Litdish: Nancy Au, Author

Nancy Au‘s writing appears or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, The Cincinnati Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Catapult, Lunch Ticket, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. She has an MFA from San Francisco State University where she taught creative writing. In the summers, she teaches creative writing (to biology majors!) at California State University Stanislaus. She is co-founder of The Escapery (https://theescapery.org). Her flash fiction is included in the Best Small Fictions 2018 anthology and she was the winner of The Vestal Review’s 2018 VERA Flash Fiction Prize. Her full-length collection, Spider Love Song & Other Stories, is forthcoming from Acre Books (University of Cincinnati) in 2019.

The following is a series of questions Nancy answered via email.

1. What’s your writing practice like?

Here is my lock-step narrative answer to your awesome question: I write for as short as a frenzied five-minute journal entry or up to three hours of nonstop typing in my laptop. For the longer writing times, I’ll select about 6-7 of my favorite books of the moment, and then set myself up either on the sofa or at my desk, which are both in the quietest corner of my home. I then pick one of the books and thumb through it until I come across a passage or a sentence or a single word that triggers my imagination. And then, if I’m starting a new project, I’ll simply begin to write without really thinking about what I’m writing and using that passage or sentence or word as my starting point. Those first few pages are always nonsensical and garbled. Sometimes it’s just a drawing/sketch in my notebook! I learned from my first writing teacher (the fabulous writer and editor, Peg Alford Pursell) to pay attention to my breathing, my body position, the way that my back and hands and neck feel when I am writing “on a roll,” when the words are flowing. I equate this to the way that I train for a marathon hike, teaching my body to recognize when I am “warmed up” and in a creative mind-space. So then when I experience these moments again, I know to push past the distractions (falling into a Wikipedia wormhole, or answering a text on my phone, or checking my email, etc.), and to flex those warmed-
up muscles and keep writing writing writing!

2. How do you manage writing with all your other responsibilities? (like day job,
family, social life, etc.)

I wish that I had a great answer for this question! Haha! My writing schedule varies so so so much. It’s often based on the projects that I am working on, or whether I am actively attending workshops, or working on pieces for specific journals or literary readings, or teaching, or if it’s raining, or if it’s sunny and perfect hiking weather, or if I’m feeling upbeat, or if I’m feeling blue. But, logistically speaking, my writing practice requires external deadlines. It’s the main reason why I decided to pursue an MFA; I wanted to be a part of a writing program that would provide me with different projects, writing goals (short-term and long-term), and deadlines. It is also the reason why I send so much of my work to literary journals; I tell myself that each time I send my work out, I can move on to my next project. Otherwise, I get caught in this mindset that my piece is not ready/finished/perfect, and then I can’t stop working on the same piece. Sending out my work also helps me to let go of the idea of the “perfect” story.

3. Do you ever struggle with writer’s block? If so, how do you get passed it or through
it?

I feel that writer’s block mirrors the natural rhythms of life—sometimes things are flowing and raucous, and other times things are quiet and still. I think that, for myself, it’s also a necessary part of being a writer because it allows for my brain to reset, for my creative mind and curiosity to have time to expand and explore new questions. It is true, though, that it feels frustrating when I want to write but am unsure of where to begin. When this happens, I use different writing experiments and prompts that I’ve learned from my wonderful teachers and writer friends, and prompts that I’ve thought up for the workshops I teach. One of my favorite writing experiments is to find a passage online from a favorite story or essay or poem or any form of text. (I’ve also done this with biology textbooks, with poetry collections, with novels, with cookbooks, with the ingredient lists of cereals, with newspaper clippings!) I print it out and rip it up into several different strips which I then mix up. Or I use my favorite word cut-up generator and then search for interesting and totally jumbled fragments and word-pairings to inspire me. It’s so much fun, and it’s encouraged me to use animals or plants or colors or foods or textures that I would never have thought to use on my own!

4. What inspires you the most? Was there or is there a specific person that inspired
you?

There are so many people who inspire me to write, who inspire the stories and characters that I write, who encourage and help me to feel that I have something to say as a writer. I wish that I could name all of these wonderful people here! Every single one of my teachers and mentors, my writer friends that I’ve known at workshops and at school and met at literary readings, my childhood friends, my hubby, my colleagues at The Escapery, my family…every single person has been a source of inspiration and strength and love.

5. What’s the most recent thing you’ve written?

The most recent piece I’ve written is an unfinished story about someone whose teeth ache from the cold. The reasons for why this person is in the cold and what they were doing, [are] inspired by a really awesome story that my sister-in-law shared a few weeks ago. To be continued…

6. What’s the most important thing(s) you want to get across in your writing?

I think that I most want to find the unique voices for my characters, to understand why they do the things they do. I’m fascinated by human psychology and about the different ways that our biology and our unique comprehension of the world influences our choices. I hope to portray characters who are conflicted by who they are (or who they see themselves as), and who want to understand where they come from.

7. What advice would you give to emerging poets and writers?

Oh gosh…I really wish I had a great answer for this wonderful question! I think that everything that I’ve been trying and doing and experiencing and questioning over the past several years as a writer, that these are questions, experiences, tryings and doings that many others might experience in a lot of different ways, and at different stages in their writing careers. I suppose, though, the one thing that I was told when I first started writing, the one thing that I hold onto and turn to each time I begin to doubt myself, is: I most hope for every person to feel that they matter, that their voice and words matter, that each breath they take matters.

8. What are you reading right now? Any recommendations for our readers?

Right at this very moment, this very second, I am reading Foglifter and Celeste Chan’s Tender: An Anthology in Collaboration with the Queer Ancestors Project. And, oh my gosh, there are so many many books that I would also recommend, far too many to list all of them here. I’ll begin by listing Sung Yim’s What About the Rest of Your Life, Sequoia Nagamatsu’s Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, Nona Casper’s The Fifth Woman, Peg Alford Pursell’s Show Her A Flower A Bird A Shadow, YiYun Li’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Janice Lee’s Damnation, Carolina De Robertis’ The Gods of Tango, Barbara Tomash’s Pre-, Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Natasha Saje’s Bend, Jennifer S. Cheng’s House A, Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck, Nick Caruso & Dani Rabaiotti’s Does It Fart?, and and and…

9. What are your interests outside of the literary world?

I am fascinated by cheese, all cheese. And pesto. I am also fascinated by hover technology, dogs with white stripes on their snout, soft blue pillows that smell of drool, and cheeks that smell of warm cotton, hiking hiking hiking under bay laurel and redwood and oak, and the satisfying hum that electric hybrid cars make when they begin to accelerate.

10. What question do you wish I’d asked you and what’s your answer?

  • QUESTION: What is the farthest you’ve hiked in one day?
  • ANSWER: 26.2 miles

 

Sara Voigt is a current MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles where she’s pursuing her masters in creative writing. She also works on the literary journal Lunch Ticket, where she’s working as Proof Edit Manager and Managing Editor. Originally from Wisconsin, she currently lives and works in the Los Angeles area.

The startling difference between XXY and XY runners

How Roland Barthes Changed My Life

My original piece for this was titled “What It Means to Be Human Today,” but since I was introducing a new paradigm of human man, the post was perhaps ambitious in aim. So I withdrew it. Since I am a waterproof hybrid human being made in part of walrus skin [not], my annoyance with my own misfire rolled right off and theoretically wetted the bellybutton lint and dried port stains under my writing desk.

So why am I still talking about that original post? Because of Roland Barthes.

The startling difference between XXY and XY runners

Hint: there is no difference between XY and XXY.

The point was to illuminate that in my wealth of experience with this, people do not accept the reality of a different healthy human DNA paradigm than the one we are taught in K-12 school, and to illustrate why that is, why it is a human problem, and to share a simple way to take my background and apply it in a productive way to your own differences. I gathered from the feedback, a heavy read on Western medicine’s human difference extermination agenda and Google’s lack of accountability was a bit much to digest.

