Non-Fiction

Screenplay: Out With Italians [Excerpt] by Tony Bianco

OUT WITH ITALIANS

FADE IN:

EXT. SANTA REY – DAY – ESTABLISHING

A small fishing town in the San Francisco Bay Area. December 7, 1941.

INT. LINO’S APARTMENT – PARLOR – NIGHT

A small, simple apartment. LINO NOCCI, 35, wiry, handsome, a scar along the left half of his jawline, stands staring at his radio. An Italian-speaking announcer is talking about the Pearl Harbor bombing.

ANNOUNCER (V .O.)
Il bombardamento di Pearl Harbor denudera il gran buffone d’Italia, Benito Mussolini. La debolezza di Mussolini sara esposto per il mondo. Il nemico di tutt’italiani, il pazzo detestato stara disfatto. Mussolini …

The announcer is cut off in mid-sentence. There’s KNOCKING at the front door.

Lino turns the radio’s knob but gets only static. The KNOCKING gets LOUDER.

LINO
(heavy Italian accent)
Why you no break down?

FBI AGENT #1 (O.S.)
Lino Nocci. FBI . Open up or we will.

LINO
Who you are?

FBI AGENT #1 (O.S.)
Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Lino hurries away from the door. (more…)

Nonfiction: Mary Szybist, Critically Acclaimed Poet, Graces City College’s Mission Campus by Adina Pernell

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Critically Acclaimed Poet Graces City College’s Mission Campus

By Adina Pernell

Mary Szybist, the second guest in the City College Visiting Writers Series, is a critically acclaimed poet whose numerous awards and accolades include being a Pushcart Prize winner, and whose most recent book “Incarnadine” won the National Book Award for Poetry.

“Incarnadine” is a book of poems revealing the many sides of the biblical Mary, often told through the lens of ordinary women.

Its cover features a depiction of the Annunciation, where according to biblical lore, the angel Gabriel tells Mary she would give birth to the Son of God. Szybist admitted that the image “dominated her imagination.”

“I grew up with this scene of the Annunciation; with the name Mary, in a Catholic household. I went to the church of Annunciation and my best friend’s name was Gabriella,” she said.

John Isles, the City College English professor who hosted Szybist’s reading, welcomed her by projecting the Annunciation scene. “I am blown away by ‘Incarnadine,’” he said.

Isles introduced a poem from “Incarnadine” titled “Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle.” Its surreal, maze-like construction reads like a puzzle in structure. It depicts two young girls contemplating the idea of the biblical Mary and the complexity of faith and religion.

“It is not a spectator’s sport. You are involved in it, putting the puzzle together of the poem as you read it,” Isles said.

From the book, Szybist read “Annunciation: Eve to Ave” along with other attendees. The poem challenges the idea of “bad Eve” verses “good Mary”—what Szybist called a “terrible dualism.”

The symbolism and imagery of Szybist’s poems leave a lasting impression, and many audience members were fans of her work.

“Her poetry does not let go. It is so committed to exploring an idea, like a mathematical proof; her poems continue to look at the world long after others have moved on,” said Cynthia Slates, coordinator for the City College Writer’s Certificate.

Later that evening, in a candid interview after the event, Szybist added insight into what “Incarnadine” meant to her.

“Well, it is the color red,” Szybist said. “And I came to the term though Macbeth, and about that moment as I described before when he had blood on his hands. And he is trying to grapple with his own guilt and wash that blood off his hands—that feels he could ‘the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red…” That sense of washing…”

Cullen Bailey Burns, an English department faculty member and poet introduced by Isles during the interview, asked for Szybist’s autograph.

Burns, a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award in poetry, most recently published a reflective volume of poems titled “Slip.”

The poignant moment of one poet getting another’s autograph only served to highlight the impact Szybist has had on the literary world.

Annunciation: Eve to Ave

Szybist continued after graciously signing Burns’ copy of “Incarnadine.”

When asked whether The National Book Committee’s quote that “Incarnadine” is “a religious book for nonbelievers, or a book of necessary doubts for the faithful” is accurate, she responded by saying, “that is my hope for what the book is.” “

“[‘Incarnadine’] wants to find a way to think about how religion might still be of use to us, even if it’s not through the lense of belief.”

Szybist’s casting of the biblical Mary is not an archetypal representation of the divinity of femininity.

“I’m interested in creating multiple and alternate versions of the figure of Mary. So part of what is so dramatic [and] so often repeated is that she is supposed to be all-pure. She’s supposed to be a virgin, and a mother,” Szybist said.

She paused and pursed her lips, creating a silence so pregnant with meaning that we both laughed at her statement before she continued.

“These are impossible ideals, right. And when women are measured against them, we fail,” Szybist said.

“And this has hurt women very much, internally and in our lives. So my ambition wasn’t to try and say ‘not this one, here’s the other.’ It was to try to put some chinks in that old idea by creating new ones.”

When asked which poem was most representative of “Incarnadine” as a whole, Szybist adamantly expressed her viewpoint of Mary’s personality as multifaceted.

