01 November 2016

new fiction: The Audrey Hepburn

Meredith wills her voice up her dry throat. "It's a famous design, this dress. Did I tell you? The actress who made it famous?" 
The women peer at her, pins held between their lips as their fingers coax the bodice into place. Meredith can't stop talking. Roman Holiday. My Fair Lady. Academy Awards. Lifetime Achievement. She rambles on, sweating and breathless, words spilling out of her in what must be English-gibberish to the women as they move about her in an undulating whirl until the sash neckline lies naturally over her collarbones, darts fitted neatly alongside her breasts, bodice perfect above the flare of the gored skirt.

~ from "The Audrey Hepburn" by Sherri H. Hoffman

More than one of the expatriates in Rwanda encouraged me to have a dress made while I was there. If only for the experience, they said. A culture of dressmakers is something I could only imagine from historic references in the U.S., and I was intrigued.

In Butari, the fabric and textiles vendors held the second floor of the open market, and tucked into the center of the cement stalls, the dressmakers worked in a single open room. The rows of sewing machines were of various age, and the women seemed to work as one body, heads down, all machines buzzing with industry at once.

Prepared with my vision of the iconic dress made famous in Breakfast at Tiffany's, I looped through the fabric shops several times until I'd identified ta pattern I wanted, a small pattern of of blue over a cream backing. The vendors all had access to the same textile production, so it was available in more than one location. The aggressive shopkeepers put me off, and I made my purchase from a woman in a smaller shop with a soft voice and a baby strapped to her back.  She recommended a specific dressmaker and sent me to the galley of seamstresses to ask for her by name. Within minutes of meeting with her, she had my measurements and had sketched a pattern from my photograph. She took my bolt of cloth and instructed me to return in two days for a fitting.

Nothing could have prepared me for the experience. The seamstress I engaged along with a bevy of her fellows were boldly attentive and profoundly skilled, their expertise a reflection of a lifetime of professional practice. Within the week, I had a custom fitted replica dress blue-and-cream. I was beyond impressed.

As I left, the women told me that there would be a new market soon with a larger sewing galley. They hoped I would come back soon. Wrote indecipherable phone numbers and addresses into my notebook should I wish to order another dress.

I suppose I was not surprised that none of the women had ever heard of Audrey Hepburn. My hope that the older black-and-white film had circulated as far as Rwanda was overly optimistic. It seems like the closest theater was in Kigali several hours away. And in the end, it didn't matter. The experience became the context for my famous dress. One of a kind.

Tiffany's salesman: Do they still really have prizes in Cracker Jack boxes?
Paul Varjak: Oh yes.
Tiffany's salesman: That's nice to know. It gives one a feeling of solidarity, almost of continuity with the past, that sort of thing.
           ~ from Breakfast at Tiffany's

16 October 2016

ghosting reality

In Rwanda, there is an undercurrent of constant motion. Bicycles balancing enormous sacks of potatoes, full sets of furniture, jugs of water. On the road, streams of motos. Children on foot with a goat. Armed men in uniform goosestepping in single file. Women with buckets of wet cement on their heads going up and down the bamboo construction scaffolding. Women with babies tied on their backs. Congolese refugees hawking roasted corn cobs from the gutters. Even at night there is movement, undulation of voices, vehicles, or music from a radio. The entire landscape thrums with a collective breath that tugs at its horizons.

At the bottom of this hill, my father tells me, the local truck drivers claim there is a ghost. We are on our way back to Butari on the wide paved road guided by the reflection of an occasional painted center line. Down the hill, a solitary row of yellow streetlamps marks the turn at the bottom. The ghost is said to be a beautiful woman who appears in the middle of the road. The fated drivers are at once captivated and terrorized so that they lose the road, miss the turn, upend their trucks in the tight groves of eucalyptus that hover at the edge of our headlights in the black night. More trucks have crashed here than anywhere else on this road, the only truck access between the country's two largest cities.

Based on a map, Rwanda is 9000 miles from my home state, but in that moment I could have been a child listening to my older cousins tell stories of the ghostly women on the Union Pacific tracks, engineers driven mad by the haunting perfume that lingers in the engine as it hurtles through the phantom shapes toward an uncertain end—tracks washed out or the trestle failed. Or perhaps it is the story of the White Lady of Spring Canyon, her husband or lover lost below in the coal mine, leaving her in perpetual mourning to take revenge on the luck of the living. 

Our world is not so large if we dare to look, our shared stories moving through similar shadows and spaces of reality, specters of story nuanced by universal circumstance or chance. The motion of reality captured in story, fiction undercut with truth, offers up a reflection of ourselves that reaches, at the very least, 9000 miles in either direction.

