Mukund Belliappa

A Natural History of Colonialism

Nonfiction from NER 36.3

CurzonIn 1875 the Indian tiger (Panthera tigris) was rechristened the Royal Bengal Tiger—first by the Calcutta press and then by the rest of the world—in honor of the enthusiasm shown by the Prince of Wales, Edward VII, in hunting it during his eight-month tour of India. If naturalists seek a single event that doomed the fate of this species they could point to Edward’s expeditions. Of course, Edward alone cannot be blamed. Tiger hunting had always been a colonial favorite, and the Victorians (who devoured publications like The Oriental Shooting MagazineThe Bengal Sporting Magazine, and The Indian Sporting Review at clubs around India) had turned it into a rite of passage. Like any good politician or celebrity, Edward was merely stamping with approval a widely enjoyed sport. After Edward’s trip, however, a regrettable fashion took hold. While the Indian tiger had merely been hunted, the Royal Bengal Tiger was massacred.

Perhaps the recent widespread availability of George Eastman’s cumbersome but portable camera also had something to do with it. Suddenly, all around the subcontinent, Victorians were eager to be photographed with their feet proudly planted on “Stripes.” What is sport without measurements and records? Rowland Ward’s The Sportsman’s Handbook to Practical Collecting, Preserving, and Artistic Setting-up of Trophies and Specimens (first published in 1880 with new editions almost every year through the end of the century) carried instructions on how to arrange the tiger’s carcass for measurement. The dead beast was to be tugged (at the nose and tail) to a straight line before fixing the four pegs: the tip and root of the tail, the nape of the neck and the nose.

[Read more]

Mukund Belliappa grew up in various parts of India and has lived in the US since attending graduate school at UT Austin, where he studied engineering, mathematics, and creative writing. Belliappa’s essays have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Antioch Review, and Rain Taxi. A sizeable portion of his reading and writing over the past decade has been in colonial history. He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife and two Malinois.

Paula Schwartz

Big LIfe, Little Death

Nonfiction from NER 36.3

829d24cfOn se comprend à demi-mots. “We understand each other with half words, without finishing our sentences.” I learned this French expression from Fanny. It describes a kind of meeting of the minds, parallel sensibilities—each of us not merely anticipating or knowing what the other is thinking, but actually thinking alike at the same time, sharing the same reaction. It was a good way of describing our personal connection. Fanny remarked how striking it was that such complicity could exist between a young American student, born after the war, and a Polish-born Viennese refugee, French resister, survivor of two concentration camps, and lifelong Communist Party activist.

Fanny and I met in April 1978, on a train from Paris to East Berlin, for a pilgrimage to Ravensbrück, the only concentration camp for women, for the most part political prisoners. The pilgrimage, as it was (and is still) known, was an annual event organized by the Amicale de Ravensbrück, the association of former women prisoners that formed in 1945 for the purpose of educating the public about the camp, supporting the survivors, lobbying the government for recognition and benefits. Like the other amicales, or “friendship associations,” it was part of a network united by the umbrella organization FNDIRP, the National Federation of Deported and Imprisoned Resistance Fighters and Patriots. I was in Paris with a year-long fellowship to study the role of women in the French Resistance. Having contacted the organization in an effort to locate and interview women resisters, I met with its director, Cécile Lesieur. The timing was excellent; it so happened that some eighty survivors of Ravensbrück would soon be traveling to the camp for a pilgrimage. Cécile Lesieur invited me to join them. I could meet the members myself and visit the camp for the first time.

[Read more]

Paula Schwartz is the Lois B. Watson Professor of French Studies at Middlebury College and a scholar of World War II France and the Resistance movement.

Jill Sisson Quinn

Big Night

From NER 36.1

[view as PDF] US contains more species of salamander than any other country, but in an entire lifetime you may never encounter one. Salamanders—secretive, fossorial, nocturnal—exit underground harbors only in darkness. Even those that gather in great masses to breed do so without a sound, moving monk-like through the yammering of wood frogs and spring peepers to ephemeral ponds.

