OF STRANGERS IN STRANGE PLACES

The first person I spoke to in the United States was the dour, glass-eyed official who stamped my passport. The second was a man called Prophet. He and his wife sat beside me on the second part of my train journey from JFK Airport to Chinatown. I had been in the air seventeen hours, with a five-hour layover, so I was feeling heavy with sleep as the train whisked through the underbelly of the city. To stay awake I stared out the window, I eavesdropped on the couple’s conversation. The man had a loud, friendly voice, an explosive laugh. I heard the woman’s words only when her husband—leaning forward, his voice gruff with impatience—urged her to speak louder.

We disembarked at the same station. Dank, underground, faded graffiti on the walls and pillars, the floor puddled with urine. Despite the stories I had heard, I knew it was unlikely I would be robbed on my first day in New York, but if that were to happen, this was the place. I glanced around, saw the man and his wife—two heads I recognised in a crowd of strangers—heading up the stairs, towards daylight. I was to catch a train in that station. I grabbed my bags and ran up the stairs.

After introductions and welcomes and weather chitchat, I asked Prophet for advice on how and where to buy a cell phone. He was friendly, as I knew he would be. He and his wife walked me to the store, chatting all the way. They intermediated between me and the storekeeper, who had trouble with my Nigerian accent. When I expressed reservations about the cost of the phone plan, Prophet, in a move that surprised his wife as much as it did me, stuck his hand in his pocket, pulled out a phone and pushed it at me. It was only his second phone; I could use it for the four weeks I was around; he would accept my word that I would return it before I departed the country.

That was how I got a phone. For free, on trust, from a stranger. In the Big Bad Apple, world-famous for its hard-boiled, inhospitable residents.

A. Igoni Barrett of Nigeria is a winner of the 2005 BBC World Service short story competition, the recipient of a Chinua Achebe Center Fellowship, an Ebedi Residency, and a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Residency. Listen online to his short story “My Smelling Mouth Problem,” published in The Drum. His first book, the story collection From Caves of Rotten Teeth, was published in 2005 in Nigeria. A new collection is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2013.

Igoni is also an International Mailer Fiction Fellow. He is using his month of residency to work on a novel.

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GRIZZLY MEN

They have emerged out of hibernation and descended upon a small fishing village in Massachusetts Bay.  Once again, it’s Bear Week in Provincetown. Out of all the theme weeks, Bear Week is a favorite among locals.  The bears, despite their rough and rugged exteriors, are the jolliest.  They are less neurotic than the Circuit Boys (too much haughty preening and calorie counting) and more festive than the broods of Family Week (children).  Hairy, stocky, and bearded, they have made the annual pilgrimage, waving a banner of orange and brown, a paw print emblazoned in the top left corner. This week, we live in the Bear Flag Republic.

Many Bears kicked off the bacchanalia this past Saturday by stocking up on bear necessities, such as bacon, beans, burgers, and buns.  A rumor swept through town that the Bears had eaten all the grocery stores out of food. The local Stop and Shop’s shelves were indeed barren by the evening. “It looked like Supermarket Sweep,” said John, a Bear who migrated from San Francisco, recounting the feeding frenzy.  “They were just running down the aisles, knocking anything into their carts!”

The great ursine appetite is a significant trait in the Bear community.  “Being a Bear is an attitude,” explains Don from Brooklyn, who counts this as his eleventh annual jubilee.  “It’s more relaxed, more accepting, and less body conscious.”  I noticed Bears are quite fond of parading around shirtless, their vast, fuzzy bellies bulging over cargo shorts.  “It’s a pride thing.”  Of course, one need not be a total grizzly to fit in.  There are Otters (hairless bears) and Cubs (diminutive bears).  When I asked what he believes to be the best part of Bear Week, Don looked at me dumbfounded, because I had asked the most obvious question in the world: “The scenery!”  Duh!

