The New Historical
The thing about releasing an issue during a pandemic, a body of work that was chosen and written well before COVID-19 was visible to most of us on the horizon, is that suddenly what was normal seems very strange. “Fiction,” wherein a character might stand within six feet of a relative stranger, now seems like “Historical Fiction.” After proofing this issue, comics editor Chris Gavaler wrote (there is no talking, there is only writing, or Zooming, or telepathically begging for connection) to say that the short stories read like a surreal list of things NOT TO DO while struggling to maintain social-distancing protocols:
- Let your daughter share her Thomas the Train toy with other kids on the playground.
- Hand a fellow parent a baby wipe.
- Take a crowded group tour of a possibly haunted private school.
- Allow a stranger into your cave.
- Allow a doctor to prick the tips of your fingers to test whether you are properly inhabiting your body.
- Allow the doctor to lower his weeping head to your lap.
- Sit side-by-side in a circle of gay Christians attempting to convert to heterosexuality.
- Move into a stranger’s house.
- Hand out mittens.
- Go mattress shopping.
- Have your mother’s name tattooed in green on your forearm.
- Travel to Paris or really anywhere but the grocery store.
- Buy a Barbie-sized plastic water bottle shaped like the Virgin Mary from a shop owner not wearing a mask.
Poetry editor Lesley Wheeler had a similar reaction as she proofread: The Pirate Anne Bonny should not be “licking salt / from the freckled ears of wrecked boys.” Natasha Sajé can’t head to a bar anymore, even if the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock is thirsty, and Brandon Thurman has probably stopped driving to work “to help the boy / suspended from school for writing everybody dies / on the classroom calendar.”
But, she notes, there’s prescience here too. Grace Arenas, there is “justification for the quantity of frozen / cauliflower rice in your fridge.” Martha Silano wrote long before lockdown: “Lucky I stopped going out / don’t answer the door / not even for UPS.” Via translation by Paula Bohince, Corrado Govoni gave us an abandoned manor and “a poet / who lives in forced solitude.” Rodney Gomez passed on warnings of apocalypse in “Animals”—“he thinks another biblical deluge is coming / and warns me to make peace / with the country I despise.” “Poetry often comes from and represents solitude and loss,” Lesley wrote. “Maybe that’s why these poems feel like letters from the edge of something terrible? In any case, it’s hard not to shiver reading Thurman’s caution: ‘Too soon now / you’ll have to take off that mask / & breathe this impossible air.’”
Many writers in this issue are reckoning with race in America, with rage and inequality and injustice and the feeling of not belonging. This is both historical and prescient—it extends in all directions. The protesters in the streets calling for action over the death of George Floyd—and the death of countless other Black Americans these hundreds of years—you’ll find their justifiable anger here.
Max King Cap writes, “I was a good boy, so I put my rage in my pocket. It wouldn’t stay there for long.”
stephanie roberts asks white poets to consider the harm they do by writing about experiences that aren’t their own: “from the noose of the poem / the dead woman points off page.”
Jaswinder Bolina writes, “I didn’t realize then, after these and so many other incidents I won’t bother to recount, how invisible I attempted to become. Still, the TSA sees me. The neighborhood watch sees me. The police see me.”
From Rodney Gomez: “The voice / staked into the ground / begs to be finally let out.”
In his story “Flame Trees,” Dutch writer Vamba Sherif, making his American debut, writes, “As I listened to him, I got the feeling that he needed me, that he needed someone to listen to his story.”
We hope you’ll listen to these calls for compassion and change. We hope you’ll share and lift up these voices so that their cries for justice and understanding begin to feel less prophetic. Just imagine if the destruction of Black bodies in America was the new historical fiction.