Guest Post: And Silent Left the Place: Tall Texas Tale or Moral Exploration? by Elizabeth Bruce

I’d like to welcome Elizabeth Bruce to the blog today to talk about And Silent Left the Place, which was published and re-released in 2021 by the Washington Writers’ Publishing House (purchase the book, here).

Before we get to the guest post, let’s learn more about this book.

About the Book:

A silent old man climbs into his secret hole, burdened by his Great War bargain–his voice for life with his beloved. On this night in April 1963, the burden of silence passes from old to young. The debut novel of Texas native Elizabeth Bruce is a lyric tale of violence, redemption, and love reclaimed through the cruel dry land of Texas.

Please welcome, Elizabeth Bruce:

In my debut novel, And Silent Left the Place (published by Washington Writers’ Publishing House), I crafted, at one level, a mythic, metaphorical, folkloric tall Texas tale. There are wildly theatrical, at times profane, almost circus-like Texas spectacles. There’s a bulldozer ballet, a desert dancehall, and V-Day autoworkers painting all the cars red, white, and blue in jubilee. There are loose horses, rattlesnakes, jack rabbits, coyotes, and a blind dog named Lorraine. There’s Old Man Hopper, the Body Hunter, and his searchlight cracking open the Texas night. There’s a circle of fire, an underground bunker, a New Orleans’ Madam, and the grass Jesus walked on. And there’s Patsy Cline Walkin’ After Midnight and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys wailing about Right or Wrong.

At the same time, in the novel I dove deeply into grievous moral wrong—”sin” in a religious context—and what to do about it. Set in South Texas in April of 1963, Silent revolves around Thomas Riley, an 81-year-old World War One vet who came back from the Great War middle-aged and silent. He can speak, but he doesn’t speak, and Riley’s burden of silence is the mystery of the novel. Over the book’s 24-hour period, a young couple passing through trespasses on a wealthy rancher’s land and sets into motion a cascade of bizarre events that eventually reveals Riley’s secret.

With Washington Writers’ Publishing House’s 2021 release of a new edition of Silent, I’ve revisited the novel’s moral journey, and realized how it was shaped by our friend and fellow artist, the late Mphela Makgoba. For eight years in the 1980s and 90s, my husband, Robert Michael Oliver, and subsequently our two children, shared our home with Makgoba, a fierce South African dissident poet, actor, and freedom fighter who spent 31 years in exile in the USA. He was a ferocious critic of apartheid, of course, but also of the geopolitical forces and nation states that enabled such injustices, the U.S. and the West, most especially. Makgoba and I spent all of those eight years in deep, daily dialogue about these forces and what to do about them. He was the most uncompromised, uncompromising person I have ever met, and he profoundly shaped my understanding of myself, American society, and the broader world.

And all the while I was in dialogue with Makgoba, my writer’s imagination was incubating what ultimately became And Silent Left the Place. Makgoba went home to South Africa in 1995 and he never read my novel, but in many ways its moral investigations are dedicated to him: how to respond to grievous moral wrong?

As the world watched, post-apartheid South Africa, under the extraordinary leadership of the late Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, sought to respond to the atrocities of apartheid. It rejected both the retaliatory “tribunal” response of the Nuremberg Trials and the “national amnesia” response of granting blanket amnesty to all the wrongdoers. Instead, the country pursued a third path: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

What is this path of reconciliation? What is the journey of truth?

While I absolutely—emphatically do not—liken the moral explorations in my short novel in any way to the South African experience, I am reminded of how shaped my moral Geiger counter was by those many years of discourse with Makgoba, as I sought to fathom the radioactivity of human wrongs.

And Silent Left the Place sets forth a backstory of grievous wrong, moral wrong, of “sin” if you will; it offers silence as atonement; it speaks of truth-telling and imagines forgiveness. It even envisions divine retribution—a deux ex machina of sorts—all played out in the cruel, dry land of Texas and the squalid trenches of the Great War. It is often a bleak picture. As I said in my interview with Tom Glenn in the Washington Independent Review of Books, there is “an absence of modern interventions in the narrative arcs of Riley and others. There is no therapy, no drug regimen, no support groups for the traumatized old soldier Tom Riley. No one intervenes to reunite this lonely old man with his beloved wife, Dolores, wherever she is. There are no trials bringing justice to the aggrieved.”

What I aspired to offer in the novel, however, is a vision of possibility, of reconciliation through truth, of forgiveness through atonement, of the reclamation of joy through endurance, and that makes And Silent Left the Place, in my view, a deeply hopeful—if wildly theatrical—book.

Washington Writers Publishing House, in its remarkable generosity to longtime members of the press, has embarked on a journey of issuing new editions of several books published in the press’ 47-year legacy.

In addition to And Silent Left the Place, in 2021 WWPH also issued a new edition of poet Sid Gold’s Working Vocabulary, and in 2022 the press released new editions of poetry books by WWPH Co-Founder Grace Cavalieri—Why I Cannot Take a Lover—and former press President Myra Sklarew—Altamira.

Founded in 1975, WWPH has published over 100 poets and writers, many during their early years of literary work. Published authors become members of the press and volunteer for at least two years supporting its operations. As a nonprofit, cooperative press long dedicated to publishing poetry and literary fiction by writers living within 75 miles of Washington, DC (including Baltimore), WWPH has just expanded its scope to include writers from all of Maryland and Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia.

For the first time, in 2023, WWPH will also include Creative Nonfiction in its annual literary competitions. In 2021, the press published its second anthology in 47 years, This Is What America Looks Like, edited by current Co-Presidents Caroline Bock and Jona Colson, which includes poetry and fiction by 100 writers from D.C., Maryland, or Virginia. Bock and Colson have also launched WWPH Writes, a bi-weekly online journal showcasing the work of many area poets and writers.

Happily, the press’ 2022 publications will soon be released: The Witch Bottle, a new collection by short story writer and speculative novelist Suzanne Feldman, and You Cannot Save Here, a debut collection by Baltimorean queer poet Anthony Moll.

For more information about Elizabeth Bruce or And Silent Left the Place, please visit Elizabeth’s website at https://www.elizabethbrucedc.com.

For more information about Washington Writers’ Publishing House, its catalogue of books, or publication opportunities, go to www.washingtonwriters.org.

Thank you, Elizabeth, for sharing your experiences with us.

Photo credit: K. Whipple Photography

About the Author:

Washington, D.C.-based Texas writer Elizabeth Bruce’s debut novel, And Silent Left the Place (new edition– 2021), won Washington Writers’ Publishing House’s Fiction Award and ForeWord Magazine and Texas Institute of Letters’ distinctions. Her collection, Universally Adored and Other One Dollar Stories, is forthcoming in 2024 from Vine Leaves Press. She’s published in the USA, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, Malawi, Yemen, and The Philippines and studied with Richard Bausch, the late Lee K. Abbott, Janet Peery, John McNally, and Liam Callanan. A former character actor, Bruce has received DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities and McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation Fellowships.