“[In] ‘Incarnadine,’ I am interested in the world and how this mystery [is] grappled with in real incarnated ways. I sort of was playfully thinking, well what if I was to imagine it as a puzzle? I imagined what was putting the puzzle together. And what messages this kind of scene is sending to young girls especially? I was also thinking… in the Bible story, Mary would have been really young. We forget that. Mary would probably have been about their age.”

She spoke of the two young girls envisioning Mary and reflected on her creation of them. She looked off into the distance, as if she was seeing them.

Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle

Adina Pernell is a sometime singer, sometime journalist, occasional poet, random author and dreamer. She has been a CCSF student for the past few years.

Nonfiction: The Almighty Dollar, by Howard Tharsing

The Almighty Dollar; an essay

by Howard Tharsing

Yesterday afternoon I walked a block or so to the Dollars and Cents store on Eddy Street between Leavenworth and Jones. I had passed it many times but had not gone in.  It looked small and dark, and the merchandise had been jammed onto the shelves, some of it apparently long ago.   Peering through the window, I could see boxes and cans old enough to have acquired a patina of settled dust over the sun-faded inks of the packaging.

But lately the place has changed, like everything in the T.L.  The store it looked bright and open.  The big front windows were clean and uncluttered by signs or advertisements; the new wire shelving inside finished with shining chrome; the goods new; and the packaging brightly colored. The floor was bare concrete but well-scrubbed, perhaps even polished and buffed, like the floors of some fashionable high-end shops I knew in Manhattan during the 1980s.

As I wandered through the aisles looking for toothpaste, I found a few other things that I had been needing (e.g., scouring powder, petroleum jelly) but had not felt that I could afford.  Here, however, for a mere dollar each, I could easily buy them without breaking my budget. I even found paper plates, which are tremendously useful not only for serving a meal but also for cooking in a microwave, the only appliance allowed in my SRO hotel room.  I had passed them up at Safeway many times because I could not justify spending $5.00 on them.  I had been making-do with paper towels and the like for over six months.  But now I could buy a package of 10 without worry.

The Dollar and Cents store is now a clean, well-lighted space, with merchandise arranged neatly.  The shopper can see what is available easily — and see that it is clean and new. And the soft-spoken, helpful Latino man at the register, neatly dressed all in black, his hair perfectly combed, his skin shining with good health, made me feel completely at home.

Something seated deeply within me relaxed in a way that I had not relaxed in over a year. I felt that I was seen to be sane, responsible, and connected to the world around me. I felt respected, and I moved more easily, with the solidity of our natural dignity.

All this for $6.40.

In the course of my year on the streets, I had found something similar at MacDonald’s. I imagine that most folks do not notice the Dollar Menu offered in every MacDonald’s restaurant, but those of us trying to find ways to keep body and soul together on next to nothing — sometimes as little as $10 a day for everything — understand the importance of this special group of items.

Everything on the Dollar Menu is priced at just $1. Among them are a MacDouble hamburger (with cheese), a chicken sandwich, and a truly delicious side salad. This salad consists of spring greens, cherry tomatoes, and a few other treats and comes with a choice of dressings, including my favorite, Newman’s Own Balsamic Vinaigrette. You can also get a large glass of sweet iced tea or a Parfait for dessert. All for $1 each.

I have a big appetite and usually order two MacDoubles and the side salad. Sometimes when I am heading home to a prepared dinner from Project Open Hand, I stop at MacDonald’s just to buy a side salad to have with my frozen dinner. Believe me, it is nigh on to impossible to get fresh vegetables in your diet when you are poor. A supermarket salad bar, at $3 or $4 per pound, cannot even be contemplated in the abstract. One comes to know that such things are not meant for folks like oneself.

But MacDonald’s is there for us, providing fresh bread, red and white meat, healthy beverages, fresh vegetables, and even a sweet little treat to end the meal.  A complete meal costs less than $5. There have been evenings — I think of last winter and spring — when I sat in MacDonald’s, eating my dinner, feeling my hunger satisfied and knowing that my body was getting a wide range of nutrients that were necessary to my health, and was moved to tears. This company so often derided as an example of bland, homogenous American corporate culture displacing small, individualized, local establishments and local traditions, had also found in its heart, moving through the hundreds of thousands of people who make up the company world-wide, a true understanding of the needs of poor folk and had responded by providing healthy life-sustaining food at a price we can afford.

And that fact brings me to my last point. These establishments, the Dollar Stores and MacDonald’s and others like them, provide one more necessity of life, one of the most fundamental and profound, and one that cannot be provided by any social, charitable, or government entity or even by caring and selfless individuals.

Everyone needs to feel responsible, to know that she or he can take care of himself or herself. Otherwise we come to feel less than complete, as if we were something other than fully formed, dignified, adult human beings. Only we ourselves, as individuals, can provide this latter necessity by paying for our food, clothing, and other necessities we all need to show up for life day to day. For us poor folk, it is at the Dollar Stores and the MacDonald’s of the world that we find the opportunity to do so.  It is there that we can enjoy the deep pleasure of selecting and paying for a few simple things that will help us maintain a respectable appearance, good health, and a sense of contentment with our life.

