William Kennedy: Albany's Poet (5/96)
Through six novels of his "Albany Cycle," two books of nonfiction prose and a powerful play, William Kennedy has become something more than a community fixture of the Capital Region, he has become its spirit guide. In two new works about to emerge, the novel, The Flaming Corsage, to be released at the end of April from Kennedy's publisher, Viking, and the play Grand View, given its premiere by the Capital Repertory Company in May, Kennedy only adds to the legend which has grown around him.
When, as rarely happens, a writer and a place merge, mesh, and acquire synergy, making something in the combination that hasn't been seen before, both readers and critics take note. When that blend becomes so dynamic that both literature and the space of people's lives are affected, something wonderful begins to happen: people, as one writer put it, "recognize a sense of community and of common destinies on a deeper level than that of practical affairs."
At its best, that's what American literature is about: in stories and novels from Hawthorne and Melville to Hemingway and William Faulkner, and in drama from Eugene O'Neill to Lillian Hellman to August Wilson, the greatest American writers write of what they know, their home spaces, and in so doing make them real, pungent, palpable, and accessible on the stage of life.
William Kennedy, a steadfast member of the community of Albany and the Capital District, not to mention a shaper of its self-understanding, has become both an actor and a voice on the ground it offers. Dead soil to most, or at least rocky and infertile. But what Kennedy has done has brought this landscape into blossom, flower and fruit. The literary map is incomplete without Albany wedged in among James Fenimore Cooper's upstate frontiers, Robert Frost's Vermont, and Herman Melville's, Henry James's, and Edith Wharton's Berkshires.
Both The Flaming Corsage and Grand View enhance that connection. The Flaming Corsage, which along with Quinn's Book and Very Old Bones, completes the second trilogy in the Albany Cycle (the first is comprised of Legs, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ironweed), offers us a turn-of-the-century playwright, Edward Daugherty, whose ambition comes to naught.
"Wounded by history, branded by ancestry" as one reviewer aptly put it, Edward gamely attempts to make art out of life.
Along with Edward are his wife, Katrina, worn to melancholy by an unhappy life; the talented, self-destructive Thomas Maginn, a journalist who becomes at once Edward's alter ego and nemesis; and Melissa Spencer, "a gifted conscienceless actress who becomes Daughtery's lover and sets in motion a murder/suicide that comes close to destroying Daugherty." Another writer, for Kirkus Reviews, neatly summarized the rather complex issues of The Flaming Corsage. As the reviewer put it, "The long struggle of Albany's Irish population to seize power from the governing elite is never far from the action: Daugherty, given a start in life by a wealthy benefactor, uses his plays to celebrate the resiliency of the Irish and lampoon the Dutch and English who rule the town." But it is the combined struggle of Edward and Katrina that drives the plot, through deaths, betrayals, and deceits.
There are some fascinating self-contained set pieces in the novel, notably the youthful Edward's musing on the suppression of the Irish, a new years hotel conflagration, and Katrina's comical effort to get materials assembled for administering last rites. This last segment alone is worthy of Joyce's Dubliners, or the "Spotted Horses" section of William Faulkner's The Hamlet. But what's most compelling about Kennedy's effort is his ability to present a huge novel, which covers decades and generations, in barely over two hundred pages. He does this by telling the story in non-linear fashion. The reader fills in the gaps of time following Kennedy's strategic foreshadowing and hindsight. The result is a system of revelation that is hallmark Kennedy. The last quarter of the book moves rapidly across time with a darkness and regret reminiscent of Ironweed's best. The book is an exhilarating, masterful achievement, whose last line, "there would always be bacon," pierces the heart much as that flaming sliver of wood earlier pierces the corsage on Katrina's breast.
But the sense of "the play's the thing" has led Kennedy to move from imagined play in The Flaming Corsage to the real item in Grand View. Grand View emerged from a germ idea in Very Old Bones wherein Patsy McCall, modeled on the Albany boss Dan O'Connell, has to confront a machine greater than his, that of the Governor's (the model here is Dewey). The time is Labor Day, end of summer, 1944; the place is a Saratoga, not the genteel locale the region has come to know, but a gambling den controlled by Patsy McCall and his minions.
