[creative nonfiction] Nothing ostentatious, nothing reminiscent of the young man who, after a weekend of clubbing, raved about the bodies of the men he met. “They had bodies of death,” he laughed, never realizing the irony of foreshadowing. No amount of make-up could cover the Kaposi’s, that’s what we called them then, on his nose. It bloomed with the deep purple and distinct outline of an O’Keefe flower […]
[fiction] The messenger arrives early in the morning. He hands Rachel an envelope. Inside the envelope is a letter printed on lengths of tape and pasted on a form. In the letter, there are three words. Aleph Friedman Killed.
I shut his blue eyes,
my hand still enough
to keep each iris closed.
I have learned both
to tie a curtain and silence […]
Because nursing homes were for gringos,
my grandfather spent his last years
on the couch, idle, silent, drooling
as he watched novelas, old episodes
of Cops, and—as hour after hour passed— […]
Google: How early do girls masturbate?
in her eighth year / maybe earlier / low tides birthed: a lotus / splitting legs / to conch shell murmurs / she
swirls / her lotus / chews mattress / her lotus / bends pillow / her lotus / rubs its cheek / against raggedy
Anne / repetition sharpens / her lotus / petal / into blade / petal tears / knitted crotch / crotch spills / cotton
/ spills / from mute dolly / yet / no cotton / will enter girl / enter lotus / tampons are phallic / kabardaar
On any given day, I spend about 85% of my energy trying to not look crazy. Which is why it’s really pissing me the fuck off that Emma is spending about 0% of her energy not listening to the really simple thing I asked her to do: stay on her half of the desk.
Right now, she’s trying to whisper something in my ear but I have no clue what she’s saying because all I can think about is the wet sound of her gum. How I can hear her saliva swirling in that area near the back of her jaw. How she smells like she hasn’t showered in a few days. How that isn’t me being an asshole because I know she could shower if she wanted to because she’s rich. How many dead skin cells are stacked like plates on top of her unclean forearm. How every time she moves, hundreds of thousands of them flake off, infecting the air. About a million of them every day, to be more exact. I Googled it.
She stops talking just long enough to swallow the spit I could hear pooling in her mouth. I wonder how much skin she just swallowed. The inner cheek kind. I read somewhere that people who wear lipstick swallow about 4 pounds of the stuff in their lifetimes. And people only sometimes wear lipstick, while they always wear their mouths. So, I can only imagine how many pounds of skin people swallow in a lifetime. What the chunks of our ingested flesh would look like all piled together.
I try to pull myself out of this loop. I make myself wonder if pandas are any closer to not being extinct and if I’d be able to tell a naked mole rat and a hairless cat apart if I saw them in real life and about the logistics of old people sex. But it doesn’t matter. I’m in so deep, our teacher could shove his laser pointer right up his ass and I doubt I’d notice.
Emma’s getting closer and I can feel her hot breath on my ear, which sounds really turn-on-y when actually it’s disgusting. She just ate carrots and hummus. I saw her do it, but even if I hadn’t, holy shit can I smell it. And I know I’m being irrational, but I swear to Jesus Christ that I can feel soft particles of carrot hitting my cheek.
I jerk away a lot faster than I mean to. I think I also gag. It hits me first that that was not a normal person thing to do.
The hurt look in Emma’s eyes annoys me until I remind myself that she is an actual person with actual person feelings. And then it hits me that it was also definitely a rude thing to do and that maybe I should feel bad.
“Uh, you good?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say. Except I’m holding my breath to keep her invasive particles away from my insides, so it comes out in a squeak.
She hesitates, looking down at my contorted position. “You sure?”
You sure. You sure. You sure. You sure. You sure. You sure. My brain’s playing her words on a loop so it takes a while to respond. “Oh, yeah. I’m just—I had a chill.”
I can tell she doesn’t believe me. But I think she wants to so she just says, “Oh. Okay. I get those, too. They’re weird, huh?”
“So weird.” Still squeaking. Then the thoughts are pushing in and I can practically see it. My pencil tearing through her skin. I’m squeezing my eyes shut, squeezing that thought away because I don’t want to do that, I would never do that.
It all feels loud and I need to scratch to clear the static, but that’s also not a normal person thing to do, so I don’t. I don’t and I don’t and I don’t and I don’t and I don’t but then I’m practically twitching I need to so badly.
“I think I need to pee,” I say.
“I’m gonna, yeah, I’m gonna go do that.” I fall on the floor trying to get out of my desk and then I’m just staring at my hands on the carpet—so dirty it’s stiff—and fucking hell everyone’s looking at me. Which, you know, makes sense considering the fact that I look like I’m out of my damn mind. Like I’m a full-on crazy person.
Except I don’t just look like a full-on crazy person, I am a full-on crazy person because my mouth is moving before I can stop it and I kind of scream. “I’m sorry, it’s just that I really have to pee.”
There’s a beat of silence. I make weirdly intense eye contact with Carl, which, to be clear, is the first time we’ve really looked at each other since the day he decided he was done being my best friend. There’s pity in his expression. For me, I realize. Well, fuck you, Carl. Fuck you right up your own dick. See how you like that, you dumb—
Mr. Kautz interrupts my train of thought. “Bathroom pass is right over there.” He’s pointing at his desk. It’s in the front of the room, multiple feet away from me, which might as well be miles at this stage of my meltdown.
“Yeah. Cool, cool, cool, cool, cool, cool.” Which is at least four too many cools to be actually cool. And maybe I should be mad at myself, which I am at least a little because I’d told myself today would be a day without An Incident, but mostly I’m mad at Emma. I had it under control and I would’ve been fine if she’d just stayed over there or anywhere that wasn’t right next to me. Also, I’m mad at Carl. Fuck Carl.
Like he can read my mind, like he knows I’m thinking about how much I’d love to just deck him, Carl says, “Rosa, do you need help?”
And then, because I’m an expert at making things worse and apparently this is my life now and also I think I hate myself, I get up and sprint out of the room.
* * *
If 16% of my body weight is skin, and I am 145 pounds, then 23.2 pounds of me is skin. 23.3 pounds of me is soft, malleable flesh; 23.4, 23.5, 23.6 pounds of me builds up and up and up on top of me, and might one day swallow me whole. 23.7 pounds of me is always growing, always shifting at a much faster rate than the rest of me and I just want it off. Off. Off. Off. Off. Off. Off.
* * *
Halfway home, I realize I forgot my backpack. I debate turning around, but decide that I don’t care about anything right now that isn’t me sitting on the couch and watching a trashy movie on Netflix.
I’m doing just that, snacking and thinking about T-Pain and why his name sounds like it could also be a mildly successful energy drink when my sister walks in. Mia’s zoned into her headphones and doesn’t notice me until she finishes locking the door.
She does this choked scream thing. “Christ. What’re you doing here?”
I gesture at the TV. “Watching a movie, obviously.”
“Not what I meant.” She yanks off her headphones in an indignant way I might take seriously if she wasn’t half my height and wearing a Chewbacca shirt that asked R U FUR REAL? “Why aren’t you at school?”
“Why do people ask that? It’s stupid; you already know the answer. No one wants to be at school.” I burrow further into my nest of blankets, exposing nothing but my face and my hand right above my bag of Reese’s Pieces for snacking convenience.
“And isn’t it funny,” I add, “how people who ask that also always have somewhere they need to be that they’re not. Like why aren’t you at work, huh? Don’t answer that. I already know, which is why I didn’t ask. Unlike you.”
“I’m not at work because my shift changed to Tuesday, but, whatever, that doesn’t matter.” She puts down her purse and sits next to me, pulling a blanket over her head so we match. “How many times?” She’s talking about the movie.
“Today? The fourth.”
“Hmm. Okay, I’ll just sit here if that’s cool with you. But can I at least have some Reese’s Pieces?”
She takes some anyway.
Usually, I could just ignore that she did that, push it from my mind. But, right now, all I’m thinking about is how it’s probably been hours since she washed her hands. All that oil built up on her palm over the day, rubbed against the inside of the bag. It feels like my brain’s on fire. “You realize I can’t eat the rest of these now, right?”
“Oh, it’s a bad day then. But,” she grabs the bag from my hand. “Good for me, I guess.”
“Don’t be an ass.” I’m kidding but I’m also kind of not. As if seeing me underneath ten comforters didn’t already let her know it was a bad day. I look at her again and decide to say something shitty, “And do you ever go outside anymore? You look even paler than usual.”
I know it bothers her that she somehow came out significantly less brown than the rest of our family and that people mistake her for white all the time. Whatever, she shouldn’t be a dick if she doesn’t want me to be one.
She ignores that last part and waves the Reese’s in my face. “This is called helping. Exposure therapy, right? That one doctor was saying something about that I remember, about surprising you with it. That was exciting.”
“You also remember that we fired him, right?”
“Oh, hell yeah.” A few seconds of nothing except the sound of her wet chewing, which is enough to make me stifle a gag. “You see Carl today?” she asks.
I throw the comforter off me. “Just, ugh, just shut the fuck up. Yes, I fucking saw him, of course I did. Jesus.”
“I will strangle you.”
“Your hands are too tiny. You have baby hands.”
“Mia. Either stop talking or leave. I’m being serious.”
She groans. “Fine.” And moves around on the couch just to make some extra noise before settling down.
* * *
There are a few key differences between me and the stereotypically average person. One is that my brain circuitry function is abnormal, which basically just means my brain is bad at communicating with itself. But another is that most people think they’re invincible. They get on planes, confident they won’t die. One in a million dies on planes, which is statistically small enough that I guess I understand why people think it’ll never happen to them. They drive cars like they’ll make it to their destination: 3,287 deaths a day. Statistically high enough that they’re just being ignorant. Choking: 3,000 a year. Guns: about 86 a day. Elevators: 26 a year. It really goes on and on. People die from all kinds of shit every day. Thousands of them. Hundreds of thousands of them. Google told me 151,600, but I think it’s higher. Don’t ask me why, I just know these things.
Like how I’ve always known I wasn’t invincible. I remember being five and crying for hours because I thought a tsunami would drown me in my sleep even though I’ve always lived in Arizona, which doesn’t even touch the ocean. Or when I was twelve and I thought I’d get leukemia before I made it to high school. Or two days ago, when I refused to get into my sister’s car to go to the grocery store. I can’t explain it, but somehow I knew that if I got in that car, it would be the last thing I ever did.
If anything, I feel like I’m destined to die too soon. Not necessarily when I’m young, but definitely before anything happens that makes my life worth living. Which is worse than sad. It’s a fucking nightmare.
* * *
“You’re going to last the full day this time, right?” My dad’s arm starts to go around my shoulders before he thinks better of it. There’s a moment of awkwardness where he figures out what to do with his arm.
I don’t say anything. I want him to worm in his own self-consciousness for a second. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the whole act he has going on right now. The one where he pretends he actually cares about me getting better for any reason other than he hates doing things for me that aren’t the very bare minimum. It’s tiring for both of us and just wholly unnecessary.
He grabs a pre-packaged Uncrustable that was sitting on the counter and holds it out to me, his ill-fitting polo stretching over his torso. “I know yesterday was supposed to be your first day back, but I say we scratch that, huh? We can pretend it never even happened.”
I take the Uncrustable. “Thanks.” Except I say it in a way that makes sure he knows I am very not thankful and, if anything, just want him to shut up and leave me alone, which is usually what he’s best at.
“Bet you five bucks she comes back before twelve.” Mia’s eating cereal, Cap’n Crunch because, as she told me one time, she doesn’t believe in cavities.
“Bet you ten bucks Mia never learns to make actual good jokes.”
Eyes unmoving from the back of the cereal box, Mia says, “Oooo. Really got me there. Felt it so deep. Oh no. What will I ever do now?”
“Hey, stop.” He looks at us in the least convincing rendition of Dad Pretends To Be A Disciplinarian. “Rosa, listen, you just have to be strong, okay? And remember that giving up is not an option.”
Mia looks at me and mimes gagging. We both know he’s spewing bullshit. Bullshit he was too lazy to even look up, because if he had he would know that whatever he’s saying right now doesn’t relate in any way, to any part of my life, at all.
My dad is still talking. Unfortunately. “Today’s your fresh start. Just,” he makes a disgusting slurping sound, “forget the rest. Okay?”
I think Mia knows I’m about to explode because she’s shaking her head at me. She’s right, I know it. I just gotta let him talk until he’s done. I look at him and nod.
Then he opens his mouth again. “That’s my big girl.”
I literally think the letters El OH EL then say, “God, you’re so patronizing. I’m mentally ill, not five. Not that you’d care enough to look up the difference.”
His eyes widen and I would laugh at his discomfort if I was one of those people who did things like that. Instead, I take his silence as an opportunity to leave.
* * *
Talking to therapists involves a lot of calculated moves on my part. For example, I have to decide which aspects of my life we’re going to focus on. Because, here’s the deal, I can’t go in there and do the whole thing. It would be physically impossible. One time I heard someone describe OCD as the party bag of mental disorders because you get a little of everything. And I guess I would agree with that except I would say less a party bag because at least with that I’d get a thing of bubbles or something. And no one’s ever given me bubbles for my OCD, although I wish someone would.
If anything, it’s like someone just came up to me and handed me a piping hot mug containing the collective piss of every human on earth. The worst part about that being that I know they probably heated it up in a microwave, because no one’s going to bother boiling piss in a kettle just to pour it into a mug. That’s way too much effort for the given product. And there’s just something so much infinitely worse about piss that was heated through exposure to electromagnetic radiation than piss that was just heated by a flame. Anyway, point being that my mug of mental problems and traumatic experiences can only feasibly be addressed one savory sip at a time. So, I get to create a hierarchy of problems from immediate to abandonment issues, which I think could safely stew for a few more years.
* * *
Carl’s sitting on the corner that connects our two streets. When we were nine I remember pushing him off that exact curb and into the cracked street. I’d thought it was absolutely hilarious. Carl had not. In fact, he’d cried.
He looks now how he looked then. Exactly how you would imagine a Carl looks but a little like a limited time only, special edition remix of a person and a guinea. Which I guess is my nice way of saying he looks like a grown ass human fucked a rodent.
There’s something in the way he’s resting his arms on his knees that makes it look like he’s waiting for something. When I get close enough, I see my backpack on the dirt next to him and I realize I’m the thing he’s waiting for.
I walk up to him and say, “Delightful.”
He looks up, squinting into the sun. “By delightful, you mean not delightful.”
“Oh, he really does know me. Almost like we were friends or something. Interesting, isn’t it?”
He shakes his head and looks at his hands. “Dude, I just wanted to bring you your backpack. You don’t need to go there right now.”
“Well, I didn’t ask you to do that.”
“Okay, does it matter? I’m doing a nice thing.”
“I’m not gonna say thank you.”
He stands up, cleaning off the back of his jeans with his hands. “Didn’t ask for it. You could just take the backpack.”
I look at it. It’s not that I think he did anything to it. It’s that I don’t know where it was, what it touched. I want to pick it up. Or, I think I want to. If anything, just because I own it and I know if I leave it here someone will take it. But I can’t. I’m staring at it and trying to tell my legs I want them to move and wondering why on a day that doesn’t feel too bad, I can’t just pick up a stupid bag.
“Okay, fine, or don’t take it. But, just know if you’re doing some weird punishing thing to try to get at me or whatever, that I don’t care.” Carl moves to leave.
And I don’t care either so I don’t know why I say, “It’s not that.” Maybe it’s that I hate people misunderstanding my germ thing for a rude thing more than I hate Carl.
He stops. “Alright, so what is it then?”
“The, uh, the dirt. Also the not knowing. Like where it was. You know?” Except maybe I do care because suddenly I’m filled by how much I want him to know.
“No,” he says. “I don’t know.” Then he’s staring at me in that way he did right before he told me he was in love with me when we were twelve. I’d thought I was in love with him too. Turned out we were both super gay and just really confused at the time. But, still, I think that says something about our friendship. Or, at least, I used to think it did.
He runs a hand through his hair. “I don’t get it at all. Really, I don’t. And, the thing is, it’s a lot. So much, all the time. I don’t know how to deal with it, and I know you don’t either because you look like a fucking mess. Really, you look like shit. But it’s not like you’d let me help even if I wanted to. Which I did, I do, I think. I’m just lost here.”
I take a second to respond so I don’t lose it and realize I’m still holding that Uncrustable. I’ve squished it into a blob.
I take a deep breath. “I can totally see how you think what you just said is nice. But you realize that however hard this is for you, it’s a million times harder for me, right? Like, what, you had to deal with a few hours of it at most? But you could have taken a break whenever. I don’t get breaks. I don’t get to peace out whenever it gets too hard. And I don’t get to leave and never answer their calls and ignore them in the hallways and pretend like they never existed even though they needed me, even though I knew they needed me but would just never say it.”
The look on his face shifts. “That is not what happened.”
“Then what happened?”
He’s kind of yelling at this point. “You! You, just—you were treating me like shit. And how the fuck was I supposed to respond to that? I would come over, I would do all the friend things you’re supposed to do, and you would just yell at me. Everything I did was wrong.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t do things because you’re supposed to do them. That’s not friendship. That’s obligation.”
“Well, maybe that’s what you were becoming.”
We’re in each other’s faces.
“Fuck you too.”
“I hate you.”
“Okay, well, I think I hate you too.”
“Sounds like we’re even then.”
“Yeah, sounds like it.”
I respond by turning in the opposite direction of the school and starting to walk away.
“You’re really just going to leave your backpack here?”
I turn around for a second, just long enough to chuck the Uncrustable somewhere in his general direction.
“Oh, how mature,” he yells at my back.
I flip him off without looking.
* * *
Raul’s has smelled the same for as long as I can remember. Dirt, from the desert sand that’s moistened into black gunk stuck between the tiles. Buttery popcorn, because Raul is always whipping up some Act II in the microwave. Sour metal, from the ICEE machine that’s more broken than not. And a distinctly old smell, which I don’t know how to describe except for that it definitely doesn’t smell new.
The only thing about this place that’s from this century is the bell Raul set to the tune of “My Hips Don’t Lie” by Shakira in the summer of me and Carl’s freshman year of high school. It rings as I enter the store.
“My main man,” I say because Raul is the only one in there and he is, indeed, my main man.
