This issue of Granta explored the theme of fate in all of its beautiful, terrible glory. The introduction warns that the selections to follow “are concerned with fate in its most serious manifestations: love, sexuality, identity, death, illness, religion and war.”
The issue included beautiful images of Mexico’s retablos or exvotos, painted on pieces of metal or wood, “which are offerings of gratitude to a Catholic divinity, usually placed in a sanctuary shrine or altar, that condense a charged moment in somebody’s life, perhaps of anguish or even terror, usually into a simple image, a man lying face down in the street, a patient in a hospital cot attended by doctor or nurse…. They are displays of religious devotion and gratitude that make intimate news, sometimes even of a scandalous nature, public news.” While these images were traditionally meant to be shared within close communities, and never meant to be admired only as “art,” I found Francisco Goldman’s selections moving and other worldly, each its own visceral reckoning with fate.
“Blasphemy” by Fatima Bhutto is a brutal story of a good man falsely accused, his fate sealed by those around him who know better but do nothing. Her skillful writing captures the horror of a fate both undeserved and unavoidable. “They will kill him and destroy his family. Qadir David’s mind races back to every conversation he’s had in the past week. The chaplain. The rickshaw-wallah, the dyer, the customers. He must have said something, done something. He must have looked somewhere he shouldn’t have. Made a comment, held a measuring tape too tight. He has lived here all his life. Qadir David has never left the valley…. ‘What did I do?’ He repeats the question.”
“A Hebrew Sibyl” by Cynthia Ozick was beautiful piece about the fate of the illegitimate daughter of a Jewish trader in ancient Greece. Redeemed as a goddess, long after her own faith has faded away, this is a story of fate foisted upon a child by others, the unlikely power sewn by her own inaction, and recognition of her own truth — at odds with the small world around her. “The priests go on, as of old, appealing to the goddess for holy guidance; but it is I who sanction and govern and make the laws, though the priests cannot know this. I no longer fear the growing moon and the wine with its treacheries, and the coming of the priests in procession cannot shake me… I do not indulge their belief, but to scorn it: the gods are a lie. Yet how accuse these solemn elders of delusion? As much accuse the snakes of their venom; it is their truth.”
“Salad Days“ by Barbara Ras is a heart-breakingly gorgeous piece:
and nothing in those early evenings free
of care could have prepared you
to be the last one left, the one
with grief to spare.
Mark Doty’s poem “Apparition” about his mother is both haunting and arresting.
And then my mother says
— she’s been gone more than thirty years,
not her voice, the voice of her in me —
You’ve got to forgive me. I’m choke and sputter
in the wild daylight, speechless to that:
Tim Winton’s memoir “In the Shadow of the Hospital” recalls times in his life spent in hospitals, around hospitals, or in search of a hospital. He describes his lifelong preoccupation with hospitals as “an aversion I refuse to call a phobia” — yet, “as fate would have it, I married a nurse.” As a result, the author lived very near a large teaching hospital during the early years of his marriage, and his observations on that time in his life — set against childhood memories of his father’s illness and recovery — are alternately amusing and piercing. “On any street in any city, there’s a human story walking past you every moment but it’s usually withheld. However, in the lee of a hospital the social camouflage slips away. What’s usually disguised is on display. Where else do people bear out their own narratives so openly?” Following his goodbye to an estranged friend: “Afterwards I often looked up at that dreary tower as the sun lit up its windows and thought of others staring out in hope and regret as the rest of us went about our day, oblivious. All that yearning, spilling down amid the tree tops and roof ridges, a shadow I’d never properly considered before.”
“Domain” by Louise Erdrich has stayed with me for many weeks now. An excerpt from her forthcoming novel Future Home of the Living God, this story is set in a time when a person of means may upload their consciousness prior to death and live on in an afterlife constructed from memory — their own memories and those of others that share the domain. The main character is Bernadette, and her decision to upload herself is both a reaction to a fateful bodily injury and a brave attempt to seize control of her fate — to right a certain wrong. But it was her long farewell to her body, just before her upload, that tore me apart. “You say goodbye to your body very carefully. The toenails you’ve clipped and polished, the vulnerable instep, the ankles and shins you’ve barked, the sometimes unreliable knees, the calves you’ve shared, thighs your lover has grazed his hands along and inside, goodbye to the dark of you, the brilliant unshattering or ravelling that seemed at one time the way your spirit also travelled, outward, everywhere, beginning from your heated core…. Goodbye throat licked and suave collarbone in a low-cut black sheath, and arms and legs that climbed and back I never really saw…”
Andrea Stuart’s “Tourist” recalls her first lesbian relationship and how her break from sexual convention facilitated her shift to becoming a writer — “[n]ot least because becoming an outsider is the greatest gift a writer can be given” — and how this shift empowered her in other ways. In so much as the “ambiguity of [her] desire” allowed her to choose her own fate in terms of sexuality, she admits to looking back, at times — and reaching ever the same conclusion. “Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has posited that we all have double lives: the life we actually live and the one that we have renounced…. And like everyone else who contemplates the road not travelled, I am sometimes haunted by that decision, and mournful. But it was the right one; I took the path that I could least bear to relinquish.”
Kent Haruf’s “The Making of a Writer” ends the issue, quite appropriately, with another story of self-determination, or as the editor puts it, “a narrative of anti-fatalism … and an oblique answer, if we need one, to the question of fate.” Recalling his struggle to become a writer, he credits those who had a hand in turning him toward his fate. “They were not really scholars, but men and women who were passionate about literature, and what they insisted on was the passionate appreciation of the story or the poem itself, and not some theory about it. All this was a great discovery for me — just what I needed and it came at a time when I was ready for such a discovery. You have to be available and open to such moments, I think, and I was. And of course the story or poem is what I still need today, every day.” And of protecting the fate you know is yours, he writes: “I felt as though I had a little flame of talent, not a big talent, but a little pilot-light-sized flame of talent, and I had to tend to it regularly, religiously, with care and discipline, like a kind of monk or acolyte, and not ever let the little flame go out.”
As promised in the introduction, “it’s probably true that the tenor of this issue is melancholy rather than light-hearted.”
When you least expect it, fate will carve a story into your heart. When you least believe it, carve fate into your own story.
As fate would have it. Or as we would have it.