On the line between appropriation and allyship: A review of Rebecca Makkai's THE GREAT BELIEVERS by Becca Rose Hall


"...we are responsible for what we create, and for how we write about what we write about, especially when we write about trauma and tragedy that is not our own."

* * *

It starts with a party. A funeral party. It is Chicago, 1985, and a young man named Nico has just died of AIDS. His homophobic parents exclude his partner and friends from the formal funeral, so they throw their own. Despite the Cuba Libres and cute boys, no one exactly feels like partying, least of all Nico’s sister Fiona and friend Yale. But still, it starts out so fun, despite the occasion. And then.

This is the world Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers drops us into as quickly and completely as if we also had stepped from a dark street into a hopping funeral party. The book alternates perspectives between Yale and Fiona: Yale in 1985 as AIDS sweeps through his circle and he works to secure an incredible art acquisition from 1920’s Paris, Fiona in 2015 as she heads to Paris to look for her estranged daughter, the wounds of her thirty-year-old losses still with her. This simultaneity of tragedy and survival lets the crisis and its aftermath unfold in tension, the crisis always in the present the way traumas are. Makkai manages information deftly so that the whole tragedy is a slow-moving train wreck you can see coming, know how to dodge, but that still hits you sideways. And it hits you hard. There is dread and grief, anger and disbelief, fatalism and magical thinking, and a fierce resiliency and love of life in this novel. The characters get in your mind and become imaginary friends. Reading their stories, I felt the magnitude of loss the arrival of AIDS brought in a way I, a straight white lady who was just learning to read when these men were dying, never had before.

As far as I know from Makkai’s author bio and from our slight acquaintance (she was the fellow in my workshop at Sewanee in 2011, and we’ve stayed in occasional touch through social media), Makkai is a straight woman, married with kids. If she has a personal connection to the AIDS crisis, or to the subculture she writes about, she doesn’t disclose it. Despite the vividness of the world Makkai creates, her outsiderness shows. For instance, the mid-eighties gay scene as Makkai describes it is just as I would have imagined it. I don’t know if that is because her portrayal is extremely accurate, or if it is because she is writing outside her own experience (as I am reading outside mine), and so the novel leans on generally shared stereotypes of what that life was like. In any case, I wasn’t surprised by anything in Makkai’s world, real as it felt. Nothing was weird. It was as if she worked so hard to get the characters right that they became predictable. They felt like real people, but just the real people I’d expect to show up to that particular party.

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Reading The Great Believers also made me think about what it means to write stories outside our own experience, stories that we may care about but are not our own. It is extremely important for writers to write across lines of difference, to write characters of different races and genders and sexualities and classes and worldviews. For one thing, we’d have too many books about MFA students. Too many books set in New York. We would also have too many books that don’t have people of color in them, or don’t pass the literary equivalent of the Bechdel test, or don’t get inside the minds of Republicans. In other words, that don’t reflect the fullness of the world. If one of the superpowers of fiction is the creation of empathy, then writing about people other than ourselves is critical.

Writing is an act of imagination, and imagination doesn’t follow social codes. However, we are responsible for what we create, and for how we write about what we write about, especially when we write about trauma and tragedy that is not our own. It’s easy for that to become appropriation for the sake of plot drama, which is icky. It’s easy to become an authority without knowing how something felt to live. This is especially complicated when you write a story that belongs to a group of people who have struggled to be heard on their own terms, like the men in Makkai’s novel.

To be fair, Makkai is aware of this, and writes in her afterward about the subjective line between appropriation and allyship. And Fiona’s story, which is the story of the witness, the survivor, the ally, makes the book also about those things. Fiona carries the weight of surviving even more than the surviving HIV-positive men. Her grief has directed her entire life: her work, her own recklessness, her relationship with her daughter. One of the most interesting scenes in Fiona’s story is when she is reunited with a man she thought had died of AIDS, but who had managed to hang on until the “good drugs” came on and had made it through. How strange, says Makkai, that this man could have “a second life, a whole entire life, when Fiona had been living for the past thirty years in a deafening echo. She’d been tending the graveyard alone….” It’s a conversation that helps the book reach its end, and one that seems like instructions for healthy allyship as well. Yes, witness and imagine and empathize and grieve and offer a hand. But also live your own life. Don’t let others’ pain be your plot.