Raul barely looks up from the mini TV he’s got set up behind the counter. “Rosa, mija.”
I lean over to take a look, careful to keep my arms of the actual counter surface, because germs. “Huh, Chile’s up by two.”
He sets his Act II to the side because he has common human decency and knows it’s hard for me to watch people eat. “I know, the sick sons of bitches with their fancy wine and their fancy Neruda. Well, they can go to hell, I’ll tell you that much. Directly. No stops for them.”
He shrugs. “The way the cookie crumbles.”
He’s zoned back into the game so I head into the aisles to grab my snack. I’m halfway down the chip section when I hear him yell, “Gooooooooooooooooooool!” Followed by what sounds like a bunch of popcorn kernels hitting the floor and an, “Ay, carajo.”
It reminds me of three years ago. During the world cup, Carl and I had come here almost every day to watch soccer. That was during the time we were systematically making our way through every flavor of paletas. I would bite into the cold ice and be done with it in seconds. Carl was more of an appreciator of the process, and by the time he was finally done, his hand was always covered in the sticky juice. We had equally thought the other person was being disgusting.
I stand there for a while, wrestling between the warm nostalgia of the memory and how much I wish Carl had been born into a universe where he didn’t have an asshole so that all his shit would just compile inside his own body until he exploded. The anger wins. Really, I’m pissed that after ignoring me for weeks, he would wait on a curb just to fight with me. That’s just so fucking typical.
I grab my usual Reese’s Pieces before heading back to the front. Raul looks at my snack choices. “Just the Pieces?”
“Yeah.” I pull out the dollar I swung back to the house to grab. “What? Do you wanna give me some carrots or something? Because, look, I’ve thought about this and I figure my heart health’s already so fucked that I might as well not even bother trying to salvage it.”
He shakes his head. “I have no idea why a sixteen-year-old is thinking about heart health. But, don’t you want Skittles?”
I freeze. “Why would I want that?”
“Uh, okay, I feel like I just stumbled onto something I didn’t want to stumble onto. It’s just, never mind. I am not getting involved here.”
“Did he tell you something?”
“No, nothing.” Raul scans the Reese’s. “That’ll be a dollar.”
I hold out the dollar. “Seriously. Tell me. What did he say?”
He takes the dollar. “Really, he didn’t say anything.”
“So he did something?”
“Christ, you’re like a dog with a bone.”
“Worse, some would say.”
He groans. “Fine. He just bought some Pieces the other day. That’s all.”
He sits back down on his stool. “Yeah.”
Props his feet up on the counter. “Yeah.”
“How many backpacks did he have with him?”
“Oh, two. It was weird.”
Turns the volume up on the TV. “Satisfied?”
“Hardly.” I watch soccer with him for a bit. “Hey, actually, can I have the Skittles? I’ll
pay you back tomorrow.”
Raul gets up to make some fresh Act II. “Just take it.”
* * *
My mom told me once that we have to be careful about the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves. Which sounds like something a pretentious asshole would say, but I guess that’s what she was. Anyway, she probably just meant that people shouldn’t get stuck in the way they think they are or should be. I think I agree with that, although I’m pretty unsure about how I would really implement that nugget of wisdom into my life.
Like, sometimes I have a day that’s not too bad and I think that I might not have OCD. That maybe I was making it up this whole time just to be a bad person. Those thoughts are usually followed by hours and hours researching symptoms on the internet. At about hour three, I always realize that if I didn’t have OCD I would’ve stopped at minute ten. Neither the realization that I’m not a liar nor the realization that I still have OCD is ever comforting.
* * *
I let myself in with the key Carl’s mom keeps underneath a ceramic frog. He’s in his room, skipping school to sulk and watch Law & Order: SVU just like I knew he would be.
I walk right in.
I say, “You were there on the curb to make up.”
In a bored voice, he responds, “No I wasn’t.”
“Yes, you were.”
I toss the Skittles into his lap. “I went to Raul’s.”
He looks at the Skittles and then back at me. “And?”
“Well either you bought the Reese’s because you decided I was right and that using your EpiPen would be an exciting adventure, or it was a peace offering. Considering your fear of needles, I’m assuming it was the latter.”
“I’m not afraid of needles.”
“Yes, you are.”
He looks back at the Skittles and I wait. After a few really miserable seconds, he scoots over and pats the space on his bed next to me. “I want you to know I’m still mad at you.”
I hesitate, thoughts of skin particles and germs starting to press in. I try to cut it off, tell myself I won’t die, but I know I’m lying. I sit anyway. “Okay. I’m still mad at you too.”
“Like, you were being a really huge dick.”
“And you were being insensitive.”
We watch an episode of SVU. I spend the whole time trying to not think about the fact that his dead skin cells are nestled in-between every fiber of the blanket we’re sitting on. The kind of not thinking about it where I’m really just thinking about it. Which is why I almost miss it when Carl says, “By the way, I don’t hate you.”
“Obviously.” I pull my knees to my chest and squeeze. I don’t realize the words are going to come out until they do. “But what if I hate me?”
“Because of your OCD?”
“I don’t know, I’m thinking it might be a one-way causal relationship, as in the OCD causes hatred. Or maybe it’s outside of the whole thing.” I rest my chin on the tops of my knees. “Either way, I find my existence unsettling and a little gross.”
“I mean, how much?”
“How much what?”
“Time do you spend hating yourself?”
“Hm. I don’t know. 85%? Maybe?”
He shrugs. “We can work on that.”
Nico Oré-Girón is a junior studying literary arts at Brown University. He is an aspiring comedian and writer, as well as a fuzzy sock enthusiast. He grew up forty minutes from the Mexican border in Tucson, AZ, but can currently be found in the freezing state of Rhode Island or on Twitter and Instagram at @noshownico.
My current endeavor is to capture our changing planet. Consequently, my artwork examines patterns in our environment—urban and industrial as well as natural. I’m interested in the changing intersection between place in city or nature. As an artist, I feel a responsibility to address these changes and the environmental impacts they have had […]
I often work in series creating bodies of work that highlights certain interests such as architecture, space, and scale. I like to investigate the way in which spaces are constructed and how the environment shapes the times we inhabit—influencing our identities, senses, and emotions […]
dialogue and invitations
If y’all have babies I hope they have his hair.
You have a lot of potential.
You’re so well spoken.
I have a job this summer cleaning my house, if you’re interested.
money tossed on the counter.
no eye contact
You’re going to be fly … what does that mean?
The Middle Passage was the journey captured Africans took to the Americas.
Only 3 of us knew that out of 75.
1 of the ‘us’ was the professor.
All of ‘us’ were brown.
I don’t usually date brown skin girls, but for you I’d make an exception.
You’re one of the good ones, you know.
All lives matter until you speak up
toss the shackles
guilty victims deserved their fate.
If only they were
Respectful quiet complicit quiet complicit
docile meek forgiving complicit
They’d be alive breathing in cages.
The bus belches up its insides.
Golden brown bodies spill forth,
dressed in denim and cotton, wearing bandanas, towels, hats
to defend against the sun.
They seep into the field like water over parched earth.
The work no one wants but machines can’t do.
The work that breaks down the body and wears at the soul.
The work that fuels dreams.
The work that induces nightmares and heat stroke,
dehydration and snake bites.
Spanish thoughts in southern fields.
Latino/a sweat drenches berries and veggies and
stains dried tobacco leaves.
dirt smudged hands,
Desperate hands pull the sun from the sky.
Perspiration illuminates their brows
coated in dust, kissed by mosquitos.
swallowed by the bus again
before they have to raise the moon.
Jamica A. Whitaker is a writer and communications strategist based out of Durham, North Carolina. A graduate of Elizabeth City State University and East Carolina University, Jamica has been writing creatively since middle school but recently had the courage to share her writing with the world. Her writing includes poetry, short stories, and personal essays.
Look at our bones laid bare on the metal or in the grass.
Slides spill like memories across the wall and while he sees his
favorite legend again Scully has to hold her science in her chest.
What even is real in 1999? In 2018 when I turn off cable news
call my grandmother stuff laundry into a giant sack? This is my
ritual murder: the dishes the doctors the documentation—
a mountain. In his fantasy he is always right knower of truths
snuffing women out like smoking candle wicks. Like Scully
I am melting. I am questioning my findings. I am breathing.
We endeavor to find the most logical conclusion this approach
the only way to pass from day to night. He is a skeleton
but his bones do not hold us up. Look at the lights in the sky—
as alive as I am I began by rotting in a wild field. Scully
breathes in spores a lie falls dark into that underground place
and I have a shovel and will dig up the dirt to know what cryptic
science brought us here all these acres of eyes of silence
some social narcosis the edges of our vision always pulling in
that flicker of emergency the truth in me always acid on skin
a legend of my own that I remember to believe because lights
in the sky are not enough to pull me from a promise ribs out.
E. Kristin Anderson is a poet, Starbucks connoisseur, and glitter enthusiast living in Austin, Texas. She is the editor of Come as You Are, an anthology of writing on 90s pop culture and Hysteria: Writing the female body (forthcoming). Kristin’s poetry has been published worldwide in many magazines and she is the author of nine chapbooks of poetry, including A Guide for the Practical Abductee, Pray, Pray, Pray: Poems I wrote to Prince in the middle of the night, Fire in the Sky, 17 seventeen XVII, and Behind, All You’ve Got (forthcoming). Kristin is an assistant poetry editor at The Boiler and an editorial assistant at Sugared Water. Once upon a time she worked nights at The New Yorker.
Our world is constantly being reloaded with data, images, opportunities, options for reinterpretation, and fleeting impressions. In a continuously evolving world, the paintings in this series of work act as a snapshot of this maelstrom of information overload and show a scene apparently caught in limbo between reality and a dream. By using the everyday […]
Born in Iran in 1984, Elham Hajesmaeili received a BFA in handicrafts from the Shiraz University in 2006, an MA in art studies from the University of Art, Tehran, Iran in 2010, and an MFA in painting and drawing from the Pennsylvania State University, US in 2017. She has held multiple groups and solo exhibitions in Iran and the United States. Currently, she is a dual-titled PhD student in art education and women studies at the Pennsylvania State University. When Elham arrived in the United States in 2015, she experienced living in a liminal space between Iranian and American cultures and has continued her works based on identity issues. Her works represent an observation of an identity oscillating between two geographical contexts, while sexuality remains the silent power holder.
Ten Questions with artist Elham Hajesmaeili
1. What’s your creative process like? Do you have a set routine (e.g., music playing, time of day, lucky token, etc.)? Is there a difference when you’re starting a new project or continuing one you’ve already started?
Generally, when the pressure of expressing myself can no longer be contained, I create art. I prefer silence when I am starting a new project in order to fully focus. The process of making sculpture is totally different than painting because in sculpture I can touch and feel. Painting is a pure feeling and a controlled art form. However, in sculpture, each material used has a different melody and I have to dance to the music the material plays. For example, when working with clay, there are boundaries, you adapt to the clay’s potential. Usually, I am looking for materials that are connected to the idea that I am trying to convey because every material has a personality. The difference between starting a new project or continuing an old one is that when beginning something new, I feel free and unrestrained because it is a fresh idea and it sets the standard for the rest of the series. However, when I go back to a previous work, I have parameters because the flow has already been established.
2. What’s the most recent thing you’ve created or curated?
My most recent project is “About the Body,” which concentrates on the color of human skin—specifically, the curves of the female form. The project is still in progress. I am using a CNC machine to create three-dimensional images, by generating shapes, then stretching canvases on top of the shapes rather than just painting on the ordinary flat surface of the canvas. I attempt to make as many pigments of human skin as I can. The most interesting thing about skin color is the variations and mixtures of red, blue, yellow, and white. It fascinates me because these colors react to one another and produce a color that really has no name. Oftentimes a subject will reveal itself on its own. For example, “Spanked” is a work where the red pigment radiated and reminded me of the tones associated with spanked skin.
3. Where do you find your inspiration? Are there certain places or people you look to?
My inspiration comes from the places I go, the people I meet, and the politics associated with them. I do not identify with any specific artists or styles. It is difficult to categorize my art because each project differs from the other. I am inspired daily by my surroundings and the general patterns that I grew up seeing around me. Place and time are strong factors that impact my expressive proclivities.
4. Was there a specific artist or piece of art that inspired you to become an artist yourself? When did you discover the artist calling?
I discovered art myself and not through any specific person or influence. Around 10 years ago, in Iran, I remember consulting with an art professional and I asked him to teach me how to make art. I needed proper training in order to be accepted into a school of art. However, his words strongly resonated with me. He said “One cannot train someone to be an artist. If your calling is to be an artist, the artist in you will come out on its own.” And this was exactly how it happened for me. After graduating from the University of Art in Iran and got my MA degree in art studies, I started teaching formal art history at several colleges and universities in Iran. During that period in my life, I was distraught, and I felt displaced. One day I bought some canvas and pigments and my skillset evolved through practice and time. Then one day I opened my eyes, and I was surrounded by about ten paintings—my first series. During its construction, I did not intend for the self-portraits to be a series. In fact, naturally, to me, art was always individualistic, but at that moment, I looked around me, at my space and my immediate surroundings became—without intent—my first series, which came to be titled A Goddess Never Stands Alone.
5. How does your day job inform or affect your art and creative process?
After receiving my MFA at Pennsylvania State University, I am now in the art education PhD program. From the perspective of an aspiring educator, I am interested in how art education and art as a creative process merge.
6. What’s the most important thing(s) you want to get across in your art?
Art is a language, a language in which I can express my thoughts without having to use words. It is the most beautiful form of expression and nothing in this world can take its place. Many ask me what the long necks in my A Goddess Never Stands Alone series means. To me, it is the suppression of my words. The words I never said. Furthermore, for others, I would like for each individual viewer to get out of my art whatever they want to get out of it. I have had several mentions to me that my art makes them feel uncomfortable. I wanted to delve more into why that was. I asked one such person what it was about my work that made them feel discomfort. Her response resonated so strongly with me. She told me that by feeling discomfort, she asked herself why. This led her to confront herself and her deeper feelings about her sexuality and femininity. She learned something quite
profound about herself, as a result of my work; therefore, I felt that my work did what it was intended to do.
7. What advice would you give to any emerging artists?
Pay attention to your creative process and discover new things about yourself along the way. Skill and technique are learned, but creativity is unique to each artist.
8. Which artist(s) should we be paying attention to right now? What are some great works you’ve seen recently?
Any type of art that provokes an emotion within the viewer is worthwhile. For me, Iranian and western art are two distinctive types. I can strongly connect to Iranian art. I would encourage for those interested to begin by studying Shirin Neshat. She has paved the way for feminism in Iranian art. Any Iranian artist and/or activist that can open up conversations regarding the oppression of female expression and sexuality is important. Many movements are going on in Iran right now. For example, “White Wednesdays” where women protest against obligatory Hijab. Kiana Honarmand’s work encompasses many of these elements.
9. What are your interests outside of the creative and artistic world?
Hobbies and interest change based on time and place. For an artist that felt displaced at certain stages in her life, sometimes the mere switching and changes of interests could be labeled a hobby.
10. What question do you wish I’d have asked you, and what would your answer be? Is there any common theme that tends to manifest itself in all of your work?
Whether intentional or not, my Persian roots always surface. There are two essential aspects in my work: female sexuality and cultural identities. Female sexuality is exhibited through skin tonality and material that can produce an heir of sensuality. And traces of my culture can be found through colors, patterns, and architectural ornamentation. Female sexuality and culture are present in all my works; however, one theme will outweigh the other in intensity, this occurs naturally during the art-making process.
Sara Voigt is a current MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles where she’s pursuing her masters in creative writing. She also works on the literary journal Lunch Ticket, where she’s working as proof edit manager and managing editor. Originally from Wisconsin, she currently lives and works in the Los Angeles area.
We had arrived in France two days before, and it was already our third croque monsieur. We bought it at a little Carrefour store, where we also got two cans of Dr. Pepper. Look, Joanne had said, didn’t Melissa say Dr. Pepper was impossible to find in Europe. So we just had to get that beverage we both hated, and a few minutes later we were sitting at the Champ de Mars, feeling so exotic as we took grotesque swigs from the burgundy-colored cans. Joanne chose a spot far away from our tour companions. Just as I was about to sit across from Erin and Tom—the couple we stayed close to because they were the least embarrassing—Joanne noticed what I had noticed three seconds before, namely that Erin, who was wearing a short skirt, sat with her legs crossed in such a way that whoever chose to sit across from her would have an unimpeded view of her panties. They were white lace, and I even got the impression that her bush could be seen through them. Joanne, who always shaved her bush, grabbed my arm and said, Let’s sit over there, where we can see the tower better. I sat with my back to Erin, to avoid trouble.
Next to us, two women talked while their kids kicked a soccer ball. They spoke English with an American accent. Expats. Did they use that word, I wondered, did they think of themselves as that? It would be so wonderful to live here, Joanne said, you could come hang out here every day like it’s nothing at all. The two women would switch from English to French. I caught words like maison, alors, voiture, expressions like ça va and d’accord, the question que c’est que tu veu, directed at one of the kids, the one wearing a blue baseball cap. At one point the soccer ball hit my arm lightly, but I pretended not to notice. Pardon, monsieur, said one of the kids as he picked up the ball and went back to his game. I felt Joanne’s head against my shoulder. Isn’t it beautiful, she said. I think she meant the tower.
At one point I stretched out on the grass, on my side, and my hand fell on a piece of coarse cloth. It was the kid’s blue baseball cap, which had either fallen from his head or been tossed aside. On an impulse, I placed my backpack over it, as if by accident. A few minutes later, when all of us had finished our food, the expats left. There was no indication that the baseball cap was missed, so I put it in my backpack as Joanne took a picture of Erin and Tom—holding hands, looking into each other’s eyes—with their mini Polaroid. We all waited with our heads together for the image to emerge. Oh my God, that is the cutest thing ever, Joanne said. Hey, let me take one of y’all, Erin said. So we stood on the grass, my arm around Joanne’s shoulder and her arm around my waist, the tower in the background. The picture came out alright. Not as cute as Erin and Tom’s, but then, Joanne and I simply weren’t as cute as they were.
As we began to leave, I noticed the expats had come back. They were walking around the place where they had been before, and the owner of the baseball cap was crying, pointing at a spot on the lawn. I told Joanne that she was beautiful and kissed her hard.