There's a score to be settled. Corbett Atterby, his wife, Mabel, and his daughter Faye, come to pull the plug on Patsy's local machine at the behest of the Governor. But Patsy and Corbett have some older scores to settle. Patsy, surrounded by martinets who do his bidding, thinks of himself as the Civil War general, Grant, at Vicksburg, managing a siege. Corbett has the goods on the machine, but Patsy's comeuppance is one-upped by a dark history that lies with Mabel and her daughter. A strange dance of one-upmanship ensues, the likes of which are reminiscent of Hellman's "The Little Foxes," and Warren's "All The King's Men" with touches of classic films like "Key Largo," "Casablanca," and "The Maltese Falcon" thrown in.
The characters are sharply drawn, and the locale and setting give the play a film noire quality reminiscent of the best of Bogart. The action comes fast and the repartee among the characters is swift and witty. Who finally wins in this clash of titanic forces? Strangely, and productively, it is Albany, the richness of its history, and the sharpness of its characters. To say more than that William Kennedy has yet again delivered on his talented promise would be to say too much. Come and see.
Donald Faulkner is Associate Director of the New York State Writers Institute.
Xue Di, February 24, 2000
Kwadwo Agymah Kamau, February 27, 1997
Partial Evening Reading Transcript
Don Faulkner: Tonight we have the wonderful opportunity to hear a writer who has spent some time in Albany as well as places far and distant. This brings up a tale: Lucy McCaffrey, who will introduce Agymah, our guest tonight, is a musician and artist. She once came up to me at a reading that we had-and this does happen from time to time, though it seldom works out well-an said "here's a book you really have to read. Here's an author you really have to bring here." Frequently, those best of intentions don't reward in the reading of the book. Usually, it's somebody's second cousin, or something. But here, I found myself opening my literary imagination to a much more dynamic imagination in the novel's flickering shadows. And I thought, "yes," this is a person we have to have here. So, to introduce our guest tonight is the wonderful agent of this combination of good forces. So, Lucy McAfrey.
McCaffrey: I feel very unworthy of this task, but I will do my best to be worthy of introducing "Mama's grandson." Agymah Kamau was born in Barbados 43 years ago in a small village in which life was very good to him, and which he loved very much. He was an indifferent student, so he says, as he grew up. He was raised by his grandmother, Mama, who was a very strict disciplinarian, and who got on his case when they were threatening to keep him back a grade when he was 12 years old. He got his act together and went on, stayed in Barbados, got a job as a customs inspector, which he said was slightly less boring than the job he got in Albany [laughter] but still pretty boring.
He visited America in 1974, a trip where a young woman whom he had met, introduced him to the idea of, "Why don't you go to college?" Along with all the possibilities that that would open for him. He came to America with his older and younger brother and his mother in 1977. His grandmother had pointed out to him that if he stayed in Barbados, he would probably become a cab driver, if he was lucky. So, she urged him to go on, and he did. He went to CUNY, to Beirut College, where he kind of felt his way along, and majored in finance. He's no slouch, because he was fourth in his graduating class. He made the Dean's List every year. He made the national Dean's List, and he was elected to the scholastic honor's society there, and was given the Wall Street Journal Award. He stayed there to get a Master's Degree in 1981 in economics.
He served a couple of internships at the United Nations and in a New York City Department. Eventually, he found his way into a regular job here in Albany as a senior economist in the next campus over here, T & F, taxation and finance. He has all kinds of things to say about that which are not particularly flattering. It was, however, very good for him that he came here, because it so bored him that he sat at his computer terminal in his cubicle and started to write stories and poems. And you know, the way you do when you're in great pain, you think about something that you really love, and his mind went back to Barbados and his village and to why was that so precious to him. And he answered an ad in the personals from a writer named Henry Evens, who is now in New York, but was up here in Albany. The ad was to see if anybody wanted to come to the Arbor Hill community center and read stories, and Agymah came, and found many kindred spirits there. He was told by them, some of them are in the audience I hear, that he has a gift, a great gift of storytelling and that he should use it.
Agymah tells me that his grandmother who raised him was a hell of a storyteller, and that they used to stand around in the village at night, and for their entertainment--there was no television, no movies--they would tell each other stories. They valued the people who could tell a good tale; his grandmother was one of them, and he was proud of her. He knew the difference between a story well told and one that was not so very good. So he had those very high standards from that very demanding and disciplined woman already in him before he even started telling his stories, stories that kept him alive in the cold and frigid bureaucratic winters of Albany. Finally, after being here, working at T&F for 3 years with my husband, who was also from another island outside of America--in this case, Ireland--also from a small village where live is eminently understandable even to a seven year old. Also to an economist who looks at the world with realistic eyes, not rose-colored glasses, and tries to understand the whole of it, and how all the people are working together to produce a certain quality of live, also from a culture where the people are very kind and courtesy is learned very, very quickly and treasured.
