Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Corona Dreams by Eleanor Lerman

Everyone I know is having bad dreams. One friend says that in her sleep, an enormous car is trying to break down the front door of her house. It backs up and speeds forward again and again, its engine growling angrily because it can't get in—at least, not yet. A neighbor tells me that she spends her dream time rummaging through imaginary drawers, trying to find enough forgotten money to hire an exterminator to rid her house of bugs (Apparently, her fears trend towards the literal.) Someone else, so traumatized by her nightmares, can barely whisper to me that even by the morning light, she can’t shake the exhaustion of being chased all night by a murderer who shouts that she can't escape him because he knows her name and her address. 

I’m dreaming, too, but my midnights bring me images that are less threatening than they are full of yearning for a lost world that I fear I will be prevented from every embracing again. Often, in my travels through dreamland, I find myself standing in an empty apartment, a place I have never been before. I walk across the floor, stepping carefully because the light is dim and I can’t see very well. Finally, I reach a sliding glass door, and after I pull it open I am standing on a balcony looking out at a heartbreakingly beautiful scene: before me is playland world, brightened by a golden sun riding high in a pure blue sky tented above a merry-go-round, a rollercoaster, cotton candy booths and a tilt-a-whirl. Parents and children are strolling around here, holding hands, enjoying the mild weather, being happy, being alive and well. And in the middle of my imaginary playland, resting on his stomach and smiling a smile of great joy, is a huge, plastic blow-up replica of a creature born to glide through great, chilly currents but who is now only swaying gently in the soft breezes. I would know him anywhere, that giant from the deep. He is an old friend, a welcome vision, and he brings me to tears because I think, in the dream, that I will never be able to enter that wonderful, sunlit world again and say hello to my beloved Nessie. 

From now on, that dream tells me, I will only be able to stand at the edge of the darkness, looking out at the bright, happy world where the Loch Ness monster is protecting everyone from harm. That must sound absurd, so I suppose I’d better explain why the sight of even a facsimile of a supposedly extinct aquatic plesiosaur who swam the ancient seas about sixty-six million years ago is, to me, a symbol of strength and safe haven. And of defiance, as well. 

When I was a teenager, I lived in a chaotic and often frightening household. My stepsister was descending into the violent depths of schizophrenia, which my father and stepmother would neither recognize nor admit (they kept telling people that she ate too much sugar, which made her “irritable”), and my stepmother and I did not get along. In fact, as in dark fairytales, there was real animosity between us. One afternoon, while I was in the library, searching through books about how to cast spells that would banish evil people (listen, I was maybe fourteen and I was so desperate to get rid of my stepmother that I would have tried anything), I opened a book about mythic creatures and saw a black-and-white photo of what was said to be the Loch Ness monster. The picture showed his lozenge-shaped head atop a long, graceful neck that arched up from beneath an expanse of roiling water. The photo, of course, is a fake, but fifty-four years ago, in an old library building in the dying beach town where I lived, that photo was as real to me as my own breath. I loved the idea that there was a monster alive in the world, a great, silent being who kept his own counsel and harmed no one. Maybe he was far away, swimming through the depths of an ancient Scottish loch, but I knew that I knew him, and he knew me. I tore the page out of the book (my stepmother kept telling me that I was a bad person so what was it to me, to do this bad thing—stealing a page from a borrowed book?), took it home, and taped it to the wall above my bed. 

And so a new front opened up in the ongoing war between my stepmother and me. She hated the picture and told me to take it down. I would not. She screamed at me that it was sacrilegious, and even though I didn’t think she really know what that meant, I remember telling her that was fine with me. Sacrilegious was something to aim for. Let God be angry: I didn’t care. I wanted Him to know I was angry, too. 

That fight went on for four long years. Sometimes my stepmother would take the photo down herself, but I had already bought another book that had the photo in it, so I would just go back to the library, copy the page on the Xerox machine, bring it home, and tape it back up again. I left the picture behind when I finally left home at the age of eighteen, but by then the Loch Ness monster had served his purpose for me: he had been my monster, my you-don’t-control-me guardian, my screw-you to all the bad people who didn’t care about me and all the bad things that might happen to a young girl who had to live in a dangerous and unhappy world. 

Over the years, I’ve happened on that photo again from time to time, like when it’s included in an article about how it was faked and by whom. I’m always happy to see Nessie and totally disinterested in all the evidence that proves he doesn’t exist. To me, he does, and he has since that long-ago day when I first brought him home to watch over me. I guess that’s why it is so sad and disturbing to find that all through these long, virus-haunted nights, my dreams tell me that the Loch Ness monster is lost to me. He lives in a world that has vanished overnight, a place where people are happy, where they can walk around freely, in the sunshine—and they’re not wearing Latex gloves and surgical masks. 

