The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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SEPT 2023 Issue
Books In Conversation

Brendan Shay Basham with J.C. Hallman

Brendan Shay Basham
Swim Home to the Vanished
(Harper Collins, 2023)

I have a theory: every writer, at some point early in their careers, must produce something that amounts to a personal creation myth—the story of how someone like them came to be. This applies equally to, say, John Updike’s short story “A & P” and Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping. It’s particularly true of Brendan Shay Basham’s multivalent debut, Swim Home to the Vanished.

Ostensibly, the story is about a man grieving a dead brother, who is slowly becoming a fish. I’ll leave that tantalizing nugget otherwise unadorned—Basham can explain. Perhaps not coincidentally, the story draws on the creation story of native Diné culture, and Basham’s own autobiography. It is as much a meditation on grief as it is the work of a writer dramatizing the unlikely possibility of himself.

I met Basham at the Ucross artist residency in Wyoming. It was mid-pandemic; six or seven of us worked in separate houses during the day, and gathered at night to eat and play ping pong. One afternoon, Basham and I walked out to an archaeological treasure—the former site of a summertime native community, up on a hill. I was a little self-conscious at that moment: I was older than Basham, and our personal histories weren’t exactly aligned. But I needn’t have worried. As we walked and talked, I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d met anyone whose personal canon of literature and whose aesthetic so perfectly matched my own.

It turns out that even in that deep-ranging conversation, we were only scratching the surface of Basham’s interests and experiences, many of which manifest in a book that both seduces and beguiles.

Our exchange was conducted by email.

J.C. Hallman (Rail): You operate a kind of restaurant in Baltimore, and it occurs to me that the story behind it is not a radical departure from what we are getting in this book. Can you tell the story of how the restaurant came to be, and talk about how it informed your writing?

Brendan Shay Basham: To clarify, my “café” in Baltimore is a couple string lights and donated tables and chairs in front of seven sidewalk-level row houses that suffer from porch envy. A year ago, someone lit a pride flag on fire which spread to three houses on our block, put my seventy-something year old neighbor in the hospital. In the fire’s aftermath, half the block looked like a prime spot to squat. So, I annexed the block. It’s now part of the Navajo Nation. White people do it all the time, stick a flag somewhere and say it’s theirs. But I did it to make sure the street looked alive. Now we have flowers and a garden, two of three tenants have returned. It’s a strong community, Baltimore.

The year I graduated from Evergreen, the same year my younger brother died (an apparent suicide, though officially the cause remains a mystery), the same year my older brother Rey and I installed a mixed-media exhibit at a gallery in downtown Seattle, which we thought might be enough to recover from Tristan’s death, I moved to Puerto Rico to run a restaurant at a small inn on the beach called Casa Isleña. My then girlfriend’s sister’s chef walked out just before busy season, her sister needed someone immediately. We flew down Christmas day, I had one day to prep, opened December 27. I was twenty-five and had two employees. I was confident of my skills, I’d been cooking all through college, and now I had free reign, an expansive canvas. During the slow season, from summer into fall, I travelled off-island and worked with chefs in Portland or New York, then I’d return to Rincón to re-open in November with fresh ideas and new techniques. I did this for six years before I finally decided to apply to grad school. I got into Portland State’s MFA program, moved from PR to my friend’s girlfriend’s tiny spare room, bought a bed (my first piece of furniture). Got a job that taught me a lot but it was fucking grueling, and I realized I wasn’t fit to be a line cook or garde manger anymore, I was too slow and too old at thirty. I think I wanted to settle, but it wasn’t in the cards. PSU didn’t offer funding, I hated my job (or at least the sous chef) but like all my jobs, I got to take home some great stories. The end of that summer, my old business partner called and said they got The Black Eagle, which was this well-known beautiful oceanfront property in Rincón three times the size of Casa Isleña. She said, we can sign a lease with Old Man Bill but we won’t do it without you, and so I agreed to another three years and fifty percent ownership. We named it La Copa Llena. That was a prosperous time. The restaurant flourished, one of the best on the island, we were told. I had a whole crew of talented people, a large kitchen I designed and retrofitted to fit the needs of a proper chef; this was all before I allowed my staff to call me chef.

