I only have five minutes to make my flight. I rush to the gate, slip into my cramped seat, still breathing hard from the mad dash to the gate. I pull out my journal to write. Writing settles my nerves. It’s my safe haven. It’s my security blanket.
The well-meaning stranger next to me spots me writing in my journal. After a moment, this innocent question slips from their lips.
“What’re you writing?”
“Actually, I’m a published author,” I say, having performed this song and dance a million times before. “I’m always writing. Being an author is like always having homework.”
Cue the awkward chuckle. Now they’re interested. I have their full attention.
“What kind of books do you write?”
“Young adult science fiction mostly. I have a trilogy out.”
“Sounds fun.” But then they frown. “So, when’re you gonna write a real book?”
By real book they mean a book for adults.
Ask any kid lit author, and they’ll probably have a similar story. The details vary, of course. Sitting next to a stranger on a plane. Chatting at a cocktail party. In line for coffee at Starbucks. A stranger asks what you do for a living. You babble off something about writing young adult books. They chuckle at first. Maybe they admit that they’ve read one or two, like a dirty confession. But then their judgement comes out in the form of that innocent-sounding question coated in their own pre-conceptions. Here’s what they’re really thinking.
Grow up. Write a real book.
There’s a reason why youth movements often are the ones that seek change in our world. It’s a special time in life when a person is willing to question the current society and even topple the system.
Of course, there are a million reasons why that question speaks to their own ignorance. Kid lit books are real books. As real as any books in this world. But it also speaks to how our society—a.k.a. the adults in positions of power—often seeks to dismiss and minimize the youth experience. Mark my words; they do this at their own peril.
There is no more important task in our current world that writing for young adults. I also write middle grade fiction for Disney Publishing and believe that this task is equally vital.
In my humble opinion, kid lit is the most exciting arena in publishing. Authors in our midst are tackling hard-hitting political issues and expanding the reaches of diversity and representation in fiction. We’ve broken a lot of ground through movements like #OwnVoices, though I should note we still have a great distance left to travel. We’re pushing boundaries. Of course, many adult readers have crossed over to the dark side, lured by the temptation of gateway kid lit books that crossover to the mainstream like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or Twilight.
Mostly, I inhabit the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres, but don’t get distracted by the bells and whistles of space ships and advanced technology. My book The 13th Continuum grapples with highly topical and socially-relevant issues such as environmental destruction, totalitarian regimes, religious persecution, discrimination, the rich/poor gap, and more. My fiction employs the allegorical lens to examine contemporary problems.
My upcoming fiction leans heavily into LGBTQ+ and other issues, including my original graphic novels Spectre Deep 6 and 200 coming in 2020, while maintaining the fun surface veneer of space battles and ghost soldiers and future landscapes. For example, my short story Let Me In deals with topical immigration and other issues by reframing it in the context of humans seeking asylum on an alien world. This changes it from a story where people have already chosen their sides in our current political spectrum to one where all humans—regardless of their nationality, skin color, sexual orientation, etc.—are at risk and need help to survive the coming maelstrom brought by climate change (this is also Cli-Fi).
Art and literature become more important during times of repressive regimes. This is the best tool we have to question the world and what’s happening right in front of our eyes, to speak to young people, and inspire them to make it better.
There’s a reason why youth movements often are the ones that seek change in our world. It’s a special time in life when a person is willing to question the current society and even topple the system. This is specifically why it’s so exciting to write teen protagonists into my stories. They haven’t bought into the system yet; they’re willing to risk everything to change it.
Even so, I hear all the time predictions of doom and gloom. Kid lit is overrated. The bubble is going to burst. But I believe we’re only at the beginning. Young adult fiction isn’t going anywhere. If anything, it’s expanding exponentially as we incorporate underrepresented voices and stories that are too seldom told. Our readers need our stories; this world needs our stories, now more than ever. Art and literature become more important during times of repressive regimes. This is the best tool we have to question the world and what’s happening right in front of our eyes, to speak directly to young people, and inspire them to make it better.
Our fate lies in their hands. Don’t underestimate them—or those of us who write for them. They are the future. And maybe pick up a book from the young adult section if you haven’t recently. You just might get swept away and learn something important, too.
Of course, there are also stories that defy the expectations. When I first met Jim Shepard, the famed novelist and short fiction writer who also teaches creative writing at Williams College, he asked about my debut novel that I’d just sold to a publisher. I should note that Jim is everything that I’m not. He writes literary fiction, most of it for (fancy) adults. He was teaching at the program where I was workshopping. His prowess as a teacher preceded him. I was also one of the lone children’s lit writers that had been accepted, not to mention genre fiction, too.
“So, what’s your book about,” Jim asked over our lunch plates.
“Oh, it’s young adult and science fiction. You probably wouldn’t be interested.”
“No, I’d really like to hear about it,” he insisted and then listened attentively while I explained my epic sci-fi story about the surface of the Earth being destroyed and humans having to live in different colonies located underwater, underground, and in outer space.
Silence ensued once I’d finished my spiel.
“So, what you’re saying is,” he said with a glint of humor in his eyes. “You might actually make money off your book, unlike the rest of us.”
Laughter engulfed the table.
I can’t say I’ve hit the jackpot (yet). But I appreciated his interest. And I’ll keep writing for young adults, no matter what happens. I might even toss some space pirates into my next book.
Jennifer Brody is the award-winning author of The Continuum Trilogy and the forthcoming original graphic novels Spectre Deep 6 (February 2020) and 200 (Fall 2020). Her graphic novels sold in a six-book deal and will be built into trilogies, illustrated by Jules Rivera. Her debut novel The 13th Continuum won the Gold Medal from the Independent Publisher’s Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards and is being packaged for TV. Return of the Continuums and The United Continuums complete her trilogy. Translation rights sold in multiple territories, most notably Russia and China. She is also a graduate of Harvard University and a creative writing instructor at the Writing Pad. She lives and writes in LA, where she’s hard at work on her next book.
“Like the mutability of social strictures in my lost and new homelands, my work embraces ambiguity and uncertainty,” Tatiana Garmendia writes about her portfolio Migrations. Garmendia’s work “wrestles with conflicting moral intuitions, with the personal and the historic.” Whether the medium is writing, painting, or even dance, the creative mind is driven to tell our passions and histories through narratives.
Our stories can be difficult, sometimes impossible, to tell. In her essay “Alone in Company,” Chelsea Bayouth reflects on the role of an artist at the end of 2018: “For me, it is to fear that every word or image is a window into public, political, and social tumult. It means you have to be more vulnerable than you or anyone in times previous has ever been.” If we continue to write, to paint, to dance, to show up for ourselves and our art every day, we might find that our work transcends ambiguity and discomfort to reveal a greater insight into ourselves, and if we are lucky, into the world.
Lunch Ticket Issue 14: Winter/Spring 2019 finds itself through narratives—difficult, painful, and emotional, they find power in their revelations and in the vulnerability of each writer and artist has put into them. At Lunch Ticket, our mission has always been to serve misrepresented and marginalized communities, and our staff of forty-six volunteers somehow manage to pull together two amazing issues twice a year. We look for work that haunts and moves us all with a social justice bend. Art is a place where people can find a middle ground and explore complex subjects. In the poetry section, Mehrnoosh Torbatnejad writes:
And the first words out of my mouth
do not buck into a shield, do not blast his ears
with refusal, not never, in my quiet defense
something un-proud: it’s not even Muslim (Can You Remove Your Necklace During Work Hours?)
From fiction stories like Devan Collins Del Conte “Again Undine” to poems like Chaun Ballard’s “Q & A” and creative nonfiction pieces like “Reflections” by Marlene Olin, this issue explores themes of identity and giving power to the voiceless. “The myths were wrong and they weren’t; they weren’t to do with her anymore anyway and they were all she had left. They weighed her down from the inside, those alloys of knowing,” Devan Collins Del Conte writes in “Again Undine.”
We are also trying to expand our platform for youth outreach. In Issue 14, we featured artist Ava Wangs, an eighteen-year-old who found inspiration for her collection “Natural and Organic” in “things I hold close to my heart, such as my childhood memories, a place or a story that carried meaning, my friends, my family, and my own identity and philosophies.” Ava shows us that narrative and stories aren’t always written but can be illustrated with a paintbrush.
Lunch Ticket is excited to announce our contest winners and finalists. Gabo Prize winner Maia Evrona translates selected poems from Abraham Sutzkever’s Poems from My Diary. Guest judge Piotr Florczyk says, “I was immediately struck by the visionary undertow of these poems, their author wearing a mask of ‘a blind seer’ and running ‘from abyss to abyss rescuing the smiles of the sacrificed.’” Evorna’s prize-winning translations appear alongside other literary works translated from Old English, Spanish, German, Russian, Italian, and Polish in our Gabo Prize and translation sections.
This issue’s Diana Woods Memorial Award in Creative Nonfiction winner, “Playing House” by Alex Myers, captivates us “with its unexpected, evocative metaphors and descriptions—its language just slightly off-kilter, as alluring and evocative as the abandoned houses that drew in the narrator and their brother,” said guest judge Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. “This is an essay that stayed with me.”
At Lunch Ticket, we look for stories that stay with us. As we continue to make strides towards our mission, I’m reminded of Helen Park’s protest at her church’s lack of tolerance in her creative nonfiction piece “Crabbing:” I got up, walked to the back of the room and turned around at the entrance, yearning to spot just a hint of opposition, any lick of discomfort, a slight cough or questioning tilt of the head. I waited with my hands at my sides, holding my breath and praying for something—anything—to break the surface.” As artists and writers, we often find ourselves taking a stand while others are still sitting. In the era of Kavanaugh, Muller investigations, and the endless stream of distressing news, it’s essential to remember that the work is important. Art is necessary, and it has the power to “break the surface.”
Kori Kessler has a degree in literary theory. She just got done traveling Europe and currently attends Antioch University Los Angeles. She is editor-in-chief of Lunch Ticket and has work published in Tiferet Journal. One of these days she plans on settling down in LA with her dog, Ginsberg.
Before my eyes open, I begin my day by searching for my phone. My hand runs over the covers, under the pillow, along the stack of books on my bedside table. More often than not, I find it and am plunged into the rush of notifications, which I absorb with one eye closed, because of my astigmatism. But some mornings my phone has fallen between the bed and the wall. The first time this happened I tried to carry on with my morning, feed the cats, pee, but a feeling kept sounding the alarm that I had forgotten something. I paced the apartment, into the kitchen, back into the bedroom, the bathroom. My husband was sleeping and to retrieve my phone from between the bed and the wall would be to wake him, which is precisely what I found myself doing. And before the sun was up we were moving the mattress, so I could snatch that which brings me, joy.
Last night I found Garden State streaming on HBO GO. Without weighing my decision, I pressed play. And as Sam and Andrew met and carried on with the dialogue of their un-woke romance, the soundtrack washed over me. I was on the precipice of my college experience that summer, flitting around with boys I didn’t plan on seeing past August, just shy enough in age to look up to the characters as harbingers of my own twenties. I saw the film in theaters three times, fourteen years ago. Nathan Rabine had not yet written the article that catapulted the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl into existence, my grandmother was still alive, Bush was president, and I had been accepted to my dream art school, which I would be attending in fall.
The soundtrack to Garden State is my first studio. Organizing the paints. Being alone for hours in my room with a quill and ink and a pad of paper the size of an infant bed. Falling in love with Sonny and then with Jake. Recovering from the Halloween party of a school filled with kids like me.
Most of the time I am aware of my brand of intelligence. Not enough to be an academic, but enough to know that I will likely never write the next great American novel or amount to much at all.
When I think of all the freshmen college students ready to have their first holidays away from home with friends they have only known for a few months my throat gets tight. Because what time in my life will ever be as important and rich and poised with moment, than the times that have already passed? Parenthood, I suppose is the one coin I have left to collect before I can truly say or feel that my “poised with moment” moments have come to pass. But there is still so much figuring out I have to do before I can be a mother. So many things to write. Books to read. Art to make. Money to be earned. So why do I squander away my time, so many days on my phone, immersed in the scrolling and clicking and taking naps next to a bedside table with a stack of partially read books?
Most of the time I am aware of my brand of intelligence. Not enough to be an academic, but enough to know that I will likely never write the next great American novel or amount to much at all. When does a person amount to something? How does one know when they have amounted? Perhaps we never know and that’s the sort of thing that can only be accounted for posthumously.
Maybe I am lazy with my aspirations because I don’t want for much. Somedays, laying in a sunbeam on my bed, soft music coming from somewhere in the house, my two hilarious, precious, unusual cats curled up on me, Fig on my right shoulder, Budderlamb on my chest, I watch them pull whiffs of our neighborhood with their intricate noses and think, How can I ever want anything more? My husband and I have hung chandelier crystals in our bedroom window. So every fall and winter, when the sun moves lower in the sky, rainbows dance across our walls all day. It’s no wonder I don’t get much done. I am keenly aware that these are The Good Days.
So why, when I watch Garden State, or Good Will Hunting, or read Sylvia Plath or books about the activists in Taiji, Japan, protesting the slaughter of dolphins, do I wish I was smarter? Contributing more to the world? Working harder? There must be something in those things that resonates with me. Is it more than the desire for prestige? More than the validation of a title? Of bragging rights? I don’t really know. I do know that sometimes when I see images and posts of my friends’ successes, I am filled with such a combination of envy and self-loathing that I scroll past, or don’t finish reading about the publication, grant or fellowship that they are over the moon to share. Sometimes I see the post. Let it settle somewhere inside me before liking or commenting on it. And after I am fortified with breakfast, or a shower, or some small victory of my own, will I revisit, explode into an an emojistorm of congratulations. Because I do mean it. I mean it, and everyone is watching.
I crave aloneness. Aloneness from my phone— which I have every opportunity to fling into oncoming traffic or the fountain at Echo Park Lake. I crave aloneness from the news, which is a swipe to the right and new every time.
I have been asked what it means to be an artist in 2018. I hardly know. For me, it is to fear that every word or image is a window into public, political and social tumult. It means you have to be more vulnerable than you or anyone in times previous has ever been. Everything tells us it’s a society poised on the brink of collapse and chaos, more segregated in our righteousness than we have ever been. It is the loneliest time to have a heart with the desire to share anything at all. Social capital is the currency, and if you have none you are poor. Of course, it is a time of great revelations. Of the ground being cracked apart to be re-laid. It’s a jackhammer and a whirlpool and a plague. Relentless in the sludge of information that pours through our screens by the hour. Where are we headed from here? Where can we possibly go?
I crave Inverness. Dancing Coyote Beach and the fireplace in the cottages there. And the nap I took, lulled into a thick sleep by the lapping of Tomales Bay. I crave aloneness. Aloneness from my phone—which I have every opportunity to fling into oncoming traffic or the fountain at Echo Park Lake. I crave aloneness from the news, which is a swipe to the right and new every time. I crave aloneness from the dishes and the plans. And the piles of paper in my studio. The boxes of “art” that have not sold but might. I crave oblivion to offset the aloneness and aloneness from the desire for oblivion, and yet, this is the most alone I may have ever felt.
In college of at the start of my junior year, I didn’t yet have an apartment and the calendar had snuck up on me suddenly. I found myself entirely unprepared for school, in the thick of class sign ups and foundation courses with nowhere to live and a trash bag of cocktail dresses in the trunk of my windowless ‘93 Camry, that I had intended to sell but instead became my temporary wardrobe. I moved into my studio on campus which was a drywall space with an open ceiling in a block of several other similar units. For the first two months of that year, I slept on a futon there, where the overhead lights were on all the time; it often reeked of cigarettes and weed, and you could hear all hours gossip from the other students who didn’t suspect you were silently existing nearby. I showered early in the morning, in the security office and kept a large bowl nearby which I peed into, when the bathrooms were too many flights of stairs to get to in time. On my desk with the art supplies were two boxes of cereal which I couldn’t keep safe from the rats whose chewing kept me awake at night. I painted and sculpted in there, destroying the cocktail dresses from having future homes. And when I felt lonely I would go to the library to see people studying, peruse the books, and to check my Myspace in the computer lab.
That’s what it was to be an artist in 2006.
Now, it feels entirely devoid of that romance. Now, my art is better. I know technical shortcuts and where to buy the materials I need at the best prices. I have evolved immeasurably in my approach and my craft. I have slowed down and quickened my pace. I have a true home. The home of an adult married lady with a closet of clothes and cats and cereal that does not get chewed on by rats.
But I am more scared now than I ever was of making and sharing art. The size of the world seems to have grown with my access to the information in my pocket. And in that, my sense of uniqueness, of necessariness, of relevance has diminished, which before the age of the smartphone, played a subterranean, but crucial role in my creative machine.
In 2012, I was in the worst part of what would be a four-year existential crisis. I didn’t know why humans were here on earth or what the point of it all was. And one afternoon at Bed Bath N’ Beyond sent me spiraling out of control—the isles of Yankee candles and plug in wall fresheners seemed to me, everything that was wrong with the world (in particular a heavy blue Yankee candle with a tiny sailboat on the front called Life’s A Breeze). When I rounded the bend on my crisis I had settled with a personal knowledge that some things were just too big for us to know, and that my particular life was not designed to answer the big questions. I was not meant to see the man behind the curtain or get friendly with the abyss. For it did, as Nietzsche forewarned, begin to gaze back into me. Maybe too, is this VIP pass we’ve created to everything, that we take with us everywhere, too big for my spirit to hold. But how to move forward? Tossing my phone into the LA river and moving deep into the woods of the San Geronimo valley seems as counterproductive as spending four hours of my day engaged with my phone. In the end, they both leave me isolated. At least one of these options gives me the illusion of camaraderie, community. Alone, but in company.
Chelsea Bayouth is a writer and Emmy Award Winning visual artist from Los Angeles, California. Her poetry and short stories have been published or are forthcoming in BOAAT, Roanoke Review, Borderlands, Harpoon Review, The Rattling Wall/PEN Center USA, Heavy Feather Review, Stirring Lit, and many others. More of her work can be found on her website www.chelseabayouth.com.
The following narrative should be read alongside Tatiana Garmendia’s artist portfolio Migrations.
The doilies function as surrogates for the domestic domain. Their fragility contrasts starkly with brutal memories of the night the G2 Cuban secret police took my father away for a two-year interrogation. Mounted on drone footage from a random suburban Washington neighborhood, they point to the intrusion of state surveillance upon citizens, questioning if there is safety and peace anywhere.
* * *
Each handkerchief bears the portrait of a Jose in my family, along with the text to personal letters written to them. Cutting and pulling on horizontal threads to partially distress each, I physically eroded the textiles, illustrating the dissolution of intergenerational ties when a member of the family is forcibly removed by the state.
* * *
Beforehand/Afterwards II documents a performance in honor of my father, who was detained and tortured by the G-2 in Cuba. He died at 36 years old. Many of the techniques used against him by the Castro regime are now used by the US government in Guantanamo. Over the course of a month I embroidered a list of these torture techniques on a standard military blanket and wrapped myself in it as an offering of warmth to my father’s memory and the bits of his DNA in me. The embroidered blanket drapes an empty chair and serves as a surrogate for the missing figure, bringing his absence into the viewer’s space.
* * *
This series embraces the fluid space between the past and the present, between a homeland lost and a homeland gained. Here each wave meets at my heart with a gesture of embrace. The translucency of the polyester film points to a space between actual and conceptual representations. The viewer can see the recycled wood stretchers, sometimes the wire, and construct in their minds how the image comes to be. Viewing becomes a surrogate to the creative act.
* * *
Water has so many states…it can be solid, fluid, or vapor. Like our memories. Some are so concrete they are heavy like a glacier, others vanish like so much mist in a breeze. In this self portrait I wanted to capture the feeling of memories washing over me.
* * *
An empty glass and uprooted plants become stand-ins for the gaps in cultural agency experienced by outsiders, like immigrants, occupying the peripheries of society.
* * *
Flags and notions of nationhood are both abstract and very real, but both are easily distorted. I used a funhouse mirror to alter perceptions of the flagged still life.
* * *
I love the diversity of peoples in this my new homeland. Whatever frictions exist between cultures and races, most of the time we live, learn, and grow stronger together. To me this is still the land of possibility and optimism, which is why I employed the primary triad in the color scheme.
* * *
As a refugee, I see my identity occupying a reflective space between two cultures. I meditate regularly on a mercury glass skull, and here reflect on all those who have braved the seas in search of freedom but have drowned instead. Over 70,000 Cubans have drowned crossing the waters to the US.
* * *
I meditate regularly on a mercury glass skull. Here I reflect on all those who have braved the seas in search of freedom but have drowned instead.
Tatiana Garmendia is a professor of fine arts at Seattle Central College. She has exhibited her work throughout the US, and abroad in Mexico, Italy, Germany, England, and India. Her works are in public collections in Seattle, New York, Washington D.C., Miami, Illinois, California, Ohio, and the Dominican Republic. Synthesizing formal concerns and a humanist engagement with history and culture, the artist’s interdisciplinary work occupies fluid boundaries. Born in Cuba at the height of the Cold War and immigrating to the USA as a youth, the artist’s practice deciphers myths, histories, languages, and tropes from different communal fonts.
Girl’s Dresser is not my first attempt at using watercolor, though it’s among the earliest ones on my long journey to becoming an artist.
This piece was created in 1991 after I had turned sixteen. The start of the year was one of my most dramatic teenage years. Second only to the year I became pregnant in my sophomore year of college at the age of nineteen. I was head over heels in love with a beautiful man who was seven years older than me and I was tortured by my parents’ attempt to keep us apart. The strain of it all proved to be more than my fifteen-year-old self could handle and before I turned sixteen, I had ended it, to his (and my) amazement. Essentially, Girl’s Dresser was created shortly after the breakup of my first boyfriend.
I drew inspiration from my own clutter. One night, I made a little space and teetered on my dresser to take it all in. The visual of my own dresser top overwhelmed me and I realized then that I’d have to simplify my vision in order to get it down on paper. As I sketched out my edited and imagined version, periodically I’d again teeter on top of the dresser to keep the core of my vision in my head.
There was no book present, but I wanted to incorporate one in the piece because I had always been an avid reader, though in 1991 I was no longer a reader of the genre of literature the novel I created visually implies. The novel in Girls Dresser titled Tiny suggests some sort of young adult horror literature. It’s more of a reflection of what I had been reading from fifth to seventh grade rather than the literature I devoured at sixteen.
I define clutter as an abundance of things that are unorganized and I place them into two sub categories: (a) things that have sentimental value and (b) things that have a perceived outward world application value.
By 1991, I was reading works like, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and literature about slavery. I knew at the time that the novel I had invented in the painting came across as silly, but I placed no harsh judgment on it and allowed myself to explore the misty paths my imagination took me. The work was not created to be seen but to be adventurous. It was my version of still life, but for my eyes only—and maybe a couple of friends.
