Novelist Jessica Lott prompted this conversation between Rosebud Ben-Oni and Robert Yune with the following question:
“Both of you live in and write extensively about cities—Rosebud in Jerusalem/NYC and Robert in Pittsburgh. You’re both very sensitive to language as well as heavily exposed to it in your daily lives: its cadences, speeds, rhythms, the multiplicity of voices—also its purposefulness in helping us to process and navigate our urban environments, its variations from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood. How does that overwhelming exposure to language tie into your poetry and fiction, the urban landscape you are both responding to and creating within your work?”
Robert Yune: That’s a great question. I had to think a lot about this one because language is so common that I often take it for granted. As David Foster Wallace once said, fish don’t know they’re swimming in water.
I went to high school in Northeastern Pennsylvania, where speech patterns are fairly unremarkable; a journalism teacher in high school told us that news anchors from our area were highly sought after because they don’t have a regional accent. When I moved to Pittsburgh for college, I was surprised by the famous accent, which is often described as “harsh” or “grating.” “Yinz goin’ dahntahn t’watch the Stillers game n’at” translates as “Are you going downtown to watch the Steelers game, etcetera?” “Yinz” and “yunz” are our unique second-person plurals. Pittsburghers love and celebrate the accent: You can find t-shirts with dictionaries and pronunciations all over the city (but mostly in the Strip District). I viewed the accent as a regional curiosity until I traveled back home to Northeastern Pennsylvania, and my best friend was horrified by my new accent. She couldn’t explain why, but my words just sounded different. I was a little shocked, because few of my friends or professors were native Pittsburghers. That was maybe the first time I realized how much your surroundings can affect you. The creep of it is a little unnerving, like grass growing inches overnight.
The longer I live in this city, the more aware I become of different ways people include and exclude each other, and the way you talk is a big part of it. Pittsburgh is a huge city with dozens of neighborhoods separated by 446 bridges, so the ways people signal where they’re from are more complex than speech. But what makes this city unique is that so many people are from here, born and bred, and they either live here all their lives or return after retirement. In so many other American cities, no one is actually from there.
I’m not sure my exposure to language is overwhelming or unique, although I have lived places where people only speak a few words a day. In my job as a writing instructor, I’m constantly reminded that language is a medium, and it’s one of the most common ones out there (again, fish/water). Even people who can’t read or write can slang, and slang well. Also, in more practical terms, I work with a number of Chinese students, and I’m reminded that language equals access. If you’re having trouble reading, writing, and speaking English, you’re struggling in every other class, not to mention navigating a city thousands of miles from home.
As far as my own writing, I do my best to pay attention to how people talk and faithfully recreate it in my work. There are several ways to characterize someone, and getting regional dialogue onto the page correctly adds a subtle-yet-effective layer of realism. Knowing your characters’ slang and syntax also helps you know and understand them better. When I wrote “Cottontails,” I watched and read dozens of interviews of Everglades football players so I could recreate the accent. It was hard because there was so much variety even in that one group. Fred Taylor talks a lot differently than Santonio Holmes, for example. It was a little surprising, because sometimes you focus on characterizing a group and almost forget that it’s made up of unique, complex individuals.
Rosebud Ben-Oni: Today is, slowly, breaking across the city: a heatwave. As in the Natural Tofu Restaurant on the corner of my street is not serving piping-hot soondubu; it shut down for the day. As in hairstyles that don’t make it a hot minute out the door. As in walking under the 7 Train, an exposed, elevated train from my new neighborhood Sunnyside to my old one, Woodside, in Queens. As in wilderness for hair—and yet my family on the border of U.S and Mexico, near the Gulf Coast, would not call this a heatwave. They would call this nine months out of the year. They would call this some Decembers. My brother too who lives in Arizona—this is his late spring, early summer. My family would take this and say: You’ve lost something, calling this a heatwave. But the heat here is different. It’s metallic, heavy in the ears, peeling from your skin in endless lamination. A street: a windowless tunnel.
My neighborhood at least has tree-lined Skillman Avenue. Large, shading trees. I was grateful for them this morning when I had to take a pair of shoes to my cobbler, a 60-something Russian Jew. His shop is tiny and cluttered, poorly-lit, and he always clears off the only chair he has for me to sit down. Sometimes he wears a kippah (Hebrew for “skullcap”), and sometimes he does not. When he does, he dons a leather Louis Vuitton kippah which he calls a yamaka (Yiddish). I told him a little about this project, and then I pointed out that the Yiddish word is actually yarmulke, although my Jewish grandmother, my father’s mother, a European refugee from the Shoah, used the word yamaka as well. As he was inspecting my shoes, he asked if I was religious. I never know how to answer this. I had a Bat Mitzvah, and then was Confirmed; I can read both Biblical and Modern Hebrew. But I don’t know how to pray anymore. I didn’t tell him that. Instead, I told him that my grandmother said women should cover their heads too, for the same reason a man should, so that a person never thinks he or she is above God—that with all the wildness she saw in me, showing humility would keep me away from screwing up in irreversible ways, and that even if I didn’t cover it physically, to carry my inner-kippah at all times.
