Richard Katrovas is the recipient of numerous grants and awards, and is the founding academic director of the Prague Summer Program, and is the author of six books of poetry, Green Dragons (winner of the Wesleyan University Press New Poets Series), Snug Harbor (Wesleyan), The Public Mirror (Wesleyan), The Book of Complaints (Carnegie Mellon University Press), and Dithyrambs
(Carnegie Mellon); a book of short stories, Prague USA (Portals Press); a memoir, The Years of Smashing Brick (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2007)and The Republic of Burma Shave (Carnegie Mellon University Press), and a novel, The Mystic Pig (Smallmouth Press); and Prague Winter. Katrovas, as guest editor of a special double issue of New Orleans Review, edited, and participated in much of the translation of, the first representative anthology of contemporary Czech poetry, Ten Years After the Velvet Revolution. His poems, stories, reviews and essays have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies, including Antioch Review, Contemporary Fiction, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, Iowa Review, Missouri Review, New England Review, Poetry, Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly Review; as well as Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry In Traditional Forms (Harper & Row), New American Poets of the 90’s (Godine), and the forthcoming Poets of the New Century (Godine), among many others. Katrovas's current projects are Raising Girls in Bohemia: Meditations of an American Father, a collection of essays, and Confessions of a Waiter, a novel.
Richard Katrovas interview with Katie Fallon and Kaite Hillenbrand
You confront many “borders” in this piece: between generations, between sections of the projects, between childhood and adolescence, between families, between friends, between dark and light. Several of these borders are crossed, some hesitantly, some unknowingly, some only in the imagination, and other borders are not crossed not at all. Can you elaborate on the way confronting borders such as these can lead to understanding? Or change? Or something else?
Well, to my mind, the very nature of the personal essay is such that in it one traces the contours of one’s ignorance of the human heart and hopes that there is some elegance in the resulting figure. The trick is to balance narrative with meditation, and perhaps that is the more relevant border, between story and speculation.
At the opening of the piece you mention Barack Obama’s election as president. Can you speculate on how this event might affect similar “borders”? A related question: was Obama’s election the catalyst for writing this piece?
No, I wrote the piece a couple of years before Obama’s election, but I realized that his ascension placed a radically different torque on “Katie’s Hair,” so I revised the essay into a post-Obama context. Doing so wasn’t difficult, but it was necessary.
This piece is part of a memoir in essays, Raising Girls in Bohemia: Meditations of an American Father. In what ways is a memoir in essays different from a memoir, or what differentiates it from other memoirs? Will you describe your project?
Well, I’ve spent much of my career confounding, challenging, genre borders, if you will. My last book was an “anecdotal memoir,” which is to say, a memoir in stories, titled, The Years of Smashing Bricks (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2007). One of my poetry books is called Dithyrambs (CMUP, 1998), and contains blank-verse choral lyrics in the spirit of the ancient Greek form, a precursor of tragic drama. At bottom, the choral lyrics are a form of narrative, storytelling. The novel I’m presently working on is very much a recounting of my young adulthood working in swanky French Quarter restaurants; I mean, it’s a memoir I’m presenting as a work of fiction. There’s nothing new in all of this; I’m fairly traditional, though I try to work on the margins of traditions, particularly the tradition of generic difference.
From Raising Girls in Bohemia: Meditations of an
American Father (a memoir in essays)
Several years ago, before Barack Obama saved the world from an affable idiot and his evil handlers, Annie had a crush on a cute kid named Chris Brown, the heartthrob de jour of girls nine to nineteen. She was nine going on nineteen, a Disney Channel aficionado, and, though I tried to limit her exposure to that world in which fathers are stooges and teenage girls set the agenda regarding just about everything, she consumed enough of it to have absorbed, and been conditioned by, its ethos. The six months each year she lived in Prague, Disney Channel was the only thing, other than friends, for which she expresses any yearning. Chris Brown she could access on MTV in Prague (she now calls him a pig for beating Rihanna), but Hillary Duff and Raven were an ocean away. I remember it seemed a little odd that they weren’t dubbed and run on Czech stations (To her great credit, Annie hates that favorite movies and sitcoms get dubbed), given that so much of the worst American television is indeed dubbed and aired on the Czech Republic’s four stations, and, besides MTV, the other English language cable channels are Discovery, CNN, CNBC, Euro Sport, and BBC News, in other words, stuff I will deign to flick glances at a couple hours a day with my laptop on my knees, but which holds no interest for her.
