Writers Read: Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli

Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions is indeed an essay responding to the absurdity of 40 certain inquiries. Yet, it is much more than that. The “tell me how it ends” refrain quotes a plaintive request from Luiselli’s daughter, who was five years old when Luiselli served as a volunteer translator for an immigration law non-profit in New York. The non-profit took the cases of undocumented immigrant children pro bono, as floods of children escaping gang violence and trafficking in Central and South America arrived in the United States. Luiselli wrote the book as a reaction to this refugee crisis, weaving her stories around the 40 questions required by US Customs and Immigration to be asked of unaccompanied migrant children, many of whom have suffered severe trauma and loss.

Tell Me How It Ends is a case study of this crisis. It is also a case study of education at work—Luiselli’s class in Advanced Spanish Conversation at Hofstra University begins discussing the influx of children at the US-Mexico border, vowing to help the undocumented teenagers now living in the US in constructive and sustainable ways. Tell Me How It Ends is also a tender, personal, and funny story about a rough-around-the-edges Honduran boy, the first child Luiselli met in her volunteer translation work.

One can imagine Luiselli’s early drafts, wrought with dismay and helplessness. The final essay wrings its hands with the same distraught tone, but tinged with hope—Luiselli’s call to action was heard not only by her university students but by non-profits willing to take on children’s cases pro bono. But, as we all know from recent media coverage, the Trump administration has not relented in its commitment to making life for migrant children as difficult as possible. This engrained racism, reflected by ever-more stringent immigration policies, is a clear symptom of the current administration’s lack of understanding of the US’s complicit role in this refugee crisis.

Throughout the book, Luiselli makes neat categorization of an often unclear situation. The essay comprises four subsections: “Border,” “Court,” “Home,” and “Community.” The 40 questions are interspersed in the essay, between Luiselli’s incisive observations and harrowing depictions of the typical child migrant experience aboard La Bestia—literally “The Beast,” a cross-country network of Mexican freight trains that fleeing underage refugees often use to
traverse Mexico more quickly on their way to the US.

These migrant children, usually fleeing gang violence in their home countries, often face graver dangers on their journeys to the border—robberies, rapes and other violent crimes, kidnappings, and extortions. The scenes Luiselli depicts left me in tears as I read the book in late September, just as the current caravan of migrants, most of whom are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, began gathering to seek asylum in the US.

Luiselli also weaves these children’s stories with her own path to legal citizenship; she waited several long years for her and her family’s green cards while writing the book and volunteer-translating. Luiselli could not legally work in the country, ironic given that her role as a writer enriches the lives and minds of her US-based students. So instead, she volunteered. As the Trump administration continues to ratchet its fear-mongering in the media regarding migrant caravans, I keep thinking of the migrant teenagers Luiselli describes, one in particular who walked the dry, hot plains of New Mexico for hours before two US Border Patrol officers mercifully found and detained him, providing him with life-saving water. I wonder if that would have happened had he traveled in a large group, with the protection of a common cause, the potential presence of relatives, and the ability to forge connections and make friends on the road—a strength in numbers. Migrating people are safer in caravans.

The haunting tale of the first refugee Luiselli met as part of her volunteer translation work winds through the essay. After the teen’s best friend dies in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, shot by members of the now-infamous Barrio 18 gang, the teen fled to the US, aided by his aunt, who hired a coyote—a paid guide who leads unaccompanied minors to the border—to guide him north. Luiselli recounts his response to questions 35 and 36 of the unaccompanied minor intake questionnaire, which ask if the child or his family experienced any problems with the government in their home country, and if so, what happened. The teen shows her the copy of the police report he filed in Honduras against the gang, after the murder of his best friend. The police never did anything, and the teen promised his aunt he would not leave the house until he was able to leave the country for good. He wasn’t able to attend his friend’s funeral. Cue my second crying jag in less than one hundred pages.

Valeria Luiselli

For this reader, Luiselli’s essay shook the bedrock of my humanitarian core. Drug consumption in the US “is what fundamentally fuels drug trafficking in the continent” (85), Luiselli writes, referring to the drug circuit and its many wars as a “hemispheric war” (86)—“one that begins in the Great Lakes of the United States and ends in the mountains of Celaque in southern Honduras” (86). If the involved governments would acknowledge the hemispheric problem and connections between drug wars, gangs, arms trafficking, drug use, and the massive migration of children, Luiselli writes, maybe authorities would rethink the language surrounding these problems and devise potential solutions.

