Why I Write About Whiteness

There was a time in my life when I entertained the idea of saying the following out loud—“I do not identify as white.”

I considered saying this because in my cultural studies classes, at my liberal arts college, I had learned that race was a construct and that the concept of race was created by white people through a history of violence. I thought that I needed to disassociate myself from whiteness and disavow my privilege. Clearly this was misguided. I wasn’t sure how to proceed with my knowledge about race. Racial identity does not exist as an inherent truth, yet race has enormous impact on our day-to-day lives and our identities. I could not simply claim the philosophical high ground and extricate myself from race.

I have been many people in pursuit of who I am now, twenty years older, all the time skirting the edge of understanding whiteness. All the time, not wanting to dive in. Now, as I move deeper into writing personal nonfiction and I dance around different versions of truth, I find whiteness popping up in all my narratives. This is not exactly an organic process. It is due to the hard work of many people of color in academia, activism, and the arts who have labored to teach us white people to see ourselves. In addition to those conscious efforts, I owe a great debt to the daily effort required of POC to simply exist within the institutionalized racism of our country. The labor of people of color from the working class through academia and the arts is commodified, yet the lives and bodies of POC are consistently undervalued, abused and destroyed. I owe a debt because I have benefitted from this unfair arrangement and now as a writer, the work being done to undo racial injustice has lead me to a missing piece.

To narrate many of my stories of growing up in this country, I must include whiteness. If I do not seek to define that which everyone says I am, that shapes so much of this experience in America, aren’t I missing something in the story?

*     *     *

Why do so few white writers write about race? When in our literature do we acknowledge that we are white? That whiteness has a history? When do we explore our connections to that history? No, not your family history, that is, of course, interesting, but what about your families’ histories of being white? What about your whiteness? The thing that makes you feel safe calling the police? The thing that makes it OK for you to write science fiction or nature poems or literary novels? The reason no one asks you where you are from? When do you write about that?

So many of the writers I admire, authors who are fundamental to American literature, are not white. Many of their stories allude to, or are precisely about, their non-whiteness. But how many writers speak of their whiteness and how it shaped their story? I don’t mean their Italian-ness, Irish-ness or Scandinavians-ness. I refer to the much more elusive identity, which I share, and which protects me from being followed in stores, allows me to feel like I am somehow neutral, that all stories are about my race, unless otherwise noted. Am I affected by our history of colonialism and slavery? Do I benefit from being part of the ruling class? Yes. Yes. And so when I write about myself, I am also writing about whiteness. I write about whiteness to connect with the unseen forces in my life. In her essay, “White Debt,” Eula Biss, a white writer who often writes about whiteness says:

“Refusing to collude in injustice is, I’ve found, easier said than done. Collusion is written onto our way of life, and nearly every interaction among white people is an invitation to collusion. Being white is easy, in that nobody is expected to think about being white, but this is exactly what makes me uneasy about it.”

I write about whiteness because my life is better for having read Their Eyes Were Watching GodThe Bluest Eye, Zami: A New Spelling of My NameDreaming in Cubanand Fences while I was in high school. Our culture is better for having these works. They are stories about the human condition that reflect parts of our culture back at us and describe the American experience. I related to the characters’ experiences of confusion and isolation. In her essay, “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” bell hooks describes the shock her white students express when they become aware that Black people both observe and are critical of whiteness. They don’t believe that whiteness has attributes, style, a way of seeing. They are invested in “whiteness as a mystery,” she writes. White people have not wanted to be seen. hooks continues to link this attitude to the history of slavery. Black slaves were “brutally punished for looking, for appearing to observe the whites they were serving, as only a subject can observe, or see.” I happen to love Black, Latino and Indigenous literature, but I do not want that appreciation to be a spectator sport, where I get to sit back and enjoy. They see me and I work to see myself.

*     *     *

It is through stories that I have come to understand whiteness. And often, they are the stories told by writers of color. hooks tells a story about being interrogated in an airport, being asked questions that white people are not being asked. She writes, “It is useful, when theorizing black experience, to examine the way the concept of ‘terror’ is linked to representations of whiteness.” I want to explore the shameful unintentional moments when my identity causes terror. Was I oblivious to the power I had? Was it tingling under my skin?

I write about whiteness because I want to know more about this identity, which has only ever really been defined by the opposite of Blackness. In an article for Esquire about Jordan Peele’s movie Get Out, Jordan Thrasher writes:

“If you go back far enough in slavery history, you start to understand that it is the theft of bodies that were Black, captured by bodies that were white, which created the concept of race itself. Race is the theft of Black bodies, further developed as white people committed genocide against Native people, colonized Mexican people, and imported Chinese people for dangerous labor (before being excluded).”

I write about whiteness so I can understand that, “Hey, I am not all white people,” while probing how I am like all white people. There is depth there and it is the kind of depth that makes stories rich.

Being seen all the time is work, and as white people, we have not had to do that work. In her essay, “Back to Buxton,” Eula Biss describes how she felt after a few years of being in the minority in her neighborhood in Brooklyn:

“I was tired of being seen, and worse, of seeing myself be seen. I was tired of that odd caricature of myself that danced in front of me like a puppet as I walked through the streets of places where my race was noticed. In those places I saw, as I imagined everyone else did, my whiteness, dancing there, mocking me, daring me to try to understand it” (123).

I want to know who I belong to and what belongs to me. So I can be accountable and so I can make a home.

I write about whiteness so I can uncover what people are hiding from. In her essay, “Relations,” Biss writes, “What exactly it means to be white seems to elude no one as fully as it eludes those of us who are white” (31).

In the introduction to the anthology The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, Beth Loffreda and Claudia Rankine write:

“… they know that they are white, but they must not know what they know. They know that they are white, but they cannot know that such a thing has social meaning; they know that they are white, but they must not know that their whiteness accrues power. They must not call it whiteness because to do so would be to acknowledge its force.”

I write about whiteness so I can examine what we are hiding in.

I write about whiteness so whiteness can have texture.

I write about whiteness because I can’t say I am not something if I don’t know what it is.

I write about whiteness because I want to be an American writer and whiteness is so very American. How can we pretend it doesn’t exist?

Around the same time that I wondered whether nor not I would call myself white, I read Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands: The New Mestiza. I circled these words:

“To survive the Borderlands/ you must live/ sin fronteras/ be a crossroads” (195).

And I wanted to be a crossroads. But I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t realize that my whiteness was a crossroads. It was the place where I could stop and listen and sit­­—sometimes in extreme discomfort­­. Where I could move past guilt and make space for others to cross and to cross with them again and again.

