The tracks led into the downtown through a valley that had once been a bed of industry, and we followed them until we came out of dead space and into the valley. Under the cover of real night, we entered the city and lights began to spread in all directions like a sea of strange, glowing pearls.
The valley itself was a wasteland. Vacant factories with smashed-up windows. Black scars on the ground where steel mills had been demolished by their owners years ago. Yellow-brown weeds and thorny bushes. Leftover machine parts. Rotting car frames and engines. Rusty metal workings. Toilets covered in strange stains. Broken forty ounce beer bottles. Couches with springs curling out of the stuffing. And far too many stones to look at and be reminded of Gracie.
The dead roamed here also, trudging through the thin layer of snow that had fallen. They wandered the rubble of the mills, leaving no footprints as they went. They lingered in doorways, smoking cigarettes, nodding as we passed. Most were men wearing grease-stained jumpsuits; others were young women wearing long tweed skirts, carrying folders pressed to their chests.
A whistle shrieked once, twice, a third time, and the dead lifted their heads in its direction. A moment later they poured from the abandoned factories, and others materialized to take their places and begin their shift. The mills had closed years and years ago, but the dead still came here, even though it was clear that what they wanted didn’t want them.
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That haunting piece originates from the book One for Sorrow, written by the author Christopher Barzak.
With some of its scenes set in the Steel Valley and downtown Youngstown, the book is available for pre-purchase from Amazon and will be published this summer by Random House.
This has been a good year for Chris, as besides being picked up by a major pulisher, another work of his titled "The Language of Moths" has been nominated for a Nebula Award in the category of Best Novelette (a work of at least 7,500 words but under 17,500 words). The Nebula Awards revolve around the science fiction and fantasy fiction genre, and the 2007 award ceremony will be held May 13th in New York City.
cool. good luck Chris.
Shout Youngstown tracked down Barzak for a quick interview. He is also the author of the Meditations in an Emergency blog, detailing his thoughts on a life lived on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
- - -
Shout Youngstown: Please describe your recent path, from Youngstown to Japan to back in Youngstown.
Chris Barzak: I did my undergraduate and graduate degrees both at Youngstown State University. What I recall about those years between 1994 and 2004 is that the community couldn’t even recognize itself as a community. There was very little effort made, or at least taken out and put into the hands of the people, to bring us together, to feel as if the city was ours. People passed through the city or went around it in some cases; they didn’t live in it. I lived in it, but it felt very similar to living in a vacuum. My best friends were the books in the university library. I spent more time there reading things that weren’t even assigned for my classes, looking up from a space where people in some other place in the world (and some other time, in many cases) felt it was important to think and to put thoughtfulness down on paper, to leave it behind for others to use it if they could. The city I saw when I looked out the windows of the top floor of the library, though, hadn’t been treated in the same way. It had been used and abused by people, corporations and big businesses and corrupt organizations and politicians over the course of a few decades, and people - the citizens of the city - had allowed it to happen. They had forgotten or chosen to pretend it was their duty to protect the public space they lived in. The disintegration of not only the physical world of Youngstown but the communal bonds of the people living within and around it eventually became so oppressive to my spirit that I decided to leave.
I moved in the summer of 2004 to a rural area of Japan that was only forty-five minutes from Tokyo by train. I had the best of all the stratifications of Japanese society: teaching in a rural area, living in a suburb, and being only a short ride away from a huge urban center. Japanese society was good to me. It healed many of the bruises and hurts I’d accumulated by living in a community like Youngstown for so long. The hopelessness and despair I felt before I left really did weigh heavily on me, in ways I couldn’t even recognize at the time. After a few months of living in Japan , being surrounded by a culture that prides itself on community and living as a group rather than emphasizing the individual, I began to feel the strangest thing: I felt like I was becoming happy, and healthy too. I was losing weight (previously I’d fought with it while living in the States). I was wanting to be out in the world with people, to be active. People, strangers, were so kind to me for no apparent reason that I’d often find myself tearing up when I thought about how unkindness and a mentality where one looks out only for themselves, a sort of social Darwinism, was the template by which Americans lived.
