To My Daughter, and All the Daughters,
This is the letter I should have gotten from my mother, and that she should have gotten from her mother, and that should have been passed down through the ages like baking cloths, or photo albums, or funeral cards. It is the letter that tells you, young beauty, how miraculous your body is, and how you were built for gratification and yearning.
Do not shame yourself into thinking that purity comes from abstention, or goodness from depravity. Your body harbors a lava core, fluid and burning, that hungers for touch, release, and all the pleasure your days can hold. Yes, you were made to bloom babies, angled soft and wide to be a vessel for life. But you were also molded for indulgence, to allow yourself to climb pinnacle after pinnacle and savor the sweet, golden taste of your own flesh as it shivers and shakes with glee.
Since you were little you have been bombarded by images of clean, crisp women in ball gowns or dresses waiting for the moment when a man would recognize her beauty and choose her. Well, soft heart, I am here to tell you that you are the one you are waiting for. You don’t need the dress, or the heels, or the coiffed hair. But if you want them, wear them big and bold. Own your lavish spectacle. Wear whatever the fuck you want. Be clean, or get dirty. Just know that they are merely a window dressing and have no bearing on your soul.
Everywhere you look, women are expected to swim in duality, Madonna in light and Eve when dusk. I am here to tell you that Eve does not need to be hidden. She needs to blow the doors off the hinges and walk proudly into day. Eve is your sister, your guide, the bitch who will whisper in your ear that you don’t need to take that shit from anyone. She’s the one who won’t fake an orgasm to give someone else the satisfaction denied her. She’s the one who pushes you from behind when you don’t know how to step forward to get what you want.
Let’s have the conversation we don’t have out loud: let’s talk about how beautiful and sacred sex is to who we are, how its bewitching magic keeps us in touch with our inner pulse and heartbeat. How orgasms are not just a release, but a way for our body to feel in tune with everything else around it. How a good fuck can cleanse the palate and soul, and put us back in proximity with our inner goddess. And yes, I said FUCK because sometimes making love is not an option we want nor need to have. We are just as capable of enjoying pleasure for pleasure’s sake, and more than capable, it should be our inheritance.
What does all this mean? It means you should feel free to do any and everything and whoever you choose. It means that you should be just as concerned about how happy your pussy feels as you are that your lipstick is smeared, or that your hair has strayed. Open yourself up to everything that you want. Don’t be afraid to be the one to initiate. Talk to the cute guy or girl in the bar or library. Ask him or her out, take him or her home, fuck him or her in the backseat of his or her Ford Prius in a public place. It is your domain, your body, and you need to own that shit.
And while we’re on the subject, your sexuality is yours to own. Him, her, he, she, non-binary, whatever works for you is the only thing you need to concern yourself with. Yes, people may judge you, they may even turn their back because your experience is outside the realm of their own comfort zone. With as strong a mother voice as I can muster, I say FUCK THAT NOISE. There is no requirement that when you enter this world that you must make anyone but yourself happy. The peace and contentment of others has nothing to do with your desire and love. Do something for me: sit still. Close your eyes. Breathe in deep through your nose and exhale loudly. Put your hand on your heart, and say this as much as you need to: I am, and I will, always be enough. I am, and I will, always be enough. I am, and I will, always be enough.
With sex, there is no limit to what you can yearn to experience. Go for it all: crack open your body, lie back, and let it be flooded with whatever you desire. Experience hands exploring every inch of your soft, graceful flesh. Allow tongues to wander fiercely across your hills and mounds. Don’t be shy. Put a hand here, then there, then in the places you’re afraid to name because you’ve been drilled that good girls don’t “do that.” Except the best girls do, and they do it better than anyone. They tease, tantalize, and let their fantasies evolve to realities.
You have this one body in this one life. It should feel spectacular, floating, dangerously divine. Yes, this can all be accomplished through love, with a solid partner, and monogamy as the hallmark. But it is my job to say that there is no contract that says you must seek a mate, or marry, or be committed to revel in pleasures of the flesh. Rather, it is up to you, and only you, to decide what you want, where you want it, how you want it, and with whom. Just go get it.
I am telling you this because your body is not a pillar of shame but a statue of perfection. You have every right to feel good, get fucked, and be satisfied in every aspect of your being. Feeling good is the new black. So, wear it proud it and loud. There can be no indignity in anything that was created to make our bodies melt into puddles of ecstatic joy.
Get yours, and get it good.
By day, Holly Baldwin is a hospital lactation consultant and childbirth advocate who lives in the endless desert of Santa Fe, NM, with her four phenomenal children. At night, and other stolen moments, she is an MFA writing candidate at Spalding University, where her passions include screenwriting, playwriting, and creative nonfiction with a focus on the struggles and triumphs of women. She unabashedly claims the title of Unapologetic Badass and blogs her feminist and single parenting reflections at hollybaldwin.weebly.com.
Dana Johnson is the writer of the short story collections Break Any Woman Down and In the Not Quite Dark, and the coming-of-age novel Elsewhere, California, which was nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Southern California, and her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Callaloo, and The Paris Review, among others. I sat down with Dana on August 23, 2017 in Downtown Los Angeles where we talked about her novel, identity and race, and teaching the craft of writing. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.
Lily Caraballo: I read Elsewhere, California for the interview. And I looked at your books, too, and I noticed the main character, Avery. You also did a couple of short stories focusing on her in Break Any Woman Down. My question is, what drew you to continue following Avery from short stories to a full-length novel?
Dana Johnson: Break Any Woman Down had Avery when she was little, like in fifth grade or something. That opened the collection and then the last story was Avery when she was much older, I guess mid-thirties or something. So we saw her when she was young and we saw her closer to middle age, and I… want to get in the middle, like connect the childhood to the adulthood and somehow… construct her story and talk more thoroughly or deeply about race in America, assimilation, class. There are all these issues that I wanted to get at that informed Avery’s identity, and so two short stories didn’t seem to be enough.
LC: I was reading, and I remember there were moments when I was getting angry for some reason because I didn’t like what I was seeing.
DJ: At Avery? Because some people were annoyed at her, too.
LC: It was more like… the change in the way she spoke, her dialect, and that angered me, and I didn’t know why, that was the weird thing. And as I was going on, I kept on thinking, “You know, I think I might have been in this situation too,” where I was told to speak properly.
DJ: Well, that’s what I wanted to discuss, because that’s assimilation in America. If you are a black person of a certain place and you move to another place that’s predominantly white, and you’re young, there’s inevitably some kind of… shift of you trying to blend in with the dominant culture.
LC: That also leads into another question. I felt like, especially later on in the novel, I noticed that, it just felt like… growing up, everyone—her friend and her neighbor—they’re telling her how to act, how to dress. And then around college, her father’s telling her that she needs to get a business degree… and there’s this pressure put on her to get the degree, and then when she got an arts degree, her family… didn’t feel that she actually succeeded. They looked at her, sort of like with blame or something. And it just came to me that, as a black woman, we get all these expectations put on us from everywhere. Do you feel that this is something black women face?
You have to figure out who you’re going to be, and I think when you have other layers like gender and race, in addition to all of that stuff, it becomes for some people even more complicated. Racially, what am I supposed to be, what’s authentically black?
DJ: Well, I think… it’s a struggle that everyone is going to have in their lives at some point, no matter male, woman, whatever race. You have to figure out who you’re going to be, and I think when you have other layers like gender and race, in addition to all of that stuff, it becomes for some people even more complicated. Racially, what am I supposed to be, what’s authentically black? As a woman, how am I supposed to be, am I supposed to be some sort of traditional person? What is my place, how do I identify as a woman with other women? There’s so many things.
LC: And it seems to pile up. The expectations, they do seem to pile up if you’re part of a marginalized community. If you’re a woman, you have the expectation to act like a proper woman, but if you’re gay or a person of color… it just starts adding up.
DJ: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think too—much like Avery, I come from a working class family and no one in my family ever did anything that was… traditionally artistic? I mean, I would argue that I’m sure there are many folks in my family who are artistic in other ways, but someone declaring that they wanna be a writer is just a weird thing. So…they’re proud of me now, but at the time there was this attitude of “Don’t you wanna make money?” [laughs].
LC: I’ve had that attitude with my dad’s side of the family. When I told them what I wanted to be, they’re like, “Okay, so what are you gonna do for money?” I always found that off-putting. But my mother’s side of the family, they’ve always been supportive of that fact… My mom, she encouraged both my brother and I to do the things we [liked]. She noticed I was good at drawing and writing, so she pushed that for me. My brother, he loved computer games and he was good with computers, so she pushed him towards that.
DJ: So she saw what your interests were and encouraged them.
LC: And… her parents weren’t like that. My uncle… he was good at drawing, too, and he brought it home to show it to my grandfather and he tore the picture up into pieces.
DJ: Oh my God.
LC: And my mom said that created this rift between her brothers and her father, because he wanted them to grow up… to what they’re not right now, if that makes any sense?
DJ: It’s funny because my dad’s side of the family, they’re these brilliant musicians and singers. I once asked my dad, “If you weren’t a social worker, what would you have wanted to be?” and he said he wanted to be a songwriter. So there’s all this creativity, nevertheless, in my family, but there was this unease, and… concern about actually pursuing something like writing very seriously.
LC: You mentioned that you and Avery share some similarities. Your experiences seem like a source of inspiration for the novel. Is that connected to why you came back to Avery as well?
DJ: For a lot of writers, their first novels are bildungsromans, stories of coming of age… so, yeah, the stories and the novel were inspired by my experiences growing up. But both the novel and the stories are fiction, so there’s always emotional truths and perhaps situations that occurred, but I still had to construct a story that had an arc. And that’s what I had to do with Elsewhere, and I had fun with Elsewhere. I had several things that I was doing: I was changing Avery’s voice, and then the structure was one day in her life in contrast to her coming of age. So there’s one day in her life, but the rest of that’s interspersed with fifth grade, sixth grade, high school, whatever.
LC: The book seems to not only be about Avery navigating her identity, but also about California itself. The diversity in LA seems more complex than I thought it was when I moved here. Would you say that California is searching for its own identity?
DJ: I don’t think California is searching for its own identity; it has its own identity, and it’s complex, that’s what I would say. And that complexity never seems to be revealed or discussed or illustrated or documented in a way that completely satisfies the question of what is California… so that’s what I would say.
LC: One of the fears that I have, personally when I’m writing, [is that] I’m going to be expected to talk about race and how it affects me. And I feel that’s something we have to talk about, but I also don’t want to get pigeon-holed into that… do you ever get moments of that when you write?
…I just write what I want to write. But I do think ethnic writers that don’t necessarily write about their ethnicity or their blackness or whatever it is, do have a harder time getting recognition for what they’re writing, because writing about blackness if you’re black is what people want to see.
DJ: Oh, absolutely. There’s always this sort of expectation as an African-American woman writer that I’ll write about certain things. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t, I just write what I want to write. But I do think ethnic writers that don’t necessarily write about their ethnicity or their blackness or whatever it is, do have a harder time getting recognition for what they’re writing, because writing about blackness if you’re black is what people want to see. I just write what I want. My first short story collection is nine stories, a lot of them were about black folks but one was about this white punk rocker… I just wrote what I wanted to write. I wanted to write about humans. That’s what I did and that’s what I do.
LC: You’re a professor at USC. What do you hope that your students take away from your classes?
DJ: I really want my students to think about what is important to them. Why do they need to write? That’s the main thing. Lot of times, I get stories that are vague—someone goes to the movies, runs into Joe, and then other vagueness ensues… and I want them always to be thinking, “What’s at stake in your life, before you die, that you think is important to write about?” Think about that. Why are you even doing this? What stories do you need to tell? That’s the main thing that I’m hoping to teach them. And also basic craft stuff. People are always saying, “You can’t teach writing, you can’t teach someone how to be a writer.” You probably can’t, but you can teach them… craft things like anything else, in any other art form, or job or certain things one does, and if one does them well, you might turn into a good writer.
LC: What would you most like your writing to accomplish for your readers, and what would you like them to walk away with after experiencing your work?
DJ: I think it’s what every writer wants, which is the reader before reading what I wrote hadn’t thought about this particular thing either at all or in this other way. Just a kind of… opening of the mind, or at least providing questions, not even answers. My job isn’t to answer any questions, it’s just sometimes to cause the question to be formed while someone’s reading like, “What is that? What is she talking about? Why am I angry while reading this?” I just want people to be struck in some kind of way.
Lily Caraballo is an MFA candidate in the Creative Writing Program at Antioch University Los Angeles. She works as a contributing writer for Black Girl Nerds and as a figure model for art classes in her spare time. Her work is expected to appear in the upcoming anthology My Body, My Words, which will be published next spring. She lives in Los Angeles.
I should be writing.
You are not here. For the next one hundred and twenty minutes, you are not my job.
“Are you going to the coffee office?” you asked on the way to preschool, your cute phrase for what I do. Yes, yes. Three days a week, three slivers of a life that isn’t wholly about you.
I should be writing. There are only so many moments like this that are mine. I have a hot cup of coffee and the comforting weight of my coat across my lap.
But the café is drafty. I’m cold. I’m drifting without the business of mothering to hold me down. Thoughts of you are a hailstorm. My head hurts.
I’m tired. I hate February. I haven’t been warm, haven’t been right in weeks.
We were late again today—my fault. I forgot your bookbag and snack. I took too long at the computer. I was trying to be somewhere else, somewhere other than in the kitchen. You didn’t want to go. You think the other children are aliens with no names. You stand on tables; you throw crayons and blocks at their heads, rip pages from books. You wouldn’t eat your toast.
Everything a struggle.
I should be writing. They will call me if they need me.
But my head is in my hands.
You’ve been having night fits again. Midnight, every night, you wake up crying. You won’t tell us what’s wrong.
In weaker moments, I think you are spoiled. Maybe we did this. All those sleep-starved months, walking the halls, taking you into bed, not taking you into bed, Hush now. Nursing you silent. Did I wean you too soon, or not soon enough? What will we do with you? we ask, in the daylight, and you say, I’m sure I don’t know. But at night you sit in bed and just cry, wordless baby sounds. You’re bigger than this. You could get up. You could come get us. You could explain. But you don’t.
How many hours, how many lost dreams, muffled screams, prayers into the pillow, Please, baby, sleep? Did we do this? Did I do this? But it was always like this.
I should be writing.
But this is not normal.
You are not normal.
I have to start thinking of you as a diagnosis. It is not your fault. It’s not mine. We were born this way. A chemical imbalance, an accident of genetics. I recognize it. I know the sound of it, the way you scream into my shoulder. What four-year-old weeps, Make me not born? You are like me.
February can be fatal to the spirit.
I should be writing.
But you are not like me. You are heartbroken, for what? For nothing. Ridiculous things—a fallen block tower. A word. A world that will not align itself to your demands. We love you so much; we can’t please you. I look at you and think—so narrow, a child’s outrage. What of all the blessings that you have? What of all the horrors that we’ve spared you?
But I’m sure my parents thought the same thing.
This is what scares me.
They used to say I was lucky. Dance lessons, new clothes every school year. I never wanted for things. And I would think, even then, I want not to pick my drunk mother off the floor. I want not to play connect-the-dots between the fist-holes in the wall. Getting by is not everything. You don’t get to buy normal.
Is it me that’s narrow?
Am I overlooking the damage I do to you?
My painkiller is starting to work. It is taking the fists away from my temples. The café is not busy, no one is calling me from your school yet today, this moment is for me, I should be using it to write.
I have two documents open on the laptop in front of me. One is my novel—the work today is straightforward. I can make progress. But I can’t think, can’t see, can’t get warm, can’t.
The other is a poem of metaphors—pregnancy. Nursing. Semelparity, insects and animals that die after procreating just the once, a monster event, biological demands, similarities and opposites, bipolar impulses, the natural order of things. The poem unfinished; you are unfinished. You are still gaining strength from my essence. You are sucking my marrow and crunching the bones. I search for words to explain how I feel. To be okay with it. But I am not okay.
You are not normal. You are not okay.
I should be writing. Instead I am killing time here, waiting to get you, busy only outlining my morning, another morning, like all the other mornings. One hundred and sixteen minutes, almost gone.
I can live another day without writing. There is nothing fatal about uneaten toast. I’m just tired. I’m just thinking, a synopsis of a life edited down to this. I pack up my things, put on my coat. There will be other moments, other projects, but for now you are my work-in-progress, my broken little story. I should be writing.
I’m on my way.
Shannon Connor Winward is the author of the Elgin-award winning chapbook, Undoing Winter. Her writing has earned recognition in the Writers of the Future contest (L. Ron Hubbard) and the Delaware Division of the Arts individual artist fellowship in literature. Her work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, the Pedestal Magazine, Gargoyle, Literary Mama, Qu, and The Monarch Review, among others. In between writing, parenting, and other madness, Shannon is also an officer for the Science Fiction Poetry Association, a poetry editor for Devilfish Review, and founding editor of Riddled with Arrows literary journal.
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh is a work of transgressive fiction that follows the life of heroin user Mark Renton, a.k.a. “Rents,” and his friends known as the Skag Boys. The novel takes place in Scotland with occasional trips to London. Trainspotting is told from several different points of views and includes a revolving cast of outsiders living on the fringe of society. As a work of transgressive fiction, Trainspotting is satirical in its portrayal of characters partaking in illicit ventures and criminal activity in the post-Thatcher United Kingdom.
I was fascinated with how Irvine Welsh differentiated the various perspectives of the transgressive characters through distinctive voices. In Trainspotting, most chapters are written in a Scottish dialect, but there are other indicators of who is narrating each section. Sick Boy, one of the Skag Boys, has an obsession with Sean Connery and imagines speaking with him. “Good old fashioned Scoattish hoshpitality, aye, ye cannae beat it, shays the young Sean Connery” (29). Franco Begbie is violent and psychotic, and the chapters from his his point of view are particularly profane, vulgar, and full of manic energy. Spud says “likesay” frequently and refers to people as “cats.” Mark Renton, for instance, is particularly critical of society. Yet his criticisms are both pointed and ridiculous. At one point he says, “Ah don’t hate the English. They’re just wankers. We are colonized by wankers” (78).
Compared to the other Skag Boys, Renton seems to be the most self-aware. Rents understands the correlation between his behavior and a conservative society. When reflecting on his own contrarian disposition, he says, “Society invents a spurious convoluted logic tae absorb and change people whae’s behavior is outside its mainstream” (187). I read Trainspotting while writing a novel that alternates perspectives between two rebellious characters, a brother and sister who are artists living in New York City. They are non-conformists in the sense that they feel more connected to the city’s artistic and rebellious past than the sanitized reality of the present. When getting inside the various points of view of my own characters, I found that Trainspotting helped me to connect with my own characters’ stylized criticism of society. It also showed me how to differentiate between my characters’ attitudes by creating a unique perspective, bordering on the ridiculous, for each of them.
There are unforgettable scenes that make Trainspotting laugh-out-loud funny and shocking to the core, sometimes at the same time. Though entertaining, it does not glorify the dark side of illicit behavior. One night, Mark meets a girl named Dianne at a club and learns the next morning that she is a teenager. When he meets her parents, he is guilt-tripped into sharing an awkward breakfast with the family. The narrator notes, “Renton thought about last night and wondered chillingly what Dianne had done, and with whom, to gain such sexual experience, such confidence. He felt fifty-five instead of twenty-five, and he was sure that people were looking at him” (150-151). My personal takeaway from reading this shocking material is to strive to be a brave writer. As a writer focusing on characters who find themselves in awkward situations, I tried not be afraid to get my hands dirty. Trainspotting made me realize that perversity in a novel is not necessarily a bad thing as long as it’s not done merely for cheap thrills. Shocking fiction works best when it doesn’t rely on shock value alone to craft scenes.
