Hey y’all, I’m writing to share some happy news (and then I’ll get to Yeezus): a novella I wrote, SORRY FOR PARTYING, was recently named a runner-up for the Paris Literary Prize, a novella competition run by the wonderful Shakespeare and Company Bookshop in Paris. On top of the honor itself, the sponsoring de Groot Foundation flew me out to Paris for the weekend to celebrate literature with my co-runner up, Svetlana Lavochkina, for her novella DAM DUCHESS, and the big winner, C. E. Smith, for his novella BODY ELECTRIC, along with all the wonderful folks in the Shakespeare & Co Community.
A special honor was that two of the prize’s judges came in from London to celebrate with us, and both wrote short columns about the prize which marveled at judging a truly blind literary prize. Rebecca Carter, a literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit, wrote of my novella that “Tessa Brown’s wonderfully demotic Sorry for Partying was full of Hispanic American slang and references to Occupy Wall Street, so I guessed where the author was based, but not her ethnicity.” She added that ” all three of the winning novellas were, in part, about the alienation of modernity. C.E. Smith writes of Reality TV invading an American morgue. Tessa Brown’s story concerned creative teachers being fired from Chicago schools in favour of those who toe the line. Svetlana Lavochkina’s exuberant Dam Duchess is about the inhumanity of a Stalinist dam-building project.”
Erica Wagner, the Literary Editor of The Times of London, lauded the task of judging a prize with ” absolutely nothing to go on: no publisher’s reputation, no quiet word from an agent, no encomium from a publicist. You don’t even know the name or nationality of the author;it’s amazing how difficult it is to stop yourself from trying to figure out whether the writer is a man or a woman, where they are from, what their background might be.” Of my novella, she wrote, “Tessa Brown’s story…showed a level of political engagement and narrative art that’s rarely seen these days.”
The biggest pleasure of this all was giving a reading among Shakespeare and Company’s friendly walls of books. In honor of the prize, I thought I might share what I read, my novella’s beginning, with you all. I should also take this opportunity to thank all the folks at Shakespeare & Co – Terry, Sylvia, David, and more- the judges, and the de Groots for an incredible Paris experience.
Sorry For Partying
For single black female Alison White, Pilsen was a precious place to live. Populated mainly by Spanish-speakers, tacked onto the south side of the Loop, divided from the rest of Mexo-Chicago by a freeway whose job it was to do just that, Pilsen persisted. Even now, in the fall of 2011, as the heat hung on and Hispanic radio drifted through the streets, as the impeding hordes of hipsters—having exhausted themselves moving northwards and west, priced out by the gentrification they themselves had produced, having in recent months doubled back, for the first time, to the south side of the Loop, to discover Pilsen—even through this, Pilsen persisted. The taquerias still sold chiles rellenos, the bodegas laid out their tomatillos and tortillas every morning, the murals in bright yellows, blues and reds were hardly tarnished by these demographic shifts. For the most part, Alison was glad.
But not right now. Now, she was laying on Carmen’s bare mattress, as he cleaned up his life around her. For a year they had shared this second floor apartment in a humble home on Loomis and 19th street, lived happily in some kind of domestic bliss, but apparently this was then end. He was leaving her.
“Don’t go,” Ali moaned. She grimaced and clutched at her guts. On top of everything, she had her menstrual cramps. Also, it was raining. She could hear the rain surround their little house, flooding their small neighborhood with wet. Ali groaned. She had a theory that when her abdomen hurt this bad, Wallo had successfully impregenated her this month, and the pain wracking her south-of-the-border was her IUD rejecting whatever illegal alien had implanted itself on her uterine wall.