The gist was, the assumed human chromosome archetypes in Western medicine are XX women and XY men. I am an XXY man, which is not a combination of XX and XY, but a male iteration all its own.

 

XXY is not intersex, but being that it’s different, people generally don’t accept it at face value. Instead, they squirm. That’s probably because the idea that a human might have two sex parts or inclinations—which is not what XXY is—threatens masculinity and gender roles. If men had both a penis and a vagina, what they have done to women personally and societally could also be done to them. They’d be screwed, literally and figuratively. Of course, it’s not that simple.

All you really need to digest is, XXY is the newer, more sensitive, fully capable man. Got that reality? Great, now you can ignore the false facts and misinformation Western medicine preaches (and Google regurgitates) to keep their annual research funding intact instead of doing right by humanity, and you can skip all the hard facts (such as the 280,000 annual terminations of healthy XXY fetuses based on doctor recommendation—not a pro-life argument, but a pro-human statement; or the fact that XXY does not equal Klinefelter syndrome, in spite of what Google and NICHD’s Genetics Home Reference state).

False facts and the truth about XXY chromosomes

False “facts” Google promotes.

On the other hand, if you want to know what the hell I’m talking about, and help me rip the chastity belt off supposed human archetypes, get in touch, especially if you are an agent, because I’ve written a well-reviewed book on the subject, will market it with all the re-appropriated energy of my left nut, and I’d love to be your client. That’s not an ad for me—people need to know the truth.

Then there is Roland Barthes. He knew what was going on.

I had not read Roland Barthes until hours prior to writing this piece. Yet, in the lengthiest of totally roundabout ways, I would never have found his writing if not for my XXY chromosomes. I fucking love XXY chromosomes!

My path to Roland Barthes began in my lower right bicuspid, at the office of my Seattle dentist of eight years. He messed up a root canal, drilling through the tooth root, and pushing the infected nerve through the hole, leaving it on my jaw to writhe in its misery and plot my demise.

The infection spread up my jaw to the trigeminal nerve, a large cluster of nerves just in front of your temple. The trigeminal nerve runs around your eye and ear, then threads inside your skull, where it wraps around one hemisphere of your brain.

It was soon apparent, my nerve intended to kill me.

My dentist left me for dead, refusing to see me to address the problem. I had to fend for myself for five weeks, during which I survived roughly four hundred and twenty prolonged six-minute brain shock treatments (forty-two hours worth), courtesy of my infected trigeminal nerve.

Some people would have smoked a corresponding four hundred and twenty bowls of pot, but being the son of a dead international drug smuggler, I have always preferred to not partake.

I went to my doctor instead, but as brilliant as the man is, he couldn’t figure out how to stop my nerve’s audacious nerve. He dutifully handed me a whopping bottle of Percocet, which I proceeded to hate as it caused my eyesight to go blurry, yet did nothing to dull the pain. He said, “You might have taurodontism because of your XXY chromosomes; that could be the cause of everything.”

He was not right. Taurodontism is when the roots of teeth are expanded and curl under, causing a weak root structure.

My teeth are the opposite, with abnormally long, strong roots, so when a tooth dies, I feel the pain more intensely further up into the soft tissues.

That one incorrect comment, the thought that my chromosomes could be the cause of my pain ignited my social justice mind and my writing.

I want to share with you just how inhumanly painful it is to have your brain shocked for six minutes straight by your trigeminal nerve. It is FUCKING painful (if you know what a point size is [it’s a typography term], increase the word FUCKING by about 97,477 points). The only fair comparison to equate the magnitude of it is pouring ethanol on your scalp and lighting it on fire, while having a ripped bodybuilder squeeze your head in their hands with all the strength they can muster. Oh, and jamming a live wire through your eardrum.

After five weeks, my former dentist sent me to a renowned oral surgeon who said, “People die from this. You are lucky to be alive.” He performed an incredibly painful micro-surgery, sticking hook-nosed forceps down my tooth socket, and placing medicated gauze directly against the nerve on my jaw, which stimulated the nerve to heal itself. He couldn’t numb me up for it because he had to see me wince when he contacted the nerve.

An oral surgeon saved my life with these.

I don’t know how or why I survived, but it is surely in part because of my XXY chromosomes, and to share my stories.

I am one stubborn fucker. I really am. When it is my time, I will climb a mountain if I have to crawl the whole way on my knuckles and knees through a whiteout blizzard. I will see the world fade on my own terms. There was no way I was going to croak from a goddamned root canal, and though I cried humble tears and begged to feel the grim reaper’s scythe pierce the skin of my nape to escape the pain, once I had fought those terrible, wretched nerve shocks for a few weeks, I dreamed deep down that I could beat them. It’s why I kept fighting.

Being stubborn is part of being XXY. If you know when to give in, stubbornness can be a good thing.

The micro-surgeries—there were two—were successful, and one week later, I had survived. Nine years on, I know it was the greatest of all my victories.

There were no long-term negative repercussions. Except the complete dismantling and re-informing of my life.

I had forgotten much of my childhood, but somehow the nerve shocks brought the memories back into my consciousness, and it changed how I related to the world.

The abandonment I experienced during the nerve infection from friends, family, medical professionals, and the financial sector, also changed my relationship to society. I learned that the pillars of our life are a sham, a frolicking fraud, salivating to suck the last dollars out of you before you fall down, a mere bloodless corpse.

Family and friends returned when I was healthy again. The overwhelming positive was, I began writing in recovery, and I never stopped. Before that, I had written one novel, cast it aside, and rarely wrote anything but one of the thousand or so songs I have penned.

I’m not one to rest on accomplishments. After surviving, I had to figure out how to be alive again, and that led me to Antioch University Seattle, where I gained a new awareness of what it means to be human. It’s also where I began writing several books, including the one about my chromosomes.

Creditors attacked when they discovered the nerve issue.

I learned about diversity, intercultural communication, racism, poverty, and writing. I learned I am a natural born writer. My love of reading books was reignited. I discovered how my XXY chromosomes heavily influence how I learn. I wrote four books.

Next, I was accepted into Antioch University Los Angeles’ top-ranked MFA in Creative Writing program. Yet, I still had only a slight awareness of this character named Roland Barthes.

During my MFA, I rewrote the XXY book, wrote a novel about surviving and learning how to be alive again (go figure), wrote much of a collection of short stories, and penned most of a third novel, which I am currently completing.

Oh my God—we’re here! Enter Roland Barthes.

Oh, wait. First, I gotta’ tell you, I fucking hate the French—kidding! I love the Cole Porter song “I Love Paris!” when performed by Les Negresses Vertes. I love riding my bike in southern France. I enjoyed Jacques Derrida’s concept of “The Other.” As a hopeless romantic, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films are among my favorites. People being people, I probably would love the French and their deliciously gawdawful attitude if I could cobble my four years of high school French—which provided me perhaps a grade deux level—into effectively communicating in France.

Anyway, Roland Barthes.

How I came to know Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text was, I wanted to see the whole of America’s K-12 education system leveled and redesigned (forgive my idealism), so that every child and adult learner truly has equal opportunity at an excellent education, without cultural bias, racism, without human difference or financial exclusion, and without learning differences remanding intelligent minds to remedial classes.

I was an A-student in middle and high school, yet today’s standards say XXY boys and men will possess subnormal intelligence. Sadly, parents believe what doctors preach about XXY, even though most doctors do not understand the difference. It leaves XXY kids not connecting with the teaching because they’ve been taught they are not intelligent, when the truth is, they may be abnormally intelligent and bored.

When I gained an awareness of how I learn, I wanted to help people who have experienced difficulty in school born of their own learning differences. I wanted to help them forge connections, and to tell their stories. Because our thoughts and stories are all we truly own.

I applied to the Post-MFA Certificate in the Teaching of Creative Writing at Antioch Los Angeles to gain a solid foundation and some experience. That brought me to being a Teacher Assistant for Kathryn Pope, who is a natural born teacher, it’s plain to see, her writing classes an experience to behold. Even as her TA, I am learning things about writing that slipped by me previously.