One very interesting feature of both Disney Channel and MTV, and of which I heartily approve, is the representation of minorities. Annie has grown up on both sides of the Atlantic with the powerful multicultural influence of MTV, which in so many other ways, not the least of which are puerile wantonness and occasional misogyny, is pernicious; Disney Channel, once her exclusively American pleasure, is simply banal. Yet both are fiercely, and gloriously, multicultural. Annie has grown up assuming that, despite the unvarnished racism of Czech society and a vague sense of America’s Original Sin of slavery, the world is a place where people of different skin tones and ethnicities can and should have fun together.
So it was not at all surprising, after Annie announce her best friend to be Katie, that I would not learn Katie is African-American until I actually met her while picking Annie up from school one day. I’d heard about Katie for a couple of weeks, knew that she loved Chris Brown, that she watched the same Disney Channel shows as Annie, that she had two brothers, that her father didn’t live with the family, and that she was considerably smaller than Annie, but not that she was “dark” (wholly unprompted, Annie says “dark” rather than “black” or “brown,” and, for example, says that I, her Irish-Greek father am a “little dark,” certainly compared to her own blond, blue-eyed self). Katie’s mother and I, over the months, negotiated several play days and one sleepover to be conducted at my condo in downtown Kalamazoo. Katie was a terrific kid, polite but frank, and usually didn’t let Annie dominate her as Annie tends to dominate, often quite sweetly though sometimes not, everyone else in her sphere.
On one weekend play day Annie announced that she was going to wash and play with Katie’s hair. Of course, alarm bells sounded, and I suggested that Katie’s mother probably has a pretty strict routine regarding Katie’s very pretty, obviously tended-to hair, and that the girls should probably play with something other than each other’s ’dos.
Katie nonchalantly said that her mother wouldn’t care if Annie washed and played with her hair, and I said that I should still wait to hear Katie’s mother say that it would be okay for Annie to wash and mess with it. Well, they wore me down, and, against my better judgment, I relented.
It was very stupid and irresponsible of me to relent. A nine year-old visiting her strong-willed friend in her friend’s own home will naturally want to please the other girl and will not exercise sound judgment in such matters.
I recalled my best friend in sixth grade, Jessie, who lived three blocks from the government housing projects where my mother, four siblings and I resided during my father’s second incarceration. Jessie was one of seven children, and his family lived in a big house they owned. His father owned a truck, and embarked on long hauls every fortnight or so, returning a few days before the next haul. He must have made decent money because his family lived well. Jessie’s mother was a large, loud, funny woman who liked me, and probably pitied me because she often asked me to eat with her family, and invited me to spend the night often, which I loved to do. Life was not good at home. My mother had been diagnosed to have multiple sclerosis, suffered seizures and could barely walk; there was often not enough to eat in the house, and the man who had been my mother’s lover had left us in the knowledge that my father would be getting out of prison soon. I don’t recall how much of this Jessie’s mother was privy to, but she could certainly see from how I dressed, probably from the look in my eyes and how skinny I was, that life at home was not good. She certainly knew that I lived in the projects.
After a hearty breakfast of pancakes and sausage or eggs and bacon, as much as I and everyone else in the house could eat, I’d sit and talk to Jessie’s mother while she lined her four daughters up to do their hair. It would take more than an hour, was an intricate task, and she was deft at it, could look at me and around the room while she manipulated a girl’s hair and talked and laughed, working a substance into it I can’t recall except for the sweet smell, a little like jasmine. She held bobby pins in the corners of her mouth.
Annie washed Katie’s hair in my bathroom sink, making remarkably little mess. Then she sat Katie on a stool in front of the TV, and worked her hair with a brush and comb as the two of them watched an episode (one they’d obviously seen before) of The Suite Life of Zach and Cody, a Disney Channel staple about twin boys who live in a hotel with their lounge-singer mother.