Back in the bus, I took out my copy of Hopscotch, which is what I was reading. It would be a crime not to read Hopscotch while in Paris, I had told myself.
I love it, Joanne said.
She was looking at our picture.
Here, she said, you keep it.
Are you sure, I said.
Yeah, Joanne said, you keep it.
I put it inside my copy of Hopscotch, where it has stayed, between the same pages, for the past twelve years. Sometimes I imagine my son or my daughter finding it, long after my death, and wondering who the girl is.
The baseball cap I kept for a couple of years, until one day I cleaned my closet and decided to give it away, along with a skirt, a blouse, and a scarf that Joanne had left behind.
A native of Buenos Aires, Jorge Iglesias moved to Houston in 1998, and has lived there ever since. He holds a BA and an MLA from the University of St. Thomas, as well as a PhD from the University of Houston. He has taught at Rice University and at the University of Houston. His work has appeared in Literal Magazine and The Chesterton Review, and he is the author of an introduction to Outlaw: The Collected Works of Miguel Piñero (Arte Público Press, 2010).
(Readable as a loop, beginning with any paragraph)
The rod rings out in the emptiness to remind me of my exile. I inhale the damp air and the invasive scent of my own misery. It was a long time ago that I took my leave of the apathy inherent to incomprehension and fear. Ignorance as to my fate must be agony for those I love, those I long for. Now, everything is just a hazy cloud as I maintain my neural circuits through the exercise of routine.
They’ll come for me tonight or some other night, or maybe months will go by before a droplet of coffee on the list of prisoners will call the guard’s attention to my name. He will, perhaps, remember that I was once famous (ephemerally so, but famous nonetheless) for my incendiary articles against the corrupt regime that has just retaken power. My name is common and it appears frequently in telephone books, like anyone born into the class of serfs. My name, singled out by the coffee’s chromatic union, will reawaken doubts, the precursor to suspicions, and then they’ll come for me that same night, or some other, or maybe days will have gone by and I won’t even remember what I thought today, anesthetized by routine as I am, alienated by incomprehension as I am, paralyzed by fear as I am.
The rod rings out. Screams can be heard at the end of the corridor. One might guess they were from Thomas, the young man from the antipodes caught far from home by the invasion. He’s been refusing to eat these past few days. Now our jailers take their fury out on his body with an obsessive tenacity. They revel in the torture, both his and ours, and each of Thomas’s screams may just be a prelude to another one of his, or Andrés’s, or Raúl’s, or Cosme’s, or my own. My own scream.
It makes no difference what my name is. It makes no difference whether what I’m telling is a universal truth or simply my own. Who knows? I tell what comes to my mind, and one can do nothing but remember one’s own past, near or distant, with a wide variety of nuances and suffering. I attempt to memorize facts and occurrences, making connections between the two, permanently joining them in a kind of infinite mantra, into a helicoidal thread that closes on itself. I attempt it even though I know that most of the vectors I trace will be doomed to failure, that my memory will automatically, repeatedly betray me with spurious associations, with loops of images and signs, with words linked to impossible moments, with daylong, month-long gaps. I have no doubt about that, yet I obstinately persist in my labors, because even the smallest piece of information, even the most insignificant of details could, in some future moment, lead to a chain reaction of memory, a fusion of neural circuits heretofore uncoupled, a supernova of joy.
To organize routines. What’s important now is to organize routines. In order to stop myself becoming desperate, what’s most important now is to organize routines. (Hourly routines, daily routines, weekly routines, nightly routines repeated day after day). Searching within the circular rhythm of routines for some measurement of time and some occupation with which to stave off desperation, and perplexity, and fear of not being, or being no longer, or being someone else. Eight minutes past midnight. Time to close my eyes, count to ten, and begin reciting the verses I learned as a child (Monday), the poetry I composed as an adolescent (Tuesday), the aphorisms passed down to me by my teacher (Wednesday), the songs of my youth (Thursday), the poems of my adulthood (Friday), and the letters I never wrote (Saturday), concluding with the monologues I’ve rehearsed a thousand times (Sunday). Routines I use to attain the formal sophistication of repetition, the anesthesia of advancing in slow motion. Routines to feel the ground beneath my feet, to gradually construct (reconstruct) a dream full of hope and freedom.
The rod rings out. Screams can be heard at the end of the corridor. The screams too are routine. They always sound identical to every other scream coming from the same person. Thomas’s scream. Cosme’s scream. Andrés’s. Mine. What does my scream sound like? Piercing? Ear-splitting? Quaking? Icy? To unleash a different scream for each wound, for each occasion, for each method of torture. A muffled scream for the cattle prod. A piercing scream for the rod. A blind scream for the sleepless nights under the lamp’s gaze, my eyelids forced to stay open. An icy scream for the nights watching snow fall in the immeasurable solitude of the plains. A leopard scream for when they come at my knees, for when they opt for the humiliation of urinating on me, for when they slander my ancestors or mock my loved ones, the ones who are still alive, my people, my kith and kin.
No one has told me (or us, from what I hear) why they brought us here, why they keep us locked up all day, why they sometimes let us out at night to engage in Argentinian style hunting. They came armed and in droves, destroying everything in their wake, instilling a culture of fear and barbarism. Now they control it all, every single thing, with a haughty air in their ways and an ambiguity in their messages. They made of violence their banner and their way of life. No one has told me (or us, from what I don’t hear) what they expect from us, what they want us to tell them, what we’ve done wrong. They never interrogate us. They never say a word to us except to convey their confusing orders, or which are at least confusing to us, as if they’d come out of some strange magma, out of a language we should understand, but only becomes more and more foreign with each passing day, a mixture of soldier’s jargon and obscenities befitting of a brothel.
Maybe they won’t come for me tonight. Yes, it’s best to think like that and not shrivel up like a pangolin armed with its plate-like scales. It’s cold. What these louts save on heating in the passageways they spend on whiskey and pleasure women. Here comes the moralistic murmuring, the mumbling of a failed missionary, of a waning man who takes refuge in iron discipline to maintain himself, this romantic hero buried in excess, this martyr for a vague cause with no followers, Unitarian in his militancy, in a losing position before the battle has even begun. It’s impossible to sleep caged in by these recurring thoughts, denying my external reality, the others’ reality, subsuming oneself in an autumnal retraction of deposits and wrinkles to the point of renouncing one’s senses, lost in a labyrinth of words that come flooding in, that hammer on one’s temples in a waterfall of symbols, that prevent one from getting to sleep (sleep is gotten, gathered, joined together through bits of consciousness: sleep is, therefore, a dreamlike puzzle, a dreamlike, improvised jazz set, a dreamlike cracked mirror that reflects one’s persistent insomnia, that diverts the lightning bolt, that trembles in all its recurrence).
A blind scream for the sleepless nights. Is this the moment? It’s over now, the rod’s diversion, the farcical humiliation, the hyperbolic laughter drowning out the victim’s screams, the wretched object of their abuses. The guards went away leaving behind what’s left of the martyr bleeding in the “reading room.” That’s what they call it, with their poorly disguised irony: the reading room. “This is where we read your thoughts. This is where we listen to whispered stories. This is where we build up the tale of public shame. This is where we strip away the best poetry you have inside you.”
My eyelids, my legs, my arms are heavy, my back is sinking into the mattress, causing my joints to cry out in an anguished desire for rest, but my thoughts, my wretched thoughts, my wretched self, rebelling in its consciousness, won’t stop for even an instant: words galloping over images, sounds over a language from the farthest reaches of my consciousness, images over sounds, shattering in a thousand planes simultaneously, drawing up and vanishing with no respite, tracing a four-dimensional, no, five-dimensional map with chromatic shifts, fades to black, sideways wipes, kaleidoscopic images, intermingling sounds, multilingual messages, and outrageous associations.
To organize routines. What’s important is to organize routines. In order to avoid becoming desperate, what’s most important now is to organize routines. (Hourly routines, daily routines, weekly routines, nightly routines repeated day after day.) Now, at night, counting stars. Real stars (rare here, the clouds dominate the sky for half the year, along with half of the other half) and dreamt ones (white dwarves, brown giants, novas, supernovas, shooting stars). Doing it for as long as it takes to make it across the known galaxies, the familiar constellations, every possible combination. After the stars, with a current sliding along my spine and my temples hammering from the excess, then comes the time to practice the relaxation exercises I learned from my teacher, to envision idealized images of sexual idols, and engage in the most violent kind of self-stimulation.
I try to slowly accumulate dreams, I imagine reiterated landscapes from my childhood, from when we would play amongst the bamboo thickets and be slippery vietcong, crawling through the stalks and stoically enduring the suffocating summer heat. In those days, the map of Vietnam filled up the black-and-white TV screen, and that’s how we learned where the Hoi Lin Mountains were, which have an outrageous amount of snowfall every seven years, along with the rivers surrounding the imperial capital of Hué, where the battles never ended, children running naked as they fled from the napalm, Ho-Chi-Minh Way destroyed; he, the whitebeard who became a model for the grandfather I never had. I reconstruct my nights sleeping in sickly quarters, where everything smelled like stables and ethical misery, where they prohibited us from being ourselves, where they counted us dozens of times each day to see if anyone had run away, as if there were anywhere to run in that massive plain frozen during the winters and sunken in a humid fog during the summers. I remember the years spent at boundless sea, waves stampeding over the bridge, the ship at the mercy of the currents and furious hurricanes. I think about the years I wasted chasing impossible loves, in a repetitive denial of myself, sobbing daily in front of the mirror reflecting an image of progressive degeneration. Every now and again I wake up sweating in the midst of a bout of malaria that I caught in the jungles of Cambodia, where I was searching for a treasure I never found, where I went through hunger, torture, and scarcity that I was only able to endure because of my youth and the strength I’d inherited from my forebears. I thread together sequences which approach in disorderly fashion: landscapes and information, perceptions and subjections, characters and plots, instants pulled from an internal camera that stores away undeveloped photographs, fantastical frames, and never-before-seen compositions combining all kinds of colors and shapes. Then, from the labyrinths of memory, come the cold barrel of the machine gun pressed against my neck, my ears frozen from walking the whole night to cross the border, my toes bleeding from stepping on glass when they came for us, the memory of the first time I spoke in public, pronouncing slogans that would make me blush now, or the afternoon when someone showed me how to gather shrimp from the rocks on a beach during low tide, or the other when I skipped an English class to learn the art of handling a scythe, or that time when a friend of mine named one hundred birds in one breath and I responded with one hundred sea and river fishes, to the delight of the rest of our group, who drank to our health and bet beers on who would win. In my memory I sketch out the passageways I slid along in dreams, which would lead always to an octagonal tower where each wall had a door ready to take me to a different world, which is how I learned about the flora and fauna of different time periods and why certain species survive, seeping through the gap as a door opened so that I could then enter a new, parallel world. In the air I trace dreamt or invented calligrams, ones they taught me in school or ones that I learned over the passage of time, alphabets that mark turning points in my life, a life no longer qualifiable as short. I try to organize my dreams to see if I can sleep, but dreams don’t allow themselves to be organized and classified so easily. They don’t come when you want and you always end up remembering your obsessions and forgetting about them, except the ones that have repeated over and over again since the moment you’ve been conscious of your recollection and organization: the dream about the lighthouse, the dream about the chapel in the dark, the dream about sex opening up into two cavernous bodies, the dream of enucleated eyes, the dream of reclusion, which has come true exactly as you’d dreamt it, and now seems more like a premonition than a dream. Dreams of the rod’s return, ones where screams can be heard, ones where nostalgia takes over me, ones where I take refuge in my routines.
No one has told me (or us, from what I don’t hear) what they expect from us, what they want us to tell them, what we’ve done wrong. They came armed and in droves as if they’d fallen from the sky or risen from the bowels of the earth, using their lethal weapons to devastate everything in their wake. They controlled the communications, transport, and commerce, and quickly began a random campaign of explosive detonations. They toy with the ambiguity in messages and the fear spawned by uncertainty. They never interrogate us. No one explains (nor am I myself capable of explaining) how I can go entire days without sleeping, feverish, consumed by the thousand ideas that attack me and retreat, rotting my insides and fighting to escape their fluid prison out of a desire to become solid, concrete, actualized.
The rod is back. Screams can be heard at the end of the corridor, in the “reading room.” They enjoy bursting open the wet skin. Thomas’s scream. Cosme’s scream. Andrés’s scream. My scream. A leopard scream for when they come at my knees. No one has said why they brought us here. What’s important is to organize routines. No one why they play Argentinian hunting games with us. Maybe they won’t come for me tonight. It’s best to think like that and not curl up like a plated pangolin.
My eyelids, legs, and arms are heavy, my back is digging into the mattress, causing my joints to cry out for a break, but my thoughts, my wretched self, which rebels by being conscious, will not stop for even an instant, with a flood of words over images, images over sounds shattering on a thousand planes simultaneously, tracing a four-, no, five-dimensional map with chromatic shifts, fades-to-black, sideways wipes, kaleidoscopic images, fusing sounds, plurilingual messages, and outrageous associations.
…It is in this emptiness that the rod rings out to remind me of my exile. I inhale the damp air and the acrid stench of my own ethical misery. It was long ago that I escaped from the apathy inherent to incomprehension and fear. The ignorance of my fate must be a torment for those who I love and long for. Everything is just a hazy cloud as I maintain myself through the exercise of routine. They’ll come for me tonight, or some other night.
I try to memorize events and information, linking them together, joining them forever in a kind of infinite mantra, in a helicoidal belt that closes on itself. I attempt it even though I know that the majority of vectors I trace will be doomed to failure, that my memory will automatically, repeatedly fail me with spurious associations, with loops of images and symbols, with words that will combine into impossible moments, with daylong, month-long gaps.
It’s impossible to sleep caged in by these recurring thoughts, denying my external reality, the others’ reality, sinking myself into an autumnal retraction of deposits and wrinkles until I renounce my senses, lost in a labyrinth of words that come flooding in, hammering my temples with a waterfall of symbols, permanently preventing me from falling asleep.
Rutinas na cela 43
(Pódese ler en bucle, comezando con calquera párrafo)
É no baleiro que resoa o vergallo para me devolver a conciencia do exilio. Respiro o aire húmido e o recendo invasor da miña propia miseria. Hai tempo saín da apatía propia da incompensión e o medo. A ignorancia da miña sorte será tormento para outros aos que quero e xa estraño. Para min xa só é unha nube imprecisa mentres sosteño os meus circuítos co exercicio da rutina.
Virán por min esta noite ou a outra, ou se cadra pasarán meses ata que unha pinga de café caída encol dunha lista de prisioneiros atraia a atención do oficial de garda sobre o meu nome. Recordará, se cadra, que en tempos fun famoso (de modo efémero, mais famoso) polos meus artigos incediarios contra o réxime corrupto que agora vén de retornar ao poder. O meu nome é vulgar e repítese nas listas de teléfono, coma todos aqueles nados de estirpe de servos da gelba. O meu nome, illado pola confluencia cromátic do café, fará acordar dúbidas, antesala das sospeitas, e daquela virán por min esa mesma noite, ou a outra , ou se cadra cando teñan pasado días e non lembre xa o que hoxe penso, anestesiado pola rutina, alienado pola incomprensión, paralizado polo medo.
Resoa o vergallo. Óense berros ao fondo do corredor. Diríase que son de Thomas, ese mozo dos antípodas ao que a invasión colleu lonxe de casa. Tense negado a comer nos últimos días. Agora os carcereiros asáñanse na súa pel con tenacidade obsesiva. Recréanse na tortura, na súa e na nosa, porque cada berro de Thomas pode ser preludio dun berro propio, de Andrés ou de Raúl, de Cosme ou meu. O meu berro.
Que importa como é que eu me chamo, que importa mesmo se o que conto é verdade universal ou só a miña verdade. Quen o sabe? Conto o que me vén ao maxín, e un só lembra o pasado, o pasado próximo e o afastado, con variedade de matices e padecemento. Tento memorizar datas e sucesos, relacionalos entre si, unilos para sempre nunha especie de mantra infinito, nunha fita helicoidal que se pecha sobre si mesma. Inténtoo aínda que sei que a meirande parte dos vectores trazados estarán condenados ao fracaso, que a memoria me traizoará, repetida e mecanicamente, con asociacións espurias, con bucles de imaxes e de signos, con verbas que se asociarán a momentos imposíbeis, con lagos de días ou de meses. Seino, mais testán persisto no empeño, pois o máis mínimo dato, o detalle máis insignificante pode, nun instante futuro, facer acordar unha reacción en cadea, unha fusión de circuítos outrora separados, unha supernova de ledicia.
Ordenar as rutinas. O importante é ordenar as rutinas. Para non desesperar, o máis importante é ordenar as rutinas. (Rutinas horarias, rutinas cotiás, rutinas semanais, rutinas cotinocturnas). Procurar no ritmo circular das rutinas a medida do tempo e a ocupación que me afaste da desesperación, da perplexidade, do terror a non ser ou a deixar de ser, ou a ser outro. Oito minutos pasada a media noite. Tempo de pechar os ollos, de contar ata dez, de comezar o recitado dos versos aprendidos cando neno (luns), dos versos inventados cando mozo (martes), dos aforismos transmitidos polo mestre (mércores), das cancións da mocidade (xoves), dos poemas da idade adulta (venres), das cartas que nunca escribín (sábado), para rematar cos monólogos mil veces ensaiados (domingo). Rutinas para acadar a sofisticación formal do repetitivo, a anestesia dos avances ao ralentí. Rutinas para sentir o chan baixo os pés, para construir (reconstruir) devagar o soño da esperanza da liberdade.
Resoa o vergallo. Óense berros ao fondo do corredor. Os berros son tamén rutina. Soan sempre igual a outros berros do mesmo dono. O berro de Thomas. O berro de Cosme. O de Andrés. O meu berro. Como soa o meu berro? Lacerante? Estentóreo? Trepidante? Xélido? Ensaiar un berro distinto para cada ferida, para cada ocasión, para cada método de tortura. Un berro afogada para a picana. Un berro lacerante para o vergallo. Un berro cego para as noites sen durmir, enfocado pola lámpada, coas pálpebras forzadas e abertas. Un berro xélido para as noites vendo caer a neve na soidade inabarcábel da chaira. Un berro leopardo para cando me paseen de xeonllos, para cando me humillen mexando por riba de min, para cando insulten os meus antepasados ou se mofen dos seres máis queridos, dos vivos, dos meus.