If you enjoyed my Rwanda story that was published earlier this year in Cimarron Review, "Stained with Lime," you may be interested to read the next story in the connected series. "The Audrey Hepburn" will premier in Delmarva Review Vol 9 on November 1, available in print and online. Watch this site for more information once the issue launches.

"Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't."  ― Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World

23 June 2016

news: cimarron review announces release

Cimarron Review announces the release of Issue 195:

I am honored to be included in this issue alongside these fine poets and writers.  My copies arrived yesterday, and the issue is lovely and full of amazing writing.

18 June 2016

new fiction: where she stands

Gold-capped Mason jars filled with cut green beans line the kitchen countertop in orderly rows. On the table, a crate of new peaches, the irrigation schedule, and a stack of pink flyers: Resurrection Rummage Sale. July 14-15 Friday and Saturday at Our Holy Redeemer. Bernadette finishes the breakfast dishes and starts packing the decent hand-me-downs into paper bags. Her mother takes up the kettle to pour water through the coffee funnel.

"Marsha Neederman has some books for the sale," her mother says. "But leave me the truck so I can pick up another load of hay. Jay will be here inside the hour." Her cup full, she stirs in some sugar. "And drop those flyers by the grocery. They’re going to hand them out at the register.”

"Mom!" Ginny's wooden clogs bang down the hallway. "Where's my red notebook?" She swoops the cup out of her mother's hand, holds it to her lips, hands it back. "Hot, hot, hot."

"Not in that skimpy thing, Ginny Lynn Walters." Their mother adds milk, takes a sip, sets the cup on the sideboard. "We're not those girls," she says. With a basket of clean wet sheets on her hip, she heads out back to the clothesline.

Ginny rolls her eyes at Bernadette. Her lashes are dark with mascara. "Shoulders are the new vagina," she says.

Bernadette hands her a red spiral notebook marked
American History. "Don't be crude."

~ from Where She Stands by Sherri H. Hoffman. Available online at The Columbia Review, Vol 97, Issue 2, Spring 2016.

I find it interesting timing for this story to make its way into the world just as the Stanford swimmer’s rape conviction and mediated sentence are in the news, followed by the pleas from his family to dismiss and excuse his crimes. Reassign guilt and/or consequences to his victim. While my story,“Where She Stands,” isn't specifically about rape, it shares at its roots some of the assumptions that empower and institutionalize sexism and male privilege.

The story’s setting is intentional. I moved to a small rural town as a teenager and lived there through high school. From the cities and military bases of my childhood, I arrived with idyllic visions of a place in the country where you could swim or fish in the local river, or raise horses and a garden in your own backyard. Those parts of my naive vision became true, and during those years, the good times were really good.

But rural isolation doesn’t protect girls from being bullied, intimidated, shamed, and/or assaulted by boys secure in a culture in which they are privileged. Whether it's the kid who always sits next to you to cheat off your work or the bully on the bus. The boy who inspired the character of Lane once told me that he would often watch me ride my bay mare in the surrounding fields through the scope of his rifle. Said it as if that was a good thing. As if I should be flattered.

 No matter the setting, it remains for #everywoman to find her voice in truth. Draw the line against even the smallest forms of oppression, prejudice, and inequality in order to make a difference. 

 The unnamed woman who survived the sexual assault by the Stanford swimmer chose to address her statement at his sentencing directly to him. Her complete statement is long and powerful, and I expect the repercussions will continue in the days and weeks to come. Responding to the light sentence, the woman said, “I want the judge to know that he ignited a tiny fire. If anything, this is a reason for all of us to speak even louder.” (Buzzfeed News)

Hit it out of the park, as it were. With a vengeance.

~ sherri

08 June 2016

new fiction: stained with lime

Nothing in Kigali is what I expect. The city is a swell of hills thick with lights, strings of fog, traffic, and streams of voices. Along the tree-lined street near the hospital, every block is under construction. Bamboo scaffolds cling to the new structures, steel cranes poised between towers of concrete and blue glass. Schools of motos dart to the curb with passengers, helmets over hairnets. Men in dark jeans. Women side-saddle in long skirts and heels. I am forbidden by my husband Dean to take the motos, and when the American doctors arrive, we wait for a cab at the foot of an enormous billboard lit with tungsten lights: RwandAir. Daily flights from Nairobi to Entebbe.

~ from "Stained with Lime" by Sherri H. Hoffman. Available now in Cimarron Review, Issue 195, Spring 2016. 

