Sweaty with Effort: an interview with Rachel Swearingen, author of “How to Walk on Water”

Rachel Swearingen’s debut story collection, How to Walk on Water, is simply fantastic. Cover-to-cover, it’s one of the best story collections I’ve read in a long time. The stories are delicately nuanced, perfectly crafted, and the characters we meet are some of the most memorable I’ve met in fiction. It’s been well over a month since I’ve read the book, but I can still feel Ona’s frustration and lonliness, Arthur’s confusion, and Nolan’s desperation to find the truth.

I had the good fortune of asking Rachel a few questions about the joys and challenges of writing short stories. We talk about building characters, narrative pacing, favorite books, and obviously we had to talk about dive bars and martinis.

Keith Lesmeister: If we think about plot in the way John Gardner described it—character on a journey or stranger comes to town—I’d suggest many of your stories involve the latter, but not always in a straightforward way. For instance, in the opening story “Felina” we see the title character as both a “stranger” but also part of the protagonist’s “journey.” Similarly, the next story in the book, “Notes to a Shadowy Man,” holds an element of a journey for the main character (as she’s away from home to begin with), but the character’s change doesn’t occur completely until we meet a man three quarters the way through. I guess what I’m suggesting here is that your stories don’t immediately fall into an either/or camp in terms of plot arrangement. They often times contain elements of both, and I think that’s in part because the characters you write are so lively and full of uniqueness and each is competing so drastically for his/her own time on the page that when they do finally get there and have their moment, it’s often quite memorable. Could you discuss how you plotted your stories? Or perhaps talk about how you view plot in general?

Rachel Swearingen: It’s interesting to think of my stories in this way. The longer I write the more curious I become about why we tend to rely on such classic story types and shapes. Even the most experimental fiction often goes back to these archetypal stories. I don’t know about you, but I never grow tired of narratives in which strangers appear, and no matter how hard I try to write different protagonists, most of them end up as seekers of some kind.

But you asked about plot. One of the more practical reasons I bring strangers into my narratives is because they inject energy and newness into a story, which means that plot might take care of itself. When you have protagonists who are too into themselves and too passive, you need to find ways to get them moving, and to externalize their yearnings. Plotting a story didn’t come naturally to me at first. I had to study it, and my thoughts on plot continue to change. I’ve come to think of plot more simply as change—in energy, pacing, character, atmosphere and in the prose itself. I’m not as wedded to traditional plot these days, although I find it’s now hard for me to break from it. Linear plot, especially, doesn’t make as much sense in light of the way we experience time and history and memory now.

KL: I’m aware that the first question slipped from plot to character development, which go hand-in-hand of course, but what I’m interested in here is how your secondary characters were often times rendered as perfectly as the protagonist. I’m thinking specifically of Mitz whose larger-than-life personality earned her a title spot, and yet she’s not the point-of-view character of the story. How do you manage these magnificent secondary characters and not allow them to take over the story completely?

RS: Thank you for this, Keith. You do this too to great effect in your own stories. I think the short answer is through training and practice, and especially through reading. Characters often reveal themselves through how they view other characters. There are so many examples of this in American fiction. Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway is at one extreme. We don’t even realize how little we’ve learned about him until he is finished telling the story of Jay Gatsby. Henry James does this as well in much of his work. There is this sense of the narrator’s unlived love in so many of his stories. And I think this can be a danger too, in that focusing too much on colorful characters can allow us to lose sight entirely of the protagonist. But then again, that battle for prominence can be exciting too. Louise Erdrich’s “Saint Marie” is a perfect example of this. I love that story, and I still get chills thinking about Sister Leopolda and her battle with Marie. There are so many great payoffs to giving more attention to secondary characters, including that we begin to think more about the person who is judging the secondary character. I love it when protagonists slowly become more unreliable. In Mitz’s Theory, we never get Mitz’s perspective. Ona has turned Mitz into a figure that will continue to haunt her, but we never find out how much of an effect Ona ever had on Mitz, or how Mitz would tell the story.

KL: Perhaps as a follow up, could you discuss how you go about building complex and meaningful characters?