Making art out of pain is wise and human; making art out of other peoples’ pain is vampiristic. Makkai’s novel raises enough questions and makes me feel deeply enough that I believe she has honored her material. Others likely feel differently. There are great novels about American gay life during the peak of the AIDS epidemic that are written from the inside. (In the City of Shy Hunters by Tom Spanbauer comes to mind.) They should not be left out of the conversation.

In another way, this story does belong to our whole culture, because we are all survivors and witnesses, though most of us are crappy, inattentive ones. AIDS has brushed us all, at least in our fears; half my 1990’s sex-ed class was about AIDS: which bodily fluids and not toilet seats and through lambskin but not dental dams and even Magic Johnson and safer not safe because no guarantees and anyone anywhere maybe even me. No one I knew ever died of it. We need to hear and feel this story.

The extent to which people outside the gay community ignored the AIDS crisis then and forget about it now is wrong. Wrong like ignoring the trauma of war is wrong. Even my AIDS-obsessed sex-ed class didn’t spend time humanizing the devastation in the gay community as much as convincing us heterosexual kids we should be worried about ourselves. These are the things I thought about, some for the first time, when I read this book. Clearly, we need the empathetic entry points that fiction gives us. We need stories to come to life so we can feel them. The Great Believers does this and does it powerfully. But the question remains: does Makkai’s book add to an important conversation or hog the mic? Or both?

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Becca Rose Hall lives, reads, and writes near Seattle with her husband and daughter. She is the director of Frog Hollow School, a children's writing program. Her novel, Salt for Salt, is currently out on submission and she is working on another novel. She studied writing at Stanford University and the University of Montana. Her work has appeared in Contrary Magazine, High Country News, Elsewhere Lit, Smokebox, The Bellingham Review, and elsewhere. Check it all out here, and follow her on twitter at @beccarosehall.


“Everything has a place, and everything fits together.” Paying attention to what’s in front of us, with Ann Vinciguerra

“Whether I’m walking an ancient path in Italy, scaling a peak in Wyoming’s Snowy Range Mountains, or admiring my neighbor’s garden, I always notice the rocks. I can’t look at them without wondering about their provenance.”

Moving Stones

By Ann H. Vinciguerra

The Madison River meanders by on a warm summer day. Rocks smoothed by the river’s force litter the landscape providing ample material for the garden project at my new home in Bozeman, Montana. Working solo, I begin filling my old green Subaru with rocks.

This is easy, I think. Sometimes I gather as many as five or six rocks in my arms, while other times, I heave one hefty stone into my car. It’s work for sure, but never too arduous. After several trips scurrying up and down the riverbank, a thin layer of dust coats my clothing and hands, and dirt is encrusted under my fingernails. I admire the rocks filling my hatchback. Pink, orange, and multiple shades of grey and brown. Flat, lumpy, rounded, and squared-off. I smile as I envision them in my soon-to-be-created garden. Satisfied with my progress, I head home eager to start work. As I begin laying stones to mark the edge of my garden, I realize I don’t have enough, and remind myself to slow down and enjoy the process. If I fall short, it’s okay; the stones aren’t going anywhere. In stonework, as with life, it’s best not to rush.

It wasn’t until I moved to Bozeman from Jackson Hole, Wyoming and purchased a townhome that I began to appreciate the unassuming beauty of stones. Pleasing but ordinary, the landscaping at my home was designed to be low maintenance. Hoping to transform this space, I used stones to mark an arc of ground for a small urban garden. Over the next eight summers, I planted perennials, yanked bushes, built a cinderblock raised bed, and decorated the area with eye-catching stones.