“No one, or almost no one, from producers to consumers, is willing to accept their role in the great theater of devastation of these children’s lives,” (86) Luiselli writes. “… A ‘war refugee’ is bad news and an uncomfortable truth for governments, because it obliges them to deal with the problem instead of simply ‘removing the illegal aliens’” (87). Finally, some major media outlets, albeit more than a year after the publication of Tell Me How It Ends, have begun examining the US’s economic and drug control policies and pointing at these policies as at least partially responsible for the refugee crisis and the ensuing, asylum-seeking caravans. The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, VICE, and The Guardian all published articles to this tune—addressing the US’s problematic drug control in connection with fleeing refugees—in the past two months.

Going forward, my only concern about the US-Mexico border is our all-encompassing, collective obligation to our planet’s children. Like Luiselli’s daughter, though, I want to know how it ends. Do these children ever make it to relative safety? Do US policies change? What the hell is taking so long? Perhaps if more people read this book—more fully understand the need for the US to acknowledge its responsibility in the migrant crisis—those children at last will be safe.

Luiselli, Valeria. Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. Minneapolis: Coffee House
Press. 2017.

 

E.P. Floyd is lead blog editor and weekly content manager for Lunch Ticket, and an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her writing is published or forthcoming in Lunch TicketLitbreak Magazine, Reservoir, and BusinessWeek. She is at work on a novel and short story collection and lives in rural Wisconsin. Find her online at epfloyd.com.

Everybody’s Child

Dear Dad,

I’m writing to you for help. Weeks now, I’ve attempted to find a song or an image that best summarizes this holiday season. From harvest to final ball drop, I can’t seem to choose. I’m under a deadline, but the noise, Dad. Honking cars, helicopters, the news. Too much to integrate. Deafening tinnitus ringing louder than sweet silver bells. What am I to do?

Santa never meant that much to me. True, I helped set out home bakes and spent eves pressed against a cold window straining to spot his sleigh. Sleep won out every time. Your old dress sock greeted us each Christmas morning filled with Wrigley’s gum, playing cards, lip balm, and other oddities. We’d run to each other’s rooms and share our begotten loads with such excitement. Your belly laugh and the mystery of your sneakiness made Santa a chump.

“Away in a Manger” isn’t quite the right tune. Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus made less impact on me than the Gospel intended. Yes, I still put out Grandma’s nativity scene each year—even with the superglued goat’s head and the cracked manger. Some items are sacrosanct, though setting up the crèche is merely habitual.

Maybe I should write my own dedication?

An Ode in extreme brief to the year 2018:

“Oh, Hallelujah Chorus and get the Hell out.”

Um…You’re a George Frideric Handel singing fan. My apologies.
Let me try again.

An Ode in brief to the year 2018 (revised):

“As ornaments nestle all snug in their bins, menorahs lay tightly wrapped and tucked in. The cards are all stacked and handled with care. Lights, candles, wraps, and tape hide away there. Dazed children buzz on new screen time highs. The rest of us burp our collective sighs. Let us raise a toast to attempt good cheer. Clink glasses, my friends. Adieu 2018, what a terrible year.”

While this may have been a good twelve months for the shortlist, 2018 broke records in sucking the rotted tooth goo from an evil-eyed goat. Checking the news, reading blogs, personal essays, op-eds, and interacting online affirms my assessment. (Sorry Dad, I forgot you’re fond of goats.)

Sure, peppered among les misérables are those freshly married, graduated, babied, newly housed. But mon père, bad times have smacked the world. Puerto Rico had no electric power for 11 months. Brexit stalled. Russia, Cambridge Analytica—those were investigated— while our president and the newest Supreme Court appointee slid on by without consequence. We watch them all playing Jeux Sans Frontières like little children’s games. Rules aren’t rules when they change mid-play.

This negativity spans the whole year (and you know I’m nauseatingly positive). Our Congress marches closer toward leasing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: a 1.6 million-acre leasing plan. Oil for SUVs. Fat checks to our oil kings. Griming the atmosphere as the administration rolls back clean air regulations.

Chancellor Angela Merkel plans to step down when her term ends. Germans are pushing back against her immigrant hospitality.

…That couple over 2000 years ago. They are forced to travel on foot and must stop to give birth in unclean conditions. Times are dreadful for these displaced people seeking refuge.

*          *          *

See my struggle, Daddy? How do I find the musical score or icon to help recount compounding suffering? There is no arc, no Act I, Act II, or Act III. New Year’s is almost nigh and I’m running out of time. What heavenly image speaks to me?

Recently and in a concentrated dose, the firmament opened up and rained dévasté upon the Southland. We didn’t need chaos, though rain would’ve been divine.

