NEA Literature Fellowships

Emily Barton

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(2006 - Prose)

From the novel Brookland

My parents, Matthias and Roxana Winship, were an odd lot. As I may not have hitherto told you, my father had escaped the seminary at Cambridge to jump on the Eliza Dymphna in Boston Harbour, and he set sail for the West Indies, slaves, and rum. To the chagrin of his father, a dissenting minister, Matty Winship, - your grandfather, that is, - realized what the colonies lacked was good, native-brewed strong drink, produced on a large scale; so he took his next passage to England & there apprenticed himself to a rectifier of distilled spirits. Eight years later he returned with a receipt for a fail-safe and most alcoholick geneva, and with my sharp-tongued mother, Roxana Parker (also a refugee from dissenting parents) in tow. They settled here in Brookland, where stood a derelict windmill, as old Mr. Joralemon had tried his inexpert hand at distilling once before, only to burn his operation to the ground. There on the East River, Father reason'd, would also be easy shipping for the forthcoming gin. Father had no license to distill liquor, - none was granted at that era, as the Crown's policy was to keep the colonies dependent on the mother country for finished goods, - but he resolved from the start to pay the inspectors handsomely; & there was no man among them so loyal he could not be tempted by a wad of paper money and a monthly allotment of good gin. This, of course, until the colonies engaged in open rebellion, at which time the manufacture of goods in defiance of royal decree became an act both lucrative and patriotickal.

Because he'd not been born to the business of distilling, in those first years my father often asked my mother's advice on the savour of the finished product (this though she knew little about gin, though she did have her fair measure of sense); as a result of which, in my early childhood I was largely left to do as I pleased, so long as I kept within the bounds of our stone fence. I was forbidden to wander the distillery lest my hand be smashed in the herb press, and forbidden to run out in the road lest, Mother told me, some officer with wrist frills try to offer me a pear. I had only a hazy notion what the war meant beyond the movement of troops, the building & toppling of forts, and the occasional fusillade of artillery fire, which sent the slaves & housewives running to gather the children indoors, and left me quaking with fear for my Daddy, who would not leave the distillery to come up the hill and check on us until the gunfire had subsided. I saw men both in uniform and ordinary cloaths limping about town with bandages on & leaning on crutches; and there was a sad autumnal funeral in which the children of the Sands family bawled their eyes dry because they'd lost their father in the fighting. As their mother had died the previous year, they were hastily removed to their grandparents' property east of Bergen's Hill, a location which at that time seemed so far distant, I feared I would never see them more. Thus I gathered early on that soldiers, even those who dressed neatly, were not to be trusted, though the local boys seemed to find them congenial company. I was also denied free access to our kitchen, but only because our slave, Johanna, was blind and half deaf with age, and likely to stumble over me or set me on fire. She was a gruff old woman; you would'n't have liked her. All these rules were my mother's, by the bye; it had been Father's original notion to fit me out with a pint-sized firearm and set me loose upon the neighbourhood; - which when he suggested it (rather, I should add, to my pleasure) resulted in my mother huffing up the front stairs to reappear only well past sunset with her lips pursed shut. Johanna, meanwhile, tisked and muttered much of the afternoon, which gave me to understand she could hear well enough, were the topic sufficiently juicy.

Emily Barton was raised in New Jersey, where she attended Kent Place School. She earned her BA summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard College, where she concentrated in English literature, and went on to earn an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her first novel, The Testament of Yves Gundron (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a San Francisco Chronicle Book of the Month, won the Bard Fiction Prize, and was nominated for Britain's Guardian Fiction Prize. Her work has appeared in Story, American Short Fiction, and Conjunctions, and she has reviewed books for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, Poetry, the VLS, and Bookforum. Emily Barton has taught writing and humanities at Bard, currently teaches writing at the New School, and has been teaching yoga since 1998. She lives in Brooklyn.

Photo courtesy of the author

Author's Statement

I'm honored and delighted to have been awarded funding by the NEA for 2006-07. On a personal level, it means I can take a year's sabbatical from my teaching job to focus exclusively on researching and writing a new novel. This is work that I yearn to do, and would have been impossible without funding. On a broader level, I'm pleased to receive this grant because it means that the arts and public support for the arts remain alive and well in this country.