The first week of March I flew to Austin, Texas.
When I stepped out of the hotel to find something to eat, the sun had disappeared. My ears were immediately assaulted by a cacophony of bird sounds. The trees swarmed with birds that looked like crows but didn’t sound anything like crows. What birds were these?
For dinner I chose the closest place I could find, The Boiling Pot on Sixth. It served crawfish, crabs, and shrimp, boiled up Cajun style. When my order was ready, the young waitress, all smiles, tossed it on the sheet of butcher paper that she had earlier rolled out on the table. With a friendly pat on my arm, she said, “You eat with your hands here.” No problem, I’m used to doing that where I come from. Next to me, four Japanese men snapped photos of their meals. I’ve done that too, but my dinner wasn’t photogenic. It tasted great, though.
I was in Austin for the annual conference of the AWP (known today as the Association of Writers and Writing Programs). When I was in the MFA program at Mills College, I was familiar with the AWP through free copies of their magazine, the Writers Chronicle. But I’d never considered attending their conference.
This year I was invited by the novelist Sorayya Khan to join a panel of South Asian writers on “Writing War, De-scribing Empire.” Last year I had reviewed her book “Noor,” the first novel by a Pakistani writer to focus on breaking the silence on the Pakistani war that birthed independent Bangladesh. We came to discover that we shared an interest in writing about war, specifically the war in 1971, for me the defining moment of my coming of age. As it turned out, the same panel would also present a reading the day before at the University of Texas.
I wasn’t sure what to expect in Austin, but I’m glad I went.
My first morning, I ventured out, looking for strong coffee and a walk. Clouds obscured the sun, but within an hour the sky cleared up and I would feel hot in my clothes. Coffee I found on the corner of the Hilton building, the walk took me towards Congress Street downtown and then up north towards the State Capitol.
As I stepped inside the Capitol grounds, I was greeted by a monument that read, “The people of the South, animated by the spirit of 1776, to preserve their rights, withdrew from the federal compact in 1861. The North resorted to coercion.” It didn’t mention that the ‘right’ the Confederacy defended was the struggle to preserve human slavery. I wondered: is there any other country where the defeated side in a civil war still has officially sanctioned monuments to proclaim the justice of their cause? I couldn’t think of any. As I walked back out, I noticed the banner across Congress Street declaring “February is Black History Month.” Black Texans no doubt had a different history to tell.
Before our reading at the UT campus, I met most of the others on our panel: Sorayya Khan, Waqas Khwaja, Sehba Sarwar, Ilona Yusuf. Alka Roy joined us during the reading. Shafiq Naz of Alhambra Press also came along; he had booked a table at the AWP Bookfair. I was meeting these folks for the first time and they were all very friendly, warm, and creative people.
Our reading at UT was hosted by the South Asian Institute. We were joined by students, some faculty, and visiting Fulbright scholars from Bangladesh.
For this reading, held on International Women’s Day, I chose not to read one of my own pieces but a translation I had done from the Bangladeshi writer Shaheen Akhter’s novel "Talash."
"Talash" received the Best Book of the Year award from the Prothom Alo daily newspaper in Dhaka in 2004. The novel opens in the time of upheaval before the liberation war of 1971. After an incident that causes a scandal in their village, a young woman named Mariam is sent off by her parents to attend college in Dhaka. There she lives with her younger brother Montu in a small house owned by their family. She falls in love with Abed a student leader who scorns her for her lack of politics but does not mind sleeping with her as often as he can. As the war breaks out, Montu enrolls in the resistance while Mariam joins the trek of thousands fleeing to the countryside. She runs from one refuge to another until the Pakistani army captures her. For the remainder of the war she is held in a school building where she and other women captives are tortured as sex slaves by military men. The end of the war brings release from captivity but a fate far from liberation. Though the new government declares women like Mariam as Biranganas (national heroines), they are seen as shameful by Bangladeshi society, objects of a mixture of contempt and lecherous attention. Some of Mariam’s peers will commit suicide, a few would leave with the Pakistani soldiers, and others are forced to survive as prostitutes. Talash is the story of Mariam’s struggle to refuse any of these fates through the next thirty years. The author courageously recovers the story of the Biranganas of Bangladesh, no matter what myths and polished histories are taken apart in the process.
The next morning the AWP conference began. I tried out two panels in the morning, one on literary translation, the other on writing politics in novels.
The first was practically useful. The excerpt from "Talash" was the first piece of fiction that I had ever translated. One panelist’s quote remains with me: he said that a translator’s reading will be the closest reading a text will ever get. Very true.