November’s election besieged Los Angeles. Infernal, violent, with chilling irony, stories glutted the news. On November 7th, a Ventura County bar, filled with college students, hosted a line dancing competition that ended in slaughter. Some of these young brights survived the Las Vegas shootings only to die a few miles up the 101 freeway. This assault that killed 12 was the 307th mass U.S. shooting in 2018. But within hours, grieving families and friends no longer had the country’s outstretched arms. Gunfire was upstaged by real fire. Celebrity, high-profile fire. Malibu Style.

Not everyone had private fire rescue teams.

In the Woolsey firestorm while a close family’s home burned down, our son was called to Malibu.

FRIDAY, NOV. 8th 5:00 am
GET HERE
SHELTER IN PLACE
KEEP WATCH

We didn’t know how he’d survive. Do you remember that moment in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds when Tom Cruise lets loose the tight grip on his son’s jacket? The valiant youth pushes away to join forces against the intelligent invaders. We watched our son go. Four days later, he made his way home.

Just hours before leaving, Nathan had barely processed the Ventura bar attack. He’d faced a tragic mass shooting at his university. The close family lost everything: a double-wide in a hidden paradise of overgrown hills dried out from human-influenced climate change. They’d lived together bringing love and peace to everyone who met them. Their one-month-old baby wasn’t hurt. Thankful, his parents grieve the quiet, healthy land he would’ve played on where toys, blankets, books, and clothes burned.

Dad…just days before the fire, I couldn’t sleep. The 6th sense vigil had begun. 4 am and staring, electric and tense. When the text came, I didn’t shudder. Mom. Her brilliant brain filling with water. She’s left with confusion, paranoia, fear.

Now she has entered that long goodbye. There’s no rescuing her.

I strain to hear her voice but no longer can.

Once, we sang the duet, “He Shall Feed His Flock Like A Shepherd” from Handel’s Messiah. I don’t remember where. Do you remember? Our voices were the same bells. Mine higher than hers. The message echoes the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming the Messiah would be lowly born and exalted a king.

He would grant his believers rest. Do you rest from your labors?

Well— Mother Mary couldn’t rest from hers! Travail is the French word for labor pain. This might be the right descriptor for our year, 2018.

I question why a story was written describing a birth where the mother and father were cast out, facing hardship and suffering, and were met with one person’s kindness. Not much of a kindness, but when there was no room at the inn—when all denied them—he gave shelter.

You taught me to fact check:

The family had to travel due to King Herod’s persecution, according to The Book of Matthew. It was the Roman census, some theologians add. Historians state that people were conscripted to physically announce themselves to the nearest city’s census center, but there was no hardship laid upon Joseph and his expectant fiancé to arrive in Bethlehem. Jesus’s holy birth doesn’t match the Roman census inception dates.

Whether this is a child’s story or sacred text lauding the King of Kings, Christ’s mom and dad could use a little fine-smelling frankincense and gold. And how about this year’s crop of medicinal myrrh?

We could all use three star-gazers looking beyond, following a sign, reading omens.

This image grabs my attention.

The three wise men may have spotted a heliacal rising; a planet hoisting sail before the sun fully lit. Added to this marvel, the planet could have managed to hover. Greek astrologers called this epano when a planet pauses then changes direction from east to west. In such remarkable skies I can see why they may have considered this baby royalty.

But the lowly barn…born in poverty…crossing unknown lands…

I realize for weeks I’ve been replaying the same musical measures in my mind.

Closing my eyes, I see the Memorial Hall stage. Chatter hushes as the house lights fade. The Maestro enters. Adagio strings wake the night sky. They dance behind a dimly lit scrim. The silken film illumines a ballerina wrapped in opalescent fabric unfurling in chainé turns: The Eastern Star. My young body barely sits, anticipating your entrance. From stage left, appears each wise man: King Melchior, King Balthazar, and finally you, the tenor, singing the role of King Caspar.

Gian Carlo Minotti’s Amahl and The Night Visitors remains the last great performance you offered after putting your opera career aside to conduct music and instruct. Later, our opera company employed People of Color to portray the Kings, a decision you applauded.

Christ’s iconic origin story is rendered for a deeper reason, as a relatable symbol who would grow up to wash feet, pray with outcasts, and minister to sick and bereaved. Enslaved people, the misunderstood, those judged and unheard, they would relate to such a leader.

People have been crossing lands to escape persecution, tyranny, poverty, and torture for centuries. Currently, over 625,000 Muslim and Hindu Rohingya were forced out of Myanmar. An estimated 5 million Syrians have sought refuge. Yemenis claim no country will take them. The few who make it out—even the doctors who stay and help who cannot feed their families—describe cholera, diphtheria, starvation, and violence. A human catastrophe.

