Remarkable poetry debut depicts with insight and compassion the world of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded

  

The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded: Poems

By Molly McCully Brown

Persea Books: March 7, 2017

$15.95, 77 pages

 

In this time of national upheaval, people have searched for sources of solace and encouragement, whether it be friends, social media communities, foreign substances, or outright denial of reality. I have found it difficult to concentrate long enough to read many novels and, instead, have turned to poetry for the first time since I was an English major in college.

Novelist/writing teacher Beth Ann Fennelly mentioned on her Facebook page an upcoming poetry debut by Molly McCully Brown, one of her students in the MFA program at the University of Mississippi (where she is the John and Renee Grisham Fellow). Fennelly’s description piqued my interest, so I pre-ordered it on the spot (probably the first time I’ve done that with a book of poetry).

Brown, who is in her mid-20s, has written a haunting and beautiful collection of poems that combine to create a narrative of life in the institution of the title in 1935-36. Brown grew up near the colony and was familiar with its history, particularly in light of her own struggles with cerebral palsy. When she went away to college at Stanford, she began to research the VSCEF and to write poems that gave the patients a voice.

In her poems, Brown inhabits a range of patients, who suffer from various physical and developmental conditions. The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, divided into seven sections corresponding to locations on the colony grounds, depicts a world that was hidden during its more than half-century of existence and for years after. It is a place from which most patients never departed, their worlds narrowly circumscribed by their physical or mental limitations. But, as Brown demonstrates through her remarkable act of literary compassion, their emotional lives were not nearly as stunted.

The most disturbing aspect of the colony’s work – and some of the poems here – is the belief in eugenics that led to the sterilization of many patients, either against their will or without their comprehension.

The effect of reading these 37 poems is to feel as if you have read a densely rendered novel, which is a testament both to Brown’s insight and the masterful compression of ideas and images contained in her poems. The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded is such a mature, confident debut that it feels as if it has always been here, a classic widely shared and taught in every literature class. I am certain I will never forget this book and the people who live and die in its pages.

***

“Where You Are (I)”

Here, every season is too much of itself.

The winter comes through the break

in the windowpane and grows colder.

The snow bears on the dogwood branches

until they clatter to the ground

like felled bodies.

 

The summer is all sweat

and evening thunderstorms

that bring no water.

The heat warps everything wooden:

makes small mountains in the floorboards,

keeps the drawers from closing.

 

The doors are locked.

 

This is where the longest hours pass,

all these rows of narrow bunks, low lights.

One girl after another laughs,

lifts her hair from her neck,

moans in her sleep,

reaches out and brushes

someone else’s shoulder.

***

“Labor”

If you have the body for it, you’re bound for the fields

to pick strawberries and coax the milk from the cows,

or hired out to make baking powder biscuits and gravey,

to sweep floors and wash and fold a stranger’s clothes.

You come back on a truck after sunset, raw and ragged, covered

in flour, tobacco, or clay. You come back bone-tired and bruised,

burned dead out and ready to be shut away. You sleep.

 

I know all this from stories; I do not have the body for it.

I do not go to the fields, or the barns, or the parlors of other folks’ houses.

I wake at sunrise when they wake the rest, lie in bed

til somebody hauls me out and puts me by the window. Lord, I know

to want to work’s a foolish thing to those who’ve got a body built for working.

 

I was as close to born here as you can get, brought twisted and mewling

to the gates and left. Since then, I am one long echo of somebody else’s life.

Every understanding that I have is scrap, is shard, is secondhand.

 

Distance: the space between the porch railing

and the rise of the blue ridge.

 

Water: what comes from a bucket to my body on Sundays;

what I open my mouth for, morning and night.

 

Sex: The days the girls come back smelling of whiskey,

snuff, and sweat, and something sharp.

***

“The Convulsions Choir”

They did not build

the church

for us.

 

I overheard one night nurse

talking to another.

They meant it for the staff

 

as a refuge

from the stench,

the idiot, & the insane.

 

They meant: you will need God

more than ever

in this place.

 

After all,

we are a whole host of reasons

to stop believing in anything.

 

I am the worst thing

the reasoned world

has wrought,

 

an otherwise lovely girl

daily visited by radical disorder

they say spawns somewhere

quiet & foaming

in the wounded matter

of my body & my brain.

….

***

“The Cleaving”

At first,

all hands become

suddenly gentle.

 

More people touch you

in a single day than have touched you

in all the hours of the last, dry year.

 

The doctors tell you all the things

you know about yourself

as if it’s news.

 

“You are unwell.

You are in pain.

Something is wrong.”

 

You think that whatever is happening

after all this time is a solution

being born.

 

I will remember this day as the day

                                                            I came back to my body.

                                                            This time, I will anchor myself

 

                                                            to my bones more firmly.

