The new world order is settling in, and our touchstone has changed its colour
In February this year, as the novel plague had entered America, I had also made it as a finalist for a teaching job that was under offer. I was brought to the campus for a three-day interview; was shown the library I would perhaps never have access to in my life -- then introduced to students I knew I would never teach.
I shook hands with faculty that I might never see again. And here, I had to describe in great detail, that particular course on fairy tales, I may never offer to students in the classroom, if I was denied this teaching position.
As I stood up straight in a simple grey suit, I was reminded of my wife’s advice: “Don’t say anything strange, don’t blather,” she had reminded. “You have a tendency to blather.”
Only a short while ago, I had met with a dean who had finished rubbing his face until it reddened, then asked point blank whether writers even belonged in universities. I met with another dean who asked me the same thing. There were so many deans. I couldn’t tell these deans apart. Another dean had asked me which my favourites were, in my first collection of write-ups.
I cleared my throat, to reply back with confidence. The drama never ceased.
“We only have a few minutes left,” the dean added.
“They are all very inspiring,” I think I had said I was hurrying. “I was writing about voices we’ll never hear,” I think, I had responded.
He stood up and shook my hand. I had shaken so many hands that day. I could not tell if everything was at stake, or nothing was at stake. All I knew was that I was being tested, and whether or not I was offered this job would depend on the appetite and mood of total strangers.
“Your final task,” I had imagined the dean to be saying, “is to make a rope out of these ashes. Do it and the job is yours.” I kept wondering: What had that meant?
On the third day of the interview, the head of the creative department asked me if the courses I would be expected to teach should even have existed in the contents. I wished I had said “no,” as I made my body gently vanish.
“They shouldn’t exist at all.”
Instead I said “yes” and pulled a beautiful, made-up reason from the air and offered it to him as a gift. Gold for your dust, Sir. Pearls for your pigs. “Who is watching your publication?”
“A reliable friend,” I had answered.
I was engulfed in a strange, reversing passion. What does it mean to be worth something? Or worth enough? Or being worthless? What does it mean to earn a living? What does it mean to be hired? And ... what does it mean, to be let go?
It’s May now. More than 30 million Americans have lost their jobs. What mattered in February hardly seemed to matter in May. My son Yasir, and my better half, Nuzhat and I are plain lucky.
We have stayed healthy, and we have enough money and enough food to eat. In between teaching my grandchildren the popular rap song they liked, the difference between, and moving my writing workshops from my bedroom to pixelated classrooms, and cleaning my house, and going nowhere, and being scared, and looking for bread flour and yeast, I could barely remember what it had felt like -- to plead my case for three straight days. It had felt good, to barely remember.
“You write a lot about a War ... of Liberation,” and the “Operation Searchlight,” “Bangladesh ... killings and rape,” says the 16th or 17th dean. I had quietly nodded.
In the Brothers Grimm’s “Cherry,” an old king with three sons could not decide which of the three should inherit the kingdom, and so he gave his sons three trials: The first, that they should seek “cloth so fine” the king can draw it through his golden ring. The second, that they needed to find a dog small enough to fit inside a walnut shell. And the third, to bring home the “fairest lady” in all the land. Bottom line, if you could get muslin from Bengal, you got a whole kingdom. Smile!
In the Grimm’s “The Six Servants,” a prince would likely win his princess if he brought back a ring the old queen had dropped into the Red Sea, devoured 300 oxen (“skin and bones, hair and horns”), drank 300 barrels of wine, and kept his arms around the princess all night without falling asleep.
And in “Rumpelstiltskin,” if the poor miller’s daughter could spin larger and larger rooms full of straw into gold, she would become queen. If not, she was likely to die. Fairy tales are riddled with tasks like these.
Some contenders cheated, and some were never worthy, and some took the dreary, barren road, and some had preferred the smooth, shady one, and some are helped by birds, and some were helped by giants, and some by witches, and some by luck.
Back at home, I called my wife. “I can’t find bread, flour, or yeast anywhere.” “Forget the bread,” yelled my wife. “The bread is over.”