Horace Mann, the great educator said I’m supposed to be ashamed to die until I’ve won a victory for humanity. You taught me these words first.

Daddy, how can I make a difference?

This year has been horrible. I hear people say this in the grocery line. They’re ready for Father Time to bring down his mighty scythe and slice 2018 off into Auld Lang Syne.

Closer examination shows a historical relationship between death and new beginning. Chronos passes the great hat to the New Year’s Baby and we make our resolutions. To clean the slate and make reparations dates back hundreds even thousands of years. Looking for goodness and light—
Goodness and your favorite word to describe babies: mirthful.

Daddy, I have good news:

An Ode in extreme brief to the year 2018 (Mirth Announcement):

“Born at 3:55 am on November 7th – Our great-nephew brought families together in a moment of pure celebration, a beacon.”

Glad tidings of great joy. Behold, a baby brings us out of the darkness.

*          *          *

A month later, a child died while in border patrol custody.

I walked down Washington Blvd. with friends. Subdued, I slowed my pace, stopped and turned to my good friend André Hardy Sr.

I can’t get the news out of my mind.
It’s with me in here.

My palm ached against my breastbone.

That’s because she’s everyone’s child.
When you know it then you accept that we’re all connected.

We began walking again.

André, they don’t even know her name.

Days later, the nation learned 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin’s name.
She was our responsibility. Hungry, high-fevered, exhausted, Jakelin died at the feet of this nation.

Not the first immigrant to die. Not even the first this year. Now, another child dies on Christmas Eve.
8-year-old Guatemalan, Felipe Alonzo-Gomez. Let there be a reckoning.

Jakelin is everybody’s child. Felipe Alonzo-Gomez is everyone’s child.

I boast no promises, understanding how small a life of service registers. What I’ve done and left undone, what’s wrong all around me; there’s more to unwork than I could ever tackle, and much more suffering left unsaid. But Father, you taught me a great truth: Mercy is stronger than a wall.

If kindness is an act of sedition, then I am guilty. I will kind my way through another year. Thank you for showing me how.

Your loving daughter,

Andrea

 

Andrea Auten is a writer and arts teacher. At Lunch Ticket, she is the Assistant Managing Editor of Social Media | Community Outreach and Marketing. A graduate of the MFA and post-MFA programs at Antioch University Los Angeles, she is currently working on her short story collection. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two sons, the family cats, and just down the 101 a piece, her new grand-nephew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nicolas Poynter, Avenida Juárez #2, 2017, Medium digital image, 12” x 12”

Spotlight: Cicatrices (Mexico City After the Earthquake)

It wasn’t just the one earthquake. It was the one before it as well, which woke me from a sound sleep. The curtains were swinging as if there was a breeze but moving the wrong way, side-to-side, and then I remembered that I kept the windows closed at night because of the mosquitoes. I heard the doorman screaming and that must have got me going […]

À La Carte: bifurcatin’ blues

Ma Rainey on my parade,
anyday. Wear suits to that rodeo
and yield it your birthing hips.

Sway ‘em on stage and own the gaze
of them who owned you. Heaven
can’t be white when you are nutmeg
ground for God. Speak easy to me

and rest real hard, tomorrow will be
another long one. I say hi to the ladies
and I love my thighs in loving theirs.
I walk my way home open,

because there are two alleys and I took
them both, I swallowed them up.

They said nobody could eat a street,
but look at me, I did.

 


Koby L. Omansky is a writer whose work has been published in FIVE:2:ONE, Moonsick Magazine, anthologies by Thoughtcrime Press and Platypus Press, and more. She works in youth advocacy in Brooklyn.

Litdish: Jody Chan, Poet

Jody Chan is a writer and organizer based in Tkaronto/Toronto. They are the poetry editor for Hematopoeisis, a 2017 VONA alum, and the 2018 winner of the Third Coast Poetry Contest, selected by Sarah Kay. Their first chapbook is forthcoming in 2018 with Damaged Goods Press, and their poetry is published in BOAAT, Looseleaf Magazine, Nat. Brut, The Shade Journal, and elsewhere. They can be found online at https://www.jodychan.com/ and offline in bookstores or dog parks.

1. Tell us a little about your writing process—how often you write, what your desk is like, etc. Do you still write in longhand? Quiet? Music?

I write in snatches: while riding the subway, in my head while biking (this is sometimes dangerous), during my lunch break at work, on my phone in the washroom. Everything my senses run into is a potential prompt—and then the ideas get captured in an ever-growing stash of phone notes. It doesn’t work for me to set goals for frequency, like writing every day or even every other day. It makes me beat up on myself too hard when I don’t meet my own goal, and then writing becomes a guilty obligation instead of something I get to look forward to.

