Matthew Vollmer

Creative Nonfiction

Matthew Vollmer is the author of two collections of short fiction—Gateway to Paradise (Persea, 2015) and Future Missionaries of America (MacAdam/Cage, 2009; Salt Publishing, 2010)—as well as a collection of essays—inscriptions for headstones (Outpost19, 2012). His work has appeared widely, in such places as Paris Review, Glimmer Train, Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, Epoch, Ecotone, New England Review, DIAGRAM, The Normal School, Oxford American, The Sun, Best American Essays, and The Pushcart Prize Anthology. With David Shields, he co-edited FAKES: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts (W. W. Norton, 2012), and served as editor for The Book of Uncommon Prayer, an anthology of everyday invocations featuring the work of over 60 writers. His next book, Permanent Exhibit, is forthcoming from BOA Editions, Ltd. in 2018. He teaches at Virginia Tech.


The Subordinate Fragment

Because I lived in the middle of nowhere in a cove at the base of a mountain on a hill above two streams. Because all the people I knew and talked to were white. Because all the native people who had once lived in these mountains three centuries before would have outnumbered those of us living here now, before Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, before they were rounded up and marched by bayonet point to Oklahoma. Because whenever I heard the word “Indian,” the first thing that popped into my head were those chubby guys from Cherokee who stood on the side of the road in red and yellow Plains Indians headdresses, gripping spears and holding feathered shields. Because Tonto. Because plastic tommyhawks. Because once upon a time I liked to sing along to the song “What Made the Red Man Red” on my Peter Pan storybook record. Because the only thing left of that first civilization in our valley were pottery shards and musket balls and arrowheads, pieces of which you could find if you knew which fields to walk, and which overhanging rocks to dig under. Because the only real Indians were the few descendants of those few who were allowed to stay or those who remained hidden in these same mountains. Because kids liked to claim that they had Indian blood. Because me Chinese me play joke, me put pee pee in your Coke. Because my dad’s Japanese and my mom’s Chinese and I’m both. Because how many Polacks does it take to screw in a light bulb. Because kids turned their lips out and stuck their tongues flat against their upper lips. Because the only nonwhite person in our church—which was where the majority of our family’s socialization happened—was part Mexican. Because the only black people I knew were from TV and magazines and therefore mythical. The Huxtables. The Jeffersons. The family from Good Times. Whitney Houston. Vanessa Williams. Jordan and Dorsett and Magic and Rice. Gordon from Sesame Street. Fat Albert from Fat Albert. Sanford and Son. Carl Pickens, the wide receiver from the town where I went to school, who ended up playing for the Cincinnati Bengals. Because Uncle Remus. Because one of my favorite books, as a kid, was The Story of Little Black Sambo. Because I could ask an adult to read it to me and not blink an eye. Because I thought the story was about tigers who take Sambo’s clothes and then chase each other around a tree and turn to butter that Sambo takes to his mother, Black Mumbo, who makes tiger stripe pancakes which are eaten by Black Sambo and Black Jumbo. Because the word “General Lee” and the Confederate flag made me think of an orange Dodge Charger. Because a cross-stitched picture of a black man eating watermelon hung on a wall in our home. Because my grandfather—a man who’d lost the tops of the last three of his fingers when he was three years old and refused to move his hand from the chopping block where his sister was cutting wood, and then grew up to be a dentist who served as his own mechanic and took trips out west to ride horseback through canyons he read about so often in the Zane Grey books he collected—used the N-word. Because when I watched the NBA in his presence he stood there jingling the coins in his pockets and said, “I don’t know why anybody would wanna sit there and watch a bunch of N-words throw a ball around.” Because watercolors of black women in head wraps holding white babies hang in the houses of white people I know. Because there’s a cute little figurine of a black boy in overalls toting a sack of cotton on my grandmother’s windowsill. Because when I first read Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and reached the scene where the grandmother sees a poor black child in a doorway and says, “Look at the cute little pickaninny,” it felt familiar to me, like something somebody I knew would say, and had said. Because I can still imagine plenty of people I know saying it. Because my other grandmother, when I said I was dating a Korean girl, said, “Now, Koreans—aren’t they the ugliest of the Asians?” Because we make up stories about people who aren’t us. Because the majority of my students are white girls. Because a kid in my class wrote an interesting reflection about not knowing what he was going to do with his life and that this pressure was somehow exacerbated by the fact that he was the only son of Asian immigrants, and that this sometimes felt as if they had sacrificed everything for him, and that he’d ultimately be a great disappointment, but when I asked if he thought that he might learn something were he to write about all that, he wrinkled his nose and said no, he didn’t want to write about being Asian, because writing about being Asian was so cliché, so expected, he just wanted to write about being a guy, you know, a regular guy. It may not surprise you to learn that this student didn’t much like it when I quoted whoever it was who said, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” because the student didn’t want to comfort the disturbed, he wanted to comfort the comfortable, wanted to be someone like, say, Phil Collins, because before Phil Collins, the band Genesis was overly complicated and like super weird but then Phil Collins arrived and dumbed that shit down, made it simpler and better and easier to like, the kind of music that was like pouring warm milk into your head. Because I didn’t know what to tell him after that, and because I happen to like Phil Collins, and because it’s not my job to tell him what story to tell, I told him that he should write what he wanted to write, and that if he needed any help, to please, by all means, let me know, though now I can’t help but worry that I may not be the best person for the job, which maybe is why, when he left, all I could think of to say was good luck and goodbye.

About one year ago, in July of 2016, I began to write and post essays—most in the form, more or less, of literary collage—to a popular social media website. I had grown increasingly disturbed by the content I encountered as I scrolled through my feed; it seemed as though everyone was saying something outrageous, or expressing some kind of outrage, and so I challenged myself to attempt to reclaim the space of the status update, to see if I could use it as a place to meditate, reflect, juxtapose, and create something new. This essay is one of about 40 or so that I wrote during the last half of 2016, many of which will appear in my next book, Permanent Exhibit, to be published by BOA Editions, Ltd., in 2018.