 

 

Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books, 1987.

Biss, Eula. Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays. Graywolf P, 2009.

hooks, bell. “Whiteness in the Black Imagination.” Killing Rage: Ending Racism. Henry Holt and Co., 1995, pp. 31-50.

Meredith Arena is from New York City and resides in Seattle where she works as a teaching artist in the public schools and facilitates meditation for adults. She is a student in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. She is a Creative Nonfiction Editor on Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in Entropy, Lunch Ticket and SHIFT Queer Literary Arts Journal.

 

 

Writers Read: Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Girmay

This collection of poetry opens with epigraphs by Charles Darwin, including one that lists similarities in the “framework of bones” between different animals: fins and hands, vertebrae in giraffes and elephants, “and innumerable other such facts, at once explain themselves on the theory of descent” (11). The poems shift their subjects from animals to humans, self to ancestor, often in the same poem. Collectively, they catalogue kingdoms that share the same emotive bones: the search for identity, passed-down family memory.

The collection is divided into six sections: “a book of dirt,” “a book of beautiful monsters,” “a book of graves & birds,” “a book of erased cities,” “a fable,” and “the book of one small thing.” The last two sections contain only one poem each: “a fable” contains the poem “On the Shape of the Sentence,” a longer poem that plays with typeface (strikethroughs and italicization) and layout as it travels through the Edenic image of the letter “S” as snake. Then Girmay traces letter shapes and images to spell out the word “She”: “She: / What would turn the curve of the S into the embryonic: e? / Evolution in words, in the progression of the line as it travels through the / silence” (103). As the poem keeps spelling subsequent letters and excavating the images therein, it moves through images of Cyclops, and then of the aunts of the girl (the poem’s subject). They comment on the girl’s shape, and the girl talks back. The words being spelled ultimately are: “She is my she” (107). This fable is about coming to terms with oneself: “She stands on both sides of the mirror, twinned, filled with grief for the / years she spent carrying herself around like a poison or a secret & elated / for the fact of surviving her face & shape for this minute of seeing / her all-selves—without an urge to kill or be killed” (107).

In “a book of graves and birds,” there are several poems titled as self-portraits: “Self-Portrait as the Snail” (52), “Self-Portrait as the Snake” (59-60), “Self-Portrait as the Airplane (Ode to Noise in the Ear)” (61-2), “Self-Portrait as the Pirate’s Gold” (65), and “Self-Portrait as the Snake’s Skin” (66-7). The animals of Girmay’s kingdom animalia are her selves. From “Self-Portrait as the Snail,” the poem’s speaker likens herself to a snail, with a trail of blood: “The things I’ve been marked & been marked by, / blood falling behind me like a stranger’s tail” (52).

The animals of Girmay’s kingdom animalia are her selves.

And, “I carry my meat over the earth’s lion mouth / & slowly feed my bodies to the dirt” (52). In “Self-Portrait as the Snake,” the snake’s image evokes hidden danger in the garden as well as, simply, the shedding of skins. “Now, / the garden is a skin I wear. Somewhere / in the box of this old house, / my child-skin hangs quietly between the coats, / shed: a parachute or bag full of red dirt & teeth” (59). And, later, “I am older now, but not old. I am looking back / to when I was a girl; now my body’s a flash / of poison on the floor” (60). In “Self-Portrait as the Airplane,” the metaphor would seem to be not an animal, but an object—but it is the speaker pretending to be an airplane in the pool. The airplane is neither animal nor machine exclusively. Later, the speaker’s ears are likened to birds, and bodies: “I am the angel of nothing. / If these ears were birds, I’d like for them to be / flying birds. But the ears are bodies, / they do what they want” (62). Similarly, in “Self-Portrait as the Pirate’s Gold,” the speaker likens her extracted tooth to both animal and object, both to an egg and to a piece of gold loot. The poem ends with “Strange to throw the body in the trash. / I am intimate with the crows and rats” (65).

Photo by Sheila Griffin

In the final self-portrait poem, “Self-Portrait as the Snake’s Skin,” the animal metaphors are more varied. Beyond the snakeskin motif introduced earlier in the collection, there are roosters, chickens, the speaker’s “deer,” “a bucket of eels” (66-7). The common framework of bones explain themselves, even when the speaker cannot.

The single poem in the last section, “the book of one small thing,” is “Ars Poetica” (111). True to the theme first established in the epigraph, Girmay’s “Ars Poetica” uses an animal image, that of the snail, to describe why she writes: “May the poems be / the little snail’s trail. / Everywhere I go, / every inch: quiet record / of the foot’s silver prayer” (111).

The intricate use of images within a framing concept made this a rich and satisfying reading experience. Though I am not a poet, I also found this instructive. I can imagine structuring a collection of short stories, or maybe even a novel, around a framework of concepts and images, from the inception of a writing project onward. Or, even if I’m not structuring anything intentionally to start, I hope that whatever I write can come to have a good “framework of bones”—concrete, bodily images that “explain themselves” as the writing proceeds, that announce themselves as both ancient and alive.

Girmay, Aracelis. Kingdom Animalia. BOA Editions, Ltd., 2011.

Laura KinneyLauren Kinney is a writer and musician in Los Angeles. She is a student of fiction and literary translation in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work can be found in Queen Mob’s, Drunk Monkeys, The Turnip Truck(s) and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @lauren_kinney.

 

Storytelling Lives: Just Keep Flying

Something has been missing. I’ve been looking for it since the election. Amid the noise of national politics I’ve felt an underlying void. There’s something that is bigger than my fear of the current administration or its impact. It’s bigger than Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, and Michael Flynn. In my life, it’s bigger than whatever terrible news story will have emerged by the time this piece is read. I realized what was missing. The realization came with the death of an influential Seattle resident and the simultaneous onslaught of essays celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Let me explain.

Photo credit: I cleaned up vomit at Sit & Spin FB group

Jonathan Moore, a.k.a. Wordsayer, died of kidney disease at age 47 in early March. Moore was an icon of the Seattle hip-hop scene. He was everywhere, so influential that we called him “The Mayor.” I met him when he ran all-ages hip-hop shows called “Sureshot Sundays” at Sit & Spin, a club where I worked. The shows were technically illegal, because of a law Moore and others were fighting called the Teen Dance Ordinance requiring all-ages venues to carry more insurance and hire more security than anyone could reasonably afford. Hundreds of kids came through those Sunday shows; it was illegal for them to find their voice, but find it they did. Moore’s work inspired countless young people to become musicians—many of his protegees have gone on to great success. It was on one of those Sundays that a teenage Macklemore performed for the first time. Later, in his song “The Town,” Macklemore would write:

Wordsayer was my mayor and things have changed
But I carry the torch and what I do with that flame
Is lit every time that I step on the stage
The skyline is etched in my veins
You can never put that out, no matter how hard it rains

Sureshot Sundays proved to the city that all-ages music shows were not a danger to the community, and they showed hundreds of young people what was possible. When Moore died, tributes flooded into his Facebook page with the hashtag #mymayor or #themayor. I was struck by how many people started their stories with meeting Moore at 16 or 17, crediting him with life changing mentorship, wisdom, and inspiration. The messages are from people who are now professional musicians, artists, writers, and lifetime lovers of hip-hop.

