The City and the Writer: In Queens with Irina Reyn

By Nathalie Handal

Image of The City and the Writer: In Queens with Irina Reyn

Special City Series / New York City 2011

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                              —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

1. Can you describe the mood of Queens as you feel/see it?

It goes without saying that I can hardly speak for the entire borough, one of the most diverse places in the world. My little chunk of it included Rego Park, where I lived, Forest Hills, where I socialized, and Flushing, where I went to school. For me and so many others, Queens is an immigrant and ethnic enclave, so I think of its mood as one of communal meals, the smell of frying onions and meat and wet coats, reluctant sunshine, lights suffusing thousands of windows in identical apartment complexes, the sound of children screaming with joy in playgrounds. I don’t know why I think this, but the stakes seem slightly higher in Queens, as if the struggle over fates of entire families is being waged every day.

2. What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Each summer a makeshift amusement park would be erected in Rego Park on 63rd Road (near 99th Street). Our first years in the United States, we did not have much money, but my parents insisted I play one of the games—shooting water into the mouth of a clown, I think, to move along a horse in a race. The seductive prizes dangling from the ceiling included an enormous lion. I imagined how a giant lion would dominate my bed, how I could sink into its belly, its sheer size, the protection it would offer from so many foreign dangers encountered daily. Instead, I wound up winning a small, bright green foot. A foot! Flat, uncuddly, with its deflated toes. What a pathetic little prize after spending all that money my father earned by bicycling all over the borough to people’s homes to perform physical therapy. The following year when the amusement park returned, I stayed away, no matter how my parents pleaded for me to go and have a good time. On my bed lay the limp green foot, a reminder of the dangers of excess.

3. What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Few people see the beauty in Queens. Unlike Brooklyn, much of Queens does not offer the same picture-perfect brownstone charm. Visitors always seem surprised to find themselves in the Hunters Point historic district in Long Island City or the stately, suburban charm of Forest Hills Gardens or the twinkling bustle of Jackson Heights on a Saturday night. I like it this way—the way Queens lowers expectations. Its many discoveries seem so much more satisfying that way.

4. What writer(s) from here should we read?

Art Spiegelman? Joey Ramone? A new anthology edited by Nicole Steinberg and coming out with SUNY Press called The Forgotten Borough (full disclosure: I am one of the contributors) has a wonderful list of contemporary writers either hailing from or living in Queens.

5. Is there a place here you return to often?

Every summer we drive to Astoria for Greek food. Elias Corner has this great back porch practically overlooking the Bohemian Hall Beer Garden. Grilled fish followed by beer outdoors is a summer staple.

6. Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Solomon Schechter School in Flushing. It graduated both me and Gary Shteyngart. Does that qualify it as an iconic literary place?

7. Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

It is the immigrant-Queens that I am drawn to most and what is unique about the borough is that it is made up of multiple cities: Samarkand, Bangkok, Minsk, Bogotá, Mumbai, et cetera. What these communities have done is create a third space, neither entirely “home” nor entirely “American,” but something other, the nuance implicit in the hyphen. So as a visitor in these disparate places, you too have the chance to settle, for a little while, into the hyphen.

8. Where does passion live here?

In my Queens, passion lives indoors—around the dinner table, in malls and movie theaters and restaurants. Inside delicious, inexpensive beers and carafes of wine. It thrives on human contact. Queens can be a terrible place for solitude.

9. What is the title of one of your works about Queens and what inspired it exactly?

My novel What Happened to Anna K. was set in Rego Park. I suppose if one is attempting an updating of Anna Karenina the most obvious place to set it would be Manhattan or another such equivalent to Moscow and St. Petersburg. But for me, the battle between tradition and modernity played out most powerfully on the streets of Queens, specifically Rego Park, where so many Russian immigrants were reconstructing their lives. The women dolled up in shearling coats, men kibitzing around long tables at Bukharian restaurants, shoppers congregating inside the stores on 108th Street, stuffing hot chebureki in their mouths. Those were the tableaux that brought that book to life.

10. Inspired by Levi, “Outside Queens does an outside exist?”

Yes and no. For me, Manhattan was both a far-off beacon of arts and culture, where the Met, MoMA, SoHo, the Hayden Planetarium and fancy restaurants that served absurd things like fondue existed, but it was also in a way, irrelevant. One could be wandering Austin Street in Forest Hills with your best friend, gathering later that night with your family for Chinese at Tung Shing House on Queens Boulevard. The owner recognizing us, guiding us to our favorite round table, our faces red from the steam emanating from beef and broccoli, sizzling rice soup with shrimp. The perfect, impossible happiness Queens provided us then even if we did not know it, always looking beyond it toward Manhattan or New Jersey or Europe. Queens is inextricable from memories of my family and what is more self-enclosed, more suspicious of the outside, than a tight-knit family?

