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Pipa
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Excerpt from

Pipa

Elsa Wilson-Cruz

Elsa Wilson-Cruz draws inspiration from places she's lived -- from São Paolo, Brazil to the Pacific Northwest, where she currently writes and resides with her husband, her husky, and a lot of houseplants.  You can connect with her at www.elsawilson-cruz.com.

For two years, Mateus and Lillie had been happy, like pipas in the sky who decided to dance instead of fight. Pipas without cerol, the deadly powder of crushed glass glued to strings to cut down opponents. But still, they met others who fought with shards of lightbulbs almost hidden by ribbons. It was part of the game.

       Whenever they flew from LGA to CLT for a visit with Lillie’s parents, they were polite and smiling disagreements about everything from immigration policy to CBD as a treatment for anxiety. Sometimes, hearing the quiet clink of silverware against plates and the muffled thump of glasses being set down on the tablecloth was a blessing, and sometimes, it was a curse. It all depended on what could have been said on the flip side of silence.

       When Lillie visited Brazil, Mateus took her to the hill. It was almost sunset, and the pipas were light gray against the pink sky, bobbing like backup butterfly dancers. He knew that no matter how much time he spent away from home, they would always be there, in the same place he had left them.

       Mateus always said flying would be his superpower if he could choose one. Lillie said hers would be breathing underwater. Mateus thought of the fingerprints she left everywhere in the aquarium and smiled.

       “They look like stingrays,” she said.

       “I always wondered why you didn’t have any sea creature paperweights.” 

“They’re not just paperweights, they have powers.”

       The half-joke, half-magic on her breath reminded him of when she was still the girl in the next cubicle. When he wanted her to be so much more.

       “I went back to that aquarium as an adult,” she said, her voice serious, her eyes lowered like the setting sun. “And I just felt sad. Like I was looking at things that weren’t quite free but could be.”

       “Maybe their power was helping you be free. Like pipas on a string.” 

       “That doesn’t seem fair.”

       “Maybe they thought you were in the cage—a room full of air.”

       Lillie laughed with relief, “They did look like they wanted to help sometimes.” 

       They stood in silence while the sun’s red eyelid closed on the horizon, and its lashes fluttered into shadows.

       “I see why you love it here,” she said at last. “It doesn’t matter where you came from or how much money you have or what color your skin is if you have a pipa.”

       “Of course,” Mateus added, his stories safe with the aquarium girl. 

       The pipa’s power ends with the sunset—he remembered, walking home as slowly as possible in the last shreds of twilight, chilled by the sun’s leaving, dreading his dad’s yells and questions that smelled of beer. The silk pipa didn’t double as a shield, not so close to the ground.

To read Pipa in its entirety, please order 

Reed Magazine Issue 156.

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Kate Folk's Commentary

"Pipa" is a story of slow accumulation that holds the reader in a tightening grip. It's a story about the importance of proper translation and what can be lost if the effort to translate is not made in earnest. The central image of the pipas--kites that Mateus flew on a hill in his childhood in Caieiras, Brazil--weaves its way through the story, serving as its emotional lodestar, a memory of perfect happiness and freedom that Mateus is continually pulled back to. The story's threads mimic the strands of the pipas as Mateus and Lillie, his American coworker who will become his partner, gradually reveal themselves to each other and discover the ways their past joys and traumas intersect. The story comes alive through its perfectly chosen details: Lillie's collection of elephants, a misplaced screw for an IKEA crib, and an unpleasant coworker's hands "like white, hairless tarantulas." "Pipa" is a story of hope for preserving the souls of words and objects, of attention as an act of love. The final paragraph is a tour de force that will stick with readers for a long time.

Kate Folk Commentary

Elsa Wilson-Cruz

in conversation with

Lana La Framboise

Fiction interview

LLF: "Pipa" is about a Brazilian man who moves to America but is constantly reminiscing about his life in Brazil. You mention in your bio that you used to live in Brazil for a time. How do you see your writing interweave your experiences with your desire to to tell this story of Mateus?

EWC: I'm forever grateful to my time in Brazil, the country and culture itself, and the Brazilians in my life for the inspiration to write this and other stories. My husband is Brazilian, and we moved from the U.S. to Brazil for a few years to live close to his family. Our apartment windows in Brazil faced a hill where the neighborhood kids would fly pipas. I watched mesmerized, many an afternoon, with a notebook in hand. Trying to describe the pipas, trying to imagine the lives of the kids who held their strings. My husband told me stories of his own childhood pipa adventures, and I mixed my observations, some of his stories, and a dash of imagination to write Mateus' story. I was determined to share the evocative sense of hope and longing that I saw from those apartment windows and the beauty of the country that became my second home.

LLF: Memory and interpersonal relationships are sometimes difficult topics to approach in writing due to inauthenticity or difficulty with detail. However, "Pipa" narrates Mateus's life and his love for Lillie in a graceful and delicate way with intentional details and believable characters. What was your process for fine-tuning this narrative to fully render the life events of Mateus?