Bear Week is more than a feast for the eyes, but also for the senses. The line for Tea Dance, a favorite crepuscular Bear activity, stretches blocks down the street, as the Boat Slip ticks past capacity around five p.m.  Bears tend to occupy a greater surface area on the dance floor.  Throbbing bass beats pulsed at Classic Disco Night at the A-House through a thick mélange of fuzz and sweat as the Bears danced the night away.  The balance of hyper masculinity- some of these guys look like body builders recently released from prison- with pop diva flourish was dizzying and delightful.  The cloud of body odor emanating from the dance floor was dizzyingly pungent.

embroidery by Rebecca Levi

This week, the Four Eleven Studio features a lively Bear-themed exhibition entitled “Grisly.”  I was riding my bike past the space on Commercial Street Friday night, and couldn’t contain my elation.  “Bears!” I whispered in awe, before a wall-sized painting of two burly men in flannel by Liz Carney.  A strapping young man eating ice cream sauntered over.  “You can feed a real Bear inside,” he told me.  “Really?  Like some kind of performance art?”  I said ingenuously, expecting to see some kind of Abromavic-esque human installation.  “Sure.”

I popped inside, and while I admired Rebecca Levi’s whimsically sweet embroidery sampler of a bear in his underpants preparing eggs sunnyside up, I witnessed no such interactive opportunity.  I walked back outside, basking in the providence of such an homage.  A large man followed behind me.

“Here he is!,” strapping ice cream guy exclaimed, thrusting his cup of melting pistachio in my direction.  “You can feed the bear!” It turned out he was playing a practical joke, as he urged me, a total stranger, to spoon-feed his unassuming boyfriend.  It was weird, but I did it.  And the boyfriend, puzzled, let me.  He was a total Teddy Bear.

Elizabeth Greenwood is from Worcester, Massachusetts.  As a New York City Teaching Fellow, she taught English as a Second Language in the Bronx and Manhattan.  Writing on culture, her work has appeared in The Atlantic and The New Yorker.  She is working toward an MFA in literary nonfiction at Columbia University, where she teaches undergraduate writing.  Visit her blog.

Elizabeth is also a Mailer Nonfiction Fellow. She is using her month of residency to write about people who fake their own deaths, which is her current obsession.

ADVENTURE IN MISSISSIPPI

I like visiting writers’ houses. You see the spaces that enveloped their imagination day by day. You see the furniture they sat in and the paintings and photographs on the walls. You see the dishes in the kitchen. You see the books on their shelves and the bed they slept in. It’s possible to assume too much from all this, but what’s the point of going at all if you don’t make some conclusions from what you see?

So, driving to the Mailer house in Provincetown from Austin I stopped along the way to see William Faulkner’s house in Oxford, Mississippi. I awoke early in Oxford the morning after the long day’s drive from Austin. Armed with the excellent pamphlet of walking tours from the Oxford Visitor’s Bureau, I parked my car near Faulkner’s house at 9am, an hour before the house would open, and set out to walk around the neighborhood. The sky was overcast and threatening, but I left my umbrella in my car anyway. Why? I walked about five blocks to the house where Faulkner lived as a boy. It was one story but shapeless and rambling in all directions. There was a huge, verdant lawn and thick trees and bushes and a car and yard tools here and there but no one around. Dense woods came right up to the back porch. A doe emerged from between two trees. She regarded me intently before turning calmly and disappearing into the woods.

Just a short walk away I found a large Greek revival mansion set way back from the road. The walk to the door was lined with immense trees that obscured the front of the house. Otherwise, the huge, grassy lot was empty. The house stood in splendid isolation. According to the visitors’ guide, this house may have been the inspiration for the house in “A Rose for Emily”. It certainly fit the description. I thought of her in the living room telling the delegation from city hall, “I pay no taxes in Jefferson.”

I felt a few drops of rain. Now the sky was almost black. I began walking back to my car, but the rain came harder and then harder still. Lightning flashed and thunder boomed from just a block or so away. I took shelter under a pine.

Just up the block I saw a carpenter’s van and a pickup with a load of lumber parked in a driveway. That house had a long front porch that curved around from the side to the front where three workmen had taken refuge. It appeared that they were renovating the empty house. “Can I come up there?” I shouted to them.

“Shore,” one said. “Come on.”

I ran to the porch without getting too wet. Two looked to be twenty-five or so. The third, at least twice their age, sat on one of the porch rails. He was slack, expressionless, silent. One of the younger two, with a chubby, round face and a stomach that pushed out a little over the belt of his jeans, looked me over, not in an unfriendly way, trying to place just what a stranger was doing there out walking along the street in the rain. “Are you visiting your children at the University?” he asked, nodding his head as if he were kindly offering me this way to account for myself.

