Freeman’s: Changeby John Freeman
Featuring thrilling new work from Lauren Groff, Ocean Vuong, Rickey Laurentiis, and more, the latest installment of the acclaimed literary journal Freeman’s explores the hope and pain of the ever-changing present
The Covid-19 pandemic forced many of us to reimagine our homes, work, relationships, and adapt to a new way of life — one with far fewer possibilities for interaction. And yet, in this period of intense isolation, we’ve faced dilemmas which are nearly universal. How to love, to care for aging parents, to find a home, attend to a planet in flux, fight for justice. This vast range of experiences is captured by our greatest storytellers, essayists, and poets, in the new issue of Freeman’s: Change.
Some pieces explore the small moments that serve as new routines in a life lived at home, as in Joshua Bennett’s essay, where a Coltrane playlist sets the stage for early morning dances with his newborn son as they watch the sun come up. Alejandro Zambra remembers the homes of his past, his dog and cat in New York, his old collection of Chilean literature, homes and possessions he lets go of when he makes a new family in Mexico.
Sometimes, it’s the absence of change that drives us to the edge. In Lina Mounzer’s “The Gamble,” a father’s incessant hope for a better life festers and sinks the whole family after they leave Lebanon during the Civil War. In Kamel Daoud’s heartbreaking tale, a widow’s attempt to retreat into the unchanging past edits her son right from her reality. And in “Final Days,” Sayaka Murata imagines a future without aging, where people must choose how and when they want to die, consulting guidebooks like Let’s Die Naturally! Super Deaths for Adults & The Best Spots.
With new writing from Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, Zahia Rahmani, Yoko Ogawa, Yasmine El Rashidi, Lina Meruane, and Aleksandar Hemon, and featuring work from never-before-published writers like Elizabeth Ayre, Freeman’s: Change opens a window into the many-sided ways we adapt.
“There’s an illustrious new literary journal in town . . . [with] fiction, nonfiction, and poetry by new voices and literary heavyweights . . . alike.”—Vogue.com
“A terrific anthology . . . Sure to become a classic in years to come.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Freeman draws from a global cache of talent . . . An expansive reading experience.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Looking at what John [Freeman] has put together in [his] first edition, I’m struck by how many names I don’t know and how diverse and global it is. My only disappointment is that it’s going to be twice a year — I think we need it four times a year.”—James Wood, Radio Boston
“Illuminating . . . Perfect reading for our ever-accelerating times.”—NPR’s Book Concierge
“Freeman’s is fresh, provocative, engrossing.”—BBC.com
“A first-rate anthology of bold, searching and personal writing by emerging and established writers.”—Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“From the abstract to the literal, there is no shortage of provocative, thoughtful pieces here.”—Publishers Weekly
“Freeman’s sets a new standard for literary journals . . . It’s refreshing and full of nuanced stories that will linger with you long after you finish them.”—Chicago Literati
“[An] infinitely relatable and beautifully crafted prose and poetry anthology . . . Freeman has assembled a thoughtful and profoundly accessible collection of work that connects our vulnerabilities, our expectations and our hopes.”—Newcity Lit
“[A] thrillingly unique collection of voices.”—Toronto Star
Excerpted from Freeman’s: Change © October 2021 by John Freeman. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
Galileo began to replace an immutable world with one in constant flux. Among his greatest inventions were the instruments to see it change: the reflector telescope, with which he studied the moon; the scientific method, which applied to every known phenomenon; the thermometer; even a version of the compass. In thanks for his efforts, Galileo was tried in 1633 by the Church for heresy and convicted. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest, a period during which he wrote two of his greatest books.
Change is often resisted not simply for what it threatens, but for the new responsibilities it forces upon us. If the universe is a living, dying, and constantly evolving organism, as Galileo suspected, and other astronomers like William Herschel began to surmise in the late eighteenth century, what does this mean about our planet? Can we simply use it with impunity? Meanwhile, on we tilt, observers or passersby, engaged or aloof, meteors through a brief slash of time.
