When You Are Born With A Name Like Lazarus
When you are born with a name like Lazarus, in a city like Arma Falls, Tennessee, to parents like Joe and Hanna Brown, you will learn that life is predestined to be a drag. You will know this from the beginning, anyone would, from watching the movies you watched before your father cut off the cable, added a shelf to the TV hutch, and replaced the Sony Bravia with a row of books. From reading the books you read before your mother told you your soul was going to rot and took them away, from the dreams you dreamed about the places you’d lost without ever seeing.
Still, you’ll be prone to fantasy. You derive your inspiration from anywhere, even the Bible. Especially the Bible, because once you turn twelve, it’s all you’ve got.
You’ll never learn to swim, because the brother you were conceived to replace still lies, perhaps by now in particles, at the bottom of Lake Orion. Because of him, you’ll never learn the names of the stars or constellations – ‘paganry and lies’ is what mother tells you, about the way the stars were named, years ago. But the stars themselves, your mother tells you, are a gift from the Lord.
You won’t learn the word pussy until you turn sixteen, you’ll overhear it defined in rich and stirring detail while you’re riding your bike past the yard with those boys Mama told you to stay away from, and even then, you’ll never say it. Luke 6:45: For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of, and your heart is nothing but a clunking, shoop-shooping thing, keeping you alive but not quite living.
You can write it though
– pussy –
in chicken scratch rendered legible with a smooth tipped Uniball, clenched fist floating, swirling, looping a thousand times over in the back of a prayer book. Even after you’re withdrawn from health class, on account of your family’s faith in the Lord and other higher, righteous things, you learn
– you are thrilled to learn –
from those yard boys that your penis has a Promised Land. An otherworldly, fingerless hand embedded between the legs of a woman, self-moistening, self-warming, and wrapped in soft, hair-adorned flesh. Our Lord of Miracles, indeed!
God bless you, Lazarus, scrawling pussy x 1000 while your mother sweeps the living room beneath you. There she is, crooked back arching upwards every twelve strokes to peer through the ceiling, laser-eyed through and, God-willing, beyond the water stains her husband won’t get clean, looking to make sure the Lord is watching. Nothing to do with you – she knows you’re a good boy. But you’re careful, very careful always to replace the double s with two asterisks, in case.
Yes – this is a new sort of prayer. You know it’s wrong but you’ll no longer be held back, not from the only vestibule made for the only part of you that feels anything besides fear, remorse, and sorrow, in an everlasting loop.
Sweet Lazarus. You will learn, with great difficulty, to slow your shoop-shooping heart when you see Lisa Laurel in blue skirts and brown shoes at the Shop Rite on Friday afternoons. Recite those names, from Numbers, go on now –
from the tribe of Dan,
the tribe of Benjamin,
the children of Asher
Today, she’s looking at you, dead-eyed. But listen – you are the master of your flesh. Don’t close your eyes, there’s fantasies to be had behind translucent lids, and besides, you’ll still see something like light, electrifying those tiny veins and who knows what else, so stand fast in your faith.
Look her in the eyes and repeat:
Those that were numbered of them,
even the tribe of Dan -
What do you expect, Lazarus? Of course she finds you repelling, strange – there she goes, running, that limp ponytail animated like the scythe of a sith lord. You are strange, a bruised fruit from another tree, neither that of life nor knowledge. Be blessed – to find a woman who knows you for what you are! If Joe and Hanna would have just kept you in the schools, let you live, you might just have been another one of the boys, playing Magic the Gathering and discussing the latest set of sith lords. But the Bible says, on regret –
it says –
The Sacraments. Do you recall them? Marriage, and communion, and the anointing of the dying and dead. Just two more, now –
Of course, it was always Eve that was the temptress. You have never seen the snake, in the garden, and all that. You have been reciting your prayers.
All you can recall about the pavement is that it is beneath you. That ponytail, mesmerizing and just beyond your grasp. Your first act as a man – to strip off your shirt while flailing towards her, becoming Adam. If only you could grab it, taste it, perhaps you could end the curse –
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -
Who knew you had such strength? Who knew you had such power? There’s a file on you somewhere, Lazarus – yes, even before you were tackled onto your knees, wrists wrenched together behind your back, bound so that you could not fold them into prayer even if you tried.
When they ask if you meant to slip your hand between Lisa Laurel’s legs, you will say no, and it’s this white lie, not the soiled hands you curled around your stiffening dick after you let her go, but the false confession that betrayed them that will trail you, like the plague of locusts that befell Egypt in the Book of Exodus, you remember only because you can never forget.
For you, it was over before it began, that earliest gasping breath the original sin. Bad thoughts slid their way into your brain during your first evening prayer and never escaped. And what of forgiveness, of God’s grand erasure, promised and infinite? Mama, crooked back perched on half-bent, half-broken knees, is asking you from across the bars to seek repentance.
But what brand of forgiveness can be offered for desire, attained and savored? It would be like casting out the greatest joy of your life.
Forgive, forgiven, forgiveness, forgave – 119 times in the Kings James Version, 6534 times after counting each evening spent on your knees. And so I will ask again -- and what of forgiveness? A question for another God. No, Lazarus, you will not, will never want to be forgiven. A mother on her knees is begging. And now it is your turn to say Get up!