Irina Reyn is the author of the novel, What Happened to Anna K. She is also the editor of the nonfiction anthology Living on the Edge of the World: New Jersey Writers Take on the Garden State. Her work has appeared in publications like One Story, Tin House, Post Road, Poets & Writers and others.

NH’s Discovery of the Month: When I think of Queens, I can hear the ground whisper. It understands the music the world plays. It speaks every language.Yes, it is the most diverse community in the nation. The Unisphere, a giant steel globe that sits in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and a sort of symbol of the borough, is one of the largest globes ever made. Very fitting indeed. The neighborhoods in this borough are like nowhere else in the city. They are not only vibrant, they sing, from the Irish pubs and Catholic churches, not too far to the voices of the Mediterranean and the Balkans in Astoria to colorful Little India in Jackson Heights. Seventy-fourth Street between Roosevelt Avenue and Thirty-Seventh Avenue is like walking through a Bollywood movie with all of its Indian restaurants, jewelry, clothes, and music stores. If you walk up 37th, after 80th street or so, the South-Asian neighborhood that Indians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis inhabit turns into South America—mostly Uruguayan, Colombian and Argentinean. Parallel, on Roosevelt, is little Mexico with telenovelas, Latin music videos and taco stands. And then there is Downtown Flushing, and its Chinatown. It was predominately Italian and Greek but after the 1970s economic turmoil, housing prices dropped and Korean and Chinese immigrants began to settle. Here, you not only find Starbucks but also bubble tea cafes.

For the screen and some art, there is PS 1, an internationally renowned museum devoted to contemporary art, the Queens Museum of Art, and The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. Some books to read about the borough: The Forgotten Borough and Queens Noir, but the best books to read are live. There are so many stories on every street, corner, breath. And of course, poetry lives here. It speaks in every tongue and transcends borders. The perfect American fusion. This is my borough now, and as a traveler (almost every week to somewhere), it’s fantastic to have LaGuardia around the corner, and JFK not much further. For more on my experience in Queens, look out for my poem “Life on the Seven,”forthcoming in Molossus #20 (http://www.molossus.co/poetry/world-poetry-portfolio-21-nathalie-handal/). Meanwhile, here’s an excerpt:

 

Dancing on Roosevelt Avenue

The tracks shriek. I stop dancing. And in the eight breaths I take (and the four spins of a boy’s yo-yo)before I hear them again, look at the pigeons rule the avenue. Their stain everywhere, like silver paint (except it’s not). The deaf man on 75th asks for a Somosa, says Namaste to the bride shopping for a sari, turns to me: There are secrets hiding between Jackson Diner and the Patel Brothers. Silence is like listening—you have to master its voice. I am not sure what he means but know I shouldn’t ask. There is a country here that finds its dreams in colors, in the names: Padma, Priya, Arundhati. I’m Punjabi, he reminds me twice. He needs to name himself. I do too. The train passes. Exile understands motion. And dancing— it takes sound apart.

Milky Way

She stands at the tip of the Pepsi-Cola sign and draws small light like balloons, magic under the tongue, laughter behind the walls, yellow strokes of paint along the avenues, pale hues on shoes, no borders just cold drinks and the water, the water, the water. People usually leave a lot behind to be here, so one thousand fireflies wait to greet them, as do the rain, the sun, and the golden grapes. Now the planet is a giant wing. The New York Times a passport—new words displacing the breeze. Making way for a postman, a roller skater, a writer, a scientist, a painter, on the docks, the boardwalks, the sand. And the kites are small whispers, the whispers small kites along the Milk Way of Long Island City. That’s the name of her installation for PS1. She creates an anthem like the rest of us do when we stop on the seven to find a house, to find sound converging.

*

But before covering the last borough—Brooklyn—I have to say something about the Border—the Queens-Brooklyn border. The place where the dividing line can exist in a house, street, block, tombstone. Where a family, in one house, cooks in Queens and eats in Brooklyn.

People get very defensive about their borough—their clannish ways come out. Most people who live in Brooklyn think it’s the best place in the world, and many of those people were born in Queens. So is Brooklyn really that much cooler than Queens? Maybe people on the border can tell us something we don’t know . . . but most probably not. The two boroughs enjoy being rivals (although Brooklyn probably doesn’t consider Queens it’s rival, only Manhattan).

Queens gets funkier and more exciting each day, and yes, something authentic, something real still beats here. If you stand in the middle of Menahan facing St. Nicholas, your left foot is in Queens and your right in Brooklyn. Maybe that’s the perfect place to be. That’s one of the things that makes poet Tina Chang—featured next—perfect. She was born in Queens and calls Brooklyn home. It is also a reminder that whatever borough we call home, in the end, this is one city, New York City.


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