Centuries on from the pre-Copernican era, we can feel somehow made by that old universe; as in, we long for some degree of immutability. For a love which is forever; parents who do not age; the stability of work or occupation. The need to sustain a belief in permanence has created whole religions; art forms; enlightened or regressive political movements. Tents of comfort in the face of what the body knows: we are born into a world of constant change.
From the cells of our body, to the nations we call home, change defines the parameters of life. We are marked by it, and by how and what we resist. We are made by the ways we narrativize our reactions to rupture; how we adapt to what we must accept. Coming in the wake of the worst global pandemic since the ongoing AIDS crisis, this issue of Freeman’s aims to gather stories, poems, essays, and reports from this shifting front.
We begin with the life of Galileo—not the astronomer, but the newborn son of poet Joshua Bennett. In a brief essay Bennett describes the rituals he and his child—christened August Galileo, after the playwright and the scientist (and a speech of W.E.B. Du Bois’s titled after him) begin every morning. They sing to a songbook, they dance to a soundtrack. Why don’t we make up new habits? This tends to be the question behind every story or novel Sayaka Murata writes, including her latest story, “Final Days,” set in an imagined world of endless life, in which a craze for early death sweeps across Japan.
Sometimes change itself becomes the fantasized ritual. In her powerful memoir, Lina Mounzer recalls the forever delayed, yet constantly imagined improvements her father predicted would transform their lives after they left Lebanon during its civil war. Keeping this hope aloft against the realities of their lives in post-emigration Montreal drives him to the addictive cycles of the lottery. Sulaiman Addonia grew up in a refugee camp in East Africa and learned a similar lesson there about the world’s indifference to his attempts to wish it better.
Observing the world’s indifference can occasion a search for new metaphors. In Ocean Vuong’s exquisite short piece, a man’s life is narrated backwards, and with each step into the before time, the inexorability of what just happened lifts away, like smoke. Meantime, after her father dies at the beginning of the pandemic, Christy NaMee Eriksen learns she has inadvertently—using the word “avalanche” for how it feels—captured how suddenness is often the accumulation of unbearable pressures.
We have names for such pressures, for stories where such force is euphemized. History is one of them. In her essay on Algeria, Zahia Rahmani reveals how the name of a nation can become a repository for the million unremarked-upon simultaneous changes—and hands—that make a place what it is. Her daring piece, which weaves personal essay, colonial historiography, and twenty-first-century travelogue, suggests one nimble way to tell that story more honestly.
So many people, through no fault of their own, are trapped in tropes they did not elect. This can be infuriating . . . and lethal. Lana Bastašić’s vivid short story shows the thin line between these poles as a teenage girl walks home across a city where men pursue her threateningly. In Yoko Ogawa’s story, a gentler interpretation of youth and age spins about a man and a child who must step briefly out of their roles to save each other from crushing lonelinesses.
Another arena in which change is formalized are elections. It’s a small word for the tumult of chaos, hope, bamboozlement, brave activism, and brutal suppression which fall upon its remit. Elizabeth Ayre’s stylish remembrance of the night of November 3rd, 2020, recalls some part of that day’s singularity, also the desultoriness which can arise out of the suspicions nothing will change.
Watching the unchangeable in its inexorable march in circles can move one to states of psychosis and rage, grief and communion. Lassitude. The narrator of Kamel Daoud’s short story visits all these way stations as his mother begins to die, and regresses to the girl she once was, editing her son from memory in favor of one who left home long ago. In Kyle Dillon Hertz’s short memoir, the author winds up in hospital, overtaken by the damage he’s done to his own heart with drugs; he finds his communion in the offering of help from a close friend.
We pass the lamp of hope to hands we trust may keep it safe. Another word for history might be: the story of what happens to that lamp. Several pieces in this issue imagine their way into such handoffs. Aleksandar Hemon’s poem about Walter Benjamin appreciates how fantastical was the philosopher’s journey in 1940 across the Pyrenees away from Nazis, what force of mind it must have taken to avoid the clutch of despair. Great change, sometimes, can only be faced in the moment. Yasmine El Rashidi’s memoir of her family’s move from their treasured home upon the Nile reveals how melancholic this passage is when it has been a long time coming.