Trainspotting influenced my writing of provocative characters with nuanced perspectives in outrageous situations. It made me realize that in effective transgressive fiction, characters aren’t rebelling for the sake of it. Instead, there is a greater design to disobedience. The “Choose Life” speech delivered by Rents showed me that characters engaged in rebellion against the demoralizing forces of a conservative society are trying to maintain some sense of higher self, even if that sense of self doesn’t conform to societal norms and standards. Rents says, “Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows” (187). In a sense, the characters in Trainspotting are challenging a world that causes members of its society to engage in criminal activity, even if their means of doing so are outrageous, and at times, destructive.
As a writer, I realized that dissident characters can grow into more mature, socially aware selves by taking a stand against elements of society they wish to change. In my novel, the brother and sister who are dealing with the loss of a parent and the subsequent impact on their family, eventually channel their rebellious natures into creative pursuits that help them to transcend grief and loss. Through creativity, non-conformity, and the rejection of social norms, they are able to evolve into their higher selves.
Welsh, Irvine. Trainspotting. 1993. Norton, 1996.
Douglas Menagh is a writer based in New York City. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. He previously wrote for The New Philadelphia music blog and was recently featured in Annotation Nation.
I’m on a bus reading Langston Hughes’s articles
from The Chicago Defender and I realize
it’s like I have no shadow. I’m on a bus
sitting where I want to and in this article
it’s 1946, and Hughes is in a restaurant
and the hostess insists on seating him
at the back of an empty room in the farthest
corner by the kitchen door. It’s 2017
and I’m reading Hughes writing in 1947
how a young athlete dies because there are no
“negro hospitals” and every “white hospital”
turns him away, and I realize the American dream
is a river that rushes on but still hasn’t met up
with its promises. In 1962 Hughes writes
how Dr. Jane Wright of NYU’s Medical Center
goes to visit a friend at a fashionable apartment
and is directed to the service elevator. Today
it’s 2017 and NPR publishes an article
about African-American women who are assumed
by whites to be “the help,” though they own
the business. So it’s 2017 or it’s 1943, and Hughes
is helping me to understand or to stand under
the weight of these relentless denials. I’m on a bus,
and it’s 1943 and Hughes is telling me the riots
have started, and white shop owners in Harlem
don’t understand why their windows are broken,
and I’m growing weary and want to close the book,
I’m thinking I can close the book, and the book
ends. But Hughes couldn’t, those women on NPR
can’t. For him, for them, the book doesn’t end,
they, like him, are never allowed to leave its covers,
the book covers them, and when I get off the bus
it closes over them, but the story isn’t over.
I can ignore the story though it doesn’t end,
and that is a kind of power, a power that could end it
if I help write that part of the story that ends it,
the part where we all get off the bus, where we all
close the book, and we all live outside its covers.
Michael T. Young’s fourth collection, The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost, was published by Poets Wear Prada. His chapbook, Living in the Counterpoint, received the 2014 Jean Pedrick Chapbook Prize. He received a fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and The Chaffin Journal’s poetry award. His poetry and prose have appeared in numerous journals, including Ashville Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, Little Patuxent Review, Prick of the Spindle, and Potomac Review. His work also appears in the anthologies Phoenix Rising, Chance of a Ghost, and Rabbit Ears: TV Poems. He lives with his wife, children, and cats in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Welcome to our new Amuse-Bouche occasional series, Litdish. This is a solicited series of interviews with writers and artists in conversation with our staff about literature, art, social justice, and community activism. Please enjoy. ~The Editors
With a background in geology, Rick Bass splits his time between environmental activism and writing. His work crosses genres and includes non-fiction, essays, novels, and short stories. You can find his work widely published and acclaimed in journals and magazines such as Esquire, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and many more. He is the author of several books and story collections including Why I Came West, All the Land to Hold Us, and For a Little While. Rick and I are both Montanans. Rick lives in the rural Yaak Valley, and I live in an urban center, so our experiences are vastly different. Still, we both have the unique position of living blue in a red state. I first saw Rick speak in Los Angeles during Antioch University’s June 2017 MFA residency where he talked about the urgency of activism in today’s world.
Interviewed by Kori Kessler via email and edited for clarity.
Kori Kessler: You have a background in geology. How did you get into writing and how does your experience as a geologist shape your writing?
Rick Bass: I learned to write by being sold books from the bookstore in Jackson Mississippi. Where I was working as a geologist at the time. As a geologist, I made maps of unseen buried lands. This was excellent training to become a writer, who does the same thing.
KK: You write in a variety of mediums from creative non-fiction, to short stories, and novels. From a craft perspective, how do you approach each genre? How are they similar and different? Does any one genre flow easier than others for you?
RB: Speaking generally, in fiction I have no idea what the end of the story is or will be, only roughly where it lies. Generally speaking, with non-fiction, I have a bit more vision about what might lie ahead.
KK: What drew you to write about stories that take place in the West, and focus on the landscape and nature in this area at a time when these spaces are in danger of being destroyed?
KK: There is an element of magic that appears in your writing that emphasizes the supernatural power of the landscape—the elephant that shows up in the desert in All the Land to Hold Us for example. How does magical realism inform your writing? How does it relate to environmental writing?
RB: I don’t think of it so much as magical realism. The things I write can happen. There is no relation to environmental writing in this approach.
KK: How do you go about writing a character outside of your own experience—women like Clarissa and Ruth, or Mufti (characters in All the Land to Hold Us), who is from India, for example?
RB: Specificity helps. Specificity provides a reader access to the story and attaches them inextricably to the dream.
KK: During your time at the Antioch University Los Angeles June 2017 MFA residency, you mentioned that we need more people in the street, more activism in addition to poetry. People in the seminar seemed especially bothered by this statement. I think it’s because many in the audience aren’t living as a progressive in a red state—can you describe what it’s like working and writing as an activist and as a progressive in an extremely red state like Montana?
RB: Unless you have done it, it’s probably impossible to try to describe working as an activist in the population I’m in. It’s probably impossible to try to describe working as an activist in a population or demographic that is so violently against your aesthetics, and, often, you. Sometimes, simply raising the flag every day and taking the high road over the years is the best form of activism. One learns to be very mindful of the ineffectiveness of preaching to the choir or standing on the soapbox in such toxic environments.
How does one prevent burnout? The support of peers is vital, as is the practice of remembering the cause itself and your belief in it, and for me, getting out into the woods.
KK: How do you balance life as a writer with life as an activist?
RB: Balance is a dangerous word. It is more a question of shifting priorities; triage… juggling is a better word. You do your best and don’t expect perfection in activism. Just do your best. Don’t leave anything behind or on the field.
Kori Kessler is obsessed with pop culture. She has a love for misunderstood female characters and murder mysteries. Currently, she attends Antioch University Los Angeles and lives with her family and their three dogs Ginsberg, Elliot, and Stella.
When I get to the top of Masada there are the canyons and there are the fortress ruins and there is the desert that stereotypically stretches out like a blanket location designed to set the scene for biblical abyss. There is this moment we are forced to be in together, all of us fresh off the bus, this specific moment of sunrise that brings up the warm blue undertones in the otherwise blanched Mesa. There is the appointed Zionist tour guide in his lime-green polo tee who is preparing to spiel us young American Heebs on mass suicide, but only after we’ve been forever turned by the predictable magic of the sunrise. There are the dunes that roll on and on so that we nomadically remember the moguls of infinity. There is my water bottle that I am drinking because they made me wake up early to hike this hill and they are always telling us bring water like no one knows it on their own. They have made it very clear that they do not want to be responsible for our dehydration. On my back is a pack and in it there is a Ziploc filled with dates and pistachios I got at the marketplace. The pistachios, the dates, they are oh-so-valuable now, because we have traveled halfway around the world so our lost tribe can connect, and this life changing experience comes with the expectation that we are all going to survive off of gas station falafels. We are expected to fall in love with another tribe member at the gas station as we are stuffing our faces with these gas station falafels. We are expected to settle in Kibbutzim and get married after we fall in love with whoever is also eating falafel at the gas station. After the ceremony, we’ll be expected to hold hands and wear ergonomic clogs. We are expected to fuck our chosen one up against the soft bark of an olive tree that was seeded by US dollars that a person in the ’70s mailed overseas in honor of when someone’s dad turned thirteen and finally “became a man.” They are conditioning us to fuck our chosen one up against that smooth bark, the she bent over against the trunks while the he tries not to break an olive branch during the cumming. There in the orchard, they hope, we will fuck to make new babies for the army. Now there is the sunlight changing the scene into a variety of pinks and the sound is that of Adam’s stomach gurgling because he is gluten-free and couldn’t eat the breakfast back at the fake Bedouin tent where they made us sleep in bags last night so that we could bond like only sleeping Jews in a tent can bond. The Bedouins only eat bagels for breakfast, so I give Adam my pistachios. And now there is the sun as it hits the spot where it will loiter for most of the day’s middle, the place where it has traditionally loitered for most days over the course of all time, the same spot it was in for like, Moses, who at some point saw the sun from just where we are now. The sun is where it has been since the ancient inhabitants of this place, AKA our ancestors, slaughtered and burned themselves after they’d thrown their babies off of the cliffs. All the important Jews whose parents brought them to the Motherland have probably been here, like Gene Simmons probably saw the sun from here and Philip Roth and Joan Rivers and Barbara Streisand, but definitely not Anne Frank, who is basically to blame for Birthright existing in the first place. The sun is executing its more traditional sandy yellows as Adam is popping open the halves of the shells, because g-d is he hungry and he can’t get over the Bedouins only having bagels available despite the dietary restrictions he checked on his admissions form, and all Jews are basically gluten-intolerant so what the fuck has been up with the doughy breakfasts. We share our ancestors. We share our indigestion. Over there in the near distance is the curved plane of a familiar hunched back. The font on the back says NIRVANA in red, and the back sits up cross-legged in the crumbs of the fortress ruins, so his front looks out over the peak that rises above the vast ellipse of sandy earth that drawls into the Dead Sea clay of secular history; his front presides over the ledge that the babies were thrown off of so that their parents could kill them first, or at least before anyone else got the chance. When I get to the top of Masada, there is my ex-boyfriend and he is still playing Candy Crush.
Leah Sophia Dworkin lives in New York City. She has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University. She has writings published or forthcoming in (b)OINK, KGB Bar Lit, Columbia Journal, Yalobusha Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Hotel, and BOMB. Online she goes by @frumperella. Learn more at leahsophiadworki
It was a young and tiny family—a wife, a husband, a three-month old son. They moved into the apartment on the tenth floor of a building which was one of the original high-rises in Chennai.
There were six apartments on each floor around a central corridor into which the lifts opened. The corridor was dark, with two fluorescent bulbs that created a stale and stagnant light. But the apartments had large windows, which made up for the dimness of the corridor.
After the final boxes had been brought in by the moving men, the little family went up the lift. Radha, the wife, held her child against her chest and stood beside Mohan, her husband. The only sound was the tired creaking of the elevator chains.
When they stepped out, they saw light streaming from the open doorway of the apartment in front of them. In that light stood a frail figure, all of her reduced to the bare essentials: bone, skin, two white molars. She was wearing some kind of diaphanous sari that made her even more ethereal. She looked at them as they got out, her eyes distorted by very thick glasses, benevolent, curious. Radha smiled at her briefly, anxious to get into the apartment before the baby could wake up.
The next day, it was around ten a.m. There was a soft knock on Radha’s door. The frail figure they had seen yesterday stood outside. She held some embroidered cloths. “Wasn’t sure if it’s a boy or girl,” she said. “The building manager only said, a baby was coming.” Her voice was raspy as if there was no more moisture left in her throat.
“Boy,” Radha said, looking at her baby, chuckling on a mat on the floor. The old woman peered at him.
“That’s ok, he can still wear these. They will be good for him too,” and she gave Radha four little hand-stitched, embroidered shirt frocks made of the softest cotton fabric.
It was a regular visit after that; with something or other she had made or been given; custard, a bit of cake, a pomegranate, two coffee mugs, a little rug sewn out of rags. Aachi, that’s what she said everyone called her, was always careful never to overstay her welcome; also she tired easily.
Radha never saw anyone else except Aachi. It seemed as if no one else lived on that floor. Or maybe they were all working and left before she could even wake up.
Aachi lived by herself in one half of an apartment sublet from a Gujarathi family who had moved and now used the rest of the apartment as storage. Her son was with his wife and daughter on the second floor and every day, Aachi was grateful that either he, his wife, or daughter visited.
Aachi was from Jaffna; she had managed to escape to India, when her son married an Indian. Otherwise she might still be in a refugee camp somewhere or dead, don’t you know, she said, shot so fully dead that people who passed by would not even know that a body was lying there, and if no one was there to bury you, no neighbor, no cousin or an uncle, no friend or stranger was there to bury you, only your skeleton would be left, don’t you know, lying there all arranged in a living style of how bones are when they are alive. But mostly, Aachi would smooth out her sari around her and ask why was she even talking about those past matters.
One day, after Radha had settled somewhat, and had started full-scale cooking, she made chicken curry. Aachi knocked on the door. Her thin nose tilted up. “What a fragrance, the whole floor is smelling with whatever it is that you are making. Not every cook can create such a beautiful smell. You must have a special hand. Chicken, no?”
“Yes, chicken, please have some, Aachi.”
Aachi hesitated. Then, “I will get my plate,” she said and was gone before Radha could stop her. She came back with a silver plate embossed with a delicate floral pattern.
“I cannot eat in anything else,” she explained.
She ate like a little bird, a sparrow, her mouth pursed into readiness, just one tiny piece of a small half of a leg of a chicken, with a tablespoon of rice, but she ate with long, sustained relish, putting her two molars to maximum use, sucking at the bone with total concentration.
When she was done, she leaned back and said, almost in tears, “I have not enjoyed anything so much for such a long time. You are very kind.”
She took her plate into the kitchen to wash it, refusing to let Radha do it for her. “How deeply I have cooked,” she sighed. “How much food from my kitchen. The number of people who ate what these hands made! Neighbors, relatives, friends, passersby, strangers, beggars, servants, everyone, anyone at all.”
The kitchen had a back door that opened onto the stairway. As Aachi wiped her hands and looked at the shining surface of her plate, they heard loud voices.
Immediately, Aachi went to the back door and, putting her ear to it, she listened with great attention. One voice was that of a young man and the other of a woman, a sharp argument of some sort. Suddenly, there was silence followed by running footsteps, a thud and another interesting sound, like a suppressed shriek.
Aachi straightened and shook her head. “He’s at it again. One of these days, he’ll kill her, that’s what I’m thinking, and then what’s she going to do. I told her, so many times, don’t you know, I told her, son or not, if they’ve gone bad, we have to let them go.” Aachi pointed her thumb to her mouth, swayed and whispered, “All the time, every time I see him, he’s like that. She won’t listen, she’s a mother after all. If she had been a little firm in the beginning, things would have been different. But what with her life being uncertain as it is, dealing with that husband of hers. It’s hard.”
They lived on the mezzanine floor, just below the tenth floor, this mother and son, and, according to Aachi, the mother was a great beauty, a famous dancer, “Haven’t you heard, Shakunthala Rani, the Kuchipudi dancer, she was married to an industrialist, a cement factory man, from what I hear, a suspicious, distrustful, jealous sort of man who gave her so much hell, luckily he died and left her some money. But what’s the use anyway, the son has gone bad.”
After such an introduction, Radha became very curious to see Shakunthala Rani. One afternoon, when her husband was taking care of the baby, she made some excellently soft idlies and coconut chutney. She packed ten idlies with the chutney and went down to see her. Aachi was not wrong. Shakunthala was beautiful, even in her sixties. She had a dramatic presence. Her face was large, spacious, with a majestic forehead, a pronounced brow line, a somewhat aquiline nose, full wide lips. Her hair was almost completely white and was worked into a casual knot, with a few strands framing her face. Her lustrous eyes had a melancholic expression. Radha felt an instant involvement in that melancholy.
Shakunthala Rani talked about her dancing days; it brought a little light to her face. She walked Radha to a table with framed photographs. She picked up one in which she stood in a dance pose. “This is when I danced at the Kennedy Center, you know, in Washington, DC.”
Radha looked at the younger, slimmer, radiant Shakuntala Rani, and said, “Very nice picture of you.”
Shakunthala Rani smiled proudly. A door slammed somewhere behind and her whole manner changed, she was a different woman, her face stiffened and estranged. She thanked Radha for the idlies and hurried her out.
Radha returned home, unable to forget her brief visit. The very next day, in the evening, someone knocked on the kitchen door. It sounded more like a soft scratching. It was Shakunthala Rani. She looked disturbed, her hair lay undone around her shoulders. She said she had run out of curd and needed some for a starter.
Radha pretended not to notice her expression and filled a cup with curd. The baby was in a cradle in the living room and he began to cry. Shakunthala went to pick him up, her every gesture filled with yearning, her gestures all the more expressive because of her training as a dancer. Radha watched her as if she would capture forever the vanishing beauty of this woman holding her son. They did not speak. The baby too was silent, his eyes teary and dazzled. Shakunthala put him back in the cradle, thanked Radha for the curd, and left.
Radha mentioned this visit to Aachi. “It’s that son, I am telling you,” Aachi said. “One like that, just one like that is enough to suck out the joy in everything. He is sick, a mentally disturbed fellow. She is not facing the truth, that’s all. If there’s a wild animal, can we keep that wild animal in the house? Is that a wise thing to do? Who will suffer in the end?”
Aachi’s eyes moved restlessly behind her lenses, her mouth munched the air with intensity. Radha felt another shot of curiosity singe her thoughts. She wished she could see Shakunthala’s son for herself.
An opportunity came when she was at the mail box. A tall man stood there, looking at his mail, and when Radha neared he turned towards her. The resemblance to Shakunthala Rani was strong and with a shock Radha realized who it was. He smiled and held out an envelope, “This postman must be new, I think, Is this yours?”
Radha looked at the name, yes, it was her name, Mrs. Radha Mohan.
“Thank you,” she said, trying not to sound relieved that he was so normal.
“My mother said you brought the idlies. We enjoyed them very much. She tries to make them sometimes, but it’s not the same. I guess it lacks the authentic south-Indian touch.” He laughed.
Radha smiled at him, feeling a little disjointed. How could the same features which were so feminine on the mother be so masculine on him; a masculine elegance flowed even in the way he moved; a pleasant, handsome man, after all; what a pleasant voice, too, cultured.
They had been in the apartment for a little over a month, when Mohan had to go to Delhi on business. He wished Radha would stay with her parents while he was away. But Aachi said there was really no need for that. She came morning and evening to check up on Radha. She had begun a large project with rags and she said she was going to make wine for Christmas. It was July; if she started now, with all the fermenting and filtering, she would be ready just in time.
She had set up her filtering contraption in the center of her one room. She had several cheese cloths hanging on a line, a set of bottles, ceramic jars and glasses on a makeshift shelf. She explained her methodology to Radha who, exhausted by her squirming baby, felt a mild envy that Aachi could do as she pleased.
“I know how it is, but it will get better, really, it will,” Aachi said, surprising Radha. “Soon, he will go to school. Then, you see, you will be free. Anyway, people have heard I am making wine this year, they are already lining up for my wine, it is famous, don’t you know. No matter. Mind you, I am keeping one bottle for you.”
“No, don’t do that, Aachi. We don’t…” Radha started.
“I know, I know,” Aachi interrupted firmly. “I know you people don’t drink wine, but it’s good for you.”
Radha laughed and thought Mohan might like it. If he did, she wouldn’t mind having a sip herself.
On Sunday, Aachi came to show herself dressed up for church. She was going for the two p.m. service. She wore a grand red Kanchipuram sari and a white lace sleeveless blouse. Diamonds glittered in her ears and a little string of jasmine was wound around the scanty knot of hair on top of her head. She carried a silver handbag on her arm. She turned around and showed off the intricate gold thread work with a peacock motif on the border of the sari. In spite of her skeletal figure, Aachi looked delightful and festive.
As they stood in the corridor, admiring the sari, there was a commotion on the steps and Shakuntala Rani came at them, followed by her son with a knife in his hand. She rushed into Radha’s apartment. “Arjun has gone mad, he has lost it, he has lost it,” she repeated, in dry sobbing gasps. “What can I do, what am I to do. I can’t help him anymore.”