When Annie finished (I worked in my room for the hour they took over the living room), I was horrified. Katie’s hair was shaped rather like the big bumps on that Mouskateer hat Annette Funicello wore so fetchingly. Given that, according to my arrangement with her mother, we only had fifteen or twenty minutes to return Katie by car to her home, I had no time for damage control, and I could tell from Katie’s eyes as she peered into the mirror over the couch that bleak consequences awaited her.
Driving to her home, I flicked glances at the girls in the rearview mirror. Both were somber; Annie correctly interpreted Katie’s quiet, and the fact that she wrapped her sweater around her head, to mean that the coiffure Annie had sculpted with comb and brush and gel (the latter I hadn’t noticed, alas) was, perhaps, ahead of its time.
Consistent with all the other drop-offs but this time with a little cowardice feathered in, I stayed in the car as Annie walked Katie to the door. The smaller girl disappeared into the living room light.
We hadn’t driven a quarter mile before my cell phone rang. Katie’s mother was beside herself, calm but clearly livid. I apologized from the soles of my feet, and confessed that I’d been stupid to take a nine-year-old’s word on such a matter and under such circumstances. She asked me if Katie played with Annie’s hair, or did Annie treat Katie “like a little Barbie doll.”
It was a remarkable moment. I understood precisely what she meant, and could imagine little white girls fifty, a hundred years ago in the South “playing” with the children of maids or nannies, how the power relation in such play must have mirrored that of adult relations, how a little white girl might indeed treat her black playmate not as an equal in play, not as a subject, but as an object, a doll, even.
I assured her that on other occasions I’d watched Katie fussing with Annie’s hair, and Annie chimed affirmation from the backseat. But I also told her that I knew her point was well taken, that I understood her concern, though I’m not sure she understood that I actually could understand.
In my relationship to Jessie’s family, class trumped race; I was poor white. They were relatively affluent black. Had I lived in the nice house and Jessie in the projects, would our friendship have worked? Would my mother have invited Jessie into our home?
My mother would have, though I don’t know if I’d have had the social skills to form a bond with a black kid from the projects, one on welfare and whose father was in prison. Even in 1965, kids on welfare in the projects, whose fathers were incarcerated, were much more likely to be black than white.
I’d probably not have had the social skills, or the occasion, to form such a friendship. I can’t recall how my friendship with Jessie began. I’m just now recalling his last name, Johnson, and that his mother had named her seventh child, still in a crib during that period when the family took me in, Lyndon Baines, and informed the White House by letter that she’d named her baby after the president; she received a letter back thanking her, and she showed it to me. But I don’t recall the names of any of the other siblings, though I do remember that Jessie’s youngest sister, two or three years-old, really liked me, would sit on my lap quietly as Jessie and I talked to their mother and as the large, gregarious woman braided her older daughters’ thick and shiny hair, worked it into manageable shapes secured by strings and ribbons and bobby pins.
A few blocks from home, my phone rang again, and this time it was Katie’s father who, though he didn’t live in the house, played an active role in his children’s lives. He was polite but firm, stating that “black hair is different,” and I interrupted begging forgiveness, and assuring him that I understand that it is different from most “white hair,” and that I was very, very wrong to allow Annie to play with Katie’s hair, and that I hoped he and Katie’s mother would trust me to monitor the girls better next time.
Whereas, with the exception of two or three genuine friendships growing up, I have learned and internalized the bleak history of race relations in America as a matter of distance, Annie is learning and internalizing that history as a matter of proximity. When she learns how many thousands of lynchings occurred in America between, say, 1870 and 1940, that knowledge will be attached to, mediated by innumerable images of happy, affluent African-American families tricking and loving one another, living fun lives, and by images of beautiful young black men and women celebrating their sexuality unabashedly. When she reads accounts of what happened to men of color who expressed any sexual attraction to white women, how whole communities of white people would participate in the slow torture and murder of men of color accused, often on the shoddiest of evidence, of raping white women, that knowledge will be dovetailed with her own unashamed sexual attraction to beautiful “dark” men and/or women.