When Girl’s Dresser was complete, I tucked it away behind a collection of unhung posters behind my bedroom door. Girl’s Dresser, though always in my heart, never hung on a wall or door. It could almost be seen as a capsule of time that reflected the thoughts and behavior of my much younger self. I was a girl trudging towards womanhood, trying to be pretty, trying to be smart, exploring curiosities and defying her parents—I got into trouble on more than one occasion for keeping my dresser such a mess. I shrugged it off. It was my mess.
My current style and themes veer away from my interests as a teenage girl in wide degrees. For example, in a series of work titled, “Kobiphysics,” all of my paintings touch on the contributions of ancient and modern physicists. In a series titled, “STATIC!” the work addresses police brutality and the abuse of authority. Observation from these few examples illustrates that my more current somber and cerebral topics are galaxies away from the pink swirling whimsy of the study of a girl’s dresser.
Examining my entire body of work (my writing included) up to the present, one of the common threads that weave my first works to my current ones, is a thread I refer to as “clutter.” To be clear, I’m not inclined to categorize clutter as the half hazard placement of things that haven’t made it into the trash from procrastination or laziness. I define clutter as an abundance of things that are unorganized and I place them into two sub categories: (a) things that have sentimental value and (b) things that have a perceived outward world application value. In my writing, you can see it in random lists I create (I’ve always been a list maker). In my art, you can identify it in a collection of abstract images. An example is seen in my latest series, where I create assemblages of random things I own: pearls, painted bottle caps, crocheted t-shirts, Mardi Gras beads… in order to re-envision the idea of traditional talismans. My favorite is titled, “To Ward Off Sneaky-Snake Women Who Try to Kiss Your Man on the Mouth.”
I suspect the influence, the gravitation to the visual aesthetics of the abundance of things, stems from my grandmother, Ernestine Ruthie Mary Anderson Banks, who, in hindsight, I recognize as a hoarder. She was what a psychologist would classify as an “organized hoarder.” Her cups not only lined the inside of the cabinets, but were also nailed to the outside of the cabinets. Grandma had more jewelry nailed to her walls than in jewelry boxes. I’ve spent hours of my life reflecting on the multitudes of perfume bottles (full and empty) that occupied her entire dresser top—lined like soldiers under a cover of dust.
Clutter is to my work as decay is to the work of Salvador Dali; as crowns are to the work of Jean Michel Basquiat; as shame is to the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky.
My grandmother, Ernestine, passed away when I was twenty-four, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I began looking at her and her collections with new eyes. I’ve reflected on the way she spoke with relish of her collections; the shelves of ashtrays; the wall to wall beverage bottles, the cast iron skillets that hung from beams, the deer antlers on the back wall of the den, the floor to ceiling walls of books… and how she displayed them—like a series of museum installations. I began to look at her, over time, as an artist. The quiltist. The candelist. The pillowist. The found-object installation artist. Now that I think about it, she was also a curator, because everything she displayed was chosen as though diamonds and displayed with parallel mindfulness. As kids, we, her grandchildren, didn’t look at it like that at all. Everyone had grandparents who lived like this. Right?
My clutter was never as artful and Grandma’s. As I grew up and became a mother, I had less of my own clutter and a whole lot more of my daughter’s. Still, subconsciously, the clutter, the disorganized collection of various things, has been the backdrop to my various explorations of themes, concepts and media. A quiet stowaway that I’ve paid little attention to, until my body of work silently expanded. Clutter is to my work as decay is to the work of Salvador Dali; as crowns are to the work of Jean Michel Basquiat; as shame is to the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Though I am now open to sharing my work publicly, I consider each to be an experiment as I’m constantly working on both skill and mental evolution as a human being. My great challenge is to create like I did when I was sixteen. An exploration of and for the self. I’ve been striving lately, to be honest with myself. To stand up on my dresser top and look down at my life, to see it for what it is. To share what I want and keep the rest to myself. To recognize the mess. My mess.
Kobina Wright is a second-generation California native with a degree in communications from California State University, Fullerton. Wright is an artist, writer, entrepreneur, and a board member of The G.R.E.E.N. Foundation, an organization that helps to service the community through health education and navigation to support individuals and families to access quality health care.
We are driven by the compulsion to tell stories; everyone.
For two years, I have studied poetry in an MFA program dedicated to educating literary artists to advance social, economic, and environmental justice, and I have worked on Lunch Ticket for three issues.
The 47 student volunteers on staff work hard to make this literary journal a safe and sacred space, from the manner in which we discuss submissions, to how we collaborate with one another. As we work toward our goal to foster equity in publishing, it became even more evident to me that material cannot be divorced from the process; that as editors, we must align our editorial conventions with this vision. During the making of this issue, it was not uncommon for eight or more editors and assistant editors of different genres to engage in a thoughtful discussion of any given piece. We leaned into each other’s experiences to inform editorial decisions. One such decision was refusing to provide a platform for those who work against or trivialize the pursuit of justice.
At Lunch Ticket, we take our mission extremely seriously. We do not tell stories to be a voice for the voiceless. Instead, I believe we strive toward what 13th century Persian poet Rumi calls “the deep listening.” “What is the deep listening? Sama is / a greeting from the secret ones inside … your intelligence grows new leaves in / the wind of this listening,” the poet defines the enlightenment that takes place within when we truly hear the other.
But we must recognize our separation before we can appreciate hearing them: “Listen, and feel the beauty of your/ separation, the unsayable absence.” Without the ability to sense the beauty of our separation, the absence of being a person in this world, Rumi says we might as well be dead. Yet, he gives us hope for justice: “The dead / rise with / the pleasure of listening.” If I had to name a theme for this issue, that would be it. The voices of Lunch Ticket 13 revel in the justice of listening.
We tell stories to honor our ancestors. Telling their stories makes us come alive. In “Babiy Yar” (Fiction), the speaker promises, “I’ll write about our secret war, the war after the war.” Their mother answers, “Start tonight.” In her essay “Souvenirs,” poet and writer Lena Khalaf Tuffaha says “To remember is to resist the transformative powers of violence. If occupation tries to reduce a homeland to collapsing camps and ominous military checkpoints, resistance is remembering its beauty, is seeking out the stones and red anemones and wild thyme of the hillsides.”
We tell stories to speak up and take action. “If I didn’t move, this time it would be Joey on the news. He’d be one of those hashtags on Twitter,” Arriel Vinston writes in “Following Joey” (Fiction).
We are thankful for the words of our past poetry contributors Lena Khalaf Tuffaha and Cortney Lamar Charleston, who generously obliged when I was seeking essays by poets, on any topic of their choosing, for Lunch Ticket 13. A 2017 Ruth Lily Fellow, Charleston writes about his decision to study business when he was in college, “What do you want to be when you grow up? That’s such a White-ass question, if we’re being honest.” Published alongside Tuffaha and Charleston’s essays is Akhila Kolisetty’s “Experiencing Whiteness.” Kolisetty unflinchingly examines her privilege as an Indian American traveling in Sierra Leone.
Numerous pieces examine parent-child relationships: Carolyn Oliver’s poem “Elementary,” MJ Lemire’s essay “Losing Faith,” and in flash fiction, “How to Love Your Child Without Your Neighbor Reporting You to Child Services” and “Picking Out Bananas.” There is also a theme of exploring mental health and confronting stigmas of mental illness: in fiction, Cannonball and Phone Voice, Brandon Melendez’s poem S/c/h/i/z/o/p/h/r/e/n/i/a/, and Elliot Gavin Keenan’s essay Notes to Self.
As Lunch Ticket is working toward our initiative to mentor and publish more young people, I’m reminded that some young people are ready to be heard alongside published writers. A rising high school senior, Michael Wang (“Fleeing Syria”) is our youngest contributor. “Michael cares deeply about issues of social justice,” his bio says. “After reading about Syrian refugees and the ensuing U.S. ban on immigrants, he imagined how a young boy might feel fleeing a war-torn country.” We’re honored to publish Wang’s self-translated YA fiction in both English and French, along with numerous new voices who are being published for the first time in Lunch Ticket 13.
Lunch Ticket is excited to announce our contest winners and finalists. Gabo Prize winner Caroline Wilcox Reul translates selected poems from Carl Christian-Elze’s Our Ghosts and How We Talk To Them. Guest judge Tiffany Higgins says, “I love that the poet and translator have brought into English this concept of a selfie-dream … Reul keeps us in this quirky, ghostly world.” Reul’s prize-winning translations appear alongside other literary works translated from German, French, Chinese, Bengali, Hindi, Yiddish, and Dutch, in our Gabo Prize and translation sections. Diana Woods Memorial Award winner “Arabian Night” by Diane G. Martin “takes us by the hand, invites us deeply into the writer’s lost world,” said guest judge Gayle Brandeis. “A stunning, necessary, gut punch of an essay.”
As we work toward our social justice mission, we are grateful for Juan Felipe Herrera‘s reminder that unity, while sweet, is challenging to achieve. We stand with writers and editors everywhere who have lead by example: recently, the decision of Timothy Donnelly, BK Fisher, and Stefania Heim to step down as poetry editors of Boston Review due to the executive editors’ decision to retain Junot Diaz as fiction editor.
As I reflect upon the chorus of voices that came together to produce this issue, I return to Herrera’s statement about writing as a communal art: “We really are nourished by being in a pact of artists and people.” Being a part of the Lunch Ticket community has nourished and humbled me. I am grateful for the contributions of my peers and appreciate the work and patience required to build a future with equity in publishing.
The right to tell stories belongs to everyone. It is challenging and necessary work. In the words of Jordan Faber’s “Babiy Yar,” start tonight.
Jessica Abughattas is the editor-in-chief of Lunch Ticket Issue 13. She formerly edited Lunch Ticket’s poetry section and was a reader for Frontier Poetry. Her essays and interviews have appeared at Palette, Lunch Ticket, and other places. You can find her poems in Thrush Poetry Journal, BOAAT, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. Her latest work is forthcoming in Muzzle Magazine, OSU The Journal, and Tinderbox. You can find her on Twitter (@jessicamelia22) or visit her site (jessicaabughattas.com). She lives in Los Angeles.
Author’s Note: Names have been changed throughout this piece
The dawn emerges, and, as if straight out of a movie, a rooster begins to crow. The rooster in question belongs to my neighbor, who is lucky enough to own several chickens. I’m in Gondama, a small town twenty kilometers from Bo, the second largest city in Sierra Leone. It’s 2013, before the Ebola crisis plunges the country into further devastation.
As I walk to the well to fetch water, I hear children call out to me, poo-mui, poo-mui! White Person, White Person! I greet them in Krio (How de morning?) or Mende (Be-ay-ee, asking how they slept). In turn, the kids insist that I pump my water first, even though there is a long line of energetic children and exhausted mothers waiting their turn. After some protesting, I eventually give in. The gesture is too sweet to ignore. As I apply the maximum strength available in my puny arms, they giggle at the White Woman attempting to pump water. The children giggle as I struggle to carry my bucket a few meters back to my home, water splashing out the sides, going to waste. Even the smallest kids in Salone are experts in balancing heavy buckets of water precariously on their heads, somehow not spilling a drop on the longest walk home. Their laughing eyes follow me as I wrap myself in a towel and walk to the outhouse to take a shower.
“Turn around! That’s not nice!” I yell at them, annoyed, but also secretly overjoyed at the sound of their chortles behind my back.
As I walk to the well to fetch water, I hear children call out to me, poo-mui, poo-mui! White Person, White Person!
Later that day, I step into my office, a legal assistance center next door to the small room I sleep in. There, we spend the day meeting with clients, hearing their stories, and addressing their legal problems and disputes. Many of the community members who come in are young, unwed teenage mothers who are seeking child support. Survival itself is a chore in Sierra Leone, where well-paying and safe jobs are scarce. Ironically, having a child at least means that the child’s father might give the mother food, money, clothing, shelter, or even school fees. Prostitution is rampant too, especially with young girls going to the nearby military barracks. Often we meet young women who are victims of horrific domestic violence. Rarely do the abusers face any sort of accountability, despite our best efforts. There are few resources to prosecute someone in such a poor region; the police tell us they have no fuel for their motorbikes, no money to investigate crimes or arrest the criminals.
Between client meetings, the day is interspersed with conversations with friends, neighbors, children passing by, and anyone curious or bored. A military officer, friends with one of my co-workers, comes by to chat. “You must take a Sierra Leonean husband,” he insists, taking a seat. When I tell him that I’m taken, he guffaws loudly as he slaps his palm down on his knee. “Your husband can marry a Sierra Leonean wife. You can both live here. I know many beautiful girls,” he chuckles.
At the end of the workday, I inevitably find Kadiatou and her younger siblings waiting for me outside my small room. She works nearby selling snacks at the junction, but she comes by almost every day. Sometimes she brings me delicious jollof rice, since she knows that as a lifelong vegetarian, I’m having great difficulty adjusting to the meat-heavy food. She’s a friend, yes, but the relationship is complicated. The line is unclear: is she friends with me because she wants to be, or because she knows I’m from America? She, too, asks me if I have any cousins who want a wife. She tells me to take a photo of her so I can show it to my male friends and relatives when I get back to the States. Everyone seems desperate to go to America. Everyone views me as White.
But I’m not White after all. My skin can be anywhere between the brown of the soil and the brown of caramel, and my hair is thick and black. I’m American, yes, but I am Indian too.
In a development aid cliché, the neighborhood kids beg me to take photos of them and with them, using my camera. I ponder the ethics, but succumb to their persistent requests, their childish excitement. They pose for what turns into a photoshoot. In one image, a young girl holds a flower in her right hand and stands with one arm on her hip. In another, two young girls hug each other and smile, standing in front of a bush. I take videos of the girls gyrating to music played on their cell phones, using my hairbrush as a pretend microphone as they belt out their favorite tune. When I show them the shots, they laugh, thrilled to see their face on camera.
That evening, the girls put me on the spot. “Dance,” they command me joyfully. They want to see if I can move my body to the music like them. I’m stiff, lacking their natural fluidity, but I make an attempt. A small crowd forms around me. I guess I’m the village entertainment for the evening. After a minute, everyone claps, cheers, laughs, and joins in, from the three-year-old toddler to the sixty-year-old grandmother. Every night in Sierra Leone somehow turns into a village-wide dance party.
The kids are also fascinated by something else that points to my foreignness: my hair. They want to touch my hair, feel its texture against their skin. They’re surprised at the novelty of it all: it doesn’t need to be braided? You just leave your hair like this? They insist on plaiting it to see how it looks and how long it lasts. They braid my hair rapidly, with hands that are clearly expert, fingers that are nimble and comfortable intertwined with hair. They insist on taking a photo with me and my new hairstyle, my single braid glossy and thick, framing my face and tucked behind my ear.
It is briefly beautiful, but begins to unravel only a few minutes later.
* * *
But I’m not White after all. My skin can be anywhere between the brown of the soil and the brown of caramel, and my hair is thick and black. I’m American, yes, but I am Indian too. My family hails from Andhra Pradesh, a state in Southern India, and we immigrated to the US when I was starting elementary school. There’s no getting around it: I’m a brown girl, through and through.
Landing in Freetown, I expect confusion about my origin and doubt that I’m truly American. I am fully prepared for endless questions about my skin color and ethnicity, questions like—Where are you from? But where are you really from? Where is your family from? These are the kinds of interrogations I experience regularly back home where I’m not seen as fully American and certainly never considered White. I’m not the type of American historically represented in pop culture or media, nor in the most popular movies or television shows exported to Sierra Leone.
For the first time in my life, I feel White. In a way, it gives me a thrill to be a mini-celebrity. After decades of never quite feeling fully accepted as an American, having my identity questioned and questioning myself in turn, this feeling of belonging is refreshing.
Somehow, this interrogation never comes. Throughout my two-month stay in Gondama, Bo, and Freetown, I’m treated with the adoration that the White Man usually garners in these communities. I’m the center of attention in almost every village I pass through. The chiefs come to talk to me, plying me with generators that can play movies and light up the dark, and with palm wine to taste in the evenings. Young women freely give me food and even lend me their clothes when I get caught in a sudden downpour. Okada (motorbike) drivers crack jokes with me, knowing they can charge me a higher rate. Everyone is willing to help me out, no matter how destitute they themselves are. I’m asked to give out graduation certificates to children at a local school. Everyone wants me to dance, sing, eat, and drink with them. Everyone wants photos with me. Everyone wants to be my friend.
Yet, I’m also treated like any other White person, which is to say, the site of deep-seated hopes, desires, and anxieties of communities affected by conflict, poverty, and the influx of development aid despite a struggling local economy. Every day I’m asked for money, food, water, clothing, pens and paper, and electronics. People start staking a claim to my belongings. You’ll give me your mattress when you leave town, right? Promise? Men are constantly flirting with me, asking me if I can marry them, take them to America, or if I can introduce them to someone, if I have cousins or friends who need a man.
For the first time in my life, I feel White. In a way, it gives me a thrill to be a mini-celebrity. After decades of never quite feeling fully accepted as an American, having my identity questioned and questioning myself in turn, this feeling of belonging is refreshing. In fact, the experience of Whiteness is more than that—it is intoxicating. There is a certain benefit of the doubt my “Whiteness” confers on me in the village. I am immediately loved, appreciated, and valued. My motives are not questioned. It’s assumed that I’m here to help. I’m automatically welcomed. To be White, I finally understand, is to have consistent privilege, to be looked up to, to be almost universally admired. But this love is mixed in with anger, jealousy, revulsion, and in the community I live in—dependence. The people I meet are trapped between submitting to the poo-mui and being realistic about their needs. At the end of the day, survival wins out.
Sierra Leone struggles with a complex relationship with the White Man. In 1787, British abolitionists and philanthropists settled about 450 former slaves in Freetown. Under the guise of empowerment, the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor, a charitable organization, played a crucial role in signing up indigent Black people in London to form a colony in Sierra Leone. But the project’s aim was mixed in with a heavy dose of racism: there was also a desire to remove the Black poor from the streets of London. Exporting them off to West Africa seemed a way to kill two birds with one stone. Sierra Leone earned its nickname, the “White man’s grave,” for the high mortality rate of colonists and missionaries due to infectious disease and lack of sanitation. The new Black settlers, unfortunately, were not immune, and many died from exposure to malaria and yellow fever. In 1807, the slave trade was outlawed. The British established a naval base in Freetown primarily to intercept slave ships and rescue and resettle the freed people at the base. In 1808, Freetown became a British Colony and a stronghold in efforts to end the slave trade. Over time, more than 50,000 former slaves were eventually resettled in Sierra Leone. The descendants of these liberated slaves became known as Krios. They lived alongside members of various tribes and ethnic groups, such as the Temne, Mende, and Fula. In 1961, Sierra Leone finally gained its independence from the United Kingdom.
Though the country was colonized, its citizens also take pride in the role Freetown played in ending the slave trade. Sierra Leoneans began their relationship with the White Man as purported philanthropist, and today continue to be dependent on the White Man. The White Man enslaved them, deported them, liberated them, colonized them, and yet, created them. Today, too, the communities I work with know that as much as they seek liberation, the poo-mui is a vital source of development aid and financial support. Without aid from the poo-mui, even more children might die before the age of five from malnourishment and easily treatable diseases. Even more young women may drop out of school because they can’t pay school fees, buy uniforms, or because they don’t have pads when they start their periods. Perhaps even more women will die in childbirth without foreign-funded hospitals. It’s a fraught relationship, but one that ultimately succumbs to the harsh reality of poverty and development in this country. Survival wins over emancipation. So today, many Sierra Leoneans equate Whiteness with foreignness, which means the potential influx of development aid, wealth, support, and opportunity.
Though I am the “Other” back home, I am still rich enough to take a flight to Sierra Leone, which is enough to make me a poo-mui here in Mende land.
* * *
The summer is ending, and it is time for me to leave Sierra Leone. I give away as many of my belongings as I can. My mattress goes to Kadiatou, who fed me many delicious dinners; the mosquito net to Fatmata, who is caring for three young children, one with a disability; a few clothes to Mariama, who took me on walking tours around town.
I hug everyone I know in the town, and I’m broken in two, racked with guilt, knowing that I can never repay the acts of kindness I have received over the past few months. I don’t mean to, but I feel like I’ve stolen too much—their images, and now, their stories. There’s very little I was able to give them in return. Continuing the legacy of the White Man, I think to myself bitterly.
This summer, I’ve been forced to dwell in the uncomfortable space between confronting my own privilege and reconciling it with my identity back home. I always knew I was privileged, but in America this somehow felt mitigated by a pervasive undercurrent of Otherness. Here in Sierra Leone, I confront my privilege multiple times a day. Here, as a poo-mui, I’m never allowed to separate myself from my privilege. Instead, I tried to make the most of it. I tried to capitalize upon it when speaking to the police, when advocating for our clients who are victims of domestic violence, in making presentations in Freetown about the problems people are encountering in this community, in campaigning for greater financial support to grassroots organizations in Sierra Leone. My privilege is not just in a vacuum; it’s a political tool. And yet, I’m no savior. As much as I want to believe I am different, the reality is that I parachuted in and out like any other aid worker. With my limited knowledge of the context, the politics, the actors, and the language, and my short time in the country, there was only so much influence I could have. All the privilege in the world doesn’t mean that change comes easy.
My friends and colleagues hold one last dance party in my honor. The radio is on, the palm wine is flowing, and we are all dancing as the sun descends beneath the horizon. For a moment, one sweet moment, I no longer feel like a White Man. Instead, I’m a Brown Woman, shaking my hips to the music, letting myself slip into the song, together with the whole town, rapt in ecstasy under the moonlight.
Akhila Kolisetty is an Indian-American lawyer and advocate in Brooklyn, NY, where she provides free legal representation to survivors of domestic violence in family law. Previously, she worked with human rights organizations in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Sierra Leone. Her poetry has been published in Rigorous Magazine, Lily Lit Review, and Sky Island Journal. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School.
My college decision was a compromise of impulses. These were my most important criteria: not close to home (so I would grow more and have more independence); located in or in immediate proximity of a large city (where there’d be a decent amount of Black people who existed who were not me); top-notch academics (since my mind deserved a challenge and I’m a competitive person deep down); prestige (translation: respect). My father didn’t really care what I did, but not in a lazy way we expect of men—he just trusted I was already thinking of the right things, as he’d always done. My mother was all about practicality: “make sure you can go out there and get a job when you graduate.”
What do you want to be when you grow up? That’s such a White-ass question, if we’re being honest.
