Posts tagged ‘adrian brijbassi’

October 3, 2012

Nothing to Be Afraid Of

[Short story won the Sarah Tucker Prize from “Confrontation” magazine in 2005 and the Whitman Award for Fiction from Southampton College in 2004, and was a finalist for a “Glimmer Train” fiction award]

When I met my son Alex it was three years ago, on a rainy spring Saturday morning, after I had walked four blocks to the Babylon community center—a place I never had been—and volunteered with a Long Island chapter of Big Brothers. A caseworker named Bryan asked about my interests and the amount of hours I had available. I said I was flexible and he was happy to hear it. The interview was brief, and he suggested I observe the children and their interaction with adults. I proceeded to watch the boys from a distance as they played tag with each other and shot baskets with the older men.

The Big Brothers were white and black men. Being an Indian man, and often the only Indian man in a place, I notice such things. That’s not to say I was uncomfortable. I did keep to a corner of the claustrophobic gym in my damp clothes with my arms crossed; I was a stranger and naturally felt out of place.

The fact the men were of similar age (I’m now thirty-six) and were smiling reassured me. If they attended to feel purposeful, and I suspected they did, then they must have found fulfillment in the process, a sequence of weekly visits with boys who needed every warm emotion and word of guidance Big Brothers could provide.
Unlike the men, the boys were an inconsistent group. They ranged from kindergarten age to teenagers taller than the volunteers who accompanied them. Many were relentlessly giddy, happy to just run around and be social. The time with their designated Big Brother, it was clear, ebbed whatever negativity was in their past or present home lives. For others, malaise could be shaken only for a few moments before they returned to a sulk or grave-faced stare, as if happiness was a boundary they did not want to approach, an untouchable treat they might be punished for indulging in.

Of those boys, Alex was the most fractured. In my eyes, he stood out among this gathering of males that seemed ritualistic in a way. Alex was small and round, and not at all good at the games. He heaved up shots that fell far short of the basket, eliciting snickers, even from the men who knew better. He ran out of breath easily while playing tag and always seemed to be “It”, causing him to be teased and to grow frustrated. At one point, he shoved another boy for an inexplicable reason and stomped away. A young counselor punished him for uncooperative behavior and removed him from the group, isolating him on a bench. I watched this ordeal without knowing how noticeable my vexation and concern was.

“Abusive father,” Bryan, the caseworker, said, “very abusive alcoholic mother. Both long gone, no one knows where.”

Bryan had come out of nowhere to tell me this. “I don’t know what foster care is doing for him. Sometimes kids just fall through the cracks.” He added that most social workers in New York foster care cope with more than forty cases a month, when they’re supposed to have seventeen. Reports are falsified, Bryan told me, because workers can’t handle all the cases. As a result, children such as Alex go unaccounted. He was eight then and had been bounced from home to home, and from Big Brother to Big Brother.

“He’s a loner.” Bryan watched with his arms crossed. “As you can see.”

We moved into a utilitarian cafeteria adjacent to the gym. Lunch was being served, and the situation grew worse for Alex. The Little Brothers made a game of avoiding sitting next to him, then chiding the boy who eventually had to, because he was too tardy or not forceful enough to get another spot. The boy relegated to being Alex’s neighbor shuffled his chair so its legs grated conspicuously on the concrete floor. He then made knowing eyes at his friends and held his nose and pointed until he was told to stop and be nice. Alex, in the mean time, furrowed his eyebrows, bent his head and pouted. He seethed while champing on his pizza, dribbling sauce and cheese onto his Jurassic Park T-shirt, and I turned away.

I pinched the bridge of my nose between my eyes and decided it was time to leave. I told Bryan I was glad I had come. We shook hands and he said he would tell me when the background check was clear, then I could join the group officially. He also informed me he was going to match me with Alex. “If that’s okay,” he said.

The thought had never occurred to me. Somehow I believed that Alex was for a more advanced Big Brother, someone with experience, and I was more suited to one of the well-adjusted kids with a semblance of a family. No such hierarchy existed among the volunteers, though, and when Bryan made that clear, my eyes widened as if I had just received an incomprehensibly large bill. I looked at Alex again. Behind him, a boy was holding two fingers above his head, a mocking gesture that was corrected by one of the men at the end of the table. Obliviously, Alex continued to frown and masticate in a solitude that was endearing in its sadness.