RS: I would love to hear your answer for this, Keith. I could say that it’s all craft, that I build my characters draft by draft, and make sure I don’t protect them too much and that I test them, but I think that’s only partially true. I have had to abandon stories because I couldn’t make the characters live. There’s some sort of magical chemistry that makes characters come alive, and for every story the formula is a little different. For me, it’s often atmosphere and place and voice. I can feel when I’ve caught a spark, but even that isn’t completely trustworthy. There have been times when a story has taken hold of me, and I revisit it only to find that something isn’t quite working. The story doesn’t breathe. It seems to me that with all art there is something at work that cannot be fully controlled or planned, and that’s one of the things that keeps me writing.

KL: Your work, for me, conjures the word “atmospheric” – that there’s something happening between the characters and the environment in which the story takes place that feels unsettling or perhaps off-kilter. This notion of atmosphere is different than mood or tone. I mean, Mary Miller, in one sentence can really set a mood. Atmosphere on the other hand requires an accumulation of illuminating detail over the course of the story. For instance, in the story linked here, “Advice for the Haunted,” there’s this great list of what the deceased former owner of an apartment left behind after she passed: “We found a half-used bottle of anti-anxiety pills in the medicine cabinet, a glass accordion in a folded tablecloth, a baggie of foreign coins in a boot at the back of a closet. In a rickety piano bench, we discovered faded Polaroids of two girls at what looked like a family picnic.” And the details continue to emerge and build off one another and this build-up helps create this atmosphere of what can be described affectionately as strange and unsettling. It’s also what really lingers (at least in this reader’s mind) long after finishing the story. How do you do this?? I’m not sure if there’s an actual question here, but perhaps you could comment as you see fit.

RS: I like how you separate mood from atmosphere, and I want to spend some time thinking about this. I’ve had to work on pulling back on details in stories. It can be too much for contemporary readers. It’s a delicate balance for a short story because the more details you include the less room you have to do other things. On the other hand, atmospheric details can build a secondary story that competes with the primary one and creates some wonderful tension. Shirley Jackson does this wonderfully in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Filmmakers use this to great effect. Like most elements of fiction, however, there’s a slippery quality to images and details. I’m thinking about this more these days, especially now that we’re experiencing an explosion of more nefarious uses of visual storytelling in disinformation and propaganda.

KL: Your stories don’t shy away from the most difficult of issues related to: family, violent crime, loss, mental health, existential crises. Do these issues emerge naturally, while writing, or are they part of an initial conceptual impetus for the story? I’m interested in “idea”-centric fiction versus say character-driven, but your stories manage to do both. Take Mitz for example. We see a host of mental health issues (among others), but the narrative never loses sight of its characters, meaning there’s never a direct address of the mental health itself. It’s always addressed within the context of the characters’ actions or dialogue. How do you manage that balance between ideas/issues and characters/plot?

RS: For me, everything comes out of the story and the characters. I’ve never been able to begin a story with a theme or idea, although I do get inspired by news reports and ideas that come up in other art forms. “The Only Thing Missing Was the Howling of Wolves,” for example, was inspired by a radio story about people secretly baptizing the children in their extended families.) While I was writing this collection I realized that my characters were often working through generational or cultural or personal trauma and grief, but I didn’t set out to write about these things. If anything I tried to avoid these subjects, but questions kept surfacing. So, I guess it’s not ideas, but questions that trigger stories. For “Mitz’s Theory,” it was how do we separate our narratives from the narratives of those we love, and how much responsibility do we bare when the people we love are in trouble?

KL: And for as quirky and heartbreaking as these stories are, there’s a sense of patience and calm that radiates from each. Meaning: it feels like you’ve spent many months/years with these stories and they have benefitted from a cohesiveness that only comes from hours spent revising. I don’t want to sound overly fanboyish here, but there wasn’t a single false note in the entire book—everything felt as if it belonged, as if each of the words and sentences have been barrel-aged (probably some really good bourbon barrel) to form a perfect melding of characters and scenes. Perhaps you could discuss the amount of time you spent with these stories.