She had a point, a point that would be repeated hundreds of thousands of times by the time I actually graduated, though I understood it even as a high school senior, and I understood it years before, in fact. I was always a practical kid, I’m a practical adult now, and I hate that about me. Being practical is a way to survive, but it’s probably no way to live.
In any event, I ended up enrolling at Wharton where so many of the big financiers went (the ones who tanked the economy back in 2008). I don’t regret it, really; I’m still here after all. I have a job that provides for a fairly comfortable life. A lot of folks like me can’t say that. A lot of folks like me can’t say anything anymore.
* * *
A list of people to hold the most powerful job in the world, April 2008:
- George Washington (White guy, slave owner)
- John Adams (White guy)
- Thomas Jefferson (White guy, slave owner, Black baby mama)
- James Madison (White guy, slave owner)
- James Monroe (White guy, slave owner, Liberia dude)
- John Quincy Adams (White guy)
- Andrew Jackson (White guy, slave owner, slave trader)
- Martin Van Buren (White guy, slave owner)
- William Henry Harrison (White guy, slave owner)
- John Tyler (White guy, slave owner)
- James K. Polk (White guy, slave owner)
- Zachary Taylor (White guy, slave owner)
- Millard Fillmore (White guy)
- Franklin Pierce (White guy)
- James Buchanan (White guy)
- Abraham Lincoln (White guy, Illinois, Civil War, Emancipation, shot)
- Andrew Johnson (White guy, slave owner)
- Ulysses S. Grant (White guy, slave owner)
- Rutherford B. Hayes (White guy)
- James A. Garfield (White guy, shot)
- Chester A. Arthur (White guy)
- Grover Cleveland (White guy)
- Benjamin Harrison (White guy)
- Grover Cleveland (wait, again?)
- William McKinley (White guy, shot)
- Theodore Roosevelt (White guy)
- William Howard Taft (White guy)
- Woodrow Wilson (White guy, super-duper racist)
- Warren G. Harding (White guy)
- Calvin Coolidge (White guy)
- Herbert Hoover (White guy)
- Franklin D. Roosevelt (White guy, Depression, WWII)
- Harry S. Truman (White guy)
- Dwight D. Eisenhower (White guy)
- John F. Kennedy (Irish Catholic White guy, shot)
- Lyndon B. Johnson (White guy, Vietnam, Civil Rights)
- Richard Nixon (White guy, crook)
- Gerald Ford (White guy)
- Jimmy Carter (White guy, Mr. Nice Guy)
- Ronald Reagan (White guy…)
- George H.W. Bush (White guy)
- Bill Clinton (White guy. First Black President?)
- George W. Bush (White guy)
* * *
What do you want to be when you grow up?
That’s such a White-ass question, if we’re being honest.
* * *
In business school, I gravitated away from more quantitative subjects like finance and accounting, and toward topics like management and marketing. It wasn’t a loathing of math that steered me in this direction, but an appreciation for the more human elements of things. This had always been true for me.
I hear quite a few side conversations analyzing what went wrong, everything from African American voters not turning out to James Comey’s memo to deeply rooted sexism and misogyny, but none of this is indicative of something “going wrong.” No, this is how things work around here.
Kindergarten through twelfth grade, my favorite subject in school was history: I loved ancient history, loved European history, loved world history. Above all else, though, I loved American history, how it read like a fairy tale, how I’d snicker to myself at just about everything the teacher would say. See, I knew a whole lot of Black historians, enough to understand the jokes that flew over other kids’ heads (first Thanksgiving, ha!), though they weren’t recognized as such by anybody in academia. They had no doctorates. They had no master’s degrees. They had no college at all, actually. But their eyes had seen it all. Their eyes had seen all they could handle. My parents, my grandparents—they never wanted that for me. Instead, they wanted me to be secure. Physically secure. Financially secure.
The day after Trayvon Martin went out for Skittles and the day after Michael Brown was left laying in the street for hours and the day after Tamir Rice held a toy gun for the last time and the day after Walter Scott was left lying in the dirt and the day after Sandra Bland got pulled over and the day after Clementa Pinckney oversaw his last Bible study and the day after Eric Garner’s daughter was crying on the news and the day after Jordan Davis didn’t turn down the music fast enough and the day after Dajerria Becton went to the pool party and the day after Korryn Gaines last saw her child and the day after Freddie Gray was snapped in half and the day after they lit up Laquan McDonald and the day after Philando Castile served students lunch for the last time, I went to work.
And the day after.
And the day after.
And the day after.
And because I did, I got paid.
* * *
The day after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, I went to work as if nothing had happened. And it hadn’t, at least in the sense that what occurred was not out of the ordinary or impossible to have predicted, but perspective is a funny thing. A lot of folks around the office were visibly concerned, hanging their heads solemnly, talking with a decided lack of energy that stood in sharp contrast to what they demonstrated less than twenty-four hours before when so many felt they would be voting for the first woman to ever hold the presidency in this nation’s history. I hear quite a few side conversations analyzing what went wrong, everything from African American voters not turning out in high enough numbers to James Comey’s memo to deeply rooted sexism and misogyny, but none of this is indicative of something “going wrong.” No, this is how things work around here. Around America, all areas thereof. Where have these people been? Why are they crying today if I never have? What do they have to lose except something I’ll never attain to begin with? Why can’t they just put on a good face about this?
* * *
I have a vivid memory of when I’d learned a cousin of mine had been killed. I had school, and my mother was dropping me off at my granny’s house, where the bus would come collect me, before she headed to work. The room was dim with only a single strand of light that fell through the gap between the curtains providing any sort of warmth. My granny was sitting down in that green, patterned chair pressed up against the wall on the left side of the room, my mom standing just past the doorway and me, floating in the vicinity like a thought bubble ultimately left unfilled. There was nothing to be said, but there were things to be done by each of us. And we did them. Even as a child, I had a job to do.
* * *
“Also among the slightly odd findings of the poll, 18% of respondents who felt that Mr. Trump was not qualified to be president nonetheless voted for him, as did 20% of those who felt he did not have the necessary temperament.”
* * *
From the very beginning, what they always expressed to my parents was how nice and well mannered I am. Teachers. Neighbors. Complete strangers.
Cortney Lamar Charleston is the author of Telepathologies, selected by D.A. Powell for the 2016 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. He was awarded a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and he has also received fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation Literary Festival, and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His poems have appeared in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, New England Review, AGNI, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. He serves as a poetry editor at The Rumpus.
Souvenir is one of the first French words I learned in childhood, before taking any language lessons at school. I was enamored with its luxurious vowels, its music. I learned the Arabic-accented pronunciation of it from my mother and her friends, women of the Levant, as the French would designate their homelands, living in Saudi Arabia, polyglots, multicultural exiles and expatriates, whose conversations, like their wardrobes, were layered in silks smooth and raw. The word was lavished on their pretty lips, gathered into a bouquet and then unfolded in two more elegant pouts of different shapes, a series of kisses, long and short.
Souvenir is also a verb. It is an act. A series of decisions that require us to reach into memory and elevate something to the status of keepsake.
In the climate-controlled snow globe of my childhood, souvenir was a noun, the treasure to be found or selected at the end of a journey to a place visited for the first time. In childhood, the world unfolds as a series of sensory adventures, from visits to friends’ homes so different from our own, to cities only recently named in geography class. From Athens, I brought home a postcard depicting the Evzones at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in their pleated skirts and pompom shoes. From our Aleppan friends’ home, a candied quince from a tray of fruits glistening, bejeweled with sugar crystals. From Vienna, a tin of chocolates emblazoned with the image of a blushing Mozart. And in the kingdom where we lived, a birthday invitation to a real princess’s palace. My third-grade classmate, a decidedly ordinary girl who took tennis lessons and dreaded math class as I did, handed out the gilded invitations one Tuesday afternoon. She was one of us, and like many of my classmates, she was picked up from school by the family driver. Her family’s driver, however, arrived in a Mercedes, its back window obscured by pink velvet drapes.
The gilded invitation is long lost, but I have another souvenir of the birthday party I attended at her family’s home. There was a pet peacock roaming the grounds. Possibly two. The tail feathers flashed before my eyes, unraveling a game of tag in which I was engrossed. I remember the sound the girls made, almost in unison, when the elusive pet sauntered past us, and the nanny cautioned us not to chase it, her voice trailing behind our quickening steps. From that evening with twenty third-grade girls in their best dresses playing in a marble-floored minor palace among several on a compound ringed by a high stone wall and heavy metal gates, my souvenir is a Polaroid photograph. I am smiling, grasping the edge of my new dress with one hand and holding my blue paper bag of treats with the other. In childhood, the souvenir that mattered most was the treat bag. This one had, among other wonders, a pack of melon-flavored chewing gum. My mother preserved the Polaroid that commemorates this temporary suspension of everyday life in a photo album. Much like the ubiquitous gold bangles of the Saudi souks, my yellowing artifact only grows more valuable with age. A souvenir of a world now inaccessible, that seems almost imagined.
But souvenir is also a verb. It is an act. A series of decisions that require us to reach into memory and elevate something to the status of keepsake. Its Latin predecessor subveniresuggests that the remembered must be brought up from the depths in order to come over, to cross into our memory, which lives in the present. Souvenir as time travel.
During the winter of tenth grade, at the height of the first Intifada which unfolded on our television screens in Amman every night, my friend’s parents decided to take her to visit relatives in Jerusalem. My father scoffed at what he deemed dangerous, to take children to a place that was even more unstable than it had already been, not even a wedding or a funeral to justify such risk. I had inherited his fear or had been raised in it. That fear, manifesting in an instant bile that floods the throat and reduces all words to sour shards, was the souvenir of my only childhood visit to Palestine. I was one or two years old, too young to claim any of the memories for myself, just water-color drifts from my parents’ narrations. We travelled across the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into Palestine. The crossing involved a series of transports, as it does today, the hyper-management of our bodies from station to station for careful inspection, from the security forces of the Jordanian government to those of the Israeli military occupation. My parents had only been married for a few years, and so did not yet share the same citizenship. My father, already a US citizen, and I, his Seattle-born daughter, were placed in a different queue than my mother, who had nothing but her Jordanian passport to speak for her. I was predictably distraught. And in the retelling of my loud meltdown and the methodical insistence of the Israeli soldiers to keep me from my mother are many souvenirs.
My father’s anxieties, exacerbated by the crying of his child, raised the slow simmer of his experience of lining up to return to his occupied homeland to a rolling boil. The heat of the summer near this lowest point on earth, with its stretch of barren hills and military checkpoints awaiting us even after we crossed, all shimmer in the crystal of this souvenir like the beads of sweat I can imagine on my father’s brow. My mother’s narrative of this day is imbued with intention. Her attempts to reason with a soldier as a woman, as a mother whose baby is crying. Her attempts to reason with an occupier from the line reserved for Arabs whose presence is grudgingly tolerated on good days. Her attempts to reason with a very young man toting a large machine gun, someone whose hatred for her she could feel on her skin, someone towards whom she actively resisted full-fledged contempt.
Memory is the work of the present for young and old alike. In Amman, my grandmother, herself an expatriate from Damascus, spent the last few decades of her life devoted to curating the memory of places that were vanishing.
In the pantheon of border-crossing experiences, my own is a non-story. Nothing really happened. I cried and was miserable. My parents were powerless to do anything other than sit through the exercise of abject power by the occupier. And then we made it through. The souvenir of the story is a cautionary tale, a long string of what-could-have-beens clicked like worry beads every time a relative narrates their own journey.
When my tenth-grade friend returned from her trip to Palestine in the winter of 1989, she wore a kuffiyeh around her neck every day well into the warm months of spring. “It’s my uncle’s,” she told me, new stars dancing in her eyes. The headlines of nightly news reports were of teenage boys and girls our own age, wrapped in kuffiyehs like her uncle’s, hurling stones the color of which I had preserved in my mind. “Weren’t you scared?” I asked her as we lined up to buy our za’atar sandwiches for lunch. It was not the right question, one that was inappropriate in Palestinian company. Fear was a scarlet letter, the privilege of those who did not live under the boot of soldiers in the Yitzhak Rabin era of Broken Bones. But my soft-spoken friend, the accomplished pianist, the thoughtful writer just said: “You can’t believe how beautiful it is there.” And she looked at me as if to pour into my eyes what she had seen, the way she had seen it, the fullness of its rain-drenched beauty, beyond the tear gas and rubble of news. “You have to go one day and see for yourself. You just have to.”
I asked my friend why her father thought now was the right time for her to visit. Her answer was surprisingly simple. The people inside Palestine and the hundreds of thousands of refugees waiting to return to Palestine bled and suffered and wasted away, but in neighboring Arab capitals, we engaged in prose, not wars of liberation or any substantive solutions. We waged our battles in gymnastic flourishes of speech and hyperbolic proclamations. Governments expressed their devotion to the cause in an unending stream of adjectives, an exhaustion of abstract nouns. So, I was disarmed by her very matter-of-fact choice of verb: “To remember.” James Baldwin tells us that “history is not the past. It is the present. We are our history.” My friend’s act of remembering was a journey not into a fabled past, into the landscape of her parents’ youth before it was scarred by the violence of dispossession and occupation. It was an act of resistance in the present. To remember was to insist on her, on our history in this place, the history made of this moment. To remember is to resist the transformative powers of violence. If occupation tries to reduce a homeland to collapsing camps and ominous military checkpoints, resistance is remembering its beauty, is seeking out the stones and red anemones and wild thyme of the hillsides.
Memory is the work of the present for young and old alike. In Amman, my grandmother, herself an expatriate from Damascus, spent the last few decades of her life devoted to curating the memory of places that were vanishing. Damascus was not yet a war-torn capital, but it had long ceased to be the palace of her childhood. She lamented with equal ardor the security regime that suffocated its citizens and the slow collapse of a style she had consecrated as authentic. She was powerless over the changes that swept across her city, the old homes with mosaic tiles and jasmine vines perfuming the fountains in their courtyards giving way to sprawl, the honeyed apricots and plump almonds of the ghouta valley shriveling in the drought. Her only power was to transmogrify—memory made word. Her language—her voice and its inflections, the stories of her childhood—were dusted to shining, placed on the highest shelf, and gifted to us. Souvenirs of a place we were yet to learn we could never visit again.
A few summers ago, I returned, in a way, to a souvenir of my grandmother’s city. In Spain’s southern province, Andalusia, the city of Cordoba is home to the largest mosque in the West. Like all Levantine Arabs, people whose homeland French colonizers of previous centuries labeled the native land of sunrise (levant, French—to rise), there was a memory rising in me, forging a path into the now. The mosque, like all great monuments, is the site of layered stories. Many conquerors have etched their names on the place. Under the stones of the courtyard, ruins of Janus’ temple sleep, and the caverns of Visigothic shrines are buried beneath a forest of rose-colored double arches in the Muslim prayer hall. A cavalcade of golden saints and angels burst from the altar of the chapel installed by a Catholic king in the heart of the mosque. A Spanish guide with a healthy sense of humor walked us through the onion of the place, peeling back the skins of architecture and sacred geometries. The Umayyads who built the mosque were Arabs from Damascus, and the courtyard of soft-singing ba7ras—octagonal fountains shaded by citrus trees—recalls the homes of my grandmother’s stories.
At the Mihrab, the altar of Muslim prayer, the guide stopped to explain at length. She had been rapid-fire, hurling information and anecdotes quickly as we followed her around the building. She seemed bemused by the history she was narrating up until this point. At the Mihrab, a wistfulness befell her, her gaze travelling over the tesserae of the arch, and toward the ribbed dome above us. “This Mihrab is a mistake” she said softly. In the translation void between Spanish and English, the Qur’anic verses glinting around us, a silence filled me. “When you build a Mihrab, you are supposed to face Makka, all Muslims face to Makka when they pray. But where is Makka? It is not in this direction.” The Khalifa who commissioned the mosque, Abderahman I, was a Syrian refugee. He fled a homeland that he loved and longed for. He commissioned a tribute to his beloved city, of marble columns and sinewy arches, ornate wooden panels and stones the color of his, of my skin. A monument of memory, raised up from the heart of his longing. He sent for the trees and flowers of his homeland and nurtured them in the grand courtyard of the mosque. “This mihrab would have faced Makka if he was still praying in Damascus,” the guide explained. The heart’s stubborn coordinates. Was is it a mistake? Or was it a final love letter to his city? Until I heard that story I had assumed the resonance I felt in this place was due to the familiarity of architectural elements, the sensory delights of sunlight falling in familiar hues on limestone, or the calligraphy of prayers. But maybe this Khalifa had a rebel heart? A rebel heart that quietly subverted mosque-building tradition in favor of his love for Damascus. Who can resist, even across centuries, the magnetic pull of a rebel heart? And so, I found myself walking the cobble stone streets of a city that was not his beloved, a city that was not mine, touching the walls and looking for souvenirs of the refugee khalifa’s memory, like a jasmine vine, and the mirror of a ba7ra, waiting to receive its falling petals.
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is an American writer of Palestinian, Syrian, and Jordanian heritage. Her book of poems, Water & Salt, is published by Red Hen Press. She is the winner of the 2016 Two Sylvias Prize for her chapbook Arab in Newsland. She has been published and has work forthcoming in journals including Kenyon Review Online, World Literature Today,Black Warrior Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Redivider, Tinderbox, and New England Review. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and also anthologized in books including Being Palestinian and Bettering American Poetry v.2. She holds a BA in comparative literature from the University of Washington and an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University. Visit her at www.lenakhalaftuffaha.com.
“Justice work is life work,” Ashaki Jackson says in her interview with Lunch Ticket. “Think of it as a chorus: there will always be more than one voice looking for the perfect, rich harmony.” The staff and contributors at Lunch Ticket are part of this chorus. Issue 12: Winter/Spring 2018 is an offering from our search for this harmony. Justice work is a struggle: bringing many voices together in harmony—vocal tuning—is hard work, but beautiful work. It is necessary work.
The news is relentless. In the hours I began writing to you, I learned that Bear Ears National Monument will be diminished by 85%, and the United States Supreme Court will allow the full travel ban to be enforced. But I process myriad and constant devastations like these without succumbing to despair because I find strength in fellowship. For a few years I’ve been privileged to study and practice writing in an MFA program dedicated to educating literary artists to advance social, economic, and environmental justice. Justice work is inextricable from our journal and our parent institution. In my time at Lunch Ticket—two years and four issues—I’ve been surrounded and supported by the student volunteers who make this journal run, who make our community a safe, powerful, and sacred space. From this space I’ve written to you to describe our collective mourning—how each successive issue finds us confronting new instances of “white supremacy and terrorism in our streets, in our churches, in our institutions of higher learning.” I must now add Charlottesville, Las Vegas, and Sutherland Springs to our litany, our dirge.
In this difficult year we built two big, diverse, resonant issues we are proud of, and watched our colleagues build Lunch Ticket Special, a celebration of twenty years of the Antioch University Los Angeles creative writing MFA. I’ve written to you about expanding our mission, elevating our goals of diversity to goals of equity in publishing. We take our mission seriously—it threads through all our conversions, from evaluating submissions to deciding which initiatives to pursue. During the production cycle for Issue 12 we launched two new Amuse-Bouche occasional series: À La Carte and Litdish. The first features short pieces from all genres that engage with our mission to publish work by writers from underrepresented or historically misrepresented communities, and/or writing that highlights issues of social, economic, and environmental justice; the second is a series of interviews with writers and artists in conversation with our staff about literature, art, social justice, and community activism. Some wheels turn slower than we would like, but I anticipate the team of Issue 13 will be able to share with you soon the news of our current seedling, a young voices initiative.
Our community is vibrant. We’ve gained twelve new volunteer staff for the crafting of this issue, and dozens of new voices join the ranks of our published authors. We welcome poet Victoria Chang to the AULA MFA community. When she became part of our faculty, she had already conducted the Lunch Special interview with us. In it, she says that writing the eponymous character in her latest book, Barbie Chang, “became a way for me to write more than about my own experiences as a person of color living in a community that is not always welcoming to people of color, even today in California.” Alongside Jackson and Chang in our interview section, we visit with poet and AULA MFA founding chair Eloise Klein Healy; author Cecil Castellucci discusses her young adult and children’s novels and graphic novels; author Lisa Dickey shares insights into ghostwriting and her own writing; and mystery writer Joe Ide talks story about his multiple award-winning first novel, IQ.
In Issue 11 our essay section explored the myth of a post-racial America. Here in Issue 12 our essays look at workplace silence, workplace violence, and the politics of work in 2017. In our featured essay “The Architect,” Chad Baker brings us the story of his coauthor, Antonio Gutierrez, an immigrant who crossed the border as a small child in the company of family, and who lived the American dream by becoming an architect. When their undocumented status derailed this dream, ending their work as an architect, they became an immigrant rights activist. In her essay, “Workplace Silence,” Nicole Cyrus reveals the sexual harassment and racially motivated violence she has endured at work. And Teresa H. Janssen writes of our national epidemic of school shootings in “Nostalgia”: “Now when I see a boy in a trench coat striding toward my room, I watch, suddenly alert, make a split-second assessment of intent, and even when assured of the child’s harmless cloak of machismo, I sometimes close my door.”
Explore with us. Our themes are often complex and intersectional. In the poetry section, Roshanda Johnson, inspired by Yehuda Amichai, writes:
I wasn’t one of the stolen.
I wasn’t one of the many million
who had once only known
the sweetness of the sea.
I wasn’t confused cargo
stacked like the bricks of Babel
in the belly of a wooden beast.
I wasn’t shackled to my skin,
forgotten in my filth,
a prisoner of fear and promises. (“I Wasn’t One”)
In creative nonfiction, Sean Enfield also writes of the legacy of human bondage in “Paper Shackles”: “We had pushed all the desks to the sides of the room so that we could tape two, thin, boat-like shapes in the middle of the classroom. The class day prior we made shackles out of construction paper. Some of the kids decorated theirs, but I left mine blank—a solid shade of sky-blue upon which my imaginary sun reflected.” I wish I had space here to tell you something about each and every piece, and about more pieces from different genres that reflect similar themes: those that harmonize, those that embrace both suffering and joy.
This issue has strong dystopian themes. From water rights, to food scarcity, to a Chicago under Martial law, and a wave that swallowed the world, our fiction writers do not shy away from the political. In our flash prose and young adult sections, too, you’ll find stories of hunger, survival, and a world seemingly absent of adults. Our work is consistent in its urgency and global in scope: words and images from and about Iran, Indonesia, Nigeria, New Zealand, Vietnam, and beyond; and from the borderlands, from the experience of being Indian in Hong Kong, or Hmong in Laos. Elham Hajesmaeili’s featured art portfolio Pendulum of Identity explores being Iranian in the US. The work is an “observation of an identity shifting between two geographical contexts while sexuality remains the silent power holder.”