Moore was one of the nicest and most generous people I’ve ever met in music. He was incredibly warm. While he was immeasurably influential in local music, constantly juggling projects, he made each person he spoke to feel like the most important person to him in the moment. In a city that has mostly left its musical mark through Nirvana and alternative grunge rock, Moore spent decades quietly building a Northwest hip-hop empire. His band, Source of Labor, was one of the first hip-hop acts to play the legendary Crocodile Café. But he quit performing to work harder at providing opportunities for others. He produced countless hip-hop shows in the city, managed and mentored musicians, was an accomplished DJ, and, as a part-time educator inside and outside of the public schools, he taught a generation of high school students how to find their voice and use it to tell their own stories.

Seattle wasn’t thought of as a hotbed of hip-hop—most of the city’s hip-hop fame up until that point was Seattle native Sir Mix-A-Lot’s chart-topping “Baby Got Back.” Where some saw little going on, Moore saw possibility. He promoted big shows with bands like The Roots, and managed small local acts. He was a promoter, an artist, a DJ, a manager, and he was a father. He never got rich, but I don’t think that was the point.

Photo credit: Jonathan Moore memorial FB page

After years of covering Moore’s work for the paper, Charles Mudede wrote a final article in The Stranger. The piece ends with an account of the last time the two saw each other, when Moore was DJ’ing at Fat’s Chicken and Waffles in Seattle not long before he died:

“Though he had just come out of another tough battle with death, he was completely absorbed by the fresh beats spinning on his computerized wheels of steel. This was his life, this music, this black American music. And when he played a beat, there was no past or future. He was completely in the time and beauty of the music. ‘In this city where it rains all day, I’m still looking sunshine, hey.’ Wordsayer ’til infinity.”

Wordsayer died too young. But his legacy will live on at every hip-hop show in Seattle for years. He found a world where young people were not allowed to dance, and he gave them the power to dance and to make their own music. He left a world where young people feel empowered to craft their own rhymes and find their own voices. His influence is infinite.

*     *     *

I was reading and reminiscing about Moore around the same time my social media was full of articles about the Buffy 20th anniversary. At first glance, I know it seems as though these two things have no connection, but again, bear with me.

For the uninitiated, each episode of Joss Whedon’s Buffy starts with this narration:

“In every generation there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.”

Buffy was a defining character for a generation, from a TV show with cultural impact that has far outlasted expectations. Its mix of romance, sci-fi, drama, horror, and comedy reflected the human experience in a way viewers hadn’t seen before. The show inspired countless homages and a spin-off; its legacy is discussed everywhere from academia to comic book forums.

Over the course of seven seasons, Buffy fought all manner of evil but also found and lost love, battled through adolescence, and staked out (pun intended) a place for herself in the world on her own terms. She learns through Slayer legend that she is the only one; that she must live this lonely existence, but she says no to all of that. (It helps, of course, that her best friend is a talented witch who can help her empower an entire next generation of Slayers so that she won’t have to wait until death to give her power to them.)

Buffy offers them power, and choice, in this speech:

“So here’s the part where you make a choice. What if you could have that power, now? In every generation, one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rule. I say my power, should be our power. Tomorrow, Willow will use the essence of this scythe to change our destiny. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”

Buffy is the creation of Joss Whedon, a man who inspires great passion and devotion in his fans. They cry when they approach him at events, they write fan fiction, they follow the comic books that have extended the stories beyond the end of the TV show. They attend conventions and abide by the credo of his follow-up show, Firefly, to keep flying. Firefly is a sci-fi adventure story about a group of misfits trying to survive in a world dominated by an oppressive regime. Against great odds, they live on their own terms. It lasted only one season before it was cancelled, but the level of engagement in the show remained so high Whedon was able to make a movie sequel, Serenity.

In numerous interviews, Whedon has been asked whether he’s bothered by the overwhelming emotional response to his work. He responds by saying that it doesn’t bother him at all. He shares the emotion of his fans; he wrote Buffy to instill a high level of devotion. Whedon says that writing narrative is his religion, and his writing is meant to reflect the emotion of the human experience back to us in a way that helps us understand our own lives. It’s intensely personal because it’s supposed to be.

On the subject of the kind of fan community a good story can elicit, Whedon is effusive. Recently I watched a video of him giving this speech at a comic convention, to thunderous applause:

“When you come out of a great movie… you feel like you are in that world. … You come out of these certain things and the world has become that. When you’re telling a story you are trying to connect to people in a particular way, it’s not just about what you want to say, it’s about inviting them into a world. And the way in which you guys have inhabited this world, this universe, has made you part of it. Part of the story. You are living in Firefly. When I see you guys I don’t think the show’s off the air, I don’t think there’s a show. I think that’s what the world is like. I think there’s spaceships. I think there’s horses. … The story is alive because of you.”

Whedon’s Buffy called her audience to their power, and Moore empowered musicians by providing a stage.

*     *     *

Photo credit: Jonathan Moore memorial FB page

I found what I was looking for. If narrative reflects our lives back at us, and we can all be a part of the story, then it is in stories where everything and anything is possible. It’s in stories that we find inspiration to know and understand the things that feel impossible to comprehend. This is where I find strength—in stories. Jonathan Moore wrote, and taught people to write. His legacy allows thousands of others to feel welcome to do the same. Joss Whedon writes, and has created something that everyone can feel a part of.

There has been so much noise, so much distraction, and so much anxiety about what’s at stake in national politics. That’s understandable. But I don’t want the world to be dominated by political adversity. I want to live on my own terms. Moore did. The characters of the Whedonverse continue to. We have the choice to tell our stories. When we do, people join in and are inspired. We have the choice to invite people into our worlds. We have the power to include everyone, and to use our stories to remember that we can create our own worlds where the things we love—whatever they are—are the things that reign. #mymayor #Buffylives

 

Emma Margraf is a writer who lives in Olympia, Washington. She is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles and a government employee. She generally writes about foster parenting, food, or people she thinks are interesting. You can find her on Twitter @emargraf.