The son halted. He was unrecognizable from the last time Radha had seen him. His face was covered with a dry beard, his hair was dusty, his shirt was torn. He stood unsteadily, leaning against the wall and dragging his feet. The knife, it was only a bread knife, glittered mildly in the dim light of the corridor. After a brief assessment of the three women, he began to move forward and tripped.
Aachi put her hands on her hips and said to Shakuntala Rani, who stood behind Radha, “I told you, didn’t I, I told you this would happen, didn’t I? I knew it, I knew something like this would happen.”
The man, who was almost collapsing to the floor, heard her and that changed everything. He steadied and lunged; there appeared to be no doubt that he was going to use the knife on someone.
Radha felt if she could just shut the door on him, they would be safe. Or, if she could just execute the karate moves she had learnt in school… But her limbs were numb, the way they usually are in nightmares.
That nightmare metaphor extended to Aachi. She had the expression of one who has been prepared all her life. A transformation began in her shoulders. They rounded and her neck retracted behind her collar bone. Her arms clawed the air as she went down; she seemed intent to demonstrate what “on all fours” could mean. She pawed the ground, she swayed her skeletal hips, she crouched, she bared her molars; she howled with her head extending out of her neck, she growled, she yelped. It was a practiced performance, a ferocious dance in which she went from old woman to animal, from words to sounds, a great rabid terror.
The terror reached the young man; he was mesmerized, depleted, disemboweled by this performance; steeped into a cloud of impotence. Was this a hallucination of his drugged, intoxicated brain? He stepped and slipped. He went to the floor with his knife. Before he became still, he lifted his head and looked at Radha. It was a look filled with so much pain and helplessness that she moved towards him. Aachi’s hand restrained her. But the image of that pitiable face reached deep inside her, as if it would alter the source of her thoughts.
Stunned, she watched as the young man was tended by his mother and Aachi’s son, who had come to get her for church. They partly dragged, partly carried him, an unwieldy threesome that teetered dangerously on the steps.
Aachi straightened herself, her sari, and adjusted her mouth. She patted her knot of hair and made sure the string of jasmine was still secure. “Get me some cold water to drink, child,” she said to Radha.
After Aachi left, Radha shut and locked all the windows and external doors of the apartment. The silence that she had always found soothing was now uncomfortable. It was full of gasps, creaks, moans. She held her child close to her chest and prayed for courage. By nine p.m., she was done struggling. She packed a few necessary things, tidied the kitchen briefly, and left the apartment, willing that she should not run into Aachi on the way.
She should have listened to Mohan from the beginning and stayed with her parents. Now, if she turned up so late at night, her parents would imagine and worry and then she would have to explain. Explain what. Nothing, nothing, she could explain nothing; explain an old woman becoming an animal, a young man with a breadknife, an aging dancer who moved gracefully in fear.
In the taxi, on the way to her parents, Radha could hear her mother saying, How can we trust you to take care of yourself; see, look at the stories you come up with; no, no, from now on, whenever Mohan has to go somewhere, he needs to leave you and the child with us.
There was very little traffic on Mount Road. The warm breeze lulled her. She felt safe. She would say, she just felt like seeing her parents, that’s all. If she repeated it consistently and regularly, they might believe her. Then she would behave normally, she would gossip with her mother about relatives and cousins and they would discuss recipes and sari designs and they really, really would believe her.
When the taxi entered T. Nagar, the noise made her baby twist and turn, though he did not wake up. Radha adjusted her lap for him and looked out at the busy world of pedestrians, shoppers, street shops. It was good there was so much noise and people walking by, good that the traffic made the taxi go slow so she could see the people buying flowers, fruits, clothes, utensils, or drinking tea by the roadside.
A week later, when she returned with Mohan, feeling foolish, Radha came back into that night at the apartment; her wariness of Aachi renewed. She hurried into the apartment and busied herself with cleaning. Throughout, she listened for the door to be knocked. And when it was not, she wondered if there had been a sequel to that night, that night of the bread knife.
The next day, as Mohan left for work, Aachi stood outside. She held a small glass bottle.
“My daughter-in-law wanted some ginger garlic paste,” she said. “She likes it the way I make. I kept a little to give you.”
Radha accepted the bottle from her with some awkwardness. In her mind, she was alert for changes. She studied Aachi covertly, for traces of her performance, as if she expected her hands to have developed claws or hair; or, was there the chance of a tail showing at the edge of her skirt? She waited for Aachi to say: What happened to you, you disappeared without even telling me anything. But Aachi just continued her distorted, defenseless gaze.
So, Radha said with some effort, “I will make some chai for you, Aachi. Do you want some?”
“Yes, that will be fine,” Aachi said. “Is everything all right with the little one?”
Radha nodded, “Yes, he’s sleeping in the bedroom. I put on the AC.”
She went into the kitchen and set a pan on the stove with a cup of water and milk. Aachi normally had just a couple of sips.
“Your plant is dying,” Aachi said, indicating the hibiscus in a pot on the balcony. It had drooped with no water for a week. “You should have left it outside your door, I would have given it water. Never mind, maybe it will still come back. No need to keep looking at me like that, child. How else do you think we managed?”
“What is it, what are you saying?” Radha asked, once again surprised that Aachi knew what she was thinking.
Aachi did not reply. She pulled out a chair at the dining table and sat down. Her mouth twitched and her hands moved restlessly.
Radha looked in the bottom shelf next to the stove for her masala box.
“Don’t you remember, you put it in the shelf above the sink, last time?” Aachi said.
Yes, it was right there. Radha took out two cardamom pods and three pepper corns and powdered them with a pestle.
Aachi sat down. The watered milk hissed up in the pan, overflowed and hit the fire, which partially went out. Aachi rushed in and turned off the knob. She said, “You are still very disturbed, child. What am I to tell you?”
Radha put in two teaspoons of tea and the ground powder. She covered the pan with a plate and stood leaning against the counter.
Aachi returned to the table. She said, “Do you know, all the men in my village were gone, even boys as young as ten-years-old; when the soldiers understood how it was, no woman, young, old, crippled, pregnant, no woman was safe and they were supposed to protect us.” Aachi snorted. “It was no use, don’t you know, we were like chickens waiting for the fox to come. There was fear everywhere, no one could think. Then an idea came to an older woman. When evening comes, she said, we will howl, we will become wild animals and do wild things. Of course, we all laughed. But, after two more young girls were found in the creek, we were ready to do anything. We practiced, how we practiced, you saw, didn’t you, how good I am, we practiced every day; our village even got a name, it was the village of wild beasts and mad women. Who cares? Not one, not even one, was touched after that.” Aachi’s mouth curved with that triumphant memory.
Radha stirred the tea till it had a little whirlpool in it. It was a strong narrative, she thought, but it did not erase the lost bewilderment, the helplessness on the face of Shankunthala’s son; no, no one should feel such despair; such despair could not be tolerated.
She poured out the tea and brought the two cups to the table along with some Marie biscuits. She sat down in the chair next to Aachi.
“That’s terrible. Terribly sad to hear, Aachi. It’s all so terrible,” she said. “But I don’t think he meant to actually do any harm.”
“That’s how it starts, my dear,” Aachi said. “We think, soft-hearted fools that we are, that they mean no harm. Then when it’s too late, who gets hurt, tell me that now, who? Oh, no, I did not save myself through the war, through leaving my home, through settling here, all these years. To face that. Oh no, I don’t think so.”
“You shocked him a lot, you know. Poor fellow, I felt sorry for him, except that I was so afraid.”
Aachi shook her head. “You are too young, child. Plus, you have no experience of these matters.” She added vehemently, “And I hope you never go through such experiences. But we have to be prepared. That’s all I am saying.”
She dipped her biscuit into the chai and sucked at the moistened part. “My son wants me to go down and live with him. After seeing what happened that day, he is worried.”
When Radha looked troubled, Aachi said, “No, no, no, I told him, no, not now, nothing doing. The grapes are setting nicely. I don’t want to disturb them. And you, you will be all by yourself, too. No, I told him, I’ll think about it. Maybe next year.”
Padma Prasad is a writer, poet, and painter. Her fiction has appeared in several journals, most recently in Your Impossible Voice and Jaggery. Her poem received honorable mention in the Palm Beach Ekphrastic Poetry competition, 2016. She blogs her poem-drawings and other stuff at padhma.wordpress; her art is mostly figurative and can be viewed at: fineartamerica.com/profiles/padma-prasad.
Roxane Gay’s Hunger is a powerful memoir that depicts a very personal narrative while also serving as a work of criticism, exploring society’s inability to see or accommodate the needs of the extremely obese. Her examples range from descriptions of public and private erasure, the dearth of public accommodation, and so much more.
In simple clear prose, Gay declares what happened to her twelve-year-old self—a vicious gang rape that left her wounded, altering the trajectory of her life. At first there is a reticence in telling the story of the rape. It’s as if Gay wants to say: “Okay, okay, I’m almost ready. I’ll tell you, just give me a minute.” Once she does tell her truth, Gay goes on to examine her own actions and their consequences:
“I am trapped in a cage” (17).
The cage is her body. She is not fine with her body: “I am not comfortable in my body” (18).
She sees her body as a crime scene, herself as both the perpetrator and the victim. She begins to feel herself to be nothing because she has been treated as nothing: “Those boys treated me like nothing, so I became nothing” (45).
Gay turns her body into a fortress for her own self-protection. But there are consequences. Gay declares that the bigger you are the less you are seen. She speaks of the toll her fatness takes on her personal health, relationships, and the public disgust and disregard she must endure because of her condition. She explores the cycle of shame that leads her further down the road of disordered eating, self-destructive romantic entanglements, and family estrangements.
In her ruthlessly honest telling, Gay reveals a spectrum of human dysfunction as it relates to obesity. This in itself is a service. The revelation of her own suffering provides a window into which the individual reader might find parts of themself. One’s personal challenge does not need to be as extreme as the narrator’s to glimpse a personal truth, or the place where the reader’s particular dysfunction might reside on the spectrum. These revelations are made possible because of the narrator’s willingness to share her deepest and darkest secrets and her ability to then, with ruthless honestly, reflect upon those secrets. This is also what makes memoir the literary genre of our time.
The theme of hunger is explored in its many ways. First, there is the ravenous hunger of a young woman attempting to protect herself—through food—from the gaze and violence of men. There is the hunger for love and affection, for acceptance, for touch, to be seen and heard, for validation and respect, for sustenance, for sex, for equality, kindness, pain, and punishment. There is the hunger for adequate public accommodations, the hunger to be closer to her family, the hunger for thinness. Gay the sociologist uses her own experience to examine the human condition.
Hunger is a meditation on what Gay did to herself and why. It’s a memoir of reflection.
Chapter eighty-four in particular must have been cathartic to write. The chapter is an exploration into the life of the boy (now an adult man) who orchestrated and helped commit the crime against her. Speaking so clearly and bravely of her abuser is a declaration of being, and a taking back of her own life.
(They say that revenge is a poor reason to write a memoir. This is not a revenge memoir, but I can’t help but wonder if her perpetrator is haunted by his actions. I hope that he is.)
Hunger is also a memoir of healing and of growth and empathy: “I am taking small steps toward the life I want” (293).
And toward the end of the work the reader can feel how Gay has begun to heal: “My body and the experience of moving through the world in this body has informed by feminism in unexpected ways. Living in my body has expanded my empathy for other people and the truths of their bodies” (297).
Gay, Roxane. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. Harper, 2017.
Angela Bullock is an Antioch University MFA Candidate in creative writing and a member of the Lunch Ticket team. She read her essay Thank You Donald at the 2016 NoHo Lit Crawl. A Los Angeles-based theater and television actor, Angela has received nominations for a 2016 Stage Raw award and a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, and a 2015 NAACP LA theater award for her stage work.
[young adult fiction]
They called girls like her butterflies. At least the moms on Instagram did. Posting pictures of toddlers with low-set ears and thick necks and little girls with strangely puffed hands and feet. They used hashtags like #butterflygirl or #turnersyndrome. More often than not it was photos of blankets or baby toys bought for daughters who would never be, their presence heaviest in absence.
They called girls like her butterflies because Turner Syndrome meant just one X chromosome instead of two like normal girls. Just X. The shape of butterfly wings.
My little butterfly, the captions always said.
Liz thought the endearment was kind of cruel, though it was meant with nothing but tenderness. She didn’t feel like any kind of butterfly. It had taken all her fifteen years to figure out that an A-line bob could hide her thick neck, and that well-placed belts could force an hourglass shape onto her barrel ribs.
She didn’t see many fifteen-year-old Turners girls calling themselves butterflies on Instagram.
Not that there were terribly many of them in the first place. Only one in every twenty-five hundred girls had Turner Syndrome. Only one percent of fetuses with Turner Syndrome were carried to term, avoiding miscarriage.
Hence the photos of unused baby blankets.
Liz’s dad said it meant she was special. Here for a reason, he said. Liz just wished she could wear a ponytail like every other girl.
She tugged hangers in her closet, going through each of her shirts for the fourth time. Cinched waist only worked in so many circumstances. For the party that night, jeans would be expected. And trying to figure out what to wear with jeans was basically the bane of her existence.
She hadn’t been to a sleepover since third grade. She remembered it vividly, too, because at the time she’d recently started taking the daily growth hormone shots that would help get her to her current almost-average five-foot-three instead of the Turner Syndrome four-foot-something. She’d started panicking and had to sneak out and call her mom who told her missing one night of shots would be okay.
She’d stopped taking the shots last year, now that she was tall enough. Her doctor said they’d put her on birth control next year so she could start her period.
Yeah, she’d be a junior before having her period. She didn’t know whether that was good or embarrassing. Girls in her class had been complaining about periods for years already, and she never knew what to say when they did. Her mom asked the doctor if she even had to have a period at all. Wouldn’t it be nice to skip it all together? she’d said. But the doctor said that wasn’t possible. That periods were an unfortunate necessity. Something to do with hormone regulation and bone density.
Turner Syndrome meant she’d never be able to have kids, but she wasn’t really worried about that quite yet. She’d never even been kissed. She figured she needed to worry about that part first, anyway.
She finally picked out a light blue blousy top and stuffed it into her backpack along with her toothbrush and pajamas. The pajama part didn’t worry her as much. Hoodies and sweatpants were the great democratizers.
She and her dad didn’t talk much as they drove to Jhanvi’s house. The January chill bit through Liz’s sweater as she walked to the door. Her dad wanted to walk her to the door, but Liz said no.
The door opened before she even rang the doorbell.
“Hey Liz!” Jhanvi said. “You’re here!”
Liz allowed herself one small wave goodbye to her dad, who gave her a thumbs-up before pulling away from the curb. She didn’t feel any different seeing him drive away than she had in third grade.
Jhanvi led her inside, and Liz removed her Converse and set them by the door. “Okay, can I just tell you something?” said Jhanvi. “Every day your eyeliner is completely gorgeous and perfect and I always mean to ask you how you do it. I try to do cat eyes like you but I can’t ever get it to work.”
Along with belt cinches and blousy shirts, make-up had taken Liz a long time to figure out. She had wide eyes she’d spent hours in front of her bathroom mirror learning to accentuate. Turner Syndrome meant fine motor dexterity was a slight issue, but she’d worked on her eyes over and over, with pencil, crayon, and liquid eyeliners of pretty much every brand, until she’d figured it out. She’d watched hours of tutorials on YouTube, though she’d never found anyone in those videos who seemed to be working as hard at it as she had to. She gave Jhanvi the only honest answer.
“Practice,” she said. “Probably an embarrassing amount.”
She didn’t mention how long it had taken her to figure out how to do those funky, beachy waves with her straightener.
Jhanvi headed down the plush-carpeted stairs, and Liz followed her. The house wasn’t big, but the yellow light from the chandelier, the family pictures, and intricate tapestries on the walls, made it all feel like a home. Liz wasn’t surprised Jhanvi came from a place like this. A welcoming place. Jhanvi was the kind of girl who could be friends with the Dungeons and Dragons kids and the cheerleader group at the same time, without anyone thinking she was dorky or unkind. She was the kind of girl who could get some ignorant comment about her brown skin on Monday and by Friday she and the conformed racist would be shopping at the mall together.
Liz had the opposite situation. For her, the whole world seemed like ill-fitting jeans. Wherever she went it wasn’t quite right.
The basement was one large room featuring a large couch, a maroon rug, and several large bean bags all surrounding a wall-mounted TV. Four girls were already draped over the couch and bean bags. Liz felt her stomach ice up a little bit when she saw who else was there. The girls on the couch were Angela and Candice, two blonde girls who were captains of the cheer team, whom everybody knew. They’d never said anything mean to her, but somehow they made Liz feel like a blithering idiot every time they walked past her in the hall.
On one of the bean bags was Blaire, the third member of the ABC popular trio, who was on the cheer team but not a captain, redheaded instead of blonde, who always seemed to be trying to catch up to the other two as they walked to classes. If Liz had known the ABC’s were going to be here, she might not have come.
The last girl was someone Liz had seen but whose name she didn’t know. She had long black hair with a red streak and perfect straight-cropped bangs. She was in a black band T-shirt Liz wished she could pull off, and her eyeliner was YouTube tutorial perfect.
Liz swallowed. What was she thinking? There was no place for her in this crowd. Who was she going to talk to? What was she supposed to talk about? She was going to embarrass herself over and over all night long, she just knew it. Liz, the sow in a room full of tigresses.
“So,” Candace said, after Liz and Jhanvi had found seats on the floor, leaning against the couch or the wall. “Liz is short for Elizabeth, right? So, why’d you end up with Liz instead of like, Ellie or Beth or any of those nicknames?”
Liz looked down at her bare feet. She should have painted her toenails. Why didn’t she think to paint her toenails? “Not sure,” she shrugged. “I guess it just ended up that way.”
“It’s cute,” Candace said, and Liz couldn’t remotely tell whether or not the statement was genuine.
The strategy of simple answers when questions were addressed to her worked well for the first few hours of the evening. She didn’t say much until someone asked her something, at which point she tried her best to seem nonchalant and unfazed. Or if she found herself in a more one-on-one situation for a moment—passing one of the girls on the way to the bathroom, getting a drink with someone in the kitchen—she kept a running list of questions to ask them. She felt ridiculous about needing a mental list of questions, but got minor palpitations if she forgot one for a second.
Did everybody need social masks and mental lists like this? Probably not. She was some kind of socially inept soul in a bizarrely messed-up body.
Still, things seemed to be going okay. She even managed to get a couple laughs as the conversation went on. Then the subject of the Winter Formal dance came up.
“I’m going with Jax, of course,” said Candice. “I’ve already found this periwinkle gown that’s completely gorgeous.”
“God, you always find the best stuff,” Angela said. “I can never find anything.”
Liz wanted to roll her eyes. Angela had dainty boobs and Barbie-doll legs. She could wear tinfoil and look runway ready. She had no clue the torture that dress shopping could be when your legs were too short for your torso and your ribs were shaped like a beer keg. She couldn’t even get the vast majority of the dresses she tried on to zip up. Even dresses that went past her toes.
“I’m going to wear a sari,” Jhanvi said. “Actually, it’s one of my grandmother’s. I’m super excited.”
“That’s so cool!” Candice said. This time Liz could tell it was genuine. In fact, there was the tiniest hint of approval-seeking in Candace’s voice. Because Jhanvi somehow existed above the normal social groups, it was as if Candice was frustrated at not being able to reach her. “What about you, Morgan?”
The black-haired girl flicked her red streak glamorously over her shoulder. This girl’s confidence came from a different place than the ABCs’. Those girls were queen because everybody wanted them to be. Morgan was queen of her own domain because she demanded it. “Red,” she said. “Dark red.”
The girls ooohed. Jhanvi started singing “Roxanne” from Moulin Rouge and everyone laughed.
“Your turn, Liz,” Angela said.