We’re thrilled to share our contest winners and finalists. Diana Woods Memorial Award winner Kristine Jepsen “makes powerful use of juxtaposition—between time periods and narrative lines—to create subtle but viscerally disturbing parallels between the fates of cows and of women” in her essay, “Gut Instinct.” Gabo Prize-winning translator Patricia Hartland, “a vigilant translator [who] must look in two different linguistic directions while plotting her course in a third,” translates selected poems from Monchoachi’s Black and Blue Partition: ‘Mistry 2. The language of Monchoachi’s Martinican Creole joins our chorus beside Arabic, Chinese, Danish, French, Hebrew, Italian, and Spanish in our translation and Gabo Prize sections.
Issue 12 is big and beautiful; it is our justice work. As for me, my remaining time with Lunch Ticket can be counted in minutes. I’ve earned my MFA and I must move on. I abhor the impending vacuum. I got to do what I love, for a time. I’ve had the honor of publishing friends and new friends made here, first-timers and professionals. I took the responsibility for this journal from good hands and leave it in good hands. What will I do now, without this education to pursue, this journal to glean inspiration from? Until I come up with a better plan, I’ll rely on the mantra I repeat each week to the team: Onward. There is nowhere else to go. And I’ll think of Ashaki Jackson’s chorus of justice work: “Once you hear it, you shouldn’t want to stop singing.”
Thank you for all of your voices,
Katelyn Keating studied creative nonfiction and fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles, earning an MFA in 2017. She served as editor in chief of Lunch Ticket for issues 11 and 12. She formerly edited Lunch Ticket‘s Diana Woods Memorial Award and the creative nonfiction genre, and wrote essays as a staff blogger. She was a 2017 fellow of the Los Angeles Review of Books / USC Publishing Workshop. Raised in New England, she’s been living most recently in St. Augustine, Florida with her multi-species family, and is currently wintering in Los Angeles. You can read her work in Lunch Ticket, follow her on Twitter @katelyn_keating, and see her read on an AWP 2018 panel in Tampa. Her work is forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Flyway, and the anthology, In Season: Stories of Discovery, Loss, Home, and Places in Between .
El edificio más alto en el mundo.
In a primary school in the city of Guadalajara, Mexico, an eight-year-old child stares at a picture in a textbook. Their third-grade geography class is studying a big city in the United States called Chicago. They have skyscrapers there. The biggest is the Sears Tower, which, the book tells the class, is el edificio más alto en el mundo. The tallest building in the world.
The child runs their small fingertips over the page. What they see thrills them, fascinates them. The tower is 108 stories tall. The child can’t quite comprehend this. How do you build something so big?
The child thinks about their family’s house. Their father did his best to build a home with what materials he could afford. The father, a bricklayer by trade, goes back and forth across the American border many times each year, looking for work that will allow him to save some money to bring home. The “house” is one room, about fifteen by fifteen feet, with two beds on a dirt floor and no roof. The walls are cinderblock, and over them the father laid laminas, a cheap plastic material that is supposed to keep water out. It does not. The bed that the child and their sister share gets wet when it rains.
The child does not hate this home. It has its own kind of beauty. There is ample space to play outside, and there are always extended family members around to dote on the children. But the child has, with age, become burdened with the knowledge that not everyone lives in houses like this.
The child learns that Chicago is famous for its architecture. They learn that architecture is what you call designing buildings, and the designers are called architects. This new fact opens something inside of them, like the bright-purple petals of the ipomoeas that bloom in Central Mexico, stretching out to receive the cool rains that come in May. Suddenly, a dream unfurls: someday, they will be an architect. They will build something as big as the Sears Tower.
Three years later, the child’s mother will tell the children that their father found good work in the United States, and they are all going to live with him there. She will explain to them that things will be different in America. There will be more money. The child and their sister will have more opportunities. The water will not get inside when it rains. When their mother tells them what city they are going to, the child will be so excited they could scream. Now, they will be able to see it, actually see it. The tallest building in the world.
* * *
For most of us, the career dreams that we harbor before all of our adult teeth come in eventually get tossed into the same psychic rubbish pile as our fear of the dark and our attachment to a particular stuffed animal. Most kids who dreamed of becoming an astronaut never orbit the Earth. Most who wrote an elementary school essay about why they want to be a veterinarian never get around to saving all of those horses’ lives. But in 2012, Antonio squirms their way out of a crowded train car, weaves through the kinetic bustle of the Chicago Loop’s morning sidewalks, and takes an elevator up to the offices of the “Park and Associates” architecture firm.  They are twenty-three years old, recently graduated from college, and enjoying the dewdrop-speckled dawn of a bright career. They are on their way to becoming an architect.
They learn that architecture is what you call designing buildings, and the designers are called architects. This new fact opens something inside of them, like the bright-purple petals of the ipomoeas that bloom in Central Mexico, stretching out to receive the cool rains that come in May.
The five-year architecture program at the Illinois Institute of Technology had been grueling. Antonio came to IIT with only a hazy notion of the day-to-day work of an architect. Many of the other students in the program had already done architectural drafting. Antonio started from square one. To add even more pressure, Antonio’s full-ride scholarship required that they not dip below a 3.5 GPA, an especially tall order when all of your coursework is in your second language.
Antonio never lost sight of their dream: to one day build skyscrapers. They took every studio design course available that might help them gain the skills to do that. In those courses, they caught the appraising eye of Professor “Caroline Park,” a rising star in the Chicago architecture scene who’d recently made a splash with her bold design of a downtown hotel. Park invited Antonio to intern with her firm over the summer. Antonio felt particularly lucky to snag this gig. Not only did Antonio like Caroline, but she designed high-rises. Suddenly, they were one step closer to their goal.
Architecture is like a decathlon: you have to be good at many different things. Technical specifications require advanced math and science skills, while reigning in a client’s big ideas requires a warm human touch. You have to speak many different languages, breaking down complex instructions to a construction crew in the morning and then deciphering intricate budget spreadsheets in the afternoon. Finally, architecture is an art: it requires a gift for vision, an innate spark of genius that most aren’t born with. That range of very different skills rarely present themselves bundled together in one person. But Park recognized this elusive combination when she saw it. After the internship, she offered Antonio a part-time job during their last year in school. After they graduated, she offered them a full-time job.
On a blustery December morning six months into their job at Park and Associates, Antonio takes off their coat and sits down at their desk in the workspace they share with a handful of architects. They look the part of the modern cosmopolitan design professional, with their stylish brown glasses and a sharp jacket from Topman. Antonio is settling in to the job and loving it. At a small firm like Park, they get better assignments with more design freedom than they would have at a larger firm. Caroline often gives Antonio interior design work, which lets their creative spirit soar. At the same time, they are also relishing the other freedoms of early adulthood: their salary allowed them to move into their own apartment for the first time in their life, a cozy place in Lakeview. Piece by piece, Antonio’s American dream clicks into place.
“Antonio, can we talk in my office for a second?” Park asks, swinging by Antonio’s work station. They follow her down the hall to her office, walking past design boards that Antonio created for various building interiors, which now hang on the office walls. As they take a seat in Park’s office, Antonio is unconcerned. It’s common enough for Caroline to pull them aside to check in with them about projects.
Park is a great boss. She goes out of her way to mentor Antonio, taking them along to client meetings and construction sites just to give them the experience. Their relationship is friendly. They’ve been out for drinks a couple of times. Antonio deeply admires Park, a woman of color thriving in an industry that has long been a white male’s field.
“Quick thing—we switched payroll companies,” she says, bringing up a window on her computer. “And apparently there was an issue when they were rolling the info over. They said your Social Security number didn’t match your name, I guess?”
Antonio breathes slow, steady. They concentrate on keeping their face natural. Pursed lips. A head cocked slightly in confusion. They try to conceal all signs of the panic that wipes their mind clean of coherent thought in one hot flash. “Oh? That’s strange,” they say.
“Here, can you take a look?” She pivots her screen toward them.
Antonio’s heart hammers. They squint their eyes and study the screen. They pretend to carefully go over the digits. Nine digits that Antonio conjured at random, as one might choose lottery numbers.
Park and Antonio’s co-workers know them as an ebullient extrovert with a bright staccato laugh and as a sharp-eyed designer. They don’t know that Antonio is an undocumented immigrant. It is a secret they keep even outside of work, even among good friends. Antonio was taught not to talk about immigration status the way other children are taught not to talk to strangers. From the day their mother brought them to this country, she warned them to never discuss how they got to America, not with anyone. If someone asks, say that you’re a citizen. If someone accuses you of not having papers, deny it.
They squint their eyes and study the screen. They pretend to carefully go over the digits. Nine digits that Antonio conjured at random, as one might choose lottery numbers.
“Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s the right number,” Antonio says in Park’s office. “And they said it didn’t match?” Their puzzled tone says this incident is unexpected and perhaps a little annoying, but ultimately not of any real concern to me, because I am confident this minor mix-up will be sorted out.
“Yeah, that’s what they said.” Her attitude is casual. If Park has begun to suspect that Antonio does not have a valid Social Security number, she isn’t showing it.
“Well, you know, it’s maybe possible I misremembered. Let me check with my Mom. She has my original Social card, back at the house.” Their only thought now is of buying time. Time to breathe, time to think. If they can just get out of this tight, hot room, maybe they can come up with a plan.
As Antonio walks back to their desk, the liquid terror in their head begins to cool into solid, nameable fears. The anxiety comes in layers.
At the molten core of their anxiety sits the same ultimate fear that first comes to any undocumented person’s mind when a situation brings their immigration status to light. Antonio runs through the standard survival questions. How well do I know this person? Would they turn me in? They try to remind themselves that Caroline is a kind person, and she cares about them. But the images bubble up anyway. Images of Park on the phone in her office right now, making a call. Images of officials stepping off the elevator in Kevlar vests with “ICE” stitched across the front. Of handcuffs, white vans, detention cells.
The second layer of anxiety is made of dollars and cents. Antonio knows that they are about to lose the only steady paycheck they’ve ever had. How much longer can they keep paying rent on their apartment? Can they break the lease? How much longer can they keep buying food?
The final layer of anxiety is more existential, a toxic atmosphere that makes it painful to breathe. It is the anxiety of realizing that perhaps nothing Antonio has done in their life matters. Salutatorian of their high school class. Graduating college with honors. Nailing every assignment Caroline has given them. Because Antonio can’t give the company a valid Social Security number, none of that matters at all.
For the next two weeks, Antonio goes to work each morning as if everything is normal. But they carry fear inside them every moment, like a parasite burrowed in their gut. When Antonio doesn’t follow up with Park like they promised, she sheepishly approaches them again. This time, Antonio tries a desperate gambit:
“Do you want me to talk to the payroll company directly?”
Antonio calls them up and attempts to bluff their way out of the mess. But it becomes clear that the payroll company is using “E-Verify,” a name known and feared by many undocumented immigrants in the workforce. The E-verify program is run by the Department of Homeland Security, and once its database flags a mismatch, there is no way to wriggle off the hook.
After that, Antonio is out of moves. They go back to Park’s office, sit down, and do one of the hardest things they have ever done in their life: they tell their boss they are undocumented.
Along with the deep fear of disclosing their status, there is something else in that office with Antonio, something even heavier and more paralyzing: shame. They are ashamed that they lied to Caroline for this long.
Park, for her part, is characteristically nice about it all. She empathizes. She, too, is the daughter of immigrants. But she doesn’t seem to fully understand. She says that once Antonio figures out the situation, the office will get them right back to work. She seems to be under the impression that it will be easy to get immigration status.
Antonio tries. They pay a hefty fee to consult with a lawyer about their eligibility for DACA. Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, announced earlier that year, was designed for people like Antonio. It came out of a failed attempt to pass the DREAM Act through Congress, legislation which would have granted status to young people who were brought to this country by their parents when they were young and who received their education in the US. This generation of kids in legal limbo were dubbed the “Dreamers.”
But for Antonio, the dream had been punctured one night the year before. After work, they’d gone out for drinks in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood with friends from the firm. On the way home, Antonio was stopped by the police and failed a field sobriety test. In Illinois, a first-time offense for driving under the influence is typically a misdemeanor, but the charge is aggravated to a felony if the driver doesn’t have a valid license. Antonio couldn’t get a driver’s license—at the time, Illinois residents needed a Social Security number for that, too.
In court on the felony charge, Antonio presented a letter that begged the judge to consider Antonio’s hard work and bright future when imposing a sentence. The letter was written by Caroline Park. Antonio received community service and probation, which they completed successfully, but immigration authorities still consider the incident a conviction, and it prevents Antonio from ever receiving DACA.
Antonio and their lawyer also discuss the possibility of Park and Associates sponsoring them for a business visa. But Antonio would be barred from receiving such a visa because they entered the country illegally—it does not matter that they were brought over at age eleven by their mother. Even if Antonio was eligible for such a visa, Park and Associates would have to pay more in fees and attorney costs than the small firm could possibly afford.
In late December, Antonio leaves the office for the holiday break along with all the other employees at Park. After New Year’s Day, everyone returns. Antonio doesn’t.
* * *
As a new year dawns, Antonio scrambles to sublease their place, since the landlord wouldn’t let them break the lease. They move back in with their parents, hauling in boxes they triumphantly carried out less than a year before. Antonio’s parents had left the bedroom exactly the same, though it would now contain things Antonio has brought back from their time in the professional class: a wardrobe of the latest fall fashions, a blue leather briefcase from Zara. Souvenirs from a life put on hold.
Antonio’s parents had left the bedroom exactly the same, though it would now contain things Antonio has brought back from their time in the professional class: a wardrobe of the latest fall fashions, a blue leather briefcase from Zara. Souvenirs from a life put on hold.
Dark winter days stretch out before Antonio with nothing to fill them. Sometimes, they find themselves going downtown for no reason. Sometimes, they hang around the IIT architecture lab, updating their portfolio. They plot ways to get back into the industry. Maybe they could do freelance design work. Maybe they could start their own company. But down every alley Antonio pursues, they find the brick wall of the United States immigration system blocking their path. They drink a lot. They are quickly sliding into a depressive muck they know they might never escape.
In college, Antonio learned from an at-the-time boyfriend about a group of young, undocumented organizers called the Immigrant Youth Justice League. Antonio attended one of the group’s events, but didn’t disclose their status to anyone there and didn’t follow up with the group afterward. Antonio had been too frightened and ashamed to talk about their status with anyone, even others in the same situation. Instead, they kept their focus on school. After graduation, they were focused on their job. They didn’t think much about IYJL again, too busy cashing in on that promised better life that brought their family here. Between work and jogging and going out with friends and all of the other things young professionals do, Antonio didn’t have time for politics.
Now, they have nothing but time. They need something to do with all of that time. And something to do with the pain.
A couple of months after leaving Park, Antonio emails one of the IYJL organizers and asks how they can get involved. As it turns out, IYJL has an event coming up. It’s called “Coming Out of the Shadows.” There, Antonio meets a lot of other undocumented young people. Listening to their stories, Antonio is swept up in the uncanny excitement that comes with discovering that your isolated experience is widely shared. Here are others facing the same struggles. Others dealt the same raw deal. And these young people aren’t wallowing. They are fighting back. Antonio can feel rage and humiliation change shape and become something else that jolts their tired heart awake. They feel empowered.
Suddenly, Antonio has a mission. They attend the weekly IYJL meetings, where the group plans their next moves. IYJL is currently planning a campaign against one of their member’s deportations. They need someone to design the flyer.
“Does anyone have any graphic design experience?”
“Yes,” Antonio says. “I do.”
Antonio quickly becomes a member of the team and is thrown a wide variety of tasks, from social media management to liaising with the press. Being an organizer, as it turns out, is like a decathlon: you have to be good at many different things.
At the press conference IYJL holds to protest the young man’s deportation, they ask Antonio to speak. Antonio likes public speaking, and they’re good at it. But speaking to a throng of strangers and TV cameras about rights for undocumented immigrants? It’s a lot to ask of someone who, just a few months ago, was too frightened and ashamed of their status to voice it to a close mentor. Antonio has to decide if they are ready to face that fear—a decision that will alter the course of their life.
* * *
In Chicago’s City Hall, outside the Mayor’s office, a mural depicts the city’s skyline in bright, pastel tones. In the painting, one building soars so high that the top spire is just out of the frame. The building used to be called the Sears Tower, but it’s not anymore. It used to be the tallest building in the world, but it’s not anymore.
The building used to be called the Sears Tower, but it’s not anymore. It used to be the tallest building in the world, but it’s not anymore.
Today, people swarm the area in front of this mural. They are organizers, activists, and protesters. They are black, Latinx, white, Arab, and Asian. They gather in a loosely-organized clump behind a podium while TV crews set up cameras and lights aimed at the press conference that is about to begin.
Antonio works the crowd. They seem to know everyone. They hug one of their comrades from Organized Communities Against Deportation, the group that the Immigrant Youth Justice League has since morphed into. They give a big wave to their friends in the Autonomous Tenants Union, a housing justice group Antonio co-founded and co-leads. Then they glide further into the crowd to catch up with co-workers from their day job, where they are a program administrator at an activist legal group. When another organizer takes the mic to call for attention, Antonio settles into a spot behind the podium.
They quietly review their notes as the first speaker addresses the media. At today’s event, groups from across the city and across racial lines will signal their resistance to President Trump’s attacks on sanctuary cities and demand that Chicago maintain—in fact, increase—its protections for undocumented immigrants. Antonio is speaking on behalf of OCAD, as they often do. They adjust the neckline of the smart blue sweater they wear over a collared shirt. They give their well-coiffed hair a final pat.
The speaker calls Antonio to the podium, to the cheers of the crowd. They stride forward with purpose. They grip the edge of the metal lectern and sweep steady eyes over the press and spectators. The click-click of cameras can be heard as white flash reflects off their glasses. When Antonio speaks, they let some of the anger and resolve and power that rattle inside of them show as a slight quiver in their voice.
“My name is Antonio Gutierrez. I am undocumented, and I am unafraid.”
 The name of the firm and its principal architect have been changed.
Chad Baker is a legal aid attorney in Chicago, IL. He has provided free legal services to low-income communities in the areas of immigration, housing, family, and healthcare law. He graduated Harvard Law School in 2015, where he served as executive director of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. He is the author of several plays that have been performed at many theatre festivals around the country. He is currently a student in the master’s writing and publishing program at DePaul University.
Antonio Gutierrez is a queer Latinx immigrant from Guadalajara, Mexico. Antonio has lived in Chicago for seventeen years after immigrating to the United States to reunite with family members. Antonio is a graduate from the Illinois Institute of Technology with a bachelor of architecture (B.Arch.). After graduation in 2012, Antonio joined the immigrant rights movement as an organizer with the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL), an undocumented-led organization formed in 2009. Since 2012, Antonio has collectively organized rallies such as the national coming out of the shadows rally, fundraising events, mass marches, national retreats, and civil disobediences. Antonio is the director of operations for the Community Activism Law Alliance in Chicago. Antonio currently volunteers as a tenant organizer with the Autonomous Tenants Union (ATU) and as a member of the steering committee of Organized Communities Against Deportation (OCAD).
“You don’t say no to me,” my colleague said in a thick drawl. “This isn’t over.”
The phone line went dead after the threat—his revenge to my rejection of his business proposal. I didn’t own or want a weapon, but that day I feared for my safety at work.
The muscles in my jaw tensed when I heard his footsteps in the hallway moments later. He used a roaring voice to announce his arrival outside my door. I remained seated at my desk and waited—for what, I wasn’t sure. A brawl in my sunny office? He barged in and slammed the door behind him.
“Who do you think you are?” he said. He was trembling with anger. “I need this deal to go through. I have a family.”
Unsure what to say, I held his gaze, silently pleading with him to understand my predicament. A chunk of his income was at stake, but his proposal was a serious money-loser for the company.
I leapt to my feet, meeting him eye to eye. “Why don’t you take a seat and let’s revise your proposal?” I said.
He rushed over and pushed me off balance. “I’m not changing anything, you black bitch!”
I flinched. The insult cut. It felt as if a thousand razorblades punctured my skin. But I didn’t have time to reel in shock or disappointment. I eyed my stapler, in case he charged at me again.
The tension between us had been building for weeks. Ever since I’d started my new job a few months before, he’d struggled to contain his resentment toward me. I had ignored his grumbling, snickering, and eye rolling—hoping the friction would pass—but this time he scared me. He was acting like Rambo.
“Get out.” I spoke through my teeth.
He looked stunned, as if I had whacked him on the head with a full sales binder. “You’d better watch yourself.” He jabbed his finger in the air, stressing his words. “I know where you park your car.”
I stood stone-faced, but I was terrified. I was an outsider in a new city, thirteen hundred miles away from family and friends. Since the ruckus on the floor didn’t attract curious or concerned onlookers, I knew I was on my own.
* * *
For the rest of the day, I kept imagining my colleague vandalizing my Honda. Different scenarios played through my mind. When I rose to leave, I panicked. Sundown came early in the fall, and the parking garage was a lengthy walk. I put my father on the speaker of my cellphone, unlocked my office door, and peeked out. Nothing. I sprinted in my heels toward the elevators. As if on cue, the doors whooshed open, and I hopped in, out of breath.
I was an outsider in a new city, thirteen hundred miles away from family and friends. Since the ruckus on the floor didn’t attract curious or concerned onlookers, I knew I was on my own.
My father’s voice boomed. “Are you okay? Who is this man?” He wasn’t happy about my recent move, believing single women shouldn’t live far away from their home base.
Please stop talking, I thought, hoping he would get the message and skip the lecture.
The elevator opened and I raced through the lobby, a corridor, the dimly lit garage. The blood drained from my face and thundered in my ears. I listened for footsteps and glanced behind me, to my right, to my left. No one. I approached my gold Honda. It was unharmed. I jumped in, locked the doors, and sped away in tears.
* * *
The next morning, I bumped into my colleague in an office breakroom. It was too soon. I was alone, stirring cream and sugar into my tea, when he walked in. My emotions were raw. Still, I refused to fall apart in his presence. Neither one of us spoke.
He stayed quiet but was visibly displeased. He leaned against a counter and glowered at me, showing zero remorse for nudging me or calling me out my name.
I’d do it again, his eyes said. This isn’t over.
I tried to turn away, but his withering glare drew me in. Why was he so bitter? Was it because I was a woman? A sister?
Regardless, I was the enemy, and we were at war. A war I didn’t know how to end.
* * *
“Ease up on the guy,” my manager said over the phone. It sounded like a warning.
I’d do it again, his eyes said. This isn’t over.
This manager wasn’t my biggest champion—he had wanted a different second-in-command—so I was surprised when he backed my decision to reject the proposal.
I clutched my receiver in annoyance. Why was I on the defensive?
“Did you try to work with him?” he asked.