Karen Boissonneault-Gauthier, Black Hole, 2016, Medium, Size

Spotlight: Ordinary Space by Karen Boissonneault-Gauthier

Each piece is made from ordinary items such as balls, light fixtures, outdoor flowers and even a jelly fish. The ordinary does not have to stay as such and this collection is meant to challenge the concept of ordinary and take you to the universe of infinite space, where the impossible is possible.

The Model World

I think I’ve been to Disneyland twenty times since November 2016. I live in Orange County, about fifteen minutes from the park, and most days I wait till school is out so I can take my daughters with me. But I also go alone. I’m thirty-six. As kids growing up in San Diego, my sisters and I went with our parents to Disneyland once a year, usually for our birthdays or some special occasion. But when I moved home from college I bought an annual pass, which I’ve renewed in most subsequent years. When I have an afternoon off, I drive over and park in the adjacent mall. I walk to the park’s turnstiles in a sort of fugue. Sometimes I ride the rides but mostly I just walk around because, inside the park—in that battery of smells and noise and light—I am calmed. And, through the cotton-candy haze, I have formed a theory to answer for my obsession—one that I think extrapolates to a broader American problem. I know what you’re thinking. This woman is desperate to justify an infantile fixation with Disneyland. And that’s also true. But hear me out.

This is how it is: I step onto the cobblestone sidewalk, and a false town unfurls ahead. Somewhere nearby a train whistle blows. The machinery of the steam engine begins to catch and clack and catch. A pole rises in the middle of the Main Street roundabout; at the top an American flag rolls and snaps. Slowly, I move into the throng. I have not come here for rides at all; I have come because I love a well-told story.

Main Street, Disneyland is the area least changed in the park. It’s supposed to replicate the central avenue of Marceline, Missouri, where Walt Disney grew up. He aimed to evoke the year 1910, the era of his grandparents, which he referred to as simpler and safer. Though, somewhere in our consciousness, we know that nothing is ever truly simple, nothing truly safe, at least not in the immaculate, cartoon sense of Main Street, guests happily fold into the farce. The fabrication of a better, bygone time is so complete that we can almost taste the memory, even those of us who were (for example) born the year Reagan was elected, those of us who were not there. We have absorbed stories about America’s place on the right side of history.

The memory of our national goodness is as close as the smell of burnt sugar and popcorn butter and the sweat of Clydesdales. The memory is as tidy as flower planters filled with purple larkspur, blueish lobelia; girlish impatiens; petunias that point up like tiny gramophones; hearty pink mums and dainty sweet alyssum—all sown with geometric precision. There are 150 full time gardeners who tend the Disney beds at night, and in the heat of the day, when those workers have disappeared, the humus rising off the new-churned soil hints at authentic earth. The buildings lining Main Street are painted the pastels of salt water taffy. Mansard roofs sit atop their facades like sturdy hats. Turned finials poke daintily toward the sky and striped awnings sweep out from eaves like ladies’ skirts; their scalloped edges ruffle prettily when a breeze blows. And in the air everywhere there is a song, a never-ending song. A lilting tune. Something jaunty from Back Then.

*     *     *

Photo credit: Mary Birnbaum

After the 2016 election I took to the Internet like a fiend, looking for answers. The liberal web had devolved into a great howl. Never a user of the platform before, I refreshed Twitter like I had a tic. I read the news and any blog I could find, trying to dismantle the election riddle, to pop my own bubble. Slowly, we tuned to mounting evidence that the election result was a product of Trump’s collusion with Russia, but we were also awakened to an equally (if not more) disconcerting reality. Trump voters weren’t just a couple dudes in rumpled KKK robes who’d been living in caves since the alleged end of Jim Crow. They were people we knew, who had found a way to look past hate speech and buffoonery because they’d been sold a promise: that, though we had gone to bed in black and white, we would wake up in the Technicolor version of our Great American past. The trouble with US history as invoked by Trump’s marketers is that, like all beguiling stories, it’s an elaborate fiction that presents us as the people we think we are, but whom we have never been.

Nostalgia is nowhere more tangibly realized than at Disneyland. There is something more than escapism at play. People who go to Disney are looking for something they think they’ve lost. When they arrive, they find the facsimile of a kind of home, even though there is something uncanny about the place, something perhaps sickly sweet. The illusion is effective because, through clever engineering and attention to detail, it sidles just close enough to reality. That’s what advertising does, and that’s what Trump did so effectively: he told Americans that if they were unhappy it was because the American people had been set adrift, and his plan was to restore us to that once-great place.

*     *     *

When he conceived Disneyland, Walt Disney sought to manifest a place of simultaneous forgetting and remembering. At the moment, the park is comprised of eighty-five acres, though that area will expand as construction finishes on Star Wars Land. Disneyland is big enough to get lost in, grand enough to be immersive. There is no hint of the external world; no freeway noise, no horns, no sirens of any kind. A person can walk and walk for hours without stopping, though they will ultimately be walking in circles of various size. My friend who wears a pedometer to the park says if she spends the day there, she’ll have walked about five miles.

Photo credit: Katy Regnier

There are no street corners in the park. Where sidewalks should meet at right angles, instead they curve. The detail was executed to soften the feel of the park, inducing ease and comfort by literally eliminating hard edges. And removing corners is only the beginning of various subtle effects Disney perpetrates. The scope of the place is designed to make people feel significant. Buildings on Main Street are a two-thirds scale rendition of actual buildings, which was supposedly an effort by the park’s designers to make children feel larger. They wanted kids to enjoy a stature here that they knew nowhere else. But the effect also means that adults in this demi-city are slightly over-sized.

It is in this peculiar, pretend place that I think I can meet the person who voted for Trump. I meet them in the simplistic dream of safety and calm. There is no nuance, no complexity at Disneyland; there is only a beautiful fiction. America—or a pretty vision of it—has been so carefully constructed in this place that, for the length of a visit, it’s possible to imagine our country is a fixed idea.

This is not an attempt to infantilize Trump voters. I know there are many of them who are kinder and smarter than I. And like I said, I am as susceptible to a good story as anyone. But I know something about the dance of Disneyland, I have made something like an ethnography of it, and I think it’s analogous to the tricks of the Trump campaign. He made a platform of simplistic reasoning, designed for those exhausted by the rigors of political correctness and critical thought. The candidate did not have to be eloquent; he was, in fact, strategically inarticulate. Linguists have described his style—one riddled with non-sequiturs and fragments—as effectively conveying a feeling rather than a specific message. With varying degrees of coherence, he reduced American unhappiness to a battle of us versus them, a stance both internally and internationally isolationist, with terror as a backdrop. It’s probably pertinent to mention here that Bob Iger, the current CEO of Disney, is on the president’s strategic and policy advisory committee. For once, at least as it concerns storytelling, Trump actually tapped the Best People.