Howard Tharsing holds a Ph.D. in English from The Johns Hopkins University.  He spent the majority of his professional life in financial services.  He is currently enrolled in the Broadcast Electronic Media Arts department at CCSF, where he is focusing on audio production with the intention of producing a podcast.

Nonfiction: The Moderating Influence of the Other Gender, by Howard Isaac Williams

The Moderating Influence of the Other Gender

by Howard Isaac Williams

Responding with an anger to exceed that of his adversary, the youth yelled and leaned his taut body toward his foe. The other young man stood his ground and yelled back. If either felt any fear, he showed none and both ignored the earnest pleas of their friends to avoid violence. And there on that pasture just outside Peshawar, Pakistan, a fistfight between two men might easily escalate beyond the boundaries of persons into battles between families, tribes, or entire ethnic communities.

The men standing around the two would be combatants knew their obligations to keep peace and felt those obligations even more. Elders and youths pleaded for calm. For the sake of ethnic solidarity, the two should make peace. For the holy cause of Islam, they should put aside minor differences.

But such imploring, so emotional yet so reasonable, mean so little to egos in conflict. The two angry youths cared only about the perceived insults to their manhood and forgot their masculine responsibilities to others.

And their friends were losing hope in their own efforts. If this matter did come to battle, each man on each side might have to stop protecting his friend with appeals to peace and start protecting him with fists or worse. Even as they tried to physically restrain the two would be combatants, they were watching others to see if any might take advantage of an opening to dangerously escalate this matter. And in this quite masculine society where women are rarely seen and never heard, didn’t some of these men yearn for the moderating hand of the other gender, so familiar at home yet so unknown on the street?

On the other side of the field, about 30 yards away, a water buffalo cow observed this noisy and potentially dangerous scene. Rousing herself from the near somnolence associated with her domesticated species, she grunted, then bellowed. Her hoofs pawed the ground. She swung her massive head in great expressive arcs and kicked out her forelegs, then bellowed again. She began trotting, then cantering toward the two angry youths.

Her charge first distracted the friends and relatives of the two adversaries who were still shouting at each other, apparently oblivious to the approaching danger much greater than each other. On she rushed, her massive bulk fixed like an arrow on a target just between the two foes. Now the crowd began to part but the two youths stood momentarily transfixed as the huge mother, her udder swaying, nostrils snorting, her mouth bellowing, charged toward the tiny gap between them.

At the last instant the two adversaries dove away from each other and the buffalo seized the contested ground, instantly stopping and occupying it with authority as dust rose all around her. The two would be fighters lifted themselves off the ground and dusted themselves off.

Now as all in the crowd regained their composure, they began laughing, none more than the two who had been so angry a few moments before. One man in the crowd turned toward another and asked, “Why did she do that?”

The other shrugged his shoulders and replied, “I guess she didn’t want them to fight.”

Howard Isaac Williams was a student of Professor Julie Young’s Spring 2016 English 35A class. He also has a Certificate in Labor Studies from CCSF from 1991. He lives in the Outer Mission and is a retired bicycle messenger and pest control technician.
From 1989 to 1997 Williams worked summers as an aid worker in Pakistan and Afghanistan assisting disabled persons. “The Moderating Influence” is a memoir of one of his experiences there.

Essay by Nataniel Gondra

Domingo, Who Joined the Foreign Legion

San Francisco, 17 Sep 2015.

I have a very lousy memory. I can’t really remember what I had for lunch yesterday. Or what was the chapter of the book I was reading about a few hours ago. But I do remember some things clearly.

Growing up with my mother, she never told me what to think about death. She avoided the subject, as most of Western civilization (although recently I’m not sure if you’d think we share the same concept of Western civilization since I’m South American), but she also avoided teaching us anything about religion. She went to a very good Catholic school run by Yugoslav nuns that taught her how to write, read and think properly. She excelled in every course and she became one of the most intelligent (if not the most) woman I’ve ever met. It’s not just because she’s my mom. She had a sensible answer for everything. Except death.

Those same Yugoslav nuns gave her that education through an archaic but apparently effective method: fear. She once told me how they traumatized her about going to hell if she didn’t behave properly and that god was all seeing, all knowing and all judging. I don’t know what was going on my mother’s mind in her last days. At times I know it was fear, she said it at least once. But I don’t know if she was remembering the fear of hell instilled in her by the nuns.

I fear death. I fear death because I’ve had panic attacks. And I know, I just know, that when it’s my time to die, unless I’m heavily drugged and unconscious, I’m going to be in one perpetual, terminal panic attack. I’d give up many things not to have another panic attack again in my life.