In fairy tales, form is your function and function is your form. If you don’t spin the straw into gold or inherit the kingdom or devour all the oxen or find the flour or get the professorship, you drop out of the fairy tale, and fall over its edge into an endless, blank forest where there is no other function for you, no alternative career.
The future for the sons who didn’t inherit the kingdom was banishment, equal to modern-day exile. What would really happen when your skills were no longer needed for the sake of the fairy tale? A great gust would come and carry you away.
In fairy tales, the king is obviously the king. If he was dethroned, his bones would clatter into a heap and vanish. Loosen the seams of the stepmother, and one could reach in.
Nothing -- but stepmother inside! Even when the princess was cinders and ash, she was still entirely the princess!
I had sent my grandsons on a scavenger hunt because it’s day fifty-eight of homeschooling, and I was all out of ideas. I gave them a checklist: A rock, soil, a berry, something soft, a red leaf, a brown leaf, something alive, something dead, an example of erosion, something that looks happy, a dead branch on a living tree. They had come back with two canvas totes, both filled with nature.
I could not pinpoint what this lesson was exactly.
Something about identification and possession. Something about buying time. As I emptied the bags and touched the moss, and the leaves, and the twigs, and the berries, and a robin-blue eggshell, I considered how much we all had depended on useless, arbitrary tasks to prove ourselves. I considered how much we depended on these tasks so we could say, at the very end, we had succeeded.
Tomorrow, on day 59, I will ask my grandson to “find me an acre of land / Between the salt water and the sea-strand / Plough it with a lamb’s horn / Sow it all over with one peppercorn / Reap it with a sickle of leather / And gather it up with a rope made of heather.”
I will tell them if they perform each one of these tasks perfectly, they will be rewarded with more tasks. And if they perform each of those tasks perfectly, they will be rewarded with more. Until, at last, they will not be able to tell the difference between their hands and another boy’s hands.
Over the years, I have applied for many of teaching positions and even received some interviews. I’ve wanted a job like this for so long, I barely even know why I want it anymore. I look at my hands. I can’t tell if they’re mine.
“Of course you can tell if your hands are yours,” says my mother. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I have no real job,” I said, “Of course you have a real job,” she replied. “I have no flour,” I say. “Forget the bread,” said my angry wife, again. “The bread is over.”
And maybe the bread, as I’ve always understood it, really was over. The new world order is rearranging itself on the planet and settling in. Our touchstone has changed its colour.
Our criteria for earning in life, and a living, are mutating like a virus that desired badly to stay alive. I texted a friend: “I can’t find bread flour.” She lives in Florida. “I can see the wheat,” she murmured, “growing in the field from outside my window.” Nonsense!
I had watched a video on how to harvest wheat. I can’t believe I had no machete. I can’t believe I had spent so many hours begging universities to hire me, I forgot to learn how to separate the chaff from the wheat and gently grind.
If I had a machete I would use it to cut the mice, and the princess, and the king, and the stepmother, and the castle, and the wolf, and the mother, and the sons, free from their function so they could disappear into their own form.
But also I had dreamed of an office with a number. Perhaps, I had also cherished a university ID. I wanted access to a fancy library and benefits and students and colleagues and travel money. I wanted the whole stupid kingdom.
“And then what?” asked Nuzhat
“And then nothing,” I replied as I jumped off the very top of a fairy tale that may have no place for me. “You’re better off,” she said very firmly. I looked around. I’ve now landed where I am.
I liked it here. I felt like I was in the Aesop’s Fables territory, where the buttons were so tender they had come undone. The whole kingdom was spilling out of itself. There were holes everywhere.
To the east, a pile of impossible tasks of my own making. To the west, a mountain of broken crowns I will melt and recast into a machete. “This is so nice,” wrote Gertrude Stein, “and sweet and yet there comes the change, there comes the time to press more air.”
“This did not mean the same as disappearance.” It’s day 60 of homeschooling. Eli had asked me to remind him how to make the Arabic letter Qaaf.
I take a pencil, and draw it for him very carefully. “It’s like an open melon,” I stated, “with two little eyes attached.” “You know what, Grandpapaa,” he says. “You are like my good teacher at the daycare centre”
“Thank you,” I said.
And then I proceeded to show him how to draw a virus.
Nazarul Islam is an educator based in Chicago.