Thomas Hardy’s Heart
by Pauls Toutonghi
Issue #36 • March 30, 2004•Sold Out!
My father—Elias Abasi—had the storyteller’s gift. His voice was fueled by the cigarettes he smoked. Pack after pack of Gauloises, stubby cigarettes, damp with the scent of raw tobacco. I remember him sitting at the kitchen table, drinking Turkish coffee and dangling ghostly white cigarettes from his fingers. I came to understand that they were a prop. They were as necessary as oxygen.
Petit, écoute, he’d say. Little one, listen, and then the luminous words would bubble up. Anything was possible. If it was a serious story, then we could expect a tirade about the Egyptian government or Nasser, or a volley in defense of Beleaguered Former President Nixon, a man whose picture hung in our living room, directly below the Sacred Heart of Jesus. If it was a religious story then we could expect miracles or a litany from the lives of the saints. If it was a whimsical story then we didn’t know what to expect. Something from his own childhood? Something from the Egyptian legends? Something impossibly fantastic? Children flying with wasps and butterflies, superheroes who could lift cars and save the world?
Pauls Toutonghi was born in Seattle, Washington, in 1976, to an Egyptian father and a Latvian mother. He has worked as a burrito roller, a pizza delivery driver, a waiter in a retirement community, a vendor of vintage baseball jerseys, a project editor for Atlantic Coast Jet, a telemarketer, and a research assistant for the Complete Poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson.
He received his MFA from Cornell. He now teaches creative writing at Middlebury College, in Vermont. His work has appeared in various magazines, including the Boston Review, Glimmer Train, and Zoetrope: All-Story. He is working on a novel, entitled, I Was Yuri Mishkin.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
The image stayed with me for years. I tried to write a poem about it, unsuccessfully. Then, the idea came to me that it could serve as the focal image in a story, in a story about never being truly at rest.
But still—I had the Hardy, and I had the character moving from Egypt to America, and I had the storytelling aspect of it in place. But it wasn’t a story yet. More like a series of connected snapshots. I had to figure out something to bind them all together. My own taste would have probably been to leave them as snapshots - but then, people might have asked that dreaded question: How is this a story?
When you go from professor to janitor—as my own grandfather did—it can be something of a shock. I think that storytelling is the arena in which Eli makes his own rules. He’s in control.
Solibo is a storyteller, and he inspires almost everyone he meets. So I think that storytelling can be learned from anyone. Listening is the only necessity. I regularly steal my best material from other people—just from listening to other people talk.
Then, another six or seven months of revision. The folks at One Story were very kind, and guided me through several different drafts. Hannah’s work—and the work of everyone else at the magazine—was a tremendous help.
The novel also deals with a father-son relationship. It’s set in 1989, right before communism unravels. The book focuses on the immigrant’s experience in a Midwestern city—in this case, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The central character is a kid who’s growing up with Soviet-refugee parents. There’s a lot of Latvian food and beer and speculation on the future of the USSR.
I think of it as a comedy of manners, without the manners.