When I came back to Youngstown, I was afraid I’d find nothing had changed and that I’d want to return to Japan very quickly. And though it did take me some time to readjust to living in my own culture again, I was immediately heartened and filled with hope for other reasons. The city, it seemed, had changed to some extent while I was gone. The downtown was open, people were actually walking in it - not just people who worked downtown either. There were businesses open - a music store, a gorgeous martini bar that is just as good if not better than any bar I’ve frequented in New York City or Tokyo, a fashionable and hip nightclub, and there was this amazing group of young people meeting at the Oakland Center for the Arts to hold this event called The Stage, where people could show off their talents - in art or music, literature or dance, standup comedy, acting, drag performance, anything at all really, and everyone was supportive of each other. It felt like a real community to me. I couldn’t believe it at first, but these were the first signs of life I saw in Youngstown again, the first signs that a real community was beginning to form out of the wreckage and ruin. I thought maybe the place had lain fallow long enough, and there was fertile ground again, and there were also what’s even more important: people, regular people with families and ordinary lives like all of us, becoming leaders, creating a public space for other people to enter and live in and become their better selves. All of that I found suspiciously absent, or too dispersed to achieve anything at least, before I went to Japan.
There’s always the flip side of this coin you could examine, though. I’ve wondered at times if perhaps Japan didn’t change me to the extreme that, when I returned home, I could now see the good that was here. Maybe progress for the betterment of the community had always existed, and only going away and coming home again enabled me to see it all happening around me.
SY: Can you elaborate more then, on the difference in the city during your earlier years here, and after your sojourn in Toyko?
CB: I’ve noticed that the people have come out to the streets again. This is always a healthy sign of life in a community. I’ve noticed they are beginning to insist on having a say and a hand in the creation and maintenance of their city and city life again. I’ve noticed that, though there are exceptions, many of these people are the young, the new generation. They are refusing to accept a life of stagnancy and “holding on”, waiting for someone outside their own community to save their community for them. We’ve put "the hope for some industrial giant to swoop in and save things" behind us, and really, thank God for that. We should find healthier ways to grow an economy here. Rather than allowing ourselves to become dependent on big business, we should encourage small business and entrepreneurship within the community and surrounding area itself. We will learn how to live by our own means, rather than be subject to a life provided for us by a few of the very wealthy in the nation, a life that isn’t something we should settle for anyway: living from paycheck to paycheck for back and spirit breaking labor demanded in trade. I’ve noticed a return of appreciation for intellectual thought and discussion, rather than the suspicion of thoughtfulness and education that was so present here before. If we grow all of those changes, if we can nurture each of these things not just in our own lives, but the life of the community also, I can’t help but see a beautiful, powerful, progressive college town community coming into being here in the near future.
SY: What do you want Downtown Youngstown to be like in five years?
CB: I want Downtown Youngstown to be even more full of people than it is now. I want businesses to open that value creativity, community and civic awareness as well as businesses that foster economic trade. I want an independent bookstore, I want a place where local artists can sell their work by consignment to the public, I want a newspaper that attempts to engage with the people rather than just the politicians and business owners in the region. I want a fully functional Arts Center (the Oakland Center for the Arts would be the perfect place to grow this from, if the board of directors for the Oakland could be persuaded to see themselves functioning more in that way) that provides a space for all of the arts in the area: writers, actors, artists, musicians, encouraging them to come together and exchange ideas, giving them a place to display their talent and to act as an “incubator” for the artists and thinkers of the region, the way we now have the Youngstown Business Incubator. Which is also what I want more of: technology-oriented job growth in the area. I want to see a downtown with a grocery store, a dry cleaner, and affordable housing so that people can come out of their hidey-hole apartments in the cut-up sections of the city and come together again, where they can live and work together. I want more social activist groups to stand outside of the courthouses and the mayor’s office and raise their voices until they must be heard by the decision makers of this city. I want more than anything more members of the community to join those choruses of voices, so that we can all be heard. Without a forum for the community to feel as if it can be heard and attended to, without a process for the community to feel as if they have ownership of their city streets, any progress that’s made will eventually fail once again.
SY: Describe your perfect Japanese four-course meal.
CB: A cucumber salad and mussel salad, miso soup, shabu shabu (thinly sliced beef and cabbage and tofu and onions and mushrooms that you cook yourself in a pot of boiling water at your table, with a special sauce to dip it all in--the name of the dish is an onomatopoeia, the actual sound of water boiling to Japanese ears) all followed by green tea ice cream and a anko-filled (sweet red bean curd) sugar bun.
And of course plenty of green tea, sake and Sapporo or Kirin or Asahi beer to wash it all down. Preferably with a trip to a karaoke parlor afterwards, for hours of singing with friends in a private booth, and all you can drink “sours”, a sort of Japanese version of the margarita, in my opinion.
SY: Is it possible for you to write a haiku about how you feel about Youngstown at this moment in time?
CB: I’m a novelist and short story writer and only an appreciator of poetry, but here’s how I feel about Youngstown at this moment in time:
The wind on your neck,
breath calling you to turn and
see it never ceased.
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