But in my heart, I don’t believe that all is lost. I know there really are monsters alive in this world who burn with unspeakably evil intentions: some of them wear the skin of human beings and some of them want to tear us apart from the inside. They are absolutely to be feared, and I fear them. But I also fear the monstrosity of passing time that ages us and sends us to bed with nightmares of illness and infirmity even when there is no pandemic. In those cruel dreams, we become the kind of old, cursed outcasts who wander dead roads answering the questions of jackal-headed sub-gods and hump-backed witches, trying to find our way home. But as it turns out, home is the new prison. How, I wonder, will I ever escape? And when? 

Lately, I’ve been trying to remind myself that I escaped once before. Maybe I was physically a lot stronger then, when I was younger, but I can make up for that because I’m a lot more cunning now—at least, I believe that I am. I can wage more subtle battles these days, even if they are just with myself and my own anxieties. And I want that happy world back, that blue sky and sunshine out there beyond the dark and empty place I’ve come from, even if that bright world is something that I’ve totally made up. I am determined to get there even if I have to put on a damn mask and disposable gloves and take the infected subway to some library, somewhere, where I can find that same photograph of the Loch Ness monster and hang it on my wall again. Of course, now, I could much more easily and safely download the picture from Internet, but the day will surely come when even a short journey to meet an old friend won’t be quite so dangerous anymore. Then I will be able to let Nessie go again, without regret. Let him return to his deep waters, his mysterious home in a far-away land. And I will continue on my road and you will continue on yours. This is me waving to you before I walk off into the future, which will certainly contain more monsters. The trick is to outlive the bad ones who want to eat you and embrace the good ones when they swim your way.

✽               ✽               ✽

Eleanor Lerman is the author of numerous award-winning collections of poetry, short stories and novels. She is a National Book Award finalist, the recipient of the 2006 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts for poetry and the New York Foundation for the Arts for fiction. In 2016 her novel, Radiomen, was awarded the John W. Campbell Prize for the Best Book of Science Fiction. Her most recent novel, Satellite Street, was a finalist for the 2019 Montaigne Medal.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Chapter 1 Is Not For Parents by Eric Wat

At the book launch of my novel SWIM in August, I wasn’t going to read Chapter 1. Nope, not with my parents there. 

I’ve been told by other writers, maybe even at least one writing teacher, that the first pages of a book need to grab the reader’s attention readily. Pack these pages with titillating contents. In the case of SWIM, the protagonist wakes up from a drug binge after a long night of meth-hazy sex only to find out his mother has died. Chapter 1 is for agents, publishers, and those readers who still wander bookstores and sample passages from new books, as unabashedly as Costco shoppers forage finger food on a Sunday morning. 
Chapter 1 is not for parents.

A writer-friend once told me that her mentor advised her to write as if her parents were dead. Parents, I guess, are the ultimate panopticon in your head. I hadn’t done that for SWIM. (Killing off one parent as a premise for the novel is bad juju enough, I thought.) Instead, I wrote the first draft as if my book would never be published. It helped to think that so I could write about sex and drugs explicitly. I still like to think I had walked a fine balance between provocative and prurient. Sometimes, though, I was jolted by other people’s appetite for the subject. During the revision phase, for instance, my publisher suggested there was too much nipple in one chapter. 

My first reaction was, I’ve been holding back on the nipple! (Well, here it is again.)

I don’t think of myself as an effective purveyor of sex, even though, in my scant publication history before SWIM, two of my short stories had found a home in erotica anthologies. It’s not so much that I gravitate towards sex, as sex is all around me. The meth epidemic in the gay community wouldn’t spread like wildfire if the drug wasn’t linked to sex. I was writing a story about a meth addict, so if sex wasn’t going to be front and center, it was center-adjacent. Touching elbows on one of those flimsy armrests between two coach seats on a plane kind of adjacent.

As I was awaiting the publication of SWIM, I started a new writing project, what I’m calling a community memoir of the AIDS movement in the Asian American communities in Los Angeles in roughly the first decade of the epidemic. For it, I interviewed over 30 activists and survivors. 

I was more than a casual observer of those times. I was a teenager at the beginning of the epidemic, a budding gay man just figuring out his sexual attractions. AIDS scared the shit out of me. Sex education managed to be both boring and alarming. But the message was clear: If I had sex with another man, I probably would catch the virus and die. In college, a time of exploration for most, my fear stunted any potential intimacy. I sublimated all that sexual energy into school and activism in the early 1990s, including being a volunteer for the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team, the local AIDS service organization where I had met many of the activists I interviewed for this project.

Hearing their stories reminded me of my reticence to sex. AIDS activists had had to shout louder than what polite company would allow because their messages were falling on deaf and homophobic ears. They had to provoke, often with explicit images. Nice public health messages weren’t going to get people to practice safe sex. A poster of an erect penis the length of the city bus finally got people talking.