Liz swallowed. “Still figuring that one out,” she said. She didn’t say she was planning on skipping the dance all together.
“Ooh, let’s see,” said Candice. She looked Liz over closely and Liz willed her hot cheeks to cool. “I think you’d look super great in like, an emerald green. Or maybe more like a muted dark green. That would match your eyes.”
All the other girls looked her over and gave their consent. Liz already knew green was her color. It was the fit of formal wear that never worked. She just shrugged, and was relieved when Jhanvi’s mom brought down the fourth large pizza and the topic turned to what Netflix show to turn on.
But Liz’s relief flickered when they picked Law and Order: SVU. There was one episode of that show where the plot revolved around a girl with Turner Syndrome getting kidnapped. It was the only show she’d ever found that had a character with Turner Syndrome, and the episode made her sick. The detectives said the character was trapped in the body of a child. They said the kidnapper had to be a pedophile to be attracted to her.
When they landed on that exact episode, Liz couldn’t even muster surprise. It just felt inevitable. Of course, at the one real party she’d been invited to in years, they’d end up watching the one episode of television that was basically a forty-three-minute personal insult. Classic cosmic cruelty.
She watched as the detectives learned the girl was teased for looking really young. That wasn’t right at all. Liz had never been teased, not really. Well, except once, in fifth grade, about hearing aids, which she’d stopped wearing. She managed just fine without them. And yeah, she looked a little younger than her age, she supposed, but so did tons of people. Looking young was the good part of Turner Syndrome. The actress who played the TS girl was cute as a button. She didn’t have webbing on the side of her neck she couldn’t truly hide. She didn’t have barrel-shaped ribs and stubby legs.
All the other girls laid back and watched, and Liz just hoped she didn’t look as agitated as she felt. Everybody else was so casual. Everybody else wasn’t thinking twice about it. Everybody else had two sex chromosomes. She said a silent prayer that nobody would be curious enough to look up Turner Syndrome on their phones. Liz had done it plenty of times, but she could only look at photos of Butterflies for so long before she had to look away. She looked just enough like them—too much like them. She didn’t want to look like a syndrome. She didn’t want one of these girls scrolling through their phone, glancing up at her with a look of recognition and curiosity, looking back down again.
When they got to the “trapped in the body of a child” line, Liz stood up, mumbling something about finding a bathroom, and walked out of the room. She was pissed, but not even at the TV show. She got pissed whenever Turner Syndrome became a central theme of her thoughts, like it had that night. The vast majority of the time it was totally a non-issue, and that’s what people didn’t get. The vast majority of the time life was about her sketchbook, and her homework, and Vogue, and her parents, and her closet. Like any other fifteen-year-old. It’s not like a diabetic went around thinking I’m a diabetic all day long.
Liz made it down the hall and found the bathroom, turned on the light, and shut the door behind her before realizing she wasn’t the first one there.
Blaire was on the floor, sitting against the wall between the toilet and the shower, knees pulled to her chest.
“Oh gosh, sorry…” Liz started. Then she registered the look on Blaire’s face, the red swelling of her eyes.
“You okay?” Liz asked.
Blaire rolled her eyes and sniffed.
Liz looked at the eggshell-colored tile, feeling stupid. But she couldn’t just leave Blaire sitting here. “I mean, what’s wrong?”
“It’s nothing,” Blaire said, but in a way that even Liz, who wasn’t great at reading between the lines, could tell she meant something more like, Please ask me again so I can vent and cry.
“It’s not nothing,” Liz said, sighing. This is not what she expected or wanted from her weekend. She already knew she and Blaire didn’t have much in common, so this wasn’t one of those times when being a shoulder to cry on would make them sudden friends. But she couldn’t just leave Blaire just sitting there. “Seriously, you can talk to me. I won’t tell anyone anything you don’t want me to.”
Blaire’s shoulders bounced with a restrained sob. “It’s… I mean this just keeps happening. I’m running out of excuses why they haven’t been to my house. Angela and Candice, I mean. And when we go shopping I pretend nothing works when really, I’m even hotter than they are if I could just… but now this stupid, stupid dance… They’re going to expect… They’ve already talked about coordinating dresses. But Angela spent almost four hundred dollars on her dress. FOUR HUNDRED. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Liz stared at the whimpering girl for a moment, then sat on the toilet seat. “This is about dance dresses?”
“Well it’s going to be the… the last strike, I just know it,” Blaire said, throwing a hand up in the air. “I can only pretend that cheap clothes are a fashion statement for so long. I know they notice. I know they’re already talking about me.”
“Wait,” Liz said. “I’m trying to understand. You’re worried about Winter Formal because it will make Angela and Candace notice that you can’t afford a four-hundred-dollar dress?”
Blaire threw both hands up this time. “That I’m poor. Okay? I said it. Poor. If they ever saw my house they… They’d laugh at me.”
Blaire hugged her knees tighter, and Liz could see fear in her widened pupils. But the thing was, the fear looked very familiar. Blaire looked the way Liz felt when she imagined someone noticing her wide neck, or heaven forbid, commenting on it. The way she felt whenever the coach said they were doing laps in P.E. When her fingers looked chubby no matter what color polish she put on her nails. Hell, Liz herself was so freaked out about the idea of formal dresses she wasn’t even planning on going to the dance.
“I’m sorry,” Liz said. Her mind swirled, trying to think of something else to say, words that would help or at least comfort Blaire. But she wasn’t very good at that kind of thing. Finally, she just said sorry again.
“Not like it’s your fault,” Blaire said.
That was true, Liz supposed. Blaire’s financial situation was not really her problem. But she had spent the night feeling alone, alien, and out of place, when someone sitting next to her was feeling the exact same way. Even if it was for different reasons. Even Jhanvi, who never seemed to feel out of place, was the only brown-skinned girl at this party, and maybe it had taken her a while to figure out how to be okay with that.
Blaire tugged at a loose thread in the hem of her jeans, and Liz watched her. She could see Winter Formal in her head. Whatever Blaire managed to work out dress-wise, she was going to be paranoid the entire night. She could be gifted a four-hundred-dollar dress and there would still be a panicked glow of worry behind her eyes. On the other hand, Jhanvi would be the only girl in school wearing a sari, and she would be the envy of everybody else. Because she knew who she was, and was honest about it.
It was about hiding or not hiding.
It was about doing vulnerable you things, or spending the night curled up in a dark bathroom.
Liz stood up. “Well, good luck,” she said. “You… you’ll look great, whatever you wear. I’ll keep a seat for you out there.”
She left the bathroom, keeping the light on, but still feeling awkward about leaving someone sitting alone on the bathroom floor. But she didn’t really know what else to do.
It was about hiding, she thought again.
She stood alone in the hallway for a moment, trying to let this sense of realization seep into her brain, trying to figure out what it meant.
It would take a few more days to figure that out, Liz thought. She didn’t want to hide, but she wasn’t sure what not hiding would look like. There was still no way in hell she was walking back into that room and saying, Hey, this is what Turner Syndrome is REALLY like. No way.
But she could at least go back in the room. They were on to old episodes of The Office. This time it was one of her favorite episodes ever, the one at the company picnic.
“Jim and Pam are seriously relationship goals. Nobody is better than him,” Candice said.
“Right?” Angela said.
“Ok, honestly,” Liz said, sitting down. “I mean Jam is amazing of course, but Michael and Holly just make me feel better about the whole world.” Liz swallowed, hardly daring to glance around in case someone was giving her the Judgy Brow. But the other girls laughed, and Liz did her best to believe the laughter was friendly.
Maybe admitting strange celebrity crushes was a dumb way of not hiding, but it was a start. She really did think Steve Carrell was ridiculously attractive, even though he was old enough to be her father.
That’s the other thing the CSI episode got wrong about Turner Syndrome. Turner’s girls could have crushes and a sex drive like anybody else.
It was getting late, and as the episodes kept playing, the other girls changed into PJs and curled up under blankets, trying to keep their eyes open. Blaire was back, snug against the arm of the couch, not sleeping.
Liz wasn’t sleeping either. Her brain refused to relax. Like usual, when that happened, she pulled out her sketchbook.
Those stupid fine-motor skill issues hadn’t been great when she was learning to sketch either, and she’d spent many of her early drawing years seeped in frustration at herself, ready to chuck the stupid notebook across the room. It’s one reason she continually went back to clothes and designs, actually. In those drawings, her sketches could be sloppy and childish, because if she could get the pattern right and follow that correctly, then the end result would turn out the way she wanted. Often enough, anyway.
She’d never been brave enough to wear one of her own things to school, though.
She spread her notebook out across her lap and took out a pen. (Her teachers always told her to sketch in ink). A prom dress would actually be easier than some of the other things she’d made. (Pants were the hardest, by far.) She could do some kind of collar to shape her neck, a cute ruffle or tie collar maybe. Who cared if they were cheesy. She liked them. And an empire waist with lacing would give her body the structure she wanted…
“What are you drawing?”
Morgan looked over her shoulder at the page. Liz’s first instinct was to slam the book closed, but she took a breath in and kept the notebook open. “Um… it’s… well, I’m toying with the idea of making my own dress. Like for the dance. I don’t know, it’s stupid.”
These last words slipped naturally out of her mouth, without her even trying. But it wasn’t stupid. She would work at this not-hiding thing. She’d get better.
“That’s cool,” Morgan said, and sat back down.
It was cool, Liz thought. Not many girls could sew their own clothes, and Liz knew she was good at it.
She took a photo of her rough sketch and posted it to her Snapchat stories. She almost never posted her drawings on Snapchat or Instagram or anything. But she was proud of this sketch. Excited about it. She didn’t need to hide it.
She would post a picture of herself in her dress too, once it was done. She very rarely posted selfies. (Most of her Instagram was of pretty fabrics, patterns, and vintage sewing machines. And her cat Dmitri.) She could talk about the process of making the dress, maybe, or where to buy the best material and patterns. She would be brave.
She didn’t have to tag it #butterflygirl or #turnersyndrome if she didn’t want to. She didn’t even have to tag it #selfie or #seamstress. She didn’t have to tag it anything.
It would just be her. With all the things that entailed.
There wasn’t really a hashtag for that.
Sarah Allen has been published in The Evansville Review, Allegory, and on WritersDigest.com. She has a master’s degree in creative writing from Brigham Young University and is currently working on querying and writing books for young adult and middle-grade readers. She loves Pixar, leather jackets, and Colin Firth. Learn more at sarahallenbooks.com.
Welcome to our new Amuse-Bouche occasional series, Litdish. This is a solicited series of interviews with writers and artists in conversation with our staff about literature, art, social justice, and community activism. Please enjoy. ~The Editors
Jeremy Radin is a poet, actor, and teacher living in Los Angeles. He’s appeared on several television shows including It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, CSI, ER, and Zoey 101, in films such as Terrence Malick’s The New World and Wrestlemaniac, and in many plays. His poems have been published in Cosmonauts Avenue, Nailed, Sundog Lit, Union Station, Winter Tangerine, and elsewhere. He teaches acting at The Beverly Hills Playhouse and is the current coach of the Get Lit Players. He is the author of two collections of poetry, Slow Dance with Sasquatch (Write Bloody Publishing, 2012) and Dear Sal (not a cult press, 2017). Follow him @germyradin.
Interviewed by Jessica Abughattas via email.
Jessica Abughattas: What was your original impetus for writing Dear Sal?
Jeremy Radin: Money. Haha just kidding. Dear Sal came out of the rehearsal process of the play Talley’s Folley by Lanford Wilson, which I did a few years back. The play takes place in Lebanon, Missouri during the summer of 1944. In it, Matt Friedman, a German-Jewish accountant living in St. Louis, courts Sally Talley, a Protestant nurse’s aide living in Lebanon. One year before the events of the play, the two had met in Lebanon, fallen for each other quickly, and engaged in a very brief romance, after which Matt had returned to St. Louis where he’d spent the next year writing Sally a letter a day (while also communicating with her aunt). At the end of this year he comes down to her house in Lebanon to see her and the play begins. It takes place in a boathouse. There are crickets and starlight and a river and a brass band that plays in a park across the river. There’s waltzing and ice skates and Communsim. It’s very romantic. Each of them has something buried in their past (I won’t reveal it here) that keeps them from believing that this kind of love has a place in their lives.
The more I write and read and otherwise engage with poetry, the more I believe that I ought to know less when I finish than I did when I started.
During rehearsals, my director (and longtime acting teacher and friend, Art Cohan, to whom the book is half-dedicated along with Samantha Sloyan, who played Sally) suggested to me that it might be useful for me to write “Sally” a letter a day. These letters turned into poems and over the next couple of years, the book was born. What started as a simple exercise toward establishing a richer understanding of the character ended up becoming something else—an experiment in inhabiting the strange, fluid middle-ground between actor and role (the acting teacher Milton Katselas used to say, “You are stuck with the character and the character is stuck with you”), pulling from the circumstances of the play and of my own life, trying to get at something which lives at the intersection of repressed desire, loneliness, Jewishness, terror, relentless self-mythologizing, and hope. What that thing is, I have no idea, which is the way I think it should go. The more I write and read and otherwise engage with poetry, the more I believe that I ought to know less when I finish than I did when I started.
JA: Among other things, Dear Sal explores diasporic Jewishness, a theme that occurs often in your poetry. In the current social and political climate, what does it mean to you to write about your Jewish identity?
JR: I think that’s something I’m still trying to figure out. The more I write about it, the more I learn about why I feel the need to keep writing about it.
I know that it connects to members of my family—my great-grandparents in particular—that I never got to know. It connects me to a time and place (Eastern Europe, turn of the twentieth century) that deeply fascinates and troubles me. In the past few years I’ve become interested in epigenetics, inherited trauma. The idea that the way I respond to something today, feeling or circumstance, may take root in the traumas suffered by my ancestor thousands of miles away, hundreds of years ago. One of my all-time favorite monologues is the one spoken by the rabbi at the beginning of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. He’s eulogizing an old woman who came from Eastern Europe:
“Descendants of this immigrant woman, you do not grow up in America… You do not live in America. No such place exists. Your clay is the clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air the air of the steppes—because she carried the old world on her back across the ocean… You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is.”
So yeah, that’s what that is.
On the other hand, I read a really wonderful Twitter thread recently by a poet named Claire Schwartz (@23cschwartz) which makes me think about this question in a very different way than I might have a month or so ago. She explores the idea that anti-semitism (particularly against Ashkenazi Jews) and the Holocaust have been centered in conversations about oppression and historical trauma because they target/targeted people who have by now essentially assimilated into Whiteness—that the place of the Holocaust and anti-semitism at the center of those conversations is a privileged place.
When Trump was elected and in the months since, as White Nationalist figures have become increasingly prominent in the media, as we are forced to learn their names and memorize their faces, I’ve felt, for the first time in my life, more a Jew than an American. That’s a new feeling for me. It is not a new feeling for millions of Black and Brown people in this country, many (most) of whose ancestors arrived here long before mine.
I wonder if in writing about my Jewish identity, I’m not only building a bridge between me and my ancestral and cultural history, but to the people who are right now, right here, suffering the things that my ancestors suffered long ago, back over there, about which I am free to write from a position of relative safety, certainly of great privilege. I wonder if I write to reaffirm my responsibility in fighting for those people, in listening to them, in centering their trauma in a conversation that has historically centered mine.
JA: The aftermath of Trump’s election has people turning to poetry for both solace and protest. Are there any poets that have been particularly resonant for you during this time?
JR: Yes! I love this question. I think the most vital poetry being written right now is being written by writers of color, particularly women and LGBTQIA writers. Some writers I think should be read everywhere all the time forever amen are, in no particular order:
Aracelis Girmay, Aziza Barnes, Morgan Parker, Angel Nafis, Franny Choi, Ocean Vuong, Phillip B. Williams, Layli Long Soldier, Ross Gay, Jessica Abughattas, Solmaz Sharif, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Fatimah Asghar, Donnika Kelly, Ada Limón, Kaveh Akbar, Saeed Jones, Tommy Pico, Monica Youn, Safia Elhillo, Natalie Diaz, Li-Young Lee, Joshua Bennett, Patrick Rosal, Chen Chen, Danez Smith, Tiana Clark, Safiya Sinclair, Anis Mojgani, Nate Marshall, and many others.
As well, to refer back to the above question, a couple writers doing tremendous work are sam sax and Shira Erlichman.
JA: Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
JR: Acting, which I’ve been doing for twenty years. Everything comes back to that for me. It’s my first love. I’ve been told recently that many of my best poems are essentially monologues. When I write poems I can often hear them being spoken (often in a weird Russian accent???) and that certainly affects the shape of the poem—the form, the syntax, where the line breaks, etc. Though I believe it can sometimes hinder me as well, as so much of acting relies on an emotional “tracking”—how do I get from one moment to the next, that I feel like poetry doesn’t always rely on. Or at least in poetry it can be a lot more subterranean. I think I’ll be learning for the rest of my life how the acting shapes the poetry and vice versa. Sometimes I feel like they’re best friends and sometimes I feel like they hate each other, but hey, siblings, am I right?
JA: How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
JR: The best way for me to answer this is to describe how my reading process has changed. The writing/writing process has changed I think completely as a response to that—the poems have gotten tighter, more interested in craft, form, communication, the world—I think in the way that all writing changes if you stay with it long enough. Mary Ruefle describes it better than I can in her tremendous book of lectures Madness, Rack, and Honey:
“I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, “I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say”; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.”
If you can identify good work, you can struggle toward it. If it’s hard and makes you want to quit every day, that means it’s working.
I believe every writer goes through a version of this, but I also believe that, like every journey, there are steps forward and steps back. A journey is a sloppy thing. A journey toward a process and toward describing that process is a sloppy thing. What holds true today may feel trite or dishonest tomorrow. What does stay fairly consistent is the reading. Years ago the poet Jon Sands was in LA and I was driving with him to a reading. He asked what I was reading. I said I didn’t really have time to read. He said something more or less to the effect of, “MAKE TIME MOTHERFUCKER, IT’S YOUR JOB.” He told me that he usually had a book of fiction, a book of non-fiction, and a book of poems going. So that’s what I set out to do. It took a long time to get the machine working, but it’s become the steadiest part of my process. I’ve also added a play to the list.
Since I’ve started reading like that, my work has changed monumentally. It is a deeply unmagical magic. You want to get good at acting? Watch good actors. Want to get good at writing? Read good writers. If you can identify good work, you can struggle toward it. If it’s hard and makes you want to quit every day, that means it’s working.
JA: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received? The worst?
JR: The poet Mindy Nettifee said to me when I was first starting out, “Find the ones that make you want to quit. Try to copy them. In failing at copying all these different voices, you will arrive at your voice.” When I started I wanted to be Bob Dylan. Then Leonard Cohen. Then I discovered Mindy’s work and Derrick Brown’s and Anis Mojgani’s and Buddy Wakefield’s and so many others. I’ve failed at becoming all of them and accidentally became me. I think.
Another good bonus piece of advice was something Saeed Jones said, I believe in an interview: for every poem you write, read five.
The worst is probably “write every day.” The only things I do every day are breathe, eat, sleep, drink water, and worry about why I’m not writing every day.
JA: Three social media dos or don’ts for an emerging writer?
JR: This is a tough one. I feel like this is so dependent on so many things. Most emerging writers are younger and better at social media than me. Also I think a lot of this depends on race/gender/etc. Here might be a good place for me to address primarily straight male writers, cause that’s what I am.
DO use social media as a place to listen. Here is where we have unfettered access to the chronicled lived experience of folks who are different than us, whose lives we’ve maybe not yet tried to imagine. We can peruse at our leisure, in a quiet place. We can feel the blissful freedom not to respond or plug our voices in to spaces where they don’t need to be, to learn what is our lane and what isn’t. We may fail at this. In so many ways, it’s about failing. If we learn to fail gracefully here we may learn to fail gracefully in our work. Be wrong, listen, learn.