He found this funny, and I was looking at his kippah (yamaka) as he laughed, and I wondered why he wears a designer yamaka (kippah) to cover his head. And the many times I’ve seen him walking down Skillman Avenue without it on his head, and how both gestures translate, this man a Russian Jew, carrying a particular troubled history, from the Pale of Settlement to pogroms to communism, now living in the extremely diverse neighborhood of ours—Queens is home to one of the country’s most diverse populations, particularly Sunnyside—and I wondered what the kippah means to him, exactly, but then he wanted to talk about Hebrew, so we did.
He told me he speaks some “Shuq Hebrew,” the tongue of new immigrants, especially those working in the markets in Israel, who learn what they need from the language, like only the masculine numbers and verbs (Hebrew is a gendered language where the word for peace, shalom, is masculine, and the word of war, milchama, is feminine, but that’s a whole other story).
We talked about slang too, and I told him when I was at the Hebrew University, ma’nishma, which means “what’s new,” changed into ma’nish with the younger crowd. I used the latter quite freely, and said this once upon greeting an older Israeli poet who wasn’t too happy about it, as if I was being disrespectful. And the cobbler told me this poet sounded like no fun, that he shouldn’t be a poet at all, and when I asked him why, another customer came in, and I was so thirsty anyway and walked the 7 blocks up to Woodside. I wanted to get a drink from the Korean-owned Cafe Lucid, which Woodsiders still call by its old name Cafe Escape, where the owner has made me soy lattes with irregular hearts, always explaining that he can’t get the soymilk to foam properly, and I always explain I can’t digest dairy, which an Arab friend of mine once regarded as a great pity in that I wasn’t breastfed, that a child who did not have a “milk-bond” would always be a child lacking the first seminal promise. That might, then, I think, explain the irregular heart.
But it’s too hot for a latte today, so I’m drinking iced tea and thinking about these languages of body and history and place, how the singular idea of language and its realities. That there is a difference between language and languages. Language is living. Languages are gateways and barricades. In language: the smell of wet grass, blanched bones and friction. In languages: the loss, the gain of those things, forever in fire, forever unfolding.
I was thinking too, Robert: What is the first word, or some of the first words, you ever heard? What are some words that mark formative moments in your life?
RY: The first words I remember hearing were actually in Italian: “Focaccia” (as in the bread) and numbers, overheard in a mercato. My father was in the U.S. Navy for 26 years, and when I was three years old, we lived on a military base in La Maddalena, Sardinia.
Farewells seem to mark most of my formative moments growing up. My family moved around a lot (eleven times by the time I turned eighteen.) You get used to variations of “goodbye”—which, I believe, translates as “God be with you.” It’s nice enough. Utilitarian. In Korean, they have two different phrases for it: Goodbye if I’m staying and you’re leaving, or goodbye if I’m leaving and you’re staying. There’s a sort of duality to it; the phrases acknowledge the loss on both sides, and there’s something poetic about that. But as far as direct translations go, I think the Japanese have it right: “Sayonara” actually means something like “it must be so.”
As far as my artistic life goes, there’s been a lot of uncertainty, so there’s been a lot of conditionals. As an adjunct, I was always four months away from unemployment. When I start writing a story, I often have no idea where it’s going, or whether it will be published. It’s something you learn to live with, even though you never fully embrace or own it. Like a dog.
I’ve had to think about this question a lot because in my life (both personal and artistic), few specific words stick out. My memories are mostly sensory input: images and impressions. Heat lightning moving across the plains. The choppy feel of riding (and later learning to drive) a stickshift Volvo station wagon. The smell of sunlight searing a cobblestone street in Pittsburgh.
As a short story writer and novelist, I have a number of different tools available: chronology, characterization, plot, dialogue. So words are important, but they’re part of a larger equation. Poets use these tools as well, but most poets don’t have 75,000-90,000-word canvases to sprawl on.
The one thing I’ve noticed about your poems, Rosebud, is that you use really strong and specific verbs. Maybe they stick out more in a shorter form, but “I’ll grease rouge on my wounds” from “The Reply of Sal Si Puedes” and “Skin I gave up to touch / Streamed against the current” from “To the Night Shark” especially struck me. What is your relationship with verbs? And can you give a few examples of times when a specific word didn’t fit—or fit perfectly into a poem?
