I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how they spend the day.
November 1, 2023: Brendan Shay Basham
If you love the magic of story or the magic of language, you will love Brendan Shay Basham’s debut novel, Swim Home to the Vanished. This excerpt from the third page gives you a taste of both:
After his brother died, Damien’s body went too. He simply goes through the motions as he cooks. I lost a piece of myself, he says to the potatoes, to the rising bread, to anyone who will listen. He tries to speak to him, admits to his brother that it feels like dismemberment. ‘Dismemberment is the perfect term, the opposite of remember… Some days (most) he feels like he has run out of words. Not enough poets can summon his brother, the vocabulary of loss. Grief has claimed his capacity for language.
But Damien feels there is “more of his brother out there.” And soon a journey begins. “When you lose someone close, you travel to a place of the dead. You enter the river, you swim in it, it takes you out to sea.”
The world Brendan has created is a world where anything is possible. At the end of the first chapter, Damien is preparing to shave when he feels slits behind his ears that over days develop into gills. Although this is the first time this has happened, he accepts it as a natural response to grief.
One of my favorite characters in the novel is an old man called the Goatherd.
His crusty linen and burlap clothes cling desperately to his emaciated frame. His wrinkled grin is off-putting yet sincere, a smile neutralized by dark, sorrowful eyes. His glacial joints pop and crack as he tries to rise…
The Goatherd encourages Damien to rest a bit and tells him about a village, “a land for the grieving.” He says, “The village is a place where memory goes when you think it is lost.”
The Goatherd helps Damien along his way by giving him tea sweetened with dead bees that float to the top. And he feeds him.
The Goatherd hums and chuckles as he cooks a trout in an iron skillet over the fire. He fries eggs in the leftover grease, pulls a charred potato from the embers, and pours two cups of thick, grainy coffee.
Damien’s journey continues, and the iron skillet, charred potato, and grainy coffee are mild foreshadowing of the abundant food details to come. Brendan’s website is papayathief.com, a nod to the many hours he spent climbing pawpaw trees in Puerto Rico where he worked as a chef and went out looking for the perfect green fruit for his famous Asian-style salad. In an article published last month at LitHub, Brendan wrote about that other life, how with cooking he focused on process over final product, and how his chef’s life led to his writing life.
Sometimes a flavor reveals itself in color, other times the sound of butter crackling in a hot pan is a sign from the universe… What I didn’t realize until later was that chef-life was part of my training as a writer: I was absorbing a sensory vocabulary, inventing new language.
Brendan Shay Basham is a Diné poet, short story writer, and novelist. He was born in Alaska, grew up in Northern Arizona, and lived in Puerto Rico where he ended up running two restaurants. In 2015, he returned to the States to focus on writing. During his time at the Institute of American Indian Arts where he received his MFA, his mentor Tommy Orange would ask, “Why are we writing?” Brendan answers this question in an article in the Navajo Times: “For me, I’ve decided I’m trying to remind Americans we’re still here. We’re present-tense Indians. I’m battling mythologies while creating new ones.”
Come back on NOVEMBER 1st to read how BRENDAN SHAY BASHAM spends his days.