Welcome back, Marcela Sulak!

This month we are celebrating the titles that we’ve acquired during 2018. These manuscripts came to us through our open reading periods. Today we bring you Marcela Sulak, author of the lyric memoir Mouth Full of Seeds, which will be published in early 2020. This will be Marcela’s third title with Black Lawrence Press.
Have a manuscript you think we’d like? During our November Open Reading Period we are looking for poetry (chapbooks and full-length collections), short fiction (again, both chapbooks and full-length collections), novels, novellas, nonfiction (CNF, biography, cultural studies) and translations from German. Also, our Big Moose Prize for the novel is currently open to early bird submissions.

The Author

Marcela Malek Sulak is the author of two previous Black Lawrence Press poetry titles, Decency (2015) and Immigrant (2010). She’s co-edited with Jacqueline Kolosov the 2015 Rose Metal Press title Family Resemblance. An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. Sulak, who translates from the Hebrew, Czech, and French, is a 2019 NEA Translation Fellow, and her fourth book-length translation of poetry: Twenty Girls to Envy Me: Selected Poems of Orit Gidali, was nominated for the 2017 PEN Award for Poetry in Translaiton (University of Texas Press). She’s also translation Karel Hynek Macha’s May and Karel Jaromir Erben’s Bouquet of Czech Folktales (Twisted Spoon Press), and Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha’s Bela-Wenda (Host Publications), from the French. Her essays have appeared in The Boston Review, The Iowa Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Asymptote, and Rattle, among others. She coordinates the poetry track of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University, where she is an associate professor in American Literature.

On writing Mouth Full of Seeds

This is a memoir of constant becoming, through several languages and two religions, told through the lens of single motherhood and translation (of fairy tales and poems), agriculture and eating.
I grew up in community of Czech immigrants on a rice farm five miles outside of a town of about 300 people, less than a mile away from where my father grew up, on the same rice field, and about 5 miles away form where my mother grew up on a cotton farm. I did not leave the state of Texas until I was about 22, for graduate school in Indiana. I was a first generation university student. Most of my early life was informed by the alchemy of agriculture and gardening, as well as Czech fairy tales and folkstories. All my life I’ve been translating myself, the objects around me, and words from one language to another, one body to another. I wrote this memoir as an act of translation.

