Alissa Jones Nelson weaves history, religion, nature, and addiction into “Elsewhere, OK,” Alissa’s runner-up prize-winning submission to The 2017 Berlin Writing Prize presented by The Reader Berlin, The Circus Hotel, and SAND. We were delighted that Alissa joined us at the launch of SAND Issue 16 on 24 November to read her piece, which we’ve excerpted below. You can able to read the full story in The Berlin Writing Prize anthology.
From Alissa Jones Nelson’s “Elsewhere, OK”:
Nana was raised on the reservation. A half-breed, she called herself cheerfully. No one else ever dared to. She married my grandfather and immediately took up his peculiar no-no-don't Methodism. No booze, no gambling, don't even think about dancing. Her inky hair and her swirling cotton dresses were long. She marked her Bible with rainbows of paper, one color for each shade of heathen. When they came wading up to her door through the summer air, shiny new Mormons on a mission in all their white short-sleeved button-down earnestness, she'd invite them in for a sweating glass of her bitter iced tea, open that doorstop of a Bible to whatever passage matched their particular sins, and fling the words into the freshly ironed air as the boys let go their crisp outlines and melted. Then she'd pour more tea and stare them down while they sweated through her questions as penance. One firefly-spangled night, I asked why they kept sending new recruits all the way out to her. "Training," she told me, with her silver coyote grin.
Her house was a summer sauna and a winter igloo. It had corners. Spider-webbed nooks and crannies, shadowy window seats. Drawers crammed with mysterious bits of iron and porcelain, treasure chests of buttons, a shiny sugar maple clothes press full of sweet straw hats and stiff white gloves and secret lacy things to wear under clothes.
The nearest town was Elsewhere, Oklahoma. Used to be called the Cherokee Strip before it was Elsewhere, OK. Between town and Nana's house, the two-lane blacktop time-traveled back to rutted gravel and packed dust. The gardens in Elsewhere were orderly rows of roses and irises, hollyhocks and snapdragons, tomatoes caged in chicken wire. Nana's riot of earth blazed with useful plants. Wild bergamot, bee balm, horsemint. Lavender breathing with bumble bees, prickly pear for her cactus jelly. Mysterious twists dried and labelled in amber medicine bottles. Compassplant, spiderwort, selfheal, sassafras. Larkspur, shooting star, black samson, firewheel. Chickasaw and Mexican plum, blood sage and Indian fire. A poetry of plants on her pantry shelves.
Blooming on the prairie beyond her garden’s borders were bittersweet butterfly weed and plumy juneberry, carpets of bluestar, and wild columbine in crimson and white, Indian paintbrush staining the billowing grasses orange. Amethyst ironweed, tender buffalo grass waving, waiting for its long-gone namesake. Outsize sage the perfect stage set for a Clint Eastwood gun fight. Stands of river birch where there were no rivers, loblolly pine in the folds of low rolling hills like the creases above Nana's knees. Black hickory singing with purple martins. Slippery elm for climbing, just to challenge the name, every kind of ash tree sifting the sunlight. Burr oak, blackjack, chinkapin. Names to ignite imagination, to tie a little girl to the earth.
Nana was brimful of stories. Trails of tears, land runs. Talking coyotes playing tricks. Cannibal women with hearts of unmeltable ice. Young girls swinging on lariat ropes hung from the stars. All of them dreamlike, disappearing with the dawn. As the years circled and closed in around her, she went quiet. Stopped writing letters when the palsy shook her hands. I'd call on weekends and she'd listen down the long-distance line. Every three minutes she'd squawk, "Well, this is costing you a fortune. Better say goodbye." I was the one who couldn't let go.
Nana used to greet the stars by name from her porch swing on liquid summer evenings, crickets singing backup. But her favorite constellation only rose above the horizon in winter. We were first introduced on a Christmas visit. The ebony net of sky brimming with snared stars, the crunchy snow beneath our boots so bright it made me squint: Orion, the hunter.
"We came from there," she told me, pointing to the brightest star in the middle of his belt. Alnilam. A name like a magic spell. "Our people. And one day we'll return."
Jericho. Nana's name for the shoebox apartment where I spent the school years of my childhood. Whenever my parents threatened to shout down the walls, I'd tell myself my real people were made of stardust, and one day they'd come for me. Those deep winter nights I'd kneel on my bed with my face pressed to the icy, breath-fogged window, keeping watch, until the last stars stepped back into the greying dawn.
Join us at the launch of SAND Issue 16 on 24 November at Anita Berber in Berlin to hear Alissa Jones Nelson read the full piece, or pick up your copy when The Berlin Writing Prize anthology is released in 2018.