Will the horror of such knowledge be even more resonant for her than it was for me? Or will the proximity fostered by a multicultural school system reinforced, albeit insipidly, by media create the opposite effect? When she tries to fathom, for example, the implications of so many African-American men presently incarcerated in America, how will Raven or Will Smith (during her Disney phase she also loved re-runs of The Fresh Prince of Bellaire), if at all, mediate her contemplation?
Because of her cultural conditioning regarding race, it may be that she does not “other” African-Americans, and non-European-Americans generally, as distinctly, on a deep psychological level, as European-Americans of my generation and older most assuredly do.
I recall the segregated South, the “negro” high school playing its games some Friday nights in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and the white high school on other Friday nights. That late spring of 1961, my father was caught by the highway patrol somewhere in central Florida, and my mother called her mother, who lived in Elizabeth City, for bus fare.
After months of crowding a great-aunt’s humble bungalow, we got on welfare and moved into the second-floor apartment of a battered house whose downstairs occupants kept a goat in the backyard. It was the very first house occupied by white people; for many blocks beyond it, the exclusively black section of town sprawled. From the southern window of that apartment I could gaze onto the high-school football field that was adjacent not to either the white or black high schools, but to the white elementary school I attended. I thrilled to the white high-school games: the lights; the packed bleachers; gangs of prepubescents playing “Smear the Queer” on the sidelines with balled-up paper cups for a ball (you were a queer when you caught the wad and had to run around without any boundaries or goal until you got tackled and everyone piled on top of you); trolling under the bleachers for loose change and empty bottles to cash in for one, two, or three cents depending upon which grocery store you took them to (alas, one cent was close, two cents three or four blocks away, and three cents a forbidding half mile). But on the Fridays the black high school played an out-of-town black opponent, I could only watch from my high window as the—not marching but--dancing band, so much better than the white one, so much more musically interesting and kinetic, so much more fun, entered the gate onto the field, and the bleachers filled with dark people. I could see the game when it was between the twenties, but could not for the angles see the teams play in the red zones, so could gage scores only by the sound of the crowd and the band. It never crossed my mind to go down to the gate and walk through, join the game of Smear the Queer (no one, whom I can recall, defined “queer” as anyone but the kid who ran around until he got tackled; we all got to be queer once or twice over the course of that exhilaratingly pointless, scoreless game), or simply sit in the bleachers and watch. I was seven, eight, and nine; the separation, in my heart, was absolute. My fatherless family lived on the border between two kinds of people, light and dark, and the two never played together, never even spoke much. We left each other alone.
When I learned history a few years later, especially about the Civil War, I got the sanitized Great-Man stuff they taught back then, and of course as a young man devouring (mostly leftist) social theory and history, I perceived everything in terms of social justice, and the strange fruit Lady Day sang about was very, very dark indeed. He was something like a pure victim, and so I did not identify with him. He was so dark, so other, so victimized, that I could rarely see him as anything but symbol, and so I could not feel his humanity. On a very basic level, I could not empathize. I could shudder at the abstract knowledge of his terror and pain; I could cry out against his victimization, the wretched social system that necessitated his being thus victimized, but I don’t recall wincing in discomfort imagining what it must have felt like to be tortured by an entire community, then to be hanged by the neck and set on fire as light-skinned men, women and children laughed and cheered.
Empathy is, in some part, a conditioned response, and entails a desire, at least a willingness, to identify with someone or something. Social justice in the abstract is like the idea of a six course gourmet meal; in the abstract, nothing sustains. When that plucky teen Raven was in the throes of yet another vision of the near future that that chunky, cute young woman would misinterpret to hilarious effect (hilarious if you’re a nine-years-old transfixed by such affable misprision and high jinx), Annie deeply identified with the character. She, Annie Katrovas, wanted to have visions of the near future and daily misadventures. She wanted to have friends like Raven’s friends, go to a school like Raven’s school, even have parents like Raven’s, parents who weren’t divorced. She wanted a home like Raven’s, in a “neighborhood,” not a downtown condo in America for half of the year, and an apartment in Central Europe for the other half. She was then, and still is, a happy, tough, well-adjusted, deeply loving and lovable kid, but back then, when she was nine, before she’d blossom into the five-foot-eight, drop dead gorgeous teen-ager she’s become, she would have traded her life in a second for Raven’s. Annie would have been Raven if the universe had allowed her to be, and she would have been Beyonce. She would have been any beautiful, successful, glamorous American woman of color.