                                                            You pull a boat far off the water

                                                            when you know it will storm.

 ….

THE FRANGIPANI HOTEL’s haunting tales of Vietnam announce the arrival of a remarkable young writer

This is a re-post of a review from February 17, 2015, the publication date of the softcover edition.

Frangipani Hotel  Violet Kupersmith

The Frangipani Hotel

By Violet Kupersmith

Spiegel & Grau (paperback): Feb. 17, 2015

$15.00, 240 pages

Vietnam. Most Americans of a certain age are still haunted by the Vietnam War all these years after the war that nearly split the country in two. The Vietnamese are undoubtedly confronted with the ghosts of the Vietnam War as well, 40 years after the U.S. military left Saigon. A third group is also dealing with that conflict, even though they were not even alive at the time: the children of the Vietnamese refugees who emigrated to the U.S. after the war.

Violet Kupersmith is the daughter of a boat refugee from Da Nang and an American father, who met in Houston, where many Vietnamese were resettled in the 1970s. Her bicultural upbringing eventually led Kupersmith, while a student at Mount Holyoke College, to begin writing stories about the experiences of her mother and grandmother, and the folk tales the latter told her.

The premise of Kupersmith’s debut story collection is that a Vietnamese-American high school student has asked her grandmother from the Old Country to help her with a class project by telling her about her experiences as one of the “boat people.” The grandmother is at first reluctant to revisit this physical and emotional territory, but when she is eventually persuaded to share her stories, she tells a series of what can best be described as Vietnamese ghost stories.

In The Frangipani Hotel, Kupersmith has managed the impressive feat of seamlessly blending these timeless Vietnamese folk tales with a contemporary approach to storytelling. The result is eight stories that seem both ancient and modern simultaneously.

Although the stories are always intriguing, the collection’s strengths are its mood and voice. Kupersmith manages to maintain a sense of mystery and foreboding throughout the book’s 240 pages, holding the reader’s interest with stories that explore the parallel worlds of the real and the supernatural, and the frequent occasions on which they intersect. Whether set in the streets of Saigon and Hanoi — crowded with a cacophony of people, scents, and sounds — or the fecund Vietnamese countryside, these stories are sticky with the oppressive heat and humidity of Southeast Asia. But Kupersmith’s greatest gift is her facility with the voices of all these characters, young and old, Vietnamese and American, as they tell their stories within her stories.

The opening title story is set in a faded early 20th century hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. It is narrated by the young front desk clerk, Phi, whose Uncle Hung owns the hotel (and has recently taken to calling himself “Mr. Henry”).

“The Frangi itself is a seven-story deathtrap, with four-footed things scurrying around inside the walls and tap water that runs brownish. If you slammed a door too hard the entire thing would collapse.”

A blustery American businessman intent on seeing the real Hanoi checks in and slowly befriends Phi, who speaks enough English to serve as his interpreter. Phi then encounters a beautiful and mysterious woman staying in one of the rooms, although she cannot be found on the guest register and no one else seems to know she is there. When the American and the apparitional woman meet, the American’s desire to know Vietnam takes an unexpected — and yet somehow fateful — turn as the past claims its hold on the present.

“Skin and Bones” tells of two adolescent sisters in Houston who are sent by their frustrated mother to spend part of the summer with their grandmother in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Thuy has become one of those all-too-common overweight American girls, and her older sister, Kieu, is sent along to keep an eye on her. When Grandma Tran fails to show up at the airport to pick them up, they’re not overly concerned, and they find their way to her house. Grandma is unusually distant and quiet, so the girls, resolutely American and utterly bored, find ways to entertain themselves.

Thuy sets off to explore the neighborhood and finds herself drawn by an irresistible scent of cooking food. The source is a run-down stall on wheels selling Banh mi, “the Vietnamese sandwich [that] was one of the more positive souvenirs of the French colonial era.” The proprietress is an old woman whose face is hidden beneath a large conical straw hat and who speaks softly accented English.

Over the next few days they develop a friendship of sorts, although the woman’s side of their conversations is often cryptic. She is particularly interested in Thuy and her mother and whether they identify as Vietnamese or American, at one point saying, “She is far away, isn’t she? In another world, you could say. And there are many, many worlds within this one. Worlds alongside each other, worlds that overlap each other; you might not even know if you wandered into one that wasn’t your own.” You should be hearing the theme to The Twilight Zone about now.

In “Little Brother” a loquacious long-haul truck driver tells the riveting story of the strangest trip he ever made. While making a delivery at a hospital in Saigon, he is persuaded by an alluring nurse to take a dying patient, Minh, with him on his return trip south so the man can die back home in his village. He is advised that it would be best if he didn’t speak to Minh on the long drive. Needless to say, the irrepressible driver is unable to bear the quiet – or his nearly catatonic passenger — for long. When he asks what the hospital was like, Minh lifts his head and replies, “Filthy. Vile. Foul. There were no healthy people to talk to and I was always hungry.”

