Getting Our Breath Back

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Shawne Johnson's emotionally stirring debut novel has been called "a rawer Waiting to Exhale." Three African-American sisters, living in late 1960s Philadelphia, face issues such as drug addiction, racial tension, the Vietnam War, and the death of their father from lung cancer. Together they strive to avoid the dangers that surround them.

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Shawne Johnson's emotionally stirring debut novel has been called "a rawer Waiting to Exhale." Three African-American sisters, living in late 1960s Philadelphia, face issues such as drug addiction, racial tension, the Vietnam War, and the death of their father from lung cancer. Together they strive to avoid the dangers that surround them.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Three sisters both lose and find themselves in the political and social upheavals of 1960s and '70s Philadelphia in Shawne Johnson's impressionistic, earnest debut novel, Getting Our Breath Back. Oldest sister Violet has nearly made herself ill trying to be a proper wife, but it hasn't stopped her husband from chasing skirts. Middle sister Lilly was once a college student, an aspiring writer and a Black Panther, but is now majoring in heroin, while baby sister Rose is a sculptor and single mother who can't seem to settle on a husband. All three women witness the erosion of their formerly middle-class old neighborhood and participate in the other cataclysmic social changes of their day. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Three African-American sisters navigate the hostile world of men and drugs in a first novel set in North Philadelphia during the late1960s and '70s. Philly suffers from gang violence, racial tension, Vietnam War fallout, and drug infestation as the sisters battle to support each other through the grief of losing their father to lung cancer. Tired, pretty Violet has two teenaged boys and a philandering husband who brings her only misery; sculptor and single mother Rose changes bedfellows like shoes because of lingering pain over the early breakup with the abusive Charles; drug-addicted Lilly turns tricks and floats through her brief life without purpose. In alternating chapters that meander murkily throughout the years, the sisters' stories are narrated in the third-person, although Rose lends an overall cohesion in intermediate chapters called "Studio Time." She meets writer Charles when she's 17, during the tumultuous Revolution Now! and Black Power movements, while Lilly first shoots up heroin with her boyfriend as a freshman at Temple University. Violet sublimates her own will to successful, overbearing Jerome and middle-class comforts, only to ask herself later, "At what price being pretty and keeping quiet?" The mid-1970s women's movement brings joy in the form of a loving new man in Rose's life, but it's threatened by Charles's sudden, inexplicable insistence that he wants to see his eight-year-old daughter Imani. At the same time, more tragedy arrives in Lilly's tortured existence. Johnson etches bitterness into these stories, hints of anger at the way her characters allow men to determine their fates, and yet she evinces enormous sympathy and tenderness as well. But her tendencyto propel her narrative in the progressive tenses while loading up on ungrammatical constructions grinds down the reader and makes for a monotonous voice. A rawer Waiting to Exhale, punctuated by powerful human moments despite run-together, derivative prose.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781461847694
  • Publisher: Recorded Books,LLC
  • Publication date: 10/27/2011
  • Format: MP3
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Ships to U.S.and APO/FPO addresses only.

First Chapter


A long time ago in ancient Anatolia there lived a peasant farmer named Gordius who ruled an ancient city of the Lydian Empire. One day when Gordius was plowing his fields, a flock of birds gathered around his oxen. The image startled Gordius, and he knew it must be an omen. He set out to consult the augurs in a nearby town, where he met a beautiful maiden who told him the birds were a sign of his royal destiny there. Realizing the value of this peasant before her, the maiden offered herself to Gordius as his queen.

Gordius then drove his oxcart to the temple, where he was immediately greeted by the people as their ruler. An oracle had informed them that the first man to arrive at their temple would be their king, and they accepted the peasant farmer with great reverence. To show how grateful he was for his new power, the farmer decided to enshrine his oxcart to the temple by attaching the yoke to the shaft with a long, elaborately knotted strap, the legendary Gordion knot.

The elaborate knot had no visible end and was considered impossible to unravel. Legend had it that whoever succeeded in unraveling the knot would be the next ruler of Asia Minor. When Alexander the Great arrived to set up his winter quarters in Gordion in 334 B.C., he set out to fulfill the prophesy and climbed the citadel to Gordion's oxcart. Although he knew that a knot must unravel itself, Alexander failed to loosen it and instead, sliced through it with his own sword.


June 1953

Southwestern Turkey

Nurdane moved between the looms, inspecting knots. The room was cool and smelled of burnt cedar. The floor, damp, freshly washed. The chairs and desks had been pushed against the walls, where skeins of colored wool hung like wigs from the hooks and half-carved reed flutes lay propped in the windows. The lodge was normally used as a music school for boys, but on Saturday afternoons the headmaster allowed her to teach the village girls weaving, the only formal education they would ever know.

She stopped in front of a larger loom shared by two sisters and moved her fingers slowly over the pile of wool. She wiggled her pinky between the strings to search for gaps, poking her finger through the weft. She had found a large hole, the size of a coin. She raised her eyebrows in disapproval.