I go to Disneyland to still my anxious heart, to reduce the post-election clatter of my mind. But I know that even the simplest place—the so-called Happiest Place—cannot really claim that distinction. 1955 wasn’t simple and safe enough for Walt Disney; he tried to reconstruct 1910. Now America is trying to get back to 1955 or anywhere, any year when they think they were not afraid. Disneyland cannot escape complexity because its very genius is in attention to detail and the close reproduction of reality. And reality is inevitably complex. On YouTube a couple years ago I found the original hour-long ABC broadcast of Disneyland’s opening day. Though it’s in black and white, you can see that July 17th, 1955 was a meltingly hot day. A series of glistening TV anchors, including Art Linklater and then-actor Ronald Reagan lead a tour of the new park, section by section. On the way they talk to visiting families and celebrities. It is Reagan who holds the anchor’s mic to interview Fess Parker, AKA Davey Crockett, when he rides into Frontierland on a sweaty horse. Parker apologizes for his tardiness, on account of having been waylaid by a band of “redskins.” Luckily, he adds, tapping his rifle, “Old Betsy” saved the day. Reagan chuckles for the camera. Just then a cast of dancing cowboys breaks into a tune called “My One and Only Betsy,” in apparent ode to the firearm. In a following segment, Aunt Jemima (at this point portrayed by the actress Aylene Lewis) is seen dancing a vigorous Charleston alongside other revelers in what would eventually become New Orleans Square.

The tropes modify, politics change, the world heaves and shudders and Disney always adapts. The guns aren’t loaded anymore, but there’s still a shooting gallery in Frontierland.

You can side-step the truth if you successfully approximate it. Trump beat us, and he will continue to beat us, because he staffed his ranks with adept storytellers and mythmakers. America did not want the truth; it is too rife with complexity and nuance and struggle. As our moral arc maybe (and this is really a maybe) had started to bend toward justice, partially as issues of racism and misogyny and poverty and privilege came to the fore, the deep red, beating heart of the country sped up. They didn’t want to feel guilty and afraid. America wanted a hot milk and a lullaby. The answer would seem to be that we must fight story with story. But Trump’s anodyne message is hard to combat. It is, unfortunately, as old as it is inaccurate.

In June my family and I are moving back to San Diego. We won’t be at Disneyland’s doorstep anymore. The change will suit my dog Wyatt just fine; nightly the park’s fireworks rumble like a distant shelling, and he is very sensitive to noise. I think this year I will not renew my pass. Though I will never stop wanting to be there, inside the easy story, I think the time for platitudes, the time for calm, is long past. And, though the buildings have real doors, they are always shut, and the curtains are always drawn; no one really lives on Main Street.

 

Mary Birnbaum is the Lunch Ticket blog editor and editor of the Diana Woods Memorial Award in Nonfiction. She studies creative nonfiction in the Antioch LA MFA Program. She resides in Orange County, California. You can find her on Twitter @ailishbirnbaum

 

Writers Read: The Best American Short Stories edited by Junot Diaz

The 2016 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Junot Diaz, plumbs the multiplicity of writing within the English language – and it may be a beacon for the future of the North American canon. The stories contained within this collection represent the vast experience of writing within an “American” life, as opposed to a forced or stretched notion of “diversity”, far too frequently a euphemism for tokenism.

These stories take place in Nigeria, Ghana, Bangladesh, and Japan as well as within the continental United States, and feature characters whose families hail from China, Ethiopia, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere. Even Puerto Rican parrots make a significant appearance, calling out against the erasure of their experience with the plaintive phrase: “You be good. I love you” (Chiang 72). Ted Chiang’s story, a “fable” about extinction is not the only story in this collection that rails against the monolith of the dominant culture and the erasure of everything outside the dominant culture. Diaz also gives us Caille Millner’s philosopher-protagonist, a woman of color trying to survive in the white-washed world of the academy; Louise Erdrich’s “flower”, a young girl who will kill rather than be erased by colonialism and sexual exploitation; and Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s narrator who applies the specificity of her own experience to the universality of a fairy tale (Goldilocks and the Three Bears)—you may have heard it before, but not like this. Millner ends her story with an image of falling snow: “Next to that window, she should be able to see something, even if it’s just a slow white blur. As it falls it’ll bring a gathering silence to everything outside. Covering the gold, the red, the black, the gray. If she listens closely, she’ll hear it happen” (191). This collection is the opposite of that erasure. The stories collected here are both terrifying (“Ravalushan,” “Cold Little Bird”) and tender (“The Suitcase,” “Gifted”). But always, they force the reader to stare hard down the tunnel of her own human complexity. These stories are the “best” because they wield language with a specificity that helps us recognize ourselves, even in experience that is quite different from our own. You don’t have to be a Bangladeshi garment worker to understand why Jesmin can’t go home (“Garments”). But you might think twice, or at least feel the echo of her experience, the next time you buy your mass-produced underwear.

Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz

Here, the human experience, the American experience, belongs to everyone. As Diaz himself writes in the introduction: “Querida reader, ultimately I hope these stories do for you what they’ve done for me—at the very least I pray they offer you an opportunity for communion. A chance to listen, if not to the parrots of our world, then to some other lone voice struggling to be heard against the great silence” (Diaz xx). For what is the great silence but our own human propensity to objectify, reject, and erase one another? And what a necessary time in our history for us to hear one another instead, to listen closely, to reject the great erasure, to embrace humanity in its multiplicity and collectivity.

Diaz, Junot (ed.). The Best American Short Stories 2016. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2016.

Melissa Benton BarkerMelissa Benton Barker is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. A Navy brat and native of nowhere, she currently lives in a small Midwestern town where she spends her time imagining stories, wandering in the woods, and raising children-sometimes simultaneously! Her work appears or is forthcoming in the Manifest-station, Smokelong Quarterly, and Literary Mama. She serves as Lead Fiction Editor at Lunch Ticket.

Press Start to Continue

As a video game producer, my job is to address problems that arise in development. Whether it is to make a boring level fun, or to create a plan to moderate the penises that players inevitably create (using in-game text, player animations, or level editing tools), I work with my team to find solutions. And I’m good at it. I’m not often unsure what to do, but I was a few years ago during a marketing call, when a seemingly harmless comment was made.