DON’T let the speed of social media dictate the speed of your work. Just because lots of people you know are winning awards and publishing in big journals and sharing about it all the time doesn’t mean you need to rush your work into the world. If you are patient and steadfast and willing, your time will come. Or, guess what, it might not, but it certainly won’t if you’re writing to win a race that doesn’t exist against other writers whose processes (and the length and difficulty of those processes) are invisible to you.
Celebration is the antidote to envy.
DO use your platform to celebrate work that moves you. This is a great way of combating feelings of inadequacy that come from maybe watching everyone around you succeed when you feel you aren’t succeeding. It exercises the muscle of celebration, of joy, which poetry craves. It becomes about maintaining a sense of wonder that I think the envy (according to Kaveh Akbar, “…the only deadly sin that’s no fun for the sinner”) generated by social media can often work toward stripping us of. Celebration is the antidote to envy.
Using your platform as a way to center voices different from yours is great too. This especially for fellow straight male poets. Share the work of writers/artists with different lived experiences—writers/artists of color, women, queer writers/artists, etc. Share the work without commentary. Many wonderful dialogues can begin this way.
BONUS you get three hashtags.
JA: What are you currently reading?
JR: Fiction: Kindred by Octavia Butler
Nonfiction: Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Poetry: Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar
Play: The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe
JA: What’s your favorite nut butter and why?
JR: What are you trying to do, start a war? Do I really have to say in front of all these people that cashew butter once and for all is the superior nut butter due to decreased stickiness and an increased natural sweetness that, when combined with a sprinkle of sea salt, blossoms in the mouth like a complicated sex orchard? And do I need to then say to myself wait Jeremy—you’ve just bought your second jar of MaraNatha no-stir lightly sweetened peanut butter and you’ve been quietly questioning all you thought you knew? I don’t know the answer. Is there an answer? When I was in kindergarten it was Jif all the way no questions asked until I did a blind taste test and Skippy emerged victorious. My world was rocked that day as it was rocked the first time I tried cashew butter and then again the first time I tried MaraNatha peanut butter. Also does Nutella count as a nut butter? Also have you ever tried pouring a little maple syrup into your Laura Scudders before you stir the oil in? Let’s live together in the mystery. I commit to a life of being bewildered by the various deliciousness of nut butters and to the joyous fluidity of that bewilderment. Thank you for your time.
Jessica Abughattas has poems published in Thrush Poetry Journal, Stirring Lit, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate at Antioch University, associate managing editor of Lunch Ticket, and a reader for Frontier Poetry. Follow her on Twitter: @jessicamelia22
Welcome to our new Amuse-Bouche occasional series, À La Carte. This is a curated series featuring short pieces that engage with one aspect of our mission. Here we publish work by writers from underrepresented or historically misrepresented communities, and/or writing that highlights issues of social, economic, and environmental justice. Please enjoy. ~The Editors
People Going to Work
The summer I worked at the casino pool, we took shuttles to and from the employee entrance. We were not allowed to park on property, only at a parking lot on the other side of the highway that added forty minutes, unpaid, to our workday. Sometimes in the mornings if I was groggy, or hung over from two-for-one margaritas from the Paradise Cantina, I walked onto the shuttle first without letting graveyard out. I weaved through them down the aisle, sunglasses on, somewhat ashamed yet inoculated to their glares. They were too tired to be annoyed; their bodies so out of synch with the rhythm of the day that even they were resigned to their invisibility. I watched them stumble toward their cars in purple bowties and vests, navy cocktail dresses, squinting toward the bright light of their nighttime.
If I left early or was cut anywhere near five, the line for the shuttle weaved beyond the bus shed, out through the employee entrance and overflowed into the valet area where guests arrived. Back of house was not supposed to be seen there.
No one on vacation wants to witness people going to work.
The line was longest during that hour because of housekeeping. They filled the shuttles with their black and gray uniforms, their surveillance-approved clear bags that exposed their belongings to the cameras—car keys, hairbrushes, tampons, receipts, bags of pretzels from the employee dining room. I was a seasonal worker, would not be around long enough to invest in a flimsy, see-through purse that was the staple of female casino workers.
Even though I was sunburnt, tired from lugging ice and complimentary water in a hundred-and-ten-degree temperatures, I remember that housekeeping conversation across the shuttle because it was rare when they happened in English.
“There were limes everywhere,” one said. “Not just on the floor. I mean everywhere.”
“Limes?” the other asked. “Whole limes?”
“Yes. Wrung-out. Half-bitten. They were tucked down between the sheets. Limes in the toilet bowl. In the shower!”
The other giggled.
“I cleaned up maybe sixty wedges. That’s ten whole limes.”
“Can you order limes from In-Room Dining?”
“Just a bag of limes?”
“They must have. Unless they brought them.”
“I thought that, but there were no bottles. The trash was empty. Not one lime made it into the trash.”
“And they didn’t tip me. Not even a wedge in the envelope.”
“But when I was on my knees, scraping more limes out from under the bed, I found a quarter, and I kept it.”
She pointed to the silver nugget glinting through the front pocket of her plastic purse.
Brittany Bronson lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, and works as an English instructor and cocktail server. She is a contributing op-ed writer for The New York Times, where she writes about the intersection of the working and professional classes. Her fiction has appeared in Paper Darts and Cosmonauts Avenue, and is forthcoming in Juked. In 2014, she received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She was awarded a literary arts fellowship in creative non-fiction from the Nevada Arts Council in 2016.
Photo by Aaron Mayes
Owl of Forest Park
Early Saturdays, before the dawn,
before the morning birds,
I walked the trails of Forest Park beyond the zoo,
crushed the arteries of Hoyt Arboretum
beneath my spreading feet, turned the fallen petals
from the rose garden to shaving peels.
It was here, in the darkness of Portland mornings
that I felt most alive. Before the throngs
of tourists arrived, before the fat pink trolley
made its chortling rounds—when rabbits were still brave
enough to dash between bushes
and the good swings wide enough for birthing hips
held a layer of night frost close as you,
the one I left sleeping in our loft. Weeks before
we left, headed south to the border town,
I felt the wondering eyes scaling me
and for once I wasn’t alone. Welcomed
into his Parliament, he reigned proud
on the stump, bearing witness to my noisy
shoes, the complaints of my knees,
my complete lack of grace before his being.
Inches away, he didn’t blink, he didn’t turn,
not once faltering like so many others. This
was my farewell, my blessing to go, my reminder
of the beauty from which I came and from where
I’ll never return.
Nothing we found fit, so we built
our first house from the weeds
up. Virgin land, gurgling with spiders
and an out of control apple tree—it dropped
fermented fruits on the earth, drunken
offerings for livestock
that hadn’t roamed that farmland
for decades. Above the flood plains,
past the blackberry bushes,
it took months to close,
to get the permits, collect
yes stamps like A grades. Then,
on a frosted September day
that felt like winter, we asked blessings
of the land, permission from the gods
to Build. I wore that one sundress,
black with cutouts at the midriff,
and old cowboy boots. With burning sage
in one hand and a gathered skirt
in the other, I circled our small hill,
muttering prayers in the chill
while you snapped photo
after photo from weathered Jackson Street.
Jessica Mehta is a Cherokee poet and novelist. She’s the author of four collections of poetry, including Secret-Telling Bones, Orygun, What Makes an Always, and The Last Exotic Petting Zoo, as well as the novel The Wrong Kind of Indian. She’s been awarded the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund grant in poetry, and numerous poet-in-residencies, including positions at Hosking Houses Trust and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, as well as posts at Paris Lit Up and the Acequia Madre House in Santa Fe. Jessica is the owner of a multi award-winning writing services business, MehtaFor. Find Jessica at jessicatynermehta.com.
I think I may be in love with you, Soon.
The opening lines of Derrick C. Brown’s latest collection of love poems, How the Body Works the Dark, reveal the heart of his poetry in a sincere, simple declaration. Brown writes about love the way all poets should. His understated tone, diction, and sense of humor construct a modern collection of love poetry that feels sincere and fresh.
Simple, declarative sentences like, “You kiss me like Hell is real” (“Mercy Sleeps”), and, “We kissed so hard / I could see how she was going to die” (“More”) are a mainstay of Brown’s voice. These electric one-liners are reminiscent of his earlier work. Brown’s the guy who said, “I am your blood,” and, “Stop ruining love by wanting it so badly” (“Kurosawa Champagne”). The latter line, made infamous by text graphics on Tumblr, has been shared so rampantly that “memes” sometimes fail to attribute the quote to him. To me, this is just one example of the demand for poets like Brown.
How I am nourished
by the night chaos
in your skin.
The service that overcomes me
when your legs ache. (“Soon”)
With frequent references to blood and body parts, there’s no question Brown is a poet of the body, a distinctly American characteristic he shares with poets like Whitman, Cummings, and Olds. Writing about the human body naturally raises questions of soul-body connection, individuality, and the human condition. For Brown, exploration of the physical body, its beauty and weakness, seems linked inextricably to its ability to influence relationships. “I ain’t trying to turn anyone on,” Brown quotes himself in the epigraph of his book, “I am trying to crack this fat skull and get her light out of my head.” The physical body is the centerpiece of the collection not to turn you on, but because it’s the vehicle to emotional intimacy.
The book is divided into two parts: “A Chosen Love” explores perceived intimacy when one falls in love, while “A Chosen Darkness” describes its unraveling and the conflict that ensues—unpredictable, sometimes ugly, and, God knows, realistic. Brown’s imagery summons forces of nature to represent both the ethereal and destructive parts of love. In “My Queen of Monster Lake,” he represents the speaker’s beloved as a dangerous force of nature—“Our love / is a lake full of lightning”—a conceit which is frequently referred to throughout the collection.
I want four days at Avila beach with you
until the breath-sucking sunset
is finally made common and we no longer
devour each others’ madness, we just lay around, staring. (“Mercy Sleeps”)
Though Brown’s work has been described as “true grit Americana,” with poems set against backdrops of rural Texas and Tennessee, the setting for the collection is clearly California, with references to Big Sur, the Felton Redwoods, and Santa Cruz Island.
The relatable and heartbreaking poem “Añejo” is set at a “Tequila bar on Sunset.” In this urban Los Angeles setting, nature is depicted as a (potentially fabricated) symbol for conflict, which presents itself at the moment of a breakup:
Outside it looked as if all the wind machines turned on
simultaneously, throughout Los Angeles back lots.
Brown, who is also a comedian, interjects his poetry with humor—probably because he can’t help it. In “Beyond Here,” he writes, “You are thinking of your last meal / and I am thinking of you covered in barbacoa.”
Brown’s sixth full-length book of poetry, How the Body Works the Dark presents a realistic, relatable portrait of love, its beauty and destruction.
Brown, Derrick C. How the Body Works the Dark. Not A Cult P, 2017.
—. “Kurosawa Champagne.” Scandalabra. Write Bloody Publishing, 2009.
Jessica Abughattas has poems recently published in Thrush Poetry Journal, Stirring Lit, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate at Antioch University, associate managing editor of Lunch Ticket, and a reader at Frontier Poetry. Follow her on Twitter: @jessicamelia22
Sonnet II: We’re Not in Chinatown Anymore
Philly’s Chinatown has no Hollywood,
just a bunch of ripped up movie billboards,
blockbusters translated into Chinese,
signs right in front of the bookshop where I wait:
my father is buying his zodiac books,
fortunes for the new year. He’s psychic—
it’s the Tiger telling his Snake daughter
to watch her mouth, control her temper,
and avoid Rabbits in the game of love:
too much passion for too little time.
At this point, I’m too young. Rabbits are cute.
All I know is I want a bubble tea
from the ma & pa bake shop next door.
I look at the fluffy cakes. I want them all.
Sonnet XI: Fast Paces of Street Market Life
At home, Grandpa and Grandma get ready
for the day ahead: two pajama stands
to run in this city heat in closed spaces
following the pace of street market life.
Grandma deals with a bargaining housewife:
“$4 for the set? You can’t go lower?”
“It’s already only $6. Your children
need to keep warm.” She folds them, puts them
in a crinkly bag. Grandma’s such a boss,
full of energy, even at midday
when Mom and I meet her for late lunch:
off to a local joint for some beef balls,
long white noodles in bowls the size of my head,
add in some tripe, cheap, hearty Hong Kong eats.
Dorothy Chan was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship and a 2016 semi-finalist for The Word Works’ Washington Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, Plume, The Journal, Spillway, Little Patuxent Review, and The McNeese Review. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart. She is the Assistant Editor of The Southeast Review.
Editor’s note: Lunch Ticket’s reading period for Issue 11 overlapped with NDR’s Annual Chapbook Contest. At the same time that these two sonnets were accepted for publication at Lunch Ticket, Dorothy’s “Chinatown Sonnets” chapbook was selected as NDR’s winner by guest judge Douglas Kearney.
Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress is a quintessential hard-boiled mystery novel. Mosley’s protagonist, Easy Rawlins, is on par with two of the genre’s most notable characters, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer. Set in 1948 Los Angeles, the sharply written first person narrative pays homage to its traditional genre conceits. There is a beautiful woman, seedy bars, crooked cops, bad guys, corrupt politicians and of course, murders. From the opening sentence, the novel is fast moving and entertaining as Easy goes about finding a missing woman. While the novel is an example of expert craftsmanship as it relates to plot, character development, and narrative voice, it excels at social commentary. Infused in the entertainment are bitter lessons on racial inequities and social injustice experienced by people of color, and in particular, the black male.
Easy Rawlins is black. He is neither a police officer nor private investigator. He is an out-of-work everyman who simply needs to pay his mortgage. Mosley’s choice to create his main character in this way lends strength to the novel. Easy has migrated to Los Angles from Houston for a better life, and for all intents and purposes, has succeeded. He is a homeowner, owns a nice car, and has recently earned his high-school diploma in night school. Even still, his world is on the brink of collapse. He has recently lost his job for standing his ground with a white man. It is in this container of social injustice that the story takes place.
Devil in a Blue Dress begins its social commentary in the first sentence: “I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s bar,” Mosley writes. He goes on to use the word white five times in the opening paragraph while laying the groundwork for what appears to be the novel’s thematic conflict: how does a black man self-actualize in a society where powerful, white male forces are his constant nemesis? It is the age-old Negro question that appears in the writings of social reformers Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Mosley does a masterful job introducing the antagonistic forces of white male privilege in the character of Mr. Dewitt Albright. Albright (a play on words) is described as a white man large enough to block the doorframe. He wears a white linen suit, white shoes, white silk socks, and even drives a white Cadillac. Albright’s strawberry blond hair and pale eyes cause Easy to feel “a thrill of fear.” Albright feigns respect to gain Easy’s confidence. However, when asked how he might respond if Easy broke into his house he replied, “I’d tear your nigger head out its root.”
Mosley writes, “A job in a factory is an awful lot like working on a plantation in the South.” This powerful sentence sets up the novel’s social commentary on another bastion of white male privilege, the workplace. The dominant caricatures of black men during slavery—Coon, Picaninny, and Tom—portrayed them as lazy, childlike, ignorant, and groveling. Easy’s supervisor, Benny Giacomo, whom he describes as, “darker than many mulattos I’d known,” holds the negative stereotypes resulting from the propaganda that has become folklore. He sees Easy as lazy, childlike, and in need of a lesson. Easy, on the other hand, when presented with an opportunity to get his job back, is not willing to grovel. He says, “I concentrated on keeping my head erect, I wasn’t going to bow down to him.”
The novel also offers commentary on the violent policing of black men. Throughout the story, the police loom as a capricious, evil, and predatory force. After Easy is punched in the diaphragm and tossed in the backseat of a cruiser without explanation, we learn that it is a regular occurrence. “I had played the game of cops and nigger before,” Easy says while in custody. “It’s hard acting innocent when you know you are, but the cops know that you aren’t.” The police station scene sheds light on law enforcement propensity to incarcerate innocent black men. It also speaks to the physical violence the black male often endures: “Before I could turn I felt the hard knot of his fist explode against my head.”
In his quest to find the missing woman, Easy gains access to the world of Todd Carter, one of Los Angeles’s most powerful men. The scene is crafted in a way that offers the reader hope. After Easy experiences violence and threats of violence at the hands of the other white male characters in the novel, Todd Carter appears to be civil toward him. Mosley draws Carter as vulnerable, honest, and caring. Sitting in Carter’s office drinking the finest brandy he has ever tasted, Easy says it feels like they are best friends, even closer. Noticing that Carter doesn’t have the fear or contempt that most white people show when dealing with him, Easy feels a sense of relief, as if he will finally be treated with the dignity he deserves. He comments in the next sentence, however, “Todd Crater was so rich he didn’t even consider me in human terms. I could have been a prize dog. It was the worst kind of racism.”
Walter Mosey said, “I write about believable black male heroes in a world where there aren’t many.” Easy Rawlins is heroic and believable, indeed. In a society where the dominant white male seeks to dehumanize at every turn, he maintains his dignity. Most importantly, however, he keeps his cool offering a counter to the stereotype of the angry, reckless black male. Describing the voice that speaks to him in the worst of times, Easy says, “The voice has no lust. He never told me to rape or steal. He just tells me how it is if I want to survive. Survive like a man.”
Mosley, Walter. Devil in a Blue Dress. Washington Square P, 2002.
Andre Hardy is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. He is a graduate of St. Mary’s College of California and was the fourth pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1984 NFL draft. He writes hard-boiled, gumshoe stories with an urban twist. He is the executive director of Against The Stream Buddhist Meditation Society.
My mom sent me letters from Indiana. Stacks of cards with flowers and curly, purple ink inside. Breathtaking cursive spanned the card. My small hands touched the parts where she’d written sweet girl or my name. She had her first nervous breakdown when I was six years old, and was admitted to a hospital where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She and my father were recently divorced, but lived together, so while she stayed with my aunt in Indiana, I stayed with dad in our big, blue house in Holly, Michigan. When my dad gave me a new letter, I snuck it off to my room where I sat on a pink, ruffled bed and read it over and over. I put the card on my desk next to others arranged to face my bed.
After two months of cards, I was allowed to visit her. I was seven by then. I kicked my legs excitedly in the backseat of my dad’s SUV as he drove to a rest stop halfway between our house and my aunt Lisa’s. Lisa drove me the rest of the way to Indiana. The car ride was a blur of eager anticipation. When we reached her subdivision, I realized that I’d never seen where she lived. I only knew Aunt Lisa in the context of family gatherings at my grandparents’ house in Ohio.
My curiosity about Lisa’s house disappeared when she opened the door and called my mom’s name. Lisa walked through the foyer and into the living room. I stood in the doorway. My heartbeat quickened, and then I saw her. Mom was sitting in the living room, like a shy terrier on the couch, waiting for me to approach. She was cautious and quiet. Not how she used to be. The skylight made the room look cold and the distance from the foyer to the living room made me anxious. My pink, glitter shoes made squeaking sounds on the tile in the entryway as I walked toward her. Why didn’t she run and hug me? Why was everyone so quiet?
Everything from the living room carpet to the shelves and the smell of the air was clean. Every surface shone. I didn’t know how to act in this house. I was used to candles burning, covers thrown carelessly on furniture, and toys scattered on the floor. I looked around the room, and from my mom’s face to the folded hands in her lap. Maybe she didn’t know how to act here either.
I tried to get her to laugh and be silly. When she was happy, Mom would crack jokes and have everyone near her laughing. A woman once called her “Hollywood” because every time she saw her, Mom was singing and smiling. Now her face was puffy, her features blurred. Her smiles carved new lines on her face and disappeared quickly. Weren’t they letting her laugh here?
She seemed scared, like she wanted to leave. I told her she could come home with me. She cried, and tried to wipe the tears from her face before I could see. She wouldn’t look at me. She tried to occupy me with flowery hair clips and crossword books. She asked me questions about my dad, teachers, and school.
When it was time to leave, I asked if she was coming with me. Lisa said Mom had to stay in Indiana a little longer. Why were they speaking for her? Why couldn’t she leave? I thought she was trapped, but when I offered escape she wouldn’t take it.
“Mom?” I asked. I wanted her to say why she wouldn’t come home.