Think the iconic “Silence = Death” or the series of posters that played on George H.W. Bush’s words “Read My Lips” by artist Gran Fury. Or Marlon Riggs’ unapologetically documentary “Tongues Untied” about Black gay men. Or the words of poets and playwrights, like Essex Hemphill, Michael Callen, and Larry Kramer. Think Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs. (Yes, even the orchids.) Consistent with the queer movement of that time (“We’re queer. We’re here”), these artists shoved their images and words in people’s faces, telling them the straight world is the one who had to “get used to it.” 

It was no different in the Asian American communities. You couldn’t be thin-skinned when you had to talk about sex - not just any sex, but gay sex – in immigrant communities that were supposed to be averse to its discussion.

In Los Angeles, these AIDS activists came up with a social marketing campaign in 1992 called “Love Your Asian Body,” which includes a series of images of Asian men touching, kissing, and straddling each other, wearing nothing or close to nothing. At a time when the gay community was inundated with white male bodies, this campaign was the first time my young eyes saw images of people like me, feeling proud and having fun, in charge of their sexuality. 

Part of destigmatizing AIDS was to destigmatize sex. No more demonstrations of putting a condom on a banana. It might have been funny, but it was never sexy. Instead, we talked about sadomasochism, bondage, roleplay, and other kinks, like thirty-seven different ways to make a man squeal with his nipples. (Seriously, what else is a nipple on a man good for?)

The message was clear: You don’t deserve to be sick, to be denied services, or to die, no matter who you choose to have sex with, or how you like your sex, from vanilla to hardcore. 

The AIDS epidemic was a formative era for me as a writer, too. As I comb through these stories for my current project, I realize now that I do not write about explicit sex to titillate the reader. I write about sex this way so I can be seen.

I’m doing another reading at a local bookstore in November, and once again, I can’t read Chapter 1. This time, it’s not my parents who are holding me back. The reading area is adjacent to the children’s books section, elbow-to-elbow adjacent. Parents are so fragile, and the bookstore has guidelines. 

Fine, no nipples. Some stuff is better under the book covers.

Eric Wat has been active in struggles for LGBT, immigrant, and workers' rights for more than two decades. His short stories and essays have appeared in various anthologies and journals. His debut novel SWIM is available through Amazon or The Permanent Press. He lives and writes in Los Angeles.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Travels with Leonard by Eleanor Lerman

By the time I got to high school in 1966 I was out of my mind. My mother had died; my father had gotten married again, choosing a woman who became the quintessential evil stepmother; and I had a schizophrenic stepsister who drew giant evil eyes on the living room walls. My father's reaction to the madness of our family life was to walk into the room where my stepmother, my stepsister, and I were all screaming at each other and say, "Now, now, let's all go watch Wheel of Fortune and everything will be okay." Perhaps that's where I learned that telling a story was a way to save my own life, but I think I know who really taught me that lesson. It was Leonard Cohen.

Before I found his work though, I started running around in the Village. I knew all the hidden gay bars, and all the straight hippie dives, and I started writing about my life as a fourteen-year-old in these now long-lost places. I remember handing in a sheaf of poems to my high school English teacher and he said something to the effect that while my work was good enough, I couldn't read any of it to the class because it would scare them. They were all nice kids living nice, normal lives and they didn't need to hear about my not-so-secret life in the sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll counterculture.

Now, believe me, I was gratified to be a certifiably scary person. Why not? I was angry and out of control and my developing idea of becoming a writer seemed such an impossibility that I was ready to tear up the world. Poetry had taken hold of me but I had no idea of what I was doing and I didn't think anyone could help me. I had no intention of going to college because I was unteachable, unruly, ready to become a runaway, to fling myself into the nearest void and never return. And then one day, around the time I was sixteen, this happened:

by Leonard Cohen

Loving you, flesh to flesh, I often thought
Of traveling penniless to some mud throne
Where a master might instruct me how to plot
My life away from pain, to love alone
In the bruiseless embrace of stone and lake.

Lost in the fields of your hair I was never lost
Enough to lose a way I had to take; 
Breathless beside your body I could not exhaust
The will that forbid me to contract, vow,
Or promise, and often while you slept
I looked in awe beyond your beauty.

Now I know why many men have stopped and wept
Half-way between the loves they leave and seek,
And wondered if travel leads them anywhere-- 
Horizons keep the soft line of your check,
The windy sky's a locket for your hair.

This is the poem that saved me from becoming a lost soul because it taught me the art, discipline, and technical skills I needed to begin learning how to write poems that were something more than just stabbing at a piece of paper and describing how angry and crazed I felt. It's been something like fifty years since I first read "Travel" and I have never achieved anything as nearly as wonderful and perfect as this poem, which may be why I go back to it year after year, even in the years that I'm writing more fiction than poetry. It's my touchstone, my secret, my saving grace. Whenever I'm sitting on my purple couch -- my version of a writer's office -- with my laptop open, thinking, I don't know how to do this anymore, it's too hard, I have no ideas, and what makes me think I'm really a writer, anyway? -- I pull my decades-old copy of The Spice Box of Earth from my bookshelf and read this poem. Sometimes I read it out loud to myself. It always makes me feel better. It reminds me of the crazy, sad, angry girl I was -- the one still inside me that needs to be soothed -- and how she thought, now I know how to save myself.