2. Do you consider yourself classically trained? Are you influenced by a certain group of poets? Language poets in particular?

My writing education has come from attending workshops with VONA, The Speakeasy Project, and Winter Tangerine; I have been most heavily influenced by those teachers (Danez Smith, Luther Hughes, Yasmin Belkhyr, jayy dodd) whose lessons I carry with me into every poem. My work also looks to queer poets of colour like Franny Choi, Chen Chen, Angel Nafis, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Natalie Diaz, and Fatimah Asghar who address themes of intergenerational trauma, queer identity, and queer joy. My writing often wrestles with questions about language—its openings, its limitations, how it can be used as an instrument to create meaning. Sometimes, though, I do want language to take an unobtrusive backseat to the image or the narrative in my poems.

3. You experiment quite a bit in your writing (I absolutely love the new addition to your website— “Superstitions”) using Chinese characters and composition by field. Why? Do you gain freedom of expression this way?

 I usually make choices about form based on each individual poem, and what I think would serve the content best. In the case of “superstitions,” I wanted the form to convey the breathless, weighty accumulation of beliefs and exhortations that I have received from my family. Using punctuation would have given me, and the reader, too much space to rest, and time to filter these received superstitions through a lens of “common sense” or judgment. I use Chinese characters in many of my poems as an active refusal to translate for a white audience; when I use phonetic translations of spoken Cantonese, I don’t italicize them for the same reason. My poems often speak directly to people (my mother, most frequently) with whom I would naturally use Cantonese to communicate. This is all complicated by the fact that Cantonese is a language I don’t know how to read very well, and can’t write at all—which means that I myself was only able to get there through Google Translator. I know a lot of diasporic kids, like me, who feel shame about not knowing their own language; so in some ways, my poetic choices are a defense against my own shame as well.

4. What do you consider to be a “good day of writing” in your world?

The meaning of a “good day of writing” depends on what I’m working on at the time. With some poems, a whole draft might emerge in one sitting. Others struggle much harder and more slowly, in which case unearthing a single solid line or image might feel really good. There are other activities—like reading a new book of poetry, or adding words to my word bank, or listening to a podcast interview of a brilliant poet—that I consider poetic exercising, and can define amazing writing days on their own.

5. What does your editing process look like? Are you part of a writer’s group? Do you workshop pieces with trusted friends…etc?

I have a few trusty editing exercises that I put all my pieces through. For example, I circle all the verbs in one colour and all the nouns in another, to make sure each one is pulling its weight. I read it out loud, and cut one quarter of the lines. I tend to hold onto all my drafts in the same document, so I can see how the poem has evolved over time. My baby first drafts go to my writing group, which is made up of two trusted friends. We meet monthly to workshop pieces across the genres of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. Our feedback does focus on craft, but it is also holistic and human: we celebrate each other’s achievements and lift each other up.

6. Inspiration? What inspires you to pick up your pen?

One of the main engines of my work is obsession. I find it difficult to write when I am not actively obsessed with something—which, thankfully, isn’t very often (as my browser tabs can attest). Once, I spent two hours watching a giant Pacific octopus breathe in the corner of its tank at the Seattle Aquarium for a poem about parenting and captivity. Once, I dug up twenty-year-old Internet forums speculating on the cause of death for Teresa Teng, a beloved Taiwanese singer—conversations that ended up informing a series of poems about her life and personal and political impact. I’ve found that my obsessions are ways into talking about the themes that propel my work: sickness and sexuality, trauma and joy, family and community.

7. What would you like for your poetry to accomplish?

I believe that all art is political. I have a responsibility as an artist to continually orient my work in relationship with movements fighting for justice. I want my voice to weave together my mother tongue (English) and my mother’s tongue (Cantonese), to weave spells of care and safety for my blood and chosen kin, who are the people I want my work to have meaning for. I think every poem can have a different purpose: sometimes, a poem wants to be angry, smash windows. Sometimes, it wants to be a deep breath of refuge in between bouts of yelling and chanting at rallies to denounce a racist, colonial government. Other times, a poem is a crystallized moment of joy between friends at a dance party. But I hope for all of my poems to be in service of my people.

8. How important is language to an aspiring poet? What are your words of encouragement to someone who is learning to write?