Ninguén me ten dito (ninguén dixo, segundo contan) por que nos trouxeran aquí, por que nos manteñen pechados o día enteiro, por que ás veces nos liberan de noite para organizar cacerías de facón e boleadoras. Chegaran en mesnadas arrasando ao seu paso con todo o que topaban, instaurando a cultura do medo e a barbarie. Agora contrólano todo, absolutamente todo, con aire de suficiencia nas formas e ambigüidade nas mensaxes. Fixeron da violencia a súa bandeira e o seu xeito de vivir. Ninguén me ten dito (ninguén dixo, segundo calan) qué esperan de nós, qué queren que contemos, cál é a nosa falta. Endexamais nos interrogan. Endexamais nos dirixen a palabra se non é para enunciar ordes confusas, ou que, cando menos, nós concibimos coma confusas, como chegadas dun magma estraño, nunha lingua que deberiamos entender mais que de día en día resulta máis allea, unha mestura de argot cuarteleiro e de exabruptos de casa de tolerancia.
Quizais esta noite non veñan por min. Si, será mellor pensar así e non se engurrar coma un pangolín, armado de escamas e de placas. Vai frío. Estes cachimáns aforran en calefacción nas galerías o que eles gastan en whisky e mais en bacantes. Regresa o ruxerruxe moralista, o rumor de misioneiro fracasado, de home minguante que se refuxia nunha férrea disciplina para soster, cal heroe romántico abismado nos excesos, cal mártir dunha causa difusa, negada de adeptos, unitaria na súa militancia, unha posición perdida de antemán. É imposíbel durmir cercado por estes pensamentos recorrentes, negando a realidade exterior, a realidade dos outros, ensumíndose en retracción outonal de depósitos e engurras ata renunciar os sentidos, perdido nun labirinto de verbas que acoden en fervenza, que martelan as tempas en cadoiro de signos, que impiden conciliar o sono (o sono concíliase, xúntase, únese a partir de anacos de conciencia: o sono e xa logo o soño crebacabezas, o soño partitura de jazz improvisada, o soño espello cos rachaduras que reflicte o negado na vixilia, que desvía o lóstrego, que conmove na súa recorrencia).
Un berro cego para as noites sen durmir. Será este o momento? Parou xa a festa do vergallo, a farse das humillacións, as risas esaxeradas que afogaban os berros da vítima, do desgraciado albo de servicias. Retíranse os gardados deixando os despoxos do mártir desangrándose na “sala de lectura”. Chámalle así, con sorna mal disimulada: a sala de lectura. “Aquí lemos os vosos pensamentos, aquí escoitamos historias musitadas, aquí construímos o relato da infamia, aquí espimos a mellor poesía que hai en vós.”
Pésanme as pálpebras, as pernas, os brazos, as costas afúndense no xergón facendo soar as articulacións na procura angustiada de descanso; mais o pensamento, o maldito pensamento, o eu maldito, que se rebela consciente, non se detén nin un só instante, cabalga palabras sobre imaxes, sons sobre verbas chegadas do alén da consciencia, imaxes sobre sons, estoupa en mil planos ao unísono, deseña e esfuma sen acougo, trazando un mapa en catro dimensións, en cinco, con saltos cromáticos, con fundidos en negro, con varridos laterais, con imaxes en calidoscopio, con sons que se fusionan, con mensaxes multilingües, con asociacións inauditas.
Ordenar as rutinas. O importante é ordenar as rutinas. Para non desesperar, o máis importante é ordenar as rutinas. (Rutinas horarias, rutinas cotiás, rutinas semanais, rutinas cotinocturnas.) Agora, pola noite, contar as estrelas. Estrelas verdadeiras (case nunca, aquí, as nubes enseñran do ceo medio ano e a metade do outro medio) e estrelas soñadas (ananas brancas, xigantes marróns, novas, supernovas, estrelas fugaces). Así durante o tempo que leve percorrer as galaxias coñecidas, as constelacións familiares, as combinacións posíbeis. Despois das estrelas, cunha corrente percorrendo o espiñazo e as tempas latexando polos excesos, chega o momento de ensaiar os exercicios de relaxación aprendidos do mestre, as imaxes idealizadas dos ídolos sexuais, a autoestimulación máis violenta.
Xogo a unha lenta acumulación de soños, imaxino as paisaxes reiteradas da nenez, cando xogabamos entre as matas de bambú a ser vietcongs escorregadizos, reptando entre as canas e soportando estoicos a calor abafante do verán. Daquela o mapa de Vietnam enchía a pantalla do aparello de televisor en branco e negro, e alí aprendemos onde ficaban as montañas de Hoi Lin, onde un ano de cada sete cae unha nevarada de escándalo, os ríos que cercan a capital imperial de Hué, a da batalla sen fin, os nenos correndo espidos mentres foxen do napalm, a rota Ho-Chi-Minh, que coa súa barbicha abrancazada pasou a ser modelo do avó que non tiven. Reconstrúo as noites durmindo nunha caserna infecta, onde todo cheiraba a corte e a miseria ética, onde nos prohibían ser nós mesmos, onde nos contaban ducias de veces no día por ver se algún fuxira, coma se houbese a onde fuxir, naquela chaira conxelada no inverno e somerxida no verán nunha néboa tépeda. Lembro os anos pasados no medio do mar inmenso cos vagallóns a cabalgar por riba da ponte de mando, co navío a mercé das correntes e da furia dos furacáns. Penso nos anos que perdín na procura de amores imposíbeis, na reiterada negación do eu ser, no pranto cotián diante do espello que reflectía a imaxe da dexeneración progresiva. Acordo a cada tanto suando no medio dunha crise da malaria que atrapei nas selvas de Camboxa, cando procuraba un tesouro que xamais encontrei, cando pasei fame, tortura e privacións que só a miña idade moza e a forteleza herdada dos antepasados me permitiran soportar. Fío secuencias que se achegan en desorde de datas e paisaxes, de percepción e suxeito, de protagonista e argumento; instantes coma enfoques dunha cámara interna, que acumula fotos sen facer, encadres fantásticos, composicións nunca antes visitadas, combinatorias de cores e de formas. Daquela chegan dos labirintos da memoria, o frío do cano da metralladora encol da caluga, as orellas xeadas camiñando a noite toda para atravesar a fronteira, as dedas sangrando logo de camiñar sobre vidros cando entraran por nós, a lembranza da primeira vez que falei en público repetindo consignas que hoxe farían que arrubiase, aquela tarde na que alguén me ensinou a coller camaróns nas rochas dunha praia en baixamar, ou aquela outra onde mudei unha clase de inglés pola arte de manexar a gadaña, ou naquela na que un meu amigo nomeou de corrido cen paxaros e eu respondín con cen peixes de mar e de río, para ledicia dos demais membros do grupo, que bebían á nosa saúde e apostaban cervexas por ver quen ganaba. Bosquexo na memorias as galerías polas que esvaraba en soños, que sempre ían dar a unha torre octogonal, na que cada parede tiña unha porta que levaba con certeza a un mundo distinto, que foi así como me aprenderan a fauna e a flora das eras diferentes e a razón da persistencia das especies, que se coaran por unha físgoa mentres unha porta se abría para logo entrar noutro mundo paralelo. Trazo no aire caligramas inventados ou soñados, que me ensinaran na escola ou que aprendín no paso do tempo, alfabetos que demarcan xeiras na miña vida, xa non curta. Xogo a ordenar os soños por ver se son quen de durmir, mais os soños non se deixan ordenar e clasificar, non acoden cando queres e sempre rematas por lembrar obsesións e esquecer os soños, agás aqueles que se repiten unha e outra vez dende que es consciente da súa recolección e ordenamento: o soño do faro, o soño da capela ás escuras, o soño do sexo abríndose polos corpos cavernosos, o soño dos ollos enucleados, o soño da reclusión, que agora é tan verdade, tanto como a tiñas soñado, que semella máis unha premonición que un soño. Soños cando regresa o vergallo, cando se escoitan os berros, cando me invade a nostalxia, cando me refuxia nas rutinas.
Ninguén ten dito (ninguén nos dixo, segundo calan) que esperan de nós, que pretenden que lles contemos, cal é a nosa falta. Chegaran en mesnadas como caídos do ceo ou xurdindo das entrañas da terra, arrasando coas súas armas mortíferas todo o que atopaban ao seu paso. Controlaran as comunicacións, os transportes e o comercio, comezando axiña unha campaña de detencións aleatoria. Xogan coa ambigüidade das mensaxes e o medo que xera a incerteza. Endexamais nos interrogan. Ninguén explica (eu non son quen de me explicar) como podo pasar días enteiros sen durmir, con febre, consumido por mil ideas que me asaltan e regresan, que me corroen as entrañas e loitan por escapar do seu cárcere de fluídos, que se queren sólidos, concretas, realizadas…
Regresa o vergallo. Óense berros no fondo do corredor, na “sala de lectura”. Recréanse no estralar sobre a pel mollada. O berro de Thomas. O berro de Cosme. O berro de Andrés. O meu berro. Un berro leopardo para cando me paseen de xeonllos. Ninguén dixo por que nos trouxeran aquí. Resoa o vergallo. Xamais nos interrogan. O importante é ordenar as rutinas. Ninguén por que na noite organizan cacerías de boleadoras e derribo. Quizais esta noite non veñan por min. Será mellor pensar así e non se engurrar coma pangolín en placas.
Pésanme as pálpebras, as pernas, os brazos, as costas afúndense no xergón facendo soar as articulacións na procura do descanso; mais o pensamento, o eu maldito, que se rebela consciente, non se detén nin un só instante, cabalga palabras sobre imaxes, imaxes sobre sons, estoupa en mil planos ao unísono, trazando un mapa en catro dimensións, en cinco, con saltos cromáticos, con fundidos en negro, con varridos laterais, con imaxes en calidoscopio, con sons que se fusionan, con mensaxes plurilingües, con asociacións inauditas.
…É no baleiro onde resoa o vergallo para me devolver a conciencia do exilio. Respiro o aire húmido e o cheiro acre da miña propia miseria ética. Hai tempo que saín da apatía propia da incomprensión e o medo. A ignorancia da miña sorte será tormento para outros aos que quero e xa estraño. Para min é só unha nube imprecisa mentres me sosteño co exercicio da rutina. Virán por min esta noite, ou a outra.
Tento memorizar datas e sucesos, relacionalos entre si, unilos para sempre nunha especie de mantra infinito, nunha cinta helicoidal que se pecha sobre si mesma. Inténtoo aínda que sei que a meirande parte dos vectores trazados estarán condenados ao fracaso, que a memoria me traizoará, repetida e mecanicamente, con asociacións espurias, con bucles de imaxes e de signos, con verbos que se asociarán a momentos imposíbeis, con lagoas de días ou de meses.
É imposíbel durmir cercado por estes pensamentos recorrentes, negando a realidade exterior, a realidade dos outros, ensumíndome en retracción outonal de depósitos e engurras ata renunciar aos sentidos, perdido nun labirinto de verbas que acoden a cachón, que martelan as tempas en cadoiro de signos, que impiden conciliar o soño.
Jacob Rogers is a translator of Galician prose and poetry based in Spain. His translations have appeared in Asymptote, PRISM International, Cagibi, Your Impossible Voice, Nashville Review, The Brooklyn Rail InTranslation, and the Portico of Galician Literature, with work forthcoming in Best European Fiction 2019. His translation of Carlos Casares’ novel, His Excellency, came out from Small Stations Press in 2017. More of Xavier Queipo’s work is forthcoming from Copper Nickel in the fall, with an anthology of his stories slated for publication by Small Stations Press in 2021.
Xavier Queipo is a Galician writer based in Brussels, Belgium. He has published nearly twenty books, ranging from fiction to poetry, to children’s literature, as well as essays. He has won several prizes for his novels, including the Spanish Critics Prize in 1991, for The Arctic, and Other Seas, and the Blanco Amor Prize in 2015 for his most recent novel, Os Kowa. His work has been translated into English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, and he was one of the four collaborators on the 2013 award-winning translation of Ulysses into Galician.
The Icon is an emerging American digital visual artist. With a love for cartoons and fun imagery, Izosceles discovered their adoration for artistic expression at a young age. Their works are colorful in nature; however, some have deeper tones underneath the playful, digestible surface. Growing up on cartoons as a child is what inspires their bold lines […]
When I was thinking back on how to write up this piece on Red Clocks by Leni Zumas, I kept struggling with the words to put down. How can I best write about a fictitious society that criminalized reproductive rights while we in the US are quite literally on the brink of a collapse of these rights? Perhaps that sounds a bit dramatic, but I read this book months ago and it feels like every week there’s another barrage of #MeToo moments or sexual assault allegations or attacks on reproductive rights. In light of everything happening in our political and societal climate, it becomes much more difficult to separate the facts from this all-too-real fiction. And since Zumas first published this book in January of 2018, it’s not hard to see how this book connects with, and comments on, our reality.
Red Clocks is a fiction novel that is set in a present-day America with one major change: abortions are outlawed and any woman even seeking one is criminalized and charged. Zumas creates a terrifying mirror image of our current society as she weaves the stories and lives of four different women together: The Biographer, The Daughter, The Wife, and The Mender. All four of these people have a specific agenda and dilemma they are facing, but they all stem from the basis of this anti-woman society. Roberta Stephens, The Biographer, struggles with difficulties to conceive a child while fighting to get approved for adoption before a new law passes that will require every child to have two married parents. Mattie Quarles, The Daughter, is isolated and terrified to discover she’s a pregnant teen and has nowhere or no one to turn to. Susan Korsmo, The Wife, is torn between trying to keep her family together for the sake of her kids and needing to leave her husband because she isn’t appreciated and feels lost and without identity. Gin Percival, The Mender, is the woman who lives in the woods and secretly provides herbal remedies and help to women.
On the surface, it might not be obvious exactly how and why all these women are struggling and why the roots of their problems stem from the anti-woman rhetoric. However, in a society that criminalizes women’s sexuality and forces a heteronormative family image, it doesn’t leave much room for support between women. They are all trying to make it in this world that is doing everything it can to make things more difficult and dangerous for them.
Not only that, but this society designates each of them to a certain role within their lives. Throughout the novel, the narration only refers to these four women with their roles or nomenclatures. This reinforces the parameters within which each woman can operate or how they’re viewed in the world. But at the same time, we as readers can see the pushback against some of these roles. Roberta, for example, is a working on a biography of Eivør Minervudottir who was a polar explorer, but she’s also a teacher. She’s working on recording Eivør’s history while directly impacting the futures of those students around her. It’s a reminder that no one ever only has one role or one purpose.
The greatest thing that Zumas does throughout this work is to create four compelling dynamics and lives to showcase just how much this affects everyone. Roberta just wants to have a child, but can’t get pregnant because the one
thing that would help her—IVF treatments—have also been outlawed since embryos cannot consent to the procedure. Literal embryos—cells—have more power than a full-grown woman in this society. On the other hand, you might see Susan as someone who’s doing completely fine. She has a husband and family and everything seems good on the surface, but her home life is devastating. She fluctuates between wanting to try and save her marriage, though her husband refuses to even consider going to couples therapy and just leaving him. She’s aware of how much society would blame her for the breakdown of her marriage; she’s also terrified that her children would blame her. We as outsiders can see just how sad and over-worked she is without any help or appreciation from her husband.
Mattie and Gin would be the most obvious examples of why this society is bad because they have the most obviously dire situations. Gin is illegally offering help to women who are struggling with their reproductive rights and health. Mattie is completely alone as she struggles with her pregnancy. It’s through Mattie that we really see how much everyone has to lose here because anyone Mattie tells is not only then implicated and could be jailed and convicted, but they could also turn Mattie in.
This society is so desperately trying to paint itself as the “hero for the unborn,” but it’s completely missing the real and devastating impacts on the actual people in the world. It gives a clear and definitive message that women are not as important because they’re the ones suffering in this world. Gin is arrested and tried for her crimes, but there’s not even a single mention of the fact that she’s been supplementing additional help for women in other ways—just like Planned Parenthood. While Gin does have a tonic that could cause an abortion, she’s also the only person to mention that perhaps Roberta might have polycystic ovary syndrome, which might help explain her troubles at getting pregnant. Roberta had to ask her doctor to run a test because the doctor hadn’t even thought to test her before. Roberta even says at one point that “she is submitting her area to all kinds of invasion without understanding a fraction of what’s being done to it” (14). These new laws have become dangerous and blatantly ignore the health of these women for the sake of having a more “natural” or “traditional” family.
Zumas using these four different women to tell the story of this world helps everyone understand the realities and how it truly does affect everyone. These outrageous laws didn’t happen overnight; they started with small steps that eventually spiraled into the harsh criminalization of women seeking reproductive health and rights. It started with anti-abortion messaging and then criminalized it. That led to the upcoming law, Every Child Needs Two, which states that “unmarried persons will be legally prohibited from adopting children” (37). The slow descent of this society and the rights of the people living here show that no woman is going to be safe forever and that hopefully eventually everyone will begin to take notice of these laws. Roberta herself says that people “forgot about [the law] promptly after hearing it, because the law did not apply to her” (165). Having multiple characters and each having a distinct point of view and story to tell, helped us readers to not ignore others for the sake of our protagonist.
Zumas paints a terrifying example of where we might end up if we continue on this path of criminalizing and punishing women and their sexuality. Women are expected to be ready to raise a child the first time they have sex because we have equated the two so closely in our conservative minds. It’s always shocking to me that no one on the conservative side of this issue ever seems to actually try and understand where these women are coming from. I can only hope that the society described in Zumas’s novel doesn’t come to pass because I truly fear that there might not be a way out for us from there.
Zumas, Leni. Red Clocks. New York, Little Brown and Company, 2018.
Sara Voigt is a current MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles where she’s pursuing her masters in creative writing. She also works on the literary journal Lunch Ticket, where she’s working as proof edit manager and managing editor. Originally from Wisconsin, she currently lives and works in the Los Angeles area.
Last night I dreamt of institutions. A thousand days
of mood stabilizers and shock therapy.