Late on New Year's Eve, 2015, I land in Kigali, Rwanda to visit my parents. My father and brother pick me up at the airport, and we stop for ice cream and wifi cards on our way to a guest house for the night. It's still a couple hours drive to Butare from the capital city. After a day and a half of international travel, I am buzzed and beaten.

I lay awake under the mosquito nets until dawn. The hotel next door partys in the new year with a karaoke mix of 70s disco and rap. I make no resolutions. These days, everything seems insurmountable, and yet, here I am, asking myself what the hell. Again.

By the time I return to the U.S., the memory cards in my cameras and phone are full of photos. My notebooks full of details and descriptions: places, people, drawings—the start of stories. 

"Stained with Lime" is the first in what is coming together as a collection of connected stories, and I'm over the moon to have it appear in Cimarron Review. Rwanda has an enormous story. It is a paradox of change—people, politics, history, future. Big finance and high-tech surrounded by hills terraced in rice paddies, corn, sugar cane, and potatoes. High-rises in metal and glass. Wide asphalt roads covered in red dirt. Rolling blackouts and high-speed internet. Water is a commodity. Plastic bags and bare feet are forbidden. To write about any of it is to offer only a glimpse.

~ sherri

"V.S. Pritchett's definition of a short story is 'something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.' Notice the 'glimpse' part of this. First the glimpse. Then the glimpse gives life, turned into something that illuminates the moment and may, if we're lucky—that word again—have even further ranging consequences and meaning."

~ Raymond Carver, from Call If You Need Me: The Uncollected Fiction and Other Prose.

01 April 2016

writing the river

Over the last six months, I've been everywhere but home, which has made writing an interesting endeavor at times. I like my coffee just so, like I like my writing space. Being on the road for so long has given me some insight into what it takes to be adaptable. Not that the journey hasn't been lovely, this long strange trip. Makes me feel lucky.

To acknowledge that it has been challenging isn't a complaint. It's taught me a few things:

1. Be warm. Granted, it's winter. But I've discovered that whether I'm at a busy coffee shop or the quiet space of the Cardinal Stafford Library at the theological seminary, it's easier to focus if the space is warm. Noise and movement aren't huge factors, but give me a cold draft, and out goes my creative process.

Word cloud made with WordItOut
2. Spread out. My life is less of a linear outline and more of a word cloud. Whether I'm at a big desk or tall bistro table, my books and notes roam around as if they have a life of their own. I need space for my Black Warrior pencils-of-choice and whatever inspirational books I'm packing at the moment, Willa Cather to Philip K. Dick. And a good cuppa coffee.

3. Make time. I've heard other writers talk about needing time to get their head in the current work, and in practice, I've discovered that's true for me. I need time to get in, and once there, I need a enough time to stay in. Especially working with the complexities of multiple characters on multiple levels of awareness, from the character to the narration to the story consciousness. The process reminds me of doing geometric proofs--get in and stay until the solution reveals itself. Let's me work in cohesive arcs of story.

4. Activate the Omega 13. Every writer gets stuck, and I am no exception. When it happens, I've learned to switch writing projects. Sometimes working on an unrelated piece is exactly what I need to be able to come back to my stuck-point with new eyes and ears, and the writing opens up before me. From story to poem. Novel to flash. It can feel frenetic, but perhaps that's my brain-skill (see #2). Plus it guarantees that I'm always working on something, which keeps the writing reflexes engaged. Pretty sure I'll always need an Omega 13 or three in my back pocket.

One of my writing heroes Jim Harrison once said in an interview for the Paris Review, "In a life properly lived, you’re a river. You touch things lightly or deeply; you move along because life herself moves, and you can’t stop it." (read the full article). I remind myself that it wouldn't matter if I was away from home or not, life carries me forward. My joy is that I can write it back to itself along the way.

On this day, April 1, I remain grateful. No foolin'.

  ~ sherri 

25 February 2016

road trip: NEXUS conference

Grateful for the opportunity to present a paper at the NEXUS 2016 Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference: ALT + Shift: Unlocking Alternative Methodologies and Marginal Positions.  This is the 7th biennial graduate conference sponsored by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The conference is March 3-5. My presentation is scheduled for Friday: "The Reluctant Fundamentalist: Using Affect to Map Global Potentialities." Full schedule: http://web.utk.edu/~nexus/#Schedule.

I am especially excited to have this particular paper accepted for presentation. It is the result of the work I did during a very challenging class in the last semester of my PhD coursework, "After Postmodernism: Literature and Literary Study in the 21st Century" taught by Prof. Theodore Martin. I was privileged to have taken two classes from Dr. Martin, and both proved invaluable to my academic progress.  I remain personally grateful to Martin for his professionalism and ability as a teacher and mentor.

Tennessee, anyone?