The young girls sitting at the loom stiffened, slowly lifting their small chins to meet her gaze. They watched her lips part, waiting for a smile, begging her approval with their dark eyes. But she withheld, careful not to mislead them with a false sense of accomplishment. She found their workmanship satisfactory. They had woven a prayer rug filled with scatter motifs, stylized representations of familiar objects. A deer, flowers, sheep, water, the concerns of daily life in the village. It was not a difficult pattern, a modern prayer rug of no great beauty or merit. The center, or field, consisted of a plain red mihrab, or prayer niche, surrounded by a green border of angular flowers. The motifs, like all motifs in Turkish rugs, were based on geometric units. Called nakis, embroidery, the motifs had functioned as a language among the women of the weaving communities. Passed from mother to daughter, the geometric symbols were the basis of communication among the Anatolian women kept illiterate under Islam. Birds for the soul; stars for eternity and marriage; eyes, hooks, and amulets to protect against evil; roses for happiness; running water for a long life; swastikas and dragons to protect the tree of life; apple blossoms for fertility; pinwheels, symbols of heaven, fortune, and hands for protection.

To weave was to write and to write was to be understood. Using any one symbol or a combination of several, a Muslim woman was safe to express herself, channeling her creativity into a body that would survive her long after the Prophet had stripped her of her tribal solidarity. The sum of symbols, too, insured the Turkish woman with the only possession she could own. In possessing the rugs, women owned a part of themselves that no fundamental law could ever compromise.

Like any good grammar instructor, Nurdane looked for errors in the compositions she read, her unflinching eye slashing mistakes. She had reminded her students that the choice of symbols was not the point of weaving, despite how poignant or obscure the themes they conveyed. She wondered if the two sisters had ever listened. The goal of every weaver, she reminded them, was to tie knots so strong they could hold the dead.

She picked up a beater, a wooden comb, from the floor, and handed it to the youngest sister.

Tighter, she instructed.


The girl panicked and dropped the comb. Her sister snatched it from the floor.

I know how to make them tighter, she said.

Nurdane dropped her hand on the older girl's shoulder. She spoke calmly.

I know. So let her try.

The older girl sighed and reluctantly passed the wooden comb to her sister's trembling hands. She was younger than the rest and bony, wearing her elbows like weapons on bent arms. Her nails were dirty and her hair fell out of her headscarf in multiple braids, like a bride's. She looked vulnerable beside the others, anxious, too, and yet she had about her a determination that Nurdane recognized as her own. She could see the pride in the arch of the young weaver's back while the others sat slumped and defeated at the loom. The girl looked up at Nurdane with expectant eyes.

What do you want me to do?

Pack it harder.

The girl inserted the long, forklike slats of the beater between the weft and pulled down on the pile. Her tiny muscles bulged from her forearm.


But it's already tight.

Nurdane shook her head and poked her finger through the weft again. The hole smaller, but still there.

Is it?

The girl lowered her gaze to the floor and shook her head, ashamed. She spoke quietly, humbled.

It's hard.

I know. It takes time.

The girl shifted her eyes to balls of wool scattered about the floor.

You were better than any of us at our age.

I had a lot of time to learn. You must be patient.

The girl swallowed, her eyes glazed like large round tiles in the light.

You were better than our mothers. Better than our grandmothers, she insisted. How did you ever learn to tie them so well?

Nurdane stepped behind the loom and stood in front of the window, a silhouette in the backlight.

Put your hand over your heart. All of you.

Nurdane panned the room from one loom to the next until all the girls had followed her instruction.

Now close your eyes.

The girls shifted, the wooden benches creaking beneath their weight.

And listen.

The room fell silent. Only the tinkling of goat bells came in through the window. Nurdane continued.

Imagine the rug has a heart. It has a rhythm, a beat. Your job as a weaver is to breathe life into the knots. Feelings. Emotions. When you're sad, the knots will be sad too. When you're happy, they will sing. When you are confused or lonely or excited or scared, the knots will hold it all. They will remember everything about you so you don't forget who you are.

Nurdane paused for the caw of a raven, the flap of wings. Then silence again. She whispered.

Every weaver records a part of herself in each knot.

She watched their faces twitch, the nervous bite of their lips. Some had opened their eyes to peek at the others, then shut them quickly when they caught Nurdane watching. She continued.

Now imagine your heart with a hole.

Gasps from the girls.

What do you hear?


Right. Nothing. A broken heart can't beat. You see, if the rug has a hole because the knots are loose, the rug won't sing. And we like songs-because they tell us stories.

She watched the girls nod, small smiles stretched across their faces as they remembered bits of folktales too ancient to unravel at the loom. Perhaps when they were older, better weavers, they would find a place for their stories in the rugs.

Nurdane stepped out from behind the loom and crossed the lodge. The slow squeak of her braces broke the silence. She stopped at the door.