Kathryn Pope brought me to Roland Barthes. Or rather, her bio page on Antioch’s site did. It says, “Barthes once wrote that, for a writer, language is “a field of action, the definition of, and hope for, a possibility.””

The same goes for a reader, for even if they are reading fiction, there is the hope of connecting in the manner of synchronized thought with the author. The reader wants to feel.

The author confirms and expresses dreams, makes connections, and teaches through their text. The author wants to make readers feel.

It is the connection that matters, for connection is playing, just as playing is connecting. Students and writers play with words and thoughts. We connect through them, and we forge a kind of community. Together we raise awareness and inspire change, in ourselves and others.

Teaching, as I have experienced with many teachers, now, at Antioch, is not all that different from playing. There is a brilliance that goes into the arc of an excellent class. The connections between teachers, their material, and students are born of playing with goals and words—reading and sharing histories, experiences, difficulties, differences, and similarities.

I returned to school to relearn how to be alive. To open my mind. To connect. Today, I connected with Roland Barthes’ words. In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes said, “If you hammer a nail into a piece of wood, the wood has a different resistance according to the place you attack it.”

His words reminded me that this is not the place for the weight of an argument on a paradigm shift in consciousness around what constitutes healthy human beings. This is the place to enjoy the pleasure of words.

I have learned, in writing and life, it is usually the smallest suggestions that make the biggest impact.

 

Gene Manne recently earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. He is currently working on his third novel and a collection of short stories. His writing is published in Licton Springs Review, KNOCK, and Lunch Ticket. Find him online at genemanne.com. Read more about XXY at xxytruth.com.

Spotlight: Symphony of Panic

[fiction]

You sit in a Goodwill engulfed in the sadness emitted by the abandoned objects, each with their own story you’re sure, and the dejected shoppers. Your chosen object is a $20 chair, cracked red leather outlined by shining buttons.

You listen to a man, ratty t-shirt and balding blonde hair, sitting in a different used chair. Wooden. Evidently, the people aren’t too different from the objects. Desolate, carrying their own stories. The man tells part of his story aloud.

“All I’m sayin’ is, he was lucky I didn’t have my gun.”

You try to shift your attention, but it’s hard not to wince each time “fag” cuts through the air. From the bits and pieces you manage to gather, the man is not, in fact, a fag.

The rhythmless tapping of your foot begs you to move, to act, to flee. So you drag yourself from the red leather chair and try to remember where you are. You know you are in a Goodwill, but something is off despite nothing being notably out of place. The broken children’s toys, the obscure VHS tapes, everything is as it should be and yet you are certain something is wrong. You can feel it bubbling up in your chest. You are certain there is an emergency. The sirens are deafening.

The alarms decrescendo as quickly as they arrived, the ambulance rushing by to find its target. You wish it was you.

“Fag.” You can’t discern which of them said it, but you feel the hatred dripping off the word as blood drips from your nose. Your back is pressed against the brick wall of a school building. You hold your head high despite the tears welling. This is the first time. Pride hasn’t been beaten out of you yet.

You stare at your attackers, their young age contrasting the violence they endorse. They jeer, mock, taunt. At the forefront is Kelly. Pristine sneakers, tight jeans, hair pulled back. Her favorite pastime: tearing others down and proceeding to kick.

The pain in Charlotte’s eyes is directed towards you, but not at you. You aren’t the first person she’s hit and you won’t be the last, but you can’t hate her. Every time you feel the sting in your nose and try to blame her, you fall into those eyes. Dark, guarded, hurting eyes. You wonder what she’s seen, what she’s felt. You wonder if she knows how closely her pain mimics your own.

Where Kelly is bored and Charlotte hurting, Maria is offended. Your pining, fawning, loving—it hurts her. How could you?

“Dyke.” Maria’s insults hurt the worst, accented by a pious finality. You know she sees you as the devil, and you know, despite the contradictions, you can never convince her otherwise.

“Are you alright?” A young girl, short, choppy hair, asks. Judging by just her face, you’re missing an arm. Your body responds to her with a nod—not to answer her question, but to ward off the threat her presence poses. You’re suddenly aware that you’re pressed against a shelf, a few of the VHS tapes fall to the ground; you’re gripping the metal so tightly your knuckles have gone white. You don’t know what the girl saw or if you’re crying.

Your lungs fill with air that you were unaware they needed until their sudden expansion. You gasp like a child that has ventured too deep into the water. A child that was under much longer than she planned, considered the prospect of drowning, and now that she’s resurfaced can do nothing but gasp.

You relax your grip and your posture, sliding down the shelf. You close your eyes, rest your head on your hands, your hands on your knees, and try to reestablish your surroundings.

Chattering shoppers. Dim lights, some flickering. Objects being shuffled. Cold, hard, unforgiving floor. The smell that reminds you of your grandmother. A child’s voice here and there. You breathe in and out, slowly, counting, and pull the blankets up under your chin.

Staring at the blank wall beside your bed, you deprive yourself of any stimulus. You try to purge your mind of thoughts. There are considerable civilian casualties. Your bed is supposed to be a safe haven, but you’re finding that occupying it only exacerbates how little you feel. Instead, the emptiness makes you more susceptible to the awful, self-deprecating thoughts, leaving cracks in your mind for them to sludge through.

You feel them making their way up your body, crawling, as you stare idly. Their hand trails your spine. Their light touch leaves your skin tingling. No one else fights for your attention. Almost as if seducing you, they coerce you into giving in. They push aside your hair and you hear the warmth of a whisper on your ear.

“Worthless. Absolutely worthless,” you spit at your reflection. You can’t remember how long you’ve been staring at this dirty mirror, framed by student-scrawled sharpie. Tears begin to mingle with the running faucet water, your hands clutching the sink. You barely recognize yourself. This battered girl, dirty hair, sunken eyes. This can’t be you. Surely you aren’t this broken.

You are appalled by how little it takes. One sheet of paper decorated with the glaring red of a teacher orchestrating your failure with nothing but a pen. It seems to confirm the dwindling state of your potential. It is an undeniable self-admission confirming everything you already believed to be true.

You hope no one else tries to skip class. Your hand rushes to your chest. You try to keep your heart from bursting through. Sitting feet away from the bathroom door, you suddenly wonder if there is anything past it. There is nothing but this room suspended in a sea of black. There is no one but you, hand trembling, heart thumping, tears streaming. You accept that this will never end. You accept that you are now a part of this suspended room, forever panicking.

You pull your knees up to your chest, trying your best to be inconsequential. You tuck down your head and press your hands over your ears. You sit as still as possible, as quiet as possible. You are motionless except for the tears falling from your eyes.

You glance out from underneath the tablecloth adorning the sturdy wooden table above you. As you watch your mother shrinking beneath your father, you can’t help but blame yourself. You may not be the outright spark that caused him to explode, but you know your inabilities and defeats add up. You know that if you weren’t around, the operas that unravel before you so often would be few and far between. The lives of the singers would be much calmer without the incessant disappointment you prove to be.

Despite your attempts to cease your existing, you can still hear the symphony beyond your hiding spot. The bassy shouting crescendos to a deafening fortissimo while a small soprano occasionally chimes in, trying to coax it back down. Eventually she loudens as well, a staccato yelp brought about, as many dynamic changes are, by the raising of an arm.

As the arm comes crashing down the first thing you feel is grateful. You feel grateful because although this slap stings, it won’t leave any marks. No black eye to make excuses for, no bruises to coat in makeup, no cuts, no scratches. You much prefer the sting, a brief reminder of your faults, to markings loudly showing off your mistakes.

Tom’s energy is not spent on the hit. You used to love how full of energy he was. How bright and full of life. Charismatic as hell too. It didn’t take him long to win your affection. The compliments he so excitedly threw at you, like fans showering a performer in roses. The way he looked at you, he seemed to confirm that which love songs are made of.

