Oct. 18, 2007

After Challenging Jennifer Lee to a Fight

by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

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Poem: "After Challenging Jennifer Lee to a Fight" by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, from At the Drive-In Volcano. © Tupelo Press, Inc., 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

After Challenging Jennifer Lee to a Fight

I hesitate, because what would my father say? My aunts in India
are swathed in sarees, glass bangles and crimson nails.
Their perfect ropes of hair, oiled and glossy black, never
betray them to the wind or the chase of a chicken

in the courtyard. They'd watch my grandmother
shape bricks of dark halva, wrap each one
in tight plastic they'd chill for days.
Always calm, serene.

At least, that's how my father
tells it, but I know when pressed,
my aunts would have done the same thing.
Jenny Lee called my younger sister

Shrimp in front of the whole group of Bus Kids—
no way I could let Jenny just swing her pink backpack
all the way home. Once the bus pulled away
from our stop on Landis Lane, I tapped her

on the shoulder and, and-we were a mess
of ribbons and slaps. She was easy to scare
from my nail marks drawing tiny pinpricks
of blood on her arms, her puffy cheeks. I told her

the red dots meant she had rabies, that
she shouldn't tell anyone because then she'd infect
them and most of all, she better say sorry to my sister,
else I'd push her face into the barrel cacti littering

the sidewalks. My first rage, my first fire. Jenny
sniffled Sorry and I was relieved: I wasn't sure
I could hit much more and my skinny legs
were spent with dust and sweat. My sister

and I walked home in silence. If we wore sarees,
all the yards and yards of shiny sateen would've
unwound from our tiny bodies, too light to drag
in the dust, too proud and taken with wind, like flags.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Rick Moody, (books by this author) born in New York City (1961), who wanted to be a writer as a young man but struggled with alcoholism and had a hard time even holding down a job. He finally checked himself into a mental hospital, got sober, and then wrote his first novel, Garden State. But even though he worked at a publishing house, he couldn't get his own book published. He had all but given up on the book, when he came back to his desk one day found a "While You Were Out" note telling him that his novel had won a the Pushcart Prize for manuscripts that had been rejected by major publishers. It came out in 1991. Moody has since written several more novels, including The Ice Storm (1994), which was made into a movie in 1997, and The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions (2002). His novel The Diviners came out in 2005.

It's the birthday of Terry McMillan, (books by this author) born in Port Huron, Michigan (1951). Her novel Waiting to Exhale (1992) was one of the first novels ever published about the lives of affluent African-Americans, and it spent 38 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. When asked why she's so successful, McMillan said, "I don't write about victims. They just bore me to death. I prefer to write about somebody who can pick themselves back up and get on with their lives."

It's the birthday of the playwright Wendy Wasserstein, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1950), best known for her play The Heidi Chronicles (1988), about a woman who hangs on to her all her feminist ideals while all of her friends have given them up. After a sold-out run off-Broadway, the play moved to Broadway and became the first play written by a woman to win a Tony Award. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Wendy Wasserstein died in 2006.

It's the birthday of A.J. (Abbott Joseph) Liebling, (books by this author) born in New York City (1904), a staff writer for The New Yorker whose favorite subjects were journalism, food, and boxing. But he also wrote about seal trainers at the circus, his nostalgia for speakeasies, Greco-Roman wrestlers, aquariums, hat-check concession stands, cigar stores, coon dogs, race cars, and the most populous city block in the United States, which in 1937 was located between Seventh and Lenox avenues and 142nd and 143rd streets in Harlem, with a population of 3,823 residents. Liebling wrote, "[The block] covers 150,000 square feet, and this means that the average density of population is 1,000 to the acre. If all the people of the United States were moved equally close together, they would fit in about half the area of the City of New York, leaving a couple of boroughs vacant for parking space."

A. J. Liebling said, "Cynicism is often the shamefaced product of inexperience."

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