Melanija

This piece was originally published by a great online literary magazine called The Wild Word

Nobody believed that I pushed Irena into the Sava. But I did. I didn’t even feel anything as I watched her flounder. I knew one of the boys would jump in to save her.

Her shorts and t-shirt were sticking to her as she scrambled back up the bank.  The boy who’d pulled her out tossed her a dry shirt. She draped it around her shoulders and stared at me. She was one of those people who looked prettier wet.

No one said a word at first. Then one of the boys spoke. “Melanija, what did you do that for?”

I could feel their eyes boring into me. Wondering what could have possessed a creature as delicate as me to perform such a brutal act.

She’d called me stupid. In class beforehand, under her breath. For insisting Milan was the capital of Italy. But anyone could have made that mistake. My mother was always talking about the shows there. All the magazines she brought home from work had spreads from Milan. It was a logical thing to assume. Why wouldn’t the center of fashion be the capital too? It was for Paris.

I shrugged. “I guess I’m too stupid to know.” The boys looked at me like they never had before. Some of them were impressed, I think. And others a bit afraid. Their worlds were opening up.

I was younger than my son is now when I threw Irena into the Sava. A good bit actually, now that I think about it. Definitely no more than ten. The memory came flooding back earlier when I got another invitation to our school reunion. Last time, in 2014, they’d sent it to my agent’s address. This time, the envelope was presented on a silver tray, along with some fan mail from schoolchildren in Uganda and a letter of appreciation from a group of women who support my husband. They put a lot of effort into curating my mail and even go the bother of resealing the envelopes after they’ve been checked. I appreciate those little touches. More than they know.

Dear Melanija, Please join us for an afternoon of reminiscing about our time at Sevnica national school. No special mention of my current situation, or of the logistical challenges attending would present. I folded it and slipped it back inside the envelope.  Surely, this must be the first time an invitation to a Slovenian school reunion had been screened by the US government.

Irena’s never spoken to the press. As far as I know anyway. But even if she did, what evidence would she have of what happened that day? There were no phones, then. And it would be easy to deny such a story. Most of what they write about me is a lie anyway.

I might even do it again, if I were back there, in the same circumstances. Irena was one of those annoying children who had lots of knowledge but no instincts. It was infuriating for her to think that she was cleverer than me. Especially when I knew that it was her destiny to be ordinary, and that it was mine not to be.

When I think back to that day, I realize that I’ve always been allergic to humiliation. It’s something I have in common with Donald. Even a glimmer of it makes us both ruthless. I think we recognized that in each other early on. Part of the attraction, probably.

But there are differences in our antipathy. These days, I can cope with ridicule. Let them paint me as vacuous. You don’t get to where I am with nothing between your ears. Where is Irena now? Teaching math in dingy classroom somewhere? Auditing accounts for a financial services company? I couldn’t care less how stupid she thinks I am. Let her mock my improbable fate.

Donald has no such composure. To him, laughter is as dangerous and foreign as Slovenian is. The principles of both languages are impossible for him to understand. He’d rather bathe in victimhood than be ridiculed. I’m the complete opposite. To me, nothing stings like pity.

The media is at its cruelest when it pretends to show compassion. The moment I batted Donald’s hand away, in slow motion. The way I stopped smiling when I thought we were out of shot. Miserable Melania, they say. She cried on election night.

People who think I’m sad or lonely have a mistaken view of what marriage is. A simplistic one, based on ideals they’ve read about in fairytales. The truth that the small-minded fail to acknowledge is that every relationship is a transaction. And when you have an instinct for business, like Donald and I do, you can see the beauty in the way marriage enables an exchange between equals.

And that is what we’ve always been.

Of course, there are power struggles. They exist in all equal transactions, including in ours. But in this particular, peculiar situation, I have the upper hand. We both know that. I would have no trouble walking, if the humiliation became too great.

I’m not like the other, dispensable members of his administration. Those who woo him with adulation, then anger him with gentle reason. For Donald, there is only deference and defiance. Anything in between he files under treachery.

Not with me though. Through the marital bond, I am afforded the freedom of thought. My husband’s brilliance, like that of many powerful men, resides in his simplicity. FLOTUS, he knows, can’t be easily replaced.

When the grab-‘em-by-the-pussy tape came out during the campaign, I called him disgusting and told him I was leaving. “You can’t,” he said. His face was red. His voice was soft. The words came out like a question.

