Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


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Bringing fiction back to the college classroom

Thirteen years ago, I was fresh out of graduate school when I started teaching Composition in the community college. I had brought with me a list of reading materials made up mostly of fiction. I still feel the greatest lessons of my life have come from travel and from reading books with “staying power”, the kind that last decades and centuries, or risk lasting that long. The vast majority of those are works of fiction, the importance of writers like Sigmund Freud or Mary Wollstonecraft notwithstanding.

I started teaching books that had hooked me on literature at a young age, but I soon learned how unusual my enthusiasm was. Everyone knows the story: students don’t care about Huck Finn or Seymour Glass. They won’t spend time with Darl or Sethe, mostly because they don’t have the reading skills to follow As I Lay Dying or Beloved.  Sadly, a lot of students just can’t feel any empathy for “fake” characters living on the edge of sanity.

A mentor had warned me against using fiction. The departmental syllabus suggested readings in non-fiction, and I soon gathered that seasoned instructors had been using collected texts of only 800-1500 words. I ended up joining them, in a way, assigning collections of essays like Truman Capote’s Music for Chameleons and Sasha Hemon’s The Book of My Lives. Books like those allow for the kind of concentrated reading lesson possible with a single essay, but they also allow for practice in sustained reading, a skill so many students fail to develop in high school.

Still…there are things even brilliant works of nonfiction just won’t get to, effects they can’t have. The kind of empathy and imagination one uses to animate “real people” (such a farce) operating in a “true story” (such a lie) is quite different from what we employ when we read a work of fiction, especially one like The Brothers Karamazov, where characters might be speaking to devils, or they just might be talking to themselves. The “ultra-violence” in A Clockwork Orange allows us a space to imagine and negotiate—for as long as the book exists—an unfathomable future, while the brutality in a genius work of journalism, Kapuscinski’s Another Day of Life leaves us horrified over the sins of the past as we remember people we might have never learned about.

That difference is important and worth learning.

Even if we take the dolt’s point of view, that fiction is “lesser stuff” than the “trained and true” work of non-fiction, our view is dumber still if we eliminate an entire aesthetic from consideration. So in this New Year, I aim to bring fiction back to the Composition classroom, albeit carefully and with strategy.

While talking to friends in the publishing world, I came across a novel by Lavinia Ludlow, to be released in March, titled Single Stroke Seven. An excerpt, Lost Boy, can be read here at Atticus Review. I’ll be very excited to read it and consider it for the classroom. The reason I think it might be a good novel to use in a course like English 101 is because it critiques our attention deficit culture but does so from the POV of a young, talented and obviously dedicated musician.

This paragraph, in particular, strikes me:

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…I head to my studio where an eight-year-old boy whose mom uses me for cheap daycare tells me that I’m “a boring lady who sucks” because I’ve made him do nothing but hit quarter notes into a drum pad since he started taking lessons. Out of protest, he spends forty-five minutes kicking the wall in conjunction with his pad strikes, and every so often hurls his sticks toward the drums in the corner of the room.

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This is, frankly, how many teachers feel these days. And it’s also how students feel, kicking and screaming their way through education. So maybe it would resonate…

Another book I’m considering is Stephanie Kuehnert’s Ballads of Suburbia, which is about a pair of girls who grow up not far from where I currently live. I’ve also thought…fuck it…why not go completely nuts and pick something like W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, perhaps test my colleague’s theory that the best books make people loathe literature.

I’ve also thought about doing something rash to throw all care and strategy out the door, assign David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which I have not yet read, tell the students we’re going to read a long book together just to see what it’s like. That way, I’ll get paid for reading a book I want to read, will be able to set aside class time for the purpose, and the only benefit will come to those student who take away lessons no matter what’s on the syllabus. Now they’ll be able to claim, for the rest of their lives,that they finished Infinite Jest in a community college class, or pretended to…

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Image provided by Lavinia Ludlow.


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The novelist and his PTSD

This is a blog version of the story I told on December 14th at Is It a Thing, a monthly spoken-word series here in Chicago. I’m dedicating it to my good friend Kerri Smith Majors, who asked me to write it. Note: the post contains excerpts from The Fugue.

Here’s the question posed in this entry: What did editing a manuscript I had not looked at for more than a half-decade reveal about my PTSD?