Lisa spoke for Mom because she loved her. She wanted to spare Mom the pain of explaining her mental illness to me. She wanted to make us believe this was something that would pass.
She looked at my aunt Lisa. Lisa nodded, and Mom said “I’ll see you soon, honey.” End of discussion. Mom would stay in Indiana until they said she could come home.
Now I know that my mom was subdued because she was medicated, and didn’t know what to tell me. She was in Indiana because she couldn’t be alone, and because a psychiatrist said she was unfit to care for me. A condition of her release from the mental hospital was that family would care for her until the psychiatrist said she was stable enough to live on her own. Lisa spoke for Mom because she loved her. She wanted to spare Mom the pain of explaining her mental illness to me. She wanted to make us believe this was something that would pass. Lisa was good at joking, cleaning, pretending… But her life wasn’t easier than ours. Most days she battled either depression or her controlling husband. Which meant she was good at keeping the house clean, and having easy answers for difficult questions.
* * *
When my mom felt stronger she moved out of Lisa’s basement and back to Michigan. Though they were divorced, she’d been living with my dad to feign normalcy and keep my life simple. After her breakdown, she was too much for him to handle, so she rented an apartment near Dad and school. The apartment was on the third floor of a squat, brick building. We could hear sirens from the small living room, but Mom said it was safe, that we heard sirens because we were near a hospital. She put sunflower laminate inside the bathroom cabinets and strawberry decorations in the kitchen. We stationed bright lamps in each room. She was back to smiling, laughing and being my mom so quickly that it seemed like she’d never been gone. She couldn’t work, but received social security and did well as a stay-at-home mom and volunteer for my Girl Scout troop. She was happy for a while. More stable.
While I was in middle school, she got a job at a real estate company and saved money from her commissions. We moved from the apartment to a small condo in a better neighborhood. The walls in the condo’s living room were mirrored. Mom said a body-builder lived there before us. I used to imagine him with a buzz cut, in a bright pink and yellow leotard, flexing in our living room. The kitchen was decorated in strawberries again, but was so small that when I opened the drawers they nearly touched the wall. There were no sirens, and we had a backyard. A backyard where we sat in the grass, did crafts, and where I celebrated my tenth birthday with friends.
When I was thirteen, she was promoted and we moved into a bigger condo closer to the middle school and high school. It was beautiful, with wood floors, granite countertops and vaulted ceilings. Upstairs, the walls and white carpet were covered in rainbows from refracted sunlight. After a string of apartments and dingy condos, it was home. It was the cheapest in the subdivision because it was so close to the main road. We didn’t care. We joked that our driveway had a name because Woodcliff Trail, the entrance to the subdivision, was a short street that ended at our garage. We called our condo the beach house because traffic from the highway sounded like waves outside our door. We called the couch the big boat and the loveseat the little boat, and would use our hands to make binoculars so we could spy on each other from opposite sides of the living room.
She unpacked the strawberry decorations and put them in the kitchen. We bought furniture from Rent-a-Center and painted my room. It was the first time I had a room I could paint. I wanted to paint full scale scenes on the walls, but mom convinced me to settle for purple, blue, and pink sponge patterns instead. We made friends with a chipmunk that visited our porch, and laughed about the traces of glitter from her crafting. Our condo was the promise of a good future for us. It was as if her mental illness was a bad dream we’d shared long ago.
* * *
By the time I entered high school, my mom would work for three days without sleep. When the weekend came, she’d stay in her pajamas, stay home, and nap. I learned to notice when she’d gone off her meds. Without medicine she was more stressed than energetic and sad than tired. I didn’t know what she was taking, but I knew to ask her if she was taking it.
I thought we were in control, but there were days when the act fell short, and I saw we’d been lulled into a false sense of wellbeing. Either we’d gone too long without refilling her prescription or she’d been hiding her mood swings from me and trying to work through them on her own. But she couldn’t pretend for long. Everything inside her would pile up and spill over.
These were the days when she’d cry silently, her chest heaving like a child’s. Her muscles would tighten and her face contort in pain. Her round, freckled cheeks would be stained with tears. Eyes shut impossibly tight. Her mouth would hang open and her face would turn red. A numbness would overcome her, as if nothing I said or did could reach her.
I’d pretended I wasn’t scared. I’d talk to her, barely able to hear myself speak over my pounding heartbeat. When talking didn’t help, I’d run upstairs to the white carpeted landing that led to my room. I’d duck in the shadows, behind the half-wall as if it were a barricade and I was on the front line. From the dark upper landing, I’d watch my mom in the living room below writhe on the couch and scream in anguish. She’d scream lonely, angry screams ending in sobs that echoed up the walls and into the vaulted ceiling. I’d hide behind the half-wall and dial my Aunt Becky’s number.
My aunt would answer, and I’d tell her Mom was upset again. In the background, my aunt would hear my mother shrieking like an animal was ripping her apart. She’d asked to speak with her. Mom would talk to Becky and glare at me. She didn’t approve of me getting family involved, but once Becky saw through her façade it came crumbling down. My mom would cry. She’d say she was fine, but sad. That she’d be okay. Becky would ask to speak with me again. I’d climb upstairs, and we’d talk about whether she’d drive from Ohio to help. We’d decide it was all right. And after I hung up and heard the silence, I would breathe deeply, knowing that mom would be okay as long as I was there.
* * *
In the summer of 2012 I was taking classes at community college, working, and living at home. On Tuesdays I’d visit my dad. One Tuesday that June I decided to stop by mom’s house first. On the way, I got a text message from her that read, “I’ll love you forever.” Nothing else.
I sped until I was home. I pulled into the driveway and ran across the walkway to our door. Inside I saw a bottle of vodka, a glass full of tomato juice, and a pack of cigarettes on the living room table. Ashes and medicine bottles were strewn across the wood.
She told me she was sad, that she’d been fired, and she didn’t want me to see what would happen next. She rambled about her plan, and how they were going to take her away. She said I wouldn’t have to see the body. She cried, I pleaded, and as we spoke, I started to understand her threat. She meant what she was saying. Nothing I said would convince her not to kill herself.
I felt like a child. I wanted to yell for help, to run to the loft and call my aunt Becky, but I couldn’t leave Mom alone. So I told Mom to sit down. I sat opposite her on the loveseat and texted Becky with my phone on silent, hidden between me and the couch cushions. I talked to Mom, using the voice and words I’d heard people in movies use when they needed to calm someone clinging to the side of a bridge or window ledge. I didn’t know how long I could pretend to be calm. I didn’t want to be there if she killed herself, but I couldn’t leave her.
We talked for the next two hours until she was so exhausted she fell asleep on the couch. My aunt arrived a little later. She walked in the door, sat next to my mom on the couch, and pet her hair until she woke. I watched them, feeling like an outsider eavesdropping on a stranger’s emotional moment with a friend. I didn’t feel sorry for Mom. I wasn’t happy that she was alive. I was numb. Some part of me was relieved Becky was there, but all I felt was tired. I wasn’t sure if that night really happened, and didn’t want to know the truth. So I went to bed, and took refuge in unconsciousness.
I wanted to see my name. I wanted her to admit how hard it was to leave me or that she wanted someone to take care of me, but she didn’t. It wasn’t poetic. It wasn’t beautiful.
The next morning, I woke and confronted the evidence of the night before. My aunt was cleaning the mess in the living room. Ashes in the trash can. Pill bottles gone. She told me that while she was cleaning she found a note, and asked if I knew anything about it. I told her I didn’t, and a few minutes later dug through her purse until I found it. I took the folded piece of paper upstairs and locked myself in the bathroom.
My palms were clammy and fingers shook as I unfolded the paper. I scanned it quickly then reread it, searching for my name. I don’t know what I thought I’d find. I wanted to see my name. I wanted her to admit how hard it was to leave me or that she wanted someone to take care of me, but she didn’t. It wasn’t poetic. It wasn’t beautiful. It was a suicide note written with simple words, by a woman unable to stand the pain of thought, language, or living any more, but unable to leave without an explanation. It amounted to something about losing her job, how hard life was, and that she and hoped everyone would understand.
* * *
I despised her for her selfishness. For trying to leave me. For putting her pain before mine and everyone else’s. For saying with assorted medicine and that fucking note, that whatever pain her death caused wouldn’t matter if she could relieve her own. During the month after she left, my helplessness turned to rage. I resented her for being weak. I was angry that she left me to deal with her foreclosure and pack while she pieced together her psyche. She went with Becky to live in Ohio. And again she was living in her sister’s basement. But this time, it was a different sister, and in a different state.
Becky is the sister who looks most like Mom, talks like Mom, though she always seemed tougher to me. People told stories about Becky being the one a man in her subdivision called when he found a snake in his yard. Becky was the driver for long road trips. She was either everyone’s mom or everyone’s dad depending on the circumstance.
Though Mom is the eldest of her sisters, her breakdown left her in a childlike state. She surrounded the bed and the remaining room in Becky’s basement with seemingly meaningless objects, including a shell and shadowbox items. Everything else was in boxes. She asked me to come with her. I couldn’t bear the idea of being another one of mom’s prized possessions collecting dust in Becky’s basement. And I still hadn’t forgiven her. So I stayed in Michigan and moved in with my dad, marking the first time in decades my mother and I had any separation.
* * *
A few months later, my mom and Becky returned to Michigan to get more of Mom’s things from the house. Becky sat with me on the front porch and explained that I needed to be nice to my mother.
“She’s sick,” she said.
The concrete of our porch was cool on my legs on that hot August day. I stared at the cars that passed on the road beyond our driveway. The neighborhood kids rode by on brightly colored bikes, shrieking and laughing. A garish light shone off the metal.
She put her hand on my uncovered knee.
“She’s sick, just like someone would be sick with pneumonia or cancer, or anything else. That’s my understanding of it, anyway. I don’t know very much about this stuff, but from what I’ve heard the doctor say, that’s how we have to think of it. That she’s sick and we need to try and help her.”
My lip quivered. I bit at the inside of my cheek and tilted my head down, trying not to cry. I clenched my stomach muscles, willing myself to be stronger. Be stronger. Be stronger. The only way to get over her breakdown was if I refused to let it break me too.
“We have to help her just like we would if her body was sick. Her mind is hurting and she needs our help.”
Becky, her sisters, and my grandparents had been dealing with Mom’s mental illness for decades. They knew more about when she was in the hospital, rehabilitated in a mental clinic where she did arts and crafts, and lived with Lisa, but I knew what it was like to live with her day to day. I knew her better than any of them, and felt betrayed in a way that I thought they couldn’t understand.
Becky stared at my face for a long time, waiting for me to speak. I stared at the concrete.
“I know she hurt you,” she said more quietly, “but you have to forgive her. She’s your mother and she needs you. She loves you.” My aunt put a hand on my back.
I started to cry. Terrible, childish crying. I felt guilty and angry with myself. Crying reminded me of my mother. For years I couldn’t be weak, wouldn’t let myself get emotional, because I had to be there for her, and promised that I’d never break like she did. Her suicide attempt showed me that I wasn’t enough. I gripped my aunt’s hand as her other rubbed circles on my back. She let me cry. Then she led me into the house to help my mom.
I helped them pack some of her clothes and said I’d watch the house for a few days while they figured out what to do. I remember waving to them from the front door. After they pulled away, I walked upstairs to my past refuge.
During the foreclosure process, the water and power in the house had been shut off. It was cold upstairs and the furniture was gone. I settled calmly on the floor. I slowly leaned my head onto the dirty, white carpet, and I cried. My hands spread out in front of me. My nose dripped onto the carpet filled with lint and dirt from all the people who’d been trying to help us move out of this house. I whispered, “God” and “please,” hoping He could string my prayer together without other words. I felt emptied of strength and feeling. My mom was my best friend and I hated her. I didn’t want to talk to her, but I had to check on her, make sure she was okay, and coordinate the foreclosure with the condo association.
It was dark and cold in the house, but I didn’t care. My hands gripped the carpet. I could feel the dry fibers of it on the tender skin beneath my nails. I pinched the muscles in my face, gritted my teeth, and then opened my mouth against the carpet and screamed.
This time I wasn’t hiding. I wasn’t calling my aunt or peeking at Mom over the wall. Her screams didn’t fill the house. This time, the screams echoing through our beach house were mine. I wasn’t trying to help her get through one of her episodes. It was too late for that. I’d already failed, and everything broke. So I screamed until the sun set. I screamed in our empty, cold house. The cars on the highway sounded like waves outside our door, and I sat alone in the near darkness. I couldn’t think or speak. Instead I muttered and sobbed, and hoped those waves would swallow me whole.
Brooke White received her bachelor’s degree in English and Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. She’s a Michigan native, with a penchant for prose and long conversations. Winner of the Hopwood Committee’s Roy W. Cowden Memorial Fellowship for nonfiction, her work has appeared in Ugly Sapling, and Lunch Ticket’s Amuse-Bouche series.
Cormac McCarthy’s third novel Child of God, based loosely on an infamous murder in Sevier County, Tennessee, portrays a cycle of extreme isolation, perversity, and violence as representative of the natural human experience. The novel tells the story of Lester Ballard, “a child of God much like yourself perhaps,” who, facing a series of unfortunate circumstances beginning with his eviction from his home, descends into the limits of desecration, and literally into the depths of the earth.
McCarthy reveals his worldview in exchanges of dialogue, such as this conversation between Deputy Fate Turner and a local old timer:
“You think people was meaner then than they are now?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t. I think people are the same from the day God first made one.”
McCarthy always leaves subtle clues for his readers and demands character names receive due attention, and Child of God is no different. The naming of the sheriff seems a curious choice because, like Deputy Ed Tom Bell in McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, the lawman is no “turner of fates,” unable to bend the course of evil but only able to identify the victims and inventory the evidence.
By portraying Lester as a tragic character instead of merely an instrument of evil, McCarthy pushes the limits of propriety—murder, pedophilia, necrophilia. He paints a portrait of a troubled individual faced with morbid images throughout his life. Lester is orphaned: first his mother abandons the home, and then, as a young boy, he discovers his father’s body, grossly disfigured from the father having committed suicide by hanging. So begins Lester’s fascination with the grotesquery of death. Rejected in more conventional interactions, he finds that he is only able to achieve intimacy and fulfillment via necrophilia.
McCarthy’s obsession with death, or at least the ritualization of death, is itself rendered with what one could describe as literary necrophilia. Death becomes a ritual of courtship for Lester. McCarthy’s description of the execution of two murderers portrays the public event as something of a civic celebration. In another sequence, Lester recalls the death of a wild boar, taken down by dogs, with a balletic verve, describing the “lovely blood” as the boar spirals into death.
McCarthy’s style is minimalist and completely removed of excess and decoration, both in terms of grammar and punctuation. He experiments with an unfulfilled narrative trope, evidenced when he reverts to a third person narrative in the voice of an unnamed member of his community. Here and in subsequent work, McCarthy seems to be unable to separate himself from Old Testament themes: catastrophic flood, blood sacrifice, revelation in fire, then later and more evidently in the Biblical language of Blood Meridian.
Child of God adds to McCarthy’s canon of depravity and darkness, coupled with the thesis that humanity is dark and prone to great, catastrophic evil. On the other hand, in McCarthy’s view, nature is profoundly beautiful, as depicted in the touch of leaves and fronds upon Lester’s face as he escapes his cavernous underworld, a suggestion of benediction and peace with his deplorable acts. Ultimately, having surrendered himself to a mental asylum (“I’m supposed to be here”), when Lester dies, his body is consigned for dissection, as if clues to the evil in him can be interpreted, the way pathologists look for tumors and aneurisms to explain morbidity. Child of God demonstrates McCarthy’s view that nothing organic or occurring in nature can amount to the evil in humanity.
McCarthy, Cormac. Child of God. Random House, 1973.
Edmond Stevens first began writing for publication while in high school for his hometown Burlington Free Press. That led to positions with major New England newspapers and later The Los Angeles Daily News. Life in Los Angeles made for the irresistible transition to screenwriting. Edmond’s portfolio includes six made-for-TV movies and numerous network series. His most recent credit (2014) is Skating to New York, based on his novella. Teaching credentials include creating the screenwriting program at Utah’s Writers@Work, plus workshop appearances at Sherwood Oaks College, University of Utah, University of Southern California, Chicago Film Commission, and Sundance Institute.
Create Dangerously begins with an essay about the public executions of Louis Drouin and Marcel Numa in Port-au-Prince. Drouin and Numa were Haitians who had met while living in New York City and had returned to Haiti as part of a guerrilla army that intended to take down the Duvalier dictatorship. François Duvalier—Papa Doc—made sure that thousands of Haitians were there to witness the executions. Danticat’s essays pay homage to the myriad ways the event impacted her life as a writer, as well as the lives of many other Haitian artists and activists. The immigrant artist at work educates and moves the reader to enter the experiences of artists who do not belong anywhere and hence endure the suffering of their homeland, their new home, and the liminal space in between in which their identities are concocted.
Create Dangerously shows us how art grows like wild weeds from the cracks in a dictatorship. Danticat tells of a time during Pap Doc’s regime when writers could not write, and if they did so, risked their lives and the lives of their families. Instead they put on Greek tragedies inside homes. If they wrote and shared, it was in secret. For many American artists, we cannot imagine living like this, but it is crucial that we recognize the possibility that this could happen here. And we must understand that this is the reality of so many artists all over the world. In the book’s title essay, the act of creating dangerously is described as “creating when both the creation and the reception, the writing and the reading, are dangerous undertakings, disobedience to a directive” (11).
As I write this, ICE is detaining immigrants and literally tearing families apart. Create Dangerously challenges how we view the immigrant experience and invites us to see Haiti, a country that has been so overlooked by our citizens and so slighted by our government.
In “Acheiropoietos,” Danticat profiles photographer Daniel Morel, who as a child, was present for the assassinations of Drouin and Numa. He describes the feeling that as an artist, he is viewed negatively inside Haiti and has “little value” (142) in the US. Again, she defines creating dangerously, this time as creating “fearlessly, boldly embracing the public and private terrors that would silence us, then bravely moving forward even when it feels as though we are being chased by ghosts” (148). How can folks who feel they have “little value” be moved to create? How heartbreaking that anyone should feel they have little value, and how true of so many people in this country.
In “Another Country,” which deals with how we talked about suffering and poverty after Hurricane Katrina, Danticat writes, “I don’t know why it seems always to surprise some Americans that many of their fellow citizens are vulnerable to horrors that routinely plague much of the world’s population” (111). She cites newscasters comparing the view of New Orleans to Africa or saying that it was like “another country.” Danticat’s nod to Baldwin with her title is important. Baldwin’s work addresses American denial and shortsightedness. Katrina proved this. The mainstream media kept pointing out how the events occurring in New Orleans were like another country, in total denial that this was OUR country, America.
Danticat honors many immigrant artists in her work, like Michael Richards, a Jamaican-American sculptor, known for a piece called Tar Bay vs. St. Sebastian that depicts an airman pierced all around by several small planes. Richards died in his studio in the Twin Towers on September 11th. In “Welcoming Ghosts,” Danticat draws parallels between Basquiat and an untrained Haitian artist and Vodou priest named Hector Hyppolite, who was “discovered” in a small town in Haiti and held in high regard by artists like Andre Breton. Danticat honors these artists by drawing political and spiritual through lines between their works and showing the reader how they were often misunderstood.
In “Bicentennial,” Danticat cites Alejo Carpentier’s description of encountering the “real marvelous” in Haiti, something like magic realism. She writes:
The real marvelous is the extraordinary and the mundane, the beautiful and the repulsive, the spoken and the unspoken. It is the enslaved African princes who believed they could fly and knew the paths of the clouds and the language of the forests but could no longer recognize themselves in the so-called New World. It is the elaborate vèvès, or cornmeal drawings, sketched in the soil at Vodou ceremonies to draw attention from the gods. It is in the thunderous response from gods such as Ogoun, the god of war, who speak in the hearts of men and women who, in spite of their slim odds, accept nothing less then total freedom. (103)
Lately, my words do not seem like enough. My donations do not seem like enough. This brief moment of attention I have paid to Haiti is certainly not enough. Danticat’s work forces the reader to see more than we are accustomed to seeing. More art, more suffering. And more examples of how we can write from a place that is real for each of us. For me that means I cannot forget the privilege, with which I walk through this “New World.” Maybe I can walk through it comfortably, but many cannot recognize themselves here.