I’ll only speak for myself, but I think that I’m a poet because I believe in the power of language: what it can do for us, between us. And that includes both violence and healing. At the end of the day, I also love language and try not to take it for granted. I have fun seeing what rules I can subvert. The advice I want to pass on is advice that I’ve received, over and over, from some of my own teachers: you have to let go of your expectations, let go of the (capitalist, ableist) pressure to produce something every time you sit down to write. Just write. A lot of us are always thinking about the people or communities we’re writing for. This shift was life-changing for me. I don’t write about things that don’t matter to me, and that can feel weighty enough, without also demanding that my every attempt at art goes somewhere, or that it always be intentional.

9. How often do you venture out to writing circles/readings? How important is it for poets to be part of a writing community?

I never go to as many in-person writing circles or readings as I think I should. I tend to cultivate writing community in a less organized way, but there’s no such thing as art in isolation; I wouldn’t be able to do any of my work without my ties to community. My people are the ones I write for, and they’re the ones who take care of me so I can write. I’ve also been amazingly lucky to build relationships with so many folks through online and offline writing workshops like VONA and Winter Tangerine—many of whom don’t live anywhere near me, but who continue to support and love on each other’s work constantly.

10. How do sensitive issues make themselves known in your work? Your poem “Telling my Mother I’m not Her Daughter” is excruciatingly beautiful… “meaning sometimes I want to be a wall / & sometimes a pillow / 阿媽 / do you understand? / I do not want to be a woman / because I am not / a woman / hold up a mirror / every time / your body / dismantles / its own shell / & finds / the imprint / of an invisible yoke / 媽 / I burrow these questions / through my skin /”   These issues are not for the faint of heart…but there they are, twinkling like stars between the lines….  How do you do this?

Thank you for saying that! I don’t think I make conscious decisions to pursue “sensitive issues,” per se. I just don’t shy away from the aspects that make us whole people with complicated relationships. Everything worth writing about is at least a little bit scary; there’s always risk involved in naming something true. I often think through writing. There are things I’ve written about that I never articulated before they came out in a poem, and then I came to understand my own feelings, or a new perspective on a familiar wound, through the poem. I think the bigger challenge is navigating the line between what feels like exploiting trauma (mine, others’) for artistic credibility with white audiences, and what feels more like being honest about experiences of pain and oppression. At those times, I think about the fact that I am both an individual and part of a collective, and thus hold part of a collective responsibility for the people around me. How can I write about shared trauma and grief in a way that heals, or bears witness, without doing further harm to my communities?

 

Janet Rodriguez is an author, blogger, teacher, and editor living in Sacramento with her husband, extended family, three dogs, and one cat.  In the United States, her work has appeared in Salon, American River Review, Greensleeves, Calaveras Station, and Sacramento Family Resource Guide.  Rodriguez has also had essays, stories and two biographies published in South Africa.

Her writing usually examines identity and morality in faith communities, as well as the mixed-race experience in a culturally binary world. Currently she is a Cardinal cohort at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she serves the magazine, Lunch Ticket, where a bunch of younger nerds keep her on her toes.

In and Out

I learned to breathe in Virginia Beach, at the age of thirty-six. We arrived there in April of 1999―the cusp of a new century. Our little family of four: my husband, Bob, and our two young daughters, Kiran and Priya. Three thousand miles of water became the bulwark against our previous lives in London, England.

Bob’s new position was with the same employer, but his commute was now twenty minutes to Norfolk, Virginia, home of the world’s largest naval station. We were often asked, “Are you military?” We weren’t. And also: “Which church do you go to?” We didn’t.

After twelve years of marriage, Virginia Beach offered us the freedom to become a family of only four, far away from the interference of peripheral members― the root cause of our frequent, heated arguments. I had to decide if I wanted another child. And consider the repercussions of giving birth to another not-boy baby. I didn’t know how important it was to Bob that he have a son; it seemed to be the only thing that mattered to his mum. Stuck in the borderland between his mum and me, Bob had found an escape route, across the Atlantic.

Priya was a beautiful bundle at three-and-half years old: shiny long curls; symmetrical face; a loud, smart, free spirit; irresistible. She turned heads wherever she went. Nine-year-old Kiran had had to leave her diverse clutch of school friends behind; the bonds that had been developing since their first day together at the attached public preschool, around six years prior. They were bold, confident, imaginative, and always had such fun together. Kiran didn’t complain, though the move was probably hardest on her.

In the summers we rode the Elizabeth River Ferry between Downtown Norfolk and Old Towne Portsmouth, warm breezes caressing our faces, water droplets baptizing. The girls giggled with incredulous delight at the huge bubbles they could create at the Children’s Museum, bubbles that rose up in a cylinder around them as they pulled on a rope. We spent hours at the beach, where the ocean sighed as the girls played in the sand, the city-employed entertainers amused residents and tourists alike, then the fireworks crackled and twinkled and exploded, releasing color into the darkness.