Adaptation to great change does not always mean acceptance. It can coexist with modes of resistance, with equivocal feeling, with regret. These are all part of Adania Shibli’s luminescent tale of a man building a small business of bus lines in contemporary Palestine. The acrobatics of his adjustment to the daily disruptions of life under occupation are seen in sharp contrast to the steady grind of building a business.
Change can lag behind its necessity by decades, centuries even, out of which develop strategies of deflection. Rickey Laurentiis’s intricately beautiful poem enacts the way their gender flummoxes its so called viewers, turning the poem’s speaker into a one-person help desk of explanation. Style, in this ecstatic mode, is beyond fashion, a crucial buffer. In her bracing memoir, Lauren Groff explores how going back to her hometown is impossible, for it would render her that too exposed, too seen, too vulnerable child she once was—so each night she sacrifices this child to the lake in her mind.
Great change often makes martyrs of people who simply can deflect no longer. For the past year, poet and translator Valzhyna Mort has read the news from her home country of Belarus in search of names of the dead. Here she translates poets who have found themselves unable to turn away from their government’s tyranny any longer, on the front lines of political change. Their words are burning embers of a not-yet-made historical moment.
Some of the most imagistic writing here reveals the human figure amidst great flux. We need this in art and poetry to understand where we are and what is happening. In her poem, stark as a black-and-white photograph, Sandra Cisneros captures the face of a boy sitting in the back of a truck, a machine gun in his lap. A soldier in Mexico’s sprawling narco-violence. Julia Alvarez’s brilliant poem neatly inverts the framework of background and foreground, the poet remembering herself in the 1970s: a recent graduate living in Queens who would, along the course of a subway journey that took her into Manhattan to work at a department store, transform herself into a very different woman.
There are no do-overs, no backstops to certain types of change. We may create games, as Jakuta Alikavazovic writes in her short essay, to allow ourselves the fantasy that we can go back to the way things were before. But these games cannot be played forever. Alejandro Zambra spent years fantasizing about downsizing his library, he writes in his playful, heartfelt memoir, but when he finally does so it is because he has left the family whom he began it with—a fact which gives his new bookshelves a melancholic spareness. In a stilling posthumous poem, Mark Strand shows how the game many of us played growing up—peering out a moving car, bus, or train, listing what one sees—when played as an adult produces very different results. Among them, respect for the blur of time, an awareness of ghosts.
In ancient mythology, change often comes in the form of a monster. A daemon, a spectral presence. Before Galileo, a comet was often viewed as portending sudden catastrophe. Even though we know such things to be superstitious, we need to dream our fears to survive change. To push them outside ourselves in forms of art, narration, design. In Lina Meruane’s incredible gothic story, a woman trapped inside a house with her two sons during a pandemic faces the barbarity of the ultimate sacrifice demanded of her as a mother. Meanwhile, in Cristina Rivera Garza’s astonishing rewriting of the myth of a mermaid, we watch a man blown sideways by a woman not his wife. Only this time they’re on a mountain, and here the sea is a canopy of green.
We have other recording devices for what has happened beyond our lifetimes, for noting what we’ve survived, aside from what Galileo, Newton, and others gave us. Not to mention the narrative strategies writers like Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, and Barry Lopez among others pioneered as ways to remember history. A forest, after all, is a living record of change. In the carbon content of plant life and the patterning of tree rings lurks a nearly complete story of the past, if we can only listen. In a dispatch from the forests of Montana, where human intervention has begun to deform the landscape’s own ability to heal and recover, Rick Bass delivers a stirring call to pay attention to the reverberations which travel through wood. Some of you, perhaps, reading this right now, sit upon a piece of it. Maybe, if this is a paper copy of Freeman’s, you are reading from it. Later tonight, maybe an even smaller number of you will gaze out the window through it. Galileo’s original telescope was made of two pieces of wood, joined together, to form a tube. And so he saw the heavens from earth. What stories it tells, what dramas it contains—like the stars assembled here.