Family history: a shared story
I try taking Boulevard de Strasbourg away from the crowds at the St. Denis metro stop to find the girls. This isn’t one of those gilded Paris streets heralding the end of a war or the launch of a new haute couture line. The sky’s already turned gray again, but it’s flanged lilac in places. The early dusk settles around the Beauty for You hair salon and a small pyramid of green-and-white shampoo bottles in the pharmacie window. I’m almost lost but not entirely, searching for an asylum center full of girls on Rue de Metz. Two mothers in saris pick over veggies while their toddlers jump in place on the sidewalk holding hands. A tabac sign yells lottery france!
The sequencing of the neighborhoods here baffles me—arranged like the curvature of some terrestrial snail. I’m in the tenth arrondissement, anchored by two of Paris’s great train stations, where the alleyways weave into mapless places. I’m not embarrassed to carry my Michelin. But it’s colder here at four o’clock in January than I ever thought it could be, and three of my fingers have gone numb.
My lunatic father has spent his whole professional life drawing maps. He’s older now. Where, I don’t know exactly. But I feel him with me today while I walk. A high white cement wall runs along the start of Rue de Metz—a one-way alley off Boulevard de Strasbourg.
Four blue suns have been painted on the wall and the bodice of a woman’s lime green dress. The end of the wall is a deeper cerulean, and the graffiti here looks done with chalk—spaceships and loopy sea creatures and messy stars.
Number 5 is a low, two-story brick interruption after the wall with an airport orange wooden door and a bronze plaque the size of an Etch A Sketch that reads école primaire. Primary school. But this can’t be a school anymore, can it? Unless I’ve been sent to the wrong place? Two bow windows sit on either side of the door like eyes on a face, and the door itself is like a mouth that might try and eat you.
A woman pulls it open, and the electric locks zing. She’s got enormous black frizzed hair up in a scarf. “By the grace of God, you’ve come. We never know who will actually arrive. And this is not a tea party we are hosting here, you know? So we like it when people come who say they will come.”
It’s so good and unexpected to have someone waiting for me in this city. She says her name is Sophie. That she’s here by way of Cairo. Her smile is a force field that pulls her to me. She takes me down the narrow hall, and her black tunic flutters behind her like a sail. Small pieces of kilims and Persians cover the walls of her windowless office. She says, “The girls here are desperate to get out, and they are oh so lonely for their mothers you cannot even know. But nothing is going to touch them while they are in here with me.”
Then a man—early forties, gray crew cut, blank scrunched-up face—peeks his head inside and stares until I look away. He’s in dark blue—shirt and trousers—with a gun in a black holster on his right hip. “You are new,” he says in rapid-fire French. “New people sign in before they do anything else.” What his gun does is take away my ability to use French. I follow him to an office at the start of the hall, where a small black-and-white television sits on a desk, playing a loop from surveillance cameras. There’s the sidewalk outside and the bare poplar tree and the knees and shins of Parisians walking by.
“Visa number? Full name and place of residence?” He’s got a green poster of the Paris metro system taped on his wall. I’ve taught classes in one language or another for almost a decade, but I’m jangly today. It has something to do with the locks and the surprise of that. But it’s not the physical quality of being trapped, exactly. Or the lack of sunlight. It’s that the locks are making me feel lonelier than I ever remember. People are living out their days inside here. So I call this man Truffaut in my mind, after the French movie director who made the new-wave film The 400 Blows. It helps to think I have a secret on him.
“Location of employment?”
I’ve studied French for years. Sometimes I’m lucky and dream in it. But I have to wait for my French to come back to me. My heart is beating fast—leaving in quick ascending scales and then coming back. Who is this man? It’s the locks on the door again—the idea that no one in here can get out, and I always like to get out. To know the exits. All I manage is “The Academy of France. I’m a poetry professor there.” These vowels are warm in my mouth and pleasing.
Truffaut laughs. “La poésie.” He licks his lips and scratches under his nose. “How does poetry have anything to do with this place?” Everything, I want to say. My plan, though uncooked, is to teach the girls poetry. I know this sounds a little ridiculous. We’re in a locked asylum center in the middle of Paris, and what the girls probably need most is a really good lawyer. But poetry is concise. It can hold enormous amounts of emotion. My friend Rajiv is the one who asked me to come here. He’s an adviser to the center, and married to my best friend, Sara. Rajiv told me the girls’ hearings would rest on wildly compelling, condensed versions of how each girl ended up in France and why they can’t go back to their home countries. So they need poetry.