RBO: Oh, to verb. To verb is to live. To verb as a writer is to transgress against stillness, silence and a clean, blank page. I’m enamored by those nouns that live as their verbs—like storm, for instance. Verbs unground me—the aching to defy, to divine, to rage. If the noun is the map, the verb is the transgressing against it. Specifically, transgressing against the identity of a location. Nouns make me sensible. Nouns refamiliarize me with a specific or general present. The city is both noun and verb. The change is constant, and within it, I must move within/against it—to leave my mark on this map is to change it, change with it. Even in my moments of repose, a sleepy July Sunday evening like today.
For instance, this morning I woke up with the desire to be sensible about things—the noun in me, the ground in me—but then I saw your response which led me to reread the first story I’d read of yours, “Liberty and Union,” and, all over again, I felt haunted by the image of this young girl traveling alone on a bus with a birdcage, who makes a living creating myths. I couldn’t stand still; I had this urgency to find her, which really is to find something. So I went for a walk in Sunnyside, thinking of all the buses I’ve taken in Jerusalem, the hard, wrenching way they are driven that always made me feel like we were going in circles. I remembered taking one out to Kiryat Hayovel in the south of the city to see a friend who burned some sort of herb in votives just outside her home in order to keep away insects and demons, including her own. I remembered she had explained this to me, how it had worked, but I couldn’t remember the names of the herbs, and I’m terrible with names of things. I don’t know what kind of trees grow in Sunnyside, and as I was walking, I’d stop just outside the gate of those small, multi-family homes and reach for extended branches and inspect the leaves or flowers or bark, but this didn’t really tell me anything, and people passing by simply went around me. No one said a word. And when I finally wandered home, I realized I forgot to call to cancel our landline (it too often breaks up with other people’s conversations) and naturally, or rather, however, my fiancé forgave me for forgetting this one simple task. Broken landlines—noun and verbs. Stationary and mobile. Body and names of things. We believe that we are all headed toward a life of verb—not necessarily out of transgression, but convenience. I’m glad I knew that era of penpals, of waiting for letters that might have gotten lost in the mail. The things that didn’t come so easily, or sometimes not at all, and one had to accept that.
If I can’t use a word in a specific line, or anywhere in a given poem, I save it for another time. I have a list of these words somewhere, but after a while, these came to mind: “quoin,” “redolent,” “zwiebacks,” “castanets” and errata. There’s a certain vague music that comes to mind when I hear these words, of failed lines to which they belonged. That was me in Jerusalem, down those winding roads of Har Hatsofim and Givat Tsfartit, those Israeli enclaves in Arab East Jerusalem. A few days ago, I received a message through my website from someone who believed I shouldn’t use the term “East Jerusalem.” That the term itself is political, and I’m doing a disservice to the Knesset’s 1980 ruling of a unified Jerusalem. I have a feeling I know the person, that we met once in some capacity. When I tried to email the person, the message bounced back. I thought, if he or she can’t give me a real email address, how do we talk about this?
I keep asking: How do we move forward with things like this? I feel like in our incapacity to do so, we are making stale maps of ourselves. I believe that the conversation is the verb. Did you see this article “America’s Summer of Hate” in Salon? I’ve been thinking all this week about it, and the new settlements in Israel. And a few nights ago, as I was boarding a crowded car of the 6 train, there was this young man wearing a long-sleeved hoodie in 100-degree heat. As I got on, the young man looked up at my face and gave up his seat so I could sit down. I don’t know if he could see I wasn’t feeling well that day, but now I’m still thinking about Israel’s possible peace talks with Abbas—peace talks again, I thought—when maybe we are all going too fast, and really should look to the gesture first and what the hoodie means as a political statement, as a symbol of outrage, before we head into peace talks, before we start talking at all.
So I’m now writing to you on my iPad in one of my favorite places on Skillman Avenue, Quaint. It has a very small menu with rotating specials, an open kitchen and a lovely garden outback. I’m wondering: What are the uncertainties that have marked your artistic life? And in thinking of “Liberty and Union,” I felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness in the story and the control with which you tell it. Your stories are so tightly written, the endings so unexpected yet spot-on—with you, one gets the sense that a million people could view the scenes of these stories, yet only you could tell it in your way, like the ending to your story “Cast Down Your Burdens,” where the raccoons seem to have one-upped humans in a game for territory, having outwitted a people in a place they only think they control—simply by going unseen: “There’s that iridescent glow in their eyes and though we know what causes it, we can’t help but wonder what they’re seeing, what they’ve learned. Their masks vanish as they step forward, onto the asphalt.”
