NEA Literature Fellowships

Golda Goldbloom

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2014 - Prose)

Excerpt from The Paperback Shoe

Toad was out checking the fence line when I felt the birth pains from my first child, my Joan. I was pressing tea towels, the steam that rose from the iron tasting of burnt linen. Boss Cockie, perched on the window ledge, was imitating the sound of the sad iron. ‘Aaah. Ssssh. Hssss.’ I waited for the pains to go away or become less, but instead, they grabbed me and began, inexorably, to pull me down below the surface of the earth. I could feel the broken pieces of ant nest that formed our floor gouging tracks into my skin. Terrified, I ran through the wheat field to get Toad’s help. He knocked me down with a right hook to the jaw and then dragged me back the mile or so to the house with a hard, set look on his face. I woke up, jolting along on his back, and the screams I heard were my own.

‘Shut up, Gin,’ he said, ‘or I’ll have to hit you again.’

He’d seen that look in my eyes, he said, of an animal wild with pain, which either needs to be left alone to die or shot in the head. And the kindest thing to do is the hardest.

When we got to the house, he hefted me onto the veranda and pressed down hard on the top of my stomach, so that a wail rose from deep within me and I gritted my teeth and bore down on the source of all the hurting. And I vowed I would never again allow Toad near me when I birthed a baby.

Afterwards, he brought me a blanket and a towel for the blood and he sat with the new child in his lap, staring at her whiteness, her face with its startling transparency.

‘Whaddaya reckon we call her Joan?’ he said and so we did.

The next morning, I rose and baked six pounds of bread before the sun had topped the hill, and Toad came in from milking to corned beef and cabbage and a hot cup of tea. I’m proud of that.

These are the things that I learned to do after coming to Wyalkatchem: I learned how to make yeast, to bake bread, to make a bread pan out of an old kerosene tin, how to clean a kerosene tin and flatten it and smooth the edges with a rasp, how to trim the wick on a kerosene lamp, to clean the chimney of a kerosene lamp with a piece of newspaper crumpled in a ball, how to remove creosote from my skin with yellow soap, how to make yellow soap from ash and lye and fat, how to make lye, how to render fat, how to cook on a wood stove, how to split wood with an axe, how to sharpen an axe, how to treat burns from a woodstove, how to treat burns from hot ashes, how to treat burns from lye, how to treat a man who has been burnt, how to treat a man, how a man likes to be treated, how to make a maternity dress, how to make a layette, how to push out a baby, how to cut an umbilical cord with the knife used for castrating the lambs, how to feed an infant, how to hang a blanket in the boughs of a gum tree and rock a baby to sleep, how to sit quietly at night with a child in my lap, how to feel for a fever, how to boil willow for its cooling sap, how to paint a throat with gentian violet and listen for the smallest breath, how to make a coffin, how to line it with pieces of cotton, how to dress a dead child, how to lower a coffin into the ground, how to put one foot in front of the other and keep on doing it every day.

(Used with permission from Picador.)

Goldie Goldbloom’s novel, The Paperbark Shoe (Picador, 2011), won the AWP Novel Award, the Great Lakes College Association’s New Writers Award, and the Novel of the Year from ForeWord Magazine. Her short fiction was published in a collection, You Lose These  (Fremantle Press, 2011), and has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, StoryQuarterly, and Narrative Magazine. She was the winner of Hunger Mountain’s 2014 Non-Fiction Award and the Jerusalem Post’s International Fiction Prize. Goldbloom’s essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Le Monde, on NPR and G-dcast, and in the groundbreaking anthology, Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires (North Atlantic, 2010). She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and was the Simon Blattner Fellow at Northwestern University, where she teaches creative writing. Goldbloom is an internationally recognized speaker and was recently honored by being invited to speak at the International Forum on the Novel in Lyon, France. She lives in Chicago, Illinois, with her eight children. She is originally from Western Australia.

Photo by Melania Avanzato

Author's Statement

Welcome to my life. I do 27 loads of laundry on an average week. My 16-year-old son sleeps (late!) in my study where I work. I drive six hours of carpool every day for my eight children. I sleep four hours a night. I am a single mother. These numbers are the boundaries of my world.

I teach creative writing to graduate students too. And I write. Sometimes I am just too tired to do anything, but I do try to write something every day. A page a day, I tell my students, will produce a 365-page novel in a year. I laugh when I ask, “How hard can it be to write a page a day?” As if writing a page is easy.

I was resting in my old squishy chair when I heard that I had received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. Even the limp aspidistra perked up. The piles of unmatched socks on the floor gave little hitches of joy. The unwashed dishes reminded me that I rarely have time to do anything as well as I would like. This grant enables me to have a little square of time when I can try to do something beautifully.

This year, I hope to finish my novel on the long affair between Gwen John and Auguste Rodin, and on the translation of Gwen’s thousands of letters to the great sculptor.  I am fascinated and horrified by her obsession with him, alternately egging her on in my mind and throwing my arms over my head as if I am about to witness a train crash. If she were my daughter, I’d tell her she has to catch the bus, that there’s no way I am driving carpool for her. “Dear girl!” I want to tell her. “All those pages. Write a book instead.”