But I’m not particularly concerned about hell. At least not at this moment, while I feel no immediate threat to my life. Mom raised me and my brother freethinkers. “It’s your choice to believe in what you want to believe”. Still, I was in a Christian society. So my friends where Catholics. My school made me do the First Communion, although I did asked in Religion class how come dinosaurs were so impossibly old and that got me sent to the principal’s office (I loved dinosaurs). I knew only one prayer, the one my mother taught me: “Little guarding angel, sweet company, don’t abandon me, neither night nor day”. That’s the Spanish transliteration of what my mother said. The whole thing is more complex and has darker passages. “I’d be lost without you” it adds. She didn’t teach me that. I think she didn’t even told me to say Amen after I completed the prayer.

One day I figured out that El Ratoncito Perez (the Tooth Fairy) wasn’t real and then the whole superstructure came down and I saw the vacuum and the strings. So if Little Mice Perez wasn’t real, then Jesus wasn’t either (he’s the one who’s supposed to bring you presents in Christmas from where I come from), nor god or heaven or hell. For some reason that scared the shit out of me. Maybe it was my first panic attack. Maybe others have experienced this before. Maybe what scared me that much was that my own parents were able to deceive me for so long.

But they did their best not to do so, really. I understand it can come as cruel and maybe non adaptive to teach your children that there’s no tooth fairy and no guardian angel and nothing at all and that there are only very slight differences between you and a worm.

“What happens after we die?” I asked my mother anxiously one day.

“Nobody knows. But it’ll be in such a long time that there’s no need to worry”

As a kid, I worried a lot. Even if I died, I found out that the sun was going to explode. So not even the world I was living in would survive. And before that, I already knew about the Arms Race and the upcoming nuclear holocaust.

Death was an uncomfortable subject to me.

So when other people died, I didn’t know how to react. I went to my mother for answers.

“Do as you feel, dear, if you don’t want to go to the funeral, you don’t have to”

I haven’t gone to a funeral in my life. My mother donated her body to scientific research and the cremated rest was given to my brother in a standard mail-quality square brown box. It’s sitting in my brother’s closet waiting for the time we get the courage to go to Venice, a place she always dreamed of but never visited. A place she told us we would go when she got cured.

So not even my mother’s funeral. She didn’t have one.

But my memory’s not that good. I was closing down old accounts in old pages I didn’t use anymore and I found a blog I made titled: “My friend Viernes (Friday) is dead. Thank god I still have Domingo (Sunday. Also a name)”. It was full of the strangest writings I’ve ever found. It took me a few minutes to understand what was going on.

These were literally messages from the past. From a time when Domingo and I exchanged almost daily Burroughsian emails and chats. I don’t know if he understood anything that we were talking about. We didn’t do drugs. We weren’t trying to be hip. This was something actually extremely amusing to do. Shared stream of conscious with scifi, political, tropical nihilism and rock music themes.

Domingo’s father had died recently. Of cancer, like my mother would years later. I had no idea of how he felt. It was the equivalent of being raised a no-sex-before-marriage, if-you-masturbate-you’re-going-to-hell and trying to imagine what sex felt like. Not even like that, really, because even those people get wet dreams. I had literally no idea. I thought it was bad, I said what my mother told me to say (an obsolete phrase everyone uses and that I still don’t have any idea of what it means): “Mi sentido pesame” (I’m not even going to try to transliterate that. To me it sounds like random words combined), patted his back and thought sadly about his father for a few weeks.

He wasn’t particularly sad. I don’t know if my empathy is a recent ability or if he was very good at hiding his feelings, but he just sang to me an Alan Parsons Project song, half-jokingly, half-seriously: “Time… keeps flowing like a river”.

I have much to say now about Domingo. Now that he’s gone.

It has been more than a year since he hanged himself. The last email we shared was a short story I wrote about mass suicide in my shitty Ballardian. He was doing his thesis on Ballard.

He also sent me, in an ultra-secret email, his draft of Tristicruel, the best short story book to come out of that hellhole that is Caracas. It was published a month after his death. I bought it this year through Amazon. Somehow it made its way through Venezuelan customs and got into the US.

I was part of the people he dedicated it to.

Now I know a lot more about death. I’ve lost my mother and the only friend that could possibly appreciate anything I try to push out of my mind. I’ve had other losses too. And for the things that have been going on in my life, I know how bad it must have been for him to get to that point. Fuck Dante and his Wood of the Self-Murdered.

He was kind to children. He was bright. He was a great friend. He lived like an accursed poet, but he had strong values. His writings reflect that he loved and cared a whole lot more about humanity than most of the people I know who go to church every domingo.

Domingo Michelli isn’t dead.

He just “went to France. To the Foreign Legion. Like Manu Chao”*.

*The last things I heard from Domingo that made me laugh. I found it in a YouTube video one of his hipster friends made when he visited Barcelona.

 

 

 

An Interview and Novel Excerpt by Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist and Author Jonathan Freedman

Jonathan Freedman is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, author, and writing mentor.  His novel, THE LAST BRAZIL of BENJAMIN EAST is being published by Bright Lights Press of Palo Alto.  He graduated from Columbia University, traveled overland from America to Bolivia, and lived in Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland.  He is married to a physician who conducts experimental cancer therapies.  He has four children and two grandchildren.