EWC: I keep a notebook and Google doc of real-life snippets that I think will support my fiction writing. It might be a sentence from a conversation I overheard. A description of a facial expression. A "stranger than fiction" anecdote that I want to remember as believable, despite its peculiarity. When I'm stuck writing a story, I flip through these collections. I might use one of them or they might spark a memory that can be adapted to a fictional setting. With Pipa, I channeled real memories and kept coming back to concrete details that felt believable. For example, even though a lot of descriptions don't make it into the final version, I wrote office scenes while remembering one specific real office I'd worked in. I basically made a mosaic of things I had touched, seen, heard, and felt. Sometimes it's far easier to fabricate the big parts of the story—major plot turns, family dynamics, upbringing, past traumas, careers—all of which I did fabricate for these characters. But it seems to be (for me) the little details that are harder to fabricate believably—the little turns of dialogue, the way the light looked that one day. The Blue Hippos as it were. So that's where I try to pull in concrete details that I've experienced or observed in real life. If I'm wondering if something is believable, I try to see what details I can pull from my own life or observations to back it up. Fiction is just truth rearranged.

LLF: One of the central themes in "Pipa" is the importance of translation and the functions of language. What inspired you to write about translation and language, specifically its impacts on individual characters?

EWC: Living in Brazil and learning Portuguese forever changed the way I think about communication, work, and language. Some things just can't be translated. And shouldn't be. Any language lover will understand. It's not always a word's dictionary definition that gives it meaning—or wings. It's the way it sounds as it flits off your tongue, the way it settles into your ears like a blanket by the fire. It's the way the letters curl up like a sleeping puppy or a snake ready to strike. It's the memories you have of hearing and speaking that word. With every new language you learn, you get new places in your head for words. New ways to think about their meanings. Words become characters. And before you know it, translating a word can feel like changing your best friend's name.

I find it challenging to explain certain parts of my experience in Brazil without including some Portuguese words. Translating pastel for example, into a "fried dough square filled with meat and/or cheese" is like trying to translate pizza or croissant—it strips away magic. Words, like people, come from places, and it's their origins that help drive their meaning and beauty. Mateus learns to succeed in his new world, but much of his identity doesn't easily translate into the flow and cadence that his new world calls "normal." The parts of him that don't easily translate are (unjustly) some of his greatest challenges in the story but also perhaps his greatest powers. I think his decision to give his daughter an "untranslatable"name is evidence that he recognizes the need to keep fighting against the way things are.

LLF: Lillie's love for the water and sea contrasted with Mateus' admiration for the sky and the pipas is a powerful demonstration of their relationship. Could you elaborate on your process (and maybe reasoning) for crafting such unique and juxtaposed characters?

EWC: The sky half of this juxtaposition was the original spark of the story. It was a non-negotiable. There would be no story without it. This story was about the sky and pipas before it was about Mateus. The imagery of the pipas and the sky was what helped develop the character of Mateus. I was compelled by the idea of fighting battles, finding courage, and coming of age in an environment that the protagonist can't access without an avatar. Flying a kite is like nature's video game I guess. The sky is separate from Mateus' world—from the reader's world too, which hopefully helps the reader resonate. The pipa becomes an extension of Mateus so he can escape. And I think it probably helped him see that there were other places he could go to one day, to move away from his past.

As for the sea, maybe this was a natural contrast. And maybe it was also a little inspired by my own childhood fascination with marine animals. Pipas look like stingrays—that's the description that always felt the most accurate based on my observations from my apartment window. So maybe that was a clue too. A way to mix Lillie's and Mateus' worlds and characters. The thing that connects the sky and sea is the horizon, and pipas sort of represent the horizon in this story.

LLF: In addition to memory and interpersonal relationships, the theme of place and translocation bubbles to the surface in equally exciting and uncomfortable ways that eventually leads to a powerful conclusion. Can you comment on how this narrative and thematic journey developed?

EWC: I have to attribute a lot of the inspiration for these themes to the incredible immigrants I've known throughout my life. My husband is one of them. I've been inspired by his story since day one. The new life he made for himself, and the irreplaceable things he's left behind. The adversity he overcame. The racism, the ridicule, the lack of understanding, the setbacks, the layers of difficulty he's faced and still faces that most of us who grew up in the country we live in wouldn't imagine. I think these themes developed in the story as I realized I wanted to share a glimpse of some of the nuances that come with living an an immigrant. I'm forever compelled by the idea of feeling so much of your identity attached to a place and then still making the decision to leave that place. I also find it interesting how even places we attribute difficult or negative memories to can still enchant our souls and call to us over space and time. Places can keep us captive, set us free, pull us forward, hold us back. They remains with us wherever we go. That has always been fascinating to me.

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