I first read "Travel" on a bus. I had bought The Spice Box of Earth in a drugstore in the half-deserted beach town where we lived when I was a teenager. The book was in the kind of spinning book rack they used to have in pharmacies and dime stores, and it caught my eye because I knew Leonard Cohen from “Suzanne,” a song of his that I’d heard on the radio. I thought Cohen was a singer and had no idea that he was also a poet. So I bought the book and took the bus home. By the time I got off at my stop, my life had changed. Up until that moment, I had thought poetry was incomprehensible nonsense written by dead old men and women in bonnets. But Cohen’s poem, “Travel,” which was one of the poems in the Spice Box collection, was like a message to me, a revelation and a how-to manual all wrapped up together. Because it was written in the kind of every-day language I heard in songs—maybe not in the way people actually spoke to each other, but certainly, in the way they sang on the FM radio stations I listened to in those days, and at night, when my headphones carried the music directly into my brain. I was saturated with music when I was a teenager, but after I read “Travel,” I was saturated with Leonard Cohen’s poetry, as well.

Oh, that poem is so full of love and longing and grief. Underneath all my savage anger, I was still just a kid, full of longing and greatly in need of love. Each word of Cohen’s poem resonated with me. But “Travel” is not simply a path for a lonely teenager to follow into a life of writing. It stands by itself as the creation of a master of words, a man who knew how to infuse three stanzas with perfectly chosen words that create atmosphere and deep feeling. Think about “the bruiseless embrace of stone and lake,” and you can hear rushing water in a cold stream and then think about how you might float among stones in a lake and not be harmed but rather embraced by water and sky as you “plot [your] life away.” Who hasn’t, at one point or another, wanted to give themselves up and drift away?  (And isn’t that the perfect antidote to wanting to hurl yourself into the dark, never to return?) However, the real master class offered by this poem is in the last lines. Read the first three…

“Now I know why many men have stopped and wept
Half-way between the loves they leave and seek,
And wondered if travel leads them anywhere–“

…and then note how Cohen suddenly veers off in another direction, as if he’s been interrupted by his own musings, his own prayer.

“Horizons keep the soft line of your cheek,
The windy sky’s a locket for your hair.”

It’s in that sudden change of direction, that unexpected turn from a despairing thought about lost love and wondering if travel leads anywhere—meaning, does life itself lead anywhere we want to go?—to a gentle, forgiving reminder that the sky and the wind can remember the consolation of love, even when you feel you can’t, that taught me the importance of learning how to end a poem. It can’t just fade away, it has to catch you, it has to leave you with a feeling that you absolutely know what the poet was feeling when he wrote it and what he wanted you to feel, too.

So that’s how I learned to write. Or maybe what I should say is, that’s how I began to yearn to write. It’s because I thought I understood that one poem—the feeling that made it, the artistry that completed it, the technique that tied it all together—that I wanted to follow Leonard Cohen on his travels. Follow the words he left behind like breadcrumbs. That one poem showed me how I could start my own travels through my life—and more importantly, my life as a writer—I began to calm down, to focus my wild thoughts and begin to rein in my wild ways. It took years and years, and the process of balancing my feeling of being an outsider (outside of whatever that nice, normal life my teacher alluded to years ago actually is) with taking some joy in the fact that as I get older and older, I get better and better at my work.

Leonard Cohen is gone now but I’m still following the trail. I lose my way a lot (really, a lot), but I just have to go back to The Spice Box of Earth to look for the courage to sit down again on the purple couch, look off into the windy sky, and keep trying to travel on.

Eleanor Lerman is the author of numerous award-winning collections of poetry, short stories and novels. She is a National Book Award finalist, the recipient of the 2006 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts for poetry and the New York Foundation for the Arts for fiction. In 2016 her novel, Radiomen, was awarded the John W. Campbell Prize for the Best Book of Science Fiction. Her most recent novel, The Stargazer's Embassy, received an American Fiction Award from American Book Fest in 2018.

Don't miss Eleanor's latest book Satellite Street, available on Amazon.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Complexity of Historical Truths by Reiner Prochaska

“History is written by the victors.” While we cannot attribute this aphorism to a specific source with any degree of certainty (some claim it was Churchill, others swear it was Machiavelli), we may take comfort in the fact that historical fiction can be written by the vanquished. That’s what I decided to do twelve years ago when I began my research for Captives, the novel that was originally a screenplay titled, Court of Honor, and then The Tears of Valour when Nextpix optioned the script in 2008.

I have always had a fascination with history. Growing up in postwar Germany, it seemed impossible not to be obsessed with it. My father had served as a teenaged soldier in World War II, fighting alongside White Russian Cossacks in Yugoslavia and blowing up Soviet tanks in Vienna. His stories intrigued me, but they seemed accounts of a vague and distant historical past. I was a teenager myself when I finally did the math. I was born in 1961. Sixteen years after the end of World War II. Only six years after Germany had become a sovereign nation again.

