The Great Color Master: Aimee Bender

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As I finished the spellbinding namesake story of the book, The Color Master, written by my old mentor, Aimee Bender, I became nostalgic. The evocative story of a color mixer in a kingdom far, far away pulled me back to the time we read “In the Reign of Harad IV” in Aimee’s undergrad writer-in-the-community workshop. I don’t know how to pinpoint my exact emotive mood after reading this magical, succulent story, but there’s a deep shifting of circularity that happened once I put the book down. Let me explain:

In that undergrad workshop, we would have these seminars, these moments in class of thinking and pondering and preparing writing prompts and writing assignments and writing lessons that we would bring to the kids across the street from USC, an inner-city school filled with wonderful children who were brown and black and cinnamon, all who had faces that resembled my own. As we taught these writing lessons for eight weeks, we practiced them in class, in our seminars: we wrote fables, stories, narratives all strange and funny and unusual like our students’ tales.

Here’s two I’ve kept over the years. They’re still dear to me and haunt my heart:

ONE DAY I WOKE UP IN MEXICO
by Kenneth Sorto

One day I woke up in Mexico. I had my big soft PJs. I saw a guy drowning and a puppy was laughing at him. The guy got mad. He got a gun and shot lots of people and jumped in the swimming pool. Then after that the puppy dived in the pool. He couldn’t swim so he bit someone’s leg so they could know he is drowning. The puppy bit a strong man’s leg, but the man didn’t feel a thing, so the puppy died. And in his funeral are bunnies that play music for the dead even if these bunnies are dead. The bunnies are Kenneth, Sergio, and Rene–the Sortos. But we are not dead.

MELISSA
by Ashleigh Ross

One day this girl got married. Her name was Melissa. She got a divorce with her husband fifteen years after they got married. Her husband’s name was Daniel and he was a wizard. Daniel got sick and tired of Melissa talking about her long brown hair. Daniel got tired of Melissa and screamed at her in front of their daughter Alex. Then Alex started bragging about her long blonde hair. Then fifteen years later she turned thirty. Years later she got married to Kenneth and they had a beautiful daughter named Susan, who was turning into a mom. Alex’s dad turned Melissa into a bald eagle then turned his daughter into a bald eagle, too. They looked like humans before they turned into bald eagles.

There was this intrinsic circularity happening whenever we taught and wrote these stories. The stories they wrote were joyful and hilarious to read, but also haunting, also disturbing; they switched and morphed into little creatures we didn’t know how to digest but loved. The stories I wrote during that workshop were also strange and nonsensical, magical almost. But they were infant and immature and discolored, not as magical as the stories of our students, or as Aimee Bender’s.

To churn our imaginations, Aimee also had us read other color masters, like Haruki Murakami and Steven Millhauser. Once, after we read Millhauser’s “Harad IV,” a tale of another kingdom far, far away, but one about a maker of miniatures, she asked us to ponder and chew on the story’s evoking ending line:

The maker of miniatures, knowing that they had seen nothing, that their words were hollow, and that they would never visit him again, returned with some impatience to his work; and as he sank below the crust of the visible world, into his dazzling kingdom, he understood that he had travelled a long way from the early days, that he still had far to go, and that, from now on, his life would be difficult and without forgiveness.”

As insecure and confused undergrads, we all piped our answers, tried our hardest to impress the great Aimee Bender, the true Color Master in our eyes. After a moment of silence, as this question unwrapped and unraveled in our heads, I raised my hand and said: “Forgiveness… Forgiveness for his art?”

Her, sage-like, smiled back: “But without forgiveness… Why without forgiveness? Why a ‘life […] difficult and without forgiveness?'”

Back then, I couldn’t answer her. I sat there, dumbfounded, and tried to unravel the line: “[H]e understood that he had travelled a long way from the early days, that he still had far to go…”

I knew, as a naive 22 year old, that I wanted, that I desperately needed, to be a writer, and that I had a long, narrow road ahead of me. Now, four years later and two years of taking seminar after seminar on writing, on pondering and thinking and deconstructing writing, I still don’t have an answer, an answer that is solid, opaque, and clear. Difficult, I could understand. Without forgiveness, I could also digest: the price I’ve paid to get where I am today, the amount of work I’ve sweated and bled; this is what I can tangibly see, understand. But the why? The why troubled me back then, and the why troubles me today.

But when I finished her ending section of “The Color Master,” as I continue to write into the night and for long hours that are alone and lonely, I feel as if I’m closer. Closer to a pigment of an answer, to the convoluted, messy, but luminous gradient that reveals, unwraps, what an artisan’s life is like: difficult and without forgiveness. A life that carries on, a life that doesn’t stop once the text disappears, an emotional truth that ends with a line like this:

The rest of the story–known, I’m told, as ‘Donkeyskin’–is hers.”

My journey is my own, however difficult and unforgiving it is, however long and exhausting it will become. This story, the rest of it, the why of it, what I know of it: it’s unknown, but it’s mine every step through.

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