In a chemical reaction, when compounds combine to create something new, or when one compound breaks into two or more new materials, some form of energy is expelled or absorbed. Heat, light, electricity. Things light up. They flicker, blaze, melt test tubes. Out in the world, they can burn mountainsides. Later, we pull over to the shoulder of a freeway and gaze at an entire landscape altered. We tell our kids, half bitter, half sweet, about the olden days, and about the moment—violent, maybe; achingly long, at the time—when the geological and cultural terrains changed. The burned towns, the heated debates. The hot disputes that carved cockles through cities, fault lines through families.
If chemical change requires or results in heat, so too does social change. In her AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference keynote presentation this spring, poet and cultural critic Claudia Rankine spoke about “what keeps us uncomfortable in each other’s presence.” Uncomfortable is a good word. When a light is shined on social imbalance, we can feel emotions begin to boil. I sat in the audience, like everyone else, flushing under Rankine’s spotlight: each one of us has benefited from privilege in one way or another, because of our race, ableism, gender, class… or, most uniformly in a conference aimed at writing programs, education.
Rankine asked us to consider what—and whom—we erase in our work. She urged us to question which details the dominant culture expunges in order to make literary and visual art more “palatable” to the mainstream. Sitting in the darkened theater, in my peripheral vision I noticed fellow audience members squirming in their chairs; I noticed myself trying not to. As writers, we all grapple with what to put in our work and what to leave out. But turning the mirror on myself and my own written work, what have I sidestepped, intentionally or subconsciously, in acquiescence to some silently powerful rule of acceptability? What aspects of myself or of the world have I deemed unacceptable, unpalatable, to my imagined audience? And why, and to whom, am I pandering? Furthermore, how do my choices as a reader, editor, and future teacher either concede or renounce complacency?
A woman several rows in front of me left the room, and I remember hoping that she left for the restroom, rather than out of emotional discomfort with the commentary from the stage. Often, the hardest action to take is to stay.
I allowed Rankine’s words to stoke a fire within me that had, perhaps, dampened. Her words were a bellow. She spoke calmly and magnanimously, but her unflinching criticism implicated all of us in the room, including herself, along with every graduate and undergraduate writing program, publishing house, agency, book store, and literary journal. Like YA author and cultural essayist Daniel José Older says in this issue’s Lunch Special, white supremacy does not just come from white people; it is so pervasive that it weaves itself into brown and black cultures as well. This does not just apply to white supremacy. Everyone of us is in the hot seat.
To our readers, Lunch Ticket is a literary and art journal. Yet, to those of us here on the editorial and production teams, it’s a community of nearly half the students in the Antioch Los Angeles MFA program. We live all over the world: Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Canada, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Though we rarely sit in a room together, we enjoy robust discussions about the work we receive from writers and artists across the U.S. and world. I use the word enjoy, however, not to imply that the conversations are always easy. We come from wildly different backgrounds, and what one reader deems engaging dialogue, another considers rehashed tropes. As Jeanette Winterson writes in her book Art Objects, “It is right to trust our feelings, but right to test them too.” So we engage each other in conversation about the submissions we receive and about our unique perspectives that influence our experience of the works. The pieces we ultimately choose to publish carry, for us, what Winterson calls a depth-charge. They electrify us. They turn us on.
Rankine writes in Citizen: An American Lyric that we all have an “historical self” and a “self self.” Both selves must be welcome at the literary and cultural table, because when one is erased, the other cannot stay whole. Every work need not be explicitly about politics and social justice. Stories of love and grief and poignant moments do, and should, continue to abound. But as in this issue’s stories and art about identity, including Fatima, the Biloquist (fiction), The Streetlamp (Writing for Young People), The Half-Buttoned Effect (creative nonfiction), and Obsession and Idolization (visual art), a moving narrative digs beyond the surface of skin or sketch. It mines the bones of body and experience. It questions its creator, interrupts the reader.
We are all mortal creatures who wrestle with loss, illness, change, grief, and shame. In the end, despite our unique differences, wide swaths of our experience are universal. To see those experiences reflected in art helps to illuminate the dark corners of life. In several pieces, including The Day (fiction), Dress the Mouse in Black (Diana Woods Memorial Prize finalist), and Placeholder: Waiting for the Biopsy Results (poetry) we visit death, grief, and illness. In Down in the River to Pray (creative nonfiction), an aunt searches through hospital archives and NYC alleys for clues to what became of her nephew amid the late ‘80s AIDS epidemic. In our featured essay, Thank You for Sharing, Patrick O’Neil explores the vulnerability that accompanies writing and publishing the true stories of past transgressions. And in Stories about Bodies, our feature on Narrative Medicine, Emily Rapp Black, Juliet McMullin, and Phillip Mitchell discuss the importance of asking what does it mean to be embodied.
Stories, poetry, and art broaden and deepen consciousness in a way that science, math, and other disciplines never can do. That is not to diminish the importance of those other studies—or to dismiss the acute metaphors they provide. But, as novelist Nina Revoyr says in this issue’s interview, “Folks are never going to just change their mind about something because you tell them they should. They are going to change their mind because they feel a stake in it. Art is a tremendous way to create that kind of stake because it enables you to enter the experience of another person and see the world through their eyes.”
As the U.S. primary election season now closes and we edge toward electing a new Presidential administration, the temperature of the nation is rising. Conversations within the political arena have exposed a fiery friction of discordant values across the country. Those who have been comfortable with the status quo, or who believe in the status quo of a Hollywoodian yesteryear, will try to douse the disparate voices lifting up. Or worse, those who have been extinguished will yield. But, as Roxane Gay writes in Bad Feminist, “Make the effort and make the effort and make the effort until you no longer need to, until we don’t need to keep having this conversation.”
Words are kindling. Light them up.
Take good care,