After being here, in America, finding its shortcomings and hanging onto the vision of Barbados, Agymah finally decided that life as an economist was not all it was cracked up to be. And so he looked around, with the help of Henry Evans, and found Paule Marshall, at the Virginia Commonwealth University, who was leading a workshop that he had joined. And he began expanding his short story--the one that this novel is based upon. But, his main impetus, he tells me, was really you young people. That he was trying to capture for the future generations, a time in Barbados, or the Caribbean, that has passed.
Technology has changed the way of life there, and so it's only by his diligence and his self-discipline, the eight, nine, or eleven, whatever it was, drafts that he worked on for 2 ½ years full-time, on this book, in which he tried to capture not only the rhythms of speech, and not only the character of the people, the struggle of the times as Barbados emerged from colonialism into a kind of "independence." But also, more importantly, to capture that village, and why it was so good, that all the people counted in it. And that's very hard to do, because, when you read this book, you will discover that there are so many characters in it. It has a huge landscape. It's not just one little corner of someone's room. It's a whole country, distilled into one village, and all that ripples out from it. He captures it very, very well, but he never looses you because his grandmother, the storyteller, would not allow that. If you have to tell a story, you have to tell it well, which means that you have to write it and re-write it so that the humor is there, and the interest and the color, and all these wonderful things, use of words, are there.
He also is a very fine and clever craftsman. I, in one of my incarnations, was a High School English teacher, a College English teacher, and I noticed immediately the way he has crafted this tale. He has told it through the eyes of a spirit, which is a very appropriate thing to do. It's an African headset, mindset, that he shares. Spirits. You don't die, your spirit is still there. But it also is a device that allowed him to be everywhere in Barbados, if he wanted to be... to tell his tale in an omniscient point of view, but to still be influencing the people who are alive. The tension between Africanization and Britishization is also in the tale. It is so rich and so distilled. I guarantee you that if you read the first two pages, you will stay up all night and finish it. So let me let him begin. Thank you.
Kamau: Good Evening. I should have hired her as my PR person. [laughter] Thank you all. It's a really good crowd this evening. Thanks to all the people for coming out to hear me present my work. And also I thank the Writers Institute for inviting me here back up to Albany. I never thought I would return to Albany, after leaving in 1989. And I'm glad to be back here, because I can see some friends of mine that I can catch up with. "Flickering Shadows." "Flickering Shadows" is a fictional narrative that's set in an unnamed Caribbean country. It's set around the time of the transition from colonialism to so-called independence. I say "so-called independence" because a lot of times, these countries get an anthem and a flag, and that's the extent of the independence. The story is told by the spirit of an old man who dies early, who dies at age fourteen, but that doesn't stop him from telling the story. He keeps on telling his story anyway. And the story is one of the villagers' relationships with one another, and their responses to the social and political changes going on at the time. So, without further ado... "without further ado".... that's something I've always wanted to say [laughter]. You never get a chance to say that in normal talk, seriously, so I'll say it again. Without further ado, I'll start, and give you a reading of a passage in the book, to give you a sense of the way it sounds. Because it's written in Caribbean, but not pierre. But the thing is, I didn't use all the misspellings and so forth, to convey the words. I didn't use any phonetics, because, a lot of times, all that does is it confuses you, puts out of the story. You spend so much time trying to figure out what the person is writing that you loose interest in the story. So what I concentrated on is the syntax, the way people put words together. Usually I start this kind of session by reading from the beginning of the book, but I'm going to change the script a little bit, because a few days ago, I got a call from a gentleman, an official from the Barbados embassy. This call was legitimate in that we were trying to arrange an affair in Washington D.C., but after talking on the phone for 5-10 minutes, he said to me, you know, I have some reservations about some of the passages. I say, "Yeah? Well, what are those reservations?" He said, "You know some of those passages that give people the impression that Caribbean politicians engage in, it's called duggery, or chicanery," so what I'm going to do, is I'm going to read from one of those passages.