Bob and I visited the Chrysler Museum of Art while the girls were at school. In equal measure, both the exhibits of M. C. Escher’s impossible constructions and the enormous slices of cake served on dinner plates in the café helped me to fall in love with America.

Para and Maitreyi, two ostensibly white, devout, American yogis, in their mid to late twenties, taught me how to breathe. They had traveled to India―the country of my birth―in search of something they had not been able to find in America. Upon their return home, they established Community Yoga―a donation-based yoga studio that would not turn people away because of a lack of finances.

At Community Yoga I was invited to just be. To breathe. Not the shallow type of breathing that was the only possibility when constantly working to hold my belly in, but the kind that requires an expansion of the belly, that rises slowly upwards, lungs filling, to rest in the throat area, where the chakra― or energy center―associated with communication is located. It is at the resting point that the tension begins to dissolve for me. Then the wind of exhalation reverses course, belly contracting to help expel the breeze outwards. In and out. Something we do without thinking, yet when performed consciously, can usher in a serenity that was quietly waiting to be invited in.

I discovered Community Yoga while searching for an alternative to kick boxing, which had resulted in a knee injury. The spiritual side of yoga was an unexpected gift. The studio was newly founded so classes were often small. Although it wasn’t good for business, I was pleased when I was the only student, because I received one-on-one teaching. I learned quickly under their devoted, expert guidance, with their soothing, meditative music in the background, and the warm, playful flickering of the candles. I began to spend more and more time there, helping out with cleaning and providing items they needed but could not afford.

For the first time in our married lives we could manage on Bob’s salary alone. I didn’t want to return to teaching high school mathematics, but I was unable to consider any alternative employment without a work permit. So I enrolled at Old Dominion University. Feminist Thought gave me the language to think about my subordinate position as a woman in my culture, and more widely in Western society. Among the books I read in the Women Writers class was Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, George Elliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and Claire De Duras’s Ourika (translated by John Fowles). I identified with Elliot’s protagonist, Maggie, who was suffocated by the rules she was supposed to live by. As I read Ourika, the uncontrollable deluge of tears I released surprised me. It’s based on the true story of a rescued Senegalese slave girl, raised by an aristocratic French family during the French Revolution; she exists in the liminal space between two cultures, belonging to neither. The tides of time had brought the waves of words written by women so long ago, to wash over me, and connected me to myself and to them.

I learned about Reiki, a healing modality based on energy centers within the body while in conversation with one of my mathematics professors in London. She was someone I had a great deal of respect for, so I knew that if she held it in high regard, it was something I could trust. When I found a Reiki teacher I studied with her until I achieved master level proficiency.  In combination with the deep breathing I had learned, I began to ask the healing energy of the universe to heal me and others in my life. Reiki sessions always left me with a profound sense of peace, even when I was working on other people. I felt a connection to something that was both a part of me and much greater than me. I’ve been asking the healing energy of the universe for guidance ever since.

Virginia Beach turned out to be a stepping-stone for us. The company Bob worked for was bought out by another, so three years after we first uprooted, we moved again―this time to California. Six thousand miles between us and our families of origin. I hadn’t found the instruction manual for my life that I’d naively always wanted, but in Virginia Beach I learned how to create an inner calm, that allowed for contemplation without the fog of self-doubt, of confusion. Bob and I both decided we didn’t want to have any more children. It felt as though the fissures in our marriage were beginning to close up, that our marriage may survive.

Sarita Sidhu is a nonfiction writer and an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. She has worked as a teacher and an advocate of Fair Trade for many years.

À La Carte: Olam haBa

I’ve been awake so long that my computer
illuminates the wet of its reservoir
with a whisper:

The last time I was out on a Friday night I was
taking transit on shabbos.
It’s against halacha to kill yourself
so I’m waiting for Masada,
praying for a neighbour to pick my name–

To bleed out into sand,
a bone-red body dragged to Jerusalem.

But this is fine, this is close enough;
Thornhill will do.

The buildings dressed and minced as G-d-kept gates—

the synagogue down the street; the high school I avoided because I hated Jewish Girls my
age. The convenience store I still visit when I’m really fucking high.

Don’t separate me from the earth
(but please don’t make me leave my room
or make me get dressed).

Will this third beer cure me?
Hunched-over, asking in the language of
knotted and tired DNA,
What remains of my family?

I will not lift myself from this bed
until you beg for my forgiveness.