I said that I had just stopped in town to see Faulkner’s house.

“They say that place is haunted,” the second young one said. He was average height but handsome and athletic with short, dark hair and a bit of stubble on his chin. “I don’t know myself. I’ve never been there, but that’s what they say.”

“Could be, I guess,” I said. It could be. Why not?

By now the rain had slackened just a bit. “Got to get my bird,” the dark-haired one said and dashed off the porch.

The chubby one was shaking his head. “If that…,” he said, but he didn’t finish his thought. In a few moments the dark-haired one returned at a run carrying a yellow shoebox which he set gently on the floor of the porch. Inside were some strips of torn newspaper and a tiny black-gray ball of down with a – relatively – immense beak open wide.

“It’s hungry again as usual,” he said. He dropped a few bits of bread into the chasm formed by the beak. Then the beak closed and disappeared somehow into the murky down. “I found it in the road,” he said to me.

“That is the ugliest thing,” the chubby one said. “You couldn’t pay me to touch that thing. He picked it right up.”

“You’re supposed to put them back in the nest,” the dark-haired one said, ignoring his partner’s comments. “I think I can find it. That’s not true that the mother leaves if you touch the nest. That is false information.”

A small, sporty car turned into the driveway. A stocky, teen-aged girl got out and ran up on the porch. Ignoring all of us, she went to a bench, which I hadn’t even noticed, around the curve of the porch where another young girl, whom I hadn’t noticed either, was lying. She was fleshy and curvy, barefoot, wearing shorts and a halter. Eula Varner! The two girls conspired in whispers and laughter. Then the stocky one ran back to her car and drove off, leaving Eula’s avatar – to use a Faulknerian word – lying on the bench as she had been all along.

Well, the rain stopped and that was about all of that. I thanked all four – in recognition, the impassive older man raised a single finger of his right hand, which was resting on the porch railing – and walked on thinking I’d learned a few things about Faulkner just by the proximity, even before I got to his house.

Gregory Curtis is the former editor of Texas Monthly and the author of Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo and The Cave Painters: Probing  the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists. Visit his website for more on his work.

Greg is also the mentor for the Mailer Nonfiction Fellows. This is his third year mentoring the Mailer Fellowship.

What is this. What has happened to me.

In workshop with Meena Alexander last week, our prompt was to write about nature. I chose the sky; arguably the cleanest, safest, most ubiquitous aspect of nature, but nonetheless breathtaking. Today I lay out in the sun at Herring Cove Beach thinking about that choice while watching the clouds – every kind, from light grayish smudge at the horizon to bright white question mark shifting into an airy exclamation right in the middle of my blue field of vision. I really do mourn my relative disconnection from nature – something I truly didn’t realize I’d been missing.

I grew up in Los Angeles, but loved nature as a child. I remember a field trip to someplace north of the city where I knelt happily in shallow, grassy pools with a magnifying glass, looking for tadpoles. I remember mud fights with my sisters in the rain. I remember planting watermelon seeds in the front yard, how the dirt coated my fingers, burrowing richly beneath my chewed-down nails. I touched pill bugs, pet lost animals, collected autumn leaves and taped the stems to notebook paper, arranged by color and shape. And I loved the beach, the squish of wet sand and the salt on my skin.

What happened to me? Motherhood? Allergies? The Great Recession? Now all I can think about is how much it costs to get there, make sure we have enough to eat, be entertained, get back home, and then the sand I have to sweep up afterward, the sopping wet clothes to launder before they start to mildew, the inevitable scrapes or bites to attend. “Communing with nature” has thus turned into a chore and even a luxury over the years; being in Provincetown has thrown that new insight sharply into relief, and I would lose a tremendous opportunity if I let it go without scrutiny.

When we left Herring Cove today, I obeyed the impulse to fill a paper cup with a dozen marvelous beach rocks that I’ve placed near my “writing spot” in the condo. And, yes, I will cart them back to the city with me, not as souvenirs but as a reminder of how a question mark can transform into a quiet exclamation.