RS: Thank you so much, Keith. These stories did take time for me, probably because I don’t always know what my stories are about until I’ve set them aside to get some distance. It’s funny, a reader once said that my stories are “sweaty with effort.” I felt so seen when I read that and embarrassed–until I realized that this criticism comes from the, mistaken in my view, idea that good writers just sit down and in a burst of inspiration write perfect stories that appear effortless. That myth of effortless perfection has robbed so many artists of good work. I’ve yet to meet an author who doesn’t have to sweat out their stories, and then do it all over again. Sometimes you are gifted a story that comes easily, but most of the time writing is like finding your way through a dark forest.

KL: How did you decide on the order of the stories? What were you conscious of as you placed them opening to closing?

RS: Most readers jump around in collections, and so I tried not to overthink this. That said, I did decide to use “Felina” and “Advice for the Haunted” as bookends because they are in conversation with each other in some ways. Both take place in city apartments between lovers. I start with “Felina,” which is probably the strangest story, so that readers will know what they are getting into and won’t be surprised by the oddness of some of the stories that follow. It’s the earliest written piece in the book, and it’s also more contained and interior than some of the later pieces. “Advice,” on the other hand, opens up to the outer world” by the end.

KL: As a short story writer, I imagine you read quite a few short stories and short story collections. Could you recommend any? Perhaps the best you’ve read in the past year? Or other reading recommendations?

RS: Yes, although I didn’t read as many collections this year as I would have liked. John McNally’s The Fear of Everything is fantastic, and if you’re looking for atmospheric, spooky and humorous/heartbreaking stories, this is your book. Check out his story, “The Phone Call,” which is spectacularly creepy and would make a great piece for an undergraduate fiction course. Donna Miscolta’s Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories follows the awkward and smart Angie Rubio, as she moves from kindergarten through high school, with one story for each year. It’s deceptively simple in form, and compulsively readable. Jen Fawkes’s Mannequin & Wife is a cornucopia of extremely imaginative, genre-bending stories. And Caitlin Horrocks’ Life Among the Terranauts, which I just read in December, is also super imaginative. It’s eerily suited for the times, as it opens with a story about an entire town going into hibernation and ends with a story about a group of scientists isolating themselves inside a geodome. 

KL: Last series of questions, rapid fire, on preference.

RS: Disclaimer: If you were to ask me these same questions tomorrow, I’d probably change my answers.

KL: Techno or Jazz?

RS: Jazz.

KL: The Cranberries or Mazzy Star?

RS: Mazzy Star.

KL: Dive bars or Martini bars?

RS: Dive bars, but I still might order a dirty martini to get the olives.

KL: Ceramic wine cups or wine glasses?

RS: Wine glasses.

KL: Thursday or Friday?

RS: Are they different now?

KL: Do you call it a cemetery or graveyard (or boneyard)?

RS: Graveyard.

KL: Holiday dinner: turkey or ham?

RS: Turkey. (These days, preferably alive and in a field with no hunters in sight.)

KL: Deciduous or coniferous woodland?  

RS: Coniferous.

Rachel Swearingen is the author of How to Walk on Water and Other Stories, winner of the 2018 New American Press Fiction Prize (October 1, 2020). Her stories and essays have appeared in VICE, The Missouri Review, Kenyon Review, Off Assignment, Agni, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2015 Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Fiction, a 2012 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, and the 2011 Mississippi Review Prize in Fiction. In 2019, she was named one of 30 Writers to Watch by the Guild Literary Complex. She holds a BA from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and a PhD from Western Michigan University, and teaches at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.

Review of “Everything Eats Everything” by Gabrielle Griffis, published in Split Lip

A delicately woven portrait about the people we love, the cycle of life, the interconnectedness of all things, and the mystery and mysteriousness that stitches it all together.

And how does one go about addressing such gigantic concerns and ideas in such a brief space? Griffis does so elegantly by juxtaposing large questions and ideas with microscopic, seemingly insignificant observations:

“[Grandma] says, ‘Do you ever wonder why everything just works in your life? Some people, everything in their life doesn’t work. It’s one big dysfunction after the next, malfunctioning electronics, parking tickets, which is why you need to be nice. Some people are being persecuted by shadows.’

A field mouse runs through a thicket.”

