Sneak Peek: Cities I've Never Lived In by Sara Majka


Next year we will publish Cities I’ve Never Lived In, a debut collection of short stories by Sara Majka.  It’s the second book in Graywolf’s collaboration with the literary journal A Public Space.  (The first was Dorthe Nors’ Karate Chop, which won great acclaim last year.)

As with recent books by Ben Lerner, Karl Ove Knausgård, and Rachel Cusk, Sara’s work rides a line between experience and imagination, fact and fiction, in focussing on a narrator who uses storytelling as a means of working through the world.  She is a young New England woman whose life must begin again in the wake of a divorce, and the stories she narrates are bold and intimate, upending our ideas of love and belonging.

Exciting early praise for Cities I’ve Never Lived In has been arriving in our inboxes at a steady pace in the last few weeks.  Kelly Link describes the book as “a collection that leaves you longing — as one longs to return to much loved, much missed homes and communities and cities — for places that you, the reader have never been. Prodigal with insight into why and how people love and leave, and love again.  Humane, dazzling, and knowing.”  Salvatore Scibona, meanwhile, says that, “like Alice Munro and Raymond Carver, Sara Majka writes stories of people on society’s ragged edge — in money trouble, work trouble, heart trouble—and does so with tremendous subtlety and a grave sophistication all her own.  Every one of the spare sentences in this book is heavy with implication and insight.  It’s impossible to read these stories too closely."

We couldn’t agree more!  Cities I’ve Never Lived In doesn’t launch in bookstores until February 16, but a sneak peak from the title story is available for you below.

                                                                                                                                            —Brigid Hughes, Editor, A Public Space 


During the trip, the lover I had left behind in New York had stopped calling. I was glad to be traveling, for the movement it gave me, but I was uncertain how my life would be when I got home. I didn’t want another period of instability, and I felt the suspension one feels when you’re fine, but you’re worried it won’t last, and there’s nothing you can do to make it stay.

I had come up with the idea years before—when I first became interested in soup kitchens. I made the plan to travel the U.S., going to small interior cities and going to kitchens there. I had volunteered in kitchens in the past and had found it comforting. I would work for a few hours and then would sign my name and get in line and eat, scrunched over, not poor enough to eat there if I hadn’t worked, but not a volunteer doing it out of goodness. Lost, probably, in ways that made me more comfortable in places like those—the church halls, the Styrofoam plates, the trays, the gentle feeling of caretaking and cafeteria lines—and lost perhaps in ways understandable to those around me.

I didn’t get far in the trip, however, before I became unsure why I was doing it. My first city was Buffalo and I arrived late, by train, taking a taxi to the hostel. The next day I walked to a mobile kitchen that was supposed to be parked outside the library at 7 p.m., but it was already gone when I arrived. I decided to stay an extra night so that I could go to the kitchen the next day, at the time the kitchen now arrived. The next day I stood in line to get the plastic bag that held dinner. A woman carried a box with more food—baggies filled with granola bars and crackers—and people took those as she passed. When she came to me, I said that I only wanted the food there, pointing to where dinner bags were being passed down. I was surprised to hear my voice, that vulnerability that was of such little help usually, but it was honest in that line, honest and understandable. No, it’s okay, the woman said gently, this is food, too. I took the bag of snacks, and, when it came time, took the plastic bag that held dinner.

I carried the food into the library. Holding the bags changed how I felt about myself. It made me feel more vulnerable or exposed or fragile. For a number of years I had been struggling to hold myself together, though I had worked to disguise this, and now carrying the thin bags made this visible, made people look at me. I walked around the library until I found the café. I asked the man working the register if I could eat there, and he said yes. Dinner was bland macaroni with tomato sauce and meatballs. There was also a turkey sandwich and cookies for the bus the next day.

After, I stood in the foyer. Windows overlooked the street where the mobile kitchen had been. It was gone now, and I felt the loss of it, as if I had not done it properly and wanted to try again. Others waited there. An older black man asked if I was waiting for a bus. No, I said. He then assumed I was waiting for a ride. No, I said, I’m just here.