In the country’s eastern half, many folks would be surprised to find they share their neighborhoods with Ambystoma maculatum, the spotted salamander, a creature that looks like it belongs in the Amazon. Two uneven rows of big, bright yellow dots extend from head to tail on its dark, glossy body, a body I have always thought looks purple, though most field guides describe it as steel gray or black. Spotteds are stout and medium-sized; at four to seven inches long, they look like they’d make a good meal for something. But they’re not easy to find. Scientists tracking them with radio telemetry, through tiny transmitters surgically implanted into the salamanders’ midsections, discovered one spotted salamander living four feet underground. To find one of these brightly colored animals beneath a rock or within a log feels like hitting the jackpot.

My interest in salamanders renewed with surprising force the same spring my husband and I began the process of adopting a child. I had recently moved away from an area of high salamander density (from New Jersey, which has sixteen species, to Wisconsin, which has only seven) and ceased teaching environmental education; instead I was teaching English and spending my workdays indoors. Nevertheless, I aimed to be present for the annual nocturnal mass breeding of the spotted. There was a chance I would see them and a chance I wouldn’t, these creatures that seemed scarce but were relatively numerous, that lived singly all year long but on a single evening gathered in multitudes. It was just this odd combination of uncertainty and possibility that I would need to embrace in my journey to becoming a parent.

[read more]

Jill Sisson Quinn’s essays have appeared in Orion, Ecotone, OnEarth, and many other magazines. She has received the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction, a John Burroughs Essay Award, and a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award. Her work has been reprinted in Best American Science & Nature Writing 2011. Her first book, Deranged, was published by Apprentice House of Loyola University Maryland in 2010. A regular commentator for Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life series, she lives and writes in Scandinavia, Wisconsin.

Chris Nelson

Speaking of Neil Young

Nonfiction from NER 35.4

doc00796420150107153744 copy[View as PDF]

As a junior in high school I found myself humming along to Neil Young’s “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold” whenever the local classic rock station decided to take a break from Aerosmith or Boston or AC/ DC. Senior year I’d take the scenic route home from football practice while blaring Harvest Moon in the used Mustang I shared with my older brother, driving past the cornfields just as the setting sun made them glow and feeling nostalgic for the innocence I had yet to lose. First semester of college I was getting high to his 1969 self-titled solo debut, and by spring I waited for rainy days to wallow in my loneliness with the haunting On the Beach, playing it over and over on an old turntable of my father’s that I had restored.

In accordance with the natural progression of other Neil faithfuls, it wasn’t until I had exhausted this mostly acoustic, more accessible singer/songwriter side of Neil Young that I was able to graduate to an appreciation of his electric work—the highest and most challenging level a Neil faithful can reach. And it took me even longer to fall in love with it. Only recently have I begun to figure out why: his style of playing, with its wailings and repetitions and clutter and incoherence, is my style of speaking. Like his guitar, I stutter.

[Read more]

Chris Nelson is a writer living in New York City.

Laurence de Looze

A Story of Lisbon

Nonfiction from NER 35.4

[View as PDF]


For the past several months I have been living with my partner, Aara, in the old Alfama neighborhood of Lisbon, Portugal. A maze of tiny alleyways that turn into stairways as the streets climb up the steep hills from the Tejo river, the Alfama was once a Moorish quarter. Tucked behind the Sé, the city’s squat cathedral, the neighborhood survived the 1755 earthquake pretty much intact, and today it is one of the oldest areas of Lisbon. It is a very humble neighborhood—there are pensioners here whose already meager checks are being reduced by the government on an almost regular basis—though I wouldn’t call it “poor” outright. The people who live in the dark little dwellings that crowd these streets love the Alfama. They cannot afford to live elsewhere, but they don’t want to. Most of them were born in the apartments they live in now. Some of them have probably never even been outside the city limits.

Because the cobblestone streets are so narrow and can become escadinhas (steps) at any turn, it is impossible for a vehicle with wheels to get through. Everything is done on foot, and everything is carried in and out, up and down the hill, by hand. At first I thought that this would be inconvenient, even impossible. But I soon adapted to what feels like a nineteenth-century pace of life, and it has become endearing to me, even when I’m carrying provisions and trudging up the hill under a hot sun.

[Read more]

Laurence de Looze publishes fiction, essays, and books on a variety of topics, including medieval literature. A native US citizen, he has lived for years in Canada where he teaches a variety of university courses. His fiction has appeared in Antioch Review and Ontario Review, and his book The Letter and the Cosmos: How the Alphabet Has Shaped the Western View of the World, is forthcoming from the University of Toronto Press. He is sorely tempted to move permanently to Portugal.