We’ve said before that “Cast Down Your Burdens” is very different from most of your other work. Does it have any correlation to your novel, Eighty Days of Sunlight, whether in, say, themes, tone or voice? And is your hell industrial? Is it pastoral? Suburban? Idyllic?
RY: “Errata” is a good word. I wish “dissuade” was used more often. Strangely, some of my favorite words are Spanish: “tristeza,” “esperanza,” “nosotros.” They just seem to better fit what they’re describing. Nosotros (“we”) suggests a banding together, a coalescing of opinion, bodies gathering (it has a slightly ominous and dramatic sound, which I like). I took four years of Spanish in high school. Really wish I’d kept with it.
Other people have mentioned this, but the Trayvon Martin case revealed a huge divide between people who could empathize with the African-American community’s experiences with discrimination and those who could not. It seems like a lot of people are unable or unwilling to consider a different viewpoint, and I think this is a symptom of a larger problem. That said, I’m not sure how to fix it. Education, probably. Is there a way to get sensitivity training for this whole goddamned country? And I’m not exempting myself from anything here. It would be ignorant for me to assume that, because I’m a writer, I’m automatically good at thinking like other people, at seeing the world through their eyes.
Thanks for your kind words about “Liberty and Union.” With that story, one of my goals was to write a story that ends happily and hopefully. It’s incredibly difficult, but at some point, I got tired of depressing, grim fiction. My family took two long cross-country trips when my father changed Naval bases, and we acquired a mounted Jackalope head on one of them. It came with a little postcard describing where Jackalopes came from, their mating habits, etc. I took the whole thing for granted, since I lived in Pennsylvania, where there weren’t any. I didn’t learn that there weren’t any anywhere until much later in life. Last year, in fact.
As for “Cast Down Your Burdens,” I was reading the book, The Time Traveler’s Wife. There’s a brief mention of a raccoon at one point, and while I was reading, I had a vision, clear as a hallucination, of another famous raccoon. Some of you may remember the TV show Little House on the Prairie. At one point, the Ingalls family adopts a cute little raccoon, whom they name Bandit. There’s a whole story arc that ends with Bandit getting rabies. It’s very sad. So, that’s basically the origin story of “Cast Down.” I started thinking of the ways mother nature strikes back. AIDS, for example, is believed to be a result of people venturing too deep into the forest and butchering gorillas for bushmeat. I did a lot of research, and it turns out there are a lot of dickheads on YouTube who own raccoons as pets and are mean to them when they don’t act like domesticated pets. You start hoping an attack is imminent.
I can’t for the life of me think of any correlation between “Cast Down Your Burdens,” which is about raccoons and Eighty Days of Sunlight, which is about a pair of feuding Korean-American brothers. Maybe there’s an inherent meanness in both stories that the characters need to confront and navigate. Meanness manifests itself differently in every culture, and that’s really interesting to me. For example, the Russians compartmentalize it in their bureaucracy. Or did, anyway. I’m thinking especially of Gogol’s “The Overcoat.”
One time, we had a cat we had to put on a leash. It was technically my roommate’s cat. He was a mean little bastard—the cat, that is—all white with brown cow-spots and a pink nose. He liked to get into fights with bigger animals, so we kept him inside. In retaliation, he started peeing on everything. So we fixed him up a little harness and attached some parachute cord to it, and affixed him to a tree. He didn’t care much for it, but at least he was outside, so he didn’t complain much. One day, I looked out the window and saw a little flock of birds. They would gather in front of him, and when he sprang after them, the birds would retreat so they were just inches away. But he couldn’t get at them, so he’d sulk and slink away. The birds would fly towards him, taunting him, and he’d chase them. This went on for hours. And I couldn’t help thinking: there is no reason for this. It’s not helping the birds in any way. They’re just being dicks.
So anyway, I think the energy that keeps Eighty Days of Sunlight moving is the way its two brother characters, Jason and Tommy, keep fighting and reconciling. I had the fight in different settings—a mansion in Princeton, a grimy factory, the student ghettos of Pittsburgh, redneck bars—and each setting fundamentally changes how they see each other by the end.
Uh, I’d have to say my hell is industrial. If you’re ever in Pittsburgh, try visiting the Edgar Thomson Plant in nearby Braddock. It’s a giant, intimidating steel mill, complete with demonic red lights on smokestacks that spew hydrogen sulfide, which is wicked enough to curl your nose hairs. There’s a huge stone wall and the whole complex is like a fortress. In the old days, there were entire trainyards that ran through the mills.