The second session was a dud. There were four novelists on the panel; each had recently written a novel with politics in the mix. But sadly, the discourse never rose above whether to be preachy or not. Sorayya had joined me and we shook our heads afterwards. In the countries we come from, politics intrudes into daily life in ways that nearly any fictional effort must confront the challenge of writing politics. In the U.S. I understand the challenge is different, but surely there is more to the discussion of writing political fiction that goes beyond whether or not to avoid being preachy.
Our own panel was in the afternoon. When we found a huge wheelchair ramp separating us from the audience, we chose to abandon the platform and read among the crowd. Unfortunately that meant abandoning the p.a. system and the hall being a cavernous ballroom, some of us may not have been heard well. Our readings combined a mix of poetry and fiction, but alas, we didn’t have much time left over for discussion. Only enough to handle two or three questions. Still, it seemed that the crowd of three dozen or so who came responded well.
I walked next door to the panel by slam poets, to say hello to Patricia Smith who I have known for many years but don’t get to see much. Later that evening I met up again with her and other poets involved with Cave Canem. Cave Canem started off as an annual retreat/workshop for black poets and now it is so much more. Find them at www.cavecanempoets.org. The next day there would be a celebration of Cave Canem’s 10th anniversary and I enjoyed the readings – displaying quite a range of remarkable poetry. It was good to be there to share in their joy.
I tried out a few more panels but they mostly turned out to be duds. Too bad.
One night four of us went looking for music on Sixth Street. Along the way, one of my companions craved chocolate. You could find as much alcohol anywhere on the strip, and perhaps even some food at that hour, but there was no place for chocolate or coffee. What were chocoholics to do? Someone needs to come up with the notion of a chocolate bar (hah!). We spotted a cigar shop that advertised coffee; surely they would at least have hot chocolate. They did, and our chocolate-craving companion was mollified. Just as we were about to leave, I noticed a black man sitting with his back to the glass window, rolling cigars with his hands. When I greeted him, he said he was from Cuba. He does this every night. It’s a job, but I did wonder how he felt about doing his work on display.
We eventually found a club on a side street that had a band playing in the open air. Though it would get a bit nippy, the music was good and we ended up staying there till very late. The music was a mix of bluesy rock, some of it performed with a country twang. A black man walking outside put down a plastic bag he’d been carrying and danced to the music. A German man inside the patio went outside and joined him. Some of the women dancing had handkerchiefs tucked into their back pockets. I was unfamiliar with that particular fashion statement.
The AWP gathering included a huge Bookfair in the convention center. Since I left the conference early, I wasn’t able to take enough time to explore the vast array of literary magazines and small presses that had booked tables. There was something gratifying in seeing dozens and dozens of women and men putting in time for the cause of writing and literature.
On the floor, on two separate occasions, I met two of my MFA classmates who are now working with literary journals. Dropping by the Coffee House Press table, I found a book I had been looking for, the Detroiter Lolita Hernandez’s collection of stories about the shutdown of the Cadillac plant, “Autopsy of an Engine.” On the flight back, I read most of the stories in the book. When I lived in Detroit, I had once heard Lolita read her poems. This book is not just a lovely tribute to the assembly workers who she worked alongside in the auto plant, it contains some of the most poetic words I’ve seen used to describe the world of men, women, and machines of the 20th century factory.
Some folks I met introduced me to their books or journals they work on. Mark Fitten edits The Chattahoochee Review in Georgia. Amit Basu, a Bengali originally from Calcutta puts out the bilingual Bordersenses out of El Paso. From the website (www.bordersenses.com) that I checked out later, it looks like they have an energetic community around the journal. It publishes writing in English or Spanish from the U.S. Southwest and the Mexican Northwest. Verb, an audioquarterly out of Decatur, Georgia, puts prose, poetry and music on CDs. Purvi Shah from New York handed me a card announcing her book "Terrain Track" coming out this October. Paper Street Press out of Pittsburgh told me about how their press is named after Pittsburgh’s hillside steps that have street names but are only accessible by foot (www.paperstreetpress.org).
On my last day at the conference, again as the sun began to fade, I ran into my old friends that had greeted me the first evening — the loud, musical but not especially melodious dark-feathered birds. I went down to the creek to sit with a friend and we both wondered what birds these were. Only after I came home and read some blogs about the AWP conference did I stumble upon a post that had a picture of one of those birds. Finally, a name.
They were grackles.