Philip Graham

recorded in Champaign/Urbana, IL



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from Another Chapter by James Baldwin

from The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

Philip Graham

My name is Philip Graham and I live in Urbana, Illinois. I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1951, moved to the Midwest in my early 30s and I’ve been living there ever since. Maybe I should hesitate to admit that I’m 58 years old. I would say that the Midwest has influenced my writing a great deal, maybe in equal measure to my living in Africa with my wife, who’s an anthropologist. We lived in small villages in West Africa years. And the combination of those two landscapes, I think, emotional as well as physical, have been a great influence on my writing.  At first I was rather oppressed by the flatness of where I live—God’s Parking Lot, you might want to call it—but one time, my wife and I were invited to a baby shower in either Homer or Fisher, a nearby town close to Champaign-Urbana. It was the middle of winter and we were asked to bring bathing suits, which was odd. It turned out that connected to the farm house, where the baby shower was being taken, the parents of the soon-to-be mother had an indoor pool, and the mother there made part of her living by teaching infants how to swim.  But it was a little more unusual than that. We went to the living room where everyone was collected to give out the presents for the baby shower, and the living room was quite different. The first thing I noticed was that there were fake palm trees in the corners of the room. Tall, fake palm trees. There were thatch eaves over the doorway entrances as if you were entering into a thatched hut. There was a full-length mural, a painting, of a Polynesian beach with the water and with palm trees on one side of the room. And as the afternoon plunged into evening, I noticed that some of the shells and some of the stars in the sky were painted phosphorescent so they started to light up as it got darker in the room. The rest of the room, however, was even stranger.  The room was filled with carpet patches, foot square carpet patches, each carpet square, I’m sorry to say, a different color and design. The other three walls were carpet patched and the ceiling was carpet patched. We came in late, no explanation for this. It was starting to give me a headache, so not too long after we got there, I decided to go to the bathroom and change and do some swimming and sort of work off that room. I went into the bathroom, I started changing, and as I was doing so, there was this thick, brown, sort of spaghetti-ish carpet, and from the carpet, the head of a cat popped up and scared the daylights out of me and I screamed and then it vanished. So I walked over to where it was and felt around and felt a hook and I pulled on it and it was a trap door, leading to a tunnel. It freaked me out. So I went swimming, came back, talked to the fellow, who was my wife’s colleague, who was married to the woman who was having the baby, and this was his parents in laws’ and I said, I had a funny experience in the bathroom, and he said, Oh yeah, the cats. I told him about it and said, What’s that about? And he says, Well, my mother in law really loves cats but my father in law doesn’t and so in the winter they come into the house, so he’s made this series of underground tunnels that go from room to room so they can walk around without getting underfoot. So I said, Okay… And I was on a roll here, so I said, What about those carpet patches? And he said, Oh, those are for the cats too. I said, really? And he said, Yeah, so they don’t claw up the furniture and everything else, they just claw up the carpet patches and if they ruin one, they just pull one out and throw another one down, and if they want to climb up the walls or even across the ceiling, they’re welcome to do it. And I said, Okay… I would say that’s the moment when I began to love the Midwest. Because you could drive past that building, that farm house a thousand times and you would never know the funny stuff that was inside. So I began to think that maybe from the outside the Midwest looks a little drab, a little ordinary, you know? No way José. There’s a lot of crazy stuff going on. And having lived many times before that in Africa, I thought, I know this. I know this kind of craziness. So, those two landscapes have worked very nicely inside me.