Meet Mr. Freedman at his weekly student writing workshop, “Real World Writing and Ideas,” at the English Lab at CCSF.  It’s open to all students and meets Wednesdays from 11 am to 1 pm in Rosenberg 205.  Find your voice. Change the world.

 

Interview with Jonathan Freedman

10/17/14

Traves Warren: Hello, this is Traves Warren, President of City College of San Francisco’s Forum Literary Magazine Club, interviewing Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jonathan Freedman.

Jonathan Freedman: Hi, this is Jonathan Freedman and I’m really pleased to be here.

TW: So, Mr. Freedman, I’d like to begin by asking you what lead up to your writing that won you the Pulitzer Prize, and why you wrote it?

JF: I was thirty years old, unemployed, freelancing in Haight Ashbury. I went down to San Diego for a job interview at The Tribune. The editor took me to the cafeteria. “Jonathan, on my way to work, I saw these poor migrant workers hiding in the bushes in the rain. I’ve worked for this newspaper for thirty years. Every day we report murders and terrible things on the border. But we’ve never gone into depth on the issues underlying illegal immigration. If we did that, we could win a Pulitzer Prize.” I needed a job. The idea of a Pulitzer Prize was beyond my imagination. I got hired and trained as an editorial writer. Six months later, I said, “Mr. Bennett, do you remember what you said about the border?” “Yeah, but we have no time,” he said. “Write me a proposal.” So I wrote, “The border between Mexico and the United States is where water flowing from the Colorado River stops, and a river of humanity flows northward from Mexico to United States.”

“Bull! You don’t know anything about the border. Tomorrow, you’re going to the border.”

So, the next day, I went to the border outpost at the extreme southwest corner of the United States and Mexico. I saw a hole in the chain link fence. It was the size of a crouching man. Then I interviewed the border patrol agents. They told me how they’d get alerted when someone trips a wire. They’d chase them; they’d arrest them; they’d deport them. And the next day, they’d be back. I saw a holding tank for people who had been caught trying to cross the border. It was dark and dingy and someone had written on the wall mojado power, “wetback power.”

So I came back and I wrote an editorial. There’s a hole in the fence between Mexico and the United States. Each year, thousands of people cross the border illegally. Their first act is to violate law. They’re hunted like animals. That began a series of editorials exploring illegal immigration from different points of view. Every week, I would go to a new place. I would go into Mexico, follow the people across the border, go to the strawberry fields. I asked the same questions: “What can we do to protect our borders? What can we do to help the people living here illegally? They’re providing food, harvesting crops, doing all kinds of jobs. But they have no rights. I wrote a series of editorials that began in 1981 and continued for six years. Our purpose was to convince Congress to pass a just and compassionate law. My editorials from the border were read in the halls of Congress. They were instrumental in the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The law granted legalization to over two million people. I was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Distinguished Editorial Writing in 1987. But the law did not solve all the problems of immigration.

TW: So, in the beginning, was this done out of your personal compassion?

JF: When I was the age of City College students, I wanted to be a writer. I went to Columbia University in New York. I won a writing prize. When I was 23, I traveled overland from Mexico, through Central America, over the Andes Mountains, into the Amazon jungle, across the desert of Peru, all the way to Bolivia. I got a job as a reporter with the Associated Press in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. So, to answer your question, my compassion came from traveling and seeing the lives of people in Latin America. I saw the conditions they were living in. I felt great respect and love for the people. Later, when I came to San Diego I saw how illegal immigrants were being treated in America.

TW: So, you got this law passed in 1986 by speaking to actual people along the border. Would you say that your reason for writing is to try to get to the root of problems and find solutions?

JF: Yes, I’m a very solution-oriented journalist. It wasn’t my goal to humiliate leaders and make people look bad. I wanted to listen to the voices of people who are downtrodden and suffering, to learn from them. What do they have to say? I interviewed people like you are doing now. I wanted their voices to be heard. That was theme of my career. That’s why I’m leading a writing workshop in the English Lab at City College. I believe that every human being has an important voice, something valuable to say. I want to help students find their own voice. When you speak truly, your words will reverberate with other people. To tell your story, and to be heard: that is a life-changing experience. It gives you power. It can help you live a better life.

TW: So, would you say that the emphasis of your writing is placed on giving a voice to people who otherwise would not have it?

JF: Yes, that’s true. I think that in the immigration series, what I did was to go and interview people. It’s a very complicated issue and everyone has a justifiable point of view on it. Some people are afraid of illegal immigration, other people are profiting from it, but everyone has a point of view. I wanted get learn from the people on the scene, whether it was a farmer who’s hiring, or someone who is working in the sun; whether it was children playing in the pesticides by the ditches. Whoever the person is, I wanted to give voice to bring the reader into those places, to experience it in real life. I trusted in the human heart, that readers’ compassion would compel them to do the right thing.