While I treasure the flowers that return year after year, the strawberry plants that produce delicious morsels in June, and the leggy nasturtiums that tumble over the cinderblock walls each fall, I am most delighted by the assortment of stones. Collected from the Bridger Mountains, the Snake River, and a creek outside of Yellowstone National Park, these rocks represent the culmination of my hard work and bring to mind my love of exploration and memories of the meaningful places in my life.

Whether I’m walking an ancient path in Italy, scaling a peak in Wyoming’s Snowy Range Mountains, or admiring my neighbor’s garden, I always notice the rocks. I can’t look at them without wondering about their provenance. What began as an effort to beautify my surroundings has become a hard-to-shake hobby and a contemplative practice. When I work with stones, I engage in the task at hand as well as the tasks of life. Time slows, my mind becomes focused, and my attention is drawn to the immediate.


Stones are intrinsically simple, easy to find, and useful for a variety of projects. No technical skills or complicated equipment is needed to harvest them. The only requirement is time.

I’ve played hooky from my communications job at the university. The day is a blank canvas to do with as I please, so I set out to the Gallatin River to move stones. It’s spring, a season when the weather changes like time-lapse photography. The sun and clouds engage in a seesaw battle to see who will dominate, and an erratic bone-chilling rain and snow mix pelts my face. I’m glad I threw on an insulated jacket and lightweight ski cap.

I walk along the chilly river bank with my head down ignoring the beautiful landscape that surrounds me while I focus on the stones. They are everywhere, but I select carefully as today I am harvesting only flat rocks to line my garden’s edge. The stones are cool to my bare hands and eventually the warm coziness of home draws me from the river.

Upon returning to town, I am ecstatic to see the sun has won its skirmish with the clouds and wind. My jacket and hat come off as warmth embraces me, and a palpable feeling of transformation and promise is in the spring air. I unload my harvest, and as I partake in this unpretentious task, I savor the beauty of time on my hands and the joy of an unexpectedly glorious day. 

Riding my bike to work the next morning, I remind myself to take time to appreciate the small pleasures each day may bring.


Each summer, I travel from Montana to my uncle’s property along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. It includes a flat spot at water’s edge that my family calls a beach. With the hills of New York State across the river, cheerful gaggles of rafters floating by, and visits from eagles, deer, and an occasional bear, it’s where my family gathers and counts life’s blessings.

Strewn with rocks, our beach calls for a fire pit and patio. The summer day is not overly hot or muggy; the sky is cloudless as I begin moving stones in my sundress. Radiant sun soaks into my bare shoulders and face, and the stones are warm to the touch. I notice my body reacting to the work and learn to work with it, not against it. By using my body efficiently, it will serve me well. I squat carefully, reminding myself to keep good posture and lift with my legs. I imagine my spindly arms are developing strong, ropy muscles.

At first glance, I see a non-descript pile of rocks, but upon closer look I see so much more. Flat stones are good for the patio and rounded stones mark the edges. The gray stones are nice but too many make my work dull. A scattering of pretty stones with dusty hues of pink will enliven the palette. What I need is often right in front of me. All it takes is paying attention.


My partner Mike and I embark on one last backpacking trip before snow blankets the ground for winter. It is a steely autumn day; the only colors are the bright tangerine and turquoise of our high-tech jackets. A brisk wind whips about and we take shelter behind a makeshift log barrier built by previous campers. While it’s sturdy, gaps between logs allow the wind to batter the flame of our camp stove, so I move stones to reinforce our shelter.

As I fill the gaps with rocks to create a wind-free cooking area, I am reminded of the satisfaction that comes from hard work. Unlike other hard work, stonework is fulfilling in an uncomplicated, Zen way. I get lost in this repetitive activity as the project unfolds in front of my eyes. Stonework is much more straightforward than solving the challenges I face in my multi-faceted university job.

Back at work, I evoke my peaceful, stone-moving attitude. As I face the day’s challenges “get in the zone” becomes my mantra. When I keep moving and tackle things piece by piece, just like building a wall stone by stone, the problems get solved.


A few summers ago, my brother built stone steps and a walkway between the two houses at my uncle’s river property. I admired his work, awed that his first stone project was a masterpiece.