I am alive!
A few good words with Yasmin
PDS: One of the things that I love about this piece is its use of second person (“From reading the books you read before your mother told you your soul was going to rot and took them away, from the dreams you dreamed about the places you’d lost without ever seeing.”), because it makes this narrative feel intimate, personal. What drew you to use the “you” in this work? How did you hope to involve the reader in the story?
YB: It’s funny – I know second-person is rarely used and has been almost taboo in fiction until very recently, but I’ve always found the literary you irresistible – it’s the way most of my stories, my thoughts, and memories naturally flow. I’d use it more often, but I’m aware that not every story is best expressed in second-person, so I try to honor my subject matter by choosing the perspective that fits best, and then doing the work of translation, usually into first- or third-. But you has always felt like a secret alcove in writing – a place to escape to, still intimate, still close to the heart, but with a little more space to breathe. As a writer, it’s like the difference between being on the rollercoaster and watching a video of yourself riding while remembering how you felt.
I love the blurriness of second-person –Wait, me? You? Him? You? I like that it’s the way we address each other, that such a tiny word means so much to us all. That it can be wielded with great affection – I love you – or great cruelty – I fucking hate you. And I love the surprise of it in prose – it’s like when you show up at a swimming lesson expecting to be taught some sort of theory, how to hold your arms and flap your legs, and then end up thrown into the pool.
With Lazarus, I wanted to play with second-person because to me, his central conflict is trying to cope with the cruelest sort of you – that voice in your head that’s looking, commenting, judging, always on the precipice of telling you to run into traffic or jump off a cliff. That endless conversation between Freud’s id and superego; the voice which may or may not be your own, strangely both for and against you. My hope was that the reader would be as interested in the character of this invisible, omniscient presence as they would in embodying Lazarus as he moves through the stages of his life. I think – I hope – you works here because the Lazarus the reader gets to see is so separated from both the world outside of him and his own desires that neither first-or third-person would do his tale full justice.
PDS: Sex and religion are a delicious and historical pairing. What did you learn as a writer from Lazarus and his behavior/way of approaching the world? What do you characters teach you about your own life experience?
YB: So delicious, yes! Lazarus came to me as that first line – that idea that some lives are entirely circumscribed by limitations and rules for how to live. Of course, you know that isn’t 100% true, and that he’s going to snap from the moment it begins, but how? And then what? I had a lot of ideas going into this story – the tensions between the flesh and the spirit, compulsive thoughts and impulsive actions, but I tight-laced myself into that tiny world while I wrote – so that I would feel as choked by the narrative of predetermination as Lazarus was. So I had no idea what would happen after he is finally free.
I think quite simply, what I learned – we don’t always want to be forgiven, and the world we live in has a hard time with that. We don’t always want to repent. There are an endless number of terrible things I’ve done that I would love to undo, where I have been on my knees, even as a relatively unreligious adult woman, hoping for it all to be washed away. But there are other, darker things, fewer in number, but there still, that are both awful and filled with meaning that I don’t wish to wash away. People I’ve wanted to hurt, harsh words I wanted to say, cruelty unleashed because it felt worse to keep inside.
We’re always telling ourselves that what the body wants is wrong. I shouldn’t have eaten that cake, I shouldn’t have texted my ex. I’ve been wondering what that constant negation of the flesh does to us, and Lazarus, in his extreme way, helped me think through that impulse to say I shouldn’t have [blank]. We don’t always want to be redeemed. Not every body of water is meant to be filtered clean of the silt. Life is murky like that. And we have to live with this.
PDS: What would be your advice for young black writers? What in your practice of black writership do you think others could grow from knowing?
YB: You don’t have to be lonely. Lorraine Hansberry taught me to recognize the distinction between solitude and loneliness as a young black writer trying to both produce work and live: I am ashamed of being alone, she wrote, back in 1962. Or it my loneliness that I am ashamed of? I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to read the rawness of these words. Alone is where much of the work happens – but loneliness is a kind of spiritual state. Solitude is the flow of getting words onto the page; loneliness is when you bring those hard earned pages to workshop and get blank looks. Solitude is the clicking of the laptop keys in the quiet café; loneliness is looking up and seeing other fingers tapping but no brown faces, anywhere.
Don’t wait for space to open up. You can both find and create space for yourself and others – start your own writing collective, apply for writing workshops for POC, go to readings and events when you can, or just drag a friend you love to a park or writing group or coffee shop and, as Kiese Laymon taught my workshop group this summer, fuck up the white spaces.
It doesn’t have to take a lot. Sometimes just rereading Lorraine’s journal entries or sitting with a fellow writer is enough to drag me out of lonely, back into the productive comforts of inspired solitude. Know that just by existing, and having the courage to retreat from a chaotic world to throw words onto a blank page, you are part of a lineage that knows you, that can see you, that once was exactly where you are.
Yasmin Boakye is an essayist and fiction writer raised in the Maryland suburbs of DC. A 2014 Callaloo Fellow at Cave Hill, she is also a recipient of NYU Abu Dhabi's Global Academic Fellowship in Writing and a 2017 VONA/Voices participant at the University of Pennsylvania. Her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in mater mea, Fourth and Sycamore, Escapism Literary Magazine and Bird's Thumb. She is currently based in St. Louis.