Could a person actually see or hear a field mouse run through a thicket? Maybe. Probably not. I’ve seen them at my feet, briefly, fleeing for their lives, and if it were dark out, or I hadn’t looked down at that precise second, I’d be none the wiser, meaning: they scoot silently through the grass. But that’s beside the point. The point is that somewhere in that grand space — say, a thicket of bramble in the middle of a cut cornfield — a field mouse is most likely running through that space. Meanwhile, a person, somewhere, could be “persecuted by shadows” — losing their mind: fogetting “names, dates, places.” Everything is happening everywhere and all the time.

Our first person narrator is a (literal) cake eating, popsicle loving eleven years old, so the quaint questions about life (What is a biome?) and fascination with the unknown (Have you wondered why witches are old ladies on brooms?) make sense. And answers for asked or unasked questions usually come from Grandma, who lives in an apartment attached to the narrator’s house. The apartment smells like “boiled vegetables.” Grandma, in all of her boilded vegetable glory is at the heart of this piece, doling out advice like it was her birthright. Perhaps her most interesting idea/advice is about boundaries. At their best, boundaries provide a sense of belonging; help with understanding stages of life; structure time; order relationships. But “[Grandma] says watch out for psychos. She says unhealthy people don’t understand boundaries, which is why the world is dying. All the boundaries are messed up.”

While that advice is interesting, it’s definitely not her best. Perhaps this might capture it:

“She hands me a list of life advice: 

Your memory is an eroding seashore.

Barren maples look like nervous systems.

Anhedonia is a chemical imbalance. 

If you resist everything, you will turn to stone.

Try to sort the puzzle.”

Yes, when everything is fractured and out of place, where does one start? Sort the puzzle. Sound advice for all of us. Thank you, Grandma.

Check out the story here. And check out more work from Gabrielle Griffis here.

Gabrielle Griffis is a multi-media artist, writer, and musician. She works as a librarian, and lives on Cape Cod with her husband Corey Farrenkopf. Her fiction has been published in or is forthcoming from Wigleaf, Okay Donkey, Monkeybicycle, Gone Lawn, XRAY Literary Magazine, decomP, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. Her writing also appears in Repair Revolution: How Fixers are Transforming Our Throwaway Culture.


Flash Friday Interview: Filling Space, Filling Pools–a conversation with Erika Veurink

There’s a graceful, unflinching precision to Erika Veurink’s writing. A kind of easygoing conversational tone mixed with a matter-of-factness that makes it impossible to turn away. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m kind of enamored by flash fiction for all the ways in which it marries longer form literary elements to the lyrical qualities of poetry, but I’m also a fan of this form because it shows the myriad ways stories can be told. 500, 750, 1000 words—from micro moments to grand histories. Flash fiction covers it all. And through precise glimpses, of language and detail, and without all the potentially overbearing exposition, we are offered an entire relational history, as is the case in “Mystic Hustler.”

“My husband is desperate to finalize the divorce. He hates my newfound spirituality. He hates that I was having an affair with our doorman and blames it on my awakening.”

In three brief sentences we are introduced to three characters, a tantalizing situation, and the protagonist’s “awakening.” What might that awakening be? The title reveals a little.

Fortunately, for us readers of flash, Veurink’s published quite a few pieces in fantastic online journals such as CHEAP POP, XRAY, and Hobart, just to name a few.

Check out our conversation, and check out her stories featured XRAY and CHEAP POP.

Keith Lesmeister: Based on the couple pieces I’ve read, it seems the short form (under 1000 words) suits your style quite well. Could you discuss your general interest in flash forms? Do you start off thinking it’s going to be a flash piece? Or does the content dictate the length?

Erika Veurink: Honestly, I’ve never written a longer fiction piece. I think the length of my attempts at fiction is general intimidation. I lean toward brevity in all my work, mostly because it’s what I prefer as a reader. The challenge of a certain word count feels exciting to me, like a creative constraint.

KL: The structure of the “Gatsby Effect” is so interesting. At first, it feels like several non-sequiturs stacked on top of one another with a rather undefined form taking shape, but then, soon into the reading, a reader can identify a kind of structure that occurs as certain details lock into place, informing and complementing and building on one another. Could you talk about how this structure took shape? Was it already there in your mind as you started writing, or was it something that happened on its own?