“Of course it’s okay,” I replied.

Bryan smiled and sighed, then went over to retrieve Alex, who came toward me with his chin touching his chest and a gait that resembled a waddle. “Alex, this is Sam,” Bryan said. “He’s going to be your Big Brother, starting next week.”

I grinned, bent down and took Alex’s tiny hand, which was warm and soft, like a freshly used sponge. “It’s very nice to meet you, Alex,” I said.

His response: “Yeah, whatever.”

A gloomy face and an enervating tone matched the words, which deflated me immediately. Later, after I left the community center, the thought of his voice angered me as an insult would. Later still, as I pondered Alex further, I found myself invigorated. Such hopelessness as I saw from Alex that day should not be known by any living, breathing thing, I determined, let alone a child not yet out of grade school. Alex was a boy with scars that needed to be healed and thick memories that had to be gradually reduced until they seemed as if they were of another life.

April 6, 2012

Excerpt from my new novel “Triumph the Lion” on CJSF Radio

In Chapter 2 of my new novel “Triumph the Lion,” the protagonist meets the story’s love interest, a photographer named Maria who has come to South Africa to document a lion with a peculiar trait. Blu, the Toronto-raised safari ranger, is immediately fascinated by Maria because of her beauty as well as the un-Canadian way she introduces herself.
I had the chance to read an excerpt from the book on KP Wee’s show “Smitten with the Written” on CJSF Radio (90.1 FM) in Vancouver last week. Prior to continuing with “Triumph the Lion,” KP and I talked about character development in fiction, and some techniques writers can incorporate to make sure they develop well-rounded protagonists, villains and supporting characters. Among the topics discussed are the use of inventive dialogue, the importance of conflict in storytelling and the necessity to employ action to reveal the truth about the characters you create.

Listen now to Excerpts 5 and 6 from “Triumph the Lion”:

Click here for Excerpt 5, which is after a 10-minute interview about character development in fiction.
Click here for Excerpt 6, which is more from Chapter 2 of the novel.

Click on the links below to hear Excerpts 3 and 4.

Click here for Excerpt 3, continuation of Chapter 2 (following interview)
Click here for Excerpt 4, also a continuation of Chapter 2

Chapter 1 and the first half of Chapter 2 are available here:

Click here for Part 1, Chapter 1 (following interview).
Click here for Part 2, start of Chapter 2.

May 24, 2011

Scream

[Short story was published in “The Southampton Review” in July, 2007, and was named a “Glimmer Train” award finalist in April, 2007 and a Pushcart Prize nominee]

Hot. Steam rises from their heads. This one in my hands squirms when I douse him with water. He sits in a steel basin the size of a large soup bowl and shrieks like the rest. The tent morphs into a cavern of yelps as we pour cupfuls over their burnt skulls then squeeze the dirty excess from washcloths. I wipe Chidi down, he cries louder. Every touch — the lifting of an arm to get underneath, the pulling back of an ear to wipe behind — is a pinch or the cause of an ache. Each movement demands energy his cells don’t have. Energy requires food, after all, and here there isn’t enough. The heat saps the body like a mosquito drinks blood.

A crooked rivulet of sweat itches my cheek, sinks and drizzles off my chin. I swipe at the trail with a shrug then finish bathing the boy. The children are washed inside the tent in the mornings, if their mothers let them be taken. Salaam comes to me next. I call him Sam and Chidi is his brother. They are the same height, roughly the same weight. Chidi is two years older, but was born premature: a cruel thing, to come into this life early. Then to suffer kwashiorkor: the further starvation an elder child endures when a new born arrives, demanding care.

Chidi’s disposition is rightly cantankerous. He wails when I dry his body and set him back down beside Jumilla. With the wet washcloth removed, he again sits bare beneath the glare of the sub-Saharan sun. Sam merely cringes when I gather him into my arms to carry him from his mother and their hut, a mound of straw draped in blue-and-white plastic sheeting to look sturdier than it is.

The Oxfam tent is green and full of tears. To bathe Sam in it, I must step over and through twigs called limbs. A crunch on an arm will break it, an inadvertent kick to a leg can cause a spasm, a seizure. I cradle Sam close so I can see my feet as I walk. His warm cheek braces against my shoulder, his eyes squint at the sun, which smolders us slow. Spittle forms about the corners of his mouth. Three years old and his stomach looks like it should belong to a boy of twelve, a menace from Louisiana with a passion for French fries.

