When Sabrina Orah Mark began to delve into the world of fairy tales, it was Geppetto—who carves his own son from a block of wood—whom she connected with most. “Pinocchio lies to him, steals from him, runs away from him, comes back, saves him, and breaks his heart,” Mark says. It’s a tale as old as time: The things that we create—that lie to us, steal from us, and break our hearts—might be the things that save us in the end.
In a way, it’s what makes Geppetto the most “mother” of all the fairy-tale figures, says Mark, a writing teacher who calls Athens home: “He would do anything to save his son.” The mother of two sons of her own, Mark could relate to Geppetto’s relentless dedication, even if it landed him in the belly of a shark for two years. Mark explores this fairy tale and others—and how they continue to speak to us in the present day—in Happily, her new memoir-ish collection of essays.
Sitting in a window booth of a bustling cafe in Athens, where she’s lived for two decades, Mark projects a sort of storybook presence herself, with long, flowing brown hair and boho jewelry that catches the sun. She first became fascinated with fairy tales after visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance museum in Jerusalem, which features murals by Bruno Schulz depicting figures like Cinderella and Snow White. A Jewish artist in Poland, Schulz was forced by a Nazi officer to create the murals in a playroom for the officer’s children; he was later killed by another Nazi official. Subsequently painted over, the drawings went undiscovered until 2001, when they were restored and moved to the museum. “I was like, ‘Okay, that’s what I want my writing to do,’” Mark says. “I want my writing to be that moment where the past and the present collide.” The 2018 essay Mark wrote about the experience for the Paris Review led to a regular column for the publication, also called “Happily.”
In 2020, two months into the pandemic, one of her essays went viral. Titled “Fuck the Bread. The Bread Is Over,” it detailed Mark’s interview for a professorship, the impossible questions she had to answer, and the ensuing job rejection. “It was something I had written about before, that sense of failure, that sense of being told no, over and over again,” says Mark. “I think there was a moment where the stars aligned: There was the pandemic, where I think for all of us, our touchstone—whatever we considered our touchstone—had totally changed.”
Mark, who grew up in Brooklyn, earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has previously published two books of poetry, Tsim Tsum and The Babies, and the short story collection Wild Milk. In 2003, she moved to Athens to pursue a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia, completing her studies in three years because she wasn’t sure Athens was where she belonged. But eventually she fell in love—both with the UGA English professor and author Reginald McKnight, whom she married, and with the town. “It feels like a place that’s just very nurturing, it’s a place where you can actually be an artist,” Mark says. “I feel like there’s this quietness, and a particular ease of living, incredible neighbors and community.”
Mark had always hoped to be a professor—“I imagined myself in academia forever,” she says—but after rejection upon rejection, she decided to run her own writing school out of her house. She recalls: “I renovated my garage and I literally walked around Athens: ‘Does anyone want to take a writing class?’” Her first class had only two people, the next one had three, then six, then eight—the pandemic forced her to go virtual, which meant she could welcome writers from around the world. “I found so many people who wanted to write, who didn’t want to be inside of a university setting,” says Mark. “They just wanted to find a place where they could somehow articulate those silences.”
Athens is also the place where Mark and McKnight are raising their sons, Noah and Eli. Writing Happily gave her a chance to process the experience of raising two Black Jewish boys in the South, and during a pandemic—its essays inspired by events as tragic as a synagogue shooting or as trivial as an iPad breaking. The latter situation plays out in “U Break It, We Fix It,” in which Mark takes her son’s broken iPad to a store with the same name. The store is unable to repair the tablet so she takes it back home, shattered screen and all, and recalls how in the book of Exodus, the first set of Ten Commandments—i.e., tablets—were broken. Instead of being discarded, they were placed next to the new tablets, which were carried around for 40 years. Mark writes:
I imagine the broken tablets leaning against the unbroken ones telling them secrets only broken things know. I imagine the weight of the broken tablets, and the heat, and the thirst, and the frustration. Why didn’t we just leave the broken tablets behind? What good is all this carrying? To know your history is to carry all your pieces, whole and shattered, through the wilderness. And feel their weight.
Spending time with fairy tales moored Mark. “There’s always a fairy tale waiting to keep us company while we feel the things we’re feeling,” she says. These old stories span time and cultures and capture raw human emotion, whether it’s jealousy, fear, abandonment, or hunger. “I think it allowed me to feel like whatever I was experiencing was completely . . .” She pauses. “Even when it was monstrous, it was human.”
An excerpt from Happily
My son’s teacher pulls me aside to tell me she’s concerned about Noah and the Ghost People.
“Yes,” she says. She is cheerful, though I suspect the main ingredient of her cheer is dread. “Can you encourage Noah to stop bringing them to school?” She is whispering, and she is smiling. She is a close talker and occasionally calls me “girl,” which embarrasses me.
“I don’t know these Ghost People.”
“I don’t think so.”
“He makes them out of the wood chips he finds on the playground. They’re distracting him. He isn’t finishing his sentences.”
“Okay,” I say. “Ghost People.”
She smiles wide. One of her front teeth looks more alive than it should be.
• • •
As a toddler, Noah always had a superhero in one hand and a superhero in the other.