EV: The structure for that piece specifically felt it was being revealed to me as I passed the idea. I don’t outline and I really believe that everything belongs. First drafts feel like filling a pool. I write without judgement or the pressure to organize concepts. Then I zoom out and try to trace the lines between little islands of images. So, a lot of stacking, cutting, and hoping.

KL: Did any of your recently published flash pieces start as poems? There’s a refined lyrical energy and startling insights that propels these pieces, not unlike a poem.

EV: Stories usually come to me in an image, crosses in the “Gatsby Effect” piece or phrases, “mystic hustler” is a line from an interview. I collect them and fill the space around them until I can afford to not be precious, which is the exact point any real creativity is born. I read a lot of poetry and take a lot of walks in the city and make lists of objects, which are the inciting incidents for most of my writing.

KL: What helps us readers connect to the characters—both in the XRAY piece and the CHEAP POP piece—is that the narrators both have a wry, self-deprecating voice, yet there’s also something entirely earnest here as well. Maybe earnest isn’t the right word, but it’s something along those lines. And our connections deepen when we find out about the various relational issues. How do you go about developing your characters so fully in such a brief space?

EV: I’m interested in characters who return to honesty. I think it has a lot to do with growing up in Iowa. Earnestness is attractive to me. I like to think about how characters speak to themselves, that sort of internal dialogue. What characters say to other characters can have so much more to do with the landscape of a piece than their own personality. I’m very visually driven, so if I’m feeling indulgent, I might imagine the apartment a character comes home to after work or what they order on a third date. When I’m lost in the process, I can find myself carrying the character with me, asking myself how they would respond to actual events in my own life.

KL: I want to talk about how to end a flash piece because they are notoriously difficult to conclude. I mean, hell, all stories are difficult to end, but I think even more so with a flash piece. How do you attempt to resolve your flash pieces? Or any work for that matter.

EV: When I’m having trouble ending a piece, I backpedal two or three sentences, paragraphs if it’s a larger work. I do find myself trying to squeeze in a final argument or indulging personal interests at the last second. But the essence of an ending should be clear without a grand banner of a pull quote. I try to keep it simple, quiet. That’s the greatest indication that I trust the story.

KL: Have you ever considered standup comedy? I think there’s humor in your work, and it stems partly from melodrama (ie “No one had ever had pneumonia before I did. No one had ever been in love with the wrong person.”) and there’s also a comedic timing within the irony and deflection (ie “…I talked on the phone with email guy for hours. I made it about him and cut my hair with kitchen scissors. I wanted company and I wanted layers.”). Humor is so difficult to write, I think, and I’m always so pleased to read it when it’s well done, as it is here. How do you that?? I need some lessons here.

EV: My personal sense of humor is very strange. Comedy makes me uncomfortable. To me, the funniest people are the most sincere people. I’m a fairly serious person, so I find so much of what resonates as humorous to me is other people being serious. Also, I find the people I’m closest to the most humorous. I think proximity means a lot. What that means for writing, I’m not really sure. I think I write in a sort of affectless nature, as an active rebellion against the Midwestern long vowels of my childhood.

KL: In both pieces, there’s a strong current of spirituality and religious symbols that run through both (prayer beads, crosses). Could you discuss the importance of this idea in your work? Does it show up often?

EV: I was raised very religiously and find that as I get older, my writing in religious symbols is out of necessity. It’s my first language and in many situations, the most concise container for my ideas. I never set out to write spiritually, but then the piece is done and there are fifteen references to communion. I memorized Bible verses and was at church at least twice a week. All the media I consumed as a child was Christian. I remember feeling genuinely surprised the first time someone pointed out the religious throughline in my work. It’s that deeply ingrained.

KL: Who is an author or authors we should all be reading right now?

EV:  I’m lost in a personal obsession with Annie Ernaux at the moment. Her slim novels read like devotionals on longing. I can’t get enough. I think Daisy Johnson’s book Sisters might be my favorite of the year. Her book Fen is also genius. And The Shame by Makenna Goodman has also been a top pick. I think we could all do to read a little more Annie Dillard, just generally.

KL: Last series of questions.

KL: Cityscapes or landscapes?

EV: Landscapes

KL: Pumpkin pie or Pecan pie?

EV: Pumpkin pie

KL: Flying or driving?

EV: Driving

KL: Hazy IPA or Gin & Tonic?