My team and I discussed the direction of the key art for our horror game. Key art is the main image used for marketing and advertising. It is carefully crafted to communicate what the game is to consumers; it pitches a story, a feeling, a reason to buy. One of my teammates said that the young women’s expressions should be scared and fearful, while the young men should look stoic and brave. A chorus of agreement followed. No protests, no complaints, and no recognition of the sexist assumptions that were so painfully obvious to me. I had no idea how to respond.

Photo Credit: Vicki Miller

I’ve always been drawn to gaming thanks to my love of storytelling—the same love which led me to pursue writing in the Antioch MFA program. I vividly remember playing my first game, Alpiner, for the TI-99/4A home computer, and the awe I felt climbing Denali and Everest, dodging mountain lions and falling rocks. Like reading books, games allow me to escape into the wilderness of my imagination and experience boundless adventures and heartaches. I first shed tears for a game character when Aerith died in Final Fantasy VII, and I felt bittersweet joy upon reaching the summit in Journey. For me, seeking a career in game development was a natural fit.

I love my job and take pride in my work, but sometimes I’m reminded that the industry is still largely for men, by menThere were eight or nine people on that conference call, and I was the only woman. It’s such an everyday occurrence that I had forgotten how uncomfortable it can feel. But on hearing that suggestion for key art I realized my habituation. It reminded me of the first day I wore a bra. The snug elastic bands constricted my chest and shoulders, and all day I felt awkward. Every time I moved, my discomfort nagged. But, over time, the internal protests quieted, and wearing the bra became my new normal. Similarly, the lack of female perspectives had started to feel natural to me.

I’d like to say that I spoke up and challenged the stereotypes. That I immediately proposed an alternative direction. I had all the defense I needed in the content of the game. It’s my job to know every line of dialogue, every jump-scare, and every scene, and I knew that the characters did not conform to ascribed gender norms. Some of the young men spend the game panicked and afraid, while one of the young women fearlessly confronts danger to save the others. But I didn’t say anything. I froze. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, or that everyone thought it was a great idea. I worried that if I spoke up, I’d be labeled as too sensitive—a designation given to a female coworker in my previous job—or that calling my coworker out would harm our professional relationship.

The moment passed before I could process everything and react. The conversation pivoted to other topics and I remained silent. I’ve always thought of myself as the type of person who stands up to discrimination and protests stereotypes, but the truth is, I’ve watched opportunities to challenge the status quo pass by dozens of times, too startled, too intimidated, or too quiet to make my voice heard. And it has always felt like a failure.

*     *     *

The decision to speak out is never easy; it comes with its own risks. A few years ago, the video game industry experienced a firestorm of controversy surrounding sexism in games. It was dubbed Gamergate, and in hindsight, it was a disturbing prologue to the current political climate. What began as a bizarre revenge post by the ex-boyfriend of a female video game developer turned into a campaign of online harassment.

Gamergaters targeted women (and men) in the industry who spoke out about problematic portrayals of female characters or advocated for equal representation. They sent threatening and violent messages on social media and released personal details including addresses and phone numbers—an intimidation tactic known as doxxing. Some industry events even received bomb threats because they planned to host feminist speakers. Gamergaters felt personally attacked by cultural criticism of the games they enjoyed playing, and reacted viciously in their own defense. Several developers and commentators, fearing for their own safety, were driven from their homes and forced to upend their lives.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

I could write an entire essay about Gamergate, but that’s already been done. One result of the controversy is that many women in the industry felt scared to speak up, including myself. While tech companies have begun to take steps to combat online harassment, particularly with recent high profile targets like Leslie Jones, it remains a problem for video game developers and the broader online community. Recent research suggest that nearly a quarter of Americans have decided not to post something online for fear of harassment, with young women being most likely to report self-censoring.

At the height of Gamergate, a journalist interviewing me for one of my games asked me to weigh in on the debate. I wanted to take advantage of the interview to describe the subtle sexism I’ve experienced in the workplace, and the more blatant offenses common in game content. But I didn’t. Instead, I dodged his question, not only because it would have jeopardized my job—I was acting as an official spokesperson for my company—but also because I was afraid of the online harassment that might have followed.

My silence and avoidance of confrontation isn’t relegated to experiences in the game industry. When a random guy groped me in a bar several years ago, I didn’t defend myself. I felt a pinch on my butt, and swung around to figure out what had happened. I saw a man walking toward the bar’s exit. He turned and our eyes met. He grinned, laughed, and then disappeared outside with his friends before I could react. He was gone and I had no recourse.

After the incident, I beat myself up for days. I played mind-movies of how I should have reacted: confronting him, shouting him down, holding him accountable for his behavior. I became a victim not only of his assault, but also of guilt over my own inaction. It has compounded with interest each time I’ve remained silent while a random guy tells my partner he is “lucky to have me,” speaking as if I weren’t standing right there. Or when I’ve been catcalled while walking down the street or waiting at a bus stop. After incidents like these, I’ve felt inadequate, as if I were not the person I thought I was.

Sometimes it feels like it’s impossible to win. Speak out against discrimination, and you might be called overly sensitive, or told that you can’t take a joke. You might be intimidated, bullied or harassed. Stay silent and nothing changes. But I’m a producer, and solving problems is what I do. No matter how discouraged or frustrated I am, I keep trying. The answer isn’t always obvious or immediate, but there’s always something that can be done.

*     *     *

A few days after the marketing call, I decided to approach my coworker for a one-on-one discussion. I explained how the proposed direction of the key art was problematic and perpetuated stereotypes, finally voicing the arguments that had been endlessly swirling in my head. Our conversation was frank and honest; he listened to my reasoning and understood the issue. In the end, the direction was scrapped. I can’t take full credit for the change—using the characters’ faces in the artwork would have involved an arduous approval process—but I’m confident my coworker is now more cognizant of stereotypical images in his work. It’s empowering to know that I have an ally in the room should I need to speak up.

Photo Credit: Vicki Miller

We all have setbacks and failures, and we feel guilt or frustration when we let opportunities for change slip by. But having the perfect pithy comeback or reproach for sexist, racist, discriminatory remarks isn’t the only solution. In production, you work hard, and you do what you can, even if you aren’t always successful. You can’t get stuck dwelling on what you could have, or should have done. You keep going, and you move onto the next problem. Because there’s always something else that needs your attention.

There are many ways to fight for change, whether it’s leading activist marches, politically organizing, writing thoughtful essays, or having candid discussions with friends and coworkers. Instead of obsessing over what I could have done differently, I ask myself, what will I do next?