But I don’t say a word of this to Truffaut. I’ve been in Paris almost five months, long enough to learn the part of the American jeune fille, even if, at thirty, I’m a little old for it. I smile and he takes my passport and job contract and holds the u.s.a. stamp close to his face. “Willow Pears. Poetry professor at the Academy of France. I suppose we should be lucky to have you here.”
There’s no good way to answer this. I’m not going to admit anything about the poetry. I’m afraid he’ll make me leave if he finds out I’m not trained in literacy or something else more helpful. I followed my older brother, Luke, to France. I would follow him anywhere. He is my lifeline. Applied for every single teaching job I could find in Paris and was so damn lucky to get the one at the academy. Truffaut slaps my passport down on the desk—which is steel, three drawers to a side, with black plastic pull handles. The sound is the thwap of a fly- swatter. It’s been nine minutes on the industrial clock above Truffaut’s door, but time crawls.
He finally hands the passport back and points me down the hall to Sophie’s office. By now I’m one of those little children who used to come here every day for école primaire. Truffaut has shamed me. For what I don’t know, but it’s not surprising, this feeling of somehow not giving him what he wants. Of not performing correctly. The French enunciate the final syllable of the word “stupid” so it becomes stupeeede. This is how Truffaut makes me feel.
Jazz plays from a radio on Sophie’s desk. Reedy clarinets and the voice of one clear trumpet. She puts her hands on my shoulders and gently lowers me down to the wooden stool in her office and I’m grateful for that. For the simple connection. It brings me back to Rue de Metz and the girls. Where are the girls? I can’t wait to meet them.
“These are girls. In dangerous positions. They’ve left families. They’ve seen wars. They’ve known bad men. God wish it was not true.” She’s a large woman with smooth, brown skin and brown eyes that look wet and shiny. Her lips are the color of dark plums covered in gloss, and the tiny diamond chip on the left side of her nose doesn’t move when she talks. Truffaut is scary. Hopefully Sophie’s the sane one. There’s always got to be at least one sane person. “I am Egyptian. Okay. So don’t ever think I know what’s going on with the French justice system. But I’ve been here three years, and I don’t mind repeating myself.” She speaks English with this high-pitched French-Egyptian accent, which makes her sound incredibly convincing. Then she does the French thing with her mouth where she makes a “poof” and shrugs like she’s really exasperated. I pretend to listen, but I’m thinking, Don’t let these girls down.
“A few girls already have English. But only French is allowed at the hearings, and they’re never going to learn enough French by their court dates. So we teach English here. The international language. We get interpreters for the court. There is an organization called OFPRA. You must know about this, yes? The French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons. They run the asylum centers. There are about twelve girls here any given week. Many of them don’t know how old they are.”
“How could they not know?”
“They are girls. They are replaceable. Their parents didn’t mark their birthdays. The French court’s obsession is how the girls got into France in the first place. They want to catch the ones who came illegally. They want to trip them up in a lie or find them with fake papers long before the girls get to an actual hearing with a judge. The court never wants to listen to why the girls are really here. Are you following me okay?”
“But I didn’t think it would be like a jail.” I want to tell her that I might have screwed this up by coming—that I’m not good at incarceration. My heart is still racing. I’m embarrassed. It’s the locks getting to me again. I wish I were good. I wish I were stronger.
“Ha!” Sophie lets out a belly laugh. “We are low-security! You think this is bad. You should see the big detention centers. You only get to stay in here if you’ve come in legally—a tourist visa or a short- time work permit. All my girls are on appeal. Only cases that have good evidence get appeals. But anyone can apply for asylum. It’s a basic human right, okay? When they deport someone, they call it a ‘voluntary return to country of origin,’ but I’ve never seen a girl leave here voluntarily. Sedated, yes. Screaming, yes. But not voluntary. Sometimes the girls are here six months. Sometimes shorter. But 1989 is not a good time to be illegal in France. The far right is on the move. Our friend Le Pen is making it much harder for the girls. Maybe your new president, George Bush, can talk sense into him? Maybe not. But the economy is poor here, and this doesn’t help. Your dollar is too strong. There is resentment. Identity checks. House searches.”