TW: What part of that do you believe was integral to you helping to get the amnesty to pass in 1986?

JF: I think that people had been discussing the issue of illegal immigration as us versus them: us being Americans, and them being foreigners. People take political positions on that. I wanted to add the human stories. So readers would not just think all illegal aliens are the same. The words “illegal aliens” turn people into objects. Aliens could come from outer space. Illegal means you broke the law. Well, who are these people? What are their stories? Is their desire to have a better life not unlike ours? How do they threaten us; how do we threaten them? I wanted those voices heard in Congress. Not just talking heads spitting out ideology.

The same issues are happening today. We have an even larger population of the undocumented in America. Yet the political argument is still us-versus-them. There are undocumented students at City College. They did nothing wrong. They were brought here by their parents. Now they want to have a college education. But some people say no. They don’t have a right to the student loan, because they don’t have papers. I want to work with them, with all City College students. To help them develop their own voices, to speak up, to be heard. At this stage of my life, this gives me great satisfaction.

T W: So, coming from your experiences in Latin America, getting the law passed, and winning the Pulitzer Prize to now, what is significant in your life as a writer?

JF: When I was a young man, I wanted adventure. I grew up in Colorado, and had a privileged life. But it seemed if I was missing something. I heard the music of Brazil. I saw a movie about carnival. It seemed there is so much more life down there. So I seized the chance to go to Latin America. It took almost nine months of hard travel. When I got to Brazil a whole new way of life opened up. Brazilians seemed to put music, laughter, dancing, food, and love ahead of money. There was tremendous poverty in Brazil. But lives of the people seemed rich. There was violence and political torture and all kinds of bad things happening. Yet I thought that the Brazilian Spirit gave them a joyous quality of life. I wanted to bring that spirit back. I wanted to write a novel that captured that life, that spirit in Brazil. So in my late 20’s, I started writing a novel. It began with what-if questions:

What if I was an old American who had lived for many years in Brazil? What if I’d lost my wife, lost my money, lost my fortune, and I came back to America? What if I put that character, whose name is Benjamin East, on a Greyhound bus? What if a young woman named Amy ran into that bus station? She was fleeing her husband, who’d raped her What if she collided with this old man, and pleaded, “Take me to New York!” What would happen to them?

I wrote a novel about this odd couple crossing America on a Greyhound bus. It took me two years to finish, but I couldn’t get it published. I put it in a drawer in 1983. Then my career as a journalist took off. Flash forward thirty years. The newspaper business is dying. I’ve had my own successes and failures. I’m nearing the age of Benjamin East. I find this old box containing a manuscript. I begin reading. The spirit of Benjamin East lifts my spirits. But the book has flaws. I vowed not to destroy it. So the older and younger Jonathans collaborated to bring the book to fruition. It took two years to edit and revise. The Last Brazil Benjamin East is being published by Bright Lights Press of Palo Alto this year.

The main story takes place in 1980 on a bus ride across America. But the back story takes place in the 1950s, when Benjamin and his wife traveled up the Rio Negro. I’m honored that an excerpt from this river trip is being published in FORUM.

TW: Do you feel your book’s demographic is aimed not just at Americans, but at Brazilians as well? Do you think they would like to read your book?

JF: I hope Benjamin’s journey inspires young people to travel, to find their own path, to explore possibilities.

I’d also like to say what City College means to me. The students who attend my workshop come not only from San Francisco, but also Mexico, China, Ethiopia, Vietnam… Some are young, others in the middle age or late in life. They have hopes, dreams, and incredible stories. The mission of City College is to provide education to students of all ages and walks of life. The professors are extraordinarily committed to their students. Yet CCSF’s accreditation is being threatened. This institution is vital for San Francisco’s future. City College needs to survive, grow and thrive. The very fact that you are interviewing me here shows the connections between generations that City College makes possible.

TW: At this point in your life, could you sum up why you feel you write today and also put in something for aspiring writer? Why they should write today?

JF: My advice for aspiring writers is try this: go to a quiet place, take a notebook with you, set an alarm clock for one hour, and start writing the first thing that comes to mind. It doesn’t have to be a sentence, even just some words like “my ear itches” or “why am I doing this?” And then write the next thing that comes to your mind, and the next. When I was sixteen, my teacher gave me this assignment. I was a lonely boy in a boarding school, far away from home. I began writing aimlessly and then the words began to carry me on a river of memory. I saw grandmother and my parents and my friends. Writing carried me home. After that experience, I decided to become a writer. I want to help students find their voices, to stand up for themselves, to seize their futures. The power of writing is for everyone.

The Last Brazil Of Benjamin East Book Cover_Visual Arts

Excerpt of novel to be published by Bright Lights Press of Palo Alto, CA

THE LAST BRAZIL of BENJAMIN EAST

By Jonathan Freedman

Amazon Rainforest, 1958

The Rio Negro branched into a river without name, the river of hope. Benjamin, the American fortune seeker, sat in the bow of the dugout. Gisela, his Brazilian bride, balanced in the middle. Ceara, the cross-eyed boatman, paddled from the stern.