“You begin building and have faith in the process,” he said. “Everything has a place, and everything fits together.”

Stones. Simple, useful, abundant. They make up the steps and walkway at the river house and decorate my property on the other side of the country. Around the world, castles, bridges, and town squares built centuries ago are made of stones, reminding us it is the power of the whole that takes us far. Although we come in different shapes, sizes, and varieties, we each play a part and are stronger as one.

Back home in Montana, I take a break from the tumultuous, fast-paced world. I turn off my computer, leave my cellphone inside, and head out to the small garden at my townhome. As I begin moving stones from my car and setting them into place, a sense of peace washes over me. I envision a world where time slows down, and everyone finds space in their lives to move stones. There, we notice what is around us and work together for the greater good.

Stones. Silent and inanimate, yet authoritative teachers. Through them, I have learned about so much more than just building a wall or a garden or a pathway. I’m glad I took time to slow down and heed their lessons.

Bio Photo B&W Yellostone.jpg

Ann Vinciguerra is a dual American/Italian citizen. She lives in Bozeman, Montana where she practices the art of balancing work (Events/Communications Director, Montana State University Library) and play (Backcountry skiing and mountain biking).  Her work has appeared in Ascent Backcountry Snow Journal, the Denver Post, Mountain Gazette, Outside Bozeman, and newspapers in Jackson Hole, Wyo. and Crested Butte, Co.



Two poems, two poets, two lives, enfolded. George Kalamaras speaks to James Wright in LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE.

On James Wright, from the Poetry Foundation:

“James Wright was frequently referred to as one of America's finest contemporary poets. He was admired by critics and fellow poets alike for his willingness and ability to experiment with language and style, as well as for his thematic concerns. In the Minnesota Review, Peter A. Stitt wrote that Wright's work both represents and parallels the development of the best modern American poets: ‘Reading the Collected Poems of James Wright from the point of view of style is like reading a history of the best contemporary American poetry. One discovers a development which could be said to parallel the development generally of our finest recent poets. . . . [This development shows] a movement generally away from rhetoric, regular meter and rhyme, towards plainer speech, looser rhythms and few rhymes.’”

Letter to James Wright (Or My “The Indianapolis Poem” Folded into Your “The Minneapolis Poem”)

by George Kalamaras

“I would just as soon we let
The living go on living.”
—James Wright

1.    Dear Jim:
I ask how many dead dogs last year
tilted the earth, as their breath eased out
into the frost-filmed leaves.
As if they were bleeding sideways
into the nails of Noah’s Ark, rusting slowly
the ocean salt of the Dead Sea, the inky
green plankton of the Sargasso. The Ohio River
running there, all the way from Evansville, torn
pages of Bibles floating belly-up
in the river, having been ripped to plug a wall.
Hound dogs who couldn’t follow the moon,
couldn’t tree a coon, lost
in ground fog. The hame bells of dead horses
still drawing Conestogas across Kentucky, somehow
sighing in the moon’s smoke.
And I wish every dead animal
good ground and sound luck.

2.    Dear Crippling Wind in Your Hammock-Strung Throat:
Indianapolis. Fort Wayne. Brownsburg. Crown Point.
Crawfordsville. Cedar Lake. In our town,
weather was weather
in the crippling wind
through the mangled cornhusks of autumn.
And the barns—torn apart by the brutal
maiming of November—were sinners
that took to their knees
to wait out the primitive sadness of the moon.

3.    Jim:
Indiana, the old Northwest Territory.
Just beyond lay immense forests of dark trees.
Wolf track. Pond scum. Sassafras scent.
The white bark of sycamores like ghosts
of wood buffalo in the switchgrass.
Indianapolis, where bands of Ishmaelites
from the Upland South settled the other side
of the White River. They were said to have wandering blood,
which caused them to gypsy
. And their wagon lanterns,
postured against the dark, Jim, threw a shadow
of a shadow, bobbing, there,
in the snow-cupped waves. The White River,
which a century later lost 4.6 million
fish to Guide Corp’s automotive parts
in Anderson. The White River, which absorbed 10,000 gallons
of HMP-2000 into the wandering water, wandering away
into the Wabash, wandering, open-mouthed, startled
with the sudden weightlessness of death dying
as it died.