I was fortunate to grow up in the peace and prosperity of the postwar economic boom. Aside from the Mercedes-Benz plant in the neighboring Sindelfingen, most of the industry in my hometown was American. IBM. Hewlett-Packard. My father was the command post-sergeant-major at the local German Army post. Through his job, we were friends with American and French military families who were stationed throughout the greater Stuttgart region. They were our military allies. We bowled, barbecued, and went on Volksmarches together. The idea of being at war with these people would have seemed utterly absurd.

But then we spent the entire tenth-grade history class at my Realschule learning about the Third Reich, the Second World War and, of course, the Holocaust. My high school class was required to see Joachim Fest’s Hitler—Eine Karriere at the movies. We visited a former concentration camp in France. Gradually I began to understand why I saw the German flag fly only at my father’s army post. Why our national anthem was heard only before national soccer games and during medal ceremonies at the Olympic Games. My generation bore the guilt and the shame our fathers and grandfathers had brought on our heads. We were responsible for the millions who had perished in thousands of camps across Europe.

We had waged war on peaceful nations and murdered innocent people in gas chambers while the rest of the world suffered our injustices until it bravely fought back and—after defeating us—generously helped us rebuild our country and welcomed us back into the global community as a trading partner and an ally. The United States, in particular, deserved our gratitude because only the Marshall Plan and American investments had made our Wirtschaftswunder—the economic miracle—possible. It would be decades before I began to realize that the truth was more complicated than that.

When I immigrated to the United States in 1990, I was excited about moving to a country that, in my mind, represented freedom and liberal values. Of course, I had learned about slavery, the annihilation of the native population, and the civil rights struggles of African Americans in the 20th century. But it seemed as though America had learned from its mistakes and rectified those tragic injustices. I have always felt welcome here. Aside from, once in a New Jersey bar, being asked if I was a Nazi, I have never been forced to defend my nationality or my homeland.

Then, in 2006, I happened to meet a woman who was a Frederick, Maryland, native while we both worked as models for a drawing class at the community college. While trying to hold a particularly awkward pose, we chatted to pass the time. Suddenly she asked me if I knew that there had been a camp for German POWs in town during the war. I admitted that I did not. She told me that her father had shared a story with her about one of the POWs’ committing suicide. That was the extent of our conversation about this topic. But I couldn’t forget it.

For weeks I thought about it, trying to find a reason why someone who had survived the battles of Europe and North Africa—and reached the safety of a POW camp in a sleepy Western Maryland town—would take his own life. I decided to explore this mystery of local German American history and if the story was compelling enough, write a screenplay to tell it.

I began by reading Dr. Arnold Krammer’s Nazi Prisoners of War in America, which provided me with a wealth of facts—some fascinating and others disturbing. I learned that almost 400,000 German prisoners had been incarcerated in roughly 700 camps across the entire United States between 1942 and 1946. Many of them provided the agricultural labor force necessary to do the work American farmers serving in the U.S. military overseas could not perform themselves.

But I also discovered that many American camp commanders allowed the German POWs to run the camps themselves. Frequently, the Nazis quickly established themselves as the self-appointed executive and judicial forces. Evidently, their American masters often preferred Nazi efficiency to the relative lack of order in the liberal camps. Frequently, when liberal-minded prisoners rejected the pressure from the Nazis in the camp, the former would be penalized. In extreme cases, they were executed, and the killings would be made to look like suicides.

But there were other, more disturbing surprises. For example, the business relationship between the United States and Germany—well into the war—added another level of historical complexity. Both Ford and General Motors-owned plants in Germany that manufactured the cars and trucks that transported German soldiers to their various fronts.

Du Pont and Standard Oil of New Jersey (current-day Exxon) freely shared their research with I.G. Farben, the German cartel that produced the poisons for the gas chambers. In June of 1940, the Auschwitz concentration camp began to produce artificial rubber from coal using proprietary patents granted by Standard Oil.

Investigative journalist Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust paints another damning picture of a powerful American corporation. The book documents the pivotal role IBM’s technology played in helping facilitate Nazi genocide through the generation and tabulation of punch cards based on national census data. A revised 2002 edition of Black’s book includes further evidence that IBM New York created a special subsidiary in Poland called Watson Business Machines, which operated a punch card printing shop near the Warsaw Ghetto.

Mr. Black also sheds light on the American influence of the eugenics movement in Germany. After the movement had been well established in the United States, American eugenicists began sharing their work with scientists and medical professionals in Germany. The Rockefeller Foundation helped develop and fund various German eugenics programs—including one that Josef Mengele participated in before he embarked on his career at Auschwitz. American educator, eugenicists, and sociologist Harry Laughlin considered it a source of pride that his Model Eugenic Sterilization Laws had been implemented in the 1935 Nuremberg racial hygiene laws.