The rainy season had come. The journey from Manaus, the Amazonian capital, had taken six weeks, and still they hadn’t reached a deposit of precious minerals—emerald, uranium, gold—that he was seeking. The boat had overturned in a storm, swamping their gear. They had wasted many days huddling in a lean-to by the swollen river, swatting at clouds of mosquitos, watching trees and islands of earth sweeping down the churning waters. Then, as quickly as they had come, the rains stopped. Benjamin wanted to continue. But his Gisela, heavy with child, refused to go any farther. Ceara agreed to stay with her a few days while Benjamin went up river alone.

Benjamin clutched the crudely carved paddle, dug into the water, thrust backward, pulled it out of the swirling eddy, switched hands, dug into the water, thrust backward, paddling up the gloomy river in the predatory jungle. He didn’t think, just paddled, his hands blistering and then popping, and the skin rubbing off to raw flesh. It was the second day of non-stop paddling and he was feverish. The swelling on his arm from mosquito bites had gone down, but his tongue and insides swelled instead. Malaria swept into his body, microbes spawning in his blood and sending chills down his spine. In his fever, he thought he saw a young girl, her hair black as the Rio Negro, beckoning from the bank of the river then running away as he approached. He hated himself for leaving Gisela behind. But he was obsessed. He could not return to Rio de Janeiro without finding something in the jungle. He kept paddling. Beyond this bend, or the next, or the next, there might be an outcropping of emeralds, a radioactive deposit, a seepage of oil… anything, he told himself.

The canoe made its way up the river to a tangled maze of undergrowth where it narrowed and a path began. Benjamin tied up the boat, climbed on the slippery bark of a fallen tree and teetered to the end, where another fallen tree connected, and then another, a chain of trees leading into the jungle. In his fever, it looked like an Amazon highway.

An aquamarine, or was it the reflection of the sun flickered in the water? Parrots took off, chattering, and the jungle echoed with mocking laughter. He crept, then walked, then ran from tree to tree, following the reflection skimming in the water.

He broke into a clearing and halted. Was he hallucinating?

An immense aquamarine lay in the creepers. The odor of the shell necklace rose from the earth, a fragrance of crushed flowers and steamy humus. He knelt down in the moss to pick it up. A snake darted from the undergrowth. He felt a stabbing pain then the cool stone, like ice in his hands.
He awoke with a sharp burning sensation on his legs. He opened his eyes and saw a snake slither away through the grass. The stone was gone. His body felt like it was on fire. He lifted his head and found he was lying on a mound of earth, his knees buried in an anthill. Inch-long ants streamed from the mound and swarmed up his legs, their red bodies flaming. He tried to scream but ants leaped on his tongue, sinking pincers into the tender flesh. He rolled over, crushing dozens under his body, and climbed to his feet. Afire, he crashed through vines to the edge of the river and dove into the water, trying to extinguish the pain. But the water only made the bites blister. He crawled out and rolled on the bank, covering himself with mud.

He came to at dawn, his body swollen nearly twice its size.

His legs throbbed and his heart beat like a drum in his ears. He hallucinated that he was being hunted. The drumbeat approached and he crept into the leaves and started to run on all fours. He was a jaguar and a hunter and the dart from a blowgun entering his flesh.

The drumbeat subsided and a steady low clicking awakened him the second time. He was still burning but the fever had died down and he could stand on his feet. He followed the sound through the jungle, past the anthill to the river, where his canoe bobbed on its rope tether. He realized, with a shock, he had gone in a circle no more than 1,000 yards in diameter. The Geiger counter was making the clicking sound, loud and steady. Either there was a radioactive deposit in the vicinity, or the device had also been stricken with fever. He no longer cared, for the Amazon had reduced him to a savage struggling for life. He switched it off and the clicking continued, mocking him. It was cicadas.

It was easier to paddle downstream. The river carried him swiftly and surely, carving piles of driftwood, which vanished in the backwash. A strange peace fell over the jungle. The trees glowed under the setting sun, toucans skimmed the water, their reflections panning over the mirror-smooth surface. He leaned over the side and washed himself. His face, shimmering against the blue reflection of the sky, was gaunt and contrite and almost human. He dreamed of Rio, settling down in a bungalow on the beach in Ipanema, sitting on the front porch with Gisela, rocking the cradle.

She lay in a hammock, her face flickering like a mask in the firelight. He ran up the embankment and buried his face in her belly, and she winced and pulled his head up, running her fingers through his hair, tugging his beard.

He cupped her belly to his cheek and kissed the life growing inside. She winced again and pushed him away.

“Nao, meu amor. E tarde.” It’s too late.

“What do you mean?”

She pressed his head against her belly, flat as a deflated balloon.

“Perdi o anjinho.” I lost the little angel.

The return journey was silent — no motor, no words. Weakened by the miscarriage, Gisela lay in the bow of the boat; Benjamin paddled in the midsection, Ceara steered in the stern.