Like the world was a tightrope and the men were his balance pole. Now he makes his own men. Out of pipe cleaners and twigs and paper and Q-tips and string and Band-Aids, but mostly wood chips. I eavesdrop. With Noah there, the Ghost People seem to speak a mix of cloud and wind. They are rowdy and kind. They comfort him. If Adam looked like anything in the beginning, I suspect it would be these wood chips, the color of dry earth. He, too, would be speaking in a language from a place that doesn’t quite exist.
But also I know as Noah gets older the world will make it even more difficult for him to carry these People around.
“For god’s sake,” says my mother, “let him carry the freaking Ghost People around. Who is he hurting?”
“Maybe himself?” I say.
“Why himself?” she asks. “How himself?” “They’re distracting him,” I explain. “From what?”
“From his sentences.”
“Who the hell cares?” says my mother.
• • •
In Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, the first thing Pinocchio does, once his mouth is carved, is laugh at Geppetto. And the first thing he does once his hands are finished is snatch Geppetto’s yellow wig off his head. And the first thing he does once his feet are done is kick Geppetto in the nose, leaving him to feel “more wretched and miserable than he felt in all his life.” If what he is making hurts him, why does Geppetto keep carving? Maybe it’s because before he even began carving, he knew he would call his wooden son Pinocchio. Maybe because Geppetto understands that sometimes the things we create to protect us, to give us good fortune, need first to thin us into a vulnerability where the only thing that can save us are those things that almost erased us. Where the only thing that can bring us back to ourselves is what brought us to the edge of our being in the first place. Or maybe it’s just that Geppetto is lonely.
“What did you do today at school?”
“Nothing,” says Noah.
When I empty his lunch bag, I find three Ghost People inside.
In the world of fairy tales, Geppetto is the mother of all mothers. After jail, beatings, poverty, hunger, and crying, all brought on by his spoiled, lying wooden boy, he still—heartsick—looks for his boy everywhere. They finally unite in the belly of a shark. Pinocchio walks and walks toward a “glow” until he reaches Geppetto, lit by the flame of his last candlestick, sitting at a small dining table eating live minnows. He is now little and old and so white he “might have been made of snow or whipped cream.” Promising to never leave him again, Pinocchio (only a meter tall) swims out of the shark’s mouth, toward the moonlight and the starry sky, with Geppetto on his back. If an old man and a wooden boy ever shared a single birth, it would probably look something like this.
Eli doesn’t make Ghost People, but his pockets are always filled with sticks and leaves. If I were to keep everything my boys have ever found and brought home, I could easily have enough for a whole tree. Maybe even a small forest. When the shooting happened at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018, all I could think about at first was the name of the synagogue. All I could think about was the Tree. I shut the news off fast.
“What happened to the Tree of Life?” asks Noah. “Nothing,” I say. “I think a branch fell.”
I haven’t yet read my boys Pinocchio, the story of a boy carved from a tree, and I don’t tell them about the shooting at the Tree of Life, either. I get an email from our synagogue: “Join Us for Coffee and an Informal Discussion About How We Can Help Our Children Cope With Frightening Situations As Well As Anti-Semitism.” I go to the meeting. At the meeting, one mother maps out the Active Shooter Plan she’s drawn up with the help of her five- and eight-year-olds.
I say I’ve told my boys nothing. Some congregants say I’m keeping my sons in a “bubble.” Another congregant, feeling protective of me, interrupts with the word cocoon. “Cocoon is more like it,” she explains. What she means, I think, is that bubble implies a lack of air, whereas cocoon implies transformation.
“Her boys might not be ready,” says another congregant.
Who is ready? I wonder. At forty-three, I’m not ready. Ready to know we can be burst into smithereens at any moment? Ready to be hated since forever?
An Israeli congregant explains he keeps nothing from his children. He uses the word inoculation. Like if you inject little pieces of horror into your children, they won’t shatter when the horror comes.
I get his point. I shove a piece of cake into my mouth. I shove a piece of cake into my mouth because I can’t shove the entire room into my mouth. Because I can’t shove all the windows, and chairs, and all the parents, and all their fears, and all their children, too. I don’t know how to save anybody.
When I pick Noah up from Sunday school, later that morning, an enormous paper hamsa dangles around his neck by a soft strand of red yarn. The hamsa is brightly colored and beautiful and heartbreaking. “It’s for protection,” says Noah. I watch the other Jewish children spill from the classroom wearing paper hands on their chests, too. “It’s the paper hand of God,” says Noah. He swings the yarn around so now the hamsa is against his back. He is so small, suddenly. He is wearing rain boots, but I don’t remember it raining that day.
My child, I want to say at the meeting at the synagogue, carries Ghost People around so we’ll be fine. I want to say, I haven’t even read my sons Pinocchio yet. I want to say, How many minutes of all our children’s childhoods are left? Instead, I say, “My children ask me if their Black father was ever a slave. They ask me if they will ever be turned into slaves. They ask me if I would ever be turned into a slave for being their mother. As Black Jewish boys, my children will never be in a bubble. But if there was a bubble big enough, I’d move there in a second.” Everyone gets very quiet. “Tell me where the bubble is. Where’s the bubble?”
An excerpt from Happily by Sabrina Orah Mark. Copyright © 2023 by Sabrina Orah Mark. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
This article appears in our March 2023 issue.