GIRLS GUIDE TO WAR

You’re not large enough
for a whale
and much too fat
to be a shark
said I to my love.
Porpoise
was her reply

Sleek pig
thought the mind
of my eye

Sleek pigs
are porpoises
said she
and began to cry.

I found this poem in Mailer’s book Cannibals and Christians. I would not have expected such tenderness from the boxer and knife wielder who, as Carolyn Forche told us, greeted young pretty girls (including her) on Provincetown’s streets with the flirtatious taunt: Are you a feminist? But then so much of my month at the colony was not expected—like the story of Mailer’s plaintive explanation to his last wife when she complained that all of his adulterous lovers were such ugly dogs: “Sometimes I need to be the pretty one.”

I arrived convinced I’d leave with a novel at least half finished. Each morning I dropped Nanoush at her favorite beach, “the norman mailer house beach,” as she called it, where she made her stories in the sand with scallop and mussel shells and hermit crabs and her new friend Jewel. And each morning I went to my kitchen table.

Monday. Chapter I. In a clipped voice. “I’m a professional Islamist, by accident, as most people’s lives tend to proceed. I had a crush on a long-haired biker whom I’d met one day on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum, and turned out to be an Israeli and an Arabist. My life’s obsessions have always been conceived in the cradle of a crush.”

Tuesday. Chapter I. In a suspenseful voice. “I saw Ali’s form through the white slip curtain. I had his pistol. The berretta he couldn’t find two days ago. Don’t play games, he’d shouted. I denied playing games so vehemently that he began to worry—one of the hotel cleaners? Were they plotting something?”

Wednesday. Chapter I. In a breathy voice. “It was a warm night, a soft wind through the palms, the gunfire had receded. I wondered what it would be like to be with such a man. I took his arm, and washed my hand along its curves. Outside was the smell of dripping petrol and the generator exhaling and panting.”

Thursday. Chapter I. In a child’s voice. “Tahir bought me a saraj today, a little bird with an orange face and yellow wings. He put a string around its neck and though I’d like to let it go, I’m going to keep it.”

Friday, Chapter I. No more voice. “You see a narrative was forming. It was a good one. And the Afghans began sticking to it. If you were a Tajik commander you could be smug about the narrative. Like Baba Jan the old communist. When the two Arabs posing as journalists (the ones who would kill Massoud) showed up to film his ammunition sites he told his guard to send them away. ‘Tell them that Allah has sent many messengers to the Arab people, but the Arabs still haven’t got the message.’ Everyone blamed the Arabs for infecting their land with terrorism, for occupying Afghanistan, for their pan-Islamic designs, for stealing their women. Some blame the Arabs for bringing Islam to Afghanistan 1400 years ago. But those are rare. And have short hair.

Saturday, Chapter 1. “The Italian doctor told me, Your blood pressure is really shit. But I was stuck in the Hindu Kush with no way out. I took medicine and moaned through the night. Occasionally I felt Alberto stroking my head with pity and I’d drift back into dreams of dragons, turbans, burkhas, bullets, and canaries. I was going to be sick again, and dragged myself to the walled in hole in the courtyard. I had nothing left to puke but something fluttered into the hole and I pinched my matchbook flashlight to see. Ten feet below was a mountain of shit. Years of it. And atop it all were the last of my crisp green Ben Franklins. A nasty metaphor of our enterprise in this forsaken land I thought, and went back to bed.”

Sunday, Chapter 1: “If my notebooks were better they could tell you exactly what it was like, they could tell you about Dunn’s screeching voice when we got hit, and the crackle of leaves under my palm, and the smell of Connecticut woods, though they couldn’t tell you what was going on in Dan’s head who was further up the Korengal mountain. If I had sat like a spider inside the head of the Colonel, of Razzaq the smuggler, Abdullah the Taliban, Clinard the soldier who watched his bestfriend die, 12-year-old Sweeta raped by the commanders, the kind nurse who thought I must be pregnant when I wretched in the hospital from the smell of burnt flesh, then maybe I could deliver a kaleidescope of what went on this past decade.”

Monday again, Chapter 1. “I’ve started a book about an American girl who went to Iraq to find out why another American girl was killed only to find out the American girl who was killed had fallen in love with an Iraqi and only to fall in love with an Iraqi killer herself. I’ve started a book about another American girl who fell in love with a warlord and was the object of affection of a Taliban commander and caused an assassination that changed the course of one province’s war. American innocence abroad. The story never ever changes. I may not finish this book either.”

Tuesday afternoon notes. “Everyone here is writing about war. Internal, external, foreign, familial, psychic.. There is always an enemy, a fight against dying and entropy or there is no writing.”

Nanoush asked me if she could bring the hermit crabs in her bucket from the norman mailer beach back to our house on Race Road. I told her they would die. One by one she let them crawl onto her hand and then into the ocean.

Elizabeth Rubin is a writer who lives in Brooklyn with her 3 year old daughter Nanoush. She has spent the last decade and a half covering conflicts around the world. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Harper’s Magazine, and The New Yorker.

Elizabeth is also a Mailer Nonfiction Fellow. She is using the month of residency to work on…well, see above.

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.

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.