But what once won your love now drives his hate. He could scream for hours without an ounce of exhaustion. The way his voice raises, smothering out your own, it echoes around your brain, nestling besides memories of another’s yells. You never figured your lover would parallel your father so closely.

You collapse below him. You barely register what his words accuse you of. You have long since learned to tune out the frequency of his anger. You have to if you are to keep loving him, if you are to keep sane. You haven’t even noticed his explosion has been contained until you hear a door slam so loudly you aren’t sure how it didn’t snap.

With the door now closed behind you, you stand shaking. The air conditioning is leaning on the cool side but the lighting is warm. A blanket of orange emitted by the various lamps seeks to infiltrate your trust, to create a false comfort despite the general unfamiliarity of your surroundings.

The ticking of the small clock occupying the wall to your left is deafening as you approach the couch. Taking a seat, you beg your leg to be still if only for a few minutes. Its rhythm compliments that of the clock’s. As the woman whose apparent nurturing nature reflects that of a mother takes her seat opposite yours, you can’t help but wonder whether you’ve made a mistake.

Her smile is easy and welcoming. It attempts to coax to the forefront even the most guarded of your secrets.

“I was planning on working on mindfulness today.”

She guides you through deep breathing exercises, her sweet voice with a seemingly inherent ability to soothe. You follow the pattern she instructs, breathing in slowly before exhaling at a matching tempo.

It only takes a few minutes of this before you regain your composure. A few minutes of inhaling and exhaling, in and out, slowly and smoothly. You begin to accept your surroundings as they are. There is nothing wrong with the incomplete board games or the tattered stuffed animals lining shelves. The children running up and down aisles as their parents try desperately to find a deal pose no threat to you. You aren’t sure how long you’d been lying on the ice cold floor of the Goodwill or how many judgmental glances passed over you while you did but for the first time in an indiscernible time frame, you feel safe.

 

Amadea Oberg is a senior in high school who has been writing all her life. She currently lives in Maryland, but plans on moving to New York as soon as she can. She is thrilled that this is her first published piece.

Now What?

I bought this not long after I completed my Bachelor’s. I only looked through it once.

I graduated two weeks ago, but it feels like a year went by. Blame it on the holidays and their ability to warp the passage of time, but between then and now I devolved into a couch potato. I slept in, binge watching as I laid on my mess of a bed. Doing anything more strenuous than holding a pen was too much to handle. It still is. In truth, my brain is still trying to process the fact that I’m finally finished with school.

Being in denial can be helpful if you look at it a certain way. Kinda. It’s reassuring to lock myself in my room and focus on things that don’t matter in the long run. Binge watching crappy shows and living off junk food is much easier than filling out that job application or completing that rough draft that’s due in five hours. Especially that rough draft. To fill out that job application and finish that draft mean accepting that I’m done with school and ready to move on to the next chapter in my life. But I’m not ready. Not one bit.

*     *     *

Growing up, my mother’s family stressed the importance of education. Having a good education meant opportunities, which is why she and her sisters moved to the States in the first place. My grandmother was the most aggressive about it. She didn’t have a chance to finish her education; I vaguely remember her telling me she never completed grammar school, and she wished she had the chance. My mom got farther, making it to college until it got too expensive. Every once in a while she would go back to some online institution, only to drop out soon after. They knew better than anyone the true cost of a good education, and they made sure we knew the sacrifices.

The teachers and counselors became more aggressive as I entered high school.

“Do you want to flip burgers for the rest of your life?” the college counselor asked once during history class.

It felt less like a question and more like a reprimand. If you weren’t planning on going to college, you weren’t giving enough thought to your future. Until two weeks ago at graduation, going to school was—is—all I know. What does a person do after all this? The obvious answer would be to work in the area I got my degree in, to be a writer and do whatever it is that a writer does (aside from writing, anyway). But that’s too simple for my overactive mind to accept. It insists there’s something more to post-grad life when there really isn’t. This is it.

The realization makes me freeze up. Five years ago, I couldn’t wait to be done with school, to finally have a job and get a place of my own. Now, the very thought of these things gives me an anxiety attack. Not because I’m resisting the transition, but because I’m afraid of what will happen when I’m not able to get those things. You can’t fail if you don’t give anything a shot.

*     *     *

My 21st birthday at Dallas BBQ.

About six years ago, I moved to Los Angeles to live with my dad. My decision was a selfish one; it wasn’t to get to know him better as he re-entered my life, but to get away from everything. During my first year of college, my mom was laid off from a firm she worked at for ten years. She told my brother and I not to worry at first, that she would find a job and everything would go back to normal. The weeks turned to months, then to a year, until it became the new normal. I was expected to get a job of my own to help with bills, so I applied to some stores I regularly shopped at. When that didn’t work, I tried everywhere else. Anywhere else—a department store, a salesperson for a pyramid scheme, any coffee shop or bookstore I came across. Every other week, I would come home from campus and Mom would ask if I found a job yet.

It was around this time that I stopped asking myself what getting a degree would mean for me and what it would mean for my family instead. Guilt crept up on me as my grades slipped. I started skipping class on the days I did manage to get to campus on time. All the while, the pressure continued to gnaw at the back of my head until I snapped one evening during yet another argument over how I wasn’t contributing. I turned away from Mom as she yelled at me, picked up the phone and called Dad.

“I don’t want to be here anymore,” I said as he answered. “Get me out of here.”

About six months later, I got a check in the mail from Lehman College. It was my refund from dropping out. It didn’t occur to me to use that money to help me start a new life. I was so focused on getting away from everything that I didn’t fully consider the consequences. So I did what any unemployed twenty-something slacker would do with three grand: I dined out and bought a lot of cheap booze.

*     *     *

I was out of college for a year. The California college system took time to get around, and I had very little patience to learn it. I couldn’t find any college that allowed for mid-term transfers, so I took it as a sign to take a break. For a moment, I wondered if going back was the right idea. It didn’t do me any favors. But then I thought of my mom and grandmother, and how disappointed they would be. Especially my mother, who had lost so much. She never got a job as stable or well paid since. The downside of being a college dropout in your fifties. Going back to complete my degree wasn’t so important anymore. Going back to validate my mother’s sacrifices were.

*     *     *

“What do you want to do after this?”

I’m sitting down with my mentor in his office. I was going into my final project period for my MFA, and talk turned to my post-grad prospects. I told him that I wanted to write, maybe get a teaching gig on the side. Whatever was necessary to let me help out Mom. I never gave much thought beyond that. I just knew it was something I had to do.

He reminded me that writing doesn’t pay much. It’s not enough if supporting my family is my main priority. “What do you want to get out of this program?”

I knew the answer to this question. And yet I felt doubt as I said it out loud. A few months later, he asked the question again. I mailed him my response with the rest of my work, but for the life of me I can’t remember what I told him. For the first time in my life, I don’t know what I want to do.

*     *     *

Dad and I at graduation. Photo by Brad Kessler.

I wrote down a six-month plan for my post-grad life. It’s not much–a list of places I want to get published in and some random errands still waiting to be done. I look at the abandoned plan and make a mental note to go back to it when I have some free time. Despite the fact that it’s incomplete, looking at what I hope to accomplish gives me a small glimmer of hope. I stayed on for another semester to set up an online course. I’m excited, but once in a while the anxiety returns to screw with my head.

The thing about attending school for so long is that you fantasize about your life getting better to the point where you don’t see your goal as a possibility anymore, only as a fantasy. It feels too good to be true. I’ve managed to push through all the bullshit, and it feels surreal to be standing on the other side and realize not much has changed.

*     *     *

The day before graduation, Mom called me. She wanted to tell me how proud she was of how far I’ve come. She wasn’t the only one who said it that week, and she wasn’t the only family member who felt that way. But hearing it from her carries a different meaning. It makes things clearer. The impossible seems possible. For a moment.