They passed the Indian village. The dock was empty, the huts abandoned; a famished dog howled at the water’s edge.

“What happened?” Benjamin asked the boatman.

“Nao sei. Talvez foi a praga do branco.” I don’t know. Maybe the white man’s plague.

The sun rose before them now, and black water flowed beneath the dugout as they were swept downstream by rains, or stilled by the noonday sun. The trees looked somber, the flowers grotesque; even the birds’ calls were despairing.

After a fortnight, they reached Manaus. The dome of the opera house glinted in the sun. But they found it rotting on its rubber pavement, surrounded by beggars and brothels. He paid the boatman and thanked him for taking care of his wife. Ceara smiled though his eyes held sadness. Gisela held out her hand and squeezed his and his eyes seemed to uncross. But it was the angle of the light reflecting off the river.

Benjamin put his arm gently around Gisela, guiding her to the hotel, but she stormed ahead into the bar and ordered a bottle of whiskey, the most expensive in the house. She guzzled it like water.

“Come on now. You’ve had enough.”

She looked up with dagger-point eyes, hiccoughed, and started to cry. Picking her up, he carried her to the room, laid her on the bed, and kneeled beside her. He pressed his head to her belly and shivered in the heat as cicadas screamed.

“We’re young,” he whispered, stroking her hair. “We can have another baby.”

 

Editors Write: Craving IV

Forum Magazine is proud to present to you our fourth installment of “Editors Write,” this time Forum’s Non-Fiction Editor and Visual Arts Co-Editor, the wonderful Elise Stewart.

This piece was inspired by the prompt “craving.”  Please take a look, and always feel free to post your own work in the comments section below, or send it to submissions@forumccsf.org, subject heading “Writing Prompt Wednesday.”  Thanks, and enjoy!

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“Craving and aversion are the source of your misery. Remain perfectly equanimous.”
I took a 10-day silent meditation course and hoped it would answer all my questions and solve all my woes.
“Scan the body,” asserted the teacher. “You may feel unpleasant, gross sensations; do not react with aversion. You may feel pleasant, subtle sensations; do not react with craving. You will only multiply your misery.”
One night I woke up tapping my knuckles against the wall in my dorm. I wondered if I’d woken anyone else up. I wanted to hug the girl in the dorm next to mine, who I had met right before we entered silence: “Le Chaim,” she said, as we walked up to the meditation hall for the first time. “Le Chaim,” I repeated back, realizing that Chaim now not only came at the end of the course, but book-ended it.
I wanted desperately to hug her when I woke up knocking on the wall. I wanted to hug my mom, and the guy who I had gone on two dates with before I left. I chided myself for craving these hugs. I developed an aversion to the craving. “Do not react. You will only multiply the misery. Do not react.”
I left the night before the end of the course. I told them I needed to be with my family, and that I could not be late. They said they would not allow it–that I was rebelling. I thanked them for the free food, and showed them my keys.
At the cemetery the next morning, I craved my uncle’s presence, and felt an aversion to his absence. Only, I welcomed this misery as a compliment to the joy that also existed within me, in remembering my time with him. “You are allowed to react,” I thought to myself, as they unveiled Chaim’s headstone.

An Interview with Angie Chau

Interviewed by Katerina Argyres

Angie Chau’s daring 2010 short story collection, Quiet As They Come, has been adopted for classroom curriculum at universities and high schools across the country–including at our own City College of San Francisco.

Finalist for both the Commonwealth Club Book of the Year and the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Book of the Year awards, Quiet As They Come explores the lives of Vietnamese immigrants as they struggle to adjust to life in San Francisco. Three families share a house brimming with secrets, dreams, and desires. Some thrive while others are destroyed by the false promise of the “American Dream”.

Chau, winner of the 2009 UC Davis Maurice Prize in Fiction, has been published in many distinguished literary magazines. Her work has earned her a Hedgebrook Residency, an Anderson Center Residency and a Macondo Foundation fellowship.

Chau was born in Vietnam and traveled throughout the world before settling in California. She earned a BA in Southeast Asian Culture and Political Economy from UC Berkeley and a Master’s degree in English with emphasis in Creative Writing from UC Davis.

How old were you when you left Vietnam? Where did your family move to?

I was three years old when we left and four by the time we arrived in San Francisco.

In many immigrant stories, most people are caught in between two cultures and trying to find harmony with both. What was your experience of leaving home and moving to another country? Or if you don’t remember, what was it like for your parents or the rest of your family?

Your question is beautifully put and it’s an eternal question. How does one find happiness, balance, harmony, and live life gracefully? I think it’s a question that every individual struggles with regardless of country or creed. Maybe this question comes to the forefront in immigrant stories because the differences in cultural norms and tastes can be so striking when a person is uprooted from one country and put into another. It sets up tensions that are accessible for good storytelling if done right. In practical terms though I whole heartedly confess to picking and choosing what I like best from each culture, whether Vietnamese or Western, and selectively integrating what I like.

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