A spoon rolls over my tongue
but I do not gag on the bitterness, my throat
is already full of what everyone else
needs to be comfortable
with me being alive.
My grandmother lives in Cuba.
Mother rarely speaks of her.
I close my eyes and a puddle forms
inside my skull. Beside it, in a rocking-chair
a bitter old man is braying something at the ooze
about it being one thing to imagine dying
and another to actually try it.
She woke one morning
and was gone.
Her body left a year later.
Mother hasn’t seen her in decades.
Lately, I’ve been speaking
in some dead or dying language
through an opaque shell
couched atop my shoulders. I scream
and no one hears me. My body is a glass box
I am always staring into. There is always
another room. We could call this place home
and disappear into its wild.
I tell my mother I am schizophrenic
just like grandma, and she says
“we don’t know for sure,”
while I watch
as every graveyard
begins to fill
with dancing ghosts. Mother—
I am growing you a city in my grief.
This morning I woke
and the puddle had gone.
J. David is from Cleveland, OH, and serves as poetry editor for FlyPaper Magazine.
You is not you. It certainly isn’t me, although after the initial shock of being ‘you,’ you think ‘you’ is me. Anyhoo, you take me by the hand and we climb the stairs, taking each step as slowly as if each step was a crossing into another forbidden dimension. BTW, ‘me’ isn’t me but the ‘stairs’ are those concrete stairs that appear out of nowhere in Echo Park and go straight back up to nowhere because they were stairs to a housing estate that never got built way back when LA was still being planned into the LA that never got built. I wish… I wish ‘me’ was me and that you are this person I’ve always felt hovering around the periphery of my consciousness, kind, intelligent, reliable, thoughtful and so damn mature that you shock me out of the ‘me’ story. Wait. Maybe it’s better if the ‘stairs’ isn’t that ‘stairs’ but the one in Santorini which feels like Ancient Greece, you know, the one that almost killed us because it was so long and steep, the passageway connecting the cliffside Village of Too Many Tourists to the beach sparking the coast of twilight. I say ‘sparking’ because what’s important in this flash is the restaurant that grilled super fresh fish right on the beach. If you were me, you would know why I use ‘sparking’ and how delicious expertly grilled red mullet tastes and looks and smells and how that was the best meal we had in Greece. At this point I am not me. But you. You are me, the me of this flash, climbing up the stairs that may or may not exist but will always exist here, in this flash, where you are right now, trapped in an insufferable POV. And for that, I thank you.
J.A. Pak’s writing has been published in Luna Luna, Joyland, Entropy, 7×7, Queen Mob’s Tearoom, and others. Come and visit her at Triple Eight Palace of Dreams & Happiness.
When I was seventeen, my daily food consumption consisted of two apples per day, nothing more and nothing less.
Every single calorie that I ate was tracked, measured, and promptly exterminated like a nasty virus through rigorous exercise. Every aspect of my life revolved around numbers: calories in, calories out, how many minutes on the treadmill, the numeric size of my jeans, and how many days until I could eat “bad” foods once again. A typical apple has anywhere from seventy to one hundred calories, depending on the size. Based on this information, I would need to burn off at least two hundred and fifty calories to ensure my weight on the scale would be lower for my daily next morning weigh in. A routine that consisted of immediately waking up, pissing out every ounce of fluid I could, then removing all of my clothes before stepping on my electronic scale. Watching those numbers flash while calculating would determine my worth that day, worthy if I lost at least one pound and unworthy if I gained even an ounce. At least, this is what my anorexia told me every day, as a mantra for my weakening willpower.
The kind of apples I ate differed each time, but I mainly stuck to red or Fuji apples. The green apples were too sweet, which told the rigorous calorie tracker inside my head to place this type of apple on the “banned foods list,” since it contained more sugar which would make me gain weight. I stuck to my reliable apple diet for about six months until I passed out cold while walking on the treadmill which, sadly, was stationed in my living room for “convenience.” That particular evening, I had been walking on an incline up the treadmill, grinding along to Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” when everything stopped. The lights went out, internally, as my body went on strike. The little men inside my digestive track were all out of coal to shovel into the fires of my metabolism oven. With this immediate shutdown, my body slumped to the ground beside the treadmill. Though I did not know it then, this uninvited collapse and fall would kick start my literal freefall from anorexia.
I opened my eyes to find that I was laying on my back, facing the direct blast of the whooshing ceiling fan, suddenly thankful for its cool gusts. Before I had a moment to get up and brush the dog hair off my butt, my mom screamed “Bethany!”
It wasn’t the usual scream that accompanies a burst of anger; this was a scream that was animalistic in its concern. Something I hadn’t heard in my mom’s voice since I was child and fell off the monkey bars, landing on my right arm, fracturing it. She reached for me, before she lifted me up to a wobbly standing position. Her soft hand brushed the beads of sweat off my flushed skin, like a warm soothing washcloth wiping away the remnants of a long day. She cupped my face in her hands, looking into my eyes for any sign of proper motor functioning. “That’s enough,” she said. Before I could answer, Gwen Stefani answered for me with the poetic verse of “this shit is bananas. B.A.N.A.N.A.S…” For the first time in what seemed like years, I agreed. That’s enough and yes, this shit is Bananas.
My face became bright red, the same color of my daily apples as I began to hold in my breath, trying to keep my rage from bursting forth from my chest, like a scene out of Alien. I wasn’t angry at her, but at myself, for not being strong enough to complete my workout and burn off the calories. What kind of wimp passes out from walking on a treadmill? Those two hundred calories would take at least thirty minutes of speed walking to destroy and now I was forced to stop. I, for once in a very long time, had to wave the white flag and admit defeat to my body. My inner voice began to scream at me, you’re going to gain weight tonight. My breathing quickened and I felt like my heart was pounding loudly outside of my chest. My mom led me to the couch as I willingly collapsed onto its cushions like a trust fall. The weight that I had worked so hard to get rid of those past six months would consume me like an infectious skin eating disease. Still a desperate virgin and never having been in a relationship, I blamed my body size on this failure. No boy would ever love me, I thought. I would never be small enough for a guy to pick me up and carry me over his shoulder, never be able to wear a string bikini at the beach, and never pose for pictures with other girls and feel confident knowing that I too was a “sexy girl.” My entire existence relied on losing weight and obtaining a better figure. I wanted that power that came with having a desirable body. I wanted to keep that confidence I had rightfully earned.
Watching those numbers flash while calculating would determine my worth that day, worthy if I lost at least one pound and unworthy if I gained even an ounce. At least, this is what my anorexia told me every day, as a mantra for my weakening willpower.
Looking back now, with a clear mind and realistic eyes, I feel such empathy for that naive teenage girl. But, I understand why I felt such self-loathing. Starting with my childhood, I always was given the title of “big girl.” No matter how little I ate, I always had a belly. It stuck out like a pregnant woman, especially after a large meal. I remember my eighth birthday party, sitting in front of a large white sheet cake and surrounded at my kitchen table by all my family and friends. What should have been a happy moment had become overshadowed by how miserable I felt. Ten minutes before it was time to cut my cake, as I was exiting the pool to dry off as per my mom’s orders, my cousin Jacob pointed at me in front of everyone and shouted, “Wow! You’re so fat.” No one laughed or said anything, but I felt their eyes staring into the layers of fat that encircled my round belly and jiggly thighs. I pulled at my swimsuit so that it wouldn’t cling to my body as I rushed past Jacob, and past the stares of my family. Everyone in the Scott family has what we affectionately call a “beer belly.” It’s my physical curse that I carry everywhere. It would take six months of starvation to realize that no matter how hard I pushed, cried, and walked, this curse could never be broken. But, my spirit and mental health could be.
It the summer of 2005 when I said enough, it’s time to try and lose some weight! I was about to enter my junior year of high school and I was extremely overweight at two hundred and forty pounds. I was a size eighteen in pants and wore XXL shirts, which was always a challenge to buy since most of the young adult clothing only went up to a petite XL. I was tired of having to wear Granny-style shirts, lovingly bought for me by my mother at Bealls. She would never say the words aloud, but I know she felt disappointed at my size. At family parties, I couldn’t help but feel a disconnection from my family as I compared my size to everyone. I was, at that moment, roughly the same weight as my large six foot-something uncles. Two of my cousins, both around the same age, were not overweight. More importantly, they were not quiet or self-conscious about their appearance. I was extremely shy and quiet, mostly because I felt I had to be that way. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, at least not to my weight. You become the literal elephant in the room. I don’t remember the exact date, but I do remember coming home from a summer party at my Nana’s house and telling my mom cautiously that “I want to start losing weight. I think I need to, don’t you?” She closed her eyes and nodded yes. My body had become a problem, and it desperately needed to be solved. So, I did. But like all problems, sometimes we don’t know how to draw a line in the sand of acceptance.
In the July-October months of 2005, I did what most people did to lose weight: counted calories. My weight loss journey began by cutting out half of what I would’ve normally eaten. Then, I cut out all carbs. Soda was the first item placed on the “banned foods” list in my notebook, with candy and all forms of carbohydrates added by September. By Halloween, I was down forty pounds and did I feel fantastic! I had so much more energy. My clothes were now loose instead of tight. I went down to a size fourteen and threw out all of my “fat” clothes. I was a weight loss addict, who got high by watching the number go down every day on the scale.
More! More I say!
I came to the conclusion by November that all the food I was eating, like Lean Cuisines or a Slim Fast, were not natural and therefore going to stall my weight loss. So I placed those on the banned list and stuck to only fruits, particularly apples. I had always loved the smell of apples, with their crisp sweet aroma. It always made my mouth water just thinking about biting into a big juicy red apple and hearing a nice snap! as my teeth gnawed through its core. Fruit was natural and healthy for you, so why not only eat apples? Around the end of November, I found that the scale would no longer budge as much as I wanted daily. I decided to only eat one apple for lunch, one for dinner, and then fast all night and morning with only bottled water to drink. I told myself that water would fill my stomach up, so the hunger pains would stop. Maybe it was all psychological or maybe it was a lie I told myself, but I truly never felt hunger pains. My stomach growled, but there was no real pain. If there was, it was pushed aside for the euphoric sensations that came with my weight loss. As the scale went down a pound each day, I felt so alive and enthusiastic about my life for once. I became more social at school, more confident when talking to boys, and I felt that I could compete with others my age. I was no longer on the lower end of the social totem pole. Yet, that nagging voice in my head was always there to make me question my self-worth and to tell me false stories about what others thought of me, really. I was my own worst enemy.
When you focus all of your energy and thoughts into weight loss, life begins to swirl around you like a tornado loaded with cows that “MOO” at you as you are contemplating cheating on your diet with a delicious gooey cinnamon roll. Hell, a piece of stale dried up cheese appeals to your now desperate taste buds. Without the worry of where and when to eat, you have an awful lot of free time on your hands to examine your life and it’s inadequacies. You question your entire being and wonder how much weight you’d have to lose to make others like you. How much weight would it take for me to finally feel confident enough to stand in front of a group of people without feeling like a freak? For me, at the hopeless virginal stage of my late teens, I wondered how much weight I would have to lose in order to make any hot guy want to have sex with me. When every aspect of my acceptance revolved around my body, it’s no wonder why I developed a terrible eating habit that would cause permanent psychological damage, which has stuck with me like that annoying shirt tag that sharply scratches your back, even after cutting it out. You shrug your shoulders, but it still occasionally irritates you. Anorexia comes with incessant thoughts about the one thing you want but can’t have, no matter how hard your mom tries to persuade you with a sliver of pizza or a bottle of crisp apple juice instead of that small apple. After a while of denying your body food, all kinds of tasty meals begin to occupy your every thought. When I look back at my journal during my period of anorexia, all I see are lists upon lists of different foods I would eat once I reached my goal weight. Pumpkin pie, pancakes, cheeseburger, fries with copious amounts of ketchup, and even olives made the most wanted list. After that fateful day when I passed out on my treadmill, I caved and allowed myself to have one cheat day in six months. I told myself, one meal won’t hurt, right? But, as I learned, once I gave in to my temptations, I could never hop back onto my winning streak of anorexia. Within two months of that cheat day, I had regained twenty pounds. I started a new diet: which was to have days of binging on all those yummy foods in my banned foods list, then days of complete starvation to counteract the weight gain. I once ate a Cheeseburger from McDonald’s, and then punished myself by not eating for three days.
The truth is that not everyone who has or had an eating disorder looked like this, no matter how hard they tried. Some of us, myself included, have bodies that regardless of how much we lose weight still appear to the casual passerby as being “normal” or “healthy.”
By February, I was about 160 lbs. Do you want to know the most shocking part of this whole ordeal? The lowest weight I was ever able to get down to was 128 pounds—with starvation. If you had taken one look at me, you would have never guessed that deep inside was this nagging monster that thrived on self-hatred and physical punishment. You probably would have said I was a chubby girl, even at my lowest weight, which was the one title I so desperately tried to erase from my resume. By March, I stopped every diet plan. Although I wanted to fit into those size eight jeans that hung up in my closet like a trophy on display, it just wasn’t worth the daily struggle of resisting any food I craved. That award wasn’t worth winning anymore. I wanted to be free from all restrictions and expectations. Stopping my eating disorder was the hardest and yet most freeing moment of my life. I began a new journey, one of self-love and acceptance of myself, rolls and all.
One of the main issues I’ve always struggled with when coming to terms with my eating disorder is telling others about that period of time. It’s not that I’m shy or feel uneasy sharing such personal information. No, it’s because every time I have told anyone that I was once anorexic they take one look at my obviously not so thin figure and literally laugh or mentally “pfff sure” me. I can’t say I exactly blame them, because I would do the same if I had never experienced an eating disorder. When I was in college, I was over at my boyfriend Chris’s house when somehow those six months of my anorexia popped into our conversation. I told an entire table full of his family, including his mom, all about my apples and the aftermath of my fall. His mom, who had been listening from her patio chair, would later tell Chris that I was completely full of shit. As they cleaned up the after party mess around their house, she recalled my story about my anorexia while laughing; pointing out that my current weight at that time was definitely an indicator of my lies. She said, “How could someone like her have been anorexic?”
The worst part was that though he didn’t say the words, I knew he agreed with her. Looking now at my size fourteen body, with all the jiggles and rolls that shake like Jell-O as I walk, it’s hard to imagine anything other than a daunt, skeletal figure. The irony of it all is that they are right, I never was bone thin. That image is what the dramatic movies showcase. That image is what comes to mind when you hear the words “anorexia” and “bulimia.” What I wish more people understood is that the image where one’s skin is stretched tightly over protruding bones happens when the disorder becomes life-threatening. It’s when your body has depleted every ounce of fat and is now eating away at your muscles, desperate for something to make fuel out of. Nothing about my eating disorder or figure was stereotypical, thankfully. But sometimes, especially when I reopen that scar that once was a gaping hole, I wonder if people’s reactions would be different if I was a smaller size naturally. By allowing myself to share my story, I become vulnerable, like a weakened animal. I crave, more than anything now, a sign of empathy. But, I rarely receive it. After twelve years of searching, I’ve given up on telling my story. Instead, I store it in my “teenage years” section of my memory closet. But, with this essay, it’s time to release my story into the world in hopes that someone else, boy or girl, will read it and know that your negative thoughts about your body are not real. Your body image can be distorted, regardless of your age or weight. Thin, fat, tall, short, wide, petite, and everything in between can experience shame from within.
Eating disorders are portrayed using conventional images of rail-thin young girls, with pencil-like legs and hollowed out eyes. These girls are so thin that just looking at them makes your stomach drop and your heartache for their well-being. The truth is that not everyone who has or had an eating disorder looked like this, no matter how hard they tried. Some of us, myself included, have bodies that regardless of how much we lose weight still appear to the casual passerby as being “normal” or “healthy.” Some of us can deplete every ounce of body fat and still have “weight” on them. Not everyone, boy or girl, can completely change their body type to that of someone who “looks anorexic.” I’ve found, from talking to many other women who had an eating disorder in their teenage years, most were like me. And like me, their stories remain hidden due to the fear of having one more person doubt the most emotionally painful experience of their life.
Something that also comes with having the label of “former anorexic” is the question of how you stopped. “Didn’t they send you to a rehab or something?” is the most asked question, and to their surprise, my answer is always, “No, I just stopped.” If you already didn’t believe my tale of woe with anorexia, this statement guarantees a “yeah, sure” look. Not everyone who once had an eating disorder was given the luxury of attending an expensive rehab vacation to work out the fat-shaming demons from your head. I’ve always looked at my recovery as being like a smoker who finally reached their limit and quit cold turkey. You reach a point where the starving, the longing for food, hair loss, feeling cold in ninety-degree Florida weather, and lack of self-love becomes too much to bear. You reach your tolerance level and decide to never go back. To put it simply, you’re just tired of all the bullshit.
The reality is you’re never really cured from an eating disorder. It lays dormant in your head, constantly reminding you of the power you once had over your body, and how wonderful it would feel again. It’s like a drug, in that it brings comfort and chaos. It patronizes you when you eat a bag of chips, cookies, or even drink a small glass of ice cold Coke. It’s constantly reminding you of all the opportunities you’re missing out on because of your weight. You tell yourself lies in order to get through your current state of shame, like “I’m fat right now, but if I lose ten pounds by the end of July, I can finally show off my thighs in that cute sundress!” You tell yourself that your confidence would be boosted, your energy levels will be through the roof, and most importantly, just how much people would like you if you only lost enough weight to fit in with all the other “normal” women. But here’s the thing, your mind is full of shit and lies to you all the time. It’s hard to see it, because you literally live inside your head, but your mind can be a frenemy when given the opportunity. It preys on your weaknesses like a shark smelling blood, ready to pounce when its victim is already sensing an unknown danger lurking below the water’s depth.
Starting with my childhood, I always was given the title of “big girl.”