Here’s a somewhat timely question: Mexican authorities recently captured the kingpin of one of the nation’s most violent cartels. This happened after a change in Mexican governmental policy (and, to some extent, a change in Mexican government). You wrote about violence in the bordertown of Matamoros, Mexico in SOLECISM. Do you think this is a significant change, or more of the usual?
It seems like there’s very little hope in this area: The name of the town Sal Si Puedes translates as “Leave if you can.” What is it like to write about a place where hope is so fleeting? Even in Jerusalem (East or not), the situation there must change the way you view hope. As more of an abstraction, perhaps, or more of an image, as in “I have a dream of a place where X, Y, and Z can happen”?
RBO: Esperanza is my mother’s name; it means “hope.” “Congoja” is another wonderful word; it doesn’t just translate as anguish, but also “the feeling of wanting to cry.”
You are talking about the arrest of Z-40, aka Miguel Ángel Treviño, no? The Zetas were once the private militia of El Gulfo Cartel, and then broke out onto their own. Now with Treviño arrested, there’s talk the Zetas will break up into different factions, that he was the glue holding them together. But I don’t know if it’s as simple as all that. It’s all about claiming “plazas” or territory, so rival capos like El Chapo, who heads the Sinaloa cartel, is probably seeing this as a moment to claim some turf. So I wonder if the Zetas will stay together for that reason. There’s also, of course, El Gulfo to throw into the mix.
I can tell you that in Northern Mexico the cult of the outlaw has existed for as long as I can remember. There was something noble about the idea, since the Mexican government was so corrupt. There wasn’t the level of violence there is today. My Mexican-American family with citizenship freely crossed the border back and forth to see our family still in Mexico. I think things began to change when Pablo Escobar was taken out, and the Mexican cartels took over the drug trade. They carved up the country into plazas. Now cartel money is in everything—from hair salons to supermarkets to the entertainment industry. They have even expanded operations from selling pirated DVDS—the Zetas, for instance, have their own line complete with the Zeta trademark on the cover—to kidnapping, and no longer just the wealthy, but the poor and those migrants from rural Mexico and Central America, holding them hostage until their families find the means to pay the ransom— in fact, Z-40 is the prime suspect in the particularly horrendous murder of 72 immigrants who were dumped in San Fernando in Northeastern Mexico.
It’s not about selling drugs anymore; it’s about selling drugs to fuel this war and claim territory. And it’s spilling over onto the U.S. side of the border. In 2011, when the Zetas and El Gulfo turf wars raged in the border town of Matamoros, school officials shut down University of Texas at Brownsville—yes, as in, The. University. Shut. Down. It’s just across the river, and has a significant numbers of students who come in from Mexico to attend classes. On the border, the river highlights and also obscures the difference between the two countries. It’s a reminder but it’s also an illusion.
Back to my mother’s name: Esperanza. And then your question, again: What is it like to write about a place where hope is so fleeting? It’s hard to describe the feeling of returning to the border now. On the surface it feels the same: One of my cousins inherited the three-room house of my grandparents, where they raised seven children, the cages where my grandfather would nurse weather-ravaged parrots back to health. How I loved them all, how I learned to relax my muscles so a wild parrot would not bite me when its beak tested me (they can measure people like that, how I loved my grandfather long departed, my man of lank teaching me to fish into open water in the Gulf, the burn of the sun in my throat, that seasonless climate).
This past summer, I took my fiancé to Padre Island which has changed—my grandfather would tell me he’d drive right on the sand. There were no restaurants, bars or hotels—and the water was strange, Robert, more sulfurous than I remember. It felt thick and oily and damaged, and I think it will be many, many years before it recovers from the BP spill, and even with that, and even with the violence and the who-the-fuck-knows-what-will-come-next, I told my parents and I told my mother’s family that I want to get married here, on this island, in this place, knowing I’m marking the start of a new life in a place where my mother always told me to visit but not to live—that she wanted me in a major city, with industry, with seasons.
But Padre, the Rio Grande Valley, the border, the memories of Christmas at my Aunt Nena’s house, how she always welcomed us although my Mexican mother married a man of Jewish faith—to get married there, of all places, even if one says sal si puedes—that is the root of my kind of hope. It has always been the root. This massive, twisted, exposed root of a tree that fans its wild head at the hurricane. And I won’t abandon it. Because in many ways it taught me to turn my face to the wind, knowingly. To adapt. To never lose the wild. To outgrown the outlaw side of myself. To honor my grandparents.
What can I say of Jerusalem, of Israel? Once I tried to make a life there; I failed. I am still conflicted by this failure and by the country itself. My hopes for it, like my own gesture to my mother’s family, are small. When I first read Darwish, I wasn’t ready for his experience, his suffering, his criticism, his anger. I felt sick for weeks. I could have stopped reading, but I pushed on and read more. This is this man’s experience. This is what happened to him. Now where do we go from there?