I’ve already blogged about the 15 year path that led to the publication of The Fugue. The first words came in 2000. Once finished, I failed to sell the manuscript and put it away in 2006, later beginning work on a new project, what eventually became Finding the Moon in Sugar. I considered The Fugue a failure and stopped trying to get anyone interested.

A short time after I self-published Finding the Moon in Sugar (2009), I ended up diagnosed with PTSD. Its onset came after* I got caught in a convenience store robbery, which I blogged about in this entry titled Gunpoint. To summarize: I was certain the robbers were going to kill me that night, and I accepted my death while watching the robbery unfold, reflected in store windows.

I obviously survived, but not unscathed. Within a few days, I started having PTSD symptoms. My PTSD was (and sometimes still is) like a bad and incessant acid trip, complete with phantom sensations, memories of voices, unusual sounds, smells, flavors and inexplicable visions. The visions can be hallucinogenic and dreamlike or frighteningly realistic. I’ll write about them some day.

Doing something as simple as brushing my teeth or making a cup of coffee often brought on confusing sensory overload. My body experienced “phantom pains”, especially in my face and ribs, and my throat would constrict. I’d want to run and hide but could only sit somewhere and trip balls. I’d get lost in neighborhoods I’d known all my life, the street signs resembling electronic tickers, letters of all languages flying in them at unreadable speeds.

I soon figured out that the robbery had triggered childhood memories, which I wrote about, in part, in an essay titled Baptism Party, later republished by The Good Men Project under a different title. I’d learn soon enough that the effects of child abuse are not unlike the effects of war, at least in terms of what happens to the brain.

In order to heal, I had to make dramatic changes to my lifestyle. With guidance, therapy, a commitment to health, mindfulness and Zen practice, and the help of many loved ones, I eventually learned to manage my symptoms, even to neutralize or eliminate some altogether. Writing helped. So did telling my story in public.

***

In 2014, I was reading from Finding the Moon in Sugar in a bar. During that reading, I met Jason Pettus, the owner of The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. He asked if I could send him some material to review, and soon enough he offered to publish The Fugue.

I had last looked at the manuscript sometime around 2008. When Jason and I started editing, I was shocked by some of the things I found. The main character, Yuri Dilienko, grows up in a dysfunctional, abusive family, its members traumatized by war and other events. He also ends up in prison for over a decade, found guilty of arson and parricide.

Early in the narrative, a character suggests Yuri might have PTSD. Of course, I had completely forgotten this. Then my descriptions of PTSD “in the moment” left me thunderstruck.

In this excerpt, Yuri’s just been released from prison, has moved back to his hometown and is thinking of getting a job in a bar. The reason he hesitates showing his hands is because they’re dotted with scars suffered in childhood:

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He noticed a “Help Wanted” sign hanging behind the bar, so low that only people at the bar could read it. Maybe this was some kind of subtle joke, because people who sat at bars usually needed help. Yuri imagined working there. Most of the men were only drinking beer, and if they ever wanted something different, scotch and soda, Yuri was sure he could mix it.

“I’m sorry.” Yuri spoke to a bearded man. “Excuse me. I’m sorry.”

The man perked up. “What for?” He lit a cigarette.

“That sign there. Below. The Help Wanted.”

“The sign? Oh, for the job?” He rattled and stuttered: “Yeah, that’s…that’s for the job.” The man coughed into a loose fist. “Hey, Sonia!” She stepped over from the bar’s other end. “If you want the job,” he told Yuri, “Sonia’s gotta read your palms.”

All the other men now seemed interested.

“You wanna job?” asked Sonia. “Is por bartender. We have the day position.”

Yuri shrugged. “Daytime? You mean what? Noon?”

Sonia smiled at him. “I see your hands. Both hands.”

Yuri hesitated. The whole bar was watching him, some of the men grinning. He wanted to take his cane and tell the people he was very sorry, it was a big misunderstanding, because he had to go. While looking at their intense faces, pockmarked skin, lopsided mustaches, Yuri felt surrounded by the most violent men—grotesque and incapable of compassion, their eyes the color of mortar. His mind began racing, as it did often when he found himself confused or surprised. Strong, hard hands grabbed at him from all around and a shiver buzzed over his entire body, electric over his chest. He was powerless and could only give in, curl up, let the blows come, let them pass, then bury rage and fear deep in his center, deep into his pelvic bones and base of his spine.