Ironically, Nuremberg, the medieval city that had been the picturesque backdrop for Nazi rallies, hosted the court in which Nazis were tried, after the war, for their crimes before an Allied tribunal. Some of them were convicted and sentenced. But the U.S. Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency brought more than 1,600 German scientists—some of whom were Nazis and had used slave labor during the war—to the United States to help America win the space race against the Soviets (who, themselves, had forcibly recruited over 2,200 German scientists and their families). Wernher von Braun’s V-2 rocket, which had rained down death on London, eventually evolved into the Saturn V rocket that took American astronauts to the moon.

Most of these facts did not make their way into my novel. Those that did serve as historical background rather than pivotal plot devices. But they gave me insights I would not have imagined. However, it was not just the realization that, while an estimated 400,000 American soldiers gave their lives, a small number of American industrialists grew their fortunes by doing business with the enemy.

What I do finally understand is that history can help us avoid repeating mistakes. History should be a vehicle for communication and truth—not guilt or shame. And, yes—for forgiveness. In our age of political correctness and heightened sensitivity, let’s find a civil and constructive way to be honest. Talk about World War II. Korea. Vietnam. Slavery. Talk about it and write about it. Don’t dismantle Confederate statues. Put up a plaque that educates readers about the person commemorated in that statue—the good and the bad.

My 91-year-old father tells me that he wakes up every morning around 6am and relives the guilt of killing a Russian tank commander with his bazooka. He knows that Russian soldier had a mother and father. Maybe a wife and children. Seventy-five years later, my father still cannot forgive himself for the acts of war he was forced to commit as a teenaged boy. In listening to his story and talking to him about it, I can provide the therapy his generation never had any access to.   

Let’s learn from history. And let’s pay close attention to current events because they will become history. Let’s make sure we create the kind of history our children won’t be ashamed of.

REINER PROCHASKA is an author, actor, and playwright, whose plays have been produced regionally and published internationally. His latest novel, Captives is available on Amazon.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019


It always came to me as an image, staying and never dying, until it blossomed into ideas for a novel.

I grew up in Hue, Vietnam, imbued with a culture full of magical realism. As a child, I had an indelible belief in animism. An unseen presence dwelling in an odd-looking rock by the roadside where people placed a bowl of rice grains and a stick of incense long gone cold. That child lived in Hue, the former ancient capital of Vietnam, living in its mysterious atmosphere, half real, half magic. I used to walk home under the shade of the Indian almond trees, the poon trees. At the base of these old trees, I would pass a shrine. If I went with my grandmother, she would push my head down. “Don’t stare at it,” Grandmother said. “That’s disrespect to the genies.” Those anthropomorphic images sown in a child’s mind began to morph into fertile ideas when I became a teen and wrote out those childhood memories in short stories. But I was in love with the written words when I was much younger, between eight and nine, making up stories in chapbooks. In each of them was a make-believe world. It may be a paper moon sailing over a cardboard sea, but to me it was believable.

The image could be a man wearing a cangue on the way to an execution ground. This bandit was to be beheaded for his crime while the onlookers, some being his relatives with children, watched in muted fascination and horror. Gazing at the photograph, I imagined a boyhis sonwho was witnessing the decapitation of his father by the hand of the executioner. I pictured him and his mother as they collected the body without the head which the government would display at the entrance of the village his father had looted. I thought what if the boy later set out to steal the head so he could give his father an honorable burial. What if he got his hand on the executioner’s sabre and used it to kill the man who betrayed his father for a large bounty. However, it really started with a story within my family. My grandfather was one of the last mandarins of the Hue Imperial Court, circa 1930. At that time the Vietnamese communists were coming into power. They condemned any person a traitor, who worked either for the French or the Hue Imperial Court. So my grandfather was a traitor in their eye. One day news came to him that a communist gathering was to be held in one of the remote villages from Hue. He set out to that village with his bodyguards to punish the communists. Unfortunately, news leaked out about his trip. He was ambushed on the roadhis bodyguards were killedand he was beheaded. The communists threw his body into a river. My grandmother hired a sorcerer to look for his headless body. Eventually, the sorcerer found it. They were able to identify his body based on the ivory name tablet in his tunic. My grandmother hired someone to make a fake head out of a coconut shell wrapped in gilded paper and buried my grandfather on the Ngu Binh Mountain. The beheading of Grandfather surfaced again while I was looking at the decapitation photograph. That was how it became an inspiration for my debut novel “Flesh” and I wrote about the decapitation scene in its first chapter.

Sometimes it came to me in the image of a girl dressed in the school’s uniformwhite shirt and knee-high navy-blue skirtstanding under a tamarind tree outside her all-girl school. I’d ride home from school every day on a motorcycle and pass by her school. We’d steal glances at each other, and every day I’d count every traffic light before I reached her school. In the sound of traffic, the noises of which we both became familiar with, one passed by with a sidelong glance, and the other was left with nothing but a smile remembered. I wrote out that adolescent memory in “The Demon Who Peddled Longing” when the boy happened to run into the girl on the white horse, and I made the romance happen for them.