 

Syd Lazarus is a 24-year-old queer, non-binary, Jewish, Torontonian with a passion for making anti-oppression based art. Graduated from Ryerson University with a BFA in film, they are currently working on co-writing and co-directing a horror-comedy about Horse Girls. Their writing has been exhibited in Shameless Mag, McClung’s, and The Eyeopener. They can be found taking cute selfies and posting art at @lazaruswitch on Instagram.

Word from the Editor

“Like the mutability of social strictures in my lost and new homelands, my work embraces ambiguity and uncertainty,” Tatiana Garmendia writes about her portfolio Migrations. Garmendia’s work “wrestles with conflicting moral intuitions, with the personal and the historic.” Whether the medium is writing, painting, or even dance, the creative mind is driven to tell our passions and histories through narratives.

Our stories can be difficult, sometimes impossible, to tell. In her essay “Alone in Company,” Chelsea Bayouth reflects on the role of an artist at the end of 2018: “For me, it is to fear that every word or image is a window into public, political, and social tumult. It means you have to be more vulnerable than you or anyone in times previous has ever been.” If we continue to write, to paint, to dance, to show up for ourselves and our art every day, we might find that our work transcends ambiguity and discomfort to reveal a greater insight into ourselves, and if we are lucky, into the world.

Lunch Ticket Issue 14: Winter/Spring 2019 finds itself through narratives—difficult, painful, and emotional, they find power in their revelations and in the vulnerability of each writer and artist has put into them. At Lunch Ticket, our mission has always been to serve misrepresented and marginalized communities, and our staff of forty-six volunteers somehow manage to pull together two amazing issues twice a year. We look for work that haunts and moves us all with a social justice bend. Art is a place where people can find a middle ground and explore complex subjects. In the poetry section, Mehrnoosh Torbatnejad writes:

And the first words out of my mouth
do not buck into a shield, do not blast his ears
with refusal, not never, in my quiet defense
something un-proud: it’s not even Muslim (Can You Remove Your Necklace During Work Hours?)

From fiction stories like Devan Collins Del Conte “Again Undine” to poems like Chaun Ballard’s “Q & A” and creative nonfiction pieces like “Reflections” by Marlene Olin, this issue explores themes of identity and giving power to the voiceless. “The myths were wrong and they weren’t; they weren’t to do with her anymore anyway and they were all she had left. They weighed her down from the inside, those alloys of knowing,” Devan Collins Del Conte writes in “Again Undine.”

We are also trying to expand our platform for youth outreach. In Issue 14, we featured artist Ava Wangs, an eighteen-year-old who found inspiration for her collection “Natural and Organic” in “things I hold close to my heart, such as my childhood memories, a place or a story that carried meaning, my friends, my family, and my own identity and philosophies.” Ava shows us that narrative and stories aren’t always written but can be illustrated with a paintbrush.

Lunch Ticket is excited to announce our contest winners and finalists. Gabo Prize winner Maia Evrona translates selected poems from Abraham Sutzkever’s Poems from My Diary. Guest judge Piotr Florczyk says, “I was immediately struck by the visionary undertow of these poems, their author wearing a mask of ‘a blind seer’ and running ‘from abyss to abyss rescuing the smiles of the sacrificed.’” Evorna’s prize-winning translations appear alongside other literary works translated from Old English, Spanish, German, Russian, Italian, and Polish in our Gabo Prize and translation sections.

This issue’s Diana Woods Memorial Award in Creative Nonfiction winner, “Playing House” by Alex Myers, captivates us “with its unexpected, evocative metaphors and descriptions—its language just slightly off-kilter, as alluring and evocative as the abandoned houses that drew in the narrator and their brother,” said guest judge Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. “This is an essay that stayed with me.”

At Lunch Ticket, we look for stories that stay with us. As we continue to make strides towards our mission, I’m reminded of Helen Park’s protest at her church’s lack of tolerance in her creative nonfiction piece “Crabbing:” I got up, walked to the back of the room and turned around at the entrance, yearning to spot just a hint of opposition, any lick of discomfort, a slight cough or questioning tilt of the head. I waited with my hands at my sides, holding my breath and praying for something—anything—to break the surface.” As artists and writers, we often find ourselves taking a stand while others are still sitting. In the era of Kavanaugh, Muller investigations, and the endless stream of distressing news, it’s essential to remember that the work is important. Art is necessary, and it has the power to “break the surface.”

Kori Kessler has a degree in literary theory. She just got done traveling Europe and currently attends Antioch University Los Angeles. She is editor-in-chief of Lunch Ticket and has work published in Tiferet Journal. One of these days she plans on settling down in LA with her dog, Ginsberg.