Sam has suckled his mother, but hasn’t eaten since I last bathed him, three days. I place him on the edge of the wobbly table. His legs thin like stork limbs dangle off. He sits, quiet and hungry, while I dump out the water dirtied by Chidi’s grime into a basin. To bathe them, I have a jerry can of well water, washcloths, and a small ceramic cup decorated with roses. Sam is a good spirit. We’re not to get attached to them, of course. They don’t stand much chance of living past five. I lift him into the tub and give him a bit of soft rice, folding it into his mouth. His lips part quick, grazing over my callused hands like innocent kisses. Chewing is a chore for Sam, swallowing an exercise. I shake a rattle in front of his face. Gold tint covers the toy and Sam, as any child would do, follows its motion with his eyes. His ears, I hope, delight in the sound, making it easier for the rice to slide past his esophagus into his bloated, malnourished belly I smooth with a sponge.

The bellies: I’ve seen them all my life, clicking by on the TV. Bellies like this, fat, hard, ripe for sickness. Sam’s kidney fails him when he digests. A rock would serve as a better sieve than his liver. The boy has diarrhea. His body’s organs are so whittled they can’t absorb the nutrients of the bits of food he gets, such is the devilishness of famine.

April 20, 2011

Sticky in August

sticky-in-august-adrian-brijbassi-short-storyThe time for the affair was now. Carol reaffirmed the fact in her mind as she drove to New York on an August weekend so hot and sticky that to breathe or concentrate became a chore. She wanted it before she turned forty and before she and Greg had kids, which, given that she was thirty-seven, would be soon. The affair, Carol hoped as she sat in midtown traffic congested by steam and bodies drizzled in sweat, would be like the ones she read about in books, with the women perching themselves in place to be approached. The seductions in paperback were quick, the affairs torrid and brief, the men discarded like old dolls, grins intact. Having gotten away with it — or not — the women returned to their sedate lives thrilled with the act. The rare regret had an existence as deep and long as a hangover.

Carol’s affair, were it to happen, would have to be fit in around the convention schedule, a busy one packed with seminars and lectures, beginning with the opening reception and four-course dinner. Twenty tables filled an ornate ballroom occupied by librarians, who, like the books and periodicals they file, were organized by commonality and last name. Carol was seated with seven others from the state’s capital region and, as she expected, the women outnumbered the men. The two males at the table, like most of the others in the room, looked plain and bookish, clearly embedded in mid-career goals for money and respect. Their lack of attractiveness, though disappointing in a basic aesthetic sense, didn’t bother Carol; she was almost certain the affair wouldn’t be with another librarian.

For one thing, she might see him again, at one of these conventions, or worse, one of her colleagues might run across him. He, this would-be lover, would say, “Oh, do you know Carol? Second to the chief librarian in Albany?” and they would make chit-chat and discuss how he knew her and if he were a gentleman he would lie. Librarians were good at spotting lies, though; novels are filled with them.

April 2, 2011

Montreal as cool as it is cold


[From “Igloofest sizzles in Montreal” from the Toronto Star, published February 11, 2010.]

MONTREAL–It’s minus-35C with the wind chill and Nicolas Cournoyer sweats.

He’s not alone. Around him more than 5,000 mostly young people kick and dance and hug and howl beneath a full moon that has looked down on the St. Lawrence River forever and not seen a scene like this on its banks.

The coldest rave on the planet is called IglooFest and it’s the brainchild of Cournoyer, who’s managed a seemingly Olympian feat by enticing his fellow Montrealers, as well as many house music fans from around the world, to come outside in this weather.

They’ve done so even on the most frigid day of winter when everyone from the authorities to their parents are telling them it’s too damn cold.

“As long as you dress properly, you’ll enjoy it. If you dance and you’re together, you stay warm,” says Cournoyer, who wears a full-body snowsuit as he moves to the beat of DJ King Cannibal, a headliner from the U.K. spinning at Quai Jacques Cartier in the Old Port.

April 1, 2011

Letters from you: Your favourite Canadian songs, plus opinions on 2011 Canadian Election

Free drink on me if you can name this guitar player.