Danticat, Edwidge. Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work. Random House, 2010.
Meredith Arena is from New York City and resides in Seattle where she works as a teaching artist in the public schools and facilitates meditation for adults. She is a student in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. She is the Blog Editor and the Diana Woods Memorial Award Editor on Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in Entropy, Lunch Ticket and SHIFT Queer Literary Arts Journal.
Freehanding Maps of Minnesota
I have called you feather down
in my sleep, christened you
the verge of memory,
painted your rivers in the rain.
I have written the scene
before I even arrive;
The breeze floats just enough
to rustle the edges of the paper,
lines only tenuously
Do your lakes ever run
dry? Does the smoke stay
in your clothes like it stays
I have loved you, Minnesota, and
I have never seen your face.
monolith of midwest and west
and tell me west,
do you ever get lonely?
Have you ever been afraid
to hold on? I can see you
through the snow drifts,
from the parched hills
of my heart.
I reside in the ache of sleep
and stone, I walk
to follow you, Northern Star. I wish
it were as easy
as buying a ticket to see the lights,
but the paper stayed
in my pocket, through the laundry,
Would you chase me
through the woods, Minnesota?
northbound, run your hand through my hair
and call me holy? Would you welcome me now,
after the way the summer sunset
left us sprawling?
Would you love me, Minnesota, even when I go back home?
never foreign to me. One word
en español; everything
at once dearer to me:
amorcito, solecito, cafecito.
the songs of my past. You are
my past, we are the future.
You will map
the world, and I will name
each new landmark for the words
that were robbed from us.
I am un-
a culture all my own. I love you
and the forgotten words
The desert sun smiles, the wind whips
and calls my name. My borders
come to life, the barbs in my heart start
I catalogue my native
species, find names
for the things I deemed unnamable.
I love you and the Aztec seal within me
takes flight, finally ready to show my people a land they can call their own.
I promise I will never leave you
I will give you
every word I have ever known.
Irene Vazquez is a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer from Houston, Texas. She is a founding editor of Zig Zag Zine. Irene was a runner-up in the 2016 Glass Mountain prose and poetry contest, and she received an honorable mention in the 2015 Princeton High School poetry contest. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in Alexandria Quarterly, F(r)iction, and Words Dance, among others.
Things That Are is Amy Leach’s whimsical collection of nonfiction essays about the natural world. These essays blend poetry, nonfiction, and nature writing—bending the genre and exploring the boundaries of what form creative nonfiction can take. It’s through the unexpected and illuminating prose that Leach seeks to create a relationship between the reader and the wild world.
What is most effective about this collection of essays is that Leach creates the kinship between natural world and the reader by being less concerned with making sense of the scientific topics that she’s exploring, and instead choosing to highlight the wonder that is rooted at their core. Instead of depending on dense scientific data, every essay is informed and elucidated through descriptions that focus on marveling at the individual beauty of every explored aspect of nature. Leach empathizes with the wilderness, and as such her readers do as well. The reader develops a fond attachment and sympathy to nature through surprising personifications, such as, “Desire makes plants very brave, so they can find what they desire; and very tender, so they can feel what they find.” Echoing our own vulnerabilities in the life of the plant, readers sense the tenderness and intentionality of nature.
Mirroring the unpredictably of nature, Leach takes the reader through seemingly meandering thought processes where one ends up initially sympathizing with a pea and ends up following the science of pollination. But despite the unpredictability Leach gives her subjects a human voice, such as “‘I have my mother’s petals!’ ‘I have my father’s filaments!’” Humorous reflections on behalf of creatures that are incapable of evoking a voice for themselves, Leach serves as the chairperson for the voiceless. The charming narration from unexpected places endears the reader to the topic. Nature takes on human qualities that work to emphasize the reader’s own humanity—where do we fit in the larger spectrum of the natural world?
The freedom to explore these winding thoughts gives the reader the autonomy to come to their own conclusion about the “point” of each of the essays. That being that we, as humans, are connected and intertwined to the natural world. Leach emphasizes the connection to the non-human topics by giving a soul to the wildness and a heart to her subjects.
Leach, Amy, and Nate Christopherson. Things That Are: Essays. Milkweed Editions, 2012.
Jane-Rebecca Cannarella is a writer living in Philadelphia. She’s the editor at HOOT Review. When not poorly playing the piano, she chronicles the many ways that she embarrasses herself at the website www.youlifeisnotsogreat.com
You don’t know I have a picture of you, because you are dead.
Before you were dead, I wondered what it would be like to be trapped in your mouth for eternity, like a wedded Jonah. Whenever you said honey or Leeza or, more likely, Lisa, I would feel the rib cage constrict.
I have some regrets from before you died.
Once you wanted a burger from Sonic. You were working and I was not, so I went to get one for you.
Pickles, onions, cheese, but no mustard, you said.
Pickles, onions, cheese, but no mustard, I repeated into the speaker.
When I handed you the burger you opened it, then looked at me as if I’d broken your crayon.
Mustard, you said, pointing to the offending yellow.
I stood in front of you, wondering what had gone wrong.
I wish I’d done a better job with the burger order but only because, somehow, you are dead.
Once, after a late dinner with your co-workers, we sat in your car while you decided what to do. You were tired, but there was a possibility of sex in the air; distant, like the sound of wind or waves.
Tell me a fantasy, you finally said.
Tell you a fantasy, I repeated as a question, as if I was giving it thought.
I needed sleep too, but I told you what you wanted to hear – the girl who lived downstairs from me – you, sticky with new moisture – three mouths, taking in, spilling out.
I’d unbuttoned my shirt and lazily played with one nipple as I spoke.
Let’s go inside, you said. I knocked on her door as we passed by.
I wonder if, for the dead, that makes up for the mustard.
You held out your hand once revealing a single green disk the size of a tear.
Beach glass, I asked?
You brought the glass closer to my face, as if it might be some kind of ancient tell, like when children hold buttercups to their throats as a predictor of their affinity for butter.
You saw me in that glass, beautiful and valuable and different. I wanted to believe you were not wrong.
It was me. Is me.
But in the end it was common glass. Washed ashore. Held in the mouth of the sea until it was spit out, edges smoothed by the force of its current disdain.
The dead, most likely, let go of regret and beach glass.
The picture you don’t know I have is from your obituary. Before you were dead someone you loved must have taken it because you forgot to guard your eyes when you looked into the lens. The photograph is in Sepia, which makes so much sense, since you were always the color of an ancient map; never really accurate, but promising adventure nonetheless.
Denise Tolan teaches amazing students at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, Texas. She is a graduate of the Red Earth MFA in Creative Writing Program at Oklahoma City University. Denise has been published in places such as Reed, Southern Lit Review, The Great American Literary Magazine, The Tishman Review, and Gravel. Denise’s creative nonfiction won the grand prize in SunStruck magazine and she was a finalist in the 2017 Saturday Evening Post fiction contest.
“Because You are Dead” is a Best Small Fictions 2018 winner, selected by Aimee Bender. Congratulations to Denise Tolan!
There is a real casual ease by which the poems in Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth present themselves. They are not struggling to find a voice, but are grounded firmly in their style and language. This little chapbook feels solid, weighty, and Shire does a fine job of creating consistency in such a short amount of space. Particularly, her poetry in this small chapbook is marked by a strong sense of narrative, clear scene work, fresh body imagery, and a thematic consistency around femininity.
Though the chapbook is bookended by two very short poems, most of the pieces include distinct things happening to distinct characters in distinct places. For instance, in the second poem, “Your Mother’s First Kiss”, in four quatrains we move through four scenes, dislocated in time. The first is clear: “she remembers hearing this/ from your uncle, then going to your bedroom and lying/ down on the floor. You were at school.” Then the second, “Your mother was sixteen when he first kissed her.” The third, “the friend laughed, mouth bloody with grapes,/ then plunged a hand between your mother’s legs.” And the final quatrain: “Last week, she saw him driving the number 18 bus” (8). Shire builds a small narrative of rape and its consequences rolling out through time on the mother’s life in 16 lines.
On page 11, the poem “Grandfather’s Hands” also really plays into one of Shire’s strengths: talking about/to the body. We have nine stanzas, couplets and triplets mixed, and each one includes a close-up on the grandfather or grandmother’s body. We move from knuckles being kissed, fingers tracing shapes in a palm, wet fingers dragging across the soft flesh of his wrist—“Some nights his thumb is the moon/ nestled just under her rib.” Though the zooming in is unrelenting, the poem is also relaxed, intimate. If any of these poems called itself into being with indifference to its author, it was this one.
“Grandfather’s Hands” and “Your Mother’s First Kiss” are only two examples of many, and with this hyper focus on body imagery and scene building, Shire seems at once to ground and transcend her usual themes—ground them because the reader’s body is being activated, spoken to so directly. Your wrist feels the wet lips, your palm the tracing, your mouth aches to bite something. But the poem also transcends, draws your attention above themes of innocence or violence or the oppressiveness of patriarchal authority.
Shire, Warsan. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth. flipped eye publishing limited; Mouthmark edition, 2011.
The blurb for the paperback printing of King reveals the title character, our narrator, is canine. But John Berger blurs species lines in this poignant tale of twenty-four hours in the life of the marginalized inhabitants of a French homeless camp. With Berger’s spare, lyric prose, King is granted first person point of view. He serves as empathetic witness to the central human characters, Vico and Vica, and the other members of their encampment. King is more than a silent companion: he speaks and is understood by the humans in his group, though not by outsiders. This is not a dystopic conceit by Berger—he does not world-build to explain how King communicates with the homeless. It is simply so. Throughout the novel, Berger leaves space for us to interpret as we will; King might be canine or human. Never heavy-handed or moralistic, the real truth in King is that the discarded of all species are observed as less than, as other, as one species to look away from.
Berger opens in Saint Valery, the homeless encampment built in a dump: “There are no words for what makes up the wasteland because everything on it is smashed and has been thrown away, and for most fragments there are no proper names” (King 6). The residents of Saint Valery are robbed even of language. In fact, King observes that Vico “has read thousands of books in his life, and here he reads no more. To read, a man needs to love himself, not much but a little” (King 12). On the one hand, King’s consciousness is beyond what contemporary science and humanity are willing to attribute to dogs. But on the other, true to his canine narrator, Berger never reveals the type of details that a dog wouldn’t know, like what year the action is set in, or what the historical or political significance might be for King’s particular group of companions to be living homeless in Saint Valery.
Berger’s 1977 essay, “Why Look at Animals?,” gives us access to his critical lens, how he sees the marginalized as represented in nonhuman animals. As part of the collection, About Looking, this essay explores the human-animal gaze among other concepts:
The eyes of an animal when they consider a man are attentive and wary. The same animal may well look at other species in the same way. He does not reserve a special look for man. But by no other species except man will the animal’s look be recognised as familiar. Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning the look. (4-5)
Throughout King, our narrator is looking. King attributes canine characteristics to the humans around him: “the pointed face of a fell hound” (King 12), “young terrier eyes” (King 20), “the eyes of a Great Dane” (King 44); whether canine or human, this is King’s way of seeing, and Berger’s trail of breadcrumbs to the closing scenes.
Berger wants his readers to decide King’s species for ourselves, if it matters to us. Our narrator licks, barks, and growls. He also admits, “I have a strange way of talking, for I’m not sure who I am. Many things conspire to take a name away. The name dies and even the pain suffered doesn’t belong to it anymore” (King 59). Later in the text, when King explains “how names can be wrong” and that “men aren’t strong at naming”(King 79), this is Berger muddying division between human and canine. The correct name may just be marginalized. When King observes humanity observing him and Vico and Vica, he explains: “The passerby see three more plague victims. Deep down everybody knows that nobody is telling the truth about this plague. Nobody knows whom it selects and how. And so everywhere there is fear of infection” (King 115). The inoculation against homelessness is to avert the gaze.
Toward the end of the novel, King’s human companions begin to morph into dogs, as the encampment at Saint Valery is destroyed by authority in the spotlight glare of a bulldozer. The characters begin to bark. King explains: “A bark is a voice which breaks out of a bottle saying: I’m here. The bottle is silence. The silence is broken, the bark announces: I’m here” (King 185). As King leads them to safety, the characters formerly understood to be human are now described as a terrier, a spitz, a xolo; a “wild pack of running barking dogs” (King 187). And then King realizes he is alone: “All this I believed until we reached the river… I looked back for the first time and found there was nobody behind me” (King 188).
The marginalized other—human, canine, blurred—is alone within community and then ultimately alone. It doesn’t matter if King is a dog or a man. Or if Vico and Vica and the others are human or canine. They are all the dogs of society, living in the “Age of Dogs” (King 148), the last period of civilization. Arguably, a civilization already irreparable as seen through Berger’s lens. The epigraph to King is telling: a couplet from a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, translated to the English as, “and a horizon of dogs barked very far from the river.” Berger’s characters are our dogs, voiceless, nameless, and very far from the river of life.
Berger, John. King: A Street Story. 1st Vintage International ed., Vintage, 2000.
—. “Why Look At Animals?” About Looking. 1st Vintage International ed., Vintage, 1991, pp. 3-28.
Katelyn Keating serves as Editor-in-Chief of Lunch Ticket, where she formerly edited the Diana Woods Memorial Award and the nonfiction genre, and wrote essays as a staff blogger. She’ll earn an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles in 2017. Hailing from New England, she lives in St. Augustine, Florida, with her husband, two dogs, three cats, and several of her parents. She concurs with Agent Mulder regarding the location of the truth. Her work is forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review and the anthology, What I Found in Florida [U Press of FL, 2018]. Follow her on Twitter @katelyn_keating.
What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
I walk out to the car in a state of unusual calm. In the house over there, which I share with my husband and son, my husband has just now informed me that he isn’t in love with me anymore, that in fact he is in love with someone else entirely, and that he will be leaving as soon as logistics allow. He wants me to stay and talk things through but I remind him it’s time to pick up August from daycare and he agrees we should try to keep things normal for him.
“Are you upset?” he asks.
“Are you going to be OK?”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to drive?”
Refusal seems to be my jazzy new mode.
I am still calm as I open the driver door, climb in and put my key in the ignition. I take one last glance back at the house, convinced this is the last time I will see it, at least while it is still my home, then I start the car and pull away from the curb. As I approach an intersection a few blocks away from August’s daycare center I detect a tiny bubble of anxiety rising, followed by the familiar crescendo of fear until it reaches the five-alarm thumping terror in my chest and head. I see that the light is green and hit the accelerator. I’m still convinced it’s green even as I sail into the intersection and it’s only when I notice the rapidly approaching vehicle on my left that I realize I’ve got it all wrong. I have been looking at another light, one further on down the road, and the one that applies to me is red as danger itself. A sickening crunch of aluminum and glass and the world crumples into darkness.
I wake up with an eerily empty feeling both inside and outside my skull. I put my hand to the back of my neck and jolt as if electrocuted: not only is there a tube protruding from the hand but I feel a shaved patch of hair beneath my hand. My skull laid bare. I see that my other hand is being held by my mother. Her hand is cool and dry: no clammy palms or night terrors for her. From whom did I inherit this fear? It runs through my life like a red thread. I was that chronically timid child peeking out from behind my mother’s skirts, sniveling and mute. (Not that she ever wore skirts mind you, only pants.) It irritated her, I could see that. What had she done to deserve a craven child? She who had blazed a path through resistant forests of contemptuous men to become the first female principal of our city’s most prestigious high school.
I squeeze my mother’s hand limply to let her know I’m back. But I know this much: with lucidity will come some sort of reckoning of what has happened to me, so I close my eyes and try to work out instead where it all began. Trace the red thread back twenty-five years. An above-ground swimming pool in the yard of a suburban house. I can still recall the exact shade of blue, a glaucous dull plastic that had obviously once been a jaunty ultramarine. You don’t need to be in the Gifted & Talented program to see that pool as a metaphor for inclusion: look at its very shape, a perfect circle enclosing the swimmers and excluding anyone outside its circumference! How I long to join the fraternity of boisterous neighborhood kids paddling in that soupy blue murk, their legs working beneath the surface like fat pale worms. Goose bumps spell out messages in Braille on my arms, hugged tight around my flat chest. My toes curl primate-like over the edge, knuckles leached of color. The hot rush of humiliation as the other kids jibe and tease me for my reluctance to jump off the spring board, which is positioned literally a foot above the surface of the pool. Actual three-year-olds have jumped before me without hesitating even a second. But I just stand at the end of that wide scarred board, miserable and keenly aware of the scene’s parallels to walking the plank. Below me the others laugh and jeer from inside the smug sociopathic bubble of childhood. Eventually another kid climbs the four-rung ladder and roughly shoves me aside so he can enter the soup.
I probe my psyche for hysteria, for any of the usual signs of terror, and there’s nothing. Even before the surgeon enters the room I know something has changed.
My mother leans in to smooth the sheets and telegraph to me via a tight little smile that everything will be OK now that she is here. I ask in a croaking voice about August and she assures me she’ll bring him in later in the afternoon now that I’m conscious. This feels like the appropriate time and place to consider being afraid. But I probe my psyche for hysteria, for any of the usual signs of terror, and there’s nothing. Even before the surgeon enters the room I know something has changed. He relates with inappropriate jocularity the story of the paramedics pulling me from the Gehry sculpture that had once been the front end of my car, and how there didn’t seem much wrong externally. Broken ribs where the impact forced me into a swift bow, first intercepted by the steering wheel and then the airbag. A sprained wrist. Gashes on my nose and forehead and blood leaking from one of my ears. Not too bad considering. That’s until they realized my whiplashed head had made impact with some piece of the car at a strange angle. There was an indentation the size of an unshelled walnut towards the back of my skull. He informs me that I was rambling, incoherent in the ambulance, and that’s why the paramedics suspected there had been some brain damage. When they opened my head up, they discovered that my amygdala—an almond-shaped part of the brain associated with emotion and decision-making, the little hair-trigger fight-or-flight button—had been damaged. He is very pleased with how the operation went though, and thinks I should suffer few problems apart from some possible short-term memory loss.
That’s when I understand. Contrary to common belief, it is possible to be a person whose every waking moment churns with fear—on a spectrum ranging from mild social anxiety to paralyzing panic—and then miraculously, instantaneously, have that terror surgically removed. I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy. I’m telling you it happened to me.
* * *
I’m on a motherfucking roll. All around the table strangers lean in, alcohol-laced breath hot on my shoulders. There’s a festive feeling in the air, that specific brand of excitement generated when uninvolved bystanders with nothing to lose get to witness a reckless stranger’s spectacular flameout. They say casinos are deliberately designed without windows or clocks so that gamblers lose track of time and space. This fails to bother me, as for the first time in my life I’m conscious of being in the exact right time and space, cradled within this moment’s singular perfection. The wheel spins. A hypnotic dangerous blur, it looks as though it would cut you if you put your hand in to stop its whirling. I want to do it anyway. It’s against the rules though, so I refrain. The numbers and sequences of colors come to me as if channeled by some divine power. Five, eighteen, thirty-three. Double zero. Odd, even, odd, odd, odd, even. Black, red, red, red, black. The dealer doesn’t smile but she subtly tilts her head towards me, as if paying respect to my powers. As I’m riding this winning streak I feel not exactly euphoric but extra alive, a-tingle with a sense of rightness. Everything is as it should be, and the next number and color will be in my favor as the previous ones have been. It feels less like magic than science. All gamblers probably feel this way when they’re on the crest of success. That’s why when you see them in casinos, the serious gamblers I mean, they never look manic or desperate but utterly controlled, even dispassionate. They’ve convinced themselves that chance is actually science and coincidence, destiny. Poker faces all. Perhaps that affect takes years of practice and inside all is shrieking turmoil or despair. I only know that in my case the inside perfectly matches the outside.
