Warm April light bows around the window curtains, slides across a kitchen table, glances off a stovetop where kettles have rattled and steamed through the now receding winter; then it bounces through bookshelves that line an exposed brick wall, and evaporates into a living room framed by couches. The light, now less broken with the turn of spring, seems to have finally found its place in the world, and that place seems to be exactly where we are: on the top floor of a Lower East Side apartment building, on the warmest day of the still burgeoning year.
Tess Congo sits at her kitchen table, facing the window’s light. Her red, flower-adorned headband matches the interior glaze of the teacup she’s cradling in her palms. An expression of honesty and earnestness glows in her smile as she relates the strange coincidence of the Velveteen Rabbit being spoken of twice the previous day. It was her favorite story as a child, and its mention has provided her cause for reflection. What does it mean to be, or become, real? Certainly, her newest short story, “Winter in Persephone,” is peppered with insights to this question, which it explores through the lens of disrupted domesticity, the challenges of living with mental illness, and the role social media plays in our contemporary reality. Tess writes from the perspective of the lives she hasn’t lived, things she thinks she might not know, and decisions that would not be her own. She seeks to enter a space, create a reality for the characters, and see what happens.
We spoke for the next hour, the light from the window like a movie projector, unraveling the wistful, adventurous, and engaging story of how Tess got to New York, and how she’s managed since arriving, illuminating what now seems less a coincidence and more a doorway through which to enter into her world. This is the story of Tess Congo, becoming real.
After awhile, we decided to go for a meander through the Lower East Side, into SoHo, toward Elizabeth Street Garden, one of Tess’ favorite places in the city. Leaving our sweaters and jackets behind us, and letting the late afternoon sun warm our bare arms, we waded through the Saturday sun gazers and street vendors, stopping occasionally to snap a few photos and comment on the passersby.
When we arrived at Elizabeth Street Garden, nestled between buildings on a narrow city block, it was in full bloom. Tulip-lined flower beds breathed colorful bursts beneath an eruption of misty pink tree blossoms. Picturesque groups of city dwellers, newly emboldened by the warm weather, loitered aimlessly, the sun settling around their peaceful words and gestures. Tess posed for a few photographs around the garden. We were mostly silent, taking in the atmosphere of the brilliant late afternoon.
As we were leaving we passed a folding table set up with a spread of literature and a glass jar for donations. Tess informed me that the garden was to be demolished to make way for a new affordable housing development and that the collected donations were meant to contribute to the ongoing fight to keep the garden from quite literally sinking beneath the weight of gentrification. I think both our hearts sank a little as we stepped out onto the sidewalk. The approaching evening seemed a little closer and the air a touch more cool on our arms.
Upon returning to the apartment Tess and I decided to climb her rickety, narrow fire escape to the roof of the adjacent building. I shot a few more photos and we spoke candidly about the day and the coming summer. The cool, pink light from the western horizon washed across the Lower East Side buildings, and we watched as windows shut and curtains closed on the waning day. We wondered if anyone had been watching us, if anyone else wondered who we were, what we were doing, where we were going, or what we would say next.
Tess: I was in yoga yesterday, and it was just about the end of the class. We were in Shavasana (Corpse pose), and the instructor says something like, “What does it mean to be ‘real’ to the rabbit?” And I knew the quote before she read the rest of it because I had it on my Tumblr page in college. The Velveteen Rabbit was one of my favorite stories as a kid.
Adrian: It’s a beautiful story.
Tess: Yeah, right? And then last night at my friend Helen Huettner’s play, Honey Dipped Apocalypse Girls, one of the characters mentioned “the rabbit,” and I thought, what’s with the rabbit today?
Adrian: How do you fit that into the narrative of the day?
Tess: In the context of the day? Well, the quote is about being real. And so that was kind of interesting to think about, authenticity and realness, and what it means to be real.
Adrian: What does it mean to be real?
Tess: Well, according to the Rabbit and the Skin Horse, being real is when you’re worn, or worn down, and your eyes are falling out, your fur is coming out. It’s well loved and well worn.
Adrian: “Well loved and well worn.” I like that, as a mark of reality.
Adrian: It’s as if we’re not real until we’ve matured, and found this place in the world that has accepted us until our end.
Tess: Yeah, a world that ruins us in certain ways, or scars us, but that’s the process of being real, that at the end you’re not perfect.
Adrian: I bet you want to know about these questions?
Tess: Yeah, give me some questions.
Adrian: Well, we’ll probably start with the basics.
Tess: “What is a story?”
Adrian: When was your first experience with New York City?
Tess: New York. My first experience was going to a Broadway show in high school. My U.S. History teacher, Mr. Mitchell, would orchestrate these trips every year, and people could opt in and go see shows as a group. And my first show in New York . . . it was either The Little Mermaid or How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Adrian: So then you came a couple times then, while you were in high school?