In the past few months, I’ve reviewed game scripts and successfully advocated for more diverse characters. I’ve encouraged young women to explore jobs in the industry. And when I’m at a fan expo and someone asks to speak to the game producer, I tell them: That’s me.

 

Vicki Miller is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. She spends her days producing video games for a major publisher and often finds herself juggling flame-engulfed-chainsaws and excel sheets. When she’s not slurping the best ramen in LA or proclaiming her hatred of olives, she finds time to work on her first novel. Find her on Twitter @tigrvix.

Janet Malotky

Spotlight: Ascension / Whale / Post-Apocalyptic Lotus

Ascension

When at last
it tilted worse to land than leave
what happened was this: the birds
snipped their gravitational strands.

They took two or three or five final
wing strokes heavenward
and on that momentum traveled,
up and out.

Kingdom, Phylum,
Class: Aves
the birds folded splendor,
resisted iridescence,
overrode any hints of song.
They closed their eyes above the cumulus,
did not look back,
froze solid in rising,
and rose,
an airborne march of billions.

Lamented as they passed
by sundog, aurora, diamond dust,
they sailed into darkness
beyond atmosphere’s reach,
then drifted out,
a debris field in the silence of space,
a marker.

It was not predicted.
All were bent upon
the other forms of mass extinction.
But now
in retrospect,
in the catastrophic mourning,
it can be understood.
This was earth’s
death leavening,
with all that remains
merely
decomposition.

 


Whale

The last whale rose, turned and
scrolled its barnacled flank
against the skin of the sea.

It skimmed, inscrutable eye
tilted to the night
and compared with the stars
its map of the deep.

The whale breached,
bared contours
to intoxicating light,
and measured by gravitational forces
unmitigated by the sea
its significance in the world of living things.

The last whale dove,
three hundred thousand pounds,
down the thermocline,
and shed its visible form
into the darkening gradient.

While the surface far above
composed its veiling rhythms,
the last whale swam
in displacement’s dark sleeve.
And its motion drove a dream of longing
that pinged into the deep.

 


Post-apocalyptic Locust

In this year,
seventeen,
I leave tree’s root,
push through the dark hug,
the snug dirt,
dig to light.

This is the day I recall gravity:
scale bark,
shuck cramped shell,
pump stiff wings.
This is the hour I fly.

Now
I drum my tymbals.
Drum and drum and drum
and listen for an answer.
Drum and drum and listen
for an answer.
Drum
and listen
for an answer.
Drum and drum and drum
and listen for an answer.

 

Janet MalotkyJanet Malotky lives a life submersed in language, by day as a speech/language pathologist and by night as a poet. She is especially drawn to the mysteries at the intersection of science, language, and the inner human experience. Her work has been published most recently in Dulcet Quarterly, Pure Slush, and Silver Birch Press.

Photo by Angie Aird-Williams

 

 

 

 

A Negro and a Hot Tub

The day begins with me realizing I am sore. My legs, butt, lower back, even my torso feel like I’ve been in a professional football game. Which is something I know a little bit about; once upon a time, though not for long, I ran with footballs for money. Presently, my soreness is the result of sitting for hours upon hours in writing workshops. I am smack in the middle of a ten-day residency learning to write good stories—like the one you’re currently reading. I had no idea that workshops could make one’s backside so tender. The soreness spurs me to comb the residency schedule for free time. Next thing you know, I am off to the Hollywood-Wilshire YMCA for a hot tub, steam and sauna.

Photo by Andre Hardy

The Hollywood YMCA is a venerable old building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Constructed in the early 1920s, the architectural motif is Spanish Colonial Revival. Boasting a magnificent courtyard of red clay tiles and delightful queen palms, the exterior oozes with the charm and character of a Spanish villa. And as you might imagine, being in Hollywood and all, the doors have witnessed a steady parade of human characters. The infamous Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, when he wasn’t busy killing people, used to pound the heavy bag there. Think about that. A fit hitman? Lord have mercy.

Integral to my story are the handful of men who’ve been members for longer than I have been alive. It is not unusual to see a muscular, ninety-plus-year-old man swaggering through the locker room naked. Which I happen to find totally awe-inspiring. Not the naked part, necessarily, but the idea of being in the gym at ninety-plus. Typically, I pay homage to the old dudes by engaging in their favorite pastime, storytelling. They tell. I listen. My hope is one day the secret of longevity will slip. In the interim, however, I am happy to hear their stories. And man I’ve heard some doozies. One time, a guy who was an Ohio golden gloves champ in the 1930s—he’d come to Los Angeles by way of Vegas where he’d thrown fights for the mob—told me about the day George Clooney got his lip busted on the basketball court. Apparently, the pre-famous George was a pretty good hoopster, but a feisty, foul-mouthed competitor. And as feisty, foul-mouthed men tend to, he got into a brouhaha with the wrong guy. “Whamo!,” the old boxer told me, punching the air with his gnarly fist, “the guy hauls off and socks him one, right in the kisser.”

I arrive at the Y from my residency a tad after two. The parking lot is promisingly empty, and after making my way through the courtyard, past the check-in desk, I settle in a nearly empty, almost silent, locker room.

“Thank God,” I whisper to myself, “all the old dudes are gone.”

I love the old dudes. You know this. But after five straight days of considering plot and character, I do not need more plot and character. I need sensory deprivation. Meditation. Breathwork. And everything is going according to plan. I slip on my trunks and head for the Natatorium prepared to soak my glutes in relative quiet.

Ah, but it is not to be.

*     *     *

Natatoriums are noisy by nature. The walls are hard. I expect the ricochet splashing of languid afternoon lap swimmers. What I do not expect is the abrasive, bombastic voice that attacks my ears. The voice emanates from the hot tub across the room. I look. What I see sweeps me into the fairytale orbit of alternative facts.

Photo by Superhero92; Creative Commons

It is just before Christmas 2016. Like everyone else in the universe, mainstream media has been bombarding me with images of vajayjay grabbing white men. Said images land on me, a Negro, as somewhat nightmarish. Sort of like Jason Voorhees emerging from graveyard fog, fresh blood on his knife, whistlin’ Dixie. So, it makes sense that my mind could be playing tricks on me. For standing in the middle of the hot tub, I swear, is the aforementioned, vajayjay grabbing archetype of which I spoke.

Perhaps it is the combination of sun and skylights, but his loose, tumbling down skin looks as if it has been lightly dusted with turmeric. So does his hair. Which, incidentally, remains stiff as cement despite the steamy humidity. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I wonder how that is even possible. But I don’t take it any further because next I see his hands. And I’ll be damned if they aren’t the teeniest tiniest little things I’ve ever seen. He uses them, in a way that seems familiar, to accessorize his pompous bloviation.