“Don’t go,” she said again. She opened her eyes and marveled at the sight of Carmen’s emptied room, barer than she’d ever seen it. Gone were the bright red curtains and Himalayan prayer flags, the faded posters of Ricky Martin and Shakira, the nails above the bureau where her roommate hung the necklaces he only wore around the house. She had never seen the room like this, devoid of those artifacts of Carmen which constituted his very Carmen-ness. They had all been here when she moved in. All he hadn’t packed was the photograph of Howard Zinn, clipped from the People’s History at the Pilsen Public Library, now on a dining chair forming a makeshift shrine with a statue of Ganesha and a dollar candle of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Onto the candle’s glass wall the virgin mother was painted with her palms open and her eyes raised, her suffering nearly as graceful and exquisite as Carmen’s, who only this morning had been fired from his job as fourth grade special needs coordinator and Alison’s co-teacher at Progress Charter School, nee Cermak Elementary, where they had both until recently worked.
“How will I do Columbus Day without you?” Ali asked.
Carmen came and sat at the edge of the bed. “Just bring this picture of Zinn with you to school,” he said, rubbing Ali’s back. “And hold it to your heart mientras se lo dices a los chiquitos how Cristobal Colon was a racist, rapist, slaveowner who thought their ancestors were stupid animals and he stole their country for imaginary gold.”
Ali propped herself up on her elbows to better consider the picture of Zinn. “It’s like the worst of both worlds,” she said. “Yes Columbus was horrible, but he also spoke Spanish, which everyone also forgets. What do I tell our little hispanohablantes?”
“Tell them the truth,” Carmen sighed. “If you don’t lie to them, that will be enough.”
Alison flopped back down onto her belly. Traffic rattled past the window, sending water droplets fluttering down the iron tiers of a fire escape.
They stood dancing in the kitchen as the onions and peppers sputtered on the stove, Carmen occasionally spinning out from Ali’s embrace to stir them with a battered wooden spoon. Through the floor they could hear the family downstairs arguing in Spanish, the mother chiding her kids like all mothers do. On the kitchen table, Ali’s cell phone buzzed. She dropped Carmen’s arm to take it.
“Wallo’s coming over,” she said, sitting down. “What? He called me.”
“Bullshit, muchacha,” Carmen said. He spooned the fajitas onto a plate and carried them over to the table. “So why you don’t turn him down?’
Alison knew her roommate was mad, but it felt easier to let him slip away, drip drip drip, like whatever blue-eyed baby grew inside her. “Leave me alone,” she said. “I have cramps.”
“Yes, a gringo pendejo will solve your womanly pains, absolutamente,” Carmen said. He held a taco over the stove range’s open flames, then flipped it with his bare fingers.
“I’m sorry,” Ali said. Carmen was older, he knew things she didn’t. His eyes told her he knew what she was doing, that she was preemptively pulling back. But understanding didn’t mean it felt good. He walked to the table with a plate of tortillas, sliced tomatos, grated cheese.
“Uuuuuuoooooooggggggghhhhaaaaaahhhhh,” Ali cried, already filling a taco. “How am I going to survive without you?”
“No se,” he said. But his eyes said: so tell me not to go. Say you love me the most.
They ate in silence until the doorbell rang. Ali buzzed Wallo in and then there he was, sliding past her through the open door, his thick black hair piled atop his head, almost female in its luxuriance, his feet skittering across the kitchen tile as though this was a television set, his slim hips leading like Ali and Carmen had pulled Wallo in by his corduroy waistband.
“Hola, fuckers!” said Wallo. “Alison, Carmelo.”
Grimacing at his given name, Carmen stood and carried some empty dishes to the sink. Wallo promptly took his seat and patted his knee, inviting Carmen to sit down there.
“How did you not get fired today?” Carmen asked, from the sink.
Wallo grabbed some peppers with his fingers and tossed them into his mouth. “Who did?”
“Carmen did,” said Ali.
“Well shit,” said Wallo. “Now what.”
Carmen steeled himself against the sink for his announcement. “I’m going to occupy Wall Street.”
Wallo laughed, threw his head back and positively guffawed. “You’re fucking kidding me.”
“I am not,” Carmen said. “Now go. Both of you. Don’t crowd the kitchen for my sake.”