4.    Dear One, Who Wrote with an Ocelot in His Mouth:
Someone said Etheridge Knight, before Korea,
before the shrapnel wound and drugs bit his wrist,
had been Lew Wallace in a previous life,
when Lew had already left for New Mexico.
That Ben-Hur sat so long in prayer at the feet of Christ
that he reincarnated as James Whitcomb Riley.
That ocelots and armadillos from Texas
roamed nighttimes north from Galveston, from Corpus Christi,
to become polecats and possums in Indiana.

5.    Dear You-Knew-the-Poor-from-Wheeling-on-the-Other-Side-of-the-River:
The strippers at Poor John’s in Fort Wayne, Jim,
eat a late night meatloaf at Liberty Diner,
north on Old U.S. 30. The weight of the open road.
The weight of so much beauty
dancing here, then there. Of the curves
as they circuit town to town. The voluptuous
drift of a late-night radio voice in the car
with them between towns. Inserted, sideways, 
into their lives. Fort Wayne to Muncie. Muncie to Noblesville,
the outskirts of Indianapolis. The weight
of their breasts making solitary men
in the diner almost communal,
though their bra straps expand with the sag of tedious notes
of a favorite song to which they dance over and again
and have brought, here, to quiet, 
in the 3 a.m. coffee and smoke
of this all-night place where the all-night
plates are placed solemnly before them.                       

6.     Once Again, Jim:
Yesterday, yes, a stray hound wandered right through the front door
of Fort Wayne’s Three Rivers
Food Co-op. He could have been from Minneapolis
or Saint Paul, or even Martins Ferry,
Ohio. From within the wind whipping you
here to there. No tags. No home.
The tantalizing scent of the café. Cases of cheese.
As if being lonely was love enough to eat.
His bloodline likely coming all the way
from Arkansas. From Tennessee.
You have to tell some weathers
when to snow and when to sun themselves
in the hurricane heart of the mouth. The street is full
of such advice. The homeless know. I heard one
clerk at the Co-op say, recoiling
as if wind-slapped in the face, No dogs allowed
in the swampy dark of the heart

7.    Dear Like-a Life-Folded-Within-a-Life:
I want to live in Indiana as if the land was not sick
of being sick. Sand hickory. Hawthorne. Black walnut. Elm.
I want the moon in my throat.
Slantwise. White pools of moon-leaves
shimmering like coins I might grant the poor,
if the poor, by God, grant me my mouth.
Badger. Bobcat. Possum. Skunk.
All the animal dead that live again
in this body. In yours. In the vast
in-between. These ribs. This salt of sound.
How what we lose loves us most.
How a bawl-mouthed howl at the base of a tree might crawl
the riverous veins of leaves. The way an excited pack of hounds,
leaping and trembling, their long toenails scarring
the bark against which they lunge, clamor
for the elusive coon to come down,
to finally give up, to give its shivering self up,
—as all frightened things eventually must—
to all the quivering below that caused it to tree.

(for James Wright)

This is a segment from James Wright's Ohio, a 30 minute film by Tom Koba and Larry Smith featuring two of James Wright's poems with visual story images: "A Flower Passage" and "Beautiful Ohio." Also included are statements from Wright and William Matthews.


Words becoming "Living by the Red River."
Image from The Paris Review.

From The Paris Review's The Art of Poetry No. 19 in the summer of 1975. James Wright interviewed by Peter A. Stitt

“I’m afraid I have to admit that I cannot escape it, and to that extent I regard it as a kind of curse. I’ve thought that many a time. Why the hell couldn’t I have been a carpenter or a handyman?”





George's seven all-time favorite James Wright poems:

From Poemhunter.com:

(Poemhunter hosts a marvelous collection of Wright's work, with links to 40 poems. Also, PoetryExplorer.com provides a wide-ranging list of links to over 90 of Wright's poems!)