                                                                         —

 In this next scene (slightly edited), Yuri is working in a butcher’s shop. It’s only days before the house fire that will take his parents’ lives:

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A powerful force in his center, like a glass sphere packed with the molten heat of a red sun, wanted to charge up his throat.

At the end of the workday, Reikel smiled to Yuri as he left, said, “See ya Monday.” On the way to the bus stop, Yuri threw up his lunch…popcorn, salami and apple juice. This was the third time he had thrown up, the onset of nausea unexpected, gone as soon as he had vomited, since he had shown Reikel his hands. Nobody ever saw Yuri vomit.

Cicero had become a ghost town surrounding him. Hundreds of sparrows were chattering in a small yellowing elm. Their bickering and chirping grew so loud and overwhelming that Yuri stood entranced until a woman exited a nearby car.

On 12th Street, he saw his bus lumber away without him, so he went to a diner to rinse his mouth in the bathroom and wipe his face and chin to be sure he was clean.

Once home, he couldn’t sculpt. Every idea and sketch seemed pointless and stupid. He was always hungry, although nothing tasted good and no drink quenched his thirst or whet his constantly dry mouth. The hardest place to be in all of Cicero was home. While he sat in his kitchen, it felt as though parts of him were gradually disappearing. Yuri felt extreme nervousness, a shifting fuzziness in his periphery, and that powerful glass sphere inside him.

Everything required hands. At Reikel’s, his hands seemed to do what he asked them, but at home they refused to obey. Everything required hands. Warming up a plate of leftover macaroni and cheese. Washing himself, his entire body…before he could wash his body he’d have to wash his hands. Flipping through the sketches on the table seemed such a chore. When Lars used his hands, music came so easily, like air through a wide open door. Yuri could tell that Lars never thought about borrowing hands or finding new ones, and he didn’t have nightmares that his hands were left wrapped up in aluminum foil at the bottom of a paper bag…

…Whenever he awoke, he had trouble knowing what day it was. He found busses running on the Saturday schedule. Weekends were the worst because he had so much time to sculpt but found plenty of excuses, shopping for things he didn’t need—paper clips and deodorant—always walking to the largest stores on 22nd with the biggest crowds. Among these people, nobody knew. Sometimes Yuri walked out on the yellow lines in the middle of 12th Street’s busiest traffic and felt completely invisible.

                                                                    —

These are only two scenes among many more that describe what it is like to have PTSD. The sudden nausea, throwing up, the nightmares. The feeling of disappearing, of being invisible, even in traffic. The daydreams of beatings, and the simultaneity of rage and confusion, the constriction of the throat. How could I have known it to this vivid detail?

My wife thinks I have always* had PTSD, or an anxiety disorder of some kind, that the robbery just cranked up the volume. I might agree with this theory if, prior to writing the novel, I had known how it felt to “crank up the volume”.

Composing the book, I had very little information about PTSD, had read a few articles, knew some stories about veterans’ issues. I never intended this book to be a portrait of a sufferer and don’t remember thinking very much about it. Perhaps the way I imagined PTSD might be influenced what form my PTSD took. PTSD is, at least in part, a condition of the imagination, a disorienting fusion of memories and fantasies, delusions and recollections, their tone depending at once on the nature of one’s fears and experiences.

I can’t answer how this happened, except to say that I found it fucked up, a mystery of the creative mind. Obviously, plenty of characters in The Fugue experience things I never did—all novelists imagine experiences they’ve never had; we depend on observations or overheard stories to narrate them. But this brand of premonition, if that’s the word, left me fascinated. It’s a layer in the book I could never have anticipated but now can’t deny.

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Best Christmas Gift: Taste Lithuania

I’ve never explored the foodie side of my personality here on Liquid Ink, but readers should know I love a good morsel and fancy myself a decent cook. You won’t get liver foam or liquified porcupine eyeball induced wildebeest spleen at my house. But you will certainly get something like homemade mushroom broth.

My sister-in-law and brother sent me a gift in the mail: Beata Nicholson’s Taste Lithuania. It’s a cook book of Lithuanian cuisine, a simplified and modernized version of a book like Didžioji Virėja, which attempted to be exhaustive (the tome has over 3,400 recipes), and had appeal only for those who speak Lithuanian.

