I have no experience with gorilla suits or child soldiering, myself, but I think it’s reasonable to suspect that standing around in a gorilla suit is better than being coerced into shooting people, or getting shot at.
The inside cover ofVersal’s 7th issue gives us a clue to the magazine’s aesthetic: the definition of “versal.” As it happens, versal is not only a word for versification, but an abbreviation of universal. In that sense, we might assume that Versal wants to be an umbrella encompassing literary expression and human experience. But versal can also mean “single, individual, (or) rare,” and in that sense, the magazine wants to print work that sets itself apart not only in stylistic terms, but in its emphasis on the individual—or, more specifically, the “I.”
In her introduction to the 7th issue, editor Megan M. Garr uses the term “translocal literature” to describe the loose category of writing she’s concerned with. But the idea the word “translocal” suggests may be misleading. It’s true that Versal crosses a number of physical borders. Printed in Amsterdam, it showcases stories and poems by writers working in a number of locales. Garr herself is an American living abroad (also, in Amsterdam). But in spite of all this, Versal doesn’t seem much interested in place. Displacement, perhaps, and certainly identity—but what “translocal” writers can offer, Garr claims, is really “insight into the translocal line that can then be applied everywhere.”
It’s an ambitious goal—and probably an impossible one—but at a time when literary, academic, political, and cultural discourse seems focused on difference, I find the optimism refreshing. And, inasmuch as it is possible, Versal delivers. Its emphasis on identity and displacement illuminates the individuality of the I, andhighlights, in a general way, the emotional experiences we share.
Who’s we? Well, that’s a little more complicated. I can only give you a few examples, and hope my effort to connect the dots makes sense.
Early in the issue is a poem by Rebecca Givens: “In Her House, Shadow.” Set in a hospital, it tells the story of a doctor telling his patients to forget the word home. “See this word home?” he asks. “I’ll write it on blank paper. / Watch as I rip it up; now it’s gone.” The poem ends with an image of a woman who, “starts to reply / then looks at the paper.”
What this means, exactly, I’m not sure. It isn’t clear in the text. But I think the suggestion is that these patients weren’t going to leave the hospital again. Maybe they were elderly, and it was a nursing home. Maybe they were just sick. But I felt as though they weren’t going home, and it made me think about how the people and places and ideas once associated with home change, become unfamiliar over time. Home, in this case, means both the physical home and the home as an element of identity.
I thought of going back, at the age of 35, to the house I grew up in. The new owners had cut down the trees, planted flowerbeds, painted the place. I didn’t feel any connection to the place at all. I felt as though some part of my identity had been stolen. For all practical purposes, my childhood home no longer existed. There were no memories there. I could have written them on a piece of paper, burned it, and watched it go away.
Mary Miller’s “Baby/Hon” deals with identity more explicitly. Hovering between poetry and prose, it begins “Already he is baby / and I am hon / and he’s in my bed…” This business, these pet names, is not at all unfamiliar. What’s interesting about Miller’s piece is the way it uses these names as both a negation and an affirmation of identity. The speaker and her lover have replaced their names them with terms of endearment, defining themselves from here forward only as they relate to each other. Baby and Hon no longer see each other as multifaceted individuals; they see each other as people who occupy a certain space, who function in a specific role. Based on the first word of the piece, “already,” we can assume this transformation has taken place quickly, and, for me at least, that made the piece both more and less poignant.
As a reader, I can’t get that invested in these characters or their relationship over the course of half a page. But however meaningful or meaningless this particularrelationship might be, Miller’s approach puts the blind groping for this kind of relationship in sharp relief. The negation of the individual is also a redefinition of identity, and that redefinition clearly satisfied a common need. Because Baby and Hon consent. And nearly everyone does, has, or will at one time.
In that regard, “Baby/Hon” is remarkably effective given its length, right up to the last sentence. It’s an ending full of nostalgia and regret, and I won’t give it away here.
At this point, you may be thinking, “Okay, these are people who surrender their identities or lose their homes, but they’re also people who can afford to go to hospitals, people who have lovers, people who have time to lie around in bed.” In that light, it seems we’re dealing with a very specific class of person—a social class, a cultural class, a tax bracket—and that’s hardly makes a case for Versal as a venue for universal truth, or “insights…. that can be applied everywhere.”
The answer to this is a very short story called “Suit,” by Lehua M. Taitano. The narrator is a “Sri Lankan ex-paramilitary child soldier. Female.” But she tells us that we, “do not need to know the details.” This struck me as a particularly important bit of business. By the end of the first paragraph, our narrator has 1) defined herself by a particular ordeal, and 2) denied the reader access to the experience. Instead, she’s tells us that she’s standing “on the corner in (a) gorilla suit, holding (a) silly sign.” The sign is an advertisement for an auto dealership in Montana where our narrator has found herself employed, and the details she gives us are, for the most part, limited to the ones that are important now: the details that define her new life, her new identity. Her degrading gorilla suit she keeps hidden from her daughter. Our narrator’s parents, we learn, are dead, “their bodies lost.” In this sense, home no longer exists for her.
And it’s here, I think, that we find room to compare “Suit” to “In Her House, Shadow.” In war, the physical home is burned; in Rebecca Givens’ poem, it’s the word. If we’re talking about real life, there’s no room for comparison. But we’re not talking about life. We’re talking about words. And in literary work, every word counts. They create motifs. Evoke emotional experience. And, in that vein, I had the same feeling at the end of both pieces: a sense of displacement. Of loss.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The success of “Suit” is largely dependent on its sense of humor. Standing on the corner in a gorilla suit is a predicament so far flung from being a child soldier: it’s absurd. How can we, as readers, take a lady in a gorilla suit seriously? It’s a cosmic joke played on the character, and in that way, it reminds me a little of Milan Kundera’s The Joke, or The Unbearable Lightness of Being. As absurdity goes, the sheer silliness of our lives, the gorilla suit signifies an abandonment of identity both advantageous and pathetic. I have no experience with gorilla suits or child soldiering, myself, but I think it’s reasonable to suspect that standing around in a gorilla suit is better than being coerced into shooting people, or getting shot at. So we laugh at the gorilla suit, just as we laugh at pet names: Baby. Hon. It’s ridiculous.
Lest anyone misunderstand my point, let me say again: obviously, there are very fewactual similarities between combat and lying in bed with a new lover. In fact, “Suit” is a dramatic illustration of the massive gulf between the experiences human beings can expect to have in different “locales.” If, in reality, we put Baby and Hon next to the lady in the gorilla suit, baby and Hon don’t have any problems at all.
Nonetheless, it seems clear that these pieces share an interest in identity and loss. They paint a grim picture of the world. Think of it: if the common experience, the one shared across cultural and geographical borders, is loss, if the “insight… that can be applied everywhere” is only that the one certain and immovable fact of life is loss,then it’s a sad, sad world. I would almost call it hopeless.
But for some reason I still keep coming back to an image in the closing paragraph of “Suit.” Our narrator tells us that the dealership is having some kind of promotion on Saturday and imagines herself standing next to a machine that makes bubbles and blows them into the air. They “float out…carried by the currents of passing cars.” Most of them will burst, she says, if not against the silly sign she holds, then against the silly suit she has to wear. But, she says, “some will make it across the street.”
And to those, we attach our hope.