It’s hard to truly love yourself when your mind plays Devil’s advocate every day. You try and decide what to eat for lunch, which sends you on a rollercoaster of ups and downs. You tell yourself that you should eat a big and savory Cobb salad, along with a bottle of unsweetened iced tea, sweetened only with stevia. Sounds okay, right? Especially since you’re trying to eat better, but the reality is you’re so hungry and want something more filling, more satisfying to bite into. This is when you get hit with an “Oh! What about a cheeseburger from Five Guys?” Then your mind and desires begin to battle back and forth until eventually you decide what’s going to make you feel better right now? If you go with the salad, you’ve proven to yourself that you do indeed have strong willpower. If you go with the cheeseburger, you feel great while eating it and your savor every single bite. But, within a few minutes, you feel shame. You’ve lost the battle today and you feel like such a complete failure. You tell yourself that this is why you’re failing in various aspects of your life. If you can’t even resist one cheeseburger, how in the hell are you ever going to write that book? Or, find a hot guy to hit on you? Why, Bethany, are you like this? You make promises to yourself about how you’re going to change, how next week we will diet. But, every single time, you fail. So this vicious cycle of shame continues onward, as it has now for me since 2006, post-anorexia.
I’ve been searching for any sort of validation that I’m not batshit insane since my literal fall from my eating disorder. I’ve gone these past twelve years with an unshakable feeling of shame regarding my eating habits and, of course, weight. No matter how many of my friends, family, or strangers compliment me on my appearance, I still have that voice in my head that pipes up and says Uh, yeah, let’s not get too confident there, girl. You know that the mirror doesn’t lie, bitch. You’d think that because of this voice, I’d avoid mirrors, but it’s quite the opposite. I love looking at myself in the mirror. Some days, I can look in the mirror and just focus on the good parts of my physical beauty. I think I have a pretty face. I like my dark Italian features, like my wonderfully thick hair (eyebrows included). I love how my eyes are both green and brown, which is like a beautiful swirling of my Irish and Italian features.
But, I can never look at apples, especially the ones in my mom’s fake plastic fruit basket that sits upon our kitchen table, with the same innocent eyes. All I see is that desperate girl, who doesn’t know that only time can bring her the kind of acceptance she so badly craves.
Bethany Bruno is a born and raised Florida Writer. She attended Flagler College, in St. Augustine, FL, where she earned her B.A in English. She later attended the University of North Florida for her M.A. Before becoming a Library Specialist, she was an English Teacher and a Park Ranger with the National Park Service. Her work has been previously published in The Flagler Review, Lunch Ticket, Paragon Press, Underwood Press, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and Ripples in Space. She’s currently working on her debut novel, “From the Passenger Seat.” She lives in Port Saint Lucie, FL.
First thing you learn is to swallow a fist/ that sets its aim/ on the white manager who calls you/ so articulate/ as if the notion is as rare as a nun in full habit/ or unicorns/ I learned to play house/ with dolls I’d rather bury/ and frilly girls I’d prefer to avoid/ my mother taught me to keep your true friends hidden/ and your daydreams to yourself/ you knew Reagan was an awful president/ but never said outside the home/ clouds are for white girls/ and silver-haired bosses with striped chrome ties/ press your hair/ think corsage and prom/ not botany and muddy sport/ hold your aptitude on your sleeve/ but not too much/ just a tint of intelligence is enough/ lest you be branded WANNABE or uppity/ you make people uncomfortable if they’re unable to place you/ bite your nails/ scream in your pillow/ tell no one/ be quiet/ be sociable but non-threatening/ say please and thank you/ earn an unobtrusive living/ get married/ have kids/ get divorced get remarried have more kids/ go to church/ be quiet/ sing in the choir/ you hate gospel but no one needs to know/ wear sunblock/ despise the sun/ tiptoe/ don’t spill anything/ mistakes are for white people/ work hard work hard work hard/ be normal/ compact your aura/ wear heels/ put your game face on/ huddle/ don’t intrude or invade/ eat bland food/ truncate your name/ swallow your fist your pride your everything/ understand the gravity of your situation/ you are predicament/ you are flash and other other other/ swallow it all
Call Me Animal
I feel the need to pulverize
a white and guarded space.
A wolf buys a townhouse surely
to rend and transmogrify the cherubs in your garden.
Kestrels at a wine tasting beg to differ
they shriek and dive in groups of three
someone ought to do something
they’ll only multiply if the hunting’s good.
with their shiny teeth and coiled manes are everywhere
too sudden too much loud spices and howling
stomping hooves and marking territory with Jazz and inventions.
with a gospel of bodies
Gryllidae warned you the revolution will be televised
indivisible hoodies Pynk in the Bible Belt
on the scent on the hunt on the verge.
Nicole Burney is a native of New Jersey. She’s fascinated by linguistics and how language reveals layers of estrangement and human identity. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Cold Creek Review, Glass Poetry Press, Cleaver Magazine, and Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora. Nicole is currently working on her first full-length collection entitled BLACK MAMBA.
Valeria Luiselli earned her PhD in comparative literature from Columbia University and has received awards from the Los Angeles Times, the Azul Prize, and the National Book Foundation. Her books include Sidewalks, Faces in the Crowd, The Story of My Teeth, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, and now, Lost Children Archive. Her work also appears in The New York Times, Granta, McSweeney’s, and The New Yorker, and has been translated into more than twenty languages.
As the female protagonist, a wife and mother of two, packs books for a cross-country road trip in Luiselli’s latest lyrical, culturally relevant novel, Lost Children Archive, the character ruminates on why citizens of the world read.
“When someone else’s words enter your consciousness like that, they become small conceptual light-marks. They’re not necessarily illuminating,” she muses. “But sometimes a little light can make you aware of the dark, unknown space that surrounds it, of the enormous ignorance that envelops everything we think we know.”
Whether the reader of these thoughts is a writer, MFA student, or lifelong learner, the author encapsulates our own experiences of processing and internalizing literature—to expel some of the darkness in our knowledge bases.
To call Luiselli just a smart writer would be an oversimplification of her broad range. She is prescient but funny, politically brilliant (holding unparalleled knowledge of the child migrant crisis), and incisive but warm: a writing polymath. Lost Children Archive dips and soars on an emotional bell curve while maintaining rigorous attention to literary influences, current events, and story structure.
Luiselli recently spoke with me on the novel writing process, media coverage of the migrant refugee crisis, engagement in differing communities, self-translation, the books we should all read, and word fetishes. Our conversation was humor-filled but so informative—illuminating—much like the experience of reading Luiselli’s work:
E.P. Floyd: Can you talk a little about your writing process for Lost Children Archive? I know you wrote The Story of My Teeth in weekly installments for factory workers, who were your first readers. So, how was this novel writing process different?
Valeria Luiselli: I in fact started writing this novel in that summer of 2014 when the refugee crisis at the border erupted, and I wrote it during the next four years or so. Tell Me How It Ends [Luiselli’s long form essay on her experience as a volunteer translator for migrant children] was a bit of a hiatus from the novel-writing process. That came at a moment when I realized I was using the novel as a vehicle for my own political thought, my political rage, my activism, and I was both spoiling the prose, stuffing it, and also not doing the situation justice by using the novel as that kind of vehicle. So, I had to stop writing the novel for a long time, for about six months, and write Tell Me How It Ends. I was able to articulate what I wanted to articulate in a nonfictional form, more spare and to the point, that purely just denounces the situation, without much more. It’s a very straightforward book—it denounces and portrays. Only then was I able to go back to Lost Children Archive and think about it no longer as an instrument or as a means to an end, but as an exploration in itself.
EPF: That’s fascinating. I didn’t realize that you wrote both at the same time. But, I see it now, the influence.
VL: Right. In many senses, the novel doesn’t answer any question, but it unfolds some of the questions that are asked in Tell Me How It Ends, both the question of what would happen if my own children were alone at the border, and some of the stories left undeveloped completely in Tell Me How It Ends, particularly the story about the two girls, who I actually did meet in court when I started volunteering and translating for kids, and whom I never knew anything about after that one interview. Those are the ghostly presences in the very heart of this novel.
EPF: Are you still keeping up with and are you satisfied with the way the news media in the US is handling the refugee crisis, and what would you like to see more of?
VL: Am I satisfied? No, I’m not satisfied. But, it’s not a US thing. The way that these kinds of narratives are formed is very sensationalist, very much based on a kind of shock politics. As soon as something wears out, the media stops paying attention even though usually the consequences of violence towards communities reach much deeper, and linger for such a long time. Sometimes, even if there’s no shocking headline, things are usually just not covered. We were just talking about things like family separation this past summer. While it was happening, many other things were happening, whose effects are much more long lasting, like little tiny changes to policy, things that are difficult to understand. It’s a kind of reporting that tends to shy away from nuance and complexity, but also from what seem to be boring, technical details. It’s not all about, like, cages and blood—but also the everyday institutional violence that’s not as shiny and not as loud, but that should be reported on.
EPF: Thank you for sharing that, because the female narrator in Lost Children Archive is a journalist, or she identifies as a journalist. There are all these incredible revelations and concerns about how to tell a story and what story to tell in the book. She’s worrying at one point about cultural appropriation, and she lists out all these concerns she has when telling a story:
“Constant concerns: Cultural appropriation, pissing all over someone else’s toilet seat, who am I to tell this story, micromanaging identity politics, heavy-handedness, am I too angry, am I mentally colonized by Western-Saxon-white categories, what’s the correct use of personal pronouns, go light on the adjectives, and oh, who gives a fuck how very whimsical phrasal verbs are?”
Which concerns of these do you share, and what concerns do you want readers to take away?
VL: I suppose all of the above. We all partake in forms of journalistic or writerly sloppiness and have to be constantly checking ourselves to see where we’re writing from, the things that we’re not looking at, the things that we’re assuming. I think those kind of questions are not the end of a discourse, but the beginning, like you should know where you narrate from in order to from there go into more complex questions. It was very clear for me, writing Tell Me How It Ends, that I belong to the Hispanic community. We belong to many communities at the same time, we’re intersectional, we’re in different worlds at the same time. So, I belong to the Hispanic community, but at the same time I belong to the literary community, which gives me a platform, and at that same time I belong to a community in which I was highly educated here, in a PhD program, so that gives me a certain responsibility, a social responsibility. I try to be very conscious of those things, and I try to also be transparent about where I’m writing from. Tell Me How It Ends, for example, is a book that has a personal strand just for the purpose of disclosing of where I’m speaking from.
EPF: I think you told Democracy Now in 2017 that violence starts with language, but so does resistance. What kind of resistance are you hoping to see from publication and from the effects of the book?
VL: I think if a novel creates a political dent in the world in which it falls, then all the better. I mean if it’s a good one, of course. But I don’t think you can write or walk into a project with that kind of expectation, especially not a fictional work. And that’s exactly why I stopped writing the novel for a period. Because I was trying to do just that and I was, as I said earlier, ruining the novel and not doing justice to the subject. The essay that I wrote, Tell Me How It Ends, is a very different beast. That was a political statement and meant to disclose a very pure, political stance. A novel, I don’t think, can or should do that. It becomes this lofty, heavy-handed, pedagogical thing. A novel needs to be a place where real people breathe, and they have sex, and they pee. [A novel with a political message] really just becomes this instrument for personal politics. It’s terrible. Characters become archetypes and personality becomes only traits. One always hopes that something good will come of it. But I have no expectation in that sense.
EPF: Exactly. A novel with a political message will just feel really forced and…propaganda-esque. One thing I wanted to ask you that doesn’t have much to do with the book—what do you think, besides Lost Children Archive, we should all be reading?
VL: That’s a good question. What should I tell you? There are so many things that are good and important. I just unpacked half of my library. Well, all of my library, actually. I had always had my books in Mexico until I moved to a house. I bought a house in the Bronx last year.
EPF: Oh, congratulations!
VL: Thank you! And then, I was able to ship, after ten years, all my books to New York from Mexico. It’s been really such a discovery to see what I know from the books that had always been my books. They’re mostly philosophy, because I studied philosophy. So, I’ve been opening a few books up and reading them here and there. I’m kind of there in that universe right now, reading little bits and pieces of things that I read long ago—Gadamer’s Truth and Method. Kant, essays on history. No one’s going to pay any attention to this part of the conversation.
EPF: Oh, they will!
VL: But, you know, this year, there are a couple of interesting books coming out. Samanta Schweblin’s first book, A Mouthful of Birds, is coming out this year in English. I think she wrote it like twelve years ago. That’s an amazing book. Everything she writes is fantastic. I always struggle with this question.
EPF: It’s probably because you read so much to begin with it’s hard to make recommendations. I think that’s a good thing.
VL: There’s also a book by Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism, which is about the prison-industrial complex. She brings in a much more complex way of hearing incarceration in the US, incarceration in the criminal justice system, but also in the immigration system. It’s a very good book, a vital book. In translation, Alejandra Pizarnik’s books came out in the last couple of years, and they’re very interesting.
EPF: It looks like you referenced, in an interview with the New School, that you wrote this book in English and then did some self-translating into Spanish. What was that process like?
VL: This book, just like Tell Me How It Ends, I wrote in English. I self-translated Tell Me How It Ends into Spanish. But I’m not self-translating this novel, because it’s just too big of an animal. I attempted it, but I started rewriting it completely. Then I thought, it’s another five years of this. I didn’t want to write the same book twice. Right now I’m revising the Spanish translation, which someone else has done. Several pieces I attempted to write simultaneously in both languages. That was a very naïve project I had at the beginning, which was that I would write the entire novel simultaneously in two languages. The passages I actually managed to write that way were probably some of the best passages in the book. I think the process itself was very fruitful. Were I poet, I would definitely work that way. But I’m not. There are so many other ways. A novel is language, but it’s not only language. It’s not only the words and images. There are so many others layers of consideration. The impulse is different, the rhythm. It worked for me on some pages, but I think it was a naïve thing to think I could do.
EPF: Well, now I’m dying to know, which of those passages did you write in both languages?
VL: That’s a secret.
VL: To be honest, I don’t remember all of them, but there’s a scene where the girl is sucking her thumb and slowly falling asleep in the back of the car. And then there are echoes of that scene, because there’s a kid in the airplane who’s doing the same thing, he’s being deported and sucking his thumb in the airplane. Those parts I wrote simultaneously. And then several parts of the Elegies [one of the female protagonist’s packed road trip books is Elegies for Lost Children, written by a fictional Italian writer] I wrote simultaneously as well.
VL: And that was kind of fun, because I had originally started writing the Elegies in English, and decided not to circumscribe the Elegies to a specific geographic region or moment in history. But, then when I started playing with them in Spanish, I suddenly realized that I needed—or I wanted—to bring in the language of Central American words in Spanish for objects that exist in the reality of a migrant. Everything from the tube tires, which have a specific name, tubo, to the person who will ferry a group of people across the Rio, the River, the Usumacinta, at the Mexican-Guatemalan border. That person is called a torero. There was this realization of a lot of words in Spanish than I didn’t know because they’re not Mexican, they’re Central American. The fact that that part of a train, the boxcar, is called a gondola, like the boats.
In the end, I’m a writer who absolutely fetishizes words. So, I was really drawn to exploring that linguistic repertoire in Spanish and that circumscribed the story into a region and moment in history. So, I thought, well, I have to bring this back to English. I can’t let the story exist just sort of floating above history and above space. So, it was language and playing and translation that grounded the Elegies in a different way. And I foreignized the Elegies by bringing in terms such as a “gondola.” And, it’s a risky decision, right, because if a reader doesn’t read patiently or wonder, “What do you mean, fucking ‘gondola’?”—they might assume.
The exercise of imagination there is immediate. I think the immediate impulse of the reader is to imagine what you already know as a gondola, an Italian long boat that looks like a bit of a coffin. And then I think there has to be this effort. And I think that that effort is also something that makes literature worth it. That pause and thinking and maybe researching and then understanding, and then saying, “Okay, that’s what it is.”
E.P. Floyd is blog editor and weekly content manager of Lunch Ticket, and an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work is published or forthcoming in The Rumpus, Lunch Ticket, Litbreak Magazine, and Reservoir. Find her online at epfloyd.com and on Twitter at @eprofloyd.
My work is a connection between nature, textile, and culture. It combines my own worlds—the rich landscape that surrounds me on the mountains of West Galilee in Israel, my expertise in the textile industry and textiles, and my Hungarian descent. This nature-textile-culture composition isn’t a trivial one. It can even be confusing. And yet, it generates a sense […]
Nancy Au‘s writing appears or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, The Cincinnati Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Catapult, Lunch Ticket, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. She has an MFA from San Francisco State University where she taught creative writing. In the summers, she teaches creative writing (to biology majors!) at California State University Stanislaus. She is co-founder of The Escapery (https://theescapery.org). Her flash fiction is included in the Best Small Fictions 2018 anthology and she was the winner of The Vestal Review’s 2018 VERA Flash Fiction Prize. Her full-length collection, Spider Love Song & Other Stories, is forthcoming from Acre Books (University of Cincinnati) in 2019.
The following is a series of questions Nancy answered via email.
1. What’s your writing practice like?
Here is my lock-step narrative answer to your awesome question: I write for as short as a frenzied five-minute journal entry or up to three hours of nonstop typing in my laptop. For the longer writing times, I’ll select about 6-7 of my favorite books of the moment, and then set myself up either on the sofa or at my desk, which are both in the quietest corner of my home. I then pick one of the books and thumb through it until I come across a passage or a sentence or a single word that triggers my imagination. And then, if I’m starting a new project, I’ll simply begin to write without really thinking about what I’m writing and using that passage or sentence or word as my starting point. Those first few pages are always nonsensical and garbled. Sometimes it’s just a drawing/sketch in my notebook! I learned from my first writing teacher (the fabulous writer and editor, Peg Alford Pursell) to pay attention to my breathing, my body position, the way that my back and hands and neck feel when I am writing “on a roll,” when the words are flowing. I equate this to the way that I train for a marathon hike, teaching my body to recognize when I am “warmed up” and in a creative mind-space. So then when I experience these moments again, I know to push past the distractions (falling into a Wikipedia wormhole, or answering a text on my phone, or checking my email, etc.), and to flex those warmed-
up muscles and keep writing writing writing!
2. How do you manage writing with all your other responsibilities? (like day job,
family, social life, etc.)