Richard Tillinghast

Eastward Bound, Across a Storied Landscape

Nonfiction from NER 35.3.

[view as PDF]

Leaving Portland, with its microbreweries, Pacific Rim restaurants, lumberjack chic, and drive-through coffee stations, I drove east along the Columbia River Gorge on the first leg of a four-thousand-mile trip that would take me to northern Michigan and then down to South Carolina and Tennessee. The Gorge’s mist-wreathed granite cliffs, rising above the onrush of the Columbia River, look as though they could have been painted by a Chinese landscape artist from the Tang Dynasty. In late-afternoon light the stone takes on a purple glow. Taoist hermits might be meditating in caves up in those hills.

Above White Salmon, Washington, where I spent my first night, pioneer days had not, it seemed, entirely ended. As I drove up precipitous roads that reached up from the Columbia River to my nephew’s house, where I would spend the night, some of the hillsides had that desolate, shredded look that follows clear-cutting. One little house partway up, a shack really, was flanked on one side by a pile of rough-cut logs, each about the length of an American car from the fifties. It looked as though the householder had wrangled them there for sizing into smaller chunks as fuel was needed during the long winter. The month was May, but a cutting wind sliced across the steep hills. My nephew and I took his son, six years old, to his baseball game down in the town of White Salmon. The diamond, with its boys’ and girls’ coach-pitch three-inning game, and the pure Americanness of the scene, were thrown into perspective by the massive, timeless hills, verdant with the spring rains, towering above it.

[Read more]

Richard Tillinghast is the author of twelve books of poetry and four of creative nonfiction. His Selected Poems came out from Dedalus Press in Ireland in 2009. He was a 2010-2011 Guggenheim Fellow in poetry. His latest nonfiction book is An Armchair Traveller’s History of Istanbul (Haus Publishing, 2012), which was published in the UK and nominated for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize. Tilinghast, who lived in Ireland for five years, returned to the States in 2011 and now divides his time between Sewanee, Tennessee and the Big Island of Hawaii.

Natasha Lvovich

Sister in Russian, Cousin in English

Nonfiction from NER 35.3

[view as PDF]

She is walking on Park Avenue, elegant and slim, irreproachably fashionable, drumming Sinatra’s “New York, New York” with her high heels. Her allure is businesslike and confident: she is focused on her destination, on the potholes in the asphalt, and on countless rushed yet important thoughts, while at the same time she talks into her phone. Only real Manhattanites, fortunate to have been born on this celebrated land—firmly grounded, perfectly well-oriented, perpetually overbooked, and multitasking with ease—move with such a gait. She murmurs into her phone in a language that has been for centuries, for millennia, for eternity, her own: “Honey, don’t wait for me, just order yourself some Chinese. I’ll be home in a little while. Yeah, I know, I know. I’ll get you some. Love you.”

The trace of a Russian accent is almost imperceptible. Thank goodness for those caramel English words, which make her a different person and a different mother than her own, less dramatic and less rough around the edges, with the sweetened texture of an American mom raised in an Upper West Side apartment. She looks at her watch; she checks her messages; she passes her hand over her platinum hair as if to make sure the makeover hasn’t melted away.

[Read more]

Natasha Lvovich is a writer and scholar of bilingualism and of translingual literature—literature written in non-native language. Originally from Moscow, Russia, Lvovich teaches academic and creative writing at City University of New York. She is the author of a collection of autobiographical narratives, The Multilingual Self (Routledge, 1997). Her creative nonfiction has appeared in numerous journals, including Life Writing, New Writing, Big.City.Lit, Post Road, Paradigm, Nashville Review, and Epiphany, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Kate Lebo

The Loudproof Room

Nonfiction from NER 35.2.

[View as PDF


An Earmoir

I was born with a strawberry hemangioma splashed over the bottom half of my right ear and two inches down my neck. The sort of red that has purple trapped inside it. A swollen, shocking hue. For the first year, I had no hair to disguise it. The sight of me made strangers uncomfortable.

My birthmark was so red and angry and I cried so murderously when my parents bathed it that it became, as I grew, the explanation for a lot of things. Why I was teased in school, why I cried easily. Why I couldn’t hear conversational tones out of my right ear.

