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STILL ALIVE TO TELL THE TALE: An Interview with Don Bajema, Author of Winged Shoes and a Shield

by Frank Haberle

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Last October, City Lights Books published Don Bajema’s collection of 46 stories, Winged Shoes and a Shield. These luminous, closely-connected stories follow the coming of age of Eddie Burnett, who survives his violent San-Diego-military-family childhood only by learning to land a punch as artfully as he has learned to take one. Bajema is a master storyteller; he weaves characters and landscapes around Eddie with the patience and perspective of a man who has seen much of this world (before Winged Shoes, he has been an accomplished athlete, performance artist, writer, and actor on stage and screen). In a brief interview, Bajema reveals some of his thoughts on how Winged Shoes took shape.

Question: Winged Shoes and a Shield is a closely woven, interconnected string of boy-to-man stories, not necessarily told in chronological order, and told in several different voices. But the stories hold together, circle each other and tell what feels like a complete, heartbreaking tale of survival. Why did this come to you as a collection of short stories? Why not a novel?

Don Bajema: I see life as a series of vignettes that we put in some kind of order to counter the chaos that life, or living through time seems to me to be. So the idea of putting them in some kind of random order hoping that there was some element inside each that connected them together. That’s the theoretical perspective...practically I was very late in the performance of my own work compared to other more seasoned writer performers--I took my first reading tour throughout Europe with Lydia Lunch and Henry Rollins both very seasoned and very formidable performers. I had a few shows under my belt from San Francisco--and I thought if I found a set that that was satisfactory I’d be cheating myself of the experience--so I wrote a new piece for every night. These became the collection for my first book. I’m working on a novel now, it’s impossible--so hard--so challenging--and a great opportunity to learn another form.

Q: Eddie Burnett, the protagonist of your collection, appears at different stages in his life to be deeply affected by violence- both the violence he receives at the hands of his PTSD, alcoholic father and others; and the violence he doles out later in life in a boxing ring, on a football field, and in a series of drug deals gone bad.  How would you describe how violence shapes Eddie? And even though he screws up repeatedly, hurting himself and others- why do we find ourselves rooting for him?

DB: I’m surprised that people respond to Eddie and root for him to the extent they seem to-he’s a character based on my friends and some aspects of my own life. Eddie is both worse and better than I remember
myself to be. His name is taken literally from rock-a-billies Eddie (Cochran) and (the Johnny Burnette trio) Burnett. 

Violence? Well, Eddie is American. The piece set on the Gettysburg battle field is there because I think that Cain and Abel horror formed the American Male Psyche to a much, much greater extent that we realize. Violence shapes us all in contemporary America. And I’d go further and say we as a species are enormously consciously violent. I read Robert Ardrey’s book African Genesis as an eighth grader and it set a platform for how I see our species. We are very violent primates, conscious and struggling with our predicament. But we are also a very young species and so there’s hope.

Originally the title of my first book was going to be from a story set in Mexico with Eddie as a young man--who declares “Seems to me that all the other things we worship--what we say is sacred--doesn’t compare to violence--seems to me with the wars and the wife beatings and the standards we set for manhood that the Only Thing Sacred..is violence. Look at the cross--that ain’t violence?”

Q: In ‘The Wives Took Turns’ you really capture what post-traumatic stress disorder is all about, from the perspectives of the families that are trying to help their GI husbands. And in several related stories like ‘Joyce’ you paint a picture of a caravan of broken families in trailers trying to find their place back in America after making sacrifices in the service. Does the world you described still exist? Are military communities as cut off from mainstream America today, as they were 50 years ago?

DB: I don’t want to be the most depressing interview ever printed, but, yes, of course that claustrophobic, terrifying world of behind-closed-doors violence against women and children exists.  And it’s probably worse today. We have football players putting shotguns to their hearts because of Sunday afternoons spent garnering the worship of the whole country for blasting into incomprehensible impact. The biggest pay day you can get is in the Heavy Weight Ring beating the brains out of another man while women jump in their seats and men project their fantasies The suicide rate of American soldiers returning from these abysmal stupid, needless, archaic wars we’ve fought recently is a sad sign of the ‘raising of consciousness’ these men and women are killing themselves instead of perpetuating the violence that has destroyed their hearts and minds. When you send men and now women into combat to defend our ‘freedom’—national interest---money essentially, you are committing the greatest sin mankind can commit. Yes, it’s as bad or worse than it ever was—the traumas are deeper the consciousness less innocent.

Q: There’s so much heartbreak in these stories but ‘Cleanliness is Next to...’ was a real gut punch--about the first time Eddie challenges his father’s rage, with obvious results. It’s the first time I really started to understand what Eddie has been bashing his head against in the previous 3/4 of the collection-and this story appears near the end. Why?

