you're somehow supposed to be nervous about what happens when you cross the threshold of your house and your parents have food that smells strange. And my mom would be like, I'm not going to make Ethiopian food before you go to school. You're going to smell. And she still does it to this day. And I'm like, you're crazy, right? It's just onions. You're cooking onions, we're not going to smell. But that anxiety comes from feeling like somehow debrand you as foreign.

Speaker 6 (00:48:11):

And in fact, I think writing becomes a way of arguing that immigrant experience isn't sort of a separate identity from American. It actually is the sort of American identity. And that if anything, you, you're, you're complicating that sense that somehow you should be worried about those things not fitting into sort of a cultural performance that is oftentimes really poorly defined and limiting. And so you want to write stories that say, look, here's a guy who also has a name that sounds slightly strange and foreign, and you don't have to be scared. You're going to be totally okay. You can read that story and you will still feel like you know that person. It's not a distinct American narrative. It's not a sort of immigrant narrative about America. It's an American narrative that happens to involve other people different from you.

Speaker 3 (00:48:54):

So do you think people, readers in general would think of foreign as scary or off-putting or?

Speaker 6 (00:49:01):

Well, I don't think readers do. I think the people that put books in reader's hands sometimes do, the title of my first novel was Children of the Revolution. And my publishers made me change it into the beautiful things that heaven bears because Children of the Revolution was going to sound sort of too political. And I think we conflate the idea of the political novel with the novels of minorities or ethnic groups or immigrants. We think of those novels as somehow inherently being exclusionary to the sort of grander narrative of an American narrative. And that's just not true. It's just because those stories take on America just from a slightly different lens. They're not. And that different lens, of course, takes on a kind of more political context because you're putting characters into relationships with people who are different from them, who are going to have to deal with their race, with their class, with their ethnicity, and to exclude them from being literary forms to put them into sort of weird, marginal categories is one way, one of devaluing what I think literature can do devalues what American literature has done for a very, very long time.

Speaker 6 (00:50:02):

And it devalues the reader. It says, readers don't value narratives unless they somehow look like you. And I don't think that's why people read. That's not why I read.

Speaker 3 (00:50:12):

When you were a young man reading, were there books that you read that you felt like, this does look like me or this does feel like me, even if it wasn't the same exact set of circumstances, but some that you identified with? Yeah,

Speaker 6 (00:50:27):

We probably share this in common. The catcher in the R was one of the first books that got me to love. He Hates Everyone. I was like, dude, he goes to a private school that he hates it. And I was like, that's exactly what I lived through. And so Holden Caulfield became one of the first vehicles for me to get into books. And from there you can begin to complicate that story. And that reminds me constantly that I didn't need to read a story about Sefa or an Ethiopian immigrant in high school in America. I just needed somebody who felt alone and alienated and wanted to have something different. And that&#

No Comments