 

Lily Caraballo is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Antioch University Los Angeles and a figure model. She is a staff member of Lunch Ticket, a former contributor for Black Girl Nerds, and is featured in the anthology My Body, My Words: A Collection of Bodies. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat.

 

 

Á La Carte: The Spring of Rapeseed Flowers

[translated poetry]

Thousands of Chinese Acres of Spring

When the budding of a tree isn’t closely observed
Rapeseed flowers     have unfolded the season by their full blossoms
The golden dream of the earth     thus rolls out under the cloud flowers
Is woven in the wind      and undulates to the farthest in March

Rapeseed flowers have unrolled thousands of Chinese acres of spring
They spread green willfully     disseminate yellow fervently
As if they aspire to dissect the spring into two halves
At a moment like this     any language seems redundant
The mind jumps onto the clouds quite unexpectedly
And looks up at the spring     from another angle

 


Downpouring Flower Ocean 

Tapping to the beat of the spring           clusters of dark green
Pin up golden hairclips             one flower at first
Then a bunch       a levee          and a field
Following the ground undulation            spread out into flower waves

The rapeseed flowers easily cross over a river
Climb onto the terrace       flood to the hills
The rolling waves       are replicated by the spring again and again
Their adventurous eyes look higher and higher        farther and farther

Their aroma scrubs the earth with the wind
A flower waterfall rushes down from a hill       and runs a thousand miles

 


A Sweet Journey 

Following the aroma of rapeseed flowers         closest to the spring
Two butterflies        carry happiness from one flower ocean
To another flower ocean         A swarm of bees
Swing in the flowers        trying to ripen the spring zephyr
Into a more intoxicating breeze        All these elves
Play in the chest of the spring        enchantedly and indulgently

On this sweet journey to the depth of the season
I am worried that the bees       are too obsessed with brewing life
To remember time        I am also worried the two butterflies
With tiny fragile wings           can’t fly out of the boundless flower ocean

 

 

油菜花开的春天(组诗选三)

1. 千万亩春天

尚未看清一棵树的萌芽过程
油菜花 用盛开的方式打开季节
大地金色的梦想 在云朵下铺开
在风里编织 三月向远方涌动

油菜花铺开千万亩春天
肆意地绿 拼命地黄
似乎要把春天一分为二
这样的时刻 语言会成为摆设
思想一不留神跃上云端
变换一个角度 仰望春天

 


2. 倾倒的花海

踏着春天的节拍 一簇簇墨绿
别上金色发簪 起先是一朵
接着是一束 一垄 一大片
随着大地起伏 绵延成一片花浪

油菜花轻易越过一条河
登上梯田 涌向山峦
滚动的花浪 被春天一再复制
把猎奇的目光一再抬高 拉远

芳香在一阵风里擦拭大地
花瀑从一座山上倾倒 流泻千里

 


3. 甜蜜之旅

沿着油菜花香 靠近春天
两只蝴蝶 把幸福从一片花海
搬向另一片花海 一群蜜蜂
在花间荡秋千 试图把春风
酝酿得更加醉人 这些精灵
在春天怀抱里嬉戏 如痴如醉

这条通往季节深处的甜蜜之旅
我担心一群蜜蜂 忙于酝酿生活
遗忘了时间 我还担心两只蝴蝶
微薄的羽翼 飞不出浩瀚的花海

 

Translator Statement

The reason that I selected these three poems is that I want to develop novel transcreation techniques and help to establish the transcreation subarea in China. Also, I hope that these poems can show English readers those kinds of objects that are often depicted by Chinese poets in the Chinese culture. These poems demonstrate not only the Chinese way of thinking but also the logic of the Chinese language, which may help to expand the English literature to some extent.

My translation of these three poems basically follows the classic Chinese translation theory of fidelity, that is, there isn’t much creative modification in my translation. However, there are a few exceptions. For example, when translating “肆意地绿” and “拼命地黄,” meaning “green recklessly and yellow desperately,” I used the expressions of “spread green willfully” and “disseminate yellow fervently” and thus transformed negative words into positive words.

In addition, I altered the meaning of “scrubs the earth in the wind” to “scrubs the earth with the wind” which sounds more logical. Also, I translated “靠近” which means “to get close to” to “closest to” in order to fit into the scene developed by the original text which depicts the spring views.

Considering a transcreation skill called restructuring on which I have performed some experiments, in the translation of “trying to ripen the spring zephyr,” the infinitive verb “to ripen” actually is restructured from the following line. This treatment handled an innate difference between the Chinese and English language by placing the infinitive verb “to ripen” before the object “the spring zephyr.”

 

Chen Du is a Voting Member of American Translators Association and a member of the Translators Association of China with a Master’s degree in biophysics from Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the State University of New York at Buffalo and a Master’s degree in radio physics from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. She has revised more than eight chapters of the Chinese translation of the biography of Helen Snow, Helen Foster Snow—An American Woman in Revolutionary China. She is the author of book Successful Personal Statements. Find her online at ofsea.com.

Mr. Dong Li is the author of books Lost in Maze (Chinese) and The Charm of Thoughts (Chinese). He is also a winner of the Chinese Young Poet Award 2018.

 

 

The Passport Nightmare

They say that as much as the human mind can remember experiences of excitement, pleasure, or boredom, it is incapable of similarly remembering pain. Once well again, we can’t put back together the pieces of agony that ruled our days during illness or after an injury. Scientists think this is an evolutionary necessity—if we remembered how bad pain felt, we’d never do anything physically perilous, never give birth to a second child, never get our vaccine boosters.

I know that this is true not only for physical but also for mental pain because I keep traveling abroad even though if I could ever properly remember the pain of international travel I might never leave the U.S. again.

A few weeks ago I had cause to remember this, during a long drive home. My partner was behind the wheel when we started talking about how excited we were to go to the Dominican Republic with her sister and parents. Our flight was due to leave in three days.

“Hey, do you mind checking in my purse to make sure my passport’s there?” she said.

I grabbed her purse from the back seat and fished around. “Here it is,” I said. I flipped through its stamps and visas. Then I stopped, feeling a little dizzy. I said, “When we pull over again we should check my passport, too.”

“Why? Are you worried it’s missing?”

“No, I’m pretty sure it’s in my backpack,” I said.

“Then what could be wrong?”

I sighed. “I’m a little worried it might be expired.”

When we stopped on the side of the road in Santa Nella to swap seats, I found my passport and flipped it open. Reader, it was expired. It had expired three months earlier. When I told my partner, she didn’t say anything. I sat back in the car and then got out so I could scream into the Central Valley night. I felt so bad, so stupid.

You see, this vacation meant a lot to my partner and her family: it was their first real vacation since her mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer and her dad had finished selling her childhood home. It had been a tumultuous few years, but for months we had been looking forward to Christmas with them in the tropics. And it had seemed especially important after a health crisis with my partner’s father had forced them to scuttle their plans to visit us over Thanksgiving. Further, my partner and I were hoping to spend Christmas together for the first time. There was a lot riding on the fact that we were going to have a relaxing week together.

I screamed into the dark night remembering all of this and feeling the anguish of having ruined everything. I felt so ashamed.

Done screaming, we had to keep driving. We were still five hours from home. At first I could only shake my head and laugh ruefully. It seemed a singular screw-up I had committed. But as I settled into my mental anguish, the pain, which at first felt singular, did what pain always does. It reminded me of other, similar pains.

Slowly—one memory at a time—I pieced together that, basically every time I’ve tried to leave the country, through some screw-up or another, my travel plans have almost come to naught.

 

There was the time I took the subway from my friend’s apartment in Williamsburg out to JFK International Airport in Queens. I hadn’t looked up the travel time and was surprised to find that it took almost two hours to take the subway to the airport. And then when I got there, I realized that I didn’t know what airline my flight was on—all I had written in my notebook were the call numbers: AF158. (I didn’t have a smartphone then.) I guessed that it was Aeroflot, the Russian state airline and so got off at Terminal 2. A kind bookings agent there informed me that AF stood instead for Air France, which left from Terminal 1. “Run,” she said, and I did. I was the last person on the flight.