In both “Flesh” and “The Demon Who Peddled Longing,” my main characters set out as young men to avenge a family member’s death. This common dark thread began with a child’s memory. My late father was the chairman of an anti-communist, anti-dictatorial political party in Vietnam. His party, Dai Viet (Viet Nation-State), was pledged to the restoration of national prestige and the unification of the two nations. He was betrayed by a party member and was imprisoned by the First Republic of Vietnam for his anti-dictatorial stance. I often wondered what he would do if one day he were to meet his traitor face to face. So I put my protagonists in both “Flesh” and “The Demon Who Peddled Longing” through this predicament.

It could be an image of a xích lôa Vietnamese pedicabthat passed by my house in Saigon and stopped when an American passenger got out. He was big and tall and the phu xích lôthe pedicab cooliewas all bones with toothpick legs. He was taking the fare from the American and before I knew it, he started coughing up gobs of blood. He reeled like he was dancing then fell flat on his back. The American chased his bill before the wind blew it away. The police came and pulled the coolie’s body to the curbside and put a poncho over him. After that it rainedmonsoon rain. Lucky for him he wasn’t washed away by the time his friends came to claim the body. The poor man had TB. I fictionalized that experience in one of my novels.

Then the war came to my hometown during the Tet Offensive.

At My Lai the American soldiers murdered the Vietnamese civilians; but during Tet in Hue, the Viet Cong massacred the Vietnamesetheir own people. Here you heard only of My Lai. The American public was more interested in a war crime committed by one American infantry platoon than in the Hue massacre.

My father wasn’t home with us. The VC executed people like him. My mother kept the joss sticks burning on the altar every day and thanked the Buddha for sparing my father’s life. The VC came into Hue with the names of those they wanted to kill. Few were spared. They executed government officials, political party officials, block leaders, intellectuals, teachers, even priests, and monks. But they killed a lot of people out of personal hate and vendetta.

Every night we heard gunshots. Much later we found out that those were fired by the communists during their execution, and the playground of our high school was used as a mass grave. They massacred at least a few thousand people. It took people months to search, to dig the mass graves. Mass graves in the schoolyards, in the parks of the inner city. Mass graves in the jungle creek beds, in the coastal salt flats. People shot to death, clubbed to death with pick handles, buried alive with elbows tied behind them. The communists said they executed only the reactionaries, those who worked for the South Vietnam government. But I saw many bodies of women and children. Shot in the head, bashed in the head. Did they deserve to die?

After the VC withdrew from Hue, graves were identified, and folks came to dig for bodies. The odor from the rotten bodies hung for days over the neighborhood. Smelled like dead rats but with a fish stink. My mother burned incense in the house to kill that odor. Like many people who lived inside the Citadel, we had fled, seeking refuge somewhere else.

When we came back to our house inside the Citadel, one side of the house had caved in. It must have been hit by artillery shells or helicopter gunships. Ammunition shells were all over the yard. Do you know what I saw on one side of our chest of drawers? An inscription: Miami, FLA. Mom, Dad, and apple pie. The American troops had boarded down in our house during the house-to-house combat against the VC.

But it’s always an image.

An image I came upon in an old Vietnamese magazine article written about a centenarian eunuch of the Imperial Court of Hue. He had died in 1968. The writer had interviewed the eunuch’s adopted daughter. At the end of the article was a small halftone photograph of her. The story had lodged deep in my brain. Months later I realized that it wasn’t the story that was haunting me―it was the face in the photograph. I pictured her. Dawn or dusk, you could see mottled-brown sandpipers running along the seashore, legs twinkling, looking for food. Twilight falling. I followed their tracks, like twiggy skeletons strewn across the marbled sand until they ended under the frothing waves. One delicate bird stood at the water’s edge and gave out a cry. I often think of her as that sandpiper standing at the edge of the sea, its cry lost in the sound of waves. Then her image grew and I wrote a novel about her.

It could be something else that would light up an image. Like a canal languidly flowing through the thick china fir grove that, from such a distance, was a mass of smoky green. In the grove’s dark shade, the air reeked of the pine cones’ scent and red squirrels and fox squirrels leaped from tree to tree. I remembered all that. Even the tiny chirps of crickets in the grass, the red wild strawberries like drops of blood in their patches, the late January wind damp to the bones coming from the sea.

Or when you are going down the foredune and there’s a tang of fish odor, a damp smell of kelp in the air. Fishing nets are piled up above the high-tide mark and beneath them lie the ocean litter of seaweed, soggy sticks, bits of crabs’ claws. High tide is coming in, tinkling softly through the orphaned seashells studding the sand. You stop when something scurries out from under the mass of wet nets. A rat. You follow its trail and see that the bad rat is out looking for birds’ eggs, those that nested above the high-tide line. A buoy clangs. A desolate sound guiding fishermen ashore.