Six teenage girls come to my class that night. They don’t have to. The classes aren’t mandatory. They walk into the common room with the dropped foam ceiling, and my stomach turns over. It’s been a long time since I haven’t known pretty much how a class will go, and tonight I’ve got no idea. The walls are white cinder block, with two narrow wooden windows at the end of the room that face the street. There’s a nubby olive couch that I pushed closer to the chairs and the bench, and a black-and-orange flowered rug, but it feels bare in here. The plywood shelves are stacked with paperbacks: Conversational English in Ten Basic Steps, Street Maps of Paris, Bangladeshi Cooking for the Novice.
Two of the girls wear saris—fire red and the other green like a fake Arizona lawn. There’s so much more fabric involved in a sari than I knew, and the moving around of the long piece that goes over their shoulders to get it right. Two girls wear stonewashed jeans, and the other two wear head scarves and embroidered tunics over pants. All of them seem quietly against me, which is partly a language deal and partly what always happens on the first day of any class, no matter how much the students want it to go well.
The girls sit very still on the furniture, so it’s hard to tell if some are breathing. They look fragile. Breakable. They don’t make eye contact except with one another. What I try to do is divorce them from their unspoken pact. “Hello,” I say slowly and smile. “Greetings on this cold night in Paris. Welcome to our first workshop. My name is Willow. But everyone calls me Willie. Now could you each please say your own name out loud?”
The girl on my left has a round face and dark pond eyes. She sits rod straight, which is how I can tell she’s paying attention. I’m getting more nervous. This doesn’t usually happen. Usually I start to talk and I’m relieved by the sound of my voice and climb back into my body. But have I said that I don’t have any literacy training? Or that I’m scattered tonight? “Yes. You. Could you start for us?” I turn to the girl on my left again with the big eyes and green sari.
Her hair’s pulled back in a loose braid. She looks at me. “My name? My name will be meaning very little to you, but I will share it with you anyway in case it is useful. I am Gita Kapoor. I am asking you to help me so that I don’t have to go back home to India.”
I’m flooded by how quickly she’s pushed things forward between us. There’s an urgency now—a kind of chemical imbalance between what small things I can offer the girls and what they probably need. The battleship of a radiator clangs under the windows. Rajiv told me about the stream of caseworkers and lawyers who come in here to help. But I’m alone with the girls tonight. Maybe they have no use here for an American professor schooled in poetry.
The girl in the chair next to Gita says, “Long after the British tore us in two, I lived part of my life in one half of India and part in the other half. I am Moona.” Her face is narrow, and she’s got much wavier hair that Gita’s, pulled back in a bun that puffs up at the front.
The girl next to Moona wears black Elvis Costello glasses and sequinned jeans held up by a belt with metal sprockets. “I am from Liberia. You can call me Precy.”
Then the small girl at the far end of the couch says, “I am Esther.” It’s almost a whisper. “I am from the Congo.”
The other two girls sit close together on the bench. One wears a blue tunic and pants and a red head scarf with glittery green and orange stripes. A black headpiece under the scarf completely covers her hair and neck. She stands up, embarrassed, and leans toward Moona and whispers. Then she looks at me. “Rateeka.”
“She cannot understand your English very well or the Hindi,” Moona says. “I learned Urdu in Kashmir. I will try to speak to them, but I only know a little.”
The other girl on the bench just says, “Zeena,” and waves. Her head scarf is bright purple, and she also has the black piece underneath so it looks like two head scarves, one on top of the other.
I reach for my bag on the floor and pass out pencils and small spiral notebooks covered in blue flowers that look like snowflakes. The pages inside are lined. “I’d like to start by doing a drawing. I’d like you to draw a picture of your old house with this pencil if you can. Could you do that?”
They stare down at their laps again like they’re waiting for a secret sign to begin. “Could you try? I think it’ll be good if you can. We’ll use these houses for some practice talking in English. Why don’t we start the drawing? Then maybe Rateeka and Zeena will understand once they see what we’re doing.”