I’ve yet to make a single of Nicholson’s suggested recipes—the book has been in my possession for only a few hours—and yet I feel my house is warmer for the book. I know many, perhaps most of the book’s dishes. Beata has included anecdotes and photos of real people from the Lithuanian countryside; the book feels one part family album, one part encyclopedia. A 500 word story of a Curonian fisherman’s daily routine, along with gorgeous photos of him coming out of a smokehouse with a  spit of smoked fish, is steeped at once in centuries-old lore and works as a piece of contemporary ethnography. The recipe for fish soup will yield, I know, exactly the kind of tasty and filling žuvienė I’ve eaten in small family-run cafes in Nida.

What struck me was how intimately the photos of herbs and cutting boards and flax cloths and stacked wood affected me. I won’t get into the ethereal nature of identity—you can read about that in The Fugue—or the mysteries of how we feel drawn to an aesthetic that belonged to forebears we never met, living in cottages we’ve never seen. It seems to me that the straightforward idea in this book—food is made from scratch, using ingredients available in nearby rivers and forests, vegetables grown right in your own garden, prepared to be healthy, simple and hearty, best enjoyed in the company of loved ones, savored over many hours of conversation—should be a universal value. That it isn’t leaves me exhaling a humid, befuddled sigh.

At any rate, I’m endlessly grateful for the gift, and I wanted to share with others who may not have heard of this book. The foodie in your life will adore it. Click here for the Amazon page.

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New Lithuanian film: Suokalbis, Anthology of the Plot

Longtime readers of Liquid Ink know how much I loved Suokalbis, the since defunct Vilnius dive, which in an essay that won’t go away, I called the greatest bar in the world.

Here’s an excerpt from Suokalbis, A Eulogy and Lament:

When an old man dressed in tan Soviet-era trousers gyrated in imitation of Freddie Mercury, and when his dance partner — a young woman who might have worked at the reception of an area hotel — swung her round hips to Fat Bottomed Girls, you knew what it was about. When you saw a scrawney trolley bus driver color his cheeks with lipstick borrowed from a tourist — one perfectly happy to hand her makeup over — and you watched the couple bounce around to Ra Ra Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine, you understood that Suokalbis had a purpose. The bar wasn’t merely a refuge for the city’s 86-list. It was a public space in Vilnius that experimented with the notion of absolute freedom. 

I’m far from the bar’s only fan.

Filmmaker Arturas Jevdokimovas contacted me a few months ago about the essay, asking if he could use some of the text in his new film, Anthology of the Plot. Obviously, I agreed. The website promoting the film, which will make its way around the festival circuit, is now out, and I encourage readers to visit.

Click here for Anthology of the Plot.

Click here for the full text of Suokalbis, A Eulogy and Lament.

Lietuviškas vertimas pasirodė Šiaurės Atėnuose, Suokalbis: pagyrimas ir apraudojimas. Spauskite.

A still from the film, provided by Arturas Jevdokimoas. This is a rainy Soviet-era Lithuanian funeral.

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Autographed copies available

This holiday season, are you interested in purchasing an autographed copy of The Fugue for that book lover in your life? Your desires are a click  of the mouse or a phone call from satisfaction. I just came back from signing a stack over at The Book Table, and they will gladly ship your order. If you act fast, they might be able to get it done for Christmas. Click here.

In the neighborhood? On your way to see Star Wars in downtown Oak Park? Take a walk down across the street. My novel’s right there at the Book Table’s front door, awakening all kinds of forces.

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In gratitude: a packed house, books sold

Last night readers and supporters came out in force to celebrate my book launch with me. I am humbled this morning. I’ve read at plenty of events, including dreaded “nobody showed up” readings. Last night drew a standing room crowd, and City Lit Books sold every available copy of The Fugue. Violinist Maria Storm (my wife) played her heart out, and we even had some kids (ours) jumping around in abandon.

All I can say is thank you. Thank you to City Lit, to CCLaP, especially to Jason Pettus, my editor and publisher. Thank you to Maria and our friend, Rita, who helped with the children. And thank you to all the members of the audience, some who drove from as far away as the South Side and Forest Park to attend a reading in a bookstore.

It was a beautiful night. I hope to do something similar again someday soon. You are all wonderful, amazing people.

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Photo: front window of City Lit Books.