I wish that I had a great answer for this question! Haha! My writing schedule varies so so so much. It’s often based on the projects that I am working on, or whether I am actively attending workshops, or working on pieces for specific journals or literary readings, or teaching, or if it’s raining, or if it’s sunny and perfect hiking weather, or if I’m feeling upbeat, or if I’m feeling blue. But, logistically speaking, my writing practice requires external deadlines. It’s the main reason why I decided to pursue an MFA; I wanted to be a part of a writing program that would provide me with different projects, writing goals (short-term and long-term), and deadlines. It is also the reason why I send so much of my work to literary journals; I tell myself that each time I send my work out, I can move on to my next project. Otherwise, I get caught in this mindset that my piece is not ready/finished/perfect, and then I can’t stop working on the same piece. Sending out my work also helps me to let go of the idea of the “perfect” story.
3. Do you ever struggle with writer’s block? If so, how do you get passed it or through
I feel that writer’s block mirrors the natural rhythms of life—sometimes things are flowing and raucous, and other times things are quiet and still. I think that, for myself, it’s also a necessary part of being a writer because it allows for my brain to reset, for my creative mind and curiosity to have time to expand and explore new questions. It is true, though, that it feels frustrating when I want to write but am unsure of where to begin. When this happens, I use different writing experiments and prompts that I’ve learned from my wonderful teachers and writer friends, and prompts that I’ve thought up for the workshops I teach. One of my favorite writing experiments is to find a passage online from a favorite story or essay or poem or any form of text. (I’ve also done this with biology textbooks, with poetry collections, with novels, with cookbooks, with the ingredient lists of cereals, with newspaper clippings!) I print it out and rip it up into several different strips which I then mix up. Or I use my favorite word cut-up generator and then search for interesting and totally jumbled fragments and word-pairings to inspire me. It’s so much fun, and it’s encouraged me to use animals or plants or colors or foods or textures that I would never have thought to use on my own!
4. What inspires you the most? Was there or is there a specific person that inspired
There are so many people who inspire me to write, who inspire the stories and characters that I write, who encourage and help me to feel that I have something to say as a writer. I wish that I could name all of these wonderful people here! Every single one of my teachers and mentors, my writer friends that I’ve known at workshops and at school and met at literary readings, my childhood friends, my hubby, my colleagues at The Escapery, my family…every single person has been a source of inspiration and strength and love.
5. What’s the most recent thing you’ve written?
The most recent piece I’ve written is an unfinished story about someone whose teeth ache from the cold. The reasons for why this person is in the cold and what they were doing, [are] inspired by a really awesome story that my sister-in-law shared a few weeks ago. To be continued…
6. What’s the most important thing(s) you want to get across in your writing?
I think that I most want to find the unique voices for my characters, to understand why they do the things they do. I’m fascinated by human psychology and about the different ways that our biology and our unique comprehension of the world influences our choices. I hope to portray characters who are conflicted by who they are (or who they see themselves as), and who want to understand where they come from.
7. What advice would you give to emerging poets and writers?
Oh gosh…I really wish I had a great answer for this wonderful question! I think that everything that I’ve been trying and doing and experiencing and questioning over the past several years as a writer, that these are questions, experiences, tryings and doings that many others might experience in a lot of different ways, and at different stages in their writing careers. I suppose, though, the one thing that I was told when I first started writing, the one thing that I hold onto and turn to each time I begin to doubt myself, is: I most hope for every person to feel that they matter, that their voice and words matter, that each breath they take matters.
8. What are you reading right now? Any recommendations for our readers?
Right at this very moment, this very second, I am reading Foglifter and Celeste Chan’s Tender: An Anthology in Collaboration with the Queer Ancestors Project. And, oh my gosh, there are so many many books that I would also recommend, far too many to list all of them here. I’ll begin by listing Sung Yim’s What About the Rest of Your Life, Sequoia Nagamatsu’s Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, Nona Casper’s The Fifth Woman, Peg Alford Pursell’s Show Her A Flower A Bird A Shadow, YiYun Li’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Janice Lee’s Damnation, Carolina De Robertis’ The Gods of Tango, Barbara Tomash’s Pre-, Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Natasha Saje’s Bend, Jennifer S. Cheng’s House A, Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck, Nick Caruso & Dani Rabaiotti’s Does It Fart?, and and and…
9. What are your interests outside of the literary world?
I am fascinated by cheese, all cheese. And pesto. I am also fascinated by hover technology, dogs with white stripes on their snout, soft blue pillows that smell of drool, and cheeks that smell of warm cotton, hiking hiking hiking under bay laurel and redwood and oak, and the satisfying hum that electric hybrid cars make when they begin to accelerate.
10. What question do you wish I’d asked you and what’s your answer?
- QUESTION: What is the farthest you’ve hiked in one day?
- ANSWER: 26.2 miles
Sara Voigt is a current MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles where she’s pursuing her masters in creative writing. She also works on the literary journal Lunch Ticket, where she’s working as Proof Edit Manager and Managing Editor. Originally from Wisconsin, she currently lives and works in the Los Angeles area.
You sit in a Goodwill engulfed in the sadness emitted by the abandoned objects, each with their own story you’re sure, and the dejected shoppers. Your chosen object is a $20 chair, cracked red leather outlined by shining buttons.
You listen to a man, ratty t-shirt and balding blonde hair, sitting in a different used chair. Wooden. Evidently, the people aren’t too different from the objects. Desolate, carrying their own stories. The man tells part of his story aloud.
“All I’m sayin’ is, he was lucky I didn’t have my gun.”
You try to shift your attention, but it’s hard not to wince each time “fag” cuts through the air. From the bits and pieces you manage to gather, the man is not, in fact, a fag.
The rhythmless tapping of your foot begs you to move, to act, to flee. So you drag yourself from the red leather chair and try to remember where you are. You know you are in a Goodwill, but something is off despite nothing being notably out of place. The broken children’s toys, the obscure VHS tapes, everything is as it should be and yet you are certain something is wrong. You can feel it bubbling up in your chest. You are certain there is an emergency. The sirens are deafening.
The alarms decrescendo as quickly as they arrived, the ambulance rushing by to find its target. You wish it was you.
“Fag.” You can’t discern which of them said it, but you feel the hatred dripping off the word as blood drips from your nose. Your back is pressed against the brick wall of a school building. You hold your head high despite the tears welling. This is the first time. Pride hasn’t been beaten out of you yet.
You stare at your attackers, their young age contrasting the violence they endorse. They jeer, mock, taunt. At the forefront is Kelly. Pristine sneakers, tight jeans, hair pulled back. Her favorite pastime: tearing others down and proceeding to kick.
The pain in Charlotte’s eyes is directed towards you, but not at you. You aren’t the first person she’s hit and you won’t be the last, but you can’t hate her. Every time you feel the sting in your nose and try to blame her, you fall into those eyes. Dark, guarded, hurting eyes. You wonder what she’s seen, what she’s felt. You wonder if she knows how closely her pain mimics your own.
Where Kelly is bored and Charlotte hurting, Maria is offended. Your pining, fawning, loving—it hurts her. How could you?
“Dyke.” Maria’s insults hurt the worst, accented by a pious finality. You know she sees you as the devil, and you know, despite the contradictions, you can never convince her otherwise.
“Are you alright?” A young girl, short, choppy hair, asks. Judging by just her face, you’re missing an arm. Your body responds to her with a nod—not to answer her question, but to ward off the threat her presence poses. You’re suddenly aware that you’re pressed against a shelf, a few of the VHS tapes fall to the ground; you’re gripping the metal so tightly your knuckles have gone white. You don’t know what the girl saw or if you’re crying.
Your lungs fill with air that you were unaware they needed until their sudden expansion. You gasp like a child that has ventured too deep into the water. A child that was under much longer than she planned, considered the prospect of drowning, and now that she’s resurfaced can do nothing but gasp.
You relax your grip and your posture, sliding down the shelf. You close your eyes, rest your head on your hands, your hands on your knees, and try to reestablish your surroundings.
Chattering shoppers. Dim lights, some flickering. Objects being shuffled. Cold, hard, unforgiving floor. The smell that reminds you of your grandmother. A child’s voice here and there. You breathe in and out, slowly, counting, and pull the blankets up under your chin.
Staring at the blank wall beside your bed, you deprive yourself of any stimulus. You try to purge your mind of thoughts. There are considerable civilian casualties. Your bed is supposed to be a safe haven, but you’re finding that occupying it only exacerbates how little you feel. Instead, the emptiness makes you more susceptible to the awful, self-deprecating thoughts, leaving cracks in your mind for them to sludge through.
You feel them making their way up your body, crawling, as you stare idly. Their hand trails your spine. Their light touch leaves your skin tingling. No one else fights for your attention. Almost as if seducing you, they coerce you into giving in. They push aside your hair and you hear the warmth of a whisper on your ear.
“Worthless. Absolutely worthless,” you spit at your reflection. You can’t remember how long you’ve been staring at this dirty mirror, framed by student-scrawled sharpie. Tears begin to mingle with the running faucet water, your hands clutching the sink. You barely recognize yourself. This battered girl, dirty hair, sunken eyes. This can’t be you. Surely you aren’t this broken.
You are appalled by how little it takes. One sheet of paper decorated with the glaring red of a teacher orchestrating your failure with nothing but a pen. It seems to confirm the dwindling state of your potential. It is an undeniable self-admission confirming everything you already believed to be true.
You hope no one else tries to skip class. Your hand rushes to your chest. You try to keep your heart from bursting through. Sitting feet away from the bathroom door, you suddenly wonder if there is anything past it. There is nothing but this room suspended in a sea of black. There is no one but you, hand trembling, heart thumping, tears streaming. You accept that this will never end. You accept that you are now a part of this suspended room, forever panicking.
You pull your knees up to your chest, trying your best to be inconsequential. You tuck down your head and press your hands over your ears. You sit as still as possible, as quiet as possible. You are motionless except for the tears falling from your eyes.
You glance out from underneath the tablecloth adorning the sturdy wooden table above you. As you watch your mother shrinking beneath your father, you can’t help but blame yourself. You may not be the outright spark that caused him to explode, but you know your inabilities and defeats add up. You know that if you weren’t around, the operas that unravel before you so often would be few and far between. The lives of the singers would be much calmer without the incessant disappointment you prove to be.
Despite your attempts to cease your existing, you can still hear the symphony beyond your hiding spot. The bassy shouting crescendos to a deafening fortissimo while a small soprano occasionally chimes in, trying to coax it back down. Eventually she loudens as well, a staccato yelp brought about, as many dynamic changes are, by the raising of an arm.
As the arm comes crashing down the first thing you feel is grateful. You feel grateful because although this slap stings, it won’t leave any marks. No black eye to make excuses for, no bruises to coat in makeup, no cuts, no scratches. You much prefer the sting, a brief reminder of your faults, to markings loudly showing off your mistakes.
Tom’s energy is not spent on the hit. You used to love how full of energy he was. How bright and full of life. Charismatic as hell too. It didn’t take him long to win your affection. The compliments he so excitedly threw at you, like fans showering a performer in roses. The way he looked at you, he seemed to confirm that which love songs are made of.
But what once won your love now drives his hate. He could scream for hours without an ounce of exhaustion. The way his voice raises, smothering out your own, it echoes around your brain, nestling besides memories of another’s yells. You never figured your lover would parallel your father so closely.
You collapse below him. You barely register what his words accuse you of. You have long since learned to tune out the frequency of his anger. You have to if you are to keep loving him, if you are to keep sane. You haven’t even noticed his explosion has been contained until you hear a door slam so loudly you aren’t sure how it didn’t snap.
With the door now closed behind you, you stand shaking. The air conditioning is leaning on the cool side but the lighting is warm. A blanket of orange emitted by the various lamps seeks to infiltrate your trust, to create a false comfort despite the general unfamiliarity of your surroundings.
The ticking of the small clock occupying the wall to your left is deafening as you approach the couch. Taking a seat, you beg your leg to be still if only for a few minutes. Its rhythm compliments that of the clock’s. As the woman whose apparent nurturing nature reflects that of a mother takes her seat opposite yours, you can’t help but wonder whether you’ve made a mistake.
Her smile is easy and welcoming. It attempts to coax to the forefront even the most guarded of your secrets.
“I was planning on working on mindfulness today.”
She guides you through deep breathing exercises, her sweet voice with a seemingly inherent ability to soothe. You follow the pattern she instructs, breathing in slowly before exhaling at a matching tempo.
It only takes a few minutes of this before you regain your composure. A few minutes of inhaling and exhaling, in and out, slowly and smoothly. You begin to accept your surroundings as they are. There is nothing wrong with the incomplete board games or the tattered stuffed animals lining shelves. The children running up and down aisles as their parents try desperately to find a deal pose no threat to you. You aren’t sure how long you’d been lying on the ice cold floor of the Goodwill or how many judgmental glances passed over you while you did but for the first time in an indiscernible time frame, you feel safe.
Amadea Oberg is a senior in high school who has been writing all her life. She currently lives in Maryland, but plans on moving to New York as soon as she can. She is thrilled that this is her first published piece.
Thousands of Chinese Acres of Spring
When the budding of a tree isn’t closely observed
Rapeseed flowers have unfolded the season by their full blossoms
The golden dream of the earth thus rolls out under the cloud flowers
Is woven in the wind and undulates to the farthest in March
Rapeseed flowers have unrolled thousands of Chinese acres of spring
They spread green willfully disseminate yellow fervently
As if they aspire to dissect the spring into two halves
At a moment like this any language seems redundant
The mind jumps onto the clouds quite unexpectedly
And looks up at the spring from another angle
Downpouring Flower Ocean
Tapping to the beat of the spring clusters of dark green
Pin up golden hairclips one flower at first
Then a bunch a levee and a field
Following the ground undulation spread out into flower waves
The rapeseed flowers easily cross over a river
Climb onto the terrace flood to the hills
The rolling waves are replicated by the spring again and again
Their adventurous eyes look higher and higher farther and farther
Their aroma scrubs the earth with the wind
A flower waterfall rushes down from a hill and runs a thousand miles
A Sweet Journey
Following the aroma of rapeseed flowers closest to the spring
Two butterflies carry happiness from one flower ocean
To another flower ocean A swarm of bees
Swing in the flowers trying to ripen the spring zephyr
Into a more intoxicating breeze All these elves
Play in the chest of the spring enchantedly and indulgently
On this sweet journey to the depth of the season
I am worried that the bees are too obsessed with brewing life
To remember time I am also worried the two butterflies
With tiny fragile wings can’t fly out of the boundless flower ocean
接着是一束 一垄 一大片
The reason that I selected these three poems is that I want to develop novel transcreation techniques and help to establish the transcreation subarea in China. Also, I hope that these poems can show English readers those kinds of objects that are often depicted by Chinese poets in the Chinese culture. These poems demonstrate not only the Chinese way of thinking but also the logic of the Chinese language, which may help to expand the English literature to some extent.
My translation of these three poems basically follows the classic Chinese translation theory of fidelity, that is, there isn’t much creative modification in my translation. However, there are a few exceptions. For example, when translating “肆意地绿” and “拼命地黄,” meaning “green recklessly and yellow desperately,” I used the expressions of “spread green willfully” and “disseminate yellow fervently” and thus transformed negative words into positive words.
In addition, I altered the meaning of “scrubs the earth in the wind” to “scrubs the earth with the wind” which sounds more logical. Also, I translated “靠近” which means “to get close to” to “closest to” in order to fit into the scene developed by the original text which depicts the spring views.
Considering a transcreation skill called restructuring on which I have performed some experiments, in the translation of “trying to ripen the spring zephyr,” the infinitive verb “to ripen” actually is restructured from the following line. This treatment handled an innate difference between the Chinese and English language by placing the infinitive verb “to ripen” before the object “the spring zephyr.”
Chen Du is a Voting Member of American Translators Association and a member of the Translators Association of China with a Master’s degree in biophysics from Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the State University of New York at Buffalo and a Master’s degree in radio physics from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. She has revised more than eight chapters of the Chinese translation of the biography of Helen Snow, Helen Foster Snow—An American Woman in Revolutionary China. She is the author of book Successful Personal Statements. Find her online at ofsea.com.
Mr. Dong Li is the author of books Lost in Maze (Chinese) and The Charm of Thoughts (Chinese). He is also a winner of the Chinese Young Poet Award 2018.
Being with family is the ultimate exercise in learning good adab. There is no simple translation for that Arabic word. Adab. A-da-ba.
Turn it around, and you get ba-da-a: beginning.
But you live in the West now. Your parents lifted you out of that loving, prickly embrace and introduced you to the beginning of fragmentation. And here, the seed of your difference took to the soil, like a newborn hungry for milk. You are fed different waters. Different honey. Different poison. You are irrevocably changed.
Your outward and your inward states are different to the family you left behind. You are now a child of the third space. There is joy in this, and there is grief, and the rest of your life will be spent negotiating that gap.
You marvel at your friends who keep in touch with family. They fly back for Raya. Call people by appropriate titles. They move so seamlessly, between the different circles of their lives.
You could do this too, if you choose courage. But it has always been easier to avoid.
Your own family longs to see you. Grandparents. Aunties, uncles, cousins. There are so many of them, and each one carries a spark of you inside them. They are not only linked to you by blood, but you are also tied by history. Each one of them carries a story. But to reach that story, you must sit with them, and listen, with an open heart. Some of them are more difficult to sit with than others.
It is not only language—it is the pain they press upon, in the way only family can. Some love to speak only of light things, things that make you smile. They respect your independence as an adult, while fondly sharing memories of you as a child. They represent Beauty. Others love to dwell upon old hurts, and they carve out new ones by their careless tongues. Scalpels could not be sharper. They represent Rigour. There is a place for both, in your life.
Rumi spoke of this: “If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?”
And so, you exhale, pick up your mobile, and make the first phone call.
2: Selfish Mama
The sadistic expectation of self-immolation begins at birth. Being a good mother means annihilating yourself. Show any signs of weakness, and you are called ungrateful.
No—it starts in pregnancy. Why do all the Instagram feeds show glowing mamas? Where are the mamas who look more like you?
The brutal, un-photoshopped truth—morning sickness so bad eye capillaries burst, hemorrhoids so painful it hurts to move, and the massive emotional tides that pull and pull and pull—
And that, my love, is only the beginning.
The relentless calls of “Mama!” All day, every day. Mummy is the human battery pack from whom newborns, toddlers, preschoolers, and tired husbands draw from.
What is the secret to this infinite well? This—there is no such thing as endless giving. Leave that to the Divine.