More of the painful silence. No one says a word. A leftover alpha- bet is stenciled in blue on the wall above the windows, and I stare up at it and try not to panic. How are we going to get through the next hour if no one will draw? Each of the girls looks slightly bored. Their thin arms and legs disappear into the mouths of the upholstered furniture. But I think fear can look disarmingly close to boredom.
Then Gita says, “It is time for the class to begin. We must do what the teacher is asking if we are going to get any help inside this place.” She smiles a perfect row of very small, square top teeth. Her bottom teeth are bigger and crowded to the front.
The class really only starts after Gita speaks, because they listen to her. We all listen to her. “You are asking us to draw our old houses on this paper? The houses we were living in before France?” She puts her hand over her mouth and smiles. “I do not know why you are asking us this when we are here in France. When we are trying to leave our old lives and our old families and our old countries behind.”
She looks back down at her lap. Her brown eyes take up half her face, which is a tougher face than I realized. Her body is thin but strong underneath the sari. She has a pendant on a chain that she keeps fingering with her right hand.
“Yes, Gita.” I lean toward her and smile too quickly. “Yes, exactly.” I want to be some kind of recording device that the girls can speak things into. I just want them to talk. Moona says something fast to Gita—in Hindi? Then she sizes me up. “We can probably do that.” She’s more wary than Gita. “We can try what you are asking.”
They all draw in the spiral notebooks—rectangular shapes and thin, narrow buildings and short, round houses made with the out- lines of brick. It’s quiet, nervous work. When it seems like everyone’s done, I hold up my drawing of three thin trees in front of a low, one- story house. I can’t draw to save my life, but I’ve shaded in the bay below the house and the small view of the houseboats. “If you can try to form one sentence in your mind about your house, it would be good. Just one thing you’d like us to know about it. Please try to speak in English if you can.”
Teaching can be a lightning-fast popularity contest with a very small population of voters. Your status rises and plummets in the course of one hour. It can also be like corralling students toward some unseen gate. Today I’m capable of more manipulation than usual. “This is my house in Sausalito, California, where I grew up. We were on the edge of the United States. My mother was a doctor. She worked at a hospital. My father was a mapmaker. He went into the desert to make maps that hung on the walls of my house. This is my family history. That’s what I want to talk about today. Family and history. Together these two words are a huge part of the story you’ll need to tell the judge at your hearing.”
If the girls turn on me now—because of my old age or white skin, or the way I wear my red hair down past my shoulders with bangs that hide my eyes, or how I mispronounce their names—then the class is finished. How will I explain that to Rajiv?
There aren’t any people in my drawing, but I know where my mother would stand, next to the biggest eucalyptus, if she were alive. My beautiful mother. There’s an empty space in the drawing where she should be, and I miss her terribly in a way that’s still mostly buried.
I look over at Gita and wait. I bet she isn’t shy but has learned to bide her time. “Gita, could you do me a favor and go next?” She glances up and back down at her lap. There’s this tension between her wanting to talk and a learned instinct to hold back and see. Then she raises her picture above her head defiantly, with both hands. “This is my house, near Jaipur in India. Two floors. One for the rice and hay. One for sleeping. Every day I was milking the cow and walking to school. I am not going back.”
Tell me more, I want to say. Tell me everything. I’m hard to deny in the classroom. I have an eager face. I nod my head. I care about the details, so give them to me please. What I’d like is an invisible thread to connect me to each of them. It’s not transparency I’m working toward. I can never fully know any of them. But as much as it’s possible for a student to connect with a teacher—well, I want that inside here.
Moona goes next. She has a long, pointed nose and a small gold stud in each ear. Her picture is of a tall apartment building. “We were living in a slum outside Srinagar in Kashmir and I knew the Top Ten U.K. chart by heart.” She walks in a small circle in front of the couch and points to the drawing in her hand. “But then the troubles were starting and we left because we are Hindu. We got two rooms on the sixth floor on a wide street in the south of Bombay. My father had to stay in Kashmir. This was before I began working at my uncle’s shoe factory.”