I had good friends in PR and met people from around the world. Not to throw around stereotypes, but the surfers seemed generally uninterested in conversations about literature or existentialism or psychology. Water, the pulse of the ocean, is their life. Some surfers might speak like cavemen but that doesn’t mean there isn’t poetry in what they do. Meanwhile, I’m cutting fish and cooking whatever I want, dishes I miss from the mainland, not fully aware I was mourning my brother, all my family, who are still out west, that it never leaves us. I did not know how to explain the trauma I felt in my body, in my seizing back. Alcohol was the only mood stabilizer I was familiar with, though I was balancing it just fine with caffeine and cannabis. Luckily, I was never the kind of chef who got into hard shit or drank themselves dead, though I did witness a lot of that. But I was the rare cook in the kitchen who didn’t even have tattoos.

Anyway, this all informed the novel. The village is composed from bits of places I’ve lived, which is why you’ll see equatorial tropics next to apple orchards; such a place doesn’t exist as far as I know! My food and this novel are products of a bipolar mind (undiagnosed until recently) that finds itself in a weird, Spanish-speaking town full of fish-like characters, each carrying their own flaws hidden behind sad jukebox songs or perfectly tanned abs and sun-bleached hair. I missed and mourned my homeland, Dinétah; the island colony of Puerto Rico—war booty from the Spanish War—turns out is similar to our reservations in the continental US. Surprise, surprise! I never read any comparisons between the Rez and Puerto Rico, but I recognized the poverty, the imperialism. This is the backdrop of my story though not the focus. I don’t want sadness to be the main takeaway, I hope that is clear; my wish is to remain hopeful. I don’t want the Long Walk to be our new creation story, but sometimes I think it is, especially for younger generations who’ve been “successfully” assimilated, whose languages and old ways were poached. They had no choice. We’ve been adopted into the iron jaws of capitalism, individualism, the hunt for prosperity. Native American literature is already post-apocalyptic.

Rail: Memory, grief and healing are connected in the book: a member like an arm and a leg, and re-membering as simultaneously an act of memory and of reconstruction, of putting things back together. Can you talk about how this became an animating concept in the book?

Basham: My brother was by my side since I could remember. With his death, I lost a piece of myself. How does one express the change we go through after the loss of a sibling? I didn’t have that language, I had to use the vocabulary I had at the time. Trauma affects us not only psychologically, but physiologically. Maybe we think we’re over those terrible moments, but our bodies remember and often refuse to work toward resolution. We become the things we grieve. It gets embedded into our code, which western medicine and technology have proven with new research into Complex PTSD and epigenetics. I think Navajos, our elders, know this by a different name.

During otherwise mindless routines like prepping, baking, poaching, cutting open piles of fish the fishermen brought in large coolers straight from their boat at the marina next door, I got to thinking a lot, got lost in my head or the music and rhythm of the day, with my hands inside those big bloody fifty-pound tunas, perhaps I had numbed myself to the sheer violence of the deconstruction and reconstruction of living organisms presented on heavy wide-rimmed white plates to over-paying customers. I am sure in my subconscious I was writing this novel, putting pieces of bodies back together, my brother’s and my own.

Rail: This is a book about kinds of purgatory, not only spaces between life and death, but between storytelling, cultural, and religious traditions. We bob along on the surface of a kind of gumbo of ingredients, which together add up to a particular kind of experience as a writer, torn and settled, adrift and yet alighted and certain of itself. Does that sound about right to you, or did you have something else in mind?