Tess: Yeah, I went three times. One of the trips was in Connecticut, we saw Jersey Boys. I didn’t really think much about New York until I was in high school or college. I think because my mom moved us to Amsterdam when I was a kid, I had European cities more in my head, rather than U.S. cities. But yeah, I think I liked New York. It was exciting, there was art stuff.
Adrian: Let’s actually back up for a second, because your past is kind of interesting also, because you lived in Europe. So, you were born in the United States?
Tess: Yes. In New Hampshire.
Adrian: And then when you moved to Europe, where did you move to?
Tess: When I was eleven and then turned twelve, we lived in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands.
Tess: It was kind of just a whim of my Mom’s. It was after my Grandmother died. So I think it may have been in response to that. I think she did the thing that you’re not really supposed to do, she made a big change after a loss. She just wanted something new.
Adrian: Tell me a little bit about your time in Amsterdam, and what you remember. Was there something that really sticks out while you were living there?
Tess: I think Amsterdam was really pivotal for my writing and my reading. I was loosely home schooled, so I was extremely bored and lonely. I met some kids over there, but they don’t start learning English until a couple of years older than I was at that time, so most of them I couldn’t really communicate with. I spent a lot of time reading in my room, and writing when I ran out of English books.
Adrian: Were you writing your own stories at that point?
Tess: Yeah, I kind of just started doing everything at that point. I started journaling right before we left.
Adrian: So this was when you were twelve and thirteen years old?
Tess: Eleven, and twelve in Amsterdam. So I started journaling and when we got there I started writing poetry. And then the first morning that we were there, in a suburb of Amsterdam, I woke up in the middle of the night with a story idea. So I made some notes and then I continued writing the story the whole time I was there.
Adrian: Do you remember what the story was about?
Tess: Yes. It’s still one that I want to go back to. It’s a story about this princess, of course, because I was eleven. It was this story about this princess with a really large family, and two of her sisters are kidnapped, and it turns out that one of the sisters orchestrated the kidnapping.
Adrian: Oh, wow. That’s a dark plot for an eleven-year-old.
Tess: I think because my mom split custody with my little sisters’ father, I always had this fear of losing them. I think that was something that came up when I was sleeping, and then I woke up with an idea!
Adrian: Was that the first story that you wrote?
Tess: Well the first story that I probably wrote was when I was in third grade. I think it took place in Ireland because I liked this movie about leprechauns. I think the movie was called Leaping Leprechauns. I didn’t even finish the story. It was twenty-three pages, which was really long for this assignment. I went way beyond what the teacher wanted.
Adrian: Wait, how old were you?
Tess: I was in third grade.
Adrian: So your teacher was like, “Write a paragraph or two.”
Tess: But I didn’t finish it! Because I got so involved and was taking it way too far, and I didn’t even remember much of the plot, but I remember that I illustrated the last page, and it was this banshee floating in the air and screaming.
Adrian: How dramatic.
Tess: She was wearing a silver dress.
Adrian: Amazing. Did you start writing poetry around the same time, in third grade?
Tess: Whether or not we moved to Amsterdam, I think writing would have come out. I can remember being five and writing silly rhymes. I had one, “Tony the Tiger, sat on a wire, and along came a spider.” Just silly stuff. My mom writes poetry, and my great-grandmother wrote poetry.
Adrian: You come from a lineage of poets. Amazing.
Tess: Yeah, and there’s a lot of really clever and witty people in my family. My sister, Jenny, comes up with the best puns on the spot. My brother, Christopher, comes up with the most hilarious things, and my mom will always come up with ditties, so a lot of creativity in language.
Adrian: How many brothers and sisters do you have?
Tess: I have two older sisters, one older brother, two younger sisters through my mom, and then through my father I have a younger brother and a younger sister.
Adrian: Are all of them, or any of them, also writers?
Tess: I think my little sisters write. I know Lara draws a lot, but Lexie sometimes writes poems, and I think Lara might sometimes as well. I always thought that my sister Kate ––– in her school essays, had a very endearing writer voice, but she doesn’t enjoy writing.
Adrian: Just to go back, how long was it that you were living in Amsterdam before you moved back to the United States?
Tess: Half a year.
Adrian: Not even a year.
Tess: Yeah, but I feel like even though it was such a short time, I feel like I really grew there. Because that was where I was writing so much. I had written a bit in elementary school, but in Amsterdam I was writing all day long.
Adrian: I can identify with that. It’s not necessarily the amount of time that you spend in a place, but the move and the change itself can be a catalyst for changes and growth. I can definitely identify with that.
Adrian: So after graduating from high school in New Hampshire, you decided to go to college for writing?
Tess: It didn’t really feel like a decision. I knew that I was going to write for the rest of my life, no matter where I was. So after high school I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I figured people go to college, that’s what they do, so I guess I’d go to college. But I just wanted to write, I didn’t care where. A degree didn’t really matter, but it mattered in the context of taking classes and becoming a better writer.