Probably the worst was the time when I went to India. I thought leaving three weeks to get a visa would be long enough, but I was wrong. The Indian Consulate in San Francisco had recently decided to outsource visa processing to a private company. The only way to get a visa was to mail your passport, two headshots, and a check to the address listed online. I did so and then didn’t hear anything back. As the date of my departure got closer and closer, I spent longer and longer lengths of time on hold with this company’s customer support line. I had a ridiculous clamshell cell phone at the time, and after two hours on hold I would have to plug it in. Usually after about three hours someone would pick up, but they couldn’t promise very much. Finally they told me it would be ready for pick-up at 4:30 p.m. on the day of my flight, which left at 11 p.m. I remember my feeling of wonder when I had the passport in my hands, with the visa pasted in. We went straight to the airport.

Or maybe the worst time is when I had an eleven-hour layover in Moscow and tried to stay awake the whole time, only to fall asleep in front of my gate an hour before departure. I awoke with a start and was surprised to find that nobody was boarding the flight: it had been moved to a gate on the other side of the airport. I sprinted there but was too late. The airline refused to rebook me. I was distraught, almost crying, until I realized that for about $20 USD I could take a sleeper train to St. Petersburg and skip paying a night’s rent at a hostel.

 

I could go on, of course. I’ve been blessed to make four extended trips out of the U.S.A. and two shorter ones—by grace of grants to study abroad, a deep devotion to living cheaply, and the blind faith that one of my parents would buy me a plane ticket home when the money ran out. My travel has also been enabled by a fair amount of dumb luck in those situations when a lack of forethought seemed headed for disaster.

But just as often, those in charge have taken an interest in my case and helped me out. The folks in charge of granting Indian Visas eventually agreed to speed up my application in time for my trip. A Public Security Bureau agent in Urumqi, China, once granted me a special 30-day visa so I could continue backpacking around Xinjiang and Tibet. And when I went to the wrong terminal at the last minute at JFK, someone from the airline escorted me to the front of the security line and made sure I made it on my flight.

So much of this must be due simply to me being a white American man. I am always getting a second chance, some help at the finish line, or a special dispensation. This is what people mean when they talk about privilege: the way that the systems that undergird our world can really be looking out for you if you look like me. I have tried this privilege, and I can report that it is an unbelievable relief to land on your feet after doing something idiotic.

Unfortunately, not everyone is experiencing the world the same way I am. Some people reading this miss their flights even after doing everything right, showing up early, checking every box—because of their name, their nationality, or the color of their skin. Maybe you can’t pick a visa up in person because you live far from a consulate. Some of you can’t afford to take time off and travel at all. And some of you are nervous in your own country that a police officer could stop you for having a tail light out and thereby set into motion your ejection from the U.S.A. into a country you have not been to since you were two years old. I feel blessed not to face these problems—and at the same time furious that others do.

This feels particularly pertinent now, when the current administration is hell-bent on keeping out people who look certain ways, speak certain languages, and worship in certain traditions. Over one thousand children seeking to live in our country have been separated from their parents and kept in cages. The inept government agency that tore them from their parents’ arms didn’t even keep enough records to reunite many of the children with their families after the policy of family separation was putatively cancelled. And as I write this essay, the government is shut down, its workers furloughed or forced to work without pay, because the president demands money to build a physical embodiment of the urge to reject others. The fight to extend privilege to all human beings is a project that has rarely felt so embattled.

 

But there in the deepening Saturday evening, driving up I-5 and looking out for the off-ramp onto 580, it seemed like even the privileges accorded to 21st-century white American men weren’t going to be enough to get me a passport in time for our Tuesday flight. Sketchy agencies with names like “Fastport Passport” and “Swift Passport Services” promised to overnight your photo to a nearby passport agency—for $569. We called a listed 1-800 number to see if someone on the other end could talk us down from our state of terror, but the number rang a dozen times and a dozen more before we hung up.

We sat in silent in our bucket seats, half-blinded by oncoming headlights, thinking about what Christmas apart would mean.  My partner dived into her phone, and I drove. The cruise control carried us at a steady 80.

“Hey, listen to this,” she said. “I’m reading Yelp reviews of the San Francisco Passport Agency. Did you ever hear of a government agency with almost five stars? This is crazy. Here, let me read you one: ‘So impressed with this government agency! They were so organized, and helpful. I didn’t realize I needed a passport for my infant and wasn’t able to get on my 7 a.m. flight. So I headed to the passport agency and had a passport by 3:30 same day, and was able to make an evening flight! Seriously, so amazing.’”

We both laughed nervously, and then I begged her to read more. Then I begged her to read even more. There were so many happy stories here. So many tales of people in the same situation I had put us in. Over and over again, people said that they knew it was their own fault, but that the passport agents had been kind, professional, and efficient. We laughed and kept our fingers crossed, feeling that our doom might jam after all, that Christmas might in fact not be canceled. Five hours later we made it home, feeling wrung-out and utterly exhausted.

Monday morning we drove to the city, parked the car in a garage, and by 10:30 a.m. we were through security at the San Francisco Federal Building. The passport office is on the third floor. You can only go there if you have travel plans within the next two weeks. I waited in line for an officer to check that I had the correct documents. I didn’t have an appointment, so I had to wait in a special zone for the line to die down.

This gave me an opportunity to look around the room. There were Americans of every race, age, and religion in that room. Hijabis with strollers sat next to old white guys in Vietnam vet hats. In the “no appointment” section a young Hispanic woman there with her partner and two kids tried to calm down a solo white woman who claimed to have been waiting since seven in the morning. An electronically generated woman’s voice kept announcing variations on, “Ticket C-127 will be seen at Window 17.”

I once spent four days in a row waiting six hours in front of the Chinese embassy in Moscow only to give up on ever getting an appointment, so I was ready for a long wait. But within half an hour I was put in a different queue, and soon my documents were accepted by a nice Chinese-American woman who commented on my Hong Kong immigration slip and convinced me to check the box requesting a passport with extra pages in it. By 1 p.m. we were eating a giant feast of hot pot over in Chinatown, and at 4 p.m. I received my brand new passport. Christmas was saved.

In the elevator down to show my partner the new passport, I met an older Latino father and his handsome son. We quickly showed off our fresh passports to each other, and the old man beamingly told me that his son was about to graduate from college and was going on an international trip. The three of us felt so light, so relieved, that we shook hands when I got off on the second floor. I felt so happy in that moment to think that not only had my passport nightmare been resolved but the passport nightmares of every eligible citizen—regardless of skin color, language, or religion—are daily being resolved by these hardworking federal employees. Thank you, San Francisco Passport Agency.

 

And that would be the end of the story, but I have to tell you: in celebration of our success, my partner paid for a barber named Vega to give me the hairstyle I had when I was four and ever since have dreamed of having again: a glorious mullet, so short in the front and far past my shoulders in back.

 

 

Jasper Henderson is a writer and teacher from the Mendocino Coast. His work has appeared in Joyland, Juked, 7×7, Permasummer, Your Impossible Voice, and an anthology of California writing, Golden State 2017. As a poet-teacher, he works with over four hundred students every year, from third-graders to high school seniors. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University L.A. His cat is named Sybil, after the sibilant, favorite sound of cats across the galaxy.

Spotlight: Healing

[creative nonfiction]

1: Adab

Being with family is the ultimate exercise in learning good adab. There is no simple translation for that Arabic word. Adab. A-da-ba.

Turn it around, and you get ba-da-a: beginning.

But you live in the West now. Your parents lifted you out of that loving, prickly embrace and introduced you to the beginning of fragmentation. And here, the seed of your difference took to the soil, like a newborn hungry for milk. You are fed different waters. Different honey. Different poison. You are irrevocably changed.