Khadijah Queen is the mother of an 11-year-old Bey Blader and Pokémon Trainer. She tries to keep up with the powers and levels and “evolutions” of the characters, if only so she can understand what on the great earth her son and his friends talk about. Read Khadijah’s work in Esque and visit her website. Her second book Black Peculiar, winner of the Noemi Press book award, is forthcoming this fall. Her poems, three times nominated for the Pushcart Prize, appear widely in journals and anthologies, including The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010 and the current issue of jubilat.

Khadijah is also a Mailer Poetry Fellow. She is using the month of residency to work on her third book, which deals with her experience in the Navy and concomitant struggle with fibromyalgia. 

ROSE DOROTHEA

On the eastern coast of North America lies an intricate assembly of beaches, islands and crooked strips of land narrowed by the unrepentant embrace of the Atlantic Ocean. It is called Cape Cod. The outstretching peninsula of this coastline was described by Norman Mailer as a disagreeable arm of an elderly man, whose hand curled round extending a bony middle finger to the south. On the curving, fleshy palm sits a town called Provincetown (or P-Town as the locals call it). Despite its small size it boasts the second largest harbour in the world. Its streets are full of art galleries and many writers (like Mailer) have lived and worked here.

In the centre of the town stands a large wooden building with white painted horizontal slats and a two tier bell tower. Originally built in 1860 as a Methodist church, it now houses thousands of books and functions as the town’s library. As such it is a hub of the community and the service it provides is well-loved and fiercely defended by the people who live here.

I was told that the library had a ship inside that was worth a look. For some reason (I like to put it down to my own creative imaginings) I expected the ship to be in a bottle. I was wrong. As you walk up the stairs to the second floor the bow of the ship looms before you. Her name, the Rose Dorothea, is ornately painted in gold against the black wooden hull. She is a magnificent sailing ship. And quite clearly, far too big to be imprisoned in any bottle. The library and its books are dwarfed by her majesty. Two holes have been crafted into the ceiling to accommodate her masts and the oval-shaped reading room at the east end of the library is penetrated by her bow sprit. The main boom hangs ominously over the readers at the other end who turn their pages and tap their laptops, unthreatened by the enormity of her structure and un-struck by her prominence. But when I look at her, this ship amongst the books, I can’t help but feel that in the thread of her sails and the grain of her deck, she has more adventurous tales and more workings of history than any of these pages would care to impress upon the patrons of P-Town.

Sue Stout is forty, a mum of two from Liverpool England, studying for a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk, England. She has been a primary school teacher for eleven years and is currently hooked on training for triathlons, which she’s completely rubbish at but getting better.

Sue is also the winner of the British GQ Norman Mailer Writing Competition. Judged by British GQ senior editors and contributors and other distinguished literary and publishing figures, the competition is held annually and carries a Mailer Nonfiction Fellowship as part of the prize. To find out why Sue is training for triathlons, look out for the forthcoming piece in GQ (sneak preview here).

FLOTSAM, JETSAM, JUNK & SPUNK

I am an inveterate worrywart. I try and fight it, but it can’t be helped—it’s in my blood.  Could be the Latino’s innate sense of impending doom; could be a deep awareness of the problems of the universe; could just be that I’m a paranoid loon. Can’t take my niece to the playground because the thought of her tumbling off the monkey bars and splitting her little skull are all too real (and I suspect that the little demon would fake a mortal injury just to give me agita). Can’t enjoy myself at parties because I tend to agonize over how my breath is holding up (“Did you see the way her nostrils flared when I said, ‘Heh-lo?’ I’d ask my bemused and long-suffering girlfriend). Like Hamlet’s Horatio, I have intimations of stars with trains of fires and dews of blood, disasters in the sun. You see, I often have a special knack for depressing folks. I once drove a poor homeless man into such a state that he gave me a dollar. Hey, it’s a gift.

Naturally, before setting off for my sojourn at Provincetown, I expected the worst. I already knew that I was going to get lost on my way from New York— even with a GPS— because I’m an idiot, so that was no big surprise. But what, exactly, did I think was going to happen? I guess I envisioned an endless stream of glitter-happy beefcakes on Atlantean stilts hurling grenades, a ramshackle cottage with acid dripping from the rafters and seething with vicious mice, an ocean full of hungry viperfish. Of course, none of this materialized (except maybe the beefcakes—all those walking slabs carting bulbous pectorals and mounded muscle, moving as if their spines had been ironed with pure starch, guilted me into committing to red-faced push-ups and crying crunches every morning). Instead, this wayworn, reeking scribbler—who dragged himself over the threshold of the Mailer household like a whip-scorned sackcloth saint—was greeted warmly by Anna and Jessica, two lovely, smiling young ladies who generated nothing but beneficence, and all of the dark and doom of this sackcloth scribbler instantly sloughed away.