From Poets.org:

James Wright reads his work, with commentary. (57 minutes)

About George Kalamaras:

 Photo by Jim Whitcraft

Photo by Jim Whitcraft

George Kalamaras is a former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014-2016) and has published fifteen books of poetry, eight of which are full-length, including The Mining Camps of the Mouth (2012), winner of the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM Chapbook Award, Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck (2011), winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Contest, and The Theory and Function of Mangoes (2000), winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series. He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.

Meet George (and his beagle Bootsie, among other animal presences) in an audio interview at Radio Free Albion. The interview celebrates, in part, issue 13 of Court Green, including George's poem “Dream in Which Kenneth Rexroth Counts to Eight.” Follow George on YouTube, the Indiana Poet Laureate page on Facebook, and at the Wabash Watershed.

* * *

Read George Kalamaras's other letters to:

·         John Haines

·         Dan Gerber

·         Li Ch'ing-chao 

·         Richard Hugo (2018, and also in 2014)

·         Federico García Lorca

·         Bill Tremblay

·         Gerrit Lansing

·         Robert Bly

·         Judith Emlyn Johnson

·         Ray Gonzalez

Thanks, George, for bringing these voices to us through your own

* * *

Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit our submissions page or email cutbankonline@gmail.com for more information.

A summertime side trip to the Bitterroot with Peter Papathanasiou

"This is rugged cowboy territory, terrain for game-hunting and songwriting. It reminds me of home in many ways, of the vast, panoramic outback of Australia, which has big skies of its own."

Photo by Peter Papathanasiou

Caught by the Bitterroot River

by Peter Papathanasiou

And so, I find myself caught by the Bitterroot River in southwestern Montana. My mentor, Irv Weissman, is a world-renowned scientist who owns a ranch there, and every summer takes his entire research group for a retreat. It’s a chance to unwind, to eat barbecue and drink beer around a campfire, and also to fish in the pristine waterway that cuts through the Bitterroot Valley.

Photo by Peter Papathanasiou

Irv is the son of a hardware store owner and grandson of a fur trader. His grandfather emigrated from Russia a hundred years ago to avoid being drafted by the czar during the First World War. Arriving as an immigrant at Ellis Island, he made his way west across America, eventually settling in Big Sky Country with family. Born in Great Falls, Irv’s great love is biology. It’s been his career and helped him see the world. He’s published over eight hundred scientific papers, given testimony before the US Congress on the merits of stem cell research, and even spoken with presidents on the topic. But even then, Irv still seems to prefer to talk about fishing, and especially in his beloved Bitterroot River.

After a short early morning flight from San Francisco to Seattle, and an even shorter flight to Missoula, our group is bundled aboard a long yellow school bus and taken to the ranch. On the way, I see enormous mountain ranges and pickup trucks, and stores in Hamilton selling guns and guitars. This is rugged cowboy territory, terrain for game-hunting and songwriting. It reminds me of home in many ways, of the vast, panoramic outback of Australia, which has big skies of its own. Alighting from the bus, I hear wild rushing water splashing over rocks, and feel instantly at ease. Our host is already down by the water, clad in his trusty stocking-foot waders, indulging his love of fly fishing. I’m anxious to go down and see the indomitable river that Irv has spoken of so fondly but am instead given instructions to unpack, change into outdoor gear, and return to the bus. Is this a retreat or boot camp?

We’re soon trucked to the nearby Bitterroot Range, which forms part of the imposing Rocky Mountains. It’s a tiring two-hour hike to the peak, past fallen pine trees and isolated lookout towers, but the views from the top are sweeping and spectacular. Craggy peaks, snow-capped even in the middle of summery August. There’s very little snow in Australia, and it’s gone by spring. Squinting into the distance, I think I can see Idaho. Raptors circle majestically overhead, grand, exotic birds with broad wings that I’m only familiar with as national symbols, bald eagles and hawks and falcons. It’s an unexpectedly awe-inspiring sight. For a brief moment, America makes a little more sense to me.