Your outward and your inward states are different to the family you left behind. You are now a child of the third space. There is joy in this, and there is grief, and the rest of your life will be spent negotiating that gap.

You marvel at your friends who keep in touch with family. They fly back for Raya. Call people by appropriate titles. They move so seamlessly, between the different circles of their lives.

You could do this too, if you choose courage. But it has always been easier to avoid.

Your own family longs to see you. Grandparents. Aunties, uncles, cousins. There are so many of them, and each one carries a spark of you inside them. They are not only linked to you by blood, but you are also tied by history. Each one of them carries a story. But to reach that story, you must sit with them, and listen, with an open heart. Some of them are more difficult to sit with than others.

It is not only language—it is the pain they press upon, in the way only family can. Some love to speak only of light things, things that make you smile. They respect your independence as an adult, while fondly sharing memories of you as a child. They represent Beauty. Others love to dwell upon old hurts, and they carve out new ones by their careless tongues. Scalpels could not be sharper. They represent Rigour. There is a place for both, in your life.

Rumi spoke of this: “If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?”

And so, you exhale, pick up your mobile, and make the first phone call.

 

2: Selfish Mama

The sadistic expectation of self-immolation begins at birth. Being a good mother means annihilating yourself. Show any signs of weakness, and you are called ungrateful.

No—it starts in pregnancy. Why do all the Instagram feeds show glowing mamas? Where are the mamas who look more like you?

The brutal, un-photoshopped truth—morning sickness so bad eye capillaries burst, hemorrhoids so painful it hurts to move, and the massive emotional tides that pull and pull and pull—

And that, my love, is only the beginning.

The relentless calls of “Mama!” All day, every day. Mummy is the human battery pack from whom newborns, toddlers, preschoolers, and tired husbands draw from.

What is the secret to this infinite well? This—there is no such thing as endless giving. Leave that to the Divine.

There is only one way to surviving these decimating first few years of motherhood—be that selfish mama. The one who does not want to martyr herself on the altar of motherhood. No human sacrifices, please. We stopped that, eons ago.

“Keep your self-care cup full!” But what if that cup has shattered, amidst the diapers, sleep
deprivation and tantrums?

Rebuild it, one shard at a time. Fuse it with gold. You are kintusoroi. More beautiful for
your scars.

One impossible day, in a future too distant for you to even imagine, your helpless little newborn will be a woman grown. The glimmers you saw during her first few years of life—her strong-willed nature, her easy smile, her love for nature—have taken root and flourished. You and your husband tended to her with love and devotion, and now, it shows.

One day, she will grow wings and fly, and all you can do is hope that she will come back to you, with her heart open to yours. She will make choices, some which warm your heart, and others that break it. She is her own woman.

So. Leave some of your heart for you.

Nourish your marriage, so when your children have left home, you can still smile at your husband. Perhaps your love has even surpassed what you felt on your wedding day—a love deepened over the brutal and blissful years of parenting.

And maybe, just maybe, one day—your husband, your children, and their children will sit together, smiling, and share cups of warm tea.

 

3: Second baby

It is both easier, and harder, the second time around. You think your heart cannot fill with any more love. But it does, and flows over.

And there is the grief, that catches you by surprise. Your heart aches for the time when it was just you and your only child. All eyes were on her. Life will never be the same again, and that is both beautiful and terrible. You will be splintered between your two little ones for the rest of your life.

“Don’t compare your children.”

One thing remains the same—sleep deprivation is the worst.

And there is the newness, the heart-splintering sweetness.  Your newborn and you, lying on the bed. She is curled beside you, nuzzling at you, tickling you with her tiny, tiny fingers. Her newborn smell is something words cannot pin… it is unmistakable, both new and old, and speaks of a world you were once part of, but can now no longer touch. For as long as she is this little, you can access this wonder, by nuzzling her delicious sweet-sour head.

But she will grow. It is inevitable. And her newborn helplessness will soon be replaced with infant curiosity, then toddler determination. Now she cannot resist you, as you carefully change her diaper, dip her gently into her bathtub, and gently lather her with soap. Meanwhile, her older sister balks. She resents the amount of time your newborn spends latched onto you. “She has mom-mom all day!” You nod in sympathy and remind her that she did too, when she was a baby.

And then she catches you by surprise. She shares inside jokes with you. Astounds you with words you had no idea a three-year-old could say. She shows you how she can shower herself all by herself now. She leans in, both eager and shy, when you remember to cuddle and kiss her. You cannot believe how strong and lanky she has become, when once, she could fit in the crook of your arm. When she lets you, you cover her with kisses and hope that this assuages some of her loss.

You hope that one day, she will understand that she may have lost your undivided attention, but she has gained a friend: someone to hold her hand, and have her back, on the day when you and your husband are no more.

Raidah Shah Idil is a mother of two, poet, writer, and dreamer. She has lived, worked and studied in Singapore, Australia, Jordan, and has laid down her roots in Malaysia, her ancestral home. Raidah is inspired by trauma healing work, the power of storytelling, and reconnecting with tradition. Her short story “Datuk” was published in the recent Bitter Roots Sweet Fruits anthology. Many of her poems, articles, and stories have been published online. You can find Raidah hunting for patches of green, playing puppets with her young daughters, and writing when she really should be sleeping. Drop by her blog at www.raidahshahidil.com, or visit her on Twitter @raidahshahidil.

#VirginiaWoolf, #Instagram, and #Feminism

#ARoomofOnesOwn

I set out to make my home office a space where I could create. Soon, though, winning Instagram’s approval took over.

What would Virginia Woolf do?

Upon entering Antioch’s MFA program, I challenged myself to understand stream of consciousness technique and committed to reading lots of Virginia Woolf. Her lush descriptions of decor got me thinking about Instagram and its barrage of lifestyle imagery.

Woolf protested Victorian ideals—in particular, women remaining at home with no financial autonomy. So, I often wonder if she admired the cozy, sun-filtered domesticity her fictional female characters embodied or scorned it. And, with an eye toward modern times, I wondered:

Is our current portrait of aspirational domesticity, perpetuated by Instagram, antifeminist?

I guess I’m not the only one wondering what Woolf would do. In the December 2018 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, Martha Cooley explores Woolf’s “Three Guineas” essay.

Cooley writes, “Here, it’s intriguing to imagine what she would have made of social media and women’s roles in their use. Would she have found Facebook or Instagram, for instance, encouraging or discouraging of intellectual liberty for women?”

Certainly, Woolf would have found the barrage of lifestyle imagery Instagram promotes distasteful and constricting.

Or would she?

Woolf wrote in her revised “Professions for Women” essay: “But this freedom is only a beginning; the room is your own, but it is still bare. It has to be furnished; it has to be decorated; it has to be shared.”

I think of my home office, replete with den-like cobalt blue walls, a built-in bookcase, and art pieces I’ve sourced in the last decade. When I quit my last corporate job to pursue graduate school and work from home for a family business, I vowed to make the space cozy but inspiring—a place to create. A room of my own, but to be shared with others—my husband when he curls up with a book in the corner armchair, our houseguests when they want to sit and talk writing process with me.

Critic Emily Blair points out that, in “Professions for Women,” Woolf again gives domestic interiors the power to “define feminine identity.” Blair writes, “the challenge is to refill the ‘bare,’ empty space with interior redecoration, and this redecoration includes establishing conditions, ‘terms,’ for how to manage social relations.”

#DepthinStillness

A tool to show off “redecoration,” Instagram establishes its own social constructs, from dinner parties to fitness lifestyles to pet ownership to parenthood. Many think pieces written in the past few years skewer Instagram’s high school popularity contest algorithms, its alienating and competitive nature, and its negative effects on our collective mental health.

In Woolf’s masterful, stream-of-consciousness domestic novel, To The Lighthouse, the Ramsay family summers in a Victorian home on a Scottish isle. The lighthouse on a neighboring island shines its consistent, rhythmic lumens on the Ramsays’ domestic life. This light-filled motif for consciousness is one Woolf returned to often, comparing life to a “semi-transparent envelope”—a “luminous halo”—in an essay entitled “Modern Fiction.”