I looked him right in the eye. “I will.” And he believed me. It’s why he married me. Power has nothing to do with following through. It’s about having the courage to craft a noose and to hold it around the necks, even of those you love.

Since then I’ve been calling the shots. New York until Baron finished the school year. My own schedule. Interviews, only at my whim. No more snatching migrant children from their parents. What is he, a monster?

The liberal media’s too blinded by my beauty to see my brains. But since they insist on painting me in their own image, I’d rather be ornamental than oppressed.

Ornaments are powerful. It doesn’t matter whether they are diamonds, wives, husbands or handbags. All are accessories with the possibility to harness the most powerful currency in the world: attention. To be looked at, feared. Envied, adored. Only hypocrites say the surface doesn’t matter. Even the ugly duckling turns out beautiful in the end.

It maddens me when people say I have been lucky. Implying that I drifted listlessly to the top. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everything I have done is a calculation. I had the looks. But if it had been something else, I would have capitalized on that. I don’t understand people who don’t make the best of themselves.

If you think I’m heartless, you’re wrong. Only the jealous would jump to such a conclusion. I would do anything for those who brought me here. My mother, who spent her evenings sewing me dresses from the excess fabric she picked up on the factory floor. Who wouldn’t let me leave the apartment unless I was looking smart. She knew what it was to be best. My father, who worked and worked so we could move up and out. From Sevnica to Ljubljana all the way to New York City. Never look back, he said. He, who came from nothing.

I remember once, when Baron was very young, my parents came to Manhattan. I’d been out with my mother for the afternoon and when we came back, the sitting room door was ajar. We tip-toed down the hallway and peered inside.

Baron was curled up on my father’s lap. They were reading from a book. Kaj je to?  – what’s that? my father said, pointing at a picture. And Baron babbled back at him in Slovenian. Then my father said something I didn’t catch. But whatever it was, it made Baron giggle and dig his nose into my father’s chest. And as my mother and I stood hidden in the doorway, she caught the tear falling down my cheek with her freshly painted nail.

Former classmates of mine have complained in interviews that I never answer their invitation to the school reunion. They’re held every five years in a restaurant in Sevnica, just around the corner from where our school once stood. They have always invited me, they said. Even before I was First Lady. But she never comes, they say. She doesn’t even bother writing to decline.

Well, here’s what I have to say to them. Not everyone in life gets stuck. Some of us move up. Some of us make the best out of ourselves.

And maybe there are times when I would sacrifice everything I have now to be back there. Among the timbered houses that line the hills along the Sava. Breathing in the dewy air I remember from my childhood. Re-walking the trail where I once twirled proudly in the skirt my mother sewed.

I’d go, you know. I really would. If only they could guarantee that Irena wouldn’t be there. But how on earth, could I, FLOTUS, get away with making such a demand?

* This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and situations as represented in this story are the product of the author’s imagination, and should not considered to be true or a statement of fact.

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The festival that won my heart

There is something in the air in Listowel. For me, it was the smell of wild garlic and the way the leaves hanging over the River Feale caught the light.

The tiny town located in Ireland’s South-West has a population of under 5000. But it has produced John B Keane, Brendan Kennelly, Bryan MacMahon and a host of other women and men of literary as well as musical note. The writers’ festival was a glorious excuse for a reunion with two schoolfriends.

On the first morning, we took a walking tour. Our guide – a spirited and brilliant man of advanced age (the son, incidentally of the late Bryan MacMahon) – brought us to the Garden of Europe. The grounds, dating back to 1995, feature a monument to John B Keane, as well as Ireland’s only Holocaust memorial.

sdr

Morning’s walk in Listowel

Gesturing to the impeccably-kept lawns behind him, the guide said: “This used to be a dump. A place you’d come to shoot rats.”

It didn’t matter if it was true or not. It was about the twinkle in his eye and the implication that the town had stayed humble.

The line between fact and fiction is appropriately slippery in Listowel, where the truth lies between the lines. Perhaps this is the reason that so many of the writers who came said it was their favorite literary festival, by far.

Or perhaps they like it so much because it is a place where they are allowed to exalt the ordinary. During a tea party hosted by none other than Colm Tóibín, he described a conversation he had recently overheard between an older person and a staff member in a Vodafone store.

“Now, I don’t want to send texts. But I want to receive them. Now, if I just turn it off, it can’t do anything, can it?  It won’t ring, will it?”  The utter terror of technology, Tóibín said. He wants to put it in a story.

