Writing in the Mirror of a River

Free IWP Course: Creative Writing, Disability, and Inclusion

Dreams of a River

The 1988 IWP year was the first and the most important gathering, in terms of number and diversity, of novelists, poets and playwrights I have ever taken part in. It was the kind of experience where you feel you have to be all eyes and ears, not the least because you find yourself among established and promising writers, in new cultural and geographical surrounding, but the main reason is that it profoundly resonates in your own work You feel part and parcel of a whole community dedicated to literary activity and its expression in writing, readings, debates, workshops, visits...A healthy competition drives you to write, talk and listen. To do that, you need a language, one or more.

The desire to communicate with no delay, understand and be understood, read the way writers read, write the way they see writing, urged me to try my hand at the first short story ever in English. "An Icelandic Dream" was born out of all these, and the stimulating encounter with an Icelandic playwright and his sculptor wife, both part of the IWP. That Algeria and Iceland, two countries geographically poles apart, met in history centuries ago, left me with a deep sense of loss. The loss that touches upon identity as it has been defined by history, and which suddenly erupts like a dormant volcano awakening. Thanks to the leap into the world and the mysteries of the English language,History, from the point of view of literature, opened up new territories to be explored.

"Writing in the Mirror of a River" and other stories followed. Strolling alone or among writers along the Iowa river, day in, day out, in hot and cold weather, leaves traces on the imagination. Discussions with oneself or with fellow writers center most of the time around the inner recesses and the history of the stories, the kind of preoccupations that are invisible to readers yet are always there, driving writers to pursue their literary activity.

Being essentially a novelist in the French language, I learned in the course of the IWP adventure the instinctual art of the short story with the help of a tool most suited to it--the English language and its economy. Like the essay, the short story does not endeavour to exhaust things; it tries to capture the essence of immediacy, of the current state of the human individual. It is, so to speak, a lightning conductor which measures what has just disappeared.

Med Magani
Fall 2004

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
--L.P. Hartley

In the lift descending from the eighth to the ground floor, ten writers wondered aloud, mad with worry, what was happening at the Mayflower.

That day all the floors seemed deserted; a smell of bleach was hanging in the air, as if no human presence had intruded into the long corridor during the whole night. An even stranger event had occurred that same night: a lodger on the eighth floor discovered a white dog hidden in the laundry. He threw his dirty linen on the ferociously barking animal and ran back. In no time light flooded the white walls of all the rooms of the majestic dormitory called the Mayflower, overlooking the Iowa River, which had once been a clean and wild-living torrent.

-Five pages of the novel I am writing have disappeared from my room, said a writer.
-I cannot find two of my poems, said another writer.
-Someone has been rummaging around in my desk and the garbage can, added a third.

The other guests of the Mayflower looked at each other and then at those who had just spoken; almost all of them expressed their fears at the same time:

-I had a strong feeling that someone was looking over my shoulder.
-What could I say? How do I explain what is happening? The names of my characters vanished from the pages. I spent a hell of a long time trying to remember them. You can see the blanks. It’s as if they never existed in my fiction. Not a single name!
-It’s worse in my case. Whole passages have been erased. I even found paragraphs of the opening chapter inserted in several other pages. Unbelievable!
-The characters in my play now speak poetically.
-Several pages have been retyped without full stops and commas.
-What will happen next? I lost my notes.

When the lift reached the ground floor the last writer said that they had all better leave the place. The rest of the writers were commenting with a sense of anguish on the night’s events. Two hundred novelists, poets and playwrights had been invited to participate in the symposium “Literature of the World: Past and Present.” The place chosen was a small university town during an exceptionally dry summer. Most of them were visiting America for the first time; they came from all parts of the world with a strong desire to make their voices heard and have their works translated.

While the organizers of the conference were busy getting everything set for the day trip, the writers talked about the terrible blow that had struck their creative fate. The names of the suspects were circulated in a low voice; they were officials, novelists, poets, journalists, playwrights, information desk officers, and a few other people who happened to work in the Mayflower. Seconds before the buses left, a string of virus spread among the conference guests – headaches, flu, indigestion, eyestrains and lumbagos. A good third of the writers returned to their rooms, seemingly unhappy about the poor health that prevented them from the pleasure of walking in the countryside surrounding Iowa City. As cooking facilities were available on the eighth floor, they had meals in their own rooms, keeping an eye on their belongings and literary materials.

One could hear them drumming on the typewriter. Hours were spent searching for the lost parts and missing items in their manuscripts: words, paragraphs, quotations, images, sentences, names, in some cases even autobiographical information. They had never experienced such an ordeal. How could anyone forget a poem he or she wrote a few hours earlier? With his heart and mind…words a writer turns to flesh; or a gripping idea which can capture the readers’ imaginations and compel them to read from cover to cover; or the almost impossible task, impossible because agonizing, of overcoming the never-ending combat between the urgency of feeling and the resistance of the written language?

The garbage cans were meticulously searched, at least those which had not already been emptied, but the medley of ash, cigarette butts, torn food coupons, spit, newspapers, and tiny pieces of drafts and outlines rendered the search operation a frenzied and useless scavenge.

A poet from Latin America spent the whole day scouring the Mayflower. He borrowed a pair of binoculars from a student on the fifth floor and hid in the bronze-green woods facing the tall building. Neither panoramic views followed by close-ups, nor vice versa, disclosed the cause of the visible and invisible disappearances. An African short story writer broke seven keys on his typewriter, as if it were the machine that was responsible for his sudden amnesia.

Two poets, one from Norway, the other from Belgium, began quarrelling over the use of the common kitchen,; they could not stand the sight of each other any more as they gradually substituted food for poetic language. A Palestinian playwright re-titled his last play “The Ghost of the Living at the Mayflower”; the officials did not appreciate the semantic slide and took him aside, where the author was gently sermonized.

Discord increased as the weekend went by. A conspicuous mistrust began building up; it took a topographical twist. At first the mistrust was vertical, so to speak. All the students staying on the floors below the eighth became open to suspicion, the behavior of any one of them entering the top floor was watched, heavy silence reigned in the common lifts, sites of pent-up anger and angry looks. The horizontal mistrust was the worst. In a single day the capital of friendship began to dissolve drastically; encounters in common kitchens and the Mayflower lobby lost the warmth and pleasure of conversational exchanges; several padlocks were affixed on the dividing doors.

Among the participants in the conference the journalists and the critics were the only ones not to complain about vanishing ideas, passages, interviews or photos. They were not in the know about what was happening; for various reasons the writers did not deem it necessary to tell them, the most obvious being their fear of becoming the laughing stock of the prestigious meeting and probably in their own countries later on. Only one journalist noticed the changes which were altering the human landscape of the conference, but she attributed this to the new eating habits, homesickness, and the unusually hot weather.

For the first time in their literary careers writers began to feel what a real block meant. It was something different from a passing incapacity to stretch one’s imagination or to couch in words certain states of mind and persistent formless ideas. Different from the fear of the white page. It was akin to a fundamental, collective loss. The individual block that struck them now and then before was no more than an itch on their back, or a tiny pebble in a shoe. Now for the first time in their lives they were sculpting words;, language was proving to be solid material.

For the writers who chiseled its surface the experience was one of suffering. The more the present resisted their writings, the more they drifted into the past, and that was easier, but also painful. Why were the disappearances forcing them to retreat into the past? They could not account for it.

A middle-aged writer spent much of one night crying noisily. When asked for the reason he replied that he once threw away his daughter’s doll; he was then twenty-five years old. Another writer spent sleepless nights mulling over the fact that he sold his parents’ furnished house just after the second of them died. He had erased a good deal of his own past once and for all. It was an unforgivable act. His parents’ past belonged now to other people, if they had not already uprooted their names and ties to the entire region where they had lived.

The participants in the conference let the past make its way into their consciousness. They did not confine it to the thematic and literary past of the international gathering. Even the poets did not indulge in glorifying their countries’ histories. Many Third World writers did raise, at summit Conferences among themselves, the question of their self-effacement, during the wars of liberation and afterwards, from the struggles against the liberators-turned-despots. Excuses were untenable. A woman novelist vowed to write a book, from the first to the last page, in the second person singular. She would be the main character and she would address herself as “you,” just as a Tunisian writer had done in a novel called La Rage aux Tripes, set in New York. She had read the book in her country. In it its author, Mustapha Tlili, settled accounts with himself, or rather with his other self who worked and wrote abroad. Circumstances, events, personal sayings, and facts barely hidden surfaced in her mind; she did not put an end to the flow. She even discovered that self-inflicted insults were more bearable than lies.

To keep his mind busy with the present a renowned playwright set himself the task of daily describing and putting into words all the TV advertisements he could see. Yet the past flowed back constantly because so much of the publicity was about food – his lasting trauma since one of his children died of malnutrition. Because writing took precedence over family the playwright had divorced his wife who, unable to find a job, survived on potatoes.

“Literature of the World: Past and Present” went on. For a few days nothing happened. A great number of names became internationalized, and a great number of new topics and thought-provoking concepts cropped up, entering the multi-layered spheres of the conference jargon. For a few days things went so well one could have said a lubricating device was in charge the different activities, to the point that a corridor party was spontaneously thrown. Writers set a table in the middle of the kilometric eighth floor and brought wine, beer, cheese, crackers, and loaves of bread; they chatted, gossiped, impersonated each other, and danced till the wee hours of the morning. The animosity between flatmates dissolved into thin air. Lull before the storm.

The next night, around eleven o’clock, screams filled the corridor all of a sudden. The same writer who had seen a dog in the laundry had another vision of the barking animal. The white dog scared him to death. The writer shut himself in and began to pack. No one could persuade him that animals were not allowed in the Mayflower. Then and there a thorough search took place, a battalion of writers and conference organizers combed all the floors, but in vain. A few hours later a fire broke out, the heavy doors of the corridor entry were ablaze. .

That night was a transitional night; it announced in a most violent manner the end of the summer heat waves that had been scorching the Midwest. For the first time after decades and decades of polluted death one could see the Iowa river coming to life again. Waters murmured, hissed, thundered, then grew menacingly larger, overflowing the river banks in a last shudder of life; their colorless surface shone like a mirror. The river’s violent turmoil was in fact caused by heavy winds and rains that were passing through the town, the after-effects of a hurricane receding from the western coasts it had devastated.

In the morning fear spread through the conference, but only among the writers, curiously enough the journalists were blind and deaf. Once again ideas, passages, paragraphs, characters, poems and essays, names and sheets of paper flew away in a nocturnal sleight of hand. As before writers complained to each other about failing memory, a lazy mind, and other serious matters such as disappearance of materials. Something more tangible was in the air that day: a speaker could not find the paper he had to read, so he improvised, lamentably; a white dog ran across the Conference hall; rain leaked down upon a bald head.

No writing mind found peace during that night. Relationships changed. The dividing doors remained shut, words exchanged were close to nil, save for the barely apologetic “whoops”. A poet found a missing new poem in the kitchen garbage can, but it was illegible in the red sauce of leftovers. He raged against his flatmate, terming his alleged act a perfect example of gutter criticism. The flatmate got even by tearing up a short story he had just finished writing, realizing afterwards that it had been his first science fiction story ever. A more troubling idea crossed his mind: how could he have written in a genre he was totally ignorant about?

Two lovers – an essayist and a novelist – broke off their relationship, neither of them daring to stay overnight in the other’s room, for the loss of their love affair could not match the loss of a few ideas or pages or characters. The love test was not a conference theme.

Nearly all outings were cancelled. The lights remained turned on during much of the night. Eyes were glued to manuscripts.

A strange dialogue took place in a room: a few seconds after he left the room where he was discussing the problems of the disappearances a flatmate could hear his neighbor’s shaky voice and that of a woman, faraway and tender. ;.

-I liked your tattoos, said the woman.
-I was expecting your call. Where have you been? said the neighbor.
-I was busy reading your books you know.
-Read them after I leave.
-I liked your tattoos. What do they mean for you?
-They’re just numbers.
-Numbers?
-Latin numbers, said the neighbor.
-Is there a link with the bestsellers you write?
-After our affair I’ll add a new number. It’ll be the last. As you will be my last woman.

A couple of hours later, the neighbor flatly denied that he had had a discussion with a woman; he said he had been taking a nap. Then embarked on a fierce attack on best-selling writers. Skin-deep literature should not have been allowed to enter the conference, he said, to the flatmate’s bewilderment.

An ambulance came to the Mayflower to take away a writer shivering with cold, the ambulance staff doing their best to convince him that his sickness was caused by the sudden weather change, but he persisted nonetheless in saying that the warmth of the words had escaped his mind and body, and that that was the real reason for his abrupt weakness. In the hospital neither doctors nor nurses could prevent him from putting his fingers under his armpits, a device more reliable than a thermometer. When brought back to his room at Mayflower, he exercised his fingers on the typewriter by writing nonsense sentences, and said he was experimenting before returning to the real thing.

The hardest blows of the conference were yet to come.

A married couple fell apart: the husband and the wife wrote their plays invariably under a single name, until they now thought it necessary to split up words, just like everything else they shared. They had a tough time finding out what belonged to Caesar, but the divorce proceedings were carried out in the end. Some words and ideas were so entrenched in both the man’s and the woman’s mind that no arbiter could disentangle the maze of the marital relationship, personal past, and shared literary experience.

A literary historian read a paper in which he called into question all his previous works. He dated literature back to rock carving: human and animal signs drawn in caves and elsewhere were neither more nor less than stories, of a lesser kind perhaps, but they somehow possessed access we as readers had not yet been able to discover and therefore cast some light on the writer’s imagination and on imagination at large. Furious, another literary historian threw a pebble at his colleague’s head.

The writer afflicted with dog visions saw yet another dog, this time white and feathered. Naturally no one believed him. The animal did not bark. No one could, either, account for the provenance of the many feathers found in the laundry room, nor for the ones slipped under every single door of the long corridor. The “barking writer,” as the participants in the Conference called him, tried hard to find a solution to the peculiarities of his unconscious, or what he himself termed the “soundless barking of a young mind” which , after the conference, turned into the title of a short story: “The Shadow of an Indian.”

Following the words, sentences, pages, ideas, characters and so on, human beings began disappearing, frightened by the turn of events. Several writers returned to their home countries before the end of the conference, for a variety of reasons. A particularly alarming case virtually brought to a halt the international gathering when a novelist known for his shyness vanished, leaving a note in his room. The note read thus: ‘a certain peace.’ This was translated into a case of drowning in the river. At the same time, another message was found. It read: ‘yes, peace will never leave us.’ Its author, a woman playwright, also took a French leave. For the conference the simultaneous discoveries meant a double drowning.

Little did they know that two fugitive writers were honeymooning somewhere in the world where gravity still exerts some power on words capable of changing lives. The shy novelist and the playwright sent a message to the conference which they felt they were no longer a part of. Literature, they wrote in the message, belongs to ghosts.

Months after the “Literature of the World: Past and Present” conference, all the participants received a book translated into more than a hundred languages, dialects, vernacular and everyday languages. The synchronicity of the translations was impressive, and puzzling. Everywhere in Iowa City and the rest of the country, bookshops held piles of the mysterious book whose publisher was unknown. This phenomenon also took place in a multitude of other countries. The book, entitled “Riverbed Writing,” was hailed as a literary event of a lofty and profound order, the true fiction of this century’s last quarter.

All the material that had vanished during the course of the conference reappeared in the river book. It overflowed with hosts of poems, fictional and theatrical passages, essays and critical pieces, and a limitless number of characters and ideas. The table of contents was this:

  • Chapter One:
    • Calligraphing the River.
  • Chapter Two:
    • The Mind of a Ghost.
  • Chapter Three:
    • Third World Ghosts and Modern Western Literature.
  • Chapter Four:
    • The Supreme Ghost.
  • Chapter Five:
    • The Feathered Skeleton.
  • Chapter Six:
    • When Nothing Happens.
  • Chapter Seven:
    • Light in a River Bed.
  • Chapter Eight:
    • They and Us.
  • Chapter Nine:
    • Postghostism and Beyond.

An autobiographical note ended the book. The author said that names, dates and places of birth did not really matter, save for the dead. His sole obsession in death was to endow ideas and feelings with colors , wings and masks.