Over and over again, Woolf demonstrated Mrs. Ramsay committing small physical acts within the confines of the Ramsay summer home. These routine acts signify a world of concurrent emotion swirling in Mrs. Ramsay’s head and heart. Even if Woolf revolted against domesticity in theory, her work championed the teeming brainpower of the women of her time, women who wielded power over their households.

Jambalaya in a cast iron pot, reminiscent of Mrs. Ramsay’s dish.

One look at the domestic life of Mrs. Ramsay, peering into her dish of beef stew, reveals a sparkling, warm charm.

After her son becomes engaged, a sensation rises in her “at once freakish and tender, of celebrating a festival…at the same time these lovers, these people entering into illusion glittering eyed, must be danced round with mockery, decorated with garlands.”

This scene could be the caption for a glowing kitchen in an Instagram post—an advertisement for a stylish cast iron Staub pot.

Mrs. Ramsay’s vivid, visual reaction to her son’s engagement also brings to mind the Wedding Industrial Complex that litters Instagram, clogging eager brides’ feeds with an aesthetically pleasing lifestyle that is nonetheless for sale: beaming young couples and Woolf’s decorative garlands, lovely and locally sourced flower crowns.

Woolf distilled the complex thoughts and emotions of Mrs. Ramsay—and of Victorian women in general—into singular, near-photographable moments. All readers living in an era over-concerned with capturing the gorgeous mundanities of life—the Instagram generation—should read Woolf. Without the aid of a #VSCOcam app or the benefit of a #paidcollab with Pottery Barn, without aspirational imagery, with her words alone: Woolf teaches the reader to recognize depth in stillness.

#CurrentDesignSituation

However, I do wonder if Woolf would get onboard with the amateur interior stylists that populate Instagram.

I love to nest and decorate. I moved around a lot when I was a child with my then-single mom, but I always craved the stability of an immoveable home. As an early technology adopter, I’ve been Pinteresting home décor ideas since 2009.

Despite my utter lack of interior design training, a love of vintage chairs in dire need of reupholstering, and a commitment to never paying full price for furniture, I aimed to impress my Instagram followers with my home designs. My husband says I have a furniture problem like he has a motorcycle problem—I always have to bring home the orphans. The just-a-little-broken ottomans and wobbly end tables.

I aim to create a space in which we can live, create, work, and entertain. The charm of worn wood furniture contrasted with new, gleaming appliances is an aesthetic of careful balance, modern but cozy, clean but a little bohemian, that I study in books and blogs and attempt to replicate in my home. Instagram at first seemed like a viable platform to display these efforts.

However, in the past two years, my commitment to gaining followers and “likes” on Instagram based on my interior decor reached annoying levels. In short, I tried to impress people I knew and didn’t know, and probably irritated everyone around me.

“Look at me! I own a home! Look at me! I installed a lamp!”

I am sure the “I’m better than you at #decorating” cattiness and conspicuous consumption—shoppable accounts, perpetual ads, paid designer/product collaborations—that Instagram breeds would not garner Woolf’s approval. She noted her anti-advertising sentiments in more than one essay.

Mrs. Dalloway presents a less troubling, more communal view of domesticity. Woolf projected Clarissa Dalloway’s party as Valencia-filtered images of domestic revelry—the charming, chiming brass clocks and pleasant tinkle of crystal; the beautiful, sharp Clarissa in her mended emerald dress; the spirited conversations between guests.

Photo by Stacie Flinner for MyDomaine‘s August 2018 feature, “How To Decorate Like Your Favorite Fictional Character.” This is an interpretation of a Mrs. Dalloway room.

For those with hopes of styling their own apartments or homes with whimsy, grace, and style, Woolf’s well-crafted words in Mrs. Dalloway are the literary embodiment of #DinnerParty, #AnthropologieHome, #KitchenGoals, #FoodPorn, and #DIYLife. Woolf was better at the language of aesthetics than Instagram ever will be.

Instagram—or rather, the platform’s trove of buyable pastel “BOSS BABE” art—is photographic proof we live in a time when we can declare many lifestyles feminist, as long as we recognize the equality of all humans within their respective stylish spaces. I believe Woolf would find our world fortunate that, less than 100 years after the publication of To The Lighthouse, we can embrace both femininity and feminism in interior décor. The domicile is no longer a tool of female oppression, especially in a post-recession economy with flexible employers who, more and more, allow employees of all genders to sometimes work from home.

A domicile that, algorithms be damned, I still want to decorate, to adorn with kilim rugs and strategic, soft lighting, with mid-century modern furniture and fluffy shearling pillows.

Are we not supposed to want this prettiness? Am I a shallow, image-obsessed idiot? Am I a victim of consumerism-driven culture?

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

#TopplethePatriarchy

 After seeing a few too many Instagram ads hawking unaffordable silk pillowcases and artisanal ceramics, I realized I was feeding into the system. Instagram’s algorithms track Likes and hashtags, using them to monetize user content, assigning users and their images worth on engagement, likability, and revenue-generating potential. The second I posted photos of home improvements to social media, the platform profited off my creative efforts and, frankly, my decorating expenditures. I spent money so Instagram could make money. Ad-busting Woolf would have been displeased.

I also realized I was not doing right by my fellow feminists. Instead of building women up, I pushed them down. Instagram doesn’t have a conscience about feeding our collective image obsession at the expense of its users’ psyches. Every styled corner and artistic tablescape I posted seemed designed, via the algorithms, to make other users self-conscious.

Even after unfollowing all the accounts that made me feel not fit enough, not hot enough, not hip enough, not enough of an artist, not a good enough cook, I would still welcome more of Woolf’s consciousness—that “semi-transparent envelope” or illumined halo of life—to my feed. I’d rather read captions accompanying stunning home imagery that reveal the true difficulties behind the photo shoot—the toddler vomited, the dress hem tore, the sink broke, the basement flooded. Better the long, real, raw story than the vapid and unconvincing:

#bestday #bestlife #blessed

Apartment Therapy featured this Instagram account in its March 2018 feature, “How A New Wave of Feminism Is Changing Decor.”

As I debated setting my Instagram account to private, I turned again to “Three Guineas,” in which Woolf advocated for an Outsiders Society, a pacifist, media-skeptical, women-led group. Members of this Outsiders Society should “increase private beauty” and “extinguish the coarse glare of advertisement and publicity.”

So long, paid Instagram accounts and Kardashian selfies.

Private beauty includes appreciation of the aesthetics of both nature and the domestic, Woolf wrote: “the beauty of flowers, silks, clothes…the scattered beauty which needs only to be combined by artists in order to become visible to all.” As long as Outsiders Society members reject fascism and the ornamentation that goes with it, Woolf implied we can enjoy all the leather bound books, sculptural objets, and just-because bouquets we want.

I’m relieved; I delight in decorating with fresh flowers and books with artistic cloth covers.

“… Woolf was way ahead of most of us,” Cooley continues. “She admonishes us to keep our eyes on actual power structures, on the real workings of domination.”

I see what Woolf meant. Ensconced in our chic blankets, we should call out publications that publish only cisgender white males. Using our quirky floral stationery, we must write back to a potential employer that asking whether we plan on having children is an inappropriate and illegal inquiry, designed to curb women from climbing corporate ladders. While sipping our French press coffee, we need to remain skeptical of our president when he says or does literally anything.

Fostering “private beauty” requires enjoying cocktails while perched on leather poufs atop pretty rugs in our living rooms, scheming with friends who also want to topple the patriarchy. We won’t take a single photo while we plan. Instead, we’ll appreciate the spaces we’re in, designed for our comfort rather than for consumption. That’s what I think Virginia Woolf would do.

The bedroom in Monk’s House, Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s former home in East Sussex, England. Photo by David Ross.

 

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.