For me, the days in Listowel were characterized not by terror but by awe. There was the surreal moment at a panel discussion when I recognized the shape of Margaret Drabble’s head in front of me. Later she turned around, and the man beside her (my former English teacher, who would be interviewing her later) introduced us. “I taught them very little,” he said, typically self-effacing. “Well you instilled a love of reading if they’re here,” she said, not missing a beat.

I sat beside the extraordinary artist Pauline Bewick during another event. She had a notebook open on her lap, full of striking, colorful sketches. Beside her was her daughter Poppy, herself an artist who, unlike her mother, works slowly and produces work that is startlingly life-like. They were a beautiful pair, gazelle-like, other-worldly and unassuming despite their huge success. I told Pauline about how our English teacher had inspired us to love literature. “You know that leaves me with a lump in my throat,” she said. “It really does.”

Another highlight was the poet Colette Bryce, who – to my shame – I’d never heard of. A Derry-born wordsmith, there was something about the gentle strength with which she read that lured me in. I bought her selected poems and was giddily excited when she looked up after signing it and said in a Northern lilt: “Thanks for coming, Kate.”

Edna O’Brien, of course packed the room out. I couldn’t even see her from where I was sitting. But I could hear her distinctive voice, and felt its warmth. “Enchantment is the novel’s most important quality,” she said. “It’s what matters most.” A literary titan whose work Ireland once banned, she would know.

On our last night, we went to see Forgotten, a one-man show written and sublimely performed by Pat Kinevane. It took place in St Johns, a church on the town’s main square converted into a theatre.

My friend, himself a playwright, was seeing it for the second time. It was an intense, exhausting, brilliant performance. When it was over and we filed out of the church, the sun had gone down and the last of the light stretched across the sky.

I noticed my friend had a certain glow about him; a kind of exaltation was written across his face. “This is what good theatre can do,” he said as we waited for the 11 o’clock bus back to Killarney. “It’s what Edna O’Brien was taking about,” he said. “A piece of art can enchant.”

 

My Juvenilia and The Opening Line That Wasn’t

I was 16 and practically the same but for a hideous mane of long, straggly brown hair with orange highlights. I had just finished struggling through The Satanic Verses. I’d taken it to Germany where I spent many a journey on slow trains, puff-puff-puffing their way through the Bavarian countryside, with the battered book on my knee, trying to make sense of it all. Bizarrely-named angels, and evil and the Muslims didn’t like it: it went something like that. Still though, I used torn up bits of receipts from purchases of Puffreiss Schokolade in Müller to mark interesting passages, which I later transcribed into a notebook, in case I ever decided to emulate Rushdie’s descriptive style, which I must have assumed would be a piece of cake.

My literary aspirations began early in life; in fact they were very much present before I could read and write. At the age of three, I was inspired by numerous attempted break-ins to our home to compose my first work of non-fiction, which I titled “The Book of Burglars”. It was a no-nonsense guide to local criminals, which I penned with help from the local Gardaí, who had shown me an enormous, hard-bound book with an austere brown cover full of photographs of known criminals in the Rathmines area. I illustrated the book interpretively and filled its pages with line after line of elaborate pencil swirls, which I supposed represented the words I was imagining writing. In hindsight, it was rather a reasonable conclusion to draw, given that I had witnessed countless adults sign their name with a scribble that bore no resemblance to the letters of the alphabet of which I had by then become cognisant.

When I subsequently added literacy to my repertoire, I concentrated my efforts on the story of Spook, a castle-dwelling ghost-child, who gets separated from his parents only to be re-united with them at a banquet, where he enjoys (what in my 6-year-old eyes was) the ultimate consolation prize after an agonising ordeal: a drink of 7Up.

As I turned nine and became politically aware, (where such consciousness has since departed is anybody’s guess) my literary efforts were directed to a novella on the subject of the war in Kosovo. Alina’s Story told the tale of a girl and her family struggling to come to terms with the effects of ethnic cleansing in her village. It was written as part of a class project and my older sister of 13 kindly agreed to be my editor. Her decisions and re-writings may have been difficult to reconcile with my original vision, but I was convinced of her sagacity and the finished work is testament to her editorial skill.