Basham: YES. I’m happy you noticed this. I did not want to write a book about one certain kind of people, one kind of experience. We turn into these beautiful creatures yet we are such tiny specks of life in the cosmic sense. Some of the final chapters I drafted early. I felt confident about the tone, which I then poured into these characters, most of whom were originally written in first-person. The characters would visit for a short time from a place I’ve never heard of and tell me stories and sometimes I listened, and sometimes I had to tie them to a chair and force it out of them. These fragmentations from an uncertain mind, images collected from a nomadic life, like gumbo. I love gumbo. A good gumbo simmers quite a while, innit? It’s how our brains work, at least how this one does. I hope the book resonates with readers in a simmering way rather than in immediacy. That is the kind of song I wanted to end on, the kind that makes you want to flip the record over and listen to it again.

Rail: Various axioms crop up in the book: “To be haunted by a memory and to be haunted by the feeling that you have lost all memory are nearly the same thing…”, “This land, this earth, has endured enough turmoil at the hands of the blind and will one day rise up in vengeance,” “Memory often fragments the present tense into fiction,” “Is it possible to want life and death at the same time?” and so on. To what extent is plot or storyline in a book merely a vehicle for lines like these, a context to help them make sense?

Basham: The short answer: I didn’t want to write an essay, mainly because I didn’t know or think yet that what I was saying was true, nor was I ready to examine myself in that way. Maybe I read too much Hermann Hesse at too early an age. But I disagree that a storyline is merely a vehicle for these lines. It is our job as writers (if we don’t have lines stashed in our back pockets) to express the terms in which we see the world. Fiction offers the freedom to be strange, to be most like ourselves without being ourselves. My early drafts tend to be expository rather than scenic (is this a common experience?), so yes, sometimes the plan is: how do I do this thing without saying it? An object, a noun, is able to carry more weight than its assigned definition, which I believe the poets call metaphor. These early sketches are meant to explore voice and release the unconscious brain and the brain’s obsessions, like: what happens if we throw Odysseus into a pow-wow? That initial energy produces interesting lines and thought processes that otherwise might get lost in a journal I’ll never look at again.

Rail: How would you feel about the book being described as a kind of folklore? A myth? A fairy tale? Or do all of those terms point to something specifically European, and leave out some necessary ingredient to Native storytelling traditions?

Basham: In our culture, if you speak Diné Bizaad, what we say becomes real, a song is a living thing that can’t be stuffed back into your voicebox. Share a story, and it is alive. If we judge others, chances are we’re judging ourselves. Listen to a song and its body remains inside you. Diné stories, Indigenous stories, speak things into being. Things that are now conscious created from our imaginations. Phenomenology! A myth, fairytale, folklore, implies a falseness. What is the Bible but axioms and talking plants and the undead? But we don’t call it any of the above. There is also this Western disapproval, as if they see evidence of savagery in our oral traditions.

We’ve discussed Gaston Bachelard before, and I’m sticking to this point even though I’m hardly a scholar of French philosophers. Much like phenomenology, Navajo storytelling is to bring to life what one breathes. Phenomenology is a science based on intuition and observation; it means when we are conscious of a Thing we offer the Thing consciousness, which perhaps could be misconstrued as witchcraft (which I’m totally cool with). What Indigenous languages and phenomenology can show us is that we five-fingered people remain connected to all things. If anyone is interested in Indigenous studies, I recommend reading The Poetics of Space and taking up phenomenological study just for kicks.

Rail: An imagined version of Damien’s dead brother Kai says, at one point, “There were no connections in our system of reality, no existential reason to pursue that kind of made-up. We must make our own.” To what extent is this you speaking through Kai? Is this a deus ex machina? Or is that me again imposing a particular conception of a storytelling technique where it doesn’t belong?

Basham: I think this speaks more to how these characters had to rely on their imagination to survive their isolated upbringing, and to signify a shift in perception. And of course, it’s a novel; you may hear the author’s voice bleed through the narrative once in a while.

Rail: The book is made up of a clash of storytelling styles, realism and folklore, modern modes and ancient traditions, old language and new. In what ways did this make your job more difficult, and in what ways did this offer opportunity?