You can work now.

The girls rubbed their eyes, trying to focus again in the harsh light that fell in triangles across the room as the morning sun shifted over the village. The air was warm and dry, sweet with sage.

Nurdane stood at the door and ran her hands along the old Arabic carved in the wood, prayers she could not read.

Let me hear the songs.

The girls began to pluck the weft like the strings on a harp. They worked up their speed, each relying on the other to keep the pace until they synchronized the twanging of fingers into a soft, hypnotic percussion.

Nurdane stepped outside and followed a stone pathway to a group of elderly women and their married daughters, who sat cross-legged, spinning wool under the shade of a fig tree. Three of the eldest and most experienced weavers were building a warp, the foundation of every carpet. They used no formal measuring device to build the apparatus, estimating the length of the warp with a long plank, which they laid across the ground, and two adjustable posts, driven into the earth with stakes. The warp was prepared as one of the women walked from one pole to the other, wrapping yarn continuously around the posts, where the other women sat, crouched on their heels, inserting twine between each thread, ensuring the sequence of the warp. The process would take about five hours, so they worked quickly, speaking little, concentrating. Together with the spinners, they formed a colorful sight. Their bright, baggy trousers, blouses, and vests were a mismatch of prints and patterns leaving no empty space for the eye to rest. Most of their heads were wrapped in two cotton scarves, a white one covering their hair, tied behind the nape of their brown necks. The other, either a pastel or elaborate floral design folded into a flat band, then tied around the forehead, framing their faces like a crown.

Nurdane joined the spinners, lowering herself to the ground slowly, awkwardly, beneath the braces. The wind lifted her skirt, revealing her legs. The muscles were severely atrophied, the skin purple and green, her knees imprinted from the metal rim. Her upper body was completely disproportional to her lower body. Her arms were healthy, long, and slender, the muscles tight and cut over her shoulders, defined by years at the loom.

The women did not stare at her legs, their eyes locked on the spindle passing into Nurdane's bare feet, bare humps and bulbs, too misshapen for shoes. The soles had grown thick and yellow with calluses, and the toes curled like talons and reminded them of raptor's claws. Nurdane took the spindle, anchoring the pointed end between her toes, and spun in silence. The women did not disturb her when she was teaching and kept their questions to themselves. They worked quietly, listening to the thwap of combs pounding the knots tighter on the loom. Toothless smiles among them. They were content to hear the labor of others after spending a lifetime tying their own knots, sowing, weeding, harvesting crops in the fields. Their hands had become gnarled, their fingers bony and twisted like the ancient roots of an olive tree. Most suffered from arthritis, but they insisted on spinning. They insisted in putting a part of themselves into the rugs for as long as they could.

Nurdane could feel them watching her work, studying the turn of her fingers, the way her left hand fed the wool into the spindle while her right rotated it clockwise, making a Z-twist with the yarn. Her speed, twice theirs. Her movement effortless, seemingly involuntary. Spinning ran deep through her blood, passed down from her mother and grandmother and the women of Anatolia. She had never seen her mother weave, nor had she ever seen her mother, dead after childbirth. June twenty-first, the solstice, at once a celebration of life, had also become a reminder of death.

It was her father who taught her to weave, borrowing from his wife's techniques. He taught Nurdane to manipulate the flywheel, as she did now, by tilting the spindle every few seconds, to either slow down or speed up according to the dictates of her fingers. Faster now. The cadence chased the song from her lips. Songs of the nomad. The drop spindle was old technology, the most practical, too, for the nomadic life from which she came. She stopped only when the spindle was full and heavy with wool, and only then did she pause to massage the cramp in her hand.

You've been working a lot.

She nodded, shifted her eyes to meet the crinkled faces of the older women. They were filled with concern now and pressed her for answers.

I'm catching up, Nurdane said.


Fast enough.

How many knots are tied?

I haven't counted yet, she said, cutting off their questions. The women lowered their heads, ashamed. Nurdane guarded her secrets well. The women knew better than to beg for answers from her, but the nervous twitch of their hands, the way their fingers picked at the wool, gave them away. The women wanted to know more.

When will the rug be finished?

A rug is never truly finished. Is it?

She looked up and locked eyes with them. Her quick answers frustrated them. She removed the wool from the spindle and began to spin again, interrupted by the hand of a short, squat woman pressing on her shoulder.

Don't forget who you make the rugs for.

Nurdane lifted her eyes and searched the woman's weathered face. Two silver braids dangled over the woman's milky eyes, challenging her not to look away too soon.

A bride waits for you.

They always do.

The old woman shook her head and leaned closer. She pressed her cheek against Nurdane's and lowered her voice. This one is different, she said. Her life depends on you.

-From The Virgin's Knot by Holly Payne, (c) August 2002, Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc., used by permission.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2002


    This was a beautifully written novel..the language is like poetry. I'm looking forward to Ms. Johnson's sophmore novel --- we need more author's like her!

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