NEA Literature Fellowships

Molly Brodak

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Molly Brodak

Photo by Stephanie Dowda

(2018 - Prose)

Excerpt from Bandit: A Daughter's Memoir

I was with my dad the first time I stole something.

The little booklet of baby names. I was 7 and I devoured word lists: dictionaries, vocab sheets, menus. The appeal of this string of names, their sweet weird shapes and neat order, felt impossible to solve. I couldn’t ask for such a pointless thing but I couldn’t leave it. I pressed it to my chest as we walked out of Kroger. It was pale blue with the word BABY spelled out in pastel blocks above a stock photo of a smiling white baby in a white diaper. I stood next to dad, absorbed in page 1, as he put the bags of our food in the trunk of his crappy gold Chevette and he stopped when he saw it. At first he said nothing. He avoided my eyes. He just pressed hard into my back and marched me to the lane we’d left and plucked the stupid booklet out of my hand and presented it to the cashier.

“My daughter stole this. I apologize for her.” He beamed a righteous look over a sweep of people nearby. The droopy cashier winced and muttered that it was ok, chuckling mildly. Then stooping over me he shouted cleanly, “now you apologize. You will never do this again.” The cold anger in his face was edged with some kind of glint I didn’t recognize. As he gripped my shoulders he was almost smiling. I remember his shining eyes above me and the high ceiling of the gigantic store and the brightness of it. I am sure I cried but I don’t remember. I do remember an acidic boiling in my chest and a rinse of sweaty cold on my skin, disgusted with my own desire and what it did, how awful all of us felt now because of me. I never stole again until I was a teenager, when he was in prison for bank robbery.

(From Bandit: A Daughter's Memoir, Grove Atlantic, 2016)

Molly Brodak’s first book, A Little Middle of the Night, won the 2009 Iowa Poetry Prize, and her second book, Bandit: A Daughter’s Memoir, was published in 2016 by Grove Atlantic and has been excerpted for Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016. She is also the author of three chapbooks of poetry, Instructions for a Painting (GreenTower Press, 2007), Essay on Parts of Day (Horse Less Press, 2013), and The Flood (Coconut Books, 2012), a collection of ekphrastic poetry in conversation with Paolo Uccello paintings. She received the 2011—2013 Poetry Fellowship from Emory University and her work has appeared recently in Granta, Fence, Guernica, Gulf Coast, LIT, and Crazyhorse.

Every writer needs dedicated time and space to write. A few stolen early morning hours, a quick retreat from work or family obligations—these can be wrest from a busy life and cobbled together to accomplish great writing. I’d written several poetry manuscripts and a memoir this way, but my next project was going to be different: it required travel.

I had no idea how I was going to make it work but I put it on my calendar anyway. May 2018: go to Poland. Find your family. I bought a giant map of Poland and marked the impossible border towns where my family originated, I marked the camps where they died.

I tried saving as much as I could, knowing it would never be enough to fund my research, and I was just beginning to entertain the notion of crowd-funding the trip by begging my fellow (poor!) writers for their spare change. I felt hopeless, and foolish for dreaming beyond my means.

Then the NEA called.

In this singular pivot point, my future book transformed from a distant mirage to a tangible reality. It wasn’t just the flight to Warsaw or the train tickets this Fellowship now afforded me but the confidence to accomplish the scariest and most important writing I had ever attempted. Instead of feeling overwhelmed in nebulous anxiety over the practical mechanics of my research, I felt supported, with solid ground under my feet.

To support artists as they aim for risky and rewarding cultural production which they could not accomplish otherwise, and which benefits all, is one of the most honorable acts any nation can offer to its people, and I hope the NEA can continue this valuable mission. And I am so incredibly grateful for this Fellowship, without which I would never have been able to undertake this writing project.