Those images never go away and I wrote out short stories and brought them together into a novel. But the image that eventually blossomed into “Mrs. Rossi’s Dream” came from a film in which a woman spirit medium in her trance-induced walk led an American woman to a grave where she found her son’s remains. By then I have lived in the United States for many years and in me lived on that image for many years more before I felt ready to put them down in words. While writing it, I felt like a baby trying to learn my way on this planet Earth, its fascinating habitats, its people who are a puzzling race full of vice, greed, violence and yet full of love and forgiveness.

On the morning I finished the first draft, I walked outside and stood on the doorstep and saw our flame tree covered in red. Then the cicadas began to sing.

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Khanh Ha is the author of the highly acclaimed novel Mrs. Rossi's Dream, which The Permanent Press is excited to release this April. He also is the author of  Flesh and The Demon Who Peddled Longing. He is a seven-time Pushcart nominee, a Best Indie Lit New England nominee, a twice finalist of THE WILLIAM FAULKNER-WISDOM CREATIVE WRITING AWARD, the recipient of SAND HILLS PRIZE FOR BEST FICTION, and Greensboro Review's ROBERT WATSON LITERARY PRIZE IN FICTION. The Demon Who Peddled Longing was honored by Shelf Unbound as a Notable Indie Book. 

Thursday, August 2, 2018

A FINAL WORD, concerning the death of Judith Appelbaum

It was with a heavy heart that I read, in the New York Times, of Judith Appelbaum’s death on July 25th at the age of 78. At the same time I felt bathed by recalled fondness for the boost she gave The Permanent Press titles when we began publishing 38 years ago, while Judy served as the managing editor of Publishers Weekly.

Her dedication to advancing the cause of quality writing was was well summed up by her closing lines in an interview she gave in 1998:
“I love to see writers expand our range of understanding, knowledge,  even happiness.  Publishing has always struck me as a way  to change the world.”

We’ve all lost a champion, too soon, too soon.

But her memory still lives on.

I’d welcome any of your comments to this posting and your recollections of this very special person.

Martin Shepard, co-publisher, The Permanent Press

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

READ Carefully, Book Lovers by Joan Baum

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. Joan has a long career as a critic and reviewer, writing for, among others, WNYC, Newsday, The Christian Science Monitor, MIT's Technology Review, Hadassah Magazine and writing on subjects in her dissertation field, the major English Romantic poets. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.

With an eye on reviewing fiction and nonfiction that has regional resonance for Connecticut or Long Island – books written by local authors or books set in the area – Joan considers the timeliness and significance of recently published work: what these books have to say to a broad group of readers today and how they say it in a distinctive or unique manner, taking into account style and structure as well as subject matter.

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It was a front-page article in The New York Times on Sunday, June 3rd: "Listen Carefully, Book Lovers: Top Authors Are Skipping Print." Listen, indeed. The theme of the piece is that audiobooks are such a fast-growing phenomenon that authors are by-passing their own publishers who have audiobook divisions to deal directly with companies such as Audible, owned by Amazon, because the money's too good. Yeah, but they love literature, the authors say. And yeah, audiobooks are democratic and humane, considering the number of folks who for various physical reasons cannot read easily, and the number of people who enjoy listening to books in cars, in gyms and on trips.

The article noted the financial and psychological rewards for authors going straight to audio ‒ a greater number of readers immediately and a greater pay back in making multi-book deals, though for sure the reputed $15-$45 cost of buying an audiobook is certain to go up, given the likelihood of forced subscriptions. (A side note not pursued is the article's report of a diminution of sales of ebooks!)

The article also noted the kinds of books lending themselves to audio success: nonfiction, popular novels, science fiction and self-help guides. But …

What about those who love serious fiction? Well, yes, there are those short stories that get read by actors on public radio, but those are classics or standards, and the dramatic readings are broadcasts from literary events, not new publications. What about "book lovers" of serious new novels? What’s in audiobooks for them?

Not much.

I can think of nothing more insulting to a reader ‒ or listener – or literary author! – of having a recorded voice determine how to respond to sustained complexity in a novel – to irony, paradox, ambiguity, pacing, tone. When interpretation is kidnapped by an actor who has decided how to present dialogue, monologue, point of view, taking away a reader's imaginative response and engagement, that is the end of one of the most intimate relationships in the civilized world. Audiobooks of serious fiction are an affront to the cognitive values already under threat from an ever-extending quick-fix electronic world – reflection, analysis, reconsideration.

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You can catch Joan's most recent book reviews on WSHU, an NPR member station, where she recently covered The Permanent Press's new African thriller The Uttermost Parts of the Earth by Frederic Hunter. Do pass this piece on to other book lovers you know, and feel free to comment on this post and our others. Also feel free to share your thoughts with us by contacting our co-publisher Marty at, and Joan herself at