Minh then persuades the driver to share his life story, since he has undoubtedly seen so much in his twenty years on the road. As darkness descends and they drive through a seemingly endless stretch of desolate countryside, one of Vietnam’s “many worlds” makes its presence known, just as the elderly vendor in “Skin and Bones” explained to young Thuy. There are ghosts of all kinds in Vietnam, from ancient times, the French colonial era, and the war, and all seem restless.

“Guests” concerns twenty-something Americans working in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), in a reversal of the “land of opportunity” theme. Mia works in the immigrations department of the U.S. Consulate and dislikes Vietnam, to which she has been able to adapt. Her boyfriend, Charlie, teaches English at the Australian International University and has adapted exceptionally well; he had a Vietnamese girlfriend prior to meeting Mia. While Charlie and many Americans like him explore the many sides of Vietnam and take advantage of the uninhibited and inexpensive night life, Mia becomes increasingly preoccupied, both with a feral cat that keeps climbing up to her apartment window, crying and scratching the window frame, and a young Vietnamese man named Tuan, who is enamored with her. Their attitudes and actions take them in opposite directions, with Mia finding that part of Vietnam will always be with her, for one cannot leave even the new Vietnam without being deeply affected.

In “Turning Back,” a young Vietnamese-American woman from Houston who works the night shift in a small Asian market meets a very strange old man with a story that will take her places she never imagined existed. And once again, the spirit of Vietnam is shown to be a shape-shifter with seemingly unlimited powers.

The closing story, “Descending Dragon,” is a short but pithy observation on the power of immigrant grandmothers to maintain and wield their power to great effect even when it appears to others to be long gone.

2014 was a banner year for short story collections, including debuts. Of particular note were Phil Klay’s Redeployment, which won the National Book Award, and Molly Antopol’s The UnAmericans, which was nominated for an NBA. Violet Kupersmith’sThe Frangipani Hotel is a powerful and persuasive opening statement from a young writer we are certain to hear much more from; the only question is whether she will be able to move beyond her personal connection to Vietnam and the Vietnamese-American immigrant culture to wider concerns. I’m willing to bet she will manage that transition.

THE UNAMERICANS: Molly Antopol’s debut collection is my choice for the National Book Award

The UnAmericans   Molly Antopol 1

The UnAmericans

By Molly Antopol

W.W. Norton: Feb. 4, 2014

272 pages, $24.95

In recognition of Molly Antopol being named to the longlist for the National Book Award for Fiction, I am re-running my review of The UnAmericans, originally posted on Feb. 8, 2014. 

It has become increasingly common for reviewers and lovers of short stories to compare an exceptional story writer’s work to that of Alice Munro, the short story master who won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature (just as Munro was often compared to Chekhov). Often the comparison is unwarranted, either because of differences in style or subject matter or, frankly, because few writers are in Munro’s class.

But if any writer’s work justifies comparisons to Munro, it is Molly Antopol, whose debut collection, The UnAmericans, was published on February 4 by Norton. Each of the eight stories is a powerful, novelistic work that manages to encompass a character’s entire life through the use of representative experiences and telling details — as is the case with Munro’s work. Though the stories vary widely in terms of characters and settings, they share the ability to pull the reader in like a riptide and carry you away before you realize it. As I read The UnAmericans, it soon became clear why Antopol was selected by the National Book Foundation as a “5 Under 35 Author” last November (along with well-regarded young writers Amanda Coplin and NoViolet Bulawayo, among others).

The title of the book refers to the fact that the characters in Antopol’s stories are Communists from the first half of the 20th century, dissidents from Russia or Eastern Europe, or non-Americans like the Israeli characters in “A Difficult Phase” and the heartbreaking closing story, “Retrospective.” More broadly, it refers to people who are, in fact, Americans, but are viewed as “un-American” in their beliefs, behavior, or sub-culture by the mainstream culture.

Her stories display an impressive insight into the psyches of the various damaged characters, all of whom are trying to find their place in their own family, culture, or time. The stories take place against a backdrop of significant events, whether World War II, the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, or the tectonic social and economic shifts in the former Communist bloc countries.

Each story pulled me in almost immediately and held me in thrall to the last word. I was intrigued by the characters, settings, and conflicts and wanted to know how these people would find their way to some kind of contentment. Her narrative control never faltered; despite this being her first collection of stories, I felt I was in the hands of a master. I am particularly allergic to clunky sentences, cliched imagery, and wooden dialogue. I did not find a single example of any of these common writing afflictions. These rare traits are what reminded me of the stories of Alice Munro: complete control, flawless writing, and realistic characters fighting for their emotional or psychological lives.