“Yes.” I hesitated. A voice in my head told me to speak up and expose the incident. My manager deserved to hear the truth. I opened my mouth and nothing came out, not a squeak. The words dried up on my tongue.
“The guys are stressed,” he said. “Please be more supportive.”
* * *
In 2017, Telegraph Women created a list of twenty-five words used to describe working women in the UK. The references—all with negative connotations—also apply in the US. Seven of the adjectives jumped out at me: abrasive, bossy, shrill, ambitious, emotional, illogical, and bitchy (not to be confused with bitch). And, as a black woman, I must add the word “angry” because the world is full of us, right? The seven adjectives conveniently roll up under this larger term—angry—making it easy to paint black women as the bogeyman on every occasion.
A myth exists that the corporate world is full of human robots devoid of emotion. This isn’t true. Money, ego, and status are on the line. I’ve seen a male colleague hurl a binder against a wall and another punch a metal bookcase when sales opportunities didn’t go their way.
Yet women live with the negative labels.
The day of the run-in, I felt more frustrated than angry. I was doing my job: protecting the company’s financial assets. A duty I performed well. Even so, I stayed silent about the altercation because I feared physical, financial, and professional retaliation. But I missed the courageous me. I sacrificed one part of me for another.
If there was any good news, it’s that the company let my colleague go for unrelated reasons. I was relieved to have outlasted this bully. To celebrate his departure, I bought myself a wine-red lipstick. I ate a pepperoni pizza and a pint of French vanilla ice cream. I danced furiously to Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman” in my apartment’s living room. The music pulsed. I spun around and around, making myself nauseous. Sweat soaked through my blouse. My heart raced.
I waited for a euphoric moment to hit me. It never came. The winning side of me was not at peace.
Nicole Cyrus is a career coach, a job far removed from her former life as a finance manager. Her transition has inspired her to help people understand their personal stories.
Photo by Roy Cox Photography
I am at my classroom door. I reach for my key, unlock the door, prop it open, and turn the key again. Open, but locked. I stand at my door, look up inside the frame, and pause, for the most important step.
I reach for the anti-latch device and flip it sideways. It keeps the door slightly ajar when closed, so neither my students nor I get locked out during the day. If a threat is identified, I can quickly flip the bar without stepping into the hall, close my pre-locked door, and go into emergency mode.
Done. We are safe. Ready for another day.
This morning, we will review French verb conjugations.
It is 7:45 on a Wednesday morning.
When did securing my high school classroom against a gun-wielding intruder become daily routine? Did we begin building our layers of defense after the fifth school shooting? After Columbine? Or Pilchuck High, seventeen miles east of us? I no longer remember. According to the superintendent of Public Instruction’s Weapons in Schools Report during the 2015-16 school year in Washington state, there were ninety-two reported incidents involving guns or firearms on school premises, transportation systems, or school facilities.
I can remember a time when I would not have given a thought to a student I didn’t know walking up the hall in a bulky coat. Now when I see a boy in a trench coat striding toward my room, I watch, suddenly alert, make a split-second assessment of intent, and even when assured of the child’s harmless cloak of machismo, I sometimes close my door.
When I spot a backpack abandoned in the hall on a Friday after school, I look around. I hesitate, wagering the probability of ill-intent, before I pick it up and deliver it to Lost and Found. (The US military calls this the OODA loop: observe, orient, decide, act.) The human mind is adept at forming new neural pathways for survival. We quickly forget the way things used to be.
* * *
A dirt trail used to meander through the woods near my house, crossing a stand of seventy-year-old Douglas fir. When the trail was widened to accommodate bikes, the firs were cut to the roots and graveled over. I tried to save them. After the trail crew tied pink plastic ribbons around the trunks, tagging them for demolition, I pulled the markers off, hoping to spare a few. But it was beyond my control. Few remember the trees that once stood—the former peace of the place.
* * *
There is profit to be made—in guns, in violence, and in fear. No grenades dropping on our schools, workplaces, and churches, but news releases of shootings and lists of casualties that hit like bombshells. The US guns and ammunition industry generated an estimated revenue of sixteen billion dollars in 2015 alone. The NRA and affiliated organizations’ 2016 revenue was $433.9 million.
Now when I see a boy in a trench coat striding toward my room, I watch, suddenly alert, make a split-second assessment of intent, and even when assured of the child’s harmless cloak of machismo, I sometimes close my door.
My grandfather, who grew up hunting in the arctic region of Tanana, Alaska, in the early decades of the twentieth century, had been a proud member of the NRA. In the 1970s, he realized that the organization no longer existed to promote hunter safety, but had embraced a larger agenda to protect rights for handgun and automatic weapon ownership. “Those guns are only used to hunt people,” Grampa told me, while pulling his camouflage-brown throw over his lap. That year, he dropped his membership.
When once I cried for innocent children gunned down, after Sandy Hook, I sank into a well of despair, numb with battle fatigue.
Our superintendent assured the community that the district would be taking steps to provide up-to-date active-shooter training for the staff, and install more security devices. State legislators are advocating for arming teachers.
There is profit to be made in making us feel safe—alert systems, surveillance cameras, alarms, remote locks, window shields, bulletproof backpacks, fingerprint recognition systems. Product reviews. Security firms. Consultants. Safe at school. School safe.
IHS Technology, a research company, estimated that security measures spent by schools and universities might rise to $907 million in 2016. These are considered necessary expenditures by often cash-strapped school systems, for which they must divert money from other educational needs.
* * *
The middle school was built over a wetland of sedge, slender rush, reed, ninebark, and Nootka rose. The area was surveyed and cordoned off, and then drained, bulldozed, leveled, and covered with concrete. They named the school for the dislocated birds. Twenty years later, children pass through the doors of a school built before they were born. They cannot imagine morning mist over the bulrush, the smell of wild rose in May, or the slow flap of herons that nested there. They shout, skip, and file in, ignorant of the way things used to be.
* * *
Over twenty years of teaching, I have stretched to keep up with change, hop-scotching from blackboard to whiteboard, from overhead to PowerPoint to Chrome collaboration. I have learned to recognize the syntax switch of a Wikipedia copy/paste, to spot camouflaged earbuds in long hair and hoodies, intercept test question texts, and have grown accustomed to background checks, bag searches, and police cars on campus. I have been trained to administer EpiPens, report suspicion of child abuse, refer for drug intervention, and assess for concussions. Change is to be expected. The future, faced head-on. Freedom, revered. The Second Amendment, sacred. Capitalism, rewarded. School security, a priority. I falter, unbalanced, no longer sure of the direction of the path we are on.
* * *
The American Academy of Pediatrics has defined gun violence as a public health epidemic. Firearm-related deaths are one of the top three causes of death of American youth. According to its 2017 website, for children five to fourteen years of age, firearm suicide rates were eight times higher, and death rates from unintentional firearm injuries were ten times higher in the United States than in other high-income countries. The AAP concludes, “The absence of guns from children’s homes and communities is the most reliable and effective measure to prevent firearm-injuries in children and adolescents.” In my rural county, more than thirty percent of families have guns in or around the home.
Twenty years later, children pass through the doors of a school built before they were born. They cannot imagine morning mist over the bulrush, the smell of wild rose in May, or the slow flap of herons that nested there.
The only thing to do with my despair is to act. I support organizations working for common-sense gun ownership: regulated licensing for transfer and sale, universal background checks and waiting periods, mental health restrictions, concealed-carry laws, Gun-Free Zones, assault weapons bans, gun safety education, and trainings regarding storage and locks. I mutter the nouns patience, persistence, and hope, like a mantra.
* * *
Fire drills, earthquake drills, and now lockdown drills. I know that statistically, we are safer at school than on a city street. I tell that to my students, but they read the news. Every year more than 3,600 kids die from gun violence in the United States. I don’t think they believe me.
On the December morning that we have our lockdown drill, I review the protocol with my students. We talk about closing doors, windows, and blinds, and finding a safe place in a room. Which wall would provide the best protection? Where could they sit unseen from someone outside, or in the hall? I try not to cause undue distress. I don’t want to frighten them. It is, after all, a drill.
But the teens do not smile. They crouch, hugging the farthest wall, one curled into a ball. You can talk softly, I assure them, while we wait for the “all clear” sign. You can read a book or do homework. But they remain grim. Anxiety clings to them, like winter frost.
The signal sounds and we move back to our seats. I walk to the door to perform my routine: open it, check the lock, and flip the anti-latch device. I stifle my rage and carry on. Fingers crossed, I push fears away and concentrate on the lesson for the day.
“Today we will review the verb esperer. To wait and to hope.”
Teresa H. Janssen is a public school educator who writes about travel and migration, teaching, and the power of place. She has an MA in linguistics from the University of Washington. Her nonfiction has received the Norman Mailer/NCTE Award, the Pacific Northwest Writers 2017 essay prize, and was a finalist for the 2017 Annie Dillard Award. Her writing has appeared or is pending in Anchor Magazine, Zyzzyva, Obra/Artifact, Gold Man Review, Dos Gatos Press, Tide Pools, Wanderlust, and Snapdragon. She is at work on a memoir-in-essays about a year in Ecuador. She can be found online at teresahjanssen.com.
“Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old,” wrote Brian Doyle in “Joyas Voladoras.” His recent death left my heart weary, in this year, this season, this month that had already delivered so much sorrow. May 2017: we mourned for Richard Collins, and then for Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Rick Best, three men murdered by white supremacists—homegrown terrorists. We memorialized wordsmiths Doyle and Denis Johnson, each gone too soon from cancer. We grieved the events in Manchester and Kabul, and remembered so many—too many—who didn’t live all of their two billion heartbeats. Doyle’s passing at the end of a particularly brutal week left me in despair. I knew him only through his words. So I turned to my community of writers with his words resonant in me: “We all churn inside.”
Reading earlier “Words from the Editor” in our archives, I revisited our responses to contentious elections, to white supremacy and terrorism in our streets, in our churches, in our institutions of higher learning. We, the collective we of Lunch Ticket, have been here for five years and eleven issues shining light into as many dark corners as we can find. Our community of forty volunteer graduate students shares a commitment to social justice, a commitment to speaking up. We grieve but we write. And here we are again, publishing art and writing in a version of the United States of America that seemed impossible before the 2016 election illuminated the depths of our darkness. Through our pain in the dawn of this 2017 reality, we came together with language to resist the call of the post-truth sirens; to bring you this issue.
Within Lunch Ticket Issue 11: Summer/Fall 2017 are seventy-seven works we are honored to share with the world. This issue’s essay section confronts the myth of a post-racial America. Featured essayist Amber Wong revisits the question she posed in Issue 10: “Are We There Yet?” Spoiler alert: we’re not. In “The Heavy Bag,” she shares her feelings of isolation and visibility as “the only minority—in a sea of white” that is Seattle. In “Ambivalence,” young writer and activist Ty Kia writes of casual racism in the Midwest: “no amount of privilege will rescue you from the stereotypes your complexion conjures in others.” And Californian Caesar Kent writes of the “correlation between Mexican men and crime—or, at least, convictions that put callused brown hands to work” in his flash essay “Weekend Work Program.”
Many of the pieces in this issue explore questions of diversity. In our Lunch Special, Lunch Ticket staff blogger Angela Bullock discusses Negroland with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Margo Jefferson. Jefferson says, “One of the many barriers for black people has always been the imposition of simplification, stereotypes, assumptions, even definitions of what the best kind of black person is or what a real black person is.” In conversation with our creative nonfiction editor and blogger Meredith Arena, writer and teacher Geeta Kothari discusses “the other” in fiction. Newbery Medal-winning author Matt de la Peña, interviewed here by YA assistant editor and blogger Kim Sabin, describes a new diversity and the importance of young people seeing themselves on the page. And in our featured interview, author and translator Katrina Dodson speaks with Gabo Prize and translation editor Lauren Kinney, lamenting the necessity of defending literature’s usefulness in this divided world: “Obviously this is important for humanity, thinking about our own interior experiences and how they bump up against other people’s interior and exterior experiences, so I always feel tired out by the weak position of literature and always having to defend it in this capitalist society, or usefulness-driven society.”
Our narratives counter American myths. From our features come explorations of identity: in both “Arroz y Dulce,” fiction by Rebecca Komathy, and “Scented Brains,” YA fiction by Scarlet Jones, two young narrators face the challenges of biracial identities. In creative nonfiction, Sossity Chiricuzio’s memoir excerpt explores growing up poor and queer in the American West. Nancy Au’s flash fiction, “She Is a Battleground,” is about an old woman finding her voice. N’kenge Feagin writes with “powerful imagery” and “subtle humor” paired with “devastating self-awareness” in her Diana Woods Memorial Award-winning essay, “Dead Daddies and White Castles.” Gabo Prize-winning translator Anne Gutt brings “alive for us the strange and magical world” found in Ukrainian poet Ganna Shevchenko’s “Quotidian Blues.”
Within these pages are voices from around the world, from writers and artists of many colors and genders and ages—from many identities—from Nigeria to El Salvador to Iraq to India, from eerily dystopian to satirical to heartbreakingly real. Our translation pieces originate in French, Spanish, Italian, Urdu, Chinese, and Farsi. The voices are urgent: torrin a. greathouse searches “for porn with bodies like mine / that are not made fetish” in their poetry; Tiffane Levick’s translation excerpt of Emmanuel Adely’s powerhouse multi-POV novel looks unflinchingly at the never-ending war in Afghanistan: “making blood run to defend the free world that is why they are here why they are hot why they are sweating why they are tense why they are concentrating why they are preparing;” visual artist Mellissa Redman’s portfolio seeks “to make the hidden external, to depict how swallowed fears and anxieties would appear if made tangible and visible.”
At Lunch Ticket our mission includes a call to engage with issues of social, economic, and environmental justice. As we celebrate Issue 11 with you, we also prepare to launch Issue 12’s production team. We have re-committed ourselves to our mission, and will have some exciting projects to share with you soon. Our torch stays lit. When you read our journal please share in our passion—fresh literary and visual art balanced with conversations about social justice and community activism—by telling others about us.
“So much held in a heart in a lifetime,” Doyle writes. “So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment.” Take heart in your community and thank you for sharing in ours.
We cannot tell these Sunday drivers that we have already faced judgment, that we’ve pled no contest to our sins, that we are only lesser criminals, serving a softer version of hard time. Their looks could never be as harsh as handcuffs and a hangover on the hard benches of a holding cell. We are only faces in the windows of a silver sheriff’s bus, and they cannot see the bright orange vests, the sign of a sentence that reduces a man of words to three letters: WWP. Because words have no place here, I turn to numbers, breaking down hours into fractions and percentages on a cheap wristwatch; I am 15% through this day’s hardship, with 6.8 hours until freedom. The Spanish volleyed up and down the aisle is a reiteration of the correlation between Mexican men and crime—or, at least, convictions that put callused brown hands to work. We can tell from the scarcity of darker bodies that things could be worse, that there are preselected alternatives for those whose complexions stray too far from the color palette of tortillas or skin that scorches to the color of mild salsa—like the man in front of me who complains loudly, needing a cigarette. I’m sharing a seat with a middle-aged man with whom I’ve formed a meek fraternity, a silent friendship of smiles and nods as we shirk gathering garbage in the shade beside buildings and under bleachers at the fairgrounds until we are scrambled by a crotchety woman on a Gator who alternates between offering idle threats and cold water. At lunch, I am 50% through this day’s hardship, with four hours until freedom. Some of our colleagues gather and distribute dingy cigarette stubs they found in the dirt, light them with smuggled matches; the red-faced man from the bus is one of them. On the ride back, his fingers drum on his bouncing knee, and he grabs his head, breathing deeply. He notices my watch and asks the time: we are forty minutes from freedom, 90% through this day’s hardship. The freeway’s passenger-side jury cannot see our orange vests, but until next Sunday, at least I can take mine off.
Caesar is a semi-nomadic California wordsmith living around the Bay Area and dividing his time between open mic stages, dive bars, and clouds. He writes from the frontier between flash narrative and spoken-word poetry. His work has been described as “exquisite,” “pretty good,” and “zip zap.”
Photo by Jorge Sanchez
Ambivalence is when you tell your friends that some guy made ching-chong noises at you in the hallway after school and their responses range from, “Ew,” to a sarcastic, “Oh, how nice,” to nothing at all. When that happens, you feel ashamed. You wish you knew why.
Maybe it’s because you have it better than others do. Let’s face it. You’re Asian, middle class. Your family is whole and, for the most part, functional. There are people who’d kill to be you, and you don’t blame them. So why speak out? Why shake the foundation of this house whose construction your birth granted you?
When you went to the mall to shop for summer clothes with your black friend, he was watched constantly by hawk-eyed clerks while you were left to roam free. When your Hispanic friend had to find a cash job at fifteen, scrubbing dishes at an Italian restaurant so she could help keep her family afloat, you were livid. Your Muslim friend tells you stories from before you met. Puberty was hard enough for you—on top of the typical issues, she had to deal with kids who she thought were her friends pulling her newly adorned hijab off her head as a joke. She had to think about what it meant when they snickered at her hair falling loose, when they plugged their ears while she tried to explain why she chose to start wearing hijab, how much it mattered to her. That was how you knew: of all the brown people you could have been born as, you came into the world the luckiest.
But no amount of privilege will rescue you from the stereotypes your complexion conjures in others.
But no amount of privilege will rescue you from the stereotypes your complexion conjures in others. If only they always took the form of something visible, like harassment. This sort of treatment isn’t always malicious—even your friends make fun of you sometimes, imitating your parents’ accents, asking if you’ll grill up your dog with an apple in its mouth when you invite them over for dinner. But that’s all right. Talking shit is what friends do, after all. Isn’t it?
Sometimes it comes from the adults in your life, this well-intentioned maiming of the spirit. Teachers laugh and make that face they always do when reaching your name on the class attendance list. They inevitably give up in the middle of mispronouncing it; if they even try to pronounce it at all, that is. They mistake you for the Filipino boy in the period before yours. They ask if you and your underclassman sister are related, explaining themselves with, “Sorry, I didn’t want to assume. You all tend to blend together for me sometimes.”
But you don’t say anything when this happens. Why would you? What have you done to deserve having your relations known? What marvelous feat of strength or courage did you perform, to expect your name to grace the lips of one who professes knowledge?
You have done nothing.
You lie in bed at night thinking about it. As much as you would hate to admit it. You dream of how sweet it would sound to hear your name spoken by an unrelated other. Someone not of your blood, yet recognizing your lineage. Proving that your name does, in fact, exist outside of your family’s little corner of the world. Maybe you’re afraid it doesn’t.
You realize a painful truth on these nights, but only when it’s late enough so you safely know you won’t remember it in the morning. It’s a truth that pierces farther into your soul than any insult ever has; one you would rather endure a thousand years of prejudice than admit. It disorients you—discombobulates you—fills you to the brim with guilt. The truth is that the most ambivalent person you know is you. You who aren’t marginalized, just in between the lines.
Ty Kia is a Thai-American high schooler and student activist growing up in the heart of the Midwest. Fascinated by the concept of entropy, he seeks to dedicate his life to studying the cultural implications of it. He has had poetry, prose, and creative nonfiction published in Rambutan Literary, L’Éphèmére Review, Rising Phoenix Review, and others. He is a reader for Glass Kite Anthology and Ellis Review and was a founding member of the latter. He is honored to be featured by Lunch Ticket.
Downtown street trees glowed with Christmas lights as music from the holiday carousel wafted over from Seattle’s Westlake Park. “How cute is that!” chirped my sister-in-law as we stepped around a line of families waiting to take Santa pictures. Prattling over our 2016 gift lists, we came to a stop behind a pack of shoppers waiting at the crosswalk for the light to change. Suddenly there was a shout.
“Hey you! Chinese lady! You! Get out!”
Reflex kicked in, and I ducked. “Chink!” clanged in my head.
The rant continued but didn’t draw closer. I peeked through the crowd. I’d barely noticed the street performer as he balanced, circus-elephant style, on a large rubber ball at the corner of Third and Pike. Relieved—and slightly embarrassed—I straightened up and pretended not to hear. Eh, just another ignorant jerk. That chickenshit strategy might have gone unnoticed if my sister-in-law hadn’t grabbed my arm and urgently said, “I didn’t hear him! What did he say?”
I was still so tense I almost burst out laughing—I was busy trying not to listen to what she was keenly trying to hear. I tried to wave her off—we’ll talk later. But then, lips taut, I quickly replied, “He’s saying something about the Chinese so I’m not listening.” Her blue eyes widened as she recoiled in surprise.
Just then, a twenty-something white man to my left stepped out of the crowd and turned to address the guy atop the ball. His voice, surprisingly neutral, rose above the din. “What about the Chinese?” I didn’t dare look. But that moment made him my hero.
“The Chinese are taking away our jobs!” the guy on the ball yelled.
As the light changed and our pack of pedestrians surged forward, my hero’s tone turned to one of disgust. He pointed to the performer’s hat lying open on the sidewalk. “How can you be so hateful when you’re begging us for money? Thanks for showing your true colors!”
When I searched for him moments later, he was gone.
* * *
Back in 1964, when I was eight and didn’t know any better, I walked home from school alone. No one told me that in the lily-white California suburbs, my straight black hair clearly marked me as “other.” One afternoon, three bike-riding boys overtook me and blocked my path. I looked around; nowhere to run. They pressed their fingers to the corners of their eyes and lifted, chanting, “Ching Chong Chinaman, Ching Chong Chinaman,” before laughing and riding off. It happened in a blur; when they left, all I felt was relief.
But when I told Dad, his jaw tightened. Was I wrong to tell him? Was I overreacting? What I now realize is that anger, simmering since his own childhood, was set to boil by a new feeling of impotence: he was helpless to protect me. Out in the white world, I was visible. Small. Vulnerable.
“Remember, we have a proud history. Chinese civilization has been around a long time. We had gunpowder when they only had stones.”
“Just ignore them,” he growled in a tone so primal it scared me. Jabbing his finger in the air, he continued, “Don’t ever give them the satisfaction of knowing they got to you.” Ignoring bullies, he said, would weaken them in the long run. But now I was terrified. Did threats lurk around every corner? Could I ever let down my guard? As my eyes filled with tears, Dad’s tone softened. “Remember, we have a proud history. Chinese civilization has been around a long time. We had gunpowder when they only had stones.” His esoteric jabs at the relative coarseness of white civilization fell flat. Finally he looked me in the eye and leaned in close, bestowing on me the family mantra that has emboldened each generation. “Remember,” he whispered, “you’re not just as good as they are. You’re better.”