There is only one way to surviving these decimating first few years of motherhood—be that selfish mama. The one who does not want to martyr herself on the altar of motherhood. No human sacrifices, please. We stopped that, eons ago.
“Keep your self-care cup full!” But what if that cup has shattered, amidst the diapers, sleep
deprivation and tantrums?
Rebuild it, one shard at a time. Fuse it with gold. You are kintusoroi. More beautiful for
One impossible day, in a future too distant for you to even imagine, your helpless little newborn will be a woman grown. The glimmers you saw during her first few years of life—her strong-willed nature, her easy smile, her love for nature—have taken root and flourished. You and your husband tended to her with love and devotion, and now, it shows.
One day, she will grow wings and fly, and all you can do is hope that she will come back to you, with her heart open to yours. She will make choices, some which warm your heart, and others that break it. She is her own woman.
So. Leave some of your heart for you.
Nourish your marriage, so when your children have left home, you can still smile at your husband. Perhaps your love has even surpassed what you felt on your wedding day—a love deepened over the brutal and blissful years of parenting.
And maybe, just maybe, one day—your husband, your children, and their children will sit together, smiling, and share cups of warm tea.
3: Second baby
It is both easier, and harder, the second time around. You think your heart cannot fill with any more love. But it does, and flows over.
And there is the grief, that catches you by surprise. Your heart aches for the time when it was just you and your only child. All eyes were on her. Life will never be the same again, and that is both beautiful and terrible. You will be splintered between your two little ones for the rest of your life.
“Don’t compare your children.”
One thing remains the same—sleep deprivation is the worst.
And there is the newness, the heart-splintering sweetness. Your newborn and you, lying on the bed. She is curled beside you, nuzzling at you, tickling you with her tiny, tiny fingers. Her newborn smell is something words cannot pin… it is unmistakable, both new and old, and speaks of a world you were once part of, but can now no longer touch. For as long as she is this little, you can access this wonder, by nuzzling her delicious sweet-sour head.
But she will grow. It is inevitable. And her newborn helplessness will soon be replaced with infant curiosity, then toddler determination. Now she cannot resist you, as you carefully change her diaper, dip her gently into her bathtub, and gently lather her with soap. Meanwhile, her older sister balks. She resents the amount of time your newborn spends latched onto you. “She has mom-mom all day!” You nod in sympathy and remind her that she did too, when she was a baby.
And then she catches you by surprise. She shares inside jokes with you. Astounds you with words you had no idea a three-year-old could say. She shows you how she can shower herself all by herself now. She leans in, both eager and shy, when you remember to cuddle and kiss her. You cannot believe how strong and lanky she has become, when once, she could fit in the crook of your arm. When she lets you, you cover her with kisses and hope that this assuages some of her loss.
You hope that one day, she will understand that she may have lost your undivided attention, but she has gained a friend: someone to hold her hand, and have her back, on the day when you and your husband are no more.
Raidah Shah Idil is a mother of two, poet, writer, and dreamer. She has lived, worked and studied in Singapore, Australia, Jordan, and has laid down her roots in Malaysia, her ancestral home. Raidah is inspired by trauma healing work, the power of storytelling, and reconnecting with tradition. Her short story “Datuk” was published in the recent Bitter Roots Sweet Fruits anthology. Many of her poems, articles, and stories have been published online. You can find Raidah hunting for patches of green, playing puppets with her young daughters, and writing when she really should be sleeping. Drop by her blog at www.raidahshahidil.com, or visit her on Twitter @raidahshahidil.
Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions is indeed an essay responding to the absurdity of 40 certain inquiries. Yet, it is much more than that. The “tell me how it ends” refrain quotes a plaintive request from Luiselli’s daughter, who was five years old when Luiselli served as a volunteer translator for an immigration law non-profit in New York. The non-profit took the cases of undocumented immigrant children pro bono, as floods of children escaping gang violence and trafficking in Central and South America arrived in the United States. Luiselli wrote the book as a reaction to this refugee crisis, weaving her stories around the 40 questions required by US Customs and Immigration to be asked of unaccompanied migrant children, many of whom have suffered severe trauma and loss.
Tell Me How It Ends is a case study of this crisis. It is also a case study of education at work—Luiselli’s class in Advanced Spanish Conversation at Hofstra University begins discussing the influx of children at the US-Mexico border, vowing to help the undocumented teenagers now living in the US in constructive and sustainable ways. Tell Me How It Ends is also a tender, personal, and funny story about a rough-around-the-edges Honduran boy, the first child Luiselli met in her volunteer translation work.
One can imagine Luiselli’s early drafts, wrought with dismay and helplessness. The final essay wrings its hands with the same distraught tone, but tinged with hope—Luiselli’s call to action was heard not only by her university students but by non-profits willing to take on children’s cases pro bono. But, as we all know from recent media coverage, the Trump administration has not relented in its commitment to making life for migrant children as difficult as possible. This engrained racism, reflected by ever-more stringent immigration policies, is a clear symptom of the current administration’s lack of understanding of the US’s complicit role in this refugee crisis.
Throughout the book, Luiselli makes neat categorization of an often unclear situation. The essay comprises four subsections: “Border,” “Court,” “Home,” and “Community.” The 40 questions are interspersed in the essay, between Luiselli’s incisive observations and harrowing depictions of the typical child migrant experience aboard La Bestia—literally “The Beast,” a cross-country network of Mexican freight trains that fleeing underage refugees often use to
traverse Mexico more quickly on their way to the US.
These migrant children, usually fleeing gang violence in their home countries, often face graver dangers on their journeys to the border—robberies, rapes and other violent crimes, kidnappings, and extortions. The scenes Luiselli depicts left me in tears as I read the book in late September, just as the current caravan of migrants, most of whom are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, began gathering to seek asylum in the US.
Luiselli also weaves these children’s stories with her own path to legal citizenship; she waited several long years for her and her family’s green cards while writing the book and volunteer-translating. Luiselli could not legally work in the country, ironic given that her role as a writer enriches the lives and minds of her US-based students. So instead, she volunteered. As the Trump administration continues to ratchet its fear-mongering in the media regarding migrant caravans, I keep thinking of the migrant teenagers Luiselli describes, one in particular who walked the dry, hot plains of New Mexico for hours before two US Border Patrol officers mercifully found and detained him, providing him with life-saving water. I wonder if that would have happened had he traveled in a large group, with the protection of a common cause, the potential presence of relatives, and the ability to forge connections and make friends on the road—a strength in numbers. Migrating people are safer in caravans.
The haunting tale of the first refugee Luiselli met as part of her volunteer translation work winds through the essay. After the teen’s best friend dies in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, shot by members of the now-infamous Barrio 18 gang, the teen fled to the US, aided by his aunt, who hired a coyote—a paid guide who leads unaccompanied minors to the border—to guide him north. Luiselli recounts his response to questions 35 and 36 of the unaccompanied minor intake questionnaire, which ask if the child or his family experienced any problems with the government in their home country, and if so, what happened. The teen shows her the copy of the police report he filed in Honduras against the gang, after the murder of his best friend. The police never did anything, and the teen promised his aunt he would not leave the house until he was able to leave the country for good. He wasn’t able to attend his friend’s funeral. Cue my second crying jag in less than one hundred pages.
For this reader, Luiselli’s essay shook the bedrock of my humanitarian core. Drug consumption in the US “is what fundamentally fuels drug trafficking in the continent” (85), Luiselli writes, referring to the drug circuit and its many wars as a “hemispheric war” (86)—“one that begins in the Great Lakes of the United States and ends in the mountains of Celaque in southern Honduras” (86). If the involved governments would acknowledge the hemispheric problem and connections between drug wars, gangs, arms trafficking, drug use, and the massive migration of children, Luiselli writes, maybe authorities would rethink the language surrounding these problems and devise potential solutions.
“No one, or almost no one, from producers to consumers, is willing to accept their role in the great theater of devastation of these children’s lives,” (86) Luiselli writes. “… A ‘war refugee’ is bad news and an uncomfortable truth for governments, because it obliges them to deal with the problem instead of simply ‘removing the illegal aliens’” (87). Finally, some major media outlets, albeit more than a year after the publication of Tell Me How It Ends, have begun examining the US’s economic and drug control policies and pointing at these policies as at least partially responsible for the refugee crisis and the ensuing, asylum-seeking caravans. The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, VICE, and The Guardian all published articles to this tune—addressing the US’s problematic drug control in connection with fleeing refugees—in the past two months.
Going forward, my only concern about the US-Mexico border is our all-encompassing, collective obligation to our planet’s children. Like Luiselli’s daughter, though, I want to know how it ends. Do these children ever make it to relative safety? Do US policies change? What the hell is taking so long? Perhaps if more people read this book—more fully understand the need for the US to acknowledge its responsibility in the migrant crisis—those children at last will be safe.
Luiselli, Valeria. Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. Minneapolis: Coffee House
E.P. Floyd is lead blog editor and weekly content manager for Lunch Ticket, and an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her writing is published or forthcoming in Lunch Ticket, Litbreak Magazine, Reservoir, and BusinessWeek. She is at work on a novel and short story collection and lives in rural Wisconsin. Find her online at epfloyd.com.
It wasn’t just the one earthquake. It was the one before it as well, which woke me from a sound sleep. The curtains were swinging as if there was a breeze but moving the wrong way, side-to-side, and then I remembered that I kept the windows closed at night because of the mosquitoes. I heard the doorman screaming and that must have got me going […]
Ma Rainey on my parade,
anyday. Wear suits to that rodeo
and yield it your birthing hips.
Sway ‘em on stage and own the gaze
of them who owned you. Heaven
can’t be white when you are nutmeg
ground for God. Speak easy to me
and rest real hard, tomorrow will be
another long one. I say hi to the ladies
and I love my thighs in loving theirs.
I walk my way home open,
because there are two alleys and I took
them both, I swallowed them up.
They said nobody could eat a street,
but look at me, I did.
Koby L. Omansky is a writer whose work has been published in FIVE:2:ONE, Moonsick Magazine, anthologies by Thoughtcrime Press and Platypus Press, and more. She works in youth advocacy in Brooklyn.
Jody Chan is a writer and organizer based in Tkaronto/Toronto. They are the poetry editor for Hematopoeisis, a 2017 VONA alum, and the 2018 winner of the Third Coast Poetry Contest, selected by Sarah Kay. Their first chapbook is forthcoming in 2018 with Damaged Goods Press, and their poetry is published in BOAAT, Looseleaf Magazine, Nat. Brut, The Shade Journal, and elsewhere. They can be found online at https://www.jodychan.com/ and offline in bookstores or dog parks.
1. Tell us a little about your writing process—how often you write, what your desk is like, etc. Do you still write in longhand? Quiet? Music?
I write in snatches: while riding the subway, in my head while biking (this is sometimes dangerous), during my lunch break at work, on my phone in the washroom. Everything my senses run into is a potential prompt—and then the ideas get captured in an ever-growing stash of phone notes. It doesn’t work for me to set goals for frequency, like writing every day or even every other day. It makes me beat up on myself too hard when I don’t meet my own goal, and then writing becomes a guilty obligation instead of something I get to look forward to.
2. Do you consider yourself classically trained? Are you influenced by a certain group of poets? Language poets in particular?
My writing education has come from attending workshops with VONA, The Speakeasy Project, and Winter Tangerine; I have been most heavily influenced by those teachers (Danez Smith, Luther Hughes, Yasmin Belkhyr, jayy dodd) whose lessons I carry with me into every poem. My work also looks to queer poets of colour like Franny Choi, Chen Chen, Angel Nafis, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Natalie Diaz, and Fatimah Asghar who address themes of intergenerational trauma, queer identity, and queer joy. My writing often wrestles with questions about language—its openings, its limitations, how it can be used as an instrument to create meaning. Sometimes, though, I do want language to take an unobtrusive backseat to the image or the narrative in my poems.
3. You experiment quite a bit in your writing (I absolutely love the new addition to your website— “Superstitions”) using Chinese characters and composition by field. Why? Do you gain freedom of expression this way?
I usually make choices about form based on each individual poem, and what I think would serve the content best. In the case of “superstitions,” I wanted the form to convey the breathless, weighty accumulation of beliefs and exhortations that I have received from my family. Using punctuation would have given me, and the reader, too much space to rest, and time to filter these received superstitions through a lens of “common sense” or judgment. I use Chinese characters in many of my poems as an active refusal to translate for a white audience; when I use phonetic translations of spoken Cantonese, I don’t italicize them for the same reason. My poems often speak directly to people (my mother, most frequently) with whom I would naturally use Cantonese to communicate. This is all complicated by the fact that Cantonese is a language I don’t know how to read very well, and can’t write at all—which means that I myself was only able to get there through Google Translator. I know a lot of diasporic kids, like me, who feel shame about not knowing their own language; so in some ways, my poetic choices are a defense against my own shame as well.
4. What do you consider to be a “good day of writing” in your world?
The meaning of a “good day of writing” depends on what I’m working on at the time. With some poems, a whole draft might emerge in one sitting. Others struggle much harder and more slowly, in which case unearthing a single solid line or image might feel really good. There are other activities—like reading a new book of poetry, or adding words to my word bank, or listening to a podcast interview of a brilliant poet—that I consider poetic exercising, and can define amazing writing days on their own.
5. What does your editing process look like? Are you part of a writer’s group? Do you workshop pieces with trusted friends…etc?
I have a few trusty editing exercises that I put all my pieces through. For example, I circle all the verbs in one colour and all the nouns in another, to make sure each one is pulling its weight. I read it out loud, and cut one quarter of the lines. I tend to hold onto all my drafts in the same document, so I can see how the poem has evolved over time. My baby first drafts go to my writing group, which is made up of two trusted friends. We meet monthly to workshop pieces across the genres of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. Our feedback does focus on craft, but it is also holistic and human: we celebrate each other’s achievements and lift each other up.
6. Inspiration? What inspires you to pick up your pen?
One of the main engines of my work is obsession. I find it difficult to write when I am not actively obsessed with something—which, thankfully, isn’t very often (as my browser tabs can attest). Once, I spent two hours watching a giant Pacific octopus breathe in the corner of its tank at the Seattle Aquarium for a poem about parenting and captivity. Once, I dug up twenty-year-old Internet forums speculating on the cause of death for Teresa Teng, a beloved Taiwanese singer—conversations that ended up informing a series of poems about her life and personal and political impact. I’ve found that my obsessions are ways into talking about the themes that propel my work: sickness and sexuality, trauma and joy, family and community.
7. What would you like for your poetry to accomplish?
I believe that all art is political. I have a responsibility as an artist to continually orient my work in relationship with movements fighting for justice. I want my voice to weave together my mother tongue (English) and my mother’s tongue (Cantonese), to weave spells of care and safety for my blood and chosen kin, who are the people I want my work to have meaning for. I think every poem can have a different purpose: sometimes, a poem wants to be angry, smash windows. Sometimes, it wants to be a deep breath of refuge in between bouts of yelling and chanting at rallies to denounce a racist, colonial government. Other times, a poem is a crystallized moment of joy between friends at a dance party. But I hope for all of my poems to be in service of my people.
8. How important is language to an aspiring poet? What are your words of encouragement to someone who is learning to write?
I’ll only speak for myself, but I think that I’m a poet because I believe in the power of language: what it can do for us, between us. And that includes both violence and healing. At the end of the day, I also love language and try not to take it for granted. I have fun seeing what rules I can subvert. The advice I want to pass on is advice that I’ve received, over and over, from some of my own teachers: you have to let go of your expectations, let go of the (capitalist, ableist) pressure to produce something every time you sit down to write. Just write. A lot of us are always thinking about the people or communities we’re writing for. This shift was life-changing for me. I don’t write about things that don’t matter to me, and that can feel weighty enough, without also demanding that my every attempt at art goes somewhere, or that it always be intentional.
9. How often do you venture out to writing circles/readings? How important is it for poets to be part of a writing community?
I never go to as many in-person writing circles or readings as I think I should. I tend to cultivate writing community in a less organized way, but there’s no such thing as art in isolation; I wouldn’t be able to do any of my work without my ties to community. My people are the ones I write for, and they’re the ones who take care of me so I can write. I’ve also been amazingly lucky to build relationships with so many folks through online and offline writing workshops like VONA and Winter Tangerine—many of whom don’t live anywhere near me, but who continue to support and love on each other’s work constantly.
10. How do sensitive issues make themselves known in your work? Your poem “Telling my Mother I’m not Her Daughter” is excruciatingly beautiful… “meaning sometimes I want to be a wall / & sometimes a pillow / 阿媽 / do you understand? / I do not want to be a woman / because I am not / a woman / hold up a mirror / every time / your body / dismantles / its own shell / & finds / the imprint / of an invisible yoke / 媽 / I burrow these questions / through my skin /” These issues are not for the faint of heart…but there they are, twinkling like stars between the lines…. How do you do this?
Thank you for saying that! I don’t think I make conscious decisions to pursue “sensitive issues,” per se. I just don’t shy away from the aspects that make us whole people with complicated relationships. Everything worth writing about is at least a little bit scary; there’s always risk involved in naming something true. I often think through writing. There are things I’ve written about that I never articulated before they came out in a poem, and then I came to understand my own feelings, or a new perspective on a familiar wound, through the poem. I think the bigger challenge is navigating the line between what feels like exploiting trauma (mine, others’) for artistic credibility with white audiences, and what feels more like being honest about experiences of pain and oppression. At those times, I think about the fact that I am both an individual and part of a collective, and thus hold part of a collective responsibility for the people around me. How can I write about shared trauma and grief in a way that heals, or bears witness, without doing further harm to my communities?
Janet Rodriguez is an author, blogger, teacher, and editor living in Sacramento with her husband, extended family, three dogs, and one cat. In the United States, her work has appeared in Salon, American River Review, Greensleeves, Calaveras Station, and Sacramento Family Resource Guide. Rodriguez has also had essays, stories and two biographies published in South Africa.
Her writing usually examines identity and morality in faith communities, as well as the mixed-race experience in a culturally binary world. Currently she is a Cardinal cohort at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she serves the magazine, Lunch Ticket, where a bunch of younger nerds keep her on her toes.
Connect With Us
Get Your Ticket
We’ll keep you fed with great new writing, insightful interviews, and thought-provoking art, and promise with all our hearts never to share your info with anyone else.