EV: Hazy IPA

KL: The song “Read My Mind” by The Killers. Do you prefer the original? Or the cover by boygenius?

EV: It has to be the cover by boygenius.

KL: And, most importantly, as a fellow (former) Midwesterner: Is it a casserole or a hot dish?

EV: Once and for all, casserole.

Erika Veurink is a writer living in Brooklyn by way of Iowa. She is receiving her MFA from Bennington College. Her work has appeared in Brooklyn Review, Cheap Pop, Hobart, Midwest Review, Triangle House, x-r-a-y, and elsewhere.

Flash Friday Review: “A Bee Story” by Nicole VanderLinden, published in SmokeLong Quarterly

I’ve always been enamored by flash fiction. Something about the conjured intimacy in such a brief amount of time. Like a tantalizing secret traded between strangers in an elevator. There’s an allure to its brevity. An awe at what can transpire in so few words.

In “A Bee Story,” published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Nicole VanderLinden mines the deepest parts of our human nature and does so deftly by presenting us a mundane, though interesting, event through which to tell a more compelling story about the narrator’s life. The event used for the surface-level story is beekeeping, and we start off with a discussion of the hive and the cyclical nature of things: “This queen bee is old news… Enter the new queen, the queen ascendant…”

And while beekeeping is fascinating in its own right (mundanely fascinating), it’s ultimately a device used to explore the nature of our relationships—both to others and ourselves. It’s a meditation on the choices we make and the people with whom we share our lives. “The beekeeper and I ended up married for a while.” There was also a physical therapist and later on a dispatcher. All of these partners exhibited damaging behavior, and I think this is the core of the story: an exploration of the dual nature of our lives and ourselves. The yin yang. “Half the sky was sunny and half was threatening rain.” Isn’t that the case with all of us? Every day, each decision? Constantly battling against the devil on our shoulder, while keeping an ear open to the angel on the other? If such an angel exists. “…I laughed so hard I thought he might hit me, which was the opposite of his vibe, the whole bearded beekeeper thing.” Appearances so often disarming though so often inaccurate.

The examination of these previous relationships and decisions are made more poignant by the sobering insights offered by a narrator who has learned a thing or two about herself: “It isn’t easy, being social—more than bees know that. Harder still to have ambition that’s not weighted by who you’ve been, that doesn’t keep you close to ground.”

And how to move forward with such baggage weighing us down?

The narrator offers an answer: we “fly off toward [our] own irrelevance.”

At least we’ve found someone who’s honest about what we’re doing here.

A Response to Disaster: A Review of “Aminatu” by Olufunke Grace Bankole, published in Michigan Quarterly Review

Written by B. Nathanial Steelman

The world as we first see it, as we first are led to believe in it, is anguished, starved: instinctual. In media res “drunken dogs” are enduring, as the humans in their milieu they hollow to tissue and bone. They growl; yet “in that grayish-blue darkness” their “eyes droop heavy with shame,” as if Man’s Best Friend well knows the consequences of his (re)wilding in these circumstances post-storm inside the dome. Things will not be the same. In “Aminatu,” Olufunke Grace Bankole’s poignant, gusty debut short story published by Michigan Quarterly Review, first in print in Fall 2006 and again online in August 2020, a reader is learned in the wake of the US’s costliest natural disaster for whom life is most fragile.

Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 nearly rendered the city of New Orleans like mythological Atlantis. Gales thrashed the metro and made a house of cards of apartments, churches; but it was the ensuing deluge to which the civilization nearly succumbed. It was a disaster in the truest sense of the term: disaster, disastro: apart star, ill fate: inevitability. The city had been evacuated, but tens of thousands could not leave, because exodus is not free. In her modest essay, “Going Solo,” Bankole speaks to, although does not reference by name, “Aminatu”: “Having just moved from New Orleans, and witnessed with the rest of the world, the horror of Katrina and its aftermath, I clicked open a blank page,” Bankole says, “and tried to imagine how the hours between night and dawn, inside the Louisiana Superdome, might have been for someone who hadn’t the sort of choices that allowed me to leave the city in the first place.”