* * *
In the cinnamon warmth of the department store, against a festive backdrop of reindeer and sleighs, my sister-in-law grabbed my arm again. Although the verbal barrage was safely behind us, she looked stricken. “I’m so sorry,” she began. “How could that man yell at you like that? I had no idea!” Her admission, and our deeper discussion that night over dinner, gave my story new purpose. What I would have dismissed as just another shameful incident became my next week’s talking point.
When I told my brother about the guy on the ball, he scoffed, “So what? Don’t be so sensitive.” Then he chuckled. “Know what I’d do? Hit him where it hurts. Take a twenty and hold it over his hat. Then go, ‘What’d you say? Oh, I guess I can’t give this to you then,’ and make a show of putting it back in your wallet. That’ll show him!”
When I told my relatives and Asian friends, there was a collective shrug. Why should I expect things to be different?
Some white acquaintances totally missed the point. “How did he know you’re Chinese? Just pretend you’re Vietnamese!” Or, “Were there other Chinese around? Maybe he wasn’t yelling at you.”
My white friends, however, reacted with genuine outrage. “What, to you? Here in Seattle? That’s horrible!” Some hesitated before asking, “Is it okay if I tell others what happened to you?” Of course I said yes. Assimilation, with all its negative baggage, can work in my favor; so deeply am I woven into the fabric of our community that an assault on me felt like an assault on everyone. One friend erupted with an uncharacteristic outburst, shouting, “I want to knock him off his stupid ball!” Amused, I nodded, thinking, nice metaphor! She pinched her lips and swung her arm, backhanding the air with deliberate force. “No, I mean that literally! Don’t you?”
* * *
Across the broad bowl of Seattle’s CenturyLink stadium, fans streamed into rows, lime-green beanies bobbing in a field of navy. Protected under the stadium overhang from December’s icy chill, I shimmied with excitement. The 2016 Seahawks still had a shot for the playoffs.
I couldn’t believe my good luck. The night before, Elizabeth, my rowing partner, texted me: Just picked up tickets for the Seahawks-Panthers game tomorrow… Want to go? These seats were even better than the ones she’d scored for the Falcons game in October. From our perch high above the thirty-yard line, I had a clear view of both scoreboards, the tunnel to the Seahawks locker room, and the platform where they’d raise the American flag. Perfect.
Bundled in Seahawks gear, I settled into my seat. As the Seahawks and Panthers warmed up on opposite sides of the field, the rows around us started to fill. Men in Avril and Wilson jerseys, whooping and slapping one another’s backs with an easy “season ticket holder” familiarity, landed in front of us. To my left, a man in a navy-blue Seahawks jacket gave me a cursory nod as he took his seat. The teenage girl with him pulled up her hood and continued tapping her cell phone.
I frowned; that’s not how it was supposed to be. Long ago my parents had held season tickets for the Oakland Raiders. Usually they took their friends, so I was thrilled whenever I got to go. Sun-drenched Sunday afternoons at Oakland Coliseum—shelling peanuts and cheering for Lamonica and Biletnikoff—taught me to love football. During commercial breaks Dad patiently answered questions I’d stored up—Why is clipping such a big penalty? Why is everyone bunched together for an on-side kick? I’d made up questions just to get his attention.
Suddenly, amidst the sold-out CenturyLink throng, I felt alone. I leaned forward, glanced down our row, and pivoted a complete 360. As I shrank back into my seat, I confirmed it: I was the solitary yellow face—the only minority—in a sea of white. I tugged my coat close, trapping the warmth of my breath. Still I shivered.
Had all these white guys voted for Trump?
Had all these white guys voted for Trump?
I shook my head and groaned. Shut up! I berated myself. Don’t go there! I could almost hear my sons laughing, “Mom, don’t be so paranoid!”
I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Why should I be afraid? I was born here. I belong here. White men don’t scare me; I’m an engineer. For thirty years I worked with, and supervised, scores of white men. I played on volleyball teams with white men; now I row with dozens more. I married one, and before him, another. I live in Seattle, one of the most progressive cities in America. In this very stadium back in October I wouldn’t have thought to fear.
But December jolted me with a new truth. Bombarded by a daily chronicle of local hate crimes—swastikas sprayed in a Bellevue park, Muslim women harassed on the University of Washington campus—my fight-or-flight reaction kicked into overdrive. The night some fool on a ball bullied me in downtown Seattle, I reeled from his assault. November’s election, and the associated knowledge that 63% of white men voted for Trump, hurt like a deep jab to the heart. Did two of every three men pressed around me also ascribe to his misogynistic, bigoted, xenophobic beliefs? My rational side said, “Don’t stereotype!” while my emotional side cringed, whispering, “I shouldn’t be afraid, but I am.” Wildly seesawing between control and chaos, I felt sick. Battered. Exhausted.
From a distance I heard the referee’s whistle, sensed a sharp elbow in my side. “Hey, it’s opening kickoff!” Elizabeth shouted. We jumped up. Bursting with relief at the welcome distraction, I joined the deafening chants, yelling so loud my throat hurt. As we took our seats, I accidentally brushed against my neighbor. “Sorry,” I mumbled, instinctively pulling in my elbows. But my self-imposed distancing dissolved when the Seahawks made a huge play, intercepting the ball and landing on the Panther’s seven-yard line. CenturyLink stadium erupted in one loud roar. Clapping and cheering, we leapt up. The Avril-shirted guy in front of me yelled, “Go Hawks!” and started high-fiving everyone in his row. The noise was eardrum bending.
Suddenly he turned around, palm aloft in clear high-fiving position. Awash in a typical “bro” this-is-fucking-AWESOME adrenaline rush, his entire face became one goofy exuberant grin. He saw me. Palm up, he hesitated.
Did he see my eyes widen in panic? I never touch people at football games. Or in his football frenzy, did he zero in on my Seahawks jacket—not my yellow face—and judge me American enough to come through and not leave him hanging? Or would he quickly drop his hand with a barely audible, “Oops”?
I couldn’t let that happen. Against every instinct, if this white guy was welcoming me into his Seahawks tribe, literally reaching out to me, I had to seal the deal. So I swung out hard, a perfect volleyball spike. Even though we barely caught each other’s pinkies, when he beamed and turned to Elizabeth, I knew I’d made the right call.
Did they see me as “other?” Would they keep their elbows tucked too? But as our high-fives got better, I breathed easier.
Throughout the 40-7 blowout, there were many more high-fives—with that guy, with the guy next to me, back to that guy again. When I first thought these guys might have voted for Trump, I felt like a bone had caught in my throat. Did they see me as “other?” Would they keep their elbows tucked too? But as our high-fives got better, I breathed easier. High-fives signaled unanimity, a pact that the only colors that mattered to them were navy and green. And if not—if a celebratory high-five didn’t vindicate them from being forces of oppression outside of the stadium—at least I felt safe sitting with them for a few more hours.
* * *
At thirteen I topped out at 5’5,” tall for a Chinese girl. One night after dinner, Dad waved me to the garage. His workout bag—his heavy bag—hung from the ceiling by a thick reinforced chain. He positioned me in front of it.
“Close your fist like this.” He wrapped my fingers tight, tucked my thumb below my knuckles. “Never put your thumb on top. You’ll sprain it that way.” He stepped behind the heavy bag and held it still. “Now punch.”
I drew back my arm and swung at the bag. The chain barely jingled, but he didn’t laugh. “No, not a roundhouse. And don’t pull your fist back like a boxer. That wastes time. Keep your wrist straight. The back of your hand lines up with your arm.” He tilted my hand forward. “See? Now your fist is flat. Now lean in. That’s right. Now harder.”
After a few weeks of punching practice, Dad waved me to the garage again. His crooked grin, almost conspiratorial, showed he was pleased with my progress. He stood behind the bag. “Now kick,” he said, bracing himself. “Kick the bag.”
Amber Wong is an environmental engineer who enjoys life’s ironies, like being an engineer who writes. A fifth-generation American, she explores how the statics of culture—ethnicity, gender, even one’s profession—bend the dynamics of modern-day America. Winner of The Writer’s Connection essay contest, she has also published work in Slippery Elm, Metaphorical Fruit, We Came to Say: A Collection of Memoir (2011), We Came Back to Say—An Anthology of Memoir (2014), and The Seattle Times. Amber earned an MFA from Lesley University and a master’s degree in civil engineering from Stanford University.
Photo by Lynette Huffman Johnson
I began drafting this essay at the end of the presidential election season, in light of what many of us thought would be a landmark historical moment: the United States’ election of our first woman president. On November 8, as we are all too aware, despite winning the popular vote by (as of this writing) over two million, the Electoral College results tallied in favor of her opponent. Spurred by a campaign rhetoric that relied on a cornerstone of violence, fear, and hatred, the president-elect continues to provoke considerable domestic and international criticism. Shocked by what this outcome revealed—that nearly half of voters responded positively to his rhetoric—, many say that it appears we have two Americas, red and blue. Like warring tribes, we’ve now turned away from each other and returned to our camps, separated by a modern Mason-Dixon line in the divided states of America. We curl up with our own news sources, revel in our own truths. The fissure is too deep, we say, and so draw a line that relieves us of reconciling our differences, scrutinizing root causes, or compromising our values.
Fissure is just one analogy to describe the state of the (dis)union. We could, instead, look at our picture of this country and say that part of our view was obscured. As political theorist Andrew Robinson writes, “Any particular way of seeing illuminates some aspects of an object and obscures others.” With our sights set on equality, community, and eco-conservatism, we now realize that we missed a large segment of the picture. Feminist scholar Julie Jung calls this synecdochic understanding: using part of something to represent the whole. As it turns out, many of us—including every major newspaper and pollster—were looking at the U.S. through this device. The election results lifted the shroud. Now we’re squirming in discomfort about two new sources of awareness: that which was underneath the shroud and the shroud itself. As long as there’s a shroud, the former cannot be helped. But we should question why we didn’t investigate our blind spots, why we overlooked the shroud.
Often writers think of revision as a task grudgingly—or happily—undertaken to perfect our work. We reread our words seeking moments of disconnect for the bits that don’t seem to belong, and we assess their worthiness to the story. We want our work to make sense, so we seek a narrative arc. If something doesn’t propel the narrative or make consistent sense for a character, it falls to the cutting room floor. Smooth out the wrinkles, wash out the stains, turn in the essay, get an A.
But what if we revised revision? What if instead of smoothing out the wrinkles, we held them to a magnifying glass? In this approach, so-called flaws would not to be brushed away but, rather, probed. As writers, artists, and activists, can we approach our work so that revising—that process of looking closely at our work for moments of disconnect—is not a process of glossing over but of examining more closely? Instead of manipulating truth in service of a smooth narrative, we should examine our motives for creating a smooth narrative to begin with. In this light, revision becomes not an act of making something flawless but, rather, making it more whole. As Annie Dillard writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. . . This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon.”
Given this approach to revision, what cultural material have we rushed to brush away before truly exploring? In our attempts to move toward equality and understanding, it’s now apparent that we’ve not fully attended to the underlying bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobic ills that this election season oozed to the surface. We have a country half-peopled by those who either resonate with or can overlook narratives of distrust and resentment for “the other.” Although it feels for many that we’ve now taken six decades’ worth of steps back, perhaps the reason we need to do so is because our progressive vision glossed over too many foundational cracks. While we were moving forward, half the country planned a revolt. If we’re committed to walking our talk of inclusion, then we need to hunker down in this new climate to revise our understanding of the United States and build something more tenable.
It was with these thoughts that I have been turning the pages of our tenth issue, which is my last as editor. It appears to me that what we’ve put together here is a multi-layered, multi-genre conversation about gaps in cultural narratives, moments of disconnect or desire for connection, and an attempt to, as Dillard wrote, stalk the gaps. If anything, the eighty-two pieces in this Winter/Spring 2017 issue, from interviews to art to new and translated work in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, point to the value and necessity of open discourse, of reading the white space between words along with the words themselves.
In her interview for our Lunch Special, Maggie Nelson says “every draft is slathered with self-deceptions,” which we must examine in order to get to honesty. In a separate interview, artist Harry Dodge responds to Nelson’s The Argonauts by reminding us that “any piece of art, whether nonfiction or otherwise, is a construction” and asks “whether language is able to do the work of describing fluidity, or anything really.” In his interview, poet Fred Moten talks about how writing should not suppress what he calls the monstrous, the strange, the radically disruptive fundamental aspects of life. And Susan Southard says of Nagasaki, a braided nonfiction narrative about the U.S. bombing in WWII, “I felt it was so important to bring [the survivors], still hidden from view in our country, into visibility.”
This theme of visibility is stitched throughout the issue. We could say the stitches are like sutures, repairing cultural wounds, but the stitches are also like hand-sewn needlepoint, each threaded with its own palette, in its own frame, its own unique picture. Gabo Prize winner Jim Pascual Agustin’s poem Danica Mae is about the recent mass killings in The Philippines. Diana Woods Memorial Prize winner Sarah Pape’s CNF piece Eternal Father & The Other Army brings to light a nuanced experience of depression. Call to Arms, Marine Lieutenant Lisbeth Prifogle’s featured essay, is about the need for publishing “stories that could alleviate the fear, isolation, depression, and anxiety of joining the old world after a deployment.” Grace Lynne’s featured art collection, The Exploration Series, seeks to show “Black culture in a new light, and open people up to a side of my culture that they haven’t seen.”
I could, without reservation, list every single one of the eighty-two pieces in this issue. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking, mind-expanding collection, and an honor to publish this one as my last. After three issues as editor, this is a bittersweet goodbye as I now step away from the journal. My studies in the Antioch MFA program and, recently, as a Post-MFA in Pedagogy student are nearly complete, and Lunch Ticket has and always will be student-run. My work leading the editorial and production staff, reading our submissions, developing relationships with our writers and artists, and connecting with literary and art lovers who come to our pages has been humbling, inspiring, and invaluable for my personal growth as a writer and as a woman in this world. Thank you for being here, for sharing your stories, for reading ours.
And take good care,
Arielle Silver is a writer and musician. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Gulf Stream, From Sac, Moment, and Lilith Magazine. In 2016, she was nominated by The Poet’s Billow for a Pushcart Prize and received the Antioch University Los Angeles Library Research Award for her MFA critical thesis, “Wicked, Selfish, and Cruel: An Inquiry into the Stepmother Narrative.” She is currently at work on a memoir about love, childlessness, and stepmothering, a portion of which will be published in a Burning Man anthology in 2017; and an historical novel set in the bebop and burlesque world of New York in the 1940s. She received her MFA from AULA, where she served on Lunch Ticket in various roles from May 2014 through June 2015, and as Editor-in-chief from June 2015 through December 2016. www.ariellesilver.com.
The People wanted a reality television star to be their leader and we have to take responsibility for creating that.
It was 2003 when the first season of The Bachelor aired. Girls were on their hind legs like animals begging to be picked for a rose. Jerry-Springer-type talk shows began their de-evolution into hysterical chanting and violence. We’d already lived through the start of reporters and news stations discarding sacred words like report and news in favor of irresponsible mandates like speculate and entertain. Thirteen years ago, our modern day version of throwing Christians to the lions for entertainment was in an unfortunate full swing. I remember watching that first episode of The Bachelor, the new advent of this “reality” television. The farther along the show progressed, the tighter I curled up. I pressed myself into the farthest corner of my couch watching, through my fingers, in horror. My soul was already reacting my body because of what I was witnessing. I felt physically sickened by it and I never watched another reality TV show again… almost. Never one minute of Trump’s, but I’d peek in on others from time to time; the advent of DVRs made it easier to fast forward through the painfully scripted and edited-within-an-inch-of- its-life “unscripted” chaos.
No one can ever tell any woman, minority, LGBTQ, transgender, Muslim, African-American, American Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern, any and all ethnicities other than white, that we are paranoid ever again, because this shit is real.
For almost thirty years we’ve been watching people act inhumanly towards each other in the name of ratings and money, and calling it entertainment. Not only is it the norm: entire generations know nothing else. The nation has become negligently desensitized to what it means to be a respectful, thoughtful human to another human because that’s not good TV. The medium is so powerful, it created a caricature of a person so strong that he could not be stopped. The Democratic and Republican parties TOGETHER were not strong enough to stop what reality television and the media had created: Donald Trump. He is the worst of humanity and he uncovered the millions of people in our country who respond to that. We have made him a drug, and people are ravenous for it. We, the watchers, have to take responsibility for that. We are complicit.
I’ve had this terrible feeling for months and months that we are at an actual crossroads of humanity. That we are experiencing something like 1930s Germany, to which people look back and say, The signs were so clear. Why didn’t they stop him? He was just one man. Well, everything is extremely clear. There has been nothing covert about this man’s message. Whether he meant it all, whether he means to follow through, Trump has shined the biggest black light on our beloved country. Apparently, people have been lying in wait for this particular trumpet call. And, boy, did they instantaneously respond.
No one can ever tell any woman, minority, LGBTQ, transgender, Muslim, African-American, American Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern, any and all ethnicities other than white, that we are paranoid . . . ever . . . again, because this shit is real. It is deeper and darker real than even any of us could have imagined. Even in our beautiful bubbles of Manhattan and Los Angeles blood has already been spilled. It is not hyperbole to be afraid because it’s already begun. If we let it continue, families will be ripped apart. People will be deported. Separated. Segregated. Rights will be stripped. January 20, 2017 could set our clocks back decades and be marked as one of the darkest days in American history.
This has been exhausting to the core. To be so bewildered by humanity, so gob-smacked by people we love, whom we thought we knew, whom we thought loved and respected us and our rights and our freedoms. Millions of little civil wars have already begun, brother against brother, the stepping away from, the distancing of. As artists we have an abundance of empathy, which is usually a great thing, but in these days it can feel like quicksand trying to course its way through our veins. We are weighed down by our disbelief, and shattered at witnessing some crazed game of telephone where the truth, crystal clear, is spoken, and as it passes, even just to the very next person, it is somehow transformed and ignored.
The most hopeful thought that moves me forward is that they can want to make a group of people register with the government because of their race or religion, they can want to take away our rights, but because it is today and not 1930s Germany, there will never come a day where this can be allowed to happen again. There is no way we would let it. Artists have always been part of the resistance, and here we are, so that there will never come a day when….
Artists and storytellers, with the mandate of talking about what our job is now, I put forth that our job now, as always, is to do magic. We create tangible worlds out of thin air. A thought has its lucky genesis in one of our gorgeous heads and we create people and their worlds where nothing existed before. We start to care for them, and hand the baton to an audience who begins to care for them, too. The world watches and laughs and cries and gasps and cares. We have our shared experience, and that, my loves, is Magic. There is so much value in not only shining a light on the darkest parts of humanity, but also in making humanity giggle its ass off. Make music and art. Write stories and poems. Make documentaries and films and plays and television shows… scripted. As the music swells, so will our hearts. As voices rise, so will our spirits. As collaboration strengthens, so will community.
I vow here, today, to do everything in my power, including stand in front of the harm with arms linked, to bear witness, in the name of what is right and good and decent, to support our nation, so that our creative community can shine our collective light to heal the pains and awaken the slumbering so they can see clearly: he is like me is like she is like we.
Deidra Edwards is an LA-based actor, director, writer, and collaborator to writers. Her work has appeared in television, on film, and in theatres around the country. She directs with her mentor Jeff Perry, Co-Founder of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, in theatres such as The Alliance and The Guthrie. She’s spoken out on LGBT Issues with her videos on YouTube under the title Enough Already. “Witness 2016” can be viewed here. Deidra is honored to be a contributor to Lunch Ticket.
1. There was a table.
Around the table, there were women and men and people who entered rooms holding their hearts in their hands. Around the table, people sat and they brought with them stories or words that would make stories, parts of little poems, thorns, and parts of their hands that would tremble with the long limbs of sentences or syllables that would grow into lilts. It was a table where so many things began.
The sound of a story happening inside a body is a marvel not everyone has witnessed. Or a poem. But shouldn’t we all be allowed a little bit of sound, a bit of that good light, if not all of it, if not a heap or a whole feast?
A table with pencils and loose paper, journals, books, and voices growing feathers, making themselves into old plumes. I imagine it like this. Laughter and coraje, Love and the naming of despair. I imagine so many things, but is imagining enough to mean realness, to mean wood and feathers and pencils and hair?? A caserola teeming with yeses when the belly has unpacked its nos is a hope I can hold in between my teeth or my hands, both of which Macondo has affirmed that I need for writing, though I could not see myself at that first Macondo table, not because I didn’t belong, not because I did not have anything meaningful to say. Others had to come before me so that my tongue could understand its own fire—I’ve learned that much about fire.
So, I figure one day my words, too, will play ancestor for those yet to be born.
Like all precious things, it began from need, this space for people like us to sit and be heard, to ask questions, to let our questions breathe light, and perhaps we left only with more questions, if not simple answers, perhaps we left knowing how to ask more questions and why and how we belonged, these bodies we are in, these stories our bodies wear like hair.
There was a table made of wood.
Strong, handmade piece of furniture,
that was not only furniture,
but a sacred gathering place.
There were men and women, but I
was not there. Not because I had
nothing to place on the mantel,
salty and steaming like fat tears,
but because I still had too much
to consume. At the first meeting
the table was decorated
with cazuelas, pitchers, platos,
a bright rainbow of ceramics
hugging carefully cooked dishes
flavored with laughter, trauma, grief,
and joy, a legacy of joy.
The table is a metaphor
for family and the elders
who cared for the young. I was fed
from this table like a young doe,
but now, I am grown with my hand
on the back of a wood-carved seat.
The men and women have made room
for us, my brothers and sisters
and me. We are smiling. They say,
“Por favor, come! Sit! Share with us.”
Shy, I offer my meager dish:
nopales boiled, sliced into strips,
and mixed with red diced tomatoes,
purple onions and cilantro.
I make it like my grandmother
taught me, but I am embarrassed.
Nopales are not exciting
or new. No importa. They ask,
“Will you speak your grandmother’s name?”
“Ubalda Duran Bermejo,”
I share. And together we call,
“Ubalda Duran Bermejo,
Presente!” And I know this place,
this strong, handmade table is home.
3. Then, too, there is a tiny red bird.
And of course, of course, I will tell you there is something to wield when we gather. I won’t tell you its dimensions, not its dim textures or songs. Perhaps you already understand that you don’t have to hold something in your palm to believe in its magic. In this life, everyone should know a place where we feel we belong, a place where new parts and old ones, too, are born and reborn.
About fire, I will say this: the saddest thing is when it has to leave, or you do. O, where do I begin?
And look, I cannot solve my loneliness alone. I cannot write anything that is built of rock and wind and feathered, of water, and fire, of course, of course, unless we speak their names. A few days of sitting at the table has helped me realize this now: tomorrow I will be someone’s ancestor, and so will you. It’s a fact that is written in our muscles, breath, and hair.
