Behind her, Tianna laughs. “Listen to her,” she guffaws. She repeats “dark with anguishhh,” in her white girl voice, the words theatrically elongated. “Who you tryna be?” Tianna’s laughter ripples around the room. Monae turns quickly back and stares down at her desk. Her face burns. Miss McCorkle ineffectively repeats, “Students, students,” but all the eighth graders are so relieved to be pulled away from this impossible poem and given something familiar to ridicule that they laugh and laugh.
With a tiny advance from a publisher and a six-week deadline, she felt like a caged animal hopping on electrified grates for the occasional food pellet. Her professional reputation was at stake: after this volume was published, she would probably be held up to ridicule in the New York Review of Books for her translation of this very poem. She could already see the adverb-adjective clusters: “discouragingly inept,” “sadly inappropriate,” “amusingly tin-eared.” One of the few Americans who had any command of this dialect, she belonged to a tight little society full of backbiters.
Although he bore plenty of battle scars, Captain Hook was a good-looking guy, and he treated Mom like a queen. I can see now why she was so into him, but at fourteen, I was mortified by my stepdad, and it wasn’t just the crocodile. He was forced to wear the standard issue postal uniform during the week, but on his days off he dressed in knee-length breeches, stockings, a red frock coat, and a wide-brimmed hat with a plume. His hair was even longer than mine, and it curled into black ringlets. My mom never seemed to notice the things that set her husband apart from other people—she saw only the man who’d rescued her from a lonely, loveless existence.