1 I heard a shawl for a house, a light awning made from silk or impermanent materials. I go by the sound, what it asks of the mouth when one holds it. The awl doesn’t wiggle; it adopts the mouth’s form. This is what teachers do when they discover the marvel of vowels, I tell my daughters. The vowels attach to objects, and every time those vowels come together, the object appears.
2 We are in Birmingham, pretending to tidy the house for weekend guests. The guests are real, due for arrival, but the tidying is insincere, closer to tweaking, a tiny rearranging of details. Because I love words, I love music that manhandles them with reverence. The Gregorian monks on my mom’s playlist chant words we can’t discern from the background. I listen for vowels, or the objects they fondle; those heavy, lumbering parts that want to be repeated in chorus. This is a litany, I tell my daughters. I make a hark motion with my hand.
I know litanies often go nowhere, or get stuck inside vases where women rearrange flowers to fill a hole, which may be a god that stopped speaking in complete sentences.
The monks ah and om. I rearrange flowers around the vase’s emptiness, to make the emptiness look fuller, lusher, voluminous. This is what gods do, I tell my daughters. This is the work of saints, filling and arranging empty vessels with eye-catching significance. A god that stops speaking is senseless, or lacking senses. History is the story of how gods will do anything for attention.
3 I am in Tuscaloosa, scripting my way through high school. Like a rabbit, I read the room disguised as a forest. I track tree bark for signs of antlers. It is a skill honed by prey. The immigrant is trained to know her place as a fetish, oddball, or comic uplift for southern friends and their heritage. If anything, I am here to serve as a testimony to this nation’s incredible generosity. I thank strangers for opening doors by habit. I am naturalized into infinite gratitude for the aberrance of not being born here. Watch what you say in English, warns my mother. People can hear you.
People don’t remember the past. But they never forget when you say something that offends them. This is the unspoken obligation: every word that comes from my mouth must affirm your liberties, your hot dogs, your latest plastic fashion piece. That level of power, to determine what the vulnerable dare to say, that is your heritage.
4 I am in Bucharest. For three euros, the baba sells me a communion-maker, its wooden cross engraved with Greek letters. The magic words burned into the flesh of the tree. It is cursed, the dominant baba says. I slip it into my backpack and sidestep the ptuie-ptuie her friend leaves on the dirt near my feet. It is useless, the baba warns. If you use it to mark communion, it will be cursed. I believe her.
I am fascinated by the distance between a blessing and a curse on broken flesh. I am twenty-five and pregnant, unmarried, incubating the first bastard in my family tree. I am here for my grandmother’s funeral; to pay my respects to the woman who cared for me when my parents fled to the United States. It is a relief to be surrounded by Romanian vowels, their warm intonation, their curses and threats. I am trying to remember the girl I wanted to be.
But she is never available. Remembering is not knowing; it is not a form of knowledge so much as a filmstrip. Memory is the first screen of nostalgia. Memory is a brick that gets heavier when carried. Memory is not the truth of what happened. I know this from watching adults argue over memories of what the dictator said.
The baba warns me that terrible consequences will result from letting the evil eye touch my baby. A baby is so easily ruined, she rasps. No ring on my finger. A sign of the cross to guard her from what this girl who paid money for curses might want from the scene.
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
Our Revenge Will Be the Laughter of Our Children
What is it about the revolutionary that draws our fascinated attention? Whether one calls it the North of Ireland or Northern Ireland, the Troubles continue to haunt the land and those who lived through them.
In a field near the Gaza Strip, a missile strike, visions, and onlookers searching for an explanation.
Surviving and Subverting the Totalitarian State: A Tribute to Ismail Kadareby Kapka Kassabova
As part of the ceremony honoring Kadare as the 2020 laureate—with participants logging in from dozens of countries around the world— Kadare’s nominating juror, Kapka Kassabova, offered a video tribute from her home in Scotland.
Dead Storms and Literature's New Horizon: The 2020 Neustadt Prize Lecture
During the Neustadt Prize ceremony on October 21, 2020, David Bellos read the English language version of Kadare’s prize lecture to a worldwide Zoom audience.
Ismail Kadare: Winner of the 2020 Neustadt International Prize for Literature
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, World Literature Today presented the 2020 Neustadt Festival 100 percent online. In the lead-up to the festival, U.S. Ambassador Yuri Kim officially presented the award to Kadare at a ceremony in Tirana in late August, attended by members of Kadare’s family; Elva Margariti, the Albanian minister of culture; and Besiana Kadare, Albania’s ambassador to the United Nations.
How to Adopt a Cat
Hoping battles knowing in this three-act seduction (spoiler alert: there’s a cat in the story).
Chicken Soup: The Story of a Jewish Family
Chickens, from Bessarabia to New York City, provide a generational through-line in these four vignettes.
“Awl” is from a series titled “Words I Did Not Understand.” Through memory—“the first screen of nostalgia”—and language, a writer pieces together her story of home.
Apocalyptic Scenarios and Inner Worlds
A Conversation with Gloria Susana Esquivel
Marie's Proof of Love
People believe, Marie thinks, even when there’s no proof. You believe because you imagine. But is imagination enough to live by?
THERE’S NO MIRAGE AT THESE LUXURIOUS DESERTHIDEAWAYS BOASTING A-LIST GLAMOUR ANDCAPTIVATING SANDSCAPES.
A Very Special Custom Martini Cadet
Caring for Your Loved Ones with COVID-19 at Home
Much has been reported about severe cases of COVID-19, but what about those who may be experiencing mild or lesser symptoms and are not in situations where they have to be hospitalized?
This year marks the 50th anniversary of my fascination with drag racing. During that time I have taught myself to draw, paint and make models of dragsters.
The Postman's Hymn
Finish this shift, get to the next job, study for midterms, practice the sheet music for church, tuck Matt into bed….
This year marks the 50th anniversary of my fascination with drag racing.
The View From Gun Country
One Alabama woman’s experience— as an observer and as a shooting victim—underscores how hungry Americans are to reach consensus.
Un Western moderno en Birmingham
‘Peaky Blinders’: venganza, redención y rock & roll
Sabores del mundo: Árabe
Llena de sabores cálidos, exóticos y especias, la cocina árabe es un must que debes conocer, preparar y disfrutar
Double Gun Bolting Systems
Spindles, Bites and Underlugs