In any case, Love is a feast, a whole feast, a feast that begins with what we have lost and ends with what we give the world in return.
In any case, there, too, is that tiny red bird. And what did the poet tell us it meant? Again, what did she say its red feathers and tiny heartbeat could do with the trees, the montes, the winds?
Remember the tiny red bird?
Like the table, it is fleeting.
Not to say it is frivolous,
but of a single, bright moment,
a sound home we create again
and again, but never live in.
Feathers cling to our fingertips
like magic so not to forget.
The summer of 2016
we were each a tiny red bird
nursing broken wings, silenced songs,
violated nests, but the fire
smoldered beneath plumes, and refused
to die. Is the tiny red bird
his fragility, her spirit,
or their ability to fly?
Is Macondo the tree we took
refuge in when the summer winds
grew too hot, too violent? Surely,
we found comfort in its branches.
We thanked it for embracing us
like a mother, raising us up.
Surely, we blessed the mothers too
for caring and giving too much.
I cannot solve my loneliness
alone. Alone a spider knits
a web trying her best to live,
but then the leaf, branch, wall and sun.
One day, I too will be a branch.
That is to say, we are the tree,
ancestors to those not yet born,
tiny red birds looking for rest.
5. Imagine holding Love in your hand like a bone.
Of every place I have been: leaf spiders and tree walls, the fingertips of feathers and moonlight, mesquite songs—
In the meantime, I can sit next to a woman whose poems remind me I am supposed to be alive. I carry tierra in my mouth, not because I am meant to suffer, not because I am made to eat mud, but because there is a tree inside me, which the table, which the people holding their hearts in their hands, help me allow to be a tree, which means it will release its saps, which means its roots will touch the earth and remember humming of the sun.
In other words, I can sit next to a woman who wields a machete and not be afraid.
In other words, if I open my mouth, some will see feathers. Red ones and wing-flap and moonlight and hard dust.
And so, I have a bone in my throat, which arises out of lust and sadness and great dark joys, and of course, of course, Love. Everything, after a certain point, means feast and birth and darkness, fire and hair.
And so, I have the urge to tell you I am struck by the magic. The great mercy of Love is telling ourselves we are good enough. It is the same when I hold a man or you hold a woman or we are held by someone with Love. Most enjoyable is the urge not to leave. Most enjoyable is the fact we belong.
Find a bone in the poet’s throat,
you will see the tender scarring.
Find the little part of poems like thorns
cutting and clinging to the skin,
and you will see my heart. My heart
wants to wield the bone tearing at
my insides, but I am fatigued
from all the scratching and bleeding.
To be a poet is to be
muscle movement, deep breath and hair.
Together we gather the hairs
like thread and weave a great blanket
of colors that stretch a rainbow.
Embedded tight in the knots, stars
or pieces of glitter shimmer,
and we remember we are light.
We remember light is love is
love is love is love is love is
to be good enough is to be.
We is made of you and me. Breathe.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
Gather strength, collect provisions,
and prepare for the next battle.
Find the poet, the warrior.
Joe Jiménez is the author of The Possibilities of Mud (Korima 2014) and Bloodline (Arte Público 2016). Jiménez is the recipient of the 2016 Letras Latinas/ Red Hen Press Poetry Prize. His writing has recently appeared in Entropy, Drunken Boat, Atticus Review, and on the PBS NewsHour and Lambda Literary sites. He lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is a member of the Macondo Writing Workshops. For more information, visit joejimenez.net.
Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is the author of Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge (Sundress, 2016), a 2016-2017 Steinbeck Fellow, former Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange winner, and Barbara Deming Memorial Fund grantee. She’s received residencies from Hedgebrook and Ragdale Foundation and is a member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop. Her work is published in Acentos Review, CALYX, crazyhorse, and The James Franco Review among others. A short dramatization of her poem “Our Lady of the Water Gallons,” directed by Jesús Salvador Treviño, can be viewed at latinopia.com. She is a cofounder of Women Who Submit and the curator of HITCHED.
I sip on my coffee and scan over emails: doesn’t apply, not me, junk, I have a meeting with the Colonel today. The Marines’ voices bounce off the walls with excitement as they chug Rip-It energy drinks, the unofficial sponsor of war. When I ask where they get neverending cases of the eight-ounce cans of carbonated super caffeine, the answer is always the same: one of the Marines snaps to attention and announces, “We know people who know people who kill people, Ma’am.” That Marine remains at attention until I lose my bearing, which doesn’t take long, and everyone erupts into laughter. This is how every day starts with the exception of Sunday. Sunday morning, I wake up before dawn and head out for a long run on the lesser-traveled dirt roads that wrap around the perimeter of base. The Marines have the option of going to church or sleeping in, but the workday doesn’t start until noon.
I hit reply to an email from a friend back home and write, “Good morning, things are exactly the same as they were yesterday and the same as they will be tomorrow.” As I hit send, I hear the thick metal door of our warehouse-turned-office creak open, as whoever opens it fails to realize how heavy the door actually is; this is my first clue that it’s not one of the warehouse Marines coming in to grab a Rip-It before carrying out the plan of the day. I slide my chair to the side to stay out of view from the visitor.
Our office is a small warehouse made of cement blocks and filled with dust-covered desks and beat-up office chairs. Along the back wall, next to the fridge full of Rip-Its and bottled water, is a rifle rack where the Marines place their M16 rifles while they work. When they leave for chow, go to the headquarters building, or pick up supplies from the depot, they wrap the various styles of tactical slings they have acquired around their bodies and carry their weapon at their side.
I was warned to be careful. This is the battle I face in war—someone or someones in the unit hiding behind computer screens waiting for me to incriminate myself online.
At some point in the war, a unit that inhabited the space built half-walls out of plywood, making a break room next to the rifle rack. In the small, cluttered space there is a dirty sofa that nobody uses because a poof of dirt explodes when you sit on it; crates of ground coffee; rusty wall lockers filled with boxes of Girl Scout Cookies, candy, paperback romance novels, other random items that strangers have sent in care packages throughout the years of war (including the occasional pink nail polish that Sergeant Browning picks out to secretly paint her toenails); and boxes of letters from school children, women looking for dramatic love stories, and parents remembering the children they have lost. In front of the break room is another segregated area where I share an office with Staff Sergeant Sharpe, my sister-in-arms. The plywood walls were not intended for privacy, nor was the window cut out in front of my desk that allows the Marines to roll their chairs over and pass documents back and forth instead of walking twenty steps to get my signature. In the front of the warehouse are desks lined up where the five supply admin Marines work. Due to the closeness both here and in the barracks (which are also converted warehouses), everyone knows everything about everyone. I can’t even hide it when I get a Dear Jane letter from my boyfriend during the second month of the deployment—some of the Marines offer their own letters for comparison and condolences. We are more than family because we can’t afford to tease and bicker; at war you have to love and support those to the left and right of you, because at any given time they could be the one to save your life, and during the daily grind they are the ones who save your sanity.
I know exactly how far I have to lean to the left to stay out of sight of visitors. My introverted self needs the extra ten seconds to gain awareness of the situation before confronting whoever is on the other side of the wall. As I lean, I overhear the conversation.
“Good morning, sergeant, can I help you?” Lance Corporal (LCpl) Curlee announces with pride. LCpl Curlee is barely nineteen, just over five feet tall and might weigh 100 pounds soaking wet with a bag of pennies in each cargo pocket. She’s one of the most motivated Marines in the shop. When she checked into the unit with LCpl Shivers a month before, they were told, “Pack your bags you’re going to Iraq.” Neither complained; both eagerly prepared for six to thirteen months in a combat zone. I hear her voice over the sergeant she’s addressing. “I don’t know, sergeant, let me see if she’s available.” The office gets quiet as everyone wants to know what business the unexpected visitor has with “The Ma’am.”
“Ma’am, there are three Army sergeants here to see you,” LCpl Curlee says.
“What on earth do three Army sergeants want?” I ask rhetorically.
“I don’t know ma’am, they said something about a blog,” LCpl Curlee says with her normal tone of enthusiasm.
My heart drops as my stomach twists into a tight yoga knot that I can never get the rest of my body to mimic. A week ago, during an unexpected invite to the base coffee shop, I was warned to be careful. Specifically, I was told, “Lieutenant Prifogle, people are reading your blog and I don’t mean for entertainment.” This is the battle I face in war—someone or someones in the unit hiding behind computer screens waiting for me to incriminate myself online. I registered my blog with the all the right authorities, sat through a brief with the public affairs office about what I can and can’t post due to operations security (OpSec). I have been so terrified of posting something that could violate OpSec and cost troops their lives that all I’ve written about is the weather and my daily runs that range from three to fifteen miles. I draw in a deep breath and stand tall.
Nobody wants to hear about the blasé days, they want to hear about triumphs and war stories that change the course of history.
If I’m going to be arrested by PMO in front of my Marines, I will do it with dignity. After all, the sergeants are just the messengers, not the accusers.
I turn the corner of the wall that separates my semi-private office to the open space and am surprised to see three young sergeants eagerly waiting like they are about to meet Megan Fox.
“Can I help you?” I ask confused.
“Ma’am, we just wanted to meet you in person. We’ve been following your blog the past few months and we just really enjoyed it. We’re on our way home and asked all around base to find your office.” The leader of the pack, a male sergeant, smiles and talks rapidly. I look behind at the two other soldiers—one is a female. I shake all their hands, still confused.
“Well, thank you for reading, I’m not really sure why you find it so interesting,” I say. “I’m just a sup-o stuck here on Al-Asad running myself into the ground.”
“Ma’am,” the young woman jumps in from behind the other two, “when you’re out here, nobody back home knows what to say or how to relate. It just feels like I’m not alone when I read your posts.”
I thank them for stopping by and wish them well on their journey home. I think about the young woman’s words. My emails and phone calls are sparse and the details I provide about life out here even more sparse. How can someone back home relate? The never-ending work day, the hurry up and waits, the eagerness to get in the fight, the never discussed fear of death. Nobody wants to hear about the blasé days, they want to hear about triumphs and war stories that change the course of history.
When I return home, I don’t fit into the keyhole that opens the door to my old life. My friends, the restaurants and bars I used to frequent, even the beautiful beaches of San Diego, all seem pointless after living in a war zone. I kept a blog to fulfill Antioch’s field study requirement for its MFA program. The assignment was to keep a blog while deployed, so after I unpack my bags and storage container, I file the paperwork to complete the project and stop blogging. I take the next semester off and stop writing altogether.
Eventually, I finish all the requirements to earn an MFA, but I never go back to writing with the enthusiasm I had before. Even now, as I write this, I struggle to put the words on the page. The various traumas of four years on active duty brings a monsoon of memories that flood my body with hormones of fear, then rage, then finally a sadness that no amount of prescription drugs or alcohol can combat.
After graduating from Antioch, I submitted to literary agents my final manuscript, a memoir that covers my experiences in the military. Some asked for samples, others didn’t—all said it wasn’t marketable, even though it was a remarkable story and excellent writing. I cried, I screamed, I destroyed my computer in a fit of rage, and then I tried to stop writing forever.
Six years after graduating, I share a few of my essays with my fiancé who is also a combat veteran. He says nothing at first, but asks to read them again, and again, and one more time without saying a word. Finally, he looks at me and says, “This isn’t about you. You realize that right? You have to publish this, but not for you.”
I stuff a piece of sushi in my mouth to inhibit my ability to say anything.
“You have to share this for the vets who are out there alone, scared, tired, depressed. You have to share this so they know they aren’t alone, that they aren’t the only ones who feel this way. You have to show them that they can overcome it.”
“But,” I try to interject with my mouth still full of rice and seaweed.
“God gave you this gift, you don’t have a choice, you have to finish and publish your story.”
To date, my story goes untold, as do the stories of countless other veterans struggling to make sense of what they experienced.
I think about the sergeants who came to my office and the many soldiers and marines after them who stopped by to shake my hand and thank me for keeping my blog because it made them feel less alone. I think about how I’ve felt since I stopped writing—like there’s a fog that constantly surrounds me; some days it’s light and misty, almost refreshing, but other days it’s so thick that I can’t find my way out of bed.
Periodically, I get an email or phone call from a fellow veteran chronicling his/her struggles in a journal that he/she wants me to read. They want to know if they can be writer.
“You are writing,” I tell them, “so you are a writer.” I instruct them not to focus on publishing, but focus on the act of writing. I tell them that they can publish it after their wounds are healed. I leave these conversations feeling like a hypocrite because most days I am still afraid of putting words on paper. I hit send or hang up the phone and glance at the manuscript sitting on my desk. I think about what my loving fiancé told me, “God gave you this gift.” I sift through the rejection letters, all saying the same thing—war stories just aren’t marketable.
To date, my story goes untold, as do the stories of countless other veterans struggling to make sense of what they experienced. Stories that could connect us; stories that could alleviate the fear, isolation, depression, and anxiety of joining the old world after a deployment; stories that could save one of the twenty-two veterans every day who just can’t take another day in this new world they are expected to navigate through alone.*
These stories aren’t told because, according to agents and publishers, readers don’t have any interest in war stories that don’t fit the mold of a young boy going off to war, triumphantly leading troops into battle, and coming back a man. We all know intuitively that this archetype isn’t real, but a true war story told well breaks our heart, makes us uncomfortable, forces us to look at heroes in a new light—they are just ordinary people who went down a relentless and unforgiving path in life for the greater good.
So, this is my call to arms to civilians: Go out and purchase the literary magazines and books that don’t sell as well but tell a true narrative of what hell-on-earth looks like. I suggest Incoming: Veteran Writers on Coming Home, but there are plenty of others to explore. Let these stories disturb you, wake you up covered in sweat from the nightmares, make you weep in public for unimaginable losses, and laugh out loud as we retell stories of chugging gallons of milk to see who pukes first. Let it surprise you as you discover you have more in common with the experience of war than you could ever imagine, because war is a part of the human experience. Only then will you know what that sentimental meme you posted on Facebook about supporting the troops really means. Only then will you change the market and help new voices of the war narrative be told.
And this is my call to arms to veterans: Create art no matter what the market looks like or who tells you that you can’t. Write books, plays, songs, poems; draw, paint, make murals through your city. Do it because God gave you a gift, do it for your own peace of mind, do it to give a voice to those who haven’t found theirs yet. Most importantly, do it to connect to a stranger who is lost and needs to know they aren’t alone.
Together we can do more than raise awareness of those twenty-two veterans who commit suicide every day. Together we can reframe the war narrative and change the way the world sees veterans. We are called heroes and put on the highest pedestal, but we’re more like glass figurines of our former selves sitting in a curio cabinet. Together, we can make the shelf stable, together we can protect those who protected us.
*Editor’s note: This statistic—that twenty-two American veterans commit suicide every day (or one every sixty-five minutes)—comes from a 2013 report from the Department of Veteran Affairs. More recent sources, such as the Washington Post, have attempted to put the figure in context, saying that it may overestimate service-related suicides among aging veterans; at the same time, it does not include a 2014 update from the VA , which indicates a spike among the youngest (aged 18 to 24) veterans who take their own lives.
Lisbeth Prifogle is an officer in the United States Marine Corps. Her work was featured in Incoming: Veteran Writers on Coming Home, Poem Memoir Story – Volume 11, The Splinter Generation, and Citron Review. She also received an honorable mention in Best American Essays 2012. Lisbeth holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles and is currently working on a travel memoir about a two-month, solo trek through Peru immediately following a deployment to Iraq. She lives in domestic bliss with her fiancé and family in Southeast Louisiana.
In a chemical reaction, when compounds combine to create something new, or when one compound breaks into two or more new materials, some form of energy is expelled or absorbed. Heat, light, electricity. Things light up. They flicker, blaze, melt test tubes. Out in the world, they can burn mountainsides. Later, we pull over to the shoulder of a freeway and gaze at an entire landscape altered. We tell our kids, half bitter, half sweet, about the olden days, and about the moment—violent, maybe; achingly long, at the time—when the geological and cultural terrains changed. The burned towns, the heated debates. The hot disputes that carved cockles through cities, fault lines through families.
If chemical change requires or results in heat, so too does social change. In her AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference keynote presentation this spring, poet and cultural critic Claudia Rankine spoke about “what keeps us uncomfortable in each other’s presence.” Uncomfortable is a good word. When a light is shined on social imbalance, we can feel emotions begin to boil. I sat in the audience, like everyone else, flushing under Rankine’s spotlight: each one of us has benefited from privilege in one way or another, because of our race, ableism, gender, class… or, most uniformly in a conference aimed at writing programs, education.
Rankine asked us to consider what—and whom—we erase in our work. She urged us to question which details the dominant culture expunges in order to make literary and visual art more “palatable” to the mainstream. Sitting in the darkened theater, in my peripheral vision I noticed fellow audience members squirming in their chairs; I noticed myself trying not to. As writers, we all grapple with what to put in our work and what to leave out. But turning the mirror on myself and my own written work, what have I sidestepped, intentionally or subconsciously, in acquiescence to some silently powerful rule of acceptability? What aspects of myself or of the world have I deemed unacceptable, unpalatable, to my imagined audience? And why, and to whom, am I pandering? Furthermore, how do my choices as a reader, editor, and future teacher either concede or renounce complacency?
A woman several rows in front of me left the room, and I remember hoping that she left for the restroom, rather than out of emotional discomfort with the commentary from the stage. Often, the hardest action to take is to stay.
I allowed Rankine’s words to stoke a fire within me that had, perhaps, dampened. Her words were a bellow. She spoke calmly and magnanimously, but her unflinching criticism implicated all of us in the room, including herself, along with every graduate and undergraduate writing program, publishing house, agency, book store, and literary journal. Like YA author and cultural essayist Daniel José Older says in this issue’s Lunch Special, white supremacy does not just come from white people; it is so pervasive that it weaves itself into brown and black cultures as well. This does not just apply to white supremacy. Everyone of us is in the hot seat.
To our readers, Lunch Ticket is a literary and art journal. Yet, to those of us here on the editorial and production teams, it’s a community of nearly half the students in the Antioch Los Angeles MFA program. We live all over the world: Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Canada, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Though we rarely sit in a room together, we enjoy robust discussions about the work we receive from writers and artists across the U.S. and world. I use the word enjoy, however, not to imply that the conversations are always easy. We come from wildly different backgrounds, and what one reader deems engaging dialogue, another considers rehashed tropes. As Jeanette Winterson writes in her book Art Objects, “It is right to trust our feelings, but right to test them too.” So we engage each other in conversation about the submissions we receive and about our unique perspectives that influence our experience of the works. The pieces we ultimately choose to publish carry, for us, what Winterson calls a depth-charge. They electrify us. They turn us on.
Rankine writes in Citizen: An American Lyric that we all have an “historical self” and a “self self.” Both selves must be welcome at the literary and cultural table, because when one is erased, the other cannot stay whole. Every work need not be explicitly about politics and social justice. Stories of love and grief and poignant moments do, and should, continue to abound. But as in this issue’s stories and art about identity, including Fatima, the Biloquist (fiction), The Streetlamp (Writing for Young People), The Half-Buttoned Effect (creative nonfiction), and Obsession and Idolization (visual art), a moving narrative digs beyond the surface of skin or sketch. It mines the bones of body and experience. It questions its creator, interrupts the reader.
We are all mortal creatures who wrestle with loss, illness, change, grief, and shame. In the end, despite our unique differences, wide swaths of our experience are universal. To see those experiences reflected in art helps to illuminate the dark corners of life. In several pieces, including The Day (fiction), Dress the Mouse in Black (Diana Woods Memorial Prize finalist), and Placeholder: Waiting for the Biopsy Results (poetry) we visit death, grief, and illness. In Down in the River to Pray (creative nonfiction), an aunt searches through hospital archives and NYC alleys for clues to what became of her nephew amid the late ‘80s AIDS epidemic. In our featured essay, Thank You for Sharing, Patrick O’Neil explores the vulnerability that accompanies writing and publishing the true stories of past transgressions. And in Stories about Bodies, our feature on Narrative Medicine, Emily Rapp Black, Juliet McMullin, and Phillip Mitchell discuss the importance of asking what does it mean to be embodied.
Stories, poetry, and art broaden and deepen consciousness in a way that science, math, and other disciplines never can do. That is not to diminish the importance of those other studies—or to dismiss the acute metaphors they provide. But, as novelist Nina Revoyr says in this issue’s interview, “Folks are never going to just change their mind about something because you tell them they should. They are going to change their mind because they feel a stake in it. Art is a tremendous way to create that kind of stake because it enables you to enter the experience of another person and see the world through their eyes.”
As the U.S. primary election season now closes and we edge toward electing a new Presidential administration, the temperature of the nation is rising. Conversations within the political arena have exposed a fiery friction of discordant values across the country. Those who have been comfortable with the status quo, or who believe in the status quo of a Hollywoodian yesteryear, will try to douse the disparate voices lifting up. Or worse, those who have been extinguished will yield. But, as Roxane Gay writes in Bad Feminist, “Make the effort and make the effort and make the effort until you no longer need to, until we don’t need to keep having this conversation.”
Words are kindling. Light them up.
Take good care,
Eloise Klein Healy is a poet and the Founding Chair and Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing Emerita at the Antioch University Los Angeles (AULA) MFA program. Eloise has written eight books, and been a literary beacon as editor, educator, mentor, LGBTQ advocate, and feminist pioneer. In 2012, Eloise was appointed first Poet Laureate of Los Angeles. Her resonant poetry, mentorship, and advocacy have fed writers and readers in Southern California and beyond. In addition to Antioch, Eloise has taught at Immaculate Heart College, The Women’s Building, and California State University Northridge. Arktoi Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press, was established in 2006 by Eloise to publish literary works of high quality by lesbian writers. Eloise is the 2016 recipient of the Publishing Triangle’s Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement. As poet Celeste Gainey said in a recent email, “2016 is the year of EKH!”
GRAPPLING AND SELF-DOUBT (or: WRITING ABOUT ELOISE)
It’s unnerving to write about a writer, specifically, unnerving to write about someone as radiant as the iconic Eloise Klein Healy. How to capture in words the splendor of her spirit, the music of her voice? Her impish, powerful engagement with the world? But considering her work ethic, here Eloise might advise me: debunk whatever self-doubt you—as non-poet writing about poet, for instance—knock against. Leave that empty carton by the side of the highway. Let it drift off to wherever the trash belongs. It does you no good.
* * *
Eloise described this view on her work ethic in a Rumpus interview on March 23, 2013 with Wendy Ortiz, writer and author of the memoir Excavation. In speaking about an office space that she was offered as LA’s first Poet Laureate, at the LA Central Library or Mayor’s office, Eloise says, “I asked instead that I be able to get a meeting room, in case I need to meet with a group. I am working the street a bit, stopping people, telling them I’m Poet Laureate, and talking a little about poetry. The grocery store is a great place for this, as is the gas station, my tai chi class, and all the places I go where people don’t know by looking that I am a little poetry machine among them. Being Poet Laureate gives me permission to be a troubadour of sorts and that makes it more fun for all of us. I am leaning toward the fun side for people. There is wisdom in fun.”