I have entered a strange new world where truth and make-believe are one in the same. It has created a hot tub predicament. And I’m not quite sure what to do.

Photo from Library of Congress; Public domain

For years mainstream media has bombarded me with stereotypical images about myself. Yeah, I know it’s propaganda. Still, sometimes I get confused. For instance, whenever I wear hoodies, I find myself suspicious of my right hand, wondering if it might steal money from my left pocket. With that in mind, who knows what stereotype could be triggered if Tiny Hands starts using foul-mouthed locker room talk? I am pretty sure it won’t be Sambo, Coon or good ole’ Stepin Fetchit, who was television’s favorite Negro, back when America was Great. Lately, I’ve noticed Nat Turner, Huey Newton, and Malcolm X rumbling in my bones. Philando Castile’s murder did it. I’ve finally had enough.

You better head back to campus before there’s trouble. I sigh, shake my head and shuffle toward the door.

However, before I reach the Natatorium’s exit, a voice speaks to me: “You’ve got four years of this B.S. in your future, big fella. You may as well get some practice in controlling the savage, pistol totin’, thugged-out Negro you are programmed to be.”

I listen and decide to take a chance.

*     *     *

Tiny Hands stands in the middle of the hot tub swaddled in pure white steam bubbling off the surface. He blocks the path to my favorite jet, a strong one on the end that massages real good. I step in, navigate right past him, apparently unnoticed. And I’m not being sneaky or anything like that. He just can’t see me.

As soon as I sit down, exhale a long, relaxing breath, Tiny Hands says with a confident grin, “I just finished my book. I talked it over with a guy in publishing last night. He thinks I’m on to something big—gonna sell millions of copies.”

Well, well, well, I thought, perking up. Isn’t this a pleasant turn of events?

Tiny Hands is talking to a big, hard-bellied Russian I’ve seen around the gym before. The Russian, I’ve always suspected, is one Bad Hombre. Some kind of Hollywood mob king, slash internet pirate. I know because I’ve seen him and two other guys speaking Russian. Whispering, looking over their shoulders and whatnot. And everybody knows Russia never sends us their best. But that’s not the point. The point is the Russian smells a deal and is listening carefully. But now so am I—sheepishly ear hustlin’ the conversation while chastising myself for being so goddamn judgmental.

“You are disgraceful,” that ubiquitous, docile, Negro voice says to me; the one I hate who’s always singin’ about the sweet bye-and-bye. “Tiny Hands is a good writer. You wish you were a good writer. Give the man a chance. I’ll bet he’s the nicest person you’ll ever meet. Shameful, you are very shameful. Sad.”

You should know that I love, love, love words. Merriam-Webster’s Word of The Day podcast is like pecan pie with thick crust and vanilla ice cream. Words like cavalcade and vicissitude and crepuscular give me a rollercoaster thrill. And man, words strung together by masters like Dickens, Jay-Z, Hemingway, Kendrick Lamar, or Walter Mosley are just like, wow! With that brand of love, I open my heart to Tiny Hands’ story.

He rakes my nerves talking about how smart he is. “Just brilliant,” he says. “Everybody tells me my ideas are sensational.”

Photo by Andre Hardy

Bad Hombre nods then cuts a glance at me. By then I have slid myself along the hot tub’s great wall, and they are positioned right in front of me in steamy waist high water. It is obvious I am listening. Obvious I am yearning to talk story. But Tiny Hands does not appear to see me. I am an Invisible Man.

“I’ve built a massive company, okay. Incredibly massive,” he continues. “Now I’m going to use my business smarts to make lots of money selling books. It’s hard to believe as brilliant as I am that I never thought of this before.” He grins high and mighty. “It’s the most incredible idea ever. Revolutionary.”

“Oh my God,” I mutter. “These idiots have scripts.”

I think he’s heard me because he pauses. Looking my direction, though, he gazes over my head, pondering, staring off into the future. After a beat, he turns to Bad Hombre with a rising grin, says “You know, I’m thinking this could be the biggest return on investment in the history of business. It only took me a month to write the book!”

Total sacrilege, I think. Nobody writes a book in a month.

Bad Hombre seems to hear me think. He glances at me and sees my eyes have narrowed and I am frowning.

Then Tiny Hands confuses us both. “I’m looking for a Chinese translator,” he says. “Know anybody?”

This time Bad Hombre holds my eyes. His thick Russian brow is heavy with questions. But hell, I don’t know what to say. I shrug, turn my palms up and mouth, “Chinese translator?”

“There are what, a couple billion Chinese?” Tiny Hands says flippantly. “After I translate the book I’m going to self-publish, put it on Amazon for two, maybe three, maybe even six bucks. I’m going to make a fortune.”

Bad Hombre asks, “Your book… tell me what is it saying?”

Tiny Hands scoffs, says “It doesn’t matter. What matters is the deal. The money.”

I snap. Off the wall, I fly with my fists raised.

I have stood by before, watching as they occupied Wall Street, watching as they protested the Dakota Access Pipeline; always watching. Not this time, though. I think, profoundly, First they came for the words, and I did not speak out. Then they came for the paragraphs, and I did not speak out. Then they came for the books, and I did not speak out. Then they came for writers, and there was no one left to speak for me.

Guessing by the terror in his wide eyes, Tiny Hands has finally seen me. An angry Negro sprung from the shadows (like he’d been warned) to harm his innocent white body. As we stand there, our eyeballs locked together, I sense another goddamn predicament.

If I touch him, I am going prison. Probably for a long, long time. But when the world finds out why, I’ll be recognized as a literary martyr. And that seems like a good thing. I envision millions of book-loving Americans marching on my behalf—chanting that I should be free. And in a profound historical moment, broadcast live on mainstream media, I will stand before the court shackled and collared like my ancestors. My last words before being converted into a widget in the Prison Industrial Complex will be those of Dr. Charles Johnson. I will say, “The health of a culture can be measured by the performance of those who speak and write its language. So am I wrong, then, for busting Tiny Hands’ lip?” A hush would fall over the courtroom. And then—

Photo by Andre Hardy

Eh, it sounds like fun.

But I have a workshop starting in an hour.

And everybody knows traffic in Los Angeles is no joke.

 

 

 

 

Andre Hardy is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. He is a graduate of St. Mary’s College of California and was the fourth pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1984 NFL draft. He writes hard-boiled, gumshoe stories with an urban twist. His work has never been published though he hopes that one day it will (wink).