Originally Published on WritersBloq.com
On Beginnings (Extended) Featuring Amy Gall
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
“to wound the autumnal city.
So howled out for the world to give him a name.
The in-dark answered with wind.
All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirror and at freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you’ve held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.”
We the Animals by Justin Torres
“We all three sat at the kitchen table in our raincoats, and Joel smashed tomatoes with a small rubber mallet. We had seen it on TV: a man with an untamed mustache and a mallet slaughtering vegetables, and people in clear plastic ponchos soaking up the mess, having the time of their lives. We aimed to smile like that. We felt the pop and smack of tomato guts exploding; the guts dripped down the walls and landed on our cheeks and foreheads and congealed in our hair. When we ran out of tomatoes, we went into the bathroom and pulled out tubes of our mother’s lotions from under the sink. We took off our raincoats and positioned ourselves so that when the mallet slammed down and forced out the white cream, it would get everywhere, the creases of our shut-tight eyes and the folds of our ears.”
Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
“On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years – faded hand-me-downs from our sisters that had been patched and redyed many times. Some of us came from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives. Perhaps we had lost a brother or father to the sea, or a fiancé, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on.”
To extend my post, "On Beginnings", an extra special treat: I’ve asked acclaimed lesbian book and independent film critic, Amy Gall, to pick three of the literary openings that inspire her most.
At 816 pages, Dhalgren is the longest and strangest novel I’ve ever read. A town called Bellona has suffered a mysterious disaster wherein whole city blocks are on fire one week and completely untouched the next. A week passes by for one character while only a day passes by for another. But from the beginning you are told, “All you know I know.” Dhalgren is a truly democratic read. You get what you put into it. For instance, Delany doesn’t just say bitter coffee, he says “how coffee tastes after you’ve held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.” I am forced to really consider the cacophony of tastes that would create. So I tried it, I held coffee in my mouth for a minute until it turned cold. And I understood the way the images before the coffee, the astronauts and bank clerks, “grease on a steel handle”, hearken to the grit and confusion and energy of urban centers. Cold coffee would in fact be the perfect metaphor for New York City. Dhalgren offers no answers, but it gives you opportunity to really be present for your own existence and that is extremely satisfying.
I work at the National Book Foundation and throughout the summer, hundreds of books come into our offices for the National Book Awards. I have to catalog each book which often means I read the first sentence or two to see if it’s any good. Justin Torres’ novel hooked me from the start. It is a raw and immediately satisfying read, from the tight, simple sentence structure to the subject matter; the growth of a young boy whose eventual coming out leads to a painful separation from his working class family. This opening [of the second chapter] where the three brothers play an innocent but destructive game that ends with “white cream” smeared all over their faces combines the themes of family and sex in a way that is both beautiful and deeply unsettling.
Otuska’s novel tells the story of young women brought from Japan to the United States as “picture brides” in the early 1900’s. This opening captures the tentative and ultimately dashed hopes of the women on their boat trip to San Francisco. But I didn’t know anything about picture brides when I began reading this. All I thought was: Who are these women and where are they going?
From the start, Otsuka refuses to stereotype and homogenize the narrators. She points to the stark differences in their pasts, "hand-me-downs" versus "stylish city clothes", and that some were deeply familiar with the ocean while many had never seen the sea before. I had assumed that all Japanese people lived close to the sea. But as I read on, I began to understand how much I assumed and how little I actually understood, how by assuming, instead of educating myself, I am complicit in the racism and xenophobia many immigrants face today. I began to understand the ways in which generations of white people violently attempted to erase Japanese-Americans not just after Pearl Harbor, not just when Japanese-Americans were forced from their homes and into internments camps, but every step of the way, every time one of these women was refused a haircut by white barbers, or had their farmland burned down by white farmers. I would sit in Battery Park, cry, and marvel at all I didn’t know.