Welcome, Courtney Craggett!

During the month of June, we are celebrating the authors that came to us during our last open reading period. Today we bring you Courtney Craggett, whose debut fiction collection Tornado Season is due out in January of 2019.

The Author

IMG_6599Courtney Craggett holds a PhD in English with specializations in creative writing and multi-ethnic American literature from the University of North Texas, where she taught English and served as the American Literary Review’s Assistant Fiction Editor. Her short stories appear in The Pinch, Mid-American Review, Washington Square Review, Booth, Juked, Word Riot, and Monkeybicycle, among others, and were featured on Ploughshares’ blog. Her reviews appear in American Microreviews and Interviews. Twice nominated for a Pushcart, Courtney is the editors’ choice winner of the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Award and the winner of The Pinch’s Spring 2017 Featured Contributor Award. She currently holds a position as the Artist in Residence at the University of Central Oklahoma.

Author’s Statement

I began writing these stories after spending a year as a schoolteacher at the base of a volcano in Puebla, Mexico. I wanted to contrast that experience with the previous years’, when I taught bilingual students, mostly recent immigrants, in Texas. I wanted to show the interconnectedness between Texas and Mexico, the way the policies of one place affect the other, the way customs and languages and identities in border spaces merge to create something new and transcultural.
As I was writing, my definition of border expanded. I began wondering about the similarities the US/MX border shared with, say, the border between sisters, two distinct people with similar struggles, the way one event will affect them both deeply, but in different ways. So the collection opened to include the borders between friends, between parents and children, between childhood and adulthood, between humanity and the earth. I wondered how those types of metaphysical borders mirrored what was happening along physical borders.
I also started wondering about the border between reality and irreality and how, similar to physical borders, the line is often fluid. Surrealism began creeping into one story after the other, although in most of the stories it’s difficult to tell when the fantastical is real and when it’s just exaggeration or imagination. In “Carnival Ride,” a child, the result of an international marriage, is kidnapped, and the child’s mother has to confront her loss. I asked my friends living in Mexico what aspects of the country would seem most bizarre if they were experiencing loss. One of my friends recalled being late to work when an abandoned carnival blocked an intersection, others reminded me of the overabundance of clowns in the city where we taught. Nothing magical happens in the story, but I wanted it to feel like reality had merged with irreality, like the border between the known world and the unknown had been forever blurred for the narrator.
Borders are places of mingling and fusion, but by definition they are also places of separation and division. “Carnival Ride” demonstrates a theme that inserted itself into almost all of my stories: loss. It happened on accident, really, but pushing against it felt false. Loss is unavoidable along borders. So in my collection, young brides lose their homeland, parents lose their children, children lose their innocence, and they have to figure out how they will or will not reconcile their new lives with that loss.
The loss is there, but so is the hope. In this age of separation and polarization, that’s ultimately what I tried to explore  as I was writing: that while borders exist, while they divide, they are also places of convergence, where new cultures, new families, and new loves are formed.

Carnival Ride

We didn’t come for you that morning because the abandoned carnival blocked the intersection – merry-go-rounds and bumper cars and pirate ships strewn about like something in an apocalypse film. Your school called us. They told us about the bomb threat, that we needed to come pick you up right away, but the spinning teacups blocked our path, their pink and blue and yellow bright in the gray dawn. Your father called his friends, and they called their friends, and everyone came to help us lift. The sun rose behind the volcano and shone onto the street and made the sweat bead beneath our shirts.
You were born with two colors in your eyes, the child of two countries, irises a swirl of brown and green that confused our friends and family. You were the best of us, your father’s jungles and beaches, my prairies and desert flowers. You laughed and the world was at peace, saw all that was possible. You were our life’s work, our monument, stronger than rivers and the tallest concrete walls.
The day of the bomb threat, there was no bomb. There was only chaos, a frantic rush to get the children to safety, to send them home with anyone who would take them, an aunt or a nanny or a friend of a friend. And while we were lifting the spinning teacups beneath the mountain sun, and the school was packing children into crowded cars, someone came for you, and took you away.
You children can disappear so quickly. Your ties to the earth are so much looser than ours. I think you must be born with fairy wings, always poised, ready to fly away. You leave behind your soggy cereal and your unmade beds and your dolls and soccer shoes, but you take so much with you when you go, so much hope, promise.
I thought the world would dim without you. I thought it would grow quiet and pale. But instead it brightened. Helium balloons shone, and cathedrals’ roofs sparkled gold, and bubbles floating in the air refracted the sunlight.
And then the city filled with clowns. They greeted us at airports and offered to carry our suitcases. They sat at the bus stops. They shopped in our grocery stores. They sang to us on street corners and thrust twisted balloons into our hands. They spilled into the intersection at red lights and circled our car with juggling pins. The whole town became a circus, white faces and rainbow wigs and painted smiles.
And so much noise, dogs barking on rooftops and trumpets playing in the square, everywhere people shouting and wanting to be heard. They banged sticks together on the bus. They screeched outside of cathedrals. They begged and sang and shouted and warned. They said that children were being blown up on the beaches, and more children were being starved in prisons, and raped in orphanages, and shot by gangs, and if you were a child the world was a terrible place for you to live, and I remembered how everything was quiet when you laughed, how your eyes shone with two colors and the code-switched language you spoke belonged to everyone but really to no one but you, and I know why you were taken. I know that the world was not ready, not for you, not yet.
I knew this would happen, I told your father. I knew that without her the world would splinter and crack, split right down the seams, fall apart in chaos and pain. And he took my hand and told me to come.
He took us back to the carnival. The street was empty now, no more venders, no more traffic, no more pedestrians. Just the carnival rides, alone and deserted in the intersection, their gears rusted from the monsoons. Somewhere several blocks away a church bell chimed. Your father pulled me to the teacups, and he put a baseball bat in my hand. Swing, he told me.
Pretend the ball is the face of someone you hate, they used to say when I was a child trying to play baseball, but I never hated anyone then, not enough, and so I struck out every time.
But the carnival was everyone and everything that I hated, the nations that dropped bombs on each other’s futures, the politicians who shoved their orphans into hidden institutions and left them to starve, the protesters at the borders who sent children back into the desert, the people who laughed at the swirl of colors in your eyes, the ones who took you from us. And so I swung. I swung like I was Babe Ruth or Willie Mays, hard enough to send a ball flying into the stands, hard enough to stop the teacups from ever spinning again. I swung, and the teacups cracked. They splintered, shattered, a million tiny pieces. The shards flew into the air above us, spinning and sparkling against the sun, and for a moment we saw reflected in them the beauty that is left in this world – the clouds, the sky, the hot, violent steam of the smoking volcano – and then they fell.
originally published in Word Riot