In “The Old World,” divorced dry cleaner Howard Siegel falls for a slightly younger and very voluptuous Ukrainian immigrant named Sveta, to the consternation of his daughter and her husband, who have recently become Orthodox Jews. Sveta is, in part, impressed by the fact that Howard’s “people” also came from Kiev. “Our people?” he thinks. “My people were from Ditmas Avenue. My people had left Ukraine before the Cossacks could impregnate their wives.” His relationship with Sveta leads them back to Kiev, where events take a surprising turn. But Howard discovers something he wasn’t expecting or even interested in, and a glimmer of hope prevails.

Another of my favorites, “Minor Heroics,” concerns two Israeli brothers who live with their mother on a moshav, a cooperative agricultural community similar to a kibbutz. The older brother, Asaaf, has just been discharged from the Israel Defense Forces after being stationed in Hebron. The younger brother, Oren, is a driver in the IDF, which he admits is “perhaps the least essential job in the Israel Defense Forces.” An accident on the farm changes the lives of the family and Asaaf’s relationship with his girlfriend, Yael. Oren has always played second fiddle to the charismatic Asaaf, but the accident shifts the ground beneath their feet, and the story depicts the characters’ efforts to find solid ground again. As in “The Old World” and life in general, things do not turn out quite as anyone had planned. Antopol’s sympathetic understanding of these two very different young men and their sibling rivalry produces a narrative tension in which we hope things will turn out well, yet fear (and suspect) they will not.

“The Quietest Man” tells of a father who is preoccupied by his daughter’s sale of her play, which he believes portrays him in an unflattering light. How can he persuade her to rewrite the character? Is he just paranoid? Neurotic? Antopol uses this fraught circumstance to examine the father-daughter relationship, in which both operate under misconceptions about the other’s character. Again, the protagonist discovers that all is not as it seems; life and the people in it are not so predictable after all. How often we fail to understand even those to whom we are closest.

“Duck and Cover,” set during the years of the Eisenhower administration, follows the coming of age of a young girl who has grown up in a family of Communist Party members in Los Angeles. Her father is an active member and all their family friends are members of “the Party.” This milieu is simply the air she breathes, and she has never questioned it — until now.

“And then the question that’s been knocking around inside me for years comes tumbling out: ‘Do you ever think it isn’t worth it?’

“‘What?’

“We’ve been talking so openly, but suddenly even saying the question feels too risky, as if someone might really be listening. ‘You know,’ I say. ‘Have you ever thought, for just a second, of giving all this up and being — like everybody else?’

“‘We are like everybody else,’ my father says quickly. ‘Everyone who matters.’”

“For a moment he doesn’t say anything. ‘You have to understand,’ he says. ‘The Party was our life, your mother’s and mine. And after she died, the idea of getting out of bed and making coffee and going on with my day seemed … impossible. But everyone, they stepped in. The Party women caring for you, Lou and Alan coming by every single day, taking you to school, to the park on weekends. Everybody, all of them, they helped you with your homework, they taught you to read. I couldn’t do any of that myself.’ He takes a slow sip of beer. ‘You can’t question the Party,’ he says. ‘The moment you do — you fall apart.’”

“… All at once I feel his pain, his life, lean against my heart.”

“A Difficult Phase” follows a young Israeli journalist, Talia, who is looking for work after having returned from a job in Kiev, but instead finds herself in a relationship with an older widower with a sullen teenage daughter. On their first date, Tomer opens up too soon and with too much intensity, revealing, among other things, that he is in therapy and that his daughter, Gali, was going through a “‘very understandably difficult phase.’”

“She realized she was enjoying herself. That she hadn’t, if she was going to be completely honest, had such a good time in months. Getting Tomer to sidestep the terrible first-date small talk and move straight to the core of things was making Talia feel, for the first time since she’d lost her job, like a journalist.”

“‘I’m sorry,’ Tomer said, reaching for the check. ‘You’re the first person I’ve been to dinner with and I probably shouldn’t be let out of the house.’”

“And though Talia knew he was right, and though she knew there probably wasn’t a man less ready to date in all of Tel Aviv, possibly the entire Middle East, somehow that was making him all the more appealing.”

This is what I love about Antopol’s writing: her characters are real people, experiencing life the way it actually happens, full of unexpected turns in the road that take you places you never thought of going, but at which you find yourself glad to have arrived. Gali is not the only character going through “a difficult phase.” So are Talia and Tomer, so are we all, and the phase may be one’s entire life, which is often difficult.

I was so impressed by The UnAmericans that I read it twice, something I almost never do. I have no doubt it will be at the top of my list of the Best Books of 2014 in December. If you like short stories at all, I exhort you to read this book. Molly Antopol may be new to you and me, but she worked on these stories for 10 years while completing her MFA at Columbia University, serving as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, and teaching creative writing in Stanford’s English department. In her first collection, she is already a writer to be reckoned with.