Excerpt of Mouth Full of Seeds

Drawn That Way
On my birthday my mother writes me: What is it about you that allows you to pick up, with your little daughter, and leave all your former life behind?  Your background, your family, nationality, religion, friends, siblings, parents, your roots, and just start a new life in a new country?
What freedom of spirit you must have!! 
Maybe if Catholic church altars featured statues of Mary with a baby and a book, instead of a crucified, bloody body of a man, I’d have stayed Catholic and become a Catholic Mother in our ancestral homeland, Moravia.
I try to focus on the double exclamation point. in freedom of spirit!!
I am studying theology at a Jesuit university and discover that the 1905 and 1906 papal commissions on modernism found no legal reason a woman cannot be ordained a priest. But, according to the documents, since God chose to inhabit the body of a man, not a woman, priests should be men, not women.
The most important thing about Jesus’ humanity was his genitalia.
Ever after, when I saw a figure of a male hanging from a cross in a church, I would feel waves of nausea. My body would sometimes become wracked in sobs, and I’d have to remove it from the nave. It was embarrassing and puzzling—I certainly wasn’t conscious of feeling upset. I liked the candles and incense and ritual and liberation theology.
I loved Mary, the mother. I did not deify the son. This probably would disqualify me from Jewish Motherhood. Luckily I gave birth to a daughter.
I have no idea, Mama, where I got my freedom of spirit!!
I meet a man at a wedding. He asks me about my child. Is the father Jewish? It’s a question I’d never heard before. I explain that my child’s father is Jewish, but I was never married to him. He tells me he is a cohen, that if the father of my child had not been Jewish, well, then maybe…
It sounds sketchy to me, but tell him I am a convert, so it doesn’t matter.
He pauses for maybe three beats. He explains the kabbalistic idea that the soul of a convert was always a Jewish soul. It simply got lost and was born into a non-Jewish body. Conversion is tikkun. It is making something whole, repairing it, making my body Jewish to house my Jewish soul.
But if the soul was always Jewish, why does my now-Jewish female body become flawed in the presence of your priestly Jewish body?
He has no answer. He is not a scholar.
He would be offended if he knew that at that moment I suddenly had an image of a naked bloody man hanging on a cross.
Maybe what I’m getting at here is the sheer physicality of the Mother’s Body as a receptacle of life, sure, but of impurity. It shocks me. It always has—simply the physicality of the woman’s body. And it continues to shock me after all these years of being alive.
In my perfect world, our thoughts, intentions, emotions, would be visible, our spirits would be visible—we’d see their shape and size and style under our clothes. We’d cover our insecurities with panties or support them with bras. But our ideas would be the physical representations of our selves in the world.
Our bodies, the physical elements, would be accessible only through our minds and our actions. Like the wind—we’d see our bodies only in their movement. When we moved them to fulfill an intention or thought.
“I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way,” says Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
I am drawn that way, too.
When people ask me how I like Israel, if I plan to stay, I say that I am over the angry phase. Over all that bursting into tears when strangers yell at me for no reason in the street. Over asking the neighbors for the tenth time, but this time with a hammer in my hand, to turn down the stereo. (Finally, they do. The silence is astonishing.)
Because in America I was the only tenure-track woman in my university English department who had given birth pre-tenure. Because in Israel I am the only pre-tenure woman in my department who only has one child.
The woman ahead of me at the grocery store in Tel Aviv, furious about an item she’d been charged for, shoves her large purse onto the conveyor belt, refusing to bag her groceries, and the checker checks me out around her. Then, the checker asks the furious woman if she’ll lend me her discount card, since, really, I should be saving at least 50 shekels on the bill. “Oh, but of course,” the angry woman says, and tells the checker her ID card number. Together they chide me for not getting a card, and everyone forgives everyone.
The community garden has been closed all week, due to the jackals.
Sometimes it is closed because the IDF needs it for something that will, presumably, protect us.
The garden lies past the convergence of the dreamy green Yarkon and the brown Ayalon rivers. It’s a 15 minute bike ride along the river from our apartment—past the petting zoo and bird safari, through the little eucalyptus forest that is a national park, just past where the three ancient mills used to be. We pay 180 NIS a month for 40 square meters, which is far too large for us, but my daughter kept shouting, get the big one! get the big one! when I was on the phone with the garden people.
Our plot is the most overrun in the entire garden, and I think the other gardeners love us for making them feel so good about themselves in comparison. One has given us sweet-potato clippings, another sunflowers and melon seedlings, another grapes, passion fruit.
I weed for three hours till my hands and shoulders are weak as clouds. It is satisfying. My daughter, for whom this is supposed to be an enriching and wondrous experience, stands next to me and repeats every 90 seconds, I’m bored when can we go home?
It finally happens: The Iraqi window repairman’s mother can’t understand my Hebrew, so I put my 6-year-old on so she can translate that it’s broken glass and it needs to be replaced. I am ashamed. And yet, it’s wonderful to see her pacing up and down with the phone, explaining in detail. Sticking to the facts. Which is more than we can say for the repairman’s mother, who is apparently also named Marcela.
My daughter broke the glass. She explains it to the repairman, and that is how I learn she broke the window with her head. She’d told me it was her shoulder. The repairman says that his cousin died that way and that we are very, very, very, very lucky.
After the fourth visit to the Ministry of Education to petition that my daughter be returned to the same kindergarten, the only bilingual public one in Tel Aviv, that she was in last year, and why did they take her out for no reason, and I don’t speak Hebrew and I’m a new immigrant and a single mother, and I need this school and if they don’t put her back, I sweartogod I will home-school her, which is actually illegal to do in Israel, but I don’t care, and receiving a discouraging non-committal response, I tell the other parents at kindergarten, I’ve tried everything I can think of.
Have you tried crying? every single one of them asks me.
Every time you cry in a government office in Israel you are given a glass of cold water in a disposable plastic cup.
Mommy, are you a girl or a boy? asks my daughter, watching me assemble furniture for the fourth day that week.
I turn the final screw on her bed, Most definitely a girl.

………………………………………………………………………previously published in Queen Mob’s Teahouse