Years later, I wrote the poet Marian Haddad, a Syrian-American poet, who was born in El Paso and writes about borders too. I’d admired her work. I was scared she’d reject me because of our differences. But Marian’s heart is as immense as her talent. Two years after that she’s reading over my first book of poems. We are still reading each other. We go from there.
It’s late at night now. I’m listening to silence, and I’m thinking of the musical notation of this journey I’ve had, with its many bifurcations and descents and tremors. It’s quite staccato. Sixteenth-notes entwined without separation. A fermata over the parts I most wanted to look away from as much as those I wanted to hold, indefinitely. That fermata, holding me to the world outside the experiences in which I built my own. Reading Darwish and Haddad, drinking the sulfurous Valley water that my body remembers as once a natural thing.
What is the world that built your novel? Tell me your cadences, speeds, rhythms of life in Pittsburgh, of Eighty Days of Sunlight.
RY: Rosebud, it’s interesting what you have to say about Darwish. It’s easy to read about people like yourself—and that’s what most people do, if sales are any indication. I’m not exempt. Even unlikeable characters such as Humbert Humbert or Alexander Portnoy are relatable to some degree in terms of ethnicity, culture, class, general experience. It can take a lot of work to process a vastly different experience, and I think the labor-intensive work of some poetry and prose scares people off. The reward, of course, is one generally associated with reading and the liberal arts—that understanding someone else’s experience enriches one’s own worldview and adds to one’s perspective. Maybe focusing on and articulating the reward is the first step to finding a solution.
As for the rhythms of life in Pittsburgh, as seen in Eighty Days of Sunlight: Well, part of the novel takes place near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvani, which is coal country. Part of the novel is set in a factory there, deep in a valley, surrounded by smoking slag heaps. My character Jason works the midnight shift as he tries to find the truth behind his father’s suicide. I worked the midnight shift for 3 summers, if memory serves. It’s weird. The strangest aspect is that you’re out of sync with the rest of society, which is how I often feel as an artist. During midnight shifts, your circadian rhythm functions normally, but the system around it—breaks and lunches—is working contrary to nature. It emphasizes the sheer unnaturalness of the situation—human beings were not meant to be put into little concrete sweatboxes to perform the same repetitive tasks over and over. You’re supposed to sleep from 11PM-7AM. At the same time, I understood that I was blessed because this work wasn’t permanent for me. This wasn’t my life. I would head off to college at the summer’s end, although a lot of my colleagues would not. A lot of them had families and stable jobs with stable incomes—things I admire now, although I didn’t care then.
I wrote Eighty Days of Sunlight, mostly around 2 AM, and I think that late-night atmosphere creeped into the novel, kind of a noiry weather. For the novel, the rhythm of Pittsburgh was one of semesters: the slow, sleepy beginning (“syllabus day”), then a ramping up during midterms and a crashing finish into finals. It was weird because I was writing about my life as a twenty-something even as I was getting older and more mature. So, even as my characters are fighting and trying to subvert this university-imposed schedule, I was working as a teacher and had to be very aware of (and respectful of) it. At the same time, Eighty Days of Sunlight is a coming-of-age novel as Jason tries to come to terms with his complicated family history—and the weight of his own betrayals. Pittsburgh’s history is full of underdog wins and struggles—it’s a great comeback story, which makes it the perfect setting for a number of stories.
Nabakov’s advice for writers is to “be a planet, not a meteor,” but, to some extent, all writers are meteors. I mean, it’s taken some of my stories years—literally years—between when they were submitted and published. It took Eighty Days of Sunlight three years to get published. So, as a writer, it’s strange to think back to the comet’s tail of one’s work, to try and recall who you were when you were writing that particular story or book. For me, the physical landscape of Pittsburgh has always been strange: there’s the “devil’s tombstone,” the foundation of one of Carnegie’s mansions near Homestead (he moved the actual house elsewhere when the neighborhood started to decline. You can go to the foundation and drink beer there, like the local teens). There’s the South Side Slopes, which are full of byzantine, crumbling stairways like an Escher drawing. They lead down the steep hill to the defunct steel mills. There are the random, unexplained industrial sculptures that surround the Century III mall (it’s actually a slag ladle car and some other steel-mill machinery welded together, although there’s no explanation anywhere. You’re just supposed to know what these metal hunks are, and why they’re there).