Moona is able to translate Rateeka and Zeena’s descriptions of their small mud houses in a village outside Lahore. How have these two girls gotten from Pakistan to Paris alone? “They are Pashtun,” Moona says. “The Punjabi army drove their families out. They have been living on the street in Paris for almost a year. I cannot believe they are still in one piece.”
Then Precy says, “Hmmmmm. Hmmmm. Hmmm,” and looks up at the ceiling. Her hair is in dozens of small braids. “We were very poor. Understand. I have six brothers and sisters in Monrovia.” She looks down at her pencil scrawl, and I see tears on her face. Have we gotten ahead of ourselves tonight? This is another unspoken rule of teaching: I’ll ask you to go further than you’ve ever gone with your story, but I won’t abandon you in front of the class.
She smiles me away. There is a quiet fierceness to her. “The house was a plastic tarp with pieces of cardboard on the sides. Then my father got a job driving a bus. So we moved to a two-room apartment and I went to school. I was thirteen. There was a big rainstorm, and an orange van stopped on the road with the doors cut out. The war hadn’t started, but my father talked of signing up with President Samuel Doe. It was raining hard. I found a place to stand inside the van, and I held on to the roof with one hand and we went to the river. That was my mistake. There were bad men in there, and it was the last day I saw my family.” Precy’s face clouds over.
She sits down and glares at me. “Why are you doing this? No, really, why are you helping us? What is in this for you?”
Part of me saw this question coming. But maybe not on the first night. “Being able to tell your story could be a way to save your life.” I pause, because even though I believe what I said is true, the girls might think I’m crazy. Precy’s about to be deported. She wants legal documents. Not stories. My face turns red. “There’s nothing in this for me, Precy, but the chance to teach you. I’m a teacher. That’s what I do.” I’m not sure if she buys it.
I smile at Esther, and she looks away. Her hair is long and scraggly, her jeans baggier than Precy’s. She’s a little bird inside a black hoodie that has the words the who in squiggly white capitals across the chest. The small bones in her arms move when she waves her hands. “We lived in the Congo, but I was very young when the men came and pushed us into Kenya. There was never electricity and bad things happened in the dark, but I cannot remember this to you. When we left that camp, we flew to a country called Sweden and we didn’t have my mother anymore.”
There’s a softening. It started when the girls said their names out loud, and it ripples each time we drop down deeper into one of their stories. Who doesn’t want to be seen or listened to? The girls’ pasts feel so close they could get on and ride them back to their childhoods. They’re better timekeepers than me, because when the white clock above the door says eight, they stand on cue and gather their notebooks and pencils, smile weakly, and leave.
Then Sophie pops her head in. She’s almost ecstatic. “Gita was laughing for the first time she’s been here! I could hear her in the hall, and this has got to be an act of God because nobody laughs much in here!” She helps me shove the couch against the wall with her hip.
“I asked the girls to draw houses, and they really tried. It’s a great sign. Why do some of them have English?” I lean down to pick my bag up off the floor. I’ve got to go now. I’ve got to find my brother at our favorite Indian place for dinner.
“School is the magical potion that separates the girls from the girls.” She clicks her tongue against the roof of her mouth and smiles. “Some of them got school and some of them didn’t. Lord, it is good to have your new blood inside this place.”
“How long has Gita been here?”
“For Moona it’s been close to two months.”
“Moona has had bad luck.”
Sophie stops me in the hall and puts her hand on my face. “You don’t know good luck staring you in the face. You haven’t been to the real detention centers in France. Five, ten, fifteen to a room and all waiting for a plane back to what? This here, my girl, is decent food and a bed and a chance in front of a judge.” She steps into her office and waves me down the hall.
Will Truffaut let me out? Could he be on a coffee break? Then what? My heart beats faster again. How do you physically leave this building?
Then the door zings and a man with dark wet hair jumps in and moves to the side to make room. “Raining like a son of a bitch,” he says in French and stomps his hiking boots so water that’s pooled in the collar of his black raincoat slides down his pants and onto the floor. I pull up the hood on my own coat—the wool one with wooden toggle buttons. The man is sinewy in a navy suit, and has the start of a beard. His eyes are mapped with small creases that make them look kind, the blue porous, with small flecks of gray.