When I start losing, the mood at the table shifts. It’s subtle but unmistakable. Doubt creeps in: what they had taken for divine providence was perhaps nothing but a fluke. These strangers had invested all their hopes in me and now I was letting them down. It had been a temporary investment, to be sure, but the hope had felt so real, so redemptive. They resent me now, for reminding them of the fundamental shittiness of life. They begin to drift away, all of a sudden mortifyingly aware of the general state of dishabille that has infected the table. Ties are straightened and dresses adjusted with resentful faces, as though I had forced them to engage in some untoward activity.
As goes the winning, so goes the losing. There is no passion in it, simply a detached acceptance. Perhaps it is only when I get out to the parking lot and unlock my car that the reality sinks in, that I have lost my life savings over the course of the last four hours, and that for all intents and purposes this car no longer belongs to me. Nothing belongs to me. There will be no recouping. And only then do I think about what my ex-husband will say when I break the news to him. Sorry, but the hard-earned meager sum of money I had saved for our son’s college fund has disappeared, flung into the maw of a spinning wheel.
* * *
August swears he’s seen a snake. August is prone to such imaginings: he’s a fanciful child under the influence of Beatrix Potter and Fantastic Mr. Fox. My ex-husband and I have agreed a pet just isn’t feasible with his travel and my attention span, not to mention our separate housing, and as a result we are parents who have deprived our child of his only solace, or so August’s brimming eyes and quivering lip implies every time we pass a pet store window.
My husband used to chide me for worrying too much, but he never understood what it was like. For me motherhood was a train in search of a crash. I not only vividly anticipated the disaster—wheels falling off, windows exploding, chassis crumpling—I felt as though I sometimes willed it to happen. The day our son was born I got a stalker. The stalker’s name was Terrible Things. Fear of what might happen to his little self, coiled within the infinite peril of his fragile human body. What a joke these bodies are. What kind of a bulwark against danger is soft flesh stretched over crushable bones? Come on. I once insisted that we install bars on his bedroom window, not to keep him prisoner but to keep Them out. I suffered from crippling anxiety attacks every time he was out of my sight. Every bruise was leukemia, every chest cold a deadly virus. When the time came to give August his very first haircut I was so overcome with visions of snipping the top of his tiny ear off (the blood gushing down my elbows, his echoing screams) that I couldn’t even hold the scissors. My husband assured me what I was going through was normal, forwarded articles about postpartum depression and violence ideation in new mothers. It turned out I wasn’t the only crazy one, but somehow that wasn’t much consolation.
The snake is on the path in our garden, August relays. It’s big and angry, he claims. I say I’ll take a look but I’m grading some papers that I should have finished days ago and completely forget about it until he comes over and tugs at my jeans, insisting I bear witness. We venture out into the garden together hand-in-hand while I explain with a certain degree of adult condescension that there are no snakes in suburbia and that what he has seen must be the hose that I left out after watering yesterday, and when we turn the corner into full view of the garden I’ll be damned if there isn’t a living, breathing, hissing snake stretched across my garden path. I swiftly pull August behind me, gently shove him back towards the safety of the house. OK, let mommy handle this sweetie. Go wait inside. He wails of course, scared I’m going to kill the snake, whom he probably harbored ideas of befriending. In truth I have no plan. How does one even go about killing a snake? How does one tell if it’s poisonous? I could go inside and Google to see whether there are any venomous species in North Carolina, but turning my back on the creature would run the risk of having it slither away, perhaps enter the house. Then we’d spend the rest of our lives wondering if it were going to leap at us from beneath the sink or rise up Svengali-like from inside our rain boots.
So I do the only thing I can think of. I walk towards the snake, lean down, and grasp it behind the head. I can hear August screaming from the house. My head hurts. It is hard to make a decision, what with my child screaming and the snake writhing furiously in my hand, its tensile bulk truly unbelievable, muscular tail flicking my ankle like a whip. The snake and I look at each other. I have sympathy for animals but there is no humanity in that black orb. I look out into the garden and see the metal dumpster where we keep grass clippings. Clutching the thrashing snake, I walk over to the dumpster, open the lid with my free hand, and throw the creature in. That should have been that, except before I can slam the lid closed the snake somehow pivots in mid-air, rears its head and then lashes towards me, sinking its teeth into my forearm before dramatically flinging itself backwards.
I yelp, slam the lid down and run back towards the house, clutching an arm that feels strangely free of pain. I congratulate myself on having made the right decision in picking up this non-venomous snake with my bare hands before realizing that the absence of pain is a result of the entire appendage from shoulder to pinkie having gone numb, completely paralyzed. It is curious to feel the breeze on my cheek and neck, then nothing at all down my right-hand-side, as if that section of me were encased in bubble wrap. I’m informed, after waking in the hospital, that it was probably a cottonmouth. I could have died, everyone helpfully explains. I didn’t though. I never find out what happened to the snake.
* * *
One lover can’t stop praising my skin. It is surprisingly novel, and intensely gratifying, to have one’s largest organ at long last recognized and appreciated. We walk around in our skins all day every day and how often does a stranger stop to compliment us on that most exterior yet mysterious aspect of our corporeal selves? He cannot settle on my skin’s best analog. He declares it feels like silk, like cream, like a flower. It’s so soft, he says almost accusingly, as if it pains him. As if its silken, creamy, floral existence is an affront to his own epidermis. (Which between you and me is kind of coarse and stubbly.) He isn’t an exciting lover but he is kind, and his flattery is a turn-on of sorts.
Another looks at me like he’s trying to memorize me for a test. Gratitude seems a common denominator with these men. Perhaps it’s a symptom of our age group. We’re a decade or two past the casual egotism of youth, when it feels as though everything good that comes our way is richly deserved. As you get older you learn to take your gifts where you can find them and not to point out the flaws. So what if the glass has a crack in it: it still holds water, doesn’t it? Fleeting pleasure is still pleasure.
Or maybe the gratitude stems from my own eagerness to please. I’ve always been a generous lover, but after my husband left I could have won a humanitarian award for the advancement of sexual favors. Blow jobs? Bring ’em! Anal? Sure, why not! That weird thing you read about in GQ? Sign me/tie me up! Who came up with the idea of sexual favors anyway? In my case they weren’t favors, but gifts given with a full heart and a willing pussy. I enjoyed every one of those brief encounters, and even when the doctor gave me the news, that my brief, unprotected but glorious foray into looking for Mr. Goodbar territory had left me with a less enjoyable gift but one that I was welcome to keep forever, I didn’t really regret any of it. The doctor offered to write me a prescription for an anti-depressant, a panacea appreciated by patients at these delicate times, but I demurred. I can sense Churchill’s black dog lurking at the periphery of things, but another advantage of finding bravery is how strongly it suggests the possibility of being able to survive other things. My disease wasn’t fatal. I had lived, again.
* * *
He is the most beautiful boy I have ever seen. Under the pallid gleam of the streetlight he resembles a Botticelli angel, all sculptural bones and golden hair and ethereal eyes. I suppose that’s why I stop, to get a better look at him. You know how people talk about those rare souls who can walk into a room and every eye will be on them? He is that type, which may explain why it takes me a few seconds to properly register another person on the scene. This person is standing so close to the beautiful boy that it is unclear at first whether the stance is threatening or amorous. I stare for a few more moments at the boy, who is wearing a great deal of eye makeup and holding a purse pressed tight into his bony hip, and I smile when he turns towards me, because I want to convey that I’m here to help him if he needs it. Help me, he says. Does he say it out loud? In any case, I get the message. I glance from the boy to the man opposite him, a much larger much angrier man who is holding a knife. Not a particularly threatening looking weapon, less a switchblade than a knife with dreams of being upgraded from kitchen utensil.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing, lady?” the big man says, waving his knife in my general direction. “Get the fuck out of here.”
“You should,” agrees the beautiful boy, but I think I hear a waver in his voice.
“Why don’t you leave him alone?” I address this to the big man but I’m still looking at the boy. My voice is calm, even gentle. “Just leave and we’ll forget all about it.” (Forget all about what? Hell knows. I’m winging it.)
I look down the road. It is miraculously empty of cars, but it’s late so maybe that’s not so strange. The streetlights bleed puddles of yellow. A waxing gibbous moon hangs above the treeline, just watching. Keeping out of it. I like to take these walks late at night, in spite of all the warnings. The air is so beautiful in your lungs when you don’t have to share it with the masses. But I guess this is the kind of situation they warn about.
The two men are both looking at me as though I’m the director and they’re the acting students waited to be moved around the stage. I silently will the boy to flee while the other man’s attention is diverted but I can tell he won’t, that he doesn’t want to leave me alone.
Then I’m on the ground alone and I can’t get my breath back, all that beautiful air my greedy lungs had hoarded, and the edges are blurring and growing black, pulling in to a single luminous pinprick like a lens closing.
“Listen, bitch,” says the man with the knife. (He has retrieved his lines.) “Do you want me to cut your goddamned face off?”
“No,” I say truthfully.
He lunges towards me and I hear a little anguished yelp from the boy and then the clatter of boot heels receding on the asphalt and another set of feet pounding down the pavement in the opposite direction. Then I’m on the ground alone and I can’t get my breath back, all that beautiful air my greedy lungs had hoarded, and the edges are blurring and growing black, pulling in to a single luminous pinprick like a lens closing. The last thing I remember is a feeling of awe at how much it hurts to be stabbed. I have never experienced anything with the ferocious intensity and singular purpose of that pain. It is a tidal wave that obliterates the human. You have to respect anything with that much power.
* * *
There is a new scar now on the left-hand side of my pelvis, next to the C-section. The skin is paler and puckered there where the knife melted through fat and tissue and muscle wall. My bikini days are over and I’m tired a lot. But those things don’t preclude happiness. August is fascinated by my scars, by my belly in general with its air of a deserted war zone. How to tell him this is the price you pay for surviving? He’ll learn soon enough.
I see him off from the front porch, sudden tears sprouting. A preschooler already. His gargantuan backpack reduces him to a pair of stout little legs sticking out below Star Wars decals. When he’s at the gate about to turn into the street I call out that I love him and am proud of him, but who knows if he hears me. I clear the breakfast dishes and start my work for the day and I’m well into the zone when there’s a knock at the front door. I know right away that it’s no one I know, although I couldn’t say how. There’s just something about the caliber and tempo of knuckles on wood that doesn’t sound familiar. I tuck my shirt in and go to answer it. A policeman and woman stand on my front steps. The woman has her hand resting gently but with a certain authoritative sternness on my son’s shoulder. I smile at him, send him a quick psychic signal to let him know that everything’s OK.
“Officers. Is something wrong?”
They glance at one another quickly.
“Ma’am, is this your son?”
“Yes. Yes it is. My son, August.”
The man clears his throat. Out in the street, a police radio emits a crackly stream of arcane law enforcement blather.
“I understand you and your husband are divorced?”
“Can I ask whether your son was supposed to be in the custody of your husband today?”
“No, he was in my custody. That is, I have him on weekdays. My husband takes him on weekends.”
The two officers shift their feet simultaneously. August looks up at me. I can tell that whatever adrenaline rush he’d experienced riding in a real-life police car has now dissipated and he’s getting bored, eager to get back to his books and games.
“Your son was found wandering the street several blocks from here. Can you tell us why he was unaccompanied?”
I have to say the question throws me, although I should have been expecting it.
“Because he was on his way to preschool. He goes there every morning. Did he tell you he was lost?”
The woman licks her lower lip. Her hand is still on August’s shoulder, and this proprietorial stance is beginning to get on my nerves.
I reach out my hand to pull August towards me, but the man swiftly throws a stiff arm in front of my chest, like a train signal coming down.
“Ma’am, you can’t just let your child walk to preschool by himself.”
They look at one another openly this time, then back at me. Perhaps nothing in their training has really prepared them for this.
“We could have you arrested.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“Really? On what charge?”
“Child endangerment. Ah, neglect. A neighbor called it in, was very worried about the boy. Claims you let him run wild.”
I laugh, which is probably a mistake, but the situation is so absurd and I just want to retrieve my child and get back to my day.
“Does he look like a child who runs wild? He’s absolutely fine. Ask him.”
“You’re missing the point, Ms….?”
I don’t like the bullying, patronizing tone that is starting to creep into this discourse, and I square my shoulders.
“Listen, this is all a misunderstanding. My boy is very independent, I’ve taught him to be that way because I don’t want him growing up in a world where he’s paranoid and scared of his own shadow, and as you can see he’s totally fine, apart from having now missed part of his school day, so if you’re not going to arrest me I think I can take it from here.”
I put my hand on the door, implying that I’ll soon be closing it whether they’re still standing there or not. They remain in place, digging in, no doubt rehearsing how they’re going to discuss this encounter back in the car. But in the end they must figure it’s too much trouble to book me for anything, and August is so obviously fine and happy and not being abused or neglected, so they warn me that if he’s found wandering alone again they’ll be forced to take action and they reluctantly shift off my front porch.
I figure there’s no point sending August back to school now, so we have lunch together and play in the garden for a few hours. When the phone rings at five p.m., I’ve almost forgotten the unpleasant events of the morning, until I hear my ex-husband’s raised voice, wobbling in an unfamiliar register. He’s crying and saying this is it, I’ve finally done it, he’s going to sue for sole custody of August. Before I can say anything in my own defense, he hangs up. But not before letting me know that I’ll be hearing from his lawyer. I used to be so scared by threats and confrontation. Not anymore.
* * *
My ex-husband always said that humans are born imprinted with their capacity for happiness and sorrow. We each have a baseline, a preprogrammed ability to be happy or anxious or fearful. He would joke that my fear baseline was perilously high, out of kilter with any objective reality. He was right. The crash fixed it all up, it recalibrated me. I no longer recognize that person who viewed the world as a bottomless Pandora’s box of calamities. Things have not been easy but I don’t miss her. I consider my confrontations with mortality a gift. Amazing to realize it has been there all along, death, submerged just beneath the membrane of life.
It’s not good to live this way, people scold me. (I appreciate the rich irony when it comes from the same people who used to urge things like, Don’t be so scared of everything… Get out there… Live a little!) Risk-aversion is a necessary human adaptation, they lecture. The fight-or-flight instinct gives us an evolutionary advantage: without it we’re as trusting and doomed as cows. When I tell them that the accident was actually a blessing, they look at me with pity, as if wondering how deep the brain damage really goes.
or the first time in a long time I’m really scared: if they successfully restore my factory settings, will I return to my former state?
But in the end I give in. I agree to go under the knife again, let them fiddle with my brain and try for another recalibration, this time a return to normality. For the first time in a long time I’m really scared: if they successfully restore my factory settings, will I return to my former state? And if I do, what will happen to August’s beautiful fearlessness that has grown and prospected alongside my own, like an ambitious plant sending out tendrils? I must remember all the sweet blessings that came with this catastrophe, and in this way perhaps I will have the last word over my fears.
What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
I would take August on a trip. I will take him on a trip. We’ll climb to Base Camp on Everest. Maybe cruise the Amazon or visit the favelas in Rio. We’ll ride rollercoasters and watch scary movies and one day we’ll live somewhere without locked doors or bars on the windows and we’ll thumb our noses at the darkness.
* * *
They are wheeling me in now through the metal swinging doors and I stare up at them, all those backlit upside-down people in scrubs, heads haloed, they’re itching to open up my scalp and find out what I’m really made of. Count backwards from ten, the masked anesthesiologist commands in a voice inflected with the musicality of an Indian accent, and as I open my mouth to form the word ten I glance first at the needle she is wielding and then at her face, only half of which I’m permitted to examine. I see myself for a moment through her eyes: a vulnerable horizontal person about to undergo a scary procedure, laid out on a gurney with no more dignity or autonomy than a corpse but who nevertheless is showing remarkable calm and restraint. I am the ideal patient and I can tell she approves of me. I radiate bravery. She probably doesn’t even know this might be the last time.
Emma Sloley is a travel journalist who has written for many U.S. and international publications, including Travel + Leisure, New York, W, Conde Nast Traveler, and Harper’s Bazaar Australia, where she was an editor for six years. She is a MacDowell fellow and currently at work on her first novel. Emma’s short fiction has won awards and honorable mentions in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. and has been published in Catapult and Headland Journal, with upcoming stories in the Tishman Review and Structo magazine.
Night Sky With Exit Wounds is woven from deep threads—the experience of fleeing war and becoming a refugee, migration and the sea, parent-child relationships, and queer sexuality. Life is complex. Layers of emotion, memory, and transformation unite in this journey of one human being.
Vuong’s stories and structures made me feel huge possibilities in poetry. He uses a variety of forms, and switches them up. My eyes and brain and heart read along appreciatively. Stanzas bite like jaws from either side of the page. An entire poem lives inside a footnote. He reminds us that poetry is a visual art.
The book begins with the loss of a parent and a refugee’s journey across the ocean. A shift in tone starts with his poem, “the Torso of Air.” Maybe hope awaits us on the other end of a tiny passage way. I love the way he digs through a wall to find happiness—the size of a coin—staring back at him (55). Thank goodness. Without some kind of hope, his gorgeous and masterful book might have dismembered me.
His existence is a kind of miracle. I loved and respected his use of nature and family, pain and love, violence and connection—all drastic, dramatic juxtapositions that exist in life. He resurrects his family migration and war stories to honor their resiliency and track his own healing.
I like it when a book enters my life. Vuong did that. On the first page of the book, I scribbled in pencil “Beautiful. Nature bigger than human language.” I photographed some of his poems and found myself reading one aloud to the woman next to me at a birthday party dinner table. She was someone I’d never met. While teaching, I found myself using Vuong’s “They say the sky is blue / but I know its black” with my high school students when a discussion ensued in class about our associations with skin color (black and brown and white). I found myself defending the fact that the sky is black and welcoming, all encompassing and impressive—a palate that frames our dreaming. I found myself coming to the defense of the black sky.
Vuong helped me rethink the connection between the body and love. Sexuality can be a kind of ontological homecoming. Maybe the body is what’s real—the body, not love per se. He writes about the body as language: “His hands. His hands. The syllables inside them” (13). Also, why else would he be thank you-thank you-thank you-ing a guy he made out with in a baseball dugout even though he didn’t know or love him? “Let every river envy our mouths,” he writes. “Let every kiss hit the body” (13). Sexuality can help us access somatic knowledge. “Give the body what it knows,” he writes (43). Vuong reclaims masturbation as a natural, and perhaps holy, act worthy of an ode. For example, semen becomes “holy water smeared between your thighs” (62). He explodes the supposed Cartesian split between mind and body and upends the hierarchy between love and desire. “I thought love was real and the body imaginary,” he writes (48). Maybe it’s the other way around.
Love finds a way in this emotional chronicle. I felt his love for his mother. Her love for him was elemental. I felt his longing for his father, but could not grasp what actually happened to the man. He puts his [father] in brackets in the dedication, then kills him in the first poem, or maybe he is saving him? I did want to know what happened to his Dad. Near the end, he identifies a love shared with a partner.
I have a lot of respect for this writer. I searched for interviews online and found his oral storytelling equally compelling to his writing. While he is the first one is his family to wield a pen, he claims his literary legacy in his community’s oral singing, praise, and storytelling. He is not the first writer in his lineage if, as he says, “the body is the book.”
Vuong, Ocean. 2016. Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Washington: Copper Canyon Press.
Amy Shimshon-Santo is a writer and educator who believes the arts and culture are powerful tools for personal and social transformation. Her interdisciplinary work spans creative writing, choreography, education, and urban planning. Amy is a poly-lingual (English, Spanish, Portuguese) who writes across genres — creative non-fiction, poetry, and social science research. Her work has been published in the UC Press, SUNY Press, the Teaching Artists Journal, the Tiferet Journal, Lady Liberty Lit, Spectrum and Public! www.amyshimshon.com
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