By the time I was ten the skin faded to a mottle of mostly normal looking tissue. It looks enough like a burn scar that no one asks what happened. Mostly I forget it’s there. When a new friend asks me “what’s up with your ear?” I need a second to remember what she’s talking about. My father and I were in a motorcycle accident when I was five, I say. It tore my ear half off. When she looks sorry for asking, I tell her I was born this way. Which isn’t exactly the truth. If it was, I’d still have a stoplight for an ear.

[Read more]

Kate Lebo’s poems and prose have appeared in Best New Poets, the Rumpus, Gastronomica, Willow Springs, and Poetry Northwest. She is also the author of two books about the folk art of pie-making, A Commonplace Book of Pie (Chin Music Press, 2013) and Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour, and Butter (Sasquatch Books, 2014). She teaches writing workshops nationally. For more, visit

John R. Nelson

Mr. Forbush and Mr. White

Nonfiction from NER 35.2

[View as PDF]

800px-289_Solitary_SandpiperFor a bird-fancier, I was late in getting to Edward Howe Forbush’s three-volume Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States, published in the 1920s. I assumed that much of Forbush’s work would now be dated, supplanted by fresh scientific knowledge and more scrupulously kept records of the distribution and habits of birds. And the weight of it, fourteen hundred pages in all—that’s a lot of damn bird-lore to lift. But in 2012, when I took on the task of writing a hundredth anniversary history of the Brookline Bird Club (BBC), I knew I could put the man off no longer. The preeminent New England ornithologist of the early twentieth century, he’d been the first speaker at the annual BBC meeting (his stereopticon malfunctioned), and the club had lobbied the Massachusetts legislature to fund publication of his three volumes. In my research his name kept springing up everywhere. One could not write any history of New England birds without looking into Forbush.

[Read more]

John R. Nelson has contributed to Gettysburg Review, Massachusetts Review, Harvard Review, Harvard Magazine, and various birding magazines in the US and England. His essay “Brolga the Dancing Crane Girl,” on birds and dance, was awarded the Carter Prize for the best nonfiction work published in Shenandoah during the 2011–12 season.

Francis-Noël Thomas

Rogier van der Weyden and James Ensor: Line and Its Deformation

Nonfiction from NER 35.1.

[View as PDF]

The grand and bombastic building on the Leopold de Waelplaats in Antwerp that has housed the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Royal Museum of Fine Arts) since 1890 closed on October 3, 2010, for a major interior reconstruction that is not expected to be completed before 2017. During this reconstruction, some of the museum’s better known nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings have been exhibited as far from Antwerp as Japan; some of its rare fifteenth-century panel paintings were exhibited last year in the beautifully preserved sixteenth-century Rockox House, just a twenty-minute walk from the museum.

The Seven Sacraments

There is something to be said for seeing nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings and fifteenth-century paintings in separate and respectively congenial settings, but the 1890 building did more than provide wall space for paintings that had little in common with its architectural ethos and belonged to separate and sometimes antagonistic cultural worlds. The museum went beyond exhibiting individual paintings, even individual styles of painting; it exhibited antagonistic concepts of painting.

When it was inaugurated in 1810, the museum absorbed what had been the collection of the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. In 1841 that collection was supplemented by a bequest from one of the earliest and greatest collectors of Early Netherlandish painting, Florent van Ertborn, a former mayor of Antwerp. In the 1920s, it began to collect contemporary painters, notably James Ensor.

Van Ertborn’s collection was assembled at a time when the Early Netherlandish masters were out of fashion, their work unknown to all but a tiny public. Panels from what is now one of the most famous European paintings of the late middle ages, the Ghent Altarpiece (1432), were kept out of sight by nineteenth-century bishops of Ghent, who were scandalized by the life-size nude representations of Adam and Eve.

When I first went to Antwerp, it was expressly to see paintings that were part of the van Ertborn bequest, although I knew nothing about the bequest at the time and had never heard of Florent van Ertborn. I had fallen in love with the Early Netherlandish paintings I had seen in American museums and in printed images illustrating books on the subject. I knew very little of the history of the painters’ reputation.

[Read more]

Francis-Noël Thomas taught art history at Truman College, City Colleges of Chicago for twenty-nine years. He is joint author with the cognitive scientist Mark Turner of Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose (Princeton University Press, 1994; second edition 2011). His previous essays in New England Review include “Tea” (33.1) and “On the rue Saint-André-des-arts” (31.2).