With this author’s note at the beginning of her debut novel There, published this year by Emergency Press, Heather Rounds sets the reader up for the ethereal feel of the story that follows. After spending one year in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, she presents her experiences as “snapshots” of activity, thought, observation and confession. Her sentences are fluid and her dialogue is unfettered but she confines them to short paragraphs and abrupt sections, which mimic the moments of clarity and comfort she discovers amidst the heat and dust and foreignness she also discovers.
At the request of a friend working at the Kurdish Globe, a local English newspaper, Rounds finds herself at the newspaper’s “smoky box of an office” in the evenings to help out. Editing sentences, adding context, and listening to her colleagues, she starts recognizing the “swerve from English to Kurdish, the heavy pauses and changes of topics” that is a daily challenge to get on the page. Soon she begins writing weekly pieces on a myriad of cultural topics, taking care to stay away from divisive and political issues. “Something that was optimistic and easy,” she explains—an instruction echoed in There by AZ, her editor-in-chief, who asks her to find stories “that could use a feminine voice. Stories about ancient relics or the kinds of flowers that grow in the mountains.”
That love and excitement and happiness and fear and inner acknowledgment transcends this character, this village, this story and this quest.
Before the reader can scoff at how gendered and condescending AZ sounds, the novel’s protagonist—also unnamed, simply “she” or “her”—defends him with her keen professional intuition. Whatever the story he suggests that she seek out, he, too, is driven by a daily fount of curiosity. She sought out Kurdistan—“why go elsewhere?”—and he is part of her journey: “She’s bloated by a thousand questions, frustrations, but decides she likes him, gets him fast—the sharp of his angst, the way papers fly around him.” It is his advice that appears to inform There’s layout and voice, when he tells her:
And perhaps that is why There’s protagonist makes sure to describe for us early enough in the story “Kurdistan’s long, coarse cough, roots down, rattles deep, shoots up the torso, bleeds off flares like a sparkler, snags the throat, fragments the mouth, and nose.” And rather than give characters precise histories and facial features, Rounds smudges over those details with a dusty thumb so characters names become initials—her roommates O and Y; a friend’s niece E—and names become nicknames. Her own character, the protagonist, is deliberately lost in the muddle of moments that the book is made of. “I don’t feel as though I have connected enough with these characters, or flushed them out enough, to commit them to a name,” she says. “I think with my style I often shy away from too much intimacy with characters.” Two characters in There stand out as exceptions: a man with “[s]ea glass eyes, green as washed out beer bottles, greener than any here or anywhere” on whom she bestows a nickname, “The Man of Small Vital Facts;” and a homeless person in her neighborhood—the only one she notices for miles, a surprise for someone from Baltimore—whose strange rambles she is able to translate into stories and jokes, and on whom she confers the name Max.
Rounds places her characters into three categories: those who are “spot on,” based on her memory of them; those who are composite characters, like the protagonist’s translator; and those who are amplified versions of themselves. The protagonist, she says, is “spot on, me,” and rather than dwell on titles or labels, she remains “she.” This is helpful when Rounds writes about how her protagonist “fell in love with excitement, folded in on its brightness, tightly—a heavy gauge trap of happiness, fear—and inwardly acknowledged having no real knowing of the world,” because that love and excitement and happiness and fear and inner acknowledgment transcends this character, this village, this story and this quest. Similarly Rounds can structure There as a series of vignettes that borrow from poetry, flash fiction and even playwriting, and she can filter her wholly true story through dusty sieves of memory, reflection, and her own subconscious to distill characters without names and questions without answers.
When asked why she chose this character and not that one, why this moment and not that one, Rounds refers back to her Author’s Note. “I keep the blinders on” when writing, she says, to distance herself from the expectations of novel and narrative. There does not belong to the author; Rounds has released her words to the public with whatever secrets within them the reader chooses to decode. “You need to understand your reasons for being here,” the protagonist’s driver clucks at her, and the protagonist, unseatbelted, surrenders to the landscape: “And the roads grow in rings, and apathy keeps going into answers, and there seems to be new construction each day and most everything remains unhinged…”
Rounds creates a profound sense of distance from a coherent narrative; from a traditionally developed character; from a world that “she” fits into.
Rounds remembers feeling somewhat unhinged when she first arrives in Erbil, and not for any complicated reason: her luggage is lost, and all she has with her is her laptop and some make up. At first, she says, “I had a really tough time being myself. I had a really tough time feeling comfortable in my own skin and finding things that suited me.” This story does not feature in There, but on the first page of the book it is a “young Kurdish woman, four yards down, pinning laundry” who spots the protagonist suffering through her first moments in Erbil and who claims the first spoken words in the book: “My home. Go my home, come!” Several pages later the same girl “demands her new friend follow her inside. She should come in and stay, perhaps forever.” To whom these words belong to in reality—if they were uttered at all—is less important to Rounds than capturing the way people sound when they are unsure—or is it sure—of themselves. She tells the story of meeting The Man of Small Vital Facts’s 14-year-old niece, E, who says to Rounds in broken English and translated Soranî (a Kurdish language) that if she stays in Kurdistan, she wants to kill all the boys in this town. Some day she wants to be the president, line them all at the wall, shoot them one by one.” Rounds describes the scene: a room full of women, the young girl sewing, and then, this. “It stuck out to me because there was no context to it,” she says, commenting on “the casual way in which people over there carry their anger.”
Over there. Is that where the title comes from? “I’m really bad at titles. I hate titles!” says Rounds. But There works. From the author’s note to the staccato sections of the book, from the unfinished sentences at the end of those sections (“She feels around for the hole of light to breathe through—”) to the incompletely named characters, from the “Friday in thick, August heat” in the opening sentence to the world from her plane window in the last sentence, “suffocating and breathing, assembling and disassembling its innumerable pieces,” Rounds creates a profound sense of distance. Distance from a coherent narrative; from a traditionally developed character; from a world that “she” fits into. Rounds urged her editor to choose a better one, but the latter did not, and once the word popped into Rounds’s head, it stayed there. “Nostalgia is not the way I feel when I think of my experience there,” she says, giving loaded words like ‘experience’ and ‘there’ a multitude of fresh definitions.
Rounds is smart to include several Soranî words and phrases, often in capital letters at the top of the page to make explicit their weight and shape and sound among all the English on the page. Unlike the rest of the writing process for There, this was a deliberate afterthought, and Rounds went through a Soranî dictionary online to identify the most expressive “snapshots.” “LATIR: OUT OF THE CORNER OF ONE’S EYE.” “BARA RAST-KIRDINAWA: TO GET STRAIGHT A CROOKED LOAD.” Some words, expectedly, elude a clean definition, and Rounds lets her homeless friend Max explain Dawstasadt:
Rounds has passed her life onto these characters, and then onto us. Putting There around our eyes, our ability to see a girl in clothes she does not recognize, hankering after the small, vital facts that tell her story.
Heather Rounds’s debut novel There, based on her experiences in Iraqi Kurdistan between 2007 and 2008, won Emergency Press’s 2011 International Book Award and will be published by the Press in October. Her poetry and short works of fiction have appeared in such places as PANK, The Baltimore Review, and Big Lucks. She’s a co-founder of the roaming curatorial collective The Rotating History Project. Currently she is reading In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell, The Listeners by Leni Zumas, and A Child Is Being Killed by Carolyn Zaikowski.