Alina's Story, First Edition

When I turned 16, my hairstyle and literary interests took a new direction. I became immersed in the realm of the hypothetical and was in no small part inspired by Rushdie to create an unintelligible literary landscape of my own. It was my solipsistic phase, you see. I considered the predominant preoccupations of my life: self-loathing and the feeling of inadequacy and decided, delightedly that I would transmute these singular insights into a mytho-historical landscape. I imagined a people and land far away from mine and outside of the inconvenience of an established historical timeframe. These people lived in a country that looked precisely how I had pictured Rushdie’s India to be. They had inherited self-loathing, which was rooted somewhere in a bitter historical event (possibly a world war) which had generated, across generations, a learned guilt. I wrote 26 words of that epic work. I have lost the original to a large mainframe Pakard Bell computer but I had enough foresight to commit the 26-word opening line to memory. Here I admit it, for the first time to public view. It went like this:

The self-hatred of the Rahadan race was not ancient, but had existed long enough for the Purkhan family of four generations not to know anything else.

That line concluded my Juvenilia. Little did I know then to what my literary aspirations would amount: a paltry offering of my miscellaneous adventures to the blogosphere. Should have stayed in the genre of mythic-realism. Glad the orange highlights grew out though.

Anyone with a novel idea?

Anna Wulf is a character in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. I don’t know her very well yet because we only met 78 pages ago and our encounters since have been sporadic. My first impression of her was on board the 46 A bus to Dún Laoghaire and at that time, I considered her pretty self absorbed and possibly lacking the courage of her convictions. She really surprised me today over lunch though. I was eating a re-heated corner piece of brocolli quiche and I had opened the book defiantly, because on my endless weekend ‘to do’ list I had included such boxes to be ticked off as “sleep in and relax”, “check out menu pages for dinner tonight” and “Read The Golden Notebook”.

two of my three-page weekend 'to do' list

What Anna said to me over lunch was: “I am incapable of writing the only kind of novel which interests me: a book powered with an intellectual or moral passion strong enough to create order, to create a new way of looking at life. It is because I am too diffused … I have only one, and the least important, of the qualities necessary to write at all, and that is curiosity. It is the curiosity of the journalist.”

I think what Anna means is that for her the appeal of art lies in its power to arouse in the intellect and the emotions a sense of novelty. Whether or not there’s anything intrinsically profound in that novelty, it seems reasonable- at least from the perspective of human advancement- to be deeply moved by an idea which one encounters for the frst time. Premieres are pure, and that which is pure does not take long to become tainted and ugly. I have often wondered why we have such an aversion to clichés. To use one myself: “it’s a cliché because it’s true” and surely “beauty is truth”? I remember once as a child feeling immensely satisfied when I suddenly understood what my mum meant when she said (in German) “the apple doesn’t fall from the tree”. I had heard this said before and had stored in my mind an image of one of the apple trees in my Grandmother’s garden dropping its fruit gently onto the grass below. I connected in a flash the image with its import: like mother like daughter; like father like son.

Truths become clichés and clichés in themselves pejorative because of human vanity. We enjoy the novelty of our first flash of understanding and feel our cognitive and moral achievement devalued by widespread use. Anna’s fear is that she lacks original insight and instead indulges in passionless curiousity – which leads not to clichés but instead to a barrage of information with no meaning.

Art is nothing without meaning and even ambiguity in art has its function etched into it etymologically; allowing us to see two things at once. I have written before about how I believe the patron of the arts to be more profound than the artist themselves. I stand by that position, particularly because I have always been confused and lacking in conviction about what’s really ‘good’ in art and in particular in literature. When something has not appealed instinctively to me, beauty has been drawn out for me by inspiring teachers and friends. I have an irational but passionate dislike for the word ‘canon’ because it seems to have been constructed in cultural retrospect rather than based on timeless intellect and emotion. I know that I, like Anna am only interested in books that move me (usually to tears) or change fundamentally the way I think but I know that for many others, the appeal of literature lies elsewhere and that more and more, the commercialisation of fiction has come to be what constitutes it rather than what reveals great truths to the masses.

I think much more about reading and writing than I engage in either activity, and I like Anna yearn to write a novel which is just that. My problem is that I am crude and craftless – I yearn for original insight and would gladly spend my life in its pursuit but I despair at the idea of inventing a plot, characters, voice and setting, in which to couch my eventual clarity. I can’t help but ask myself the very question that Anna poses: “Why a story at all … Why not, simply, the truth?” Readers, please help me out. What does ‘novel’ mean for you?

In bed with Anna after our lunchtime chat