Think about any disaster—or, at the very least, crisis—such as Hurricane Laura in 2020 or the derecho (or any of the outbreaks or any of the shootings or any of the deaths of heroes or any of the obliterations delivered by/embodied in the deluded occupant of this White House in 2020). See roofs peeled open like sardine cans, alarmed neighbors in tents on their lawns among snakes of downed power lines: The undone structures subjugate our focus and the tense is present. We can’t look away. Because the grotesque is so perverse, thrust upon its audience is the impetus of meaning-making. In “Aminatu,” the dogs loiter around the carnage and carcasses strewn across the gridiron of the Superdome-come-grotto. “One has in his teeth and clutched between his skinny legs a blue-yellow damask head tie.” Thus follows meaning-making so much as memory: “A scarf,” the narrator says, “the kind that would adorn the head of a West African woman; and just a short while ago, it did. Her name is Aminatu.”

There appears to be cultural responses to disaster. For instance, after the derecho bulldozed much of Iowa, where I live, folks swarmed with chainsaws and garbage cans the detritus of their houses and lawns. With all the oil and grease of machinery, whole blocks smelled of an amusement park. Spangled across social media were pictures of community aglow with purpose. It was quintessential Iowa Nice. That said, Coming Together displays, and is allowed by, certain culture, certain socioeconomic status. In “Aminatu,” the culture Bankole admirably depicts is that which houses, again, as she says, “someone who hadn’t the sort of choices that allowed me to leave,” the culture, in other words, inhabited by those to whom inevitability arrives faster, as these inhabitants cannot afford protection from and/or to flee various clutches by dint of low socioeconomic status and racial discrimination. Per “Aminatu,” this culture’s disaster response (vide trauma response) is remembrance. Because what else can be done if one has nothing?

Not so much points as characteristics in the middle of the story: Aminatu was the vendor in the small, dimly lit stall in the Big Easy’s French Quarter; she was the woman from Africa in America. Among the fluid colony of market stalls, she was the one with the “permanent space,” seeing that her brother-in-law had bought the stall. She lived in her brother-in-law’s basement, with her daughter, Ghaniyah, and paid no penny of rent, utilities, nor tuition for her daughter’s schooling, because “little was expected of [Aminatu].” And yet she “read the kind of books she had heard black students read at local universities.” She wanted out. A late-twenty-something, single-mother-of-one, she hadn’t been back home to Africa in a decade and now “could not answer for herself where she belonged.” Notwithstanding, when you visited the shop, Aminatu made you feel so “lucky.”

A paragraph of the story: “Aminatu had a way. That way not easily described, but well understood when you met her.”

Not so much backstory as this analepsis is eulogy. And it is eloquent, compelling, and thorough as a eulogy can be, it seems, which is remarkable in light of the fact that the narrator had not been friends with the vendor, never had been, so far as we know, in activities with Aminatu, etcetera. It seems important here to see that the reader does not experience Aminatu move and talk and think. We learn about her. So it goes with eulogies—even with the one I had given of my grandmother, who I had known all my life, with whom I had spent my mornings, afternoons, and summers—that the character never graduates out of static into dynamic; eulogies are synopses. In essence, they convey the informative point that not enough about the person was known or could be. It seems important here, too, to see that the narrator does not attempt to wrest from the fetid, crenellated maw of the dog—as some would—the damask head tie. The narrator lets it be, surrenders it to inevitability. There is so much to “Aminatu”: the irony, existentialism, brilliant language and structure, among other provocative features. I encourage you to give it a read. It can induce reflection on disaster response; for instance, I clean up—tangible debris as well as intangible—I attempt to restore order. (In all likelihood, I confess, I would have tried to reclaim the head tie.) But I am inclined to say this sort of response disallows disaster’s most useful function. Suspension of disbelief is idling; it is avoidance of any critical thinking at the convenient store on the way home from work, and it is forsaking any examination of our mothers at the dinner table. Suspension of disbelief buoys illusion and disaster can snap this. “Aminatu” is tagged in orange, italicized, small font Black Lives Matter. Per suspension, per our culture’s cushion, we do not see that Black lives do, indeed, matter. Disaster can allow us to come back down to earth to see who we have coerced into the trenches. As importantly, it can recalibrate our morals that have altogether been scrambled if not abandoned.