In light of such unfettered identification, what then will she see when she reads eyewitness accounts of lynchings? How will she imagine herself into the scene? Certainly not as a member of the pale mob. Will she imagine herself into the skin of the dark-skinned person gagging at the end of a rope and feeling the flames take and rise? Will her conscience, the pituitary of social justice, flood her being with outrage? Or will she, simply and profoundly, feel empathy? Outrage and empathy are not, of course, mutually exclusive; indeed, only when outrage is derived from empathy is a true moral imperative created, that is, not one fostered by abstract calculation but born of the beating heart of a man or a woman filled with empathy.
I return often to the memory of one spring in Elizabeth City, when I was eight or nine. I heard a boy younger than I (it appeared from his stature) but possessing a preternaturally deep and shattered voice, screaming at dawn on consecutive mornings, though I can’t recall how many—it now seems the entire season—“Richard, Richard Lee! Richard, Richard Lee!” over and over, weeping, sometimes literally naked in the fog or gloom, sometimes wearing drawers. Hours earlier than I was to rise for school, I peered over the windowsill down at him, and was terrified. He came from the heart of the black section of town. He stumbled, wept, and cried that name, though the first time he awoke me I thought he was saying, “Richard, Richard leave! Richard, Richard leave!” I thought that for some reason he wanted me gone.
There was a rumor among the whites in my neighborhood that the boy was a sleepwalker; Richard Lee was his brother who’d been stabbed to death down by the tracks, that the ghostly boy wept his brother’s name every morning, right up to the edge of Merrimac Street, parallel to my house, then turned and stumbled back, weeping, rasping that name. Cecil Hooker said the boy walked back into his house, lay back down, then woke up a few hours later and acted normal, went to school and everything. It was not at all likely that Cecil Hooker would have possessed reliable information about the child, but he was the only source of any information at all regarding the boy, dubious though it may have been.
Whatever his story, he was a child in deepest distress. He keened to the edge of his world, and then retreated, keening. He loved another human being, a man or boy named Richard Lee, very much. He wanted to see and touch Richard Lee, hear his voice. I was terrified of that child, how he made me feel. I missed my father. I’d never lived in one place before, so I missed my life with my family on the road, in cars, sleeping in the rear window-space of a Chrysler with my father’s aftershave-tainted jacket over me, my siblings rasping on the seat below, or in a motel after a score, a bounced check for clean sheets and a TV.
The child was fixity, the particular voice of a particular place. He was life’s circuit, a going forth in utter sadness and returning likewise. He was no escape. He was everybody knowing my father was in prison. He was my weeping, distracted mother, or, rather, he was her weeping and distraction. He was the leak in our roof and the urine-stinking sheets of my siblings. He was that evil goat.
He was every vexation, the bat that whacked fourteen stitches in my forehead and the blood that poured down my throat from a botched tonsillectomy. The question of how a five or six-year-old child could extricate himself from his domicile on many consecutive mornings and wander up and down the street rasping a name is now overshadowed by the question as to why no one, no adult, black or white, intervened, at least none of which I’m aware.
In this regard, I can only speak, albeit unreliably given how much time has passed, for my side of the divide. My own young mother, twenty-seven or eight, speculated at length about his circumstance but never thought to walk down our rickety steps and into the dawn-glazed street to intervene. Everyone in that white neighborhood, toward the official end of the era of segregation, talked about the boy that season. I heard friends’ parents mention him, chuckling and shaking their heads, and of course the kids speculated wildly about the boy, but no one thought to intervene. A child was so clearly distressed, so unambiguously in need of succor, and it now seems that no one was capable of even imagining the simple act of approaching him, much less holding him.
[personal essay from Richard Katrovas, part of a memoir is essays he's working on. Others have appeared in Calalloo, Crazyhorse, Fourth Genre, Hunger Mountain, Indiana Review, Mid-Mountain Review, Prague Tales, Sonora Review, Southern Review, St. Petersburg Review and Third Coast.]