I don't see what's wrong with that, but they had problems with it. [laughter] Like it was said earlier, I was born in Congrua, and grew up in Barbados, and was educated under a British educational system. So, for example, one of the things I remember clearly coming up in High School, I remember us reciting, memorizing, this poem about daffodils. I can't even remember what the title is. Funny how our brains forget information that is irrelevant. [laughter] But I remember us as little boys memorizing this thing about daffodils. And I had never seen a damn daffodil in my life. [laughter] So that's the kind of educational system that we had. And I also recall us sitting in school, singing this song, "Rule Brittania, Brittania rule the mers." Brittans never never never shall be slaves. And not really understanding, understanding the irony of that. Because we were the offspring of slaves talking about how we never would be slaves. So what I'll do is I'll read a passage that kind of reflects that experience, to give you an idea. Because some of you might relate, you know, relate to that experience, and for those of you who don't, all I can say is you're lucky. [laughter]
That's the kind of stuff that I had to go through [learning "Little Miss Muffet," and "London Bridge is falling down"]. I was raised by my grandmother, as I said earlier. And one consequence of having no siblings when you're growing up is that often you want to play and all you have is your imagination. At the time, I didn't appreciate the value of that, but recently I've been thinking about that. I'm beginning to appreciate that because, essentially, I'm doing the same thing that I was doing back then, making things up, telling stories, because when I was growing up, you can't talk without telling lies, you know, telling stories. The only difference is, back then I used to get my rear hit for it, and now I'm getting paid for doing it [laughter]. Another thing is when I was growing up, we didn't have any television so we sat around telling stories, jokes, riddles, duppie stories. A duppie is a spirit, ghost. As I would recall, every night we would tell these duppie stories, and sometimes be afraid to walk home in the dark. You know, we still keep doing the same thing every night anyway. So what happened is "Flickering Shadows" is influenced more by those storytelling sessions than by any literature that I read. There's a strong element of the oral tradition in "Flickering Shadows," and you can see it in the kinds of techniques that I use, onomatopia, and so forth. You can see it also in the use of spirits. After all, a sprit is telling the story. And spirits interact. There's no distinction between the spirit world and the living world. So what I'm going to do is read another section, and give you a flavor of the sort of thing, a kind of sprit world that flows in this book.
And that gives you a sense of the kind of spirit atmosphere in the book. Like I was saying earlier, "Flickering Shadows" is influenced more by an oral storytelling tradition than by literature. So my main concern in writing this book is to make sure that the rhythm and the syntax was right. Especially the rhythm. It was very critical to me that the story sounded right in my ears. It had to sound as if somebody's sipping rum, telling a story, or something like that. And that's the thing that got me into a lot of hot water with my editor, because, I remember for example, the first time he sent back the manuscript to me with some changes, he would write these little additions in the margins, and he was really meticulous. So he would write these objections and suggestions, and then he would write something like "Chicago Manual of Style, pg 63," [laughter] and what I did, was I just crossed it out, ignored it, and sent the manuscript right back to him [laughter]. So this went on for a while, back and forth, back and forth a few times until I finally got real fed up with him. I called him up and we had some words, you know what people say. And then he started to realize what I was trying to do. It eventually worked out to be a really good collaborative relationship. So what I'm going to do now for my final passage, is I'm going to read a passage that he really objected to more strenuously, because there's... well, you'll hear it. It's a really oral piece.
"the Wap Wap Wap of the knee-drum beating in his brain like a heartbeat..."
Kwadwo Agymah Kamau
Top of Page
BookShow partial transcript
Glover: Welcome to he BookShow. I'm your host Douglas Glover of the New York State Writers Institute, which is located at the University at Albany as part of the State University System. My guest today is the award winning poet, non-fiction writer and Yale University Professor, Wayne Koestenbaum. Among other arresting productions Koestenbaum has written a personal often lyric meditation on opera called The Queen's Throat Opera: Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire, which made the New York Times list of notable books for 1993. In 1994 he published a Whitmanesque and sometimes erotic Song of Myself-like volume of poems called Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender, a flamboyantly tragic, comic adolescent "coming out" book, a journey from heterosexuality to homosexuality, which includes in a section called "Star Vehicles," a series of complicated riffs on the nature of gayness and celebrity. And I quote, "In the early years of the plague/ I knew a guy who died named Crawford/ William Crawford in a tux, but this poem is not his poem/ This is Joan Crawford's poem, dressed like a bungalow with regrets/ With unpainted storm worn shingles and a front door loose on its hinges." Koestenbaum is a comer in the realm of pop-cultural criticism, a man whose image, like that of Camille Paglia before him, may soon command as much attention, invite interpretation as intensely as his work itself. He is a writer in short who seems to be on his way to his own brand of celebrity. His latest book, Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, is a phantasmagoric improvisation on the theme of Jacqueline Onassis as pop icon, as the ultimate personal and cultural reflector. It's an infinitely empty and sliding image as conversely as the foundation of American society and culture. Jacky Under my Skin is flamboyant, playful, campy, ironic, comic, irreverent and deeply, deeply smart. It's like a volcanic eruption from the crack or joint where the language of gayness meets the language of post-modernity and critical theory, where all is seeming in reality or what commonsense used to call reality, where everything seems to drift farther and farther away from us in the world, and the world and the self simply reflect one another back and forth. It is an uncomfortable world, tacky, somewhat sad, nervous and empty; a world in which celebrity replaces the idea of hero or saint, a world in which Jackie Onassis, as the arch- celebrity, whose fame has had no bases in substance of accomplishment, whose affectless face provides the perfect reflector for desire, becomes the fundamental image of the time. Wayne Koestenbaum, welcome to the BookShow.