Free drink on me if you can name this guitar player from a Canadian band.

Thank you for reading — and for contributing! Here are some of your responses to articles about the best Canadian songs that reference the country’s landmarks, as well as a prediction on the 2011 Canadian federal election and some words on the issue of foreign-trained doctors seeking certification in Ontario.

Keep responding with your thoughts and suggestions for coverage.

From James Crandell on the Top 40 Canadian Songs about Canada:

“Hi Adrian:
A great travel Canadian travel song is ‘Canadian Road Trip’ by Kenny Butterill. It is about travelling across the country coast to coast. Butterill is a Canadian songwriter/producer living in Santa Cruz, California who spends about half the year at his Balsam Lake cottage north of Toronto. The ‘Canadian Road Trip’ tune is a JJ Cale/Dire Straits-like shuffle tune that features two Juno award winners — the late great Willie P. Bennett and Ray Bonneville. Butterill’s music is featured on CBC radio — so to listen (for free) to the Canadian Road Trip song. Do a Goggle of ‘Butterill CBC’ which takes you to the CBC radio website. Then click on the green button next to the tune to play it.”

Just listened to the tune. It’s a terrific one! Thanks for pointing it out, James. Here’s the link for everyone.

From Ray Chapeskie up in Eganville, a little town in Renfrew County that I remember from my long-ago days at the Pembroke Observer!

“Although written by an American, I think the classic Blue Canadian Rockies, recorded by countless Canadian and American singers, belongs on this list.”

According to the YouTube page, the song was written by Cindy Walker and first gained recognition when it was recorded by Jim Reeves.

March 14, 2011

Bogota’s new beat


[From “Bogota rolling with optimism”, published in the Toronto Star on February 12, 2011]

BOGOTA — Luis Grisales thinks of December 2, 1993 and remembers the rain. It fell on his hometown, Medellin. It fell as if the world had been flipped, the ocean trading places with the sky.

“It was like a flood. It was like the city was being cleansed,” says Grisales, a health-care professional and actor who now lives in Vancouver, a long way from a time and place when he couldn’t leave his home after dark or travel outside of Medellin for fear of kidnapping or death.

He discussed his life in Colombia while helping me prepare for a visit to his homeland, which I discovered has moved ahead too.

The great change for Colombia began to unfold on that late autumn night saturated with rain and the blood of a villain. Pablo Escobar was killed in a hail of bullets and when it was done much of Colombia, it seemed, was able to see a day when it might finally breathe with ease. It took seven more years of being ruled by drug cartels ruthless like Escobar before the 11th-largest nation in the world would truly begin to redefine itself.

In Bogota, its capital, the transformation is tangible.

December 23, 2010

Evoke All the Senses in Your Writing

Many aspiring novelists and short-story practitioners are advised in their creative writing classrooms to imagine a camera on the shoulders of their characters as they lead readers through scenes. The thinking is this practice forces the writer to add detail while also understanding the tactile surroundings of their story.

It’s not bad advice, but it’s far from complete as far as a technique for character development goes. The reason for the shortcoming is because characters are supposed to be three-dimensional. That means when writers rely predominantly on describing what they see they may fail to develop fully drawn characters who experience life in a truly profound way that makes them come to life.

David Morrell, who taught for many years in the esteemed English department at Iowa University, advises aiming for a ratio that will force you to add senses beyond the visual. For every visual sense, you should have two others present, says the author of “First Blood” (a novel whose literary merits have been tarnished because its lead character was transformed into a one-dimensional killing machine in the “Rambo” movie series).

Strict adherence to any formula isn’t good. In this case, it could cause you to overwrite. But if you craft your story well, then putting Morrell’s advice into practice makes your characters more fully developed than if you simply treated them like robots being filmed.

Many excerpts could be chosen to illustrate this example of writing, but I picked the following passage because it is short and comes from a great piece of fiction. It is the second paragraph of “The Chrysanthemums”, a well-known John Steinbeck story about internal conflict, isolation and sexual frustration. Notice the variety of senses the Noble Prize winner incorporates with the nouns and verbs he chooses here:

“It was a time of quiet and of waiting. The air was cold and tender. A light wind blew up from the southwest so that the farmers were mildly hopeful of a good rain before long; but fog and rain did not go together.”