“I see that they’ve tricked one more sane person into teaching for us. I can tell by how scared you look. Shit,” he says. “Shit, Shit.” He paws through the saddlebag slung over his left shoulder, which is filled with manila files that have names written on them.
“You’re a lawyer?” I say in French.
“So many girls here. Macon Ventri, pleased to meet you.” He puts his hand out, and when I take it there’s something gentle about the way he gives it to me. Then it’s done, and he’s on his way to Sophie’s office. “You must wait here like a robot while the guard in the surveillance office decides whether to release the maddening locks and let you out or not. Gita Kapoor,” he says, turning back. His eyes lock on mine. The fact that he doesn’t know his eyes are sexy makes it so much better. “She is one of the girls who I’ll see tonight.”
Truffaut must be watching on his TV screen because the locks zing again, and I pull the heavy knob. It’s a cold rain outside.
“She is my student. Gita.”
“Don’t be fooled by her shyness. She will have her appeal hearing this summer. I’ll know the actual date as we get closer,” he adds in English. I hate when this happens—when Parisians switch languages on me as if I can’t manage French verbs. He waves at me and turns back down the hall.
The door slams, and I jog in the rain down Rue de Metz, past the Saint Pierre Cosmétique shop with its poster of an African woman with straightened hair. The metro station is more menacing and smellier at night, so I stand close to the commuters on the platform— older women in saris and parkas and middle-aged African men in blazers and knit hats. I step onto the No. 4 and stare out the window into the dark. Our class meets for just three hours a week—such a short amount of time for the work in front of us.
Excerpted from Paris Was the Place by Susan C. Conley. Copyright © 2013 by Susan Conley. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1. The epigraph, from Gertrude Stein, includes the title phrase: “And so when hats in Paris are lovely and french and everywhere/then France is alright. So Paris was the place that suited us...” What does it mean? Why do you think Conley chose it?
2. What is Willie looking for in Paris? Does she find it?
3. Each chapter title is the definition of a word or phrase. How does Conley use this device to direct the reader’s attention?
4. On page 28, Willie teaches the girls about Sarjoni and the notion of the “high dream,” the things that matter most. What is Willie’s high dream?
5. Why was Willie’s relationship with her father so strained? What are her feelings about her unconventional mother? How do these affect her relationships with Macon and Luke?
6. "Mothering often feels like the first cousin of teaching,” Willie says on page 52. How does this play out in the novel? In what places does Willie lose sight of the distinction between the two?
7. Why does Willie feel such an affinity for Gita? Why does she decide to help her? Is the risk Willie takes in doing so worth it?
8. In some ways, the character Macon seems too good to be true, but there is more to him than meets the eye. In what ways is Macon not facing the truth about his personal life? Is he a good father? Would he make a good husband for Willie? How realistic is he about the fate of the girls in his trust? How does his own family’s history as refugees inform his work?
9. On page 154, Willie teaches her American students a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, which ends with the phrase, “You must change your life.” Willie finds this especially powerful—why?
10. The power of poetry is a theme in the novel—on page 172 a poet tells Willie, “‘I wouldn’t be a poet unless I had some hope.’” What point is Conley trying to make?
11. Several characters in the novel—Gaird and Willie’s parents—leave and then choose to return. Contrast this with the girls at the asylum center, many of whom are forced to return to their home countries. How do the situations relate?
12. When Willie and Macon go to India, what do we learn from the incident on the bus? (p. 283) How does that trip change Willie?
13. On page 313, Macon says to Willie about his son, “Family is a very malleable thing for a five-year-old. I think it’s really about who he trusts. Who is safe. Who he can tell really loves him.” How is this similar to Willie’s idea of family?
14. When Luke is dying, Willie believes that she doesn’t have a childhood without him—that her childhood becomes a lie with his death. (p.337) What does she mean by that? Is she right?
15. Conley sets the novel in 1989, a time when the world was only just becoming aware of the devastation of AIDS. How does the uncertainty surrounding the disease affect the way that Luke’s loved ones (Willie, his father, Gaird) cope with his illness? What about Luke himself?
16. The last paragraphs of the novel focus on the ideas of hope and courage. Are they the twin themes of the entire story?