Koestenbaum: Glad to be here.
Glover: Now this is not a book of biography, it is not a book of psychohistory.
Glover: It's the fact and facts are kind of few. It is the description of a kind of gaze or a glance or a way of looking at her.
Koestenbaum: It's a record of my immersion in her and it is in a way, the record of the process of looking at her as well as it is just a set of facts gleamed from the act of looking.
Glover: When you did your research were there a lot more facts, sort of selected out in some ways?
Koestenbaum: Well, it is in a sense a set of post-hoc consolidations or crystallization's from a many year-long immersion in the facts of Jackie's life. It's sort of an ongoing quest for those facts and there are very few facts in the book compared to all the facts that I could have put in. I mean the temptation was always in writing the book to make an endless shopping list of details and trivialities. There are pages in my file draw of a list of objects and places. I don't think I will ever regret that I did not include more of those facts in the book, but who would publish it?
Glover: (Laughs) And the things that are chosen are often striking in a kind of emptiness that surrounds them, a kind of banality.
Koestenbaum: Like the grilled cheese.
Koestenbaum: I mean I can go on and on about the fact that she would often have a grilled cheese sandwich in the White House. Obviously these are details that characterize lives less glorious than Jackie's and it was moving to me to be able to find an entry into her fabulous life by way of the most trivial details, rather than the most unusual details.
Glover: I have a small Jackie story myself.
Glover: It did not happen to me, it happened to another writer friend of mine who met her on the way to the copying machine at Random House. And she said that she liked his tie.
Koestenbaum: Did you know what the tie was?
Glover: It was some kind of riotously colorful thing. A very not pretentious, not sort of classic. He is not a well-dressed man.
Koestenbaum: What is wonderful about that story is it resembles many Jackie stories that I have heard.
Glover: That's what I thought.
Koestenbaum: If she is getting a gift, she knows that she is the princess of appearances and her look is often commented on. She is a style-setter and she is probably subliminally aware that this person doesn't get complimented a lot or that this is not even a nice tie and she is saying, I like your tie.
Glover: I also like that she is on her way to a copying machine.
Koestenbaum: Yes, which is her home.
Koestenbaum: (Laughs) As the queen of copies, you know it is also that the tie is a masculine object. I mean it's phallic even, really, it's flirtatious and indiscreet to comment on a tie, but it is also thoroughly appropriate. How many ties she must have commented on, in her life? Think of Jack's ties.
Glover: Right, see I got into this book.
Koestenbaum: Oh, one more thing I have to tell you is that I think she gave P.T.--P.T. was Jack's boat that he was on in WWII--but she gave P.T. tie clips to all of the Kennedy Mafia, after the assassination.
Koestenbaum: Yeah, that was her farewell gift to lots of people in the White House. I may be wrong but I think I am remembering this correctly-- little P.T. tie clips. So I mean, this isn't any detail in Jackie's life that is so over determined.
Glover: That's right, which is the impression you get from this book and you sort of go on and on. Now I don't mean to make that going "on and on" sound at all. . .
Glover: It is sort of pathological, no, I'm just kidding.
Koestenbaum: No, it is deliberate.
Glover: Right, there is a distinct impression and your very self-conscious of this, in talking about Jackie and doing anything about her that you're being intensely personal, also déclassé, kind of tacky.
Koestenbaum: Right, Right.
Glover: And expressing kind of bad taste.
Koestenbaum: Right. . . . (interview continues)
Top of Page
On Hopes, Dreams and Bringing to Life
Persian Girls: A Memoir
By Nahid Rachlin
Penguin Books, 2006
Anyone who doubts the liberating power of literature has never had to hide her short story under a mattress for fear of being discovered. Or found a favorite bookstore demolished and closed because of what they sold. Or feared entrance to the country of her birth because of the words she wrote. Iranian-American novelist and short story writer Nahid Rachlin shares these and other stories, of her and her sister Pari's deep desire to be free to think and write as they please, in her latest work, Persian Girls: A Memoir.