And the old crumbling steel mills. Some have been repurposed as warehouses. One was converted into 31st Street Studios, where TV shows and movies were filmed. The city’s always remaking itself, although the landscape doesn’t seem to change as dramatically as other cities. Maybe “repurposing” is a better term. We turn our derelict churches into breweries (“Church Brew Works”) or nightclubs (“Sanctuary.”) How does all this affect the rhythm of life in Pittsburgh? I think Pittsburgh has largely stabilized after the unemployment of the ’80s. It was really bad then. Now, though, the city’s economy has changed to a service-based one, and our numerous universities both bring in new populations and broadcast the change to the world. Although we’re proud of our past, we’re no longer a grimy factory town. I think life here generally passes at a confident pace. Although we’re eager to show off our new image (Pittsburgh re-introduces itself constantly: Super Bowl wins, when they film another big movie here, when the G20 was held here), we’re not in a frenzy to prove anything to ourselves. There’s an unhurried pace here that reminds me of some small towns, and I don’t mean that as an insult. It’s a confident kind of atmosphere, and that peacefulness allows you to accomplish a number of things. To come into your own, on your own terms.
I’m imagining Jerusalem as closer to Pittsburgh than Mexico. It seems like both cities have a number of unique geographical divisions. (Most cities, of course, have ethnic or other self-imposed divisions). Can you talk a little about how the city’s geography affects the way people interact?
Also, can you talk a little about your upcoming novel? Where is it set, and how does that setting affect the characters, or the way you approached the project?
RBO: Well, Mexico is a large country, currently the 11th most populous country in the world, and with many different regions and landscapes and atmospheres and histories, so I can’t say Jerusalem is closer to Pittsburgh. I don’t think the whole of Jerusalem—both East and West, The Old City and Modern Jerusalem—is like anywhere else in the world. Of course the Israeli military presence, the many religious sites (Via Dolorosa, the Kotel and the Dome of the Rock, the most well-known), its historical sites (like the Old City, a World Heritage site and one in danger) and the constant political strife all affect communication and interaction. That’s a given.
In Jerusalem, in Israel, geography is everything. I used to say it was an idolatry of space. Over the years, the anger, frustrations and hopelessness I’ve felt have given way to smaller revelations. Now, and at least for now, Jerusalem is a fertile ruin, and it is like Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, which always comes at the end of every week because of memory and because of practice. Like the psalm of the same psalm but change of key.
I remember one spring in 2003, I went to see an exhibit at Bet HaOmenim, the Artist’s House on Shmuel HaNagid. It was called “Jerusalem and Memory,” with an artist’s note of the desire to see past the historical sites, to look for the “eternal beauty” of the city’s character. Its crevices, its winding roads, its particulars.
I remember that spring, full of cold, gray mornings, and being in love with a woman, and white cyclamens and red anemones outside a synagogue on Givat Tsarfatit, where I sat upstairs in the women’s gallery with two religious friends, and some of the men below periodically turning to look up at the gallery, and I wonder what are they thinking? Are they looking for their wives and daughters and secret lovers? I remember at Germany Colony Bistro dining with that poet who was insulted by me saying ma’nish instead of ma’nishma and discussing R. B. Kitaj’s Diasporist Manifesto olim and the rising unemployment. Amira Hass and Aviv Gefen. The death of Amichai in the papers. Goldstar, Carlsberg, Spanish wine. I remember going to Eliat, to see baby turtles crossing the coral reef, and waiting until nightfall, and still we did not see any, this man and I, a young man who had just finished his army service and had told me that, whenever it rained, he’d stare into a puddle in the road, wanting to disappear. That his father had been in an elite unit, while he’d only driven trucks, and how after his serve he’d gone to Goa and done a lot of drugs until his father came and dragged him back. I held his hand as we sat on the dark beach, and told him, I’m sorry, I’m sorry all of that happened to you, I wish I could be more to you, but I’m in love with someone else.
I remember seeing guava trees in the Jordan Valley on an impromptu trip with friends to help forget that woman I loved and still carrying that feeling of the damage I’d done in not being able to love the man who loved me. I remember feeling rootless, blurry-eyed, reckless in taking long walks in East Jerusalem at night in only windshorts and t-shirts by myself. I remember I stopped praying. I remember holding onto the promise I once made to my father, to always believe. Believe even when I don’t, my father had said. I remember the heaviness of my father’s sadness inseparable from that city. My father lying in my mother’s arms somewhere in Harlingen, Texas, perhaps in an aunt’s house—it’s late, the lights are low, there’s no air conditioning there or here in my Jerusalem apartment, my father happiest in those arms, having found his eternity and his belief after every other promise had failed him. Because returning to these memories of Jerusalem means returning to the sadness of my father for many years, long before I was born. He still carries it, that weight, that weight I too felt in Jerusalem that had nothing to do with historical sites and making a pilgrimage. It is about disappearing into the crevices, and hitchhiking the lengths of a loneliness, livid on tension.