Photo by Peter Papathanasiou

Knees aching, we descend the mountain, badly sunburnt and slightly dehydrated. A few of my more weary colleagues fall asleep on the bus on the drive back to the ranch. They retreat groggily to their beds on arrival, in need of an afternoon nap before the evening’s festivities begin. The rest change into swimmers and wetsuits and grab truck tire inner tubes for a float down the river. But I don’t. I grab a water bottle and notepad and go sit by the water’s edge to watch a master at work.

Photo by Peter Papathanasiou

Clad in khakis, long-sleeved blue shirt, baseball cap and fishing vest, I find Irv up to his thighs in river water. Over his shoulder, ring-necked ducks float gently across the surface, occasionally plunging their heads under for a fossick and feed. The afternoon sun reflects off the river, making it shine like glass, slick and solid, but silky and wild. I kick off my sandals and feel the day’s residual warmth in the smooth white river stones beneath my toes. The sensation is not dissimilar to a relaxing foot massage, and instantly makes me smile.

Irv sees me, waves; I wave back. I decide to keep my distance, to observe the proud Montanan in his element. He flicks his wrist expertly, back and then forward, casting his line out before lowering it down so that the grasshopper fly lands precisely as desired. I’m reminded for a moment of my late father and his own love of fishing. I was only a young boy at the time, being dragged reluctantly on excursions to lakes and rivers, to sit and watch Dad do nothing for hours on end. At the time, I wanted to run and jump and ride my bike, and didn’t understand the invisible tug-of-war at play, and the understated appeal of man versus nature. My current day colleagues don’t seem to grasp it either; having successfully obtained paddles and pale ales, they soon disappear down the river on their inner tubes, their sprightly voices growing fainter as the current carries them away.

I see Irv smile at their boundless youthful energy before returning to his more peaceful pastime. Now approaching eighty, he no doubt sees life is a marathon, not a sprint, and knows that moments are best savoured when the pace is slow, unrushed. My dad, who lived to eighty-six, did too. And besides, all that noise and activity was scaring the fish.

Photo by Peter Papathanasiou

The US government classifies the Bitterroot River is a Blue Ribbon trout fishery, with a healthy population of native rainbow and brown trout. Cutthroat trout are plentiful too, so much so that they gave Irv’s homestead its name: the Cutthroat Ranch. Many glorious cutthroat trout have found their way onto his line over the years, and I try to picture them gliding like eels beneath the waterline, tempted by the brightly coloured lure drifting tastily above their heads. But none take the bait on this particular day, which leaves Irv bereft of both a catch and a story that he would otherwise have retold around the campfire. The seasoned angler strokes his irongrey beard, eyes the angle of the setting sun, checks his watch, and reluctantly calls it a day. With darkness approaching, pairs of glowing eyes will soon start appearing beside the river, most likely deer, moose and elk, to lap at the cool, clear water. Irv doesn’t want to be around in case those eyes should happen to belong to a hungry grizzly bear otherwise in search of its own haul of robust Montanan trout. And nor do I.

Pocketing a few smaller river stones as souvenirs, I make my way back to the ranch, following a respectful distance behind Irv who walks slowly with fly rod slung over his shoulder. I suspect he knows there’s always tomorrow – another opportunity to chance his luck in the mighty Bitterroot River that flows through his very backyard.



Pete and his Stanford University research mentor Professor Irving L. Weissman published five research papers together between 2007 and 2015.

Peter Papathanasiou was born in a small village in northern Greece and adopted as a baby to an Australian family. His writing has been published by The New York Times, New York Post, The Guardian UK, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Good Weekend, The Canberra Times, The Herald Sun, SBS, The Huffington Post, Neos Kosmos, Frankie, The Pigeonhole, Caught by the River, Structo, 3:AM Magazine, Elsewhere Journal, Litro, Meanjin, Overland, Going Down Swinging, Verity La and Tincture Journal, and reviewed by The Times Literary Supplement. He holds an MA in creative writing from City, University of London, and has lived in New York, California, London, Greece and Australia.