Basham: If you lay an image next to another image, the subsequent picture becomes something new. We are products of our interests and obsessions and backgrounds, and when laid out on the table, we are not defined so much as created; less a clash and more a melding. I was born in Anchorage, AK, to a Navajo mother and white father, whose cultural backgrounds collided, and each had a son (I have two older half-brothers). My little brother was born in Fairbanks, we lived near the Arctic Circle at one point. I like to tell people I was raised in a VW Bus because some of my earliest memories are from the drive south from Alaska to the southwest. Movement exposed us to nature and educators, languages and stories. I was introduced to the Beats by an observant English teacher in middle school; I read everything I could except for homework assignments in high school; in college I had bourbon with William Faulkner and Marilynne Robinson and the Greeks, especially Euripides. Decades went by with me saying, in my mind, that I was a poet, not yet out loud as a proclamation (much like my insecurity of being named “chef”). I believed I was a writer as I cooked, but anxiety kept me from writing.

When the time comes to write, all that stuff we think we’ve forgotten is still clanging around up there, and those surprises become rewards when they show up in the work; over time that gumbo bubbles and changes its chemistry, summons the essence of each ingredient like demons. First drafts can be an amalgamation too difficult to chew.

Rail: There are a surprising number of metaphors involving tenses and punctuation in the book. It feels as though language is as much an element of the book as water is...which only makes sense, as a novel is an immersion in language. Am I on the right track in some of what you were thinking about here?

Basham: Yes, totally.

Rail: There’s a fair amount of Spanish in the book, some Diné Bizaad. You don’t go out of your way to translate this on the fly, or italicize the non-English words, and the language can’t always be discerned from context clues. What’s your philosophy on this count?

Basham: My hope is that those words in those languages have meaning even if we don’t have the “correct” definition, or perhaps I couldn’t find a direct translation for a specific word or concept that would make sense in English. I like to read translated works; the syntax alone influences sentence style. Other cultures might not think Freytag’s got a monopoly on how to tell a story. In early drafts of Swim Home you’ll find some French and even Welsh! The Goatherd’s mule, Ishka, is named after the Gaelic word for “water” or “whiskey”, which was the name of a dog I met who peed blood in the mountains of Colombia. I’m fascinated by languages; the possibilities, their limitations. Language shapes the way we see, we dream in those languages. If we only consider things in one language, our perception becomes very limited; it’s like having blinders on to the rest of the world (each of us is the center of our own universe, after all). It also felt right for the tone of the novel and that it strengthened the story’s other-worldliness.

Rail: You’re a chef, a photographer, a poet, and now a novelist. Is this just another stop for you on the journey? Or, more seriously, do you see a trajectory among these arts, a commonality, a way in which they inform one another to add up to, well, you?

Basham: And I’m a musician, too, though not a great one! Making a film sounds like the next logical step, to write, direct, and score a movie. My brothers and I watched a lot of weird movies growing up, VHS tapes you could only find at the public library at the time. Kurosawa, Fellini, Jarmusch. I may not have understood 8 1/2, and Twin Peaks might have given me nightmares (that scene with Bob behind the bed!), but I was struck by photography and sound from an early age, nearly as much as I loved to read. Lately, I’ve been filming clips then deliberately forgetting about them. In a year or two’s time, I’ll tape them together: once again, our everyday world suddenly becomes something unexpected and new! I like to make art like that, though I’ve had to get over my need for immediacy.

Someone I admire once told me that I should choose one thing I’m interested in and focus on that, don’t be so scatterbrained. I think it really screwed with me, like I couldn’t be successful being jack-of-all-trades, master of none. I need to work my hands, and I love science and art and how they intertwine. I’m a student of liberal arts, interdisciplinary study, multimedia art. I tell my students the world is not actually divided into courses, genres, majors; the English language is inherently imperialistic, wants to keep order, maintain control. I’d like to break out of those margins, those reservation borders, maintain a sense of awe and wonder and refuse to be labeled, though “novelist” has a nice ring to it.


J. C. Hallman

J.C. Hallman’s most recent book is SAY ANARCHA: A Young Woman, a Devious Surgeon, and the Harrowing Birth of Modern Women’s Health.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues