Оскорбленные чувства ['Feelings that offend'], the most recent novel of IWP alumna Alisa GANIEVA (IWP '12, '18), was launched in Moscow this summer. Alisa, who is among the 2018 jury members for the distinguished Neustadt Prize for International Literature, will be returning to Iowa this fall as a visiting writer at Grinnell College.
Wanna play ?
This is a story that tries to explore how the “right of the strong” gets created. A little girl, four years old, beats a poor boy, younger and weaker than her, on an almost daily basis. How does a child understand, without anyone telling her anything, that she has the right to act unjustly? How does a child realize that she belongs to the privileged? Social differences and the distinctions that arise from them play an important role. But why should the weaker child return every day, though he knows very well what will happen to him? Perhaps because, even in the process of being beaten, he gets a taste of the world of the strong, and in some way becomes a part of it?
It was a beautiful summer day. A perfect morning. The grass in the yard was still damp and cool, and white steam rose into a cloudless sky. She was somewhere in the garden, riding her bicycle under tall trees with thick leaves. Around her was a frenzy of buzzing bees. A servant who occasionally performed the duties of a nanny was sitting next to the fountain, watching her little brother, though he didn’t really need anyone to watch him, since he just slept most of the time in a straw crib with white lace.
She must have been four years old that summer. It was around the time when she was just beginning to conceive of herself as a separate being, and a being she liked. What she felt was above all a new obstinacy, a strong wave of determination that now ran in her veins, as her presence in the world changed from vague to distinct. By now she could spend hours alone, playing quietly in a corner or occupying herself with a thousand different things, while at the same time maintaining an awareness that everything she did was a confirmation of the change that had taken place, of the wonderful creature she had begun to become.
“Wanna play?” the boy asked.
He was a pitiful little boy, a little younger than she, barefoot, and with a shaved head. He always had a length of green snot dangling from his nose. They had told her not to go anywhere near him, because he had lice. His father was their steward, a big fat man who always smelled of ouzo. They lived in a little shed near the well on the very edge of the estate.
“Wanna play?” he asked her again, with that pathetic look on his face.
She looked him straight in the eye without saying a thing. She let her bicycle fall to the ground and started to run. Behind her she heard the boy’s footsteps, following her. She ran around the house and up the stone staircase. The kitchen door was open. She stopped to catch her breath. Everything was spotless and tidy. The pots and pans shone in the morning light, the canary was chirping in its cage. No one was around. The house was perfectly still, as if it were sleeping. She started running again, down the hall, the boy behind her. To her right and left were the closed doors of bedrooms, and for a minute it seemed to her as if she could see right through them, to the drawn shutters, the half-dark, the empty beds with their white linen spreads, breathing all on their own in the cool silence.
She pushed open the little door next to the pantry and started up the stairs, two at a time. The boy followed behind, out of breath. There was a long corridor at the top of the stairs. The passage was strewn with all kinds of junk and she picked her way forward jumping over old trunks, armchairs with torn cushions, broken picture frames and mirrors shrouded with sheets. She pushed open the last door and let the boy go inside ahead of her. The place was an enormous expanse of darkness. The atmosphere was stifling, and had a musty smell, of dust and rat poison. She waited a minute for her eyes to adjust, then closed the door.
Her cry echoed like the thrust of a knife, then sank into the four walls.
Ouaaaaaaaaa. Each time she would start in the exact same way. Shrieking, she would push the boy into the dark and hit him with all her might. He would sniffle and cry out, an unbearable little yelp so feeble that no one would ever hear it and come to rescue him. She would hit him again, again, again. She would kick him in the stomach, pull his hair, scratch his cheeks. Then she’d give him one last push and go back out into the hall. She’d run down the stairs, then go back out to her toys in the garden, as if nothing had happened. She knew the boy would come back the next day and ask her again if she wanted to play.
By the fountain the servant was dozing, leaning against the straw crib. Soon her baby brother would wake up and need to eat. For a minute she stood still, looking out at the sea. The morning light painted the cape blue, and the few houses along the shore; the sea was like sky-blue cream, and the only sound was the cawing of a seagull. Then she would catch sight of her mother coming, weighed down with groceries, and run to the front gate to help her. They went into the kitchen and together put the fruit into the fridge, the sugar and the coffee in their own special jars. “You’re the best little girl in the world,” her mother would say, and give her a kiss.
She was the best little girl, and around that time they gave her a lovely gift. A little red cap some family friend had brought back from Iraq. The same friend had given her mother a carved silver ring with a long, thin stone. She liked to wear them both at once and go out for walks in the street. One day, as she passed by her parents’ bedroom, their door was ajar and she stopped to look in. Her gaze happened to fall on the mirror in her mother’s dressing table. She saw her reflection and was stunned. It wasn’t that she was pretty; her features were ordinary, even anonymous. But there was something else going on. Her face was pure victory! An all-powerful face that no one could resist. She looked at herself long and hard, so as to remember that image. Then she went out into the garden to oil her bicycle.
She didn’t go back to the mirror, but that reflection of victory remained alive within her that summer. A sense of omnipotence drove her steps at every moment: when she was walking, when she was playing hide-and-seek in the sand dunes, when she went diving off the cape.
There was one motionless moment in the garden. A deep sky made of granite and an uneasy silence, as if a storm were approaching. It was still afternoon and the sun burned feverishly down on the horizon, but under the willows and the eucalyptus trees, the light flickered suddenly, then froze. For a fraction of a second nothing at all made a sound. Invisible rattles, white noise, and whispers flooded her mind. Then the leaves of the trees started to rustle again. Insects with golden shells crawled into the flourishing flowerbeds and high above the cicadas took up their song. As the shadows of the trees ran over the grassy paths, she waited in silence.
Soon afternoon would become evening. Night would fall swiftly. Then she would see the boy approaching, his tiny figure slipping from the light into the darkness. “Wanna play?” he would plead in his whining voice.
Translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich
The theme of my story was not S&M, as it may have appeared. The "pleasure" that the little girl got from beating the weaker boy was more part of an affirmation ritual. I don't want to go into the psychoanalytic aspects of it -- that is really not the point.
As I'm very concerned with violence among children and the phenomenon of bullying--which is spreading so in many countries-- in my story I tried to trace how somebody so young (and, because of her youth, stripped of adult hypocrisy) identifies with the rights of the powerful and feels free to commit injustice without any apparent reason or fear of punishment.
After three days of participating in the New Symposium, I can think back on the story a little differently. Of course a story is not an essay -- when it is written it is written. But based on what I heard and learned at the Symposium, especially about restorative justice, I can imagine what a sequel to it might be, or even a whole other story on the same theme, if I ever were to write them.
If there were to be a continuation of the existing story, the katharsis could be either punishment or revenge. Because both children, the offender and the victim, are frozen in their respective roles, the only possible way out of the impasse would be one of these two alternatives -- punishment by adults or revenge by the victimized child.
But what I heard at the Symposium, especially in the contributions of Barry Sanders and Tony Eprile, enabled me to think of another possible sequel to the events described. The victim could have the chance to get revenge and finally decide not to. Or a mediator could help the situation, restoring the balance as in the playground example in Sanders’ essay.
The other, new story that presented itself to my mind after my time in Paros would concern a child who is being unjustly punished by the teacher for something he/she hasn't done, or that was done by another child. At a certain point he finds out something concerning the teacher or the other child that he can use to take revenge.
Is he going to use it? This could be the focus of the story: the possibility of another perspective which overturns the "eye for an eye" concept of justice.