The Bitterroot along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, near Lolo, Montana. US Forest Service photo, by Roger Peterson

J. Matthew Gottwig's "Tether" wins the Montana Prize in Fiction!

We are thrilled to announce that J. Matthew Gottwig's "Tether" is this year's winner in the Montana Prize in Fiction, chosen by Monica Drake. Congratulations! 

J. Matthew Gottwig is a Montana native now living in Baltimore, MD with his wife and kids. He works for the University of Maryland library system and is pursuing his MFA from the University of Baltimore.

In addition to a $500 prize, Gottwig's's winning work will appear in CutBank 89, our summer 2018 issue.

Find J. Matthew Gottwig on
Twitter: https://twitter.com/jgottwig
Insta: https://www.instagram.com/jeremy.m.gottwig/
And at http://www.strangeshuttle.com/


Judge Monica Drake selected "Tether":

"...for the way it navigates a space between human connection and disconnection, between the individual and community, between love and terror. A child’s mortality holds a family together, which happens every day, but in this case the author has carried the question into the realm of the inexplicable, the supernatural or spiritual, raising questions of how we understand our world and how we live with ourselves and each other. It reaches a beautiful moment by the ending, without ever overly resolving the intangible qualities. I appreciate this story."

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Meet Monica Drake: "I have an MFA from the University of Arizona and teach at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. My debut Novel, Clown Girl, is published by the amazing indie press, Hawthorne Books, and has won an Eric Hoffer Award as well as an IPPY. It’s been translated into Italian, and recently optioned for film by the brilliant Kristen Wiig (SNL, Bridesmaids). My most recent novel, The Stud Book, is now out (Hogarth Books, April 2013) and doing great." (From monicadrake.com)

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We also send warm thanks to all the fine writers who entered this year, and a special congratulations to all our finalists:

  • Michael Pearce
  • Susan Lowell
  • Heather Aruffo
  • &
  • Ashish Kaul

More winners!

Tammy Delatorre, Winner of the Montana Prize in Creative Nonfiction

Freesia McKee, Winner of the Patricia Goedicke Prize for Poetry

Tammy Delatorre's "I Am Coming for You" takes this summer's Montana Prize in Creative Nonfiction!

We are thrilled to announce that Tammy Delatorre's "I Am Coming for You" is this year's winner in the Montana Prize in Creative Nonfiction, chosen by Sarah Gerard. Congratulations! 

In addition to a $500 prize, Delatorre's winning work will appear in CutBank 89, our summer 2018 issue.

Tammy Delatorre lives in Los Angeles. Her writing has received numerous literary awards, including the Payton Prize and the Slippery Elm Prose Prize. More of her essays and stories can be found at www.tammydelatorre.com.

Follow Delatorre on Twitter @tammydelatorre,  and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tammy.delatorre.1


Judge Sarah Gerard had this to say about Delatorre's work: 

“I Am Coming for You” is a bloody, vivid, gut-wrenching account of inherited violence, abandonment, and reckoning. It’s the kind of story that demands to be told in spite of, or maybe because of, the courage it takes to write it. Rage and sadness pulse through it like a heartbeat through an umbilical cord.

Judge Sarah Gerard is the author of the essay collection Sunshine State, the novel Binary Star, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times first fiction prize, and two chapbooks, most recently BFF. Her short stories, essays, interviews, and criticism have appeared in The New York TimesGranta, The Baffler, ViceBOMB Magazine, and other journals, as well as anthologies. She’s been supported by fellowships and residencies from Yaddo, Tin House, PlatteForum, Ucross, and Pocoapoco. She writes a monthly column for Hazlitt and teaches writing in New York City.

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We also send warm thanks to all the fine nonfiction authors who entered this year, and a special congratulations to all our finalists:

  • Melissa Connelly
  • Charlotte Gullick
  • Kristin Keane
  • Jacquelyn Connelly

More winners!

J. Matthew Gottwig, Winner of the Montana Prize in Fiction

Freesia McKee, Winner of the Patricia Goedicke Prize for Poetry