DB: I can’t discriminate between the violence and heartbreak of one story from another but to me the order of the revelations are part of the idea of what a mystery this problem is, why are we like this, what can we do about it? Is it so, plainly and evidently true that religions have based themselves on the idea that we as human beings possess the potential for being angels and devils--to simplify some of our struggle. Do we seek out stages, like battlefields, in order to play out that drama “I’d die for you...” drama? It’s weird. And the saving grace is, in fact, love. But what is love? I’m as confused as anybody.

Q: Some of the most vivid scenes for me came when Eddie found new ways to challenge himself through sports, like the track scenes in the ‘Boy In The Air’ stories and the football scenes in ‘Bucephelous.’ From your bio, I learned that you were accomplished in both sports. How did your sports experience prepare you for life as an artist and writer?

DB: Immersion-I was immersed in the surf, in the moment of the race, in the adrenalized reality of stadiums… fact was, if I wasn’t an athlete I’d have been anonymous… and to be anonymous was tantamount to death for me. I was adopted, I missed my mother.. years later I realized I was auditioning for her acceptance by winning races, defying gravity in jumps, making circus catches… rising to the occassion… and later I was hoping she was somewhere in the dark sitting in the audience at shows, or listening somehow...as it turned out I was reunited by the Newfoundland post-adoption services (four years after a stop-over in St. John’s from a reading date in Toronto) and the first thing I did was send her these collections...they didn’t let us speak at first we could only communicate by mail...like mutual prisoners...anyway...the first thing I sent her was this collection and a letter and a recorded tape of Glenn Miller and Peggy Lee’s “Where or When”...her reply was “There’s a lot of Eddie in me.” And as I got to know her, and my six brothers and sisters...it’s plain there is. But that’s another story for another book someday.

Q-Eddie grows up a very different world than today-- an early 1960’s Southern California, and an America, that probably seems very alien to many of your readers. It is a wild and dangerous place. What kinds of reactions do you receive from your audience when you give public readings, or when people read your work? Have you met people who connect with and understand Eddie’s world? 

DB: Last week I did a reading down in the Lower East Side at a place called The Cake Shop...the audience was packed with young hipsters, people who read, people who attend poetry readings and mixed performance venues, people I love actually. I read my work with my close friend and constant collaborator Pete Sinjin--a masterful song writer, performer in his own right--we work together under an umbrella “Rope Swing Productions” with a logo of one of our four kids swinging over a summer pond, letting go and suspended over the water somewhere on ‘the road’. Anyway, that night we performed with a song, Pete did the first and last stanza respectively at the beginning and end of our set--he gets the audience to clap along--(can you believe it?) and the song was one I’ve used for years off and on since it terrified the crap out of me as a young man on the trailer parks filled with distressed veterans-- Tennesee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons” the post war anthem of American angst… “you see me coming, better step aside, a lot of men didn’t, a lot of men died, one fist of iron, the other of steel, if the right one don’t get ya, then the left one will..."--terrifying--in fact Pete rehearsed it with his own boy Tucker at his feet...aged 5..same as me back in 1955 and it scared him too.

Anyway, I joined the chorus (though I can’t sing, but I can holler) and I read “My Dad Cured Me of Guns” from the book and a contemporary tribute piece for my father. The audience loved it, they understand, same as you posed the question do I think the predicament from those 50’s and 60’s days exist today...they know they do, they are in the fight to stop the cycle, they are snared in the cycle and they relate...but I’m sixty-three now, gray white hair, not entirely decrepit but not the young buck I was as Eddie Burnett (though I am in the midst of writing a contemporary Eddie for those inspired people at City Lights, Elaine, Stacey, Lawrence and all) and I find I’m in the revered age now, women who would have had me doing back flips a few decades ago, come up, doe-eyed, lush hair, smooth even smiles and say things like “Sir,” and mention “..honor..” and stop just short of “when I’m your age..” (thank God)...but the young men with them, spinning under their spell, as I did once, anxious to take their hand and run out of the poetry night to another bar to drink and talk and pursue their ‘youthful energies’ do say, “when I’m your age.”..and the like. I love those kids (in their 30’s even early 40’s...late 20’s) so many of them highly educated, far in advance of me in so many ways...but, yeah, they relate, they connect, they give me a lot of love..and you can’t imagine what that’s like from a man who can remember trailer parks in western New York… surf and sand in 63, the draft and dodging it, Mexico smuggling (I was afraid dodging the war might make me a coward so I carried my .45 on my own agenda in the Tecate hills) ...

I was in love and out of it a few times, stayed when I should have left, left when I might have stayed, won a few, lost a few. And I am still alive to ‘tell the tale.’ And I would say to anyone wanting to write--your story is legitimate for the telling. Every one of you.

To purchase “Winged Shoes and a Shield” go to http://www.citylights.com



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Frank Haberle won the 2011 Pen Parentis Award for his short story South of Hartford; his other stories have appeared in numerous print and online magazines. Frank is a grantwriter working with New York City social service organizations. He is a Board member and workshop leader for the NY Writers Coalition, a nonprofit group developing writing communities in prisons, youth centers, senior centers and social service programs throughout New York City.