After all, who can maintain a stormy mood in this miraculous paradise?

Not me! Not after I was shown into my writerly quarters, which contained an amazing Escher-like staircase and a bed big enough to ensconce a harem. Not after I could hear the ocean and smell the salt-spray in the air. Not after I saw the melonmuddled evening sky, so much like California wine, and then the brass-butter moon melting against the horizon. The prodigies of penumbra that pluralized my mind! I could feel the energy coursing through my veins, my blood shook, my heart stammered, my head nearly exploded.

Thus began the first flashes of inspiration that begged to be bottled, and then uncapped, so lightning could strike the page.

The rage of ransacking creation made depredations upon the brain.

My first Provincetown sun soon climbed, the same color of gold that the sea dreams. The ocean received me with a gentle hiss. And the yipping array of dogs on the beach, how they skipped and skerfuffled, rebounded, resounded! (making me a little wistful for my dogs and my girlfriend back home). I floated beneath the marbling blue, fantasizing about bobbing for octopus and jigging for squid. I’d have to settle for a beer at the Old Colony instead, bellied up to the mast beside tawny fishermen.

Having broiled myself unevenly beneath the sun, my skin had turned a bizarre combination of pink, white, and brown. I looked like a Brachs Neapolitan coconut sundae candy, the kind my father used to cajole me into eating whenever I had a loose tooth as a kid, just so he could save on an expensive trip to the dentist. A few chews on that and your tooth was bound to suck away from the socket. Hell, it beat the shit out of the old string-and-a-doorknob technique.

Still, no matter how unsightly I was at the time, I wasn’t going to hide away.

On the night of the fourth of July, after tucking into a delicious basket of fried clam strips and a mouth-watering, eye-boggling lobster roll from Burger Queen (overt product placement! Hope you’re reading this, Burger Queen), I stepped out of my backwater dwelling and strode past the clumps of knotweed and the dangling bloom of orange roses. A steep-stoop bird squawked beneath the eaves of a frame house, seeming to follow the same celebratory concussions as me. My shoes flattened the spuds of sand as I moved down an alley toward the shore and I watched with fascination as the flares illuminated the shambly dance of the crisping sea. It was a night reminiscent of first-blush kisses, with couples clasped and tender promises issuing. But as much as I enjoyed the arch geometry of that dread dazzle in the sky, I couldn’t linger, because the flies or mosquitoes or sand fleas—buzzing hopping stinging things— practically devoured me. I was convulsing so bad you might have thought I’d eaten a live wire. Needless to say, if you come out here, bring your can of bug-death.

I couldn’t sleep that night. Too many thoughts and ideas rumbling through this once-barren head. At the sign of first light, I once again emerged from my dwelling. Underfoot, a plush radiance like summer fruit fresh off the vine; just above, the song of sunrise shooting its striations across the sky; and I couldn’t help thinking, even though I realize now that my old morbid habits were creeping back, It’s a goddamn shame that a man has to die.

I think I just might finish something worth the doing in Provincetown.

Edwin Rivera is a dollar mug of Budweiser. He’s bald knuckles on a scarred wood bar. He’s a cigarette burned down to the nub. He ain’t nothing but a goddamned writer.

Edwin is also a Mailer Fiction Fellow. He is using the month of residency to work on a novel called Sun Street, Moon Street, about a fictional town in New Jersey and its Latino community. Read an excerpt published in White Whale Review.

Welcome!

Welcome to the Mailer Fellowship Blog!

The blog will feature one post from every 2011 Mailer fellow, fellowship mentor, and July visitor to the Colony. It will be updated every other day through the first week in August. In the hubbub of blog authors, we hope to capture the diversity of voices, perspectives and projects in the fellowship community.

For answers to the questions, What is the Mailer Fellowship? and What is the Norman Mailer Center and Writers Colony?, visit our “About” pages. The “Main Characters” pages will tell you who our fellows, fellowship mentors and visiting writers are.

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