The novel, entitled The Imitation of Crying, is exploring these feelings for Jerusalem as well as of the U.S.-Mexican border. It’s set in four places: the physical place of New York City, particularly the neighborhoods along the 7 Train (Woodside, Sunnyside, Jackson Heights and Flushing) and in the memories of Israel, the Gulf Coast near Mexico and Fuzhou, China. In the novel, a young American Jew of mixed race leaves Israel after a tragedy, and at the end of her rope, her Israeli uncle, now divorced and living in Woodside, opens his home to her. She then meets a man who “works” for her uncle, a charismatic but problematic Jake Wu, strangely both admired and abhorred in his community, the large Fuzhou immigrant population in the city. When they meet, well. . .
I think I started writing this novel the moment I met the man whom Jake Wu is based on. The novel has gone through massive changes, and it’s definitely a novel and not a memoir, though it is based on things that happened to me, to me and to both of us. It’s a love story, but it’s more about two different people really listening to each other. And changing at pivotal moments—because they have to. Because people like them don’t have options. Because of the way immigration, race and migrations have set a certain course for their lives, a course which they can subvert into a form of happiness, but at the risk of great loss. I’d like to turn it into a film one day; in fact, a friend of mine who’s a talented and burgeoning filmmaker tried. But in 2010, the novel wasn’t ready yet. And neither was I, for such a project at that time. I’ve finished a first draft, and am now reading through it, making edits. How all the places sing as they did when I first encountered them, and each has its own season. Living here while writing it and editing it, I feel blessed in a way, by a love that went beyond possessive, or propriety, for two people who broke up. This is for “Jake” and his family too. It is not about them, but of them, and how they welcomed an outsider, how I finally came into my own by realizing, among many things, that migration can be a way of life, and I mean migrations not just of a physical sort. It can be the every day, if that’s what’s truest to you.
I’m thinking you must be a wonderful creative teacher, Robert, given your discipline and hard work. What advice can you give to aspiring writers?
RY: That is a beautiful description of Jerusalem. The images I have of the city mostly come from Western media, which tend to portray it only as a conflict zone. Your experiences in Jerusalem and Mexico give you such an interesting perspective, and I’m surprised that you’re able to draw so many connections between two seemingly disparate countries. And maybe that’s the hope I was talking about before—that our first instinct can be to seek out ways we’re similar, and celebrate them.
Thanks! That’s kind of you to say. My advice is mostly geared towards fiction writers. If memory serves, I recall reading a column in Rolling Stones, where a reporter asked a number of musicians what superpower they wanted most. Masta Killa’s answer was the best: He said, “The ability to control time. You could do anything, think about it.” My advice to fiction writers is to know exactly how much time passes in your story. If you know that three days pass in your story, you have a nice boundary (and an endpoint) to work with. You can make changes to enhance the drama within those three days. And if you don’t have a solid handle on the chronology and temporal boundaries of your story, it often shows.
Before I toss the question back to you, I just wanted to thank you for setting this up. But to sign off, I’ll ask: What advice would you give to the poets?
RBO: Write before you edit, and before you write, read. Read something very different from how you speak or identify, or what you believe. Listen. Listen to speech, especially the kind that sings in lilts and rhythms you can’t understand. Understand that things simply exist as they are, even when one covers his or her head with a designer leather kippahs, without clear explanation, without thinking its meaning is set in stone. Verb to go forward, sit in noun to reflect. Return those beliefs you sometimes give up. Listen.
Robert Yune’s debut novel Eighty Days of Sunlight is forthcoming from Thought Catalog Books. Last year, he was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction and was one of five finalists for the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, selected by Sherman Alexie and Colin Channer. His fiction has appeared in Green Mountains Review, the Kenyon Review and Los Angeles Review, among others. In the past, he’s worked as a behavioral health researcher, a census enumerator, and a stand-in for George Takei. He teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and is the fiction editor of The Fourth River.
Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a 2013 CantoMundo Fellow. A Leopold Schepp Scholar at New York University, she won the Seth Barkas Prize for Best Short Story and The Thomas Wolfe/Phi Beta Kappa Prize for Best Poetry Collection. She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan, where she earned her MFA in Poetry and was a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A graduate of the 2010 Women’s Work Lab, at New Perspectives Theater, her plays have been produced in New York City, Washington DC and Toronto. Her work appears in Arts & Letters, Bayou, Lana Turner Journal and Puerto del Sol. Nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, her debut book of poems SOLECISM was published by Virtual Artists Collective in March 2013. Rosebud is a co-editor for HER KIND at VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Find out more about her at 7TrainLove.org