In today’s ORIGINS, Austin Ross discusses the origins of his story, “The Hands Which Hang Down,” which appeared recently in jmww
This story initially came to me over fifteen years ago in a dream. My dreams don’t often lead to stories so much as help me solve problems within stories (if that), but this one emerged nearly fully-formed in my head. I wrote the first draft, originally called “All the Lonely People,” within a year or two of having that dream. If you read “The Hands Which Hang Down,” you might be surprised to hear that my very first rough draft was actually a story about zombies.
Let me explain. As with dreams, and stories, and lives, things change and shift beneath our feet as time passes. What once interested us in a story is there one day and gone the next. The dream I had involved a series of underground fight clubs where one zombie and one survivor were placed in a metal cage where they would fight to the death. However, the story fell flat—probably because at the time, I was more interested in writing a story about zombies than I was in writing a story about human nature, which is what it was really about.
I trunked this story for a long time, but when I finally came back around to the central idea sometime in 2016, it seemed to me that not only had my own perspective and interests changed, but so had the world. The idea came to me that instead of writing a story about zombies being put in cages, perhaps I ought to write about immigrants. This formed the backdrop of the central story of Thomas and Alicia, this idea of the steady erosion of human freedom.
Now, you might notice that, reading the story as it stands now, there’s no mention of anything at all along the lines of cages or fight clubs, and that’s for one simple reason: it wasn’t necessary. I’d included a few paragraphs explaining the trajectory of the move from illegal immigrants to legal immigrants to the children of immigrants—that the world and human nature are, unchecked, cruel things and capable of great evil. The trouble is that we all know this and these paragraphs only served to distract from the two people I was writing about, and so I cut it.
Like I said, this story was ultimately about human nature, and human nature is a mess. Contained within us are both horrors and wonders, and each day we revise our own story. History is nothing if not a series of revisions. Much of our lives are revisions of the lives of our parents, or revisions of previous relationships, prior failures. As a parent, each day is a revision of the one before, trying to figure out how best to raise a child when the ground keeps shifting beneath your feet. Add to this the idea that most national and international policy is not new so much as revised versions of old ideas; the same concepts being recycled over and over again, tweaked for the modern age to see if perhaps this time they’d really work, if this time they’d really fool us.
In the back of my mind as I wrote this story was the fact that it seems to me that we now live in an intensely revisionist age, one that operates at a speed previously unheard of—the daily erosion of faith in such a thing as truth is perhaps the greatest example—but this is not true. It’s at times like this when looking to history can be both encouraging and horrifying. To know that we are not the first, and likely won’t be the last, generation to ask these questions of ourselves. That truth will ultimately prevail. My wife and I recently watched the excellent mini-series, Chernobyl, and there’s a great line right at the end: “Each lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.” We have incurred a great deal of debt over the last decade (and longer), and it will soon go to collection.
Early on in the drafting process of the story in its current form, I decided to make Thomas and Alicia Jewish. I thought that perhaps making them Jewish rather than something more immediately obvious would highlight the dystopian nature of the story, that these revised concepts we see today of who belongs and who doesn’t ultimately have no end, that, like Ouroboros, this vicious cycle in and of itself is infinite and will ultimately devour everything and everyone—but even this, it seems to me now, is perhaps too tame compared to what we see each day.
Like Thomas and Alicia, we’re faced with a life in which the goalposts never stay in the same spot, where the sand is always shifting beneath our feet. The true origin of this story, and of every story, of our very lives, is found in revision. We change, are surprised by what happens next, strive towards what is better, towards what is true. We come out the other side different than how we went in. This, ultimately, is the work that must be done in our hearts. It’s in the striving and the listening and the understanding of one another that this great work is done. History is revision, and we stand now at a crossroads where the coming revision could go in a number of different directions, most of which we have no control over save for our ability to strengthen the hands which hang down—to love, to strengthen, to lift up, to listen and strive for understanding. It was my intention that this story be dark and somber, but it was not my intention that it be hopeless. Because, just as this story changed with each new word I wrote, the world changes with each small act of kindness and love.
Austin Ross’s fiction and essays have appeared at Hobart, Necessary Fiction, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives near Philadelphia with his wife and son. Follow him on Twitter @AustinTRoss or go to austinrossauthor.com for more.