Adrian: So where did you go?
Tess: I went to the University of New Hampshire, started in 2010 and graduated in 2014.
Adrian: What did you study?
Adrian: So literature?
Tess: No, actually, so UNH didn’t have a creative writing degree, so basically I majored in English so that I could take as many writing classes as possible. All the poetry classes. All the fiction. All of the nonfiction.
Adrian: How important was school for your writing?
Tess: It was really important.
Adrian: How so?
Tess: For a few different reasons. I didn’t like New Hampshire, but I had awesome professors who made my time there worthwhile. I studied with David Rivard, Mekeel McBride and Meredith Hall. They were just incredible and invested in their students. They cared. So in terms of writing, I think the classes really helped with my growth. I was reading works that made my work stronger, and responding to it with my own writing. I also took a couple Harvard classes during the summer, one with Paul Harding, which changed my writing forever, and another with Nina de Gramont Education is important because it opens you up to things that you might not discover on your own, so I’m very grateful for mine.
Adrian: So you studied writing, you graduated college, and at that point you decided that you were destined to come to New York? What brought you to the city after that?
Tess: Well, what made my college time a little more complicated was that I tried to transfer to NYU. I got in, and once I got to the city I found out that my loans fell through.
Tess: So I was sixteen thousand dollars short. And I asked the financial aid office, “What can I do? I don’t have sixteen thousand dollars.” I was nineteen. And the woman at the office said, “There’s nothing we can do for you.” I had been in New York for a week and a half, and I left the city, crying in my stepfather’s car, looking back at all the buildings. When we got back to New Hampshire, it was too late to go to UNH for that semester, so I spent a few weeks being really upset and sad. And my stepfather said a few different things that were really important, and that stuck with me, and one of them was, “New Hampshire doesn’t have to be forever. It can just be a stop on the road.” And that’s what I needed to hear, because that’s what I was afraid of. We lived in a lot of places when I was a kid. I think that lack of consistency made it so that I don’t really like consistency. I don’t like staying in one place, and I don’t really know how to stay in one place for long and still be satisfied. I feel like I inherited restlessness. After NYU, going back to New Hampshire felt like a life sentence. And it felt horrible. I didn’t want to be there for a second longer. So for my stepfather to emphasize that I had the ability to someday leave felt really important. So I picked myself up, I got a job working a front desk at the Sleep Inn for a couple months before I quit and visited a friend in Savannah, and the next fall I went back to UNH.
I think I had three big disappointments in my life that have really shaped how I respond to things. And one of them was the absence of my little sisters, the other was a relationship that I really wanted to work out that didn’t, and then there was New York, and I felt like of the three of those, I could do something about one of them. So for me, moving back to New York really felt like the reclamation of a dream that I didn’t get to live, and the reclamation maybe of, if I can live this dream, maybe the others will come too.
Adrian: That’s beautiful. That’s a good story, how you got here. So how many places have you lived in New York City, since you moved here for the first time, which was in . . .
Tess: I moved here in July of 2015. And I made the decision, lickety-split. I had a friend here who said that I could stay with him. I had been in New Hampshire for a couple of months after New Orleans.
Adrian: So New Orleans was in between New Hampshire and New York?
Adrian: We’re probably going to have to talk about New Orleans in just a second. When did you move to New Orleans?
Tess: I lived in New Orleans twice. I did an exchange semester. After NYU didn’t work out I was at UNH for a year, and then the next year I thought, hey, I could stay at UNH and get my degree here, or I could leave and experience a different city. I had gone to New Orleans as a kid, but I didn’t really remember it. I saw New Orleans featured on a poster in the hallway and I thought, alright, I’ll try New Orleans. Of the places for the exchange, I think, two of the places that I wanted to go were in New York, but they weren’t available. The only one that I listed that was available was New Orleans.
So I did a semester at the University of New Orleans, and then after I graduated from UNH I lived in Boston for a summer, working down there, and then come the fall, I was back in New Hampshire, and I thought, “Oh no, how do I get out?” So I started working at a pastry shop that I would walk to from my sister’s apartment. It was about a forty-five minute walk one way. So I’d do the walk before and after work most days. While I was working there I chatted with a woman who was picking up lunch, and during our conversation it came up that she and her husband owned a digital marketing company. I told her that during my last semester of college I applied to a digital marketing agency, but it didn’t work out. I didn’t get an interview. Later on she came back and she gave me her card, and she said, “Send me your writing.” And so I sent her an e-mail and within two or three weeks, I had a job, and it was a job that I could do anywhere. And so I bought a ticket to Costa Rica, where I had a friend. And my return ticket, I made to New Orleans, where I still had friends from the last time that I had been living there. And so I lived in New Orleans for seven months, working with a jewelry designer and making jewelry and also writing for this digital marketing agency, and it was great until it was getting toward summer, and I didn’t want to be in the hot weather. And so I went back to New Hampshire for two months.