Growing up in Iran under the Shah, Rachlin is taken from her aunt who is raising her and thrust back into life with a birth family she does not know. Rachlin weaves her own story with that of her sisters, her birth mother, and aunts to form this memoir, which is as touching, beautiful and eloquent as any work of fiction.
Throughout this compelling account of coming of age in Iran under the Shah, and the subsequent revolution that changed the country to an Islamic Republic, we are drawn into what those things meant and continue to mean for a diverse range of ordinary people. As the title suggests, Persian Girls is about the women of Nahid's life. We meet her sister Manijeh, seemingly doted on, but in the end, genuine and selfless as a caretaker of aging family members. Nahid's birth mother is Mohtaram, who gives her infant daughter away to a childless sister, only to have her husband, Nahid's father, insist that the child come back to live with the birth family. The older sister Pari, who befriends young Nahid, shares her dreams of freedom and envisions her life as an actress. Finally, there is Maryam, Nahid's beloved aunt, devoutly religious, kind and unswerving in her love for the daughter she raised. It is clear that like the woven tapestry Nahid brings with her when she leaves Iran to attend an American college, this memoir was difficult to construct, as she revisits painful memories, relationships, and unanswered questions, and tries to heal wounds still open.
Of Iran, the reader gets a sense of cultural schizophrenia, of old mixed with modern, of new rules paired with ancient, and the constant anxiety of change. While young Nahid is living with her aunt, she comes to know women who are devout in Islam and wear the chador, or headscarf. Yet when she is taken back to live with her birth family in Ahvaz, it is mostly modern, Women wear skirts and men suits. It is confusing to her young mind, to see on the one hand censorship of thoughts and words, and the daily prayers of Muslims, but on the other hand people wearing imported clothing and working for American or British companies, yet still enforcing arranged marriages. Rachlin shares some perspectives of what international influence, primarily the U.S. and Great Britain, had on the country and its people, especially in the oil town where she lived. While she and her sister enjoyed the American movies shown in the outdoor theater they were able to catch glimpses of from their balcony, she also describes the constant smell of petroleum in the air and the "other side of the river" where Americans preferred to live in modern houses. With these stories and a keen eye for detail, Rachlin informs readers of the human cost of international politics and religious fundamentalism that wreak havoc on lives in Iran, especially women's lives.
In part two of Persian Girls, the teenage Nahid has moved to America and is attending college. Over and over again we see that she is neither "this" nor "that;" neither "Iranian nor American." During her time at a midwestern college, she describes being asked to wear her "native costume" for parents' day. Feeling embarrassed that she had no "costume" she tells the dean of students that some women in Iran wear the chador, the headscarf that she never wore. She is instructed to wear this garment, something she had come to know as oppressive, while living in the land of freedom. While in America, Rachlin learns of her sister Pari's mysterious death, and seeks answers to her questions, some which still linger. Grief and uncertainties such as these led Rachlin for many years to create beautiful fiction, where she felt she had the power to shape and control the destinies of characters. Fiction gave her the power to invent families, characters and situations, which had for so long been out of her control. Finally, with this memoir Rachlin is able to claim her own personal history while giving readers a glimpse of where many of the inspirations for her fiction were found.
Nahid Rachlin's prose has been repeatedly described as "spare," using seemingly few words to paint a portrait of time, place and relationships that are anything but simple. Perhaps it is because she knows first hand how words can be restricted, by regimes and censorship, that she therefore appreciates and understands the sheer power of words, however few.
Sigrid Nunez says of Rachlin's writing that it is a "…fine introduction to a land and culture about which it is imperative we Americans inform ourselves as much and as quickly as possible." While American readers gain an introduction to a land and culture as convoluted as our own, readers are also being privileged with the private details of a woman's life, her sorrows and grief, and her hopes and dreams. Thank you, Ms. Rachlin, for allowing us the honor.
Nahid Rachlin is the most published Iranian-American author in the U.S. Her four novels include: Jumping Over Fire (2006), The Heart's Desire (1995), Married to a Stranger (1983) and Foreigner (1978). She is also the author of a short story collection, Veils (1992) and currently teaches at the New School in New York City and the Unterberg Poetry Center.
Carmen Golay is a graduate assistant at the New York State Writers Institute and a graduate student in Women's Studies.