* * *
There is wisdom in fun. A tribute celebrating Eloise and her work was held in Los Angeles on April 1, 2016 at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. The tribute was created by poets Robin Becker, Peggy Shumaker, Alicia Ostriker, Amy Uyematsu, and facilitated by Celeste Gainey. Many gathered to revel in Eloise’s poetry, mentorship, and advocacy, after which Eloise shared her work. The room was alive. It was a well-deserved lovefest for EKH.
* * *
And the lovefest was not recorded, which makes it feel even more sacred and magical. (Maybe it didn’t happen; maybe it was just a wonderful dream.) As I grapple for imagery, the firefly comes to mind. (Just thinking about metaphors and Eloise in the same breath is daunting. For, as poet Alicia Ostriker said at the tribute, Eloise, “is such a good metaphorician.”)
* * *
Firefly or California highway headlights, it’s impossible for me to write about Eloise without invoking glow: her smile, her spark, and her aliveness; she shines light into places we humans sometimes choose to ignore; her visage and what’s behind it define the word radiant.
HINTS FROM ELOISE
When I was in graduate school, Eloise talked about revision, what to do with beloved lines of poetry that don’t fit or don’t work. I recall her saying she keeps a jar to hold those scraps of paper, those darlings, rather than throwing them away. I do this with my prose: cut and paste bits I love but can’t use into a fragments file, rather than deleting them. There is something important about honoring these pieces, something about preserving them, even if I never need them again, or they have no use. Whenever I do this (often!) I think of Eloise.
* * *
And Eloise first introduced me to the notion of using formal poetry (was it a sestina?) to contain the uncontainable. (If I were a poet, I’d remember which form she described.) I share this idea with my students: sometimes a tight form is called for: ten paragraphs, a list, a limited number of words. A constraint can help when we feel hesitant to approach what seems too sprawling and messy. You have a shape and you have to write. I can see the element of puzzle—the artful caging of what’s wild—in the work of writing formal poetry. I imagine Eloise delighting in that part of the work.
* * *
On the other hand, from the Rumpus interview, on her writing process and maybe about containing vs. not containing, Eloise said: “Always I started in long hand and think, for the most part, that I really favor writing by hand on unlined paper or graph paper. Something about lines confines my imagination or forces me into ‘direct rationality.’”
HOW IT IS NOW
Because everything circles back to me, at AWP I wondered if Eloise would recognize me. Between 1999 and 2001, I attended the Antioch Los Angeles MFA program, where Eloise was the founding chair and inspirational core. I hadn’t seen her since 2007. In April 2013, Eloise experienced a very serious case of encephalitis. In the aftermath came aphasia, which affects a person’s relationship to speech and language (as Eloise said at a Red Hen reading on February 3, 2015, “Some other parts of me started to say things,” and later in a poem, she describes “flipping on the flying words.”). From that illness Eloise made a superhuman recovery, but brains being what they are, I wasn’t sure, just didn’t know whether she would know me. (She did. I attribute this more to her strength and recovery than to my singular importance.) As it has always been, at AWP her presence was the best kind of sunshine, all the glow, none of the UV danger. And her relationship with language continues to amaze me.
* * *
In a 2014 LA Times article, “Eloise Klein Healy finds poetry in her recovery from encephalitis,” Patt Morrison writes:
Here is Healy talking about her roller coaster: ‘Since I had the real spookiness, I did have slips about normal things. Even sometimes with a certain proposal, I think I’m going to say something but I can’t, so I have to back up and call it something else. It was a different reality.’ Her mind still crafts and shapes phrases, as she realizes, but differently: ‘The way things are now, I’m in a little bit of what you might call a mess…. I have the parts that are complete, like all of us, but now I know there are parts of us that have thoughts, we can’t say them, like people standing outside a house and they can’t leave a message. I say something about things that do not speak to me as they used to. I’m an old poet—I can say silly things.’
* * *
After a grief like this, there’s a need to knit stories and make meaning—about what the health crisis did to the poet, to the poetry. I try to name in metaphor the scaffolding that emerged from underneath Eloise’s living and work. A scaffolding that, maybe without the crisis, we never would have glimpsed. The access we have, now, to Eloise’s expression of her humanity is a power tool in cutting through artifice. The word “authentic” has been used until all meaning is wrung out. But this is my experience of seeing Eloise now: In a process that seems like poetry itself, the spark that has emerged in her new relationship to language is closer to real, is a thing pared down to what’s alive underneath any word. Is a music, a distillation that can describe, without effort, what is lit behind a thing like beauty.
* * *
The poet is still there, she’s like a poem stripped of everything inessential, a poem shining through; she’s been through so much that we can’t know or imagine (or maybe we can only imagine) and now radiates unfettered access to the heart of what it is to be alive. Such triumph. It seems now she has entry to the hidden core of language, that which is connected to the body, the mother ship, the helix of the heartbeat. Layers have fallen away. What I observed is the triumph of what counts. It’s like her heart is closer to the outside. As I watched Eloise smiling beside her friends and colleagues at the AWP tribute, I spied her wings emerging from behind her black blazer: silver, huge, glorious, the wings of a poet.
* * *
Or, as poet Peggy Shumaker put it at the AWP tribute, “The way that Eloise loves things returns the world to intimacy.”
* * *
[Some fragmentary impressions:
the pared down, the bones of the architecture of language, the access increased the lessening
of bullshit or artifice while still having the architecture…
what’s beating under language, under one layer of layered language, the feeling beneath
the beat of heart and what IS there vs. what is not there, the presence vs. the absence…
the tree with its leaves becoming superfluous, its superfluous leaves superfluous to the tree…
the line drawing seems more enduring than its decoration, not that the decoration
wasn’t enduring, but what’s underneath, what’s obscured by the more straightforward
and mundane humanity, it’s what’s beneath that endures…
A heart reaches out through the ribcage to meet another.]
* * *
“Maybe it’s in my office,” Eloise says at the tribute, and laughs, when she cannot find the piece of paper she needs, and goes from podium to table to look in her book bag. (Although, also, this seems like something Eloise might have said Before.)
* * *
This distillation of a poet down to her essence seems, itself, poetic, although I’m sure the humans involved (Eloise, her beloved partner Colleen Rooney, and everyone else) would not have wanted this (the huge THIS which has a Before and an After, and brought us to this moment).
Boil the bones and you get the rich broth; take the bones and hold them to the light and see them gleam, mineral, elemental, eternal. Here you find what was always here, named by poet Amy Uyematsu: “Eloise Kind Healy.”
* * *
The first time I traveled through Italy to Greece, I became sated with the over-rich decoration of Italy. When I got to Greece, I was relieved to find art stripped down to the origins, the bones. Without distraction, there is a reaching of human heart to human heart that (to me) seems more bona fide.
* * *
Or grapple for another metaphor, one of Eloise’s favorites: Baseball, specifically, I see a diagram of a baseball diamond, its direction, its wind.
* * *
Or: When the leaves fall off, you can see the tree’s architecture, its dreaming, the dreaming mind of the architect.
* * *
Or best yet: quote Eloise, in her own words. At a Red Hen Press reading at Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena, on 2/3/15, Eloise read a new poem, “Talk of the Darkest.” She said the poem had “only been out since February 3rd. So here we are, I guess that’s pretty close!” Here’s the poem (with my presumptive, heard line breaks, transcribed from the youtube video):
Just talk of the darkest/probably similar to my hand/or somebody to remember/not any gravity anymore who wants me to memorize/the love which is a small picture. Somebody has/and I’ve watched her color and a shape, the idea I’m waiting for/and not just thinking I am. My trouble to learn/what love spent or wasted a time/before my long pity. /I wish I could feel again/just care/just plainly.
At the Antioch Los Angeles MFA graduation on June 23, 2002, Eloise’s colleague and friend Tara Ison read a message from Sharman Apt Russell, which has stuck with me ever since, because it captures so well the essence of Eloise. In Sharman’s words, “Not many people know that Eloise wears an invisible wreath of jasmine, tiger lily, and hibiscus.” (Sharman saw the laurels long before the Laureate.) When Tara introduced the Laureate for Eloise’s recent Publishing Triangle’s Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement, she said that the Antioch MFA program, which Eloise founded, had the “unofficial motto…Your story is worth telling. We are here to help you tell your story.” (This aligns with my experience of the program, and with what I intend to carry forward in my work teaching. In 2007 at an AULA MFA alumni residency, about Horace Mann’s edict, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity,” Eloise said, “Want to win a victory for humanity? Teach composition!”) At the Publishing Triangle in 2016, Tara spoke of how much she has learned from Eloise, “about teaching, about writing, about running a writing program, about literary citizenship, about how to be not just a writer, but a person in the world. I wear an invisible bracelet that says: WWED?” Yes.
* * *
In a creative writing class I taught at Antioch College this spring, we read Eloise’s poem “My Shoes” as a prompt for students to write about shoes. Her metaphor of shoes, the poem was a doorway into their lives, how they walk the floors of their living. I think a lot about those who, through their work, grant permission. Eloise grants permission. She has been a mighty influence on my becoming serious about my writing. I think about Eloise often…when I think about sound and words and the urge to write, and the many ways that urge manifests. I think of Eloise when I think of that light. In the words of Alicia Ostriker, Eloise is “deeply wise and sane.” And again, Amy Uyematsu’s “Eloise Kind Healy.” Yes. Yes.
* * *
In his song, “Anthem,” Leonard Cohen writes, “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Last winter I wrote these lines on the chalkboard for the students in my Antioch College creative writing class, and for some of them, I later learned, those words allowed writing to happen. Now as I approach writing about Eloise through my own self-doubt, Cohen’s song reappears.
And now, too, I think of Cohen’s song in terms of Eloise and her victories. How there is a crack in everything. How Eloise always shone, and how she still shines. How, in the simple act of seeing Eloise, the light gets in.
Gainey, Celeste. Email to the author. 3 May 2016.
Ison, Tara. “Introduction of Eloise Klein Healy.” Publishing Triangle. Tishman Auditorium of the New School. New York, NY. 21 April 2016
Lindberg, Wayne. “Eloise Klein Healy—Red Hen Press at Armory Center for the Arts.” Online video clip. Youtube. 6 April 2015. Web. 4 May 2016. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nu_IGAouJTU)
Morrison, Patt. “Eloise Klein Healy finds poetry in her recovery from encephalitis.” LA Times. LA Times, 8 January 2014. Web. 4 May 2016. (http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-eloise-klein-healy-20140108-story.html)
Ortiz, Wendy. “Saturday Rumpus Interview With Eloise Klein Healy.” The Rumpus. The Rumpus, 23 March 2013. Web. 4 May 2016.
Rebecca Kuder’s short story, “Rabbit, Cat, Girl” (which previously appeared in XIII: Stories of Transformation) was chosen for the Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 3, forthcoming from Undertow Publications. Her work has been published in Mothering Magazine, The Knitter’s Gift, Midwifery Today, The Manifest Station, Jaded Ibis Press, and The Rumpus. Rebecca has an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Rebecca leads workshops on writing as a healing practice, and teaches creative writing at Antioch College. She lives in Yellow Springs, with her husband, the writer Robert Freeman Wexler, and their daughter. Rebecca blogs at www.rebeccakuder.com.
Last month I was the guest author at a writing workshop. I’d been invited to talk about memoir and the complicated and often discouraging journey of getting published. I had just finished reading an excerpt from my book, an addiction memoir about my former life as a junkie bank robber, and I was fielding questions from the audience.
“What’s wrong with you?” said a woman dressed in a yellow Marimekko, an expression of annoyance across her face. “Are you on drugs?”
Her questions took me totally off guard. In fact, I didn’t know how to respond. As I mentioned earlier, my memoir is about when I used to be addicted to heroin, but I’m in recovery and it has been over fifteen years since I have taken any drugs—although to be honest, I probably don’t look like someone that’s on the straight and narrow path of sobriety. I grew up in the ’70s punk era, worked in the music industry, and still dress accordingly—basic all black, spiked blonde hair, leather jacket—and perhaps my appearance still evokes my former desire to overindulge in opiates. Plus, I’m not exactly passive. I’m an animated person. I’m passionate about what I do, and I can get a little excited when I speak, especially about a subject I care about, like writing. When this happens I tend to talk really fast, swear a lot, mumble my words, and slip in a self-deprecating comment or two. So yeah, maybe my appearance and demeanor put this woman off, and she just assumed I’m still that same person as in my book.
This will always be one of the dilemmas in writing about yourself and a certain period in your life. No matter how long ago that was, or how much you have changed, readers have a difficult time differentiating that that was the past, and are inclined to think that it is still who you are today.
Unfortunately, regardless of image or attitude, this will always be one of the dilemmas in writing about yourself and a certain period in your life. No matter how long ago that was, or how much you have changed, readers have a difficult time differentiating that that was the past, and are inclined to think that it is still who you are today. The truth is, the “me” I wrote about wasn’t capable of writing a book, nor did “he” even care (if he had he would’ve taken copious notes so that the future me would have had an easier time of it). Strangely, there are people who have actually said they wish they had known me then—which, if you know my story, is a little weird as the “me” then would have invited himself into your life, drank all your alcohol, used all your drugs, borrowed money, had sex with your best friend, and then stolen your car.
One can never fully understand just what it is that someone reading your work really gets from it. There are those out there who read books about addiction and take notes for future reference. Why do I know this? Because when I was sixteen, I read Burroughs’ Junky for exactly that reason. There are also the folks who like to feel better about themselves by comparing their fucked up lives to yours, or the ones who are smug in their self-satisfaction that they did more drugs and lived a harder life than you. Then there are those who just like a good story of struggle and redemption.
Yet, no matter the reason behind reading memoir, it still seems that the author is forever critiqued for the life they lived, not for the actual writing or craft and technique of their book. There have been many instances where I have a read a review and it was all about the author, not the actual writing. You would almost never see this with fiction, but then I guess that it is all just part of the deal when exposing your life to the world.
The truth is you never know what you’re capable of until you have to deal with adversity.
I would be lying if I told you that this did not influence the way that I wrote my memoir. While I wanted my language to grab you, I also wanted to tell my story from a totally real perspective, not through the euphoric patina of drug-aided fantasies. Too often, I have read a memoir where the author justifies or even brags about their part in a horrific story, making them one step lower than unlikable, and I decided early on that I was not going to fall into that trap. Yes, I did all this horrendous shit. But that was me then, this is me now, and the “narrative arc” is the internal change that happened as a result.
Oftentimes, telling the truth isn’t very pretty. There is no way to make yourself look good when you are describing a scene where you couldn’t possibly look good. Even worse is trying to justify why you did what you did. It is better just to describe what happened and leave the readers to form their opinion. In that same vein (forgive the pun), I didn’t set out to write a cautionary tale to prevent any future budding drug addicts. Yet, I didn’t write a pro-drug addict book either. If by chance someone is still compelled to follow in my footsteps after reading my memoir, then so be it.
Oftentimes, telling the truth isn’t very pretty. There is no way to make yourself look good when you are describing a scene where you couldn’t possibly look good. Even worse is trying to justify why you did what you did. It is better just to describe what happened and leave the readers to form their opinion.
Earlier that day, on the way to the workshop, I’d been feeling really good about myself and confident about my writing, but now, after that woman’s outburst, I felt like I was being judged and under attack. Some days it’s just like that. A person’s comment, a hard look, a misunderstood gesture, and I’m left wondering what the hell I did to deserve such disapproving scrutiny. I know that at times I can be way too sensitive, especially when the subject of my writing is involved. Like most authors, I want to be taken seriously and here this woman had reduced it down to who I was twenty years ago, not the quality of my writing or the person I am today. Sadly, it felt like not only was my credibility being questioned, but I was also somehow not living up to the embodiment of who and what an author should be. I already doubt myself. Not the “staying off drugs” part, but the “I’m a real author” part. I always think that people just view me as an anomaly. Like some dope fiend who must have had a lot of help forming enough sentences to actually make up a book’s worth of words. Obviously my self-esteem can be ridiculously low.
I don’t know when I became this overly sensitive. I certainly wasn’t at all worried about what anyone thought of me when I was on the yard at San Quentin kicking it with the homeboys, or going toe-to-toe with the skinheads, or getting stabbed in county jail. Thankfully, back then I had the correct mindset for incarceration. Straight from the streets and a few decades of running with thugs and thieves, my outlook was just as damaged as theirs. If I had to do it now, I think I’d be in trouble. But the truth is you never know what you’re capable of until you have to deal with adversity.
Yet it all changed for me on my forty-first birthday. I was in prison and contemplating my life, and realized that if they were to let me out right then and there, I had nothing waiting for me and nowhere to go. Essentially I had destroyed everything. My very existence was meaningless, and I vowed that I was never going to be back in this same place faced with this same dilemma again. There was too much that I wanted to accomplish, and time was running out. When I was finally released on parole, I sought out the help I needed to get my life back on track. I went into rehab, I got involved with a support group of like-minded recovering drug addicts, and I worked in my community giving back to a society that I had only taken from before. On a more personal note, I made amends and financial restitution to the family and friends whom I had harmed, and made a commitment to be a better son, brother, uncle, friend, and boyfriend. Over the years since then, I have striven to continue to improve myself. I completed grad school and obtained my MFA, gained employment teaching at the college level, and recently have been granted the restoration of all my rights, through a certificate of rehabilitation from the State of California, with a possible governor’s pardon in the works.
The “ me” then would have invited himself into your life, drank all your alcohol, used all your drugs, borrowed money, had sex with your best friend, and then stolen your car.
I know this sounds like a cliché or a cop-out, but these days I don’t even recognize the person I was then. I can’t imagine pulling an armed robbery or jabbing a needle in my arm. Although I did have to relive all of that when I wrote my book, in doing so I was able to put it to rest, and the results were cathartic. But, of course, my readers don’t really know any of that, and to some of them I’m still just that junkie bank robber, forever frozen in time. Even though the dates in my book indicate it was a long time ago, I will forever be known as such. But then again, I can tell myself it doesn’t matter what other people think of me: I’m who I am and I should be proud of it. Yet there I am giving a talk about memoir, and some budding writer says one negative thing and I’m off to the depression mills grinding my soul to shreds.
In all actuality, that woman’s words were not that offensive. Yet in my mind, what I heard her say was, “I read your book. You suck as a person,” which is seriously lame and, really, why should I let one person’s judgment bother me? There are always going to be people who do not like me, no matter what I do, especially seeing as I have written a memoir telling everyone about how fucked up a person I was. I realize that I shouldn’t have been behaving so badly in the first place; at the same time, I could use just a smidgen of validation to confirm that I have accomplished something good. I don’t want to continually be judged for who I used to be.
I glanced over at the instructor who was facilitating the event. She was the one who had invited me to present my work and talk to her students. Now I wondered if she, too, thought I was an abnormality of sorts: a carnival sideshow character who’d stopped being a freak and gone straight. But she just looked at me and smiled without missing a beat and yelled, “He’s clean and sober. Get over it.”
That should have been my cue to let it go. But that woman’s words had fucked me up. For the rest of the afternoon, I felt like all the internal work I’d put in was meaningless and nothing had changed. I was still that same criminal junkie, even though I hadn’t committed a crime or used heroin for over a decade and a half. Never mind that the other students hadn’t questioned my legitimacy. Actually, their responses had all been positive. More than a few came up afterwards and thanked me. But I held onto that one woman’s opinion because deep inside I, too, view myself as being a horrible person. And here, finally, when she said it out loud, was the proof that I always knew everyone else saw. Am I forever to be doubted and labeled a drug addict? Probably yes. But maybe when I stop beating myself up about it, I can move forward and forgive myself enough to let it all go.
Patrick O’Neil is the author of the memoir Gun, Needle, Spoon (Dzanc Books). His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Juxtapoz, Salon, The Nervous Breakdown, AfterPartyMagazine, and Razorcake. Patrick holds an MFA from Antioch University and teaches in AULA’s Inspiration2Publication program. He currently lives in LA’s monument to broken dreams, the über hip downtown district, with his fiancée and two giant Maine Coons. patrick-oneil.com.
A few days after our last issue’s publication, in South Carolina, a gunman entered a 199-year-old church during a prayer service. This specific place of worship had held a prominent role in social activism from the slave era to the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Lives Matter movement. The white gunman, in what is now known as the Charleston church massacre, confessed that he attacked the black congregation during a prayer service and killed nine people in the hopes of igniting a race war.
A few weeks later, an officer in Prairie View, Texas pulled a woman over for a routine traffic violation. In viral footage from the officer’s dashcam and a video recorded by a bystander, the male officer, reported to be Hispanic, harasses the black female driver, Sandra Bland, a civil rights activist, forcefully pulls her from the car, threatens her with a Taser, and arrests her. Three days later, Bland was discovered dead in her jail cell. As of this writing, the investigation is ongoing.
This summer, as protests waved across the nation in response to these and other manifestations of culturally-ingrained biases—police brutality, racial injustice, economic inequality—another story about equality also dominated the news. In its landmark decision on the Obergefell v. Hodges case, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law and expanded the scope of human rights in this country. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “The right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty.” The marriage equality victory didn’t end the struggle for equal treatment and protection for non-heterosexual and non-binary-gendered people, but the ruled marked a significant cultural shift.
Like Antioch, our university-affiliate, Lunch Ticket is committed to dismantling ethnic biases, heterosexism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, discrimination based on religious, cultural and political affiliations, and other forms of oppression. As our staff engaged with the summer’s equality struggles, sorrows and triumphs, our submission windows opened, and our editorial teams began reviewing work for this, our Winter/Spring 2016 issue. Our own diversity underscored the powerful outcomes of respecting and reflecting a wide spectrum of values and voices. We were unified in our celebration of marriage equality, in our disdain of racial inequities, and our outrage at the senseless loss of lives. All the while, we have wondered how, as a literary and art journal, Lunch Ticket can make a meaningful difference in the cultural conversation.
In this state, I reached out to LeVan Hawkins to write the featured essay for our Winter/Spring 2016 issue. Individual narratives drive the broader cultural narrative, and as a journal, Lunch Ticket strives to publish work that has been and continues to be underrepresented in the literary ecosystem. LeVan’s talents as a poet, performer, and essayist, are rooted in his fierce commitment to honesty and insights. He is someone who I knew would draw upon his experiences as a black, gay man to illuminate universal truths of great import to all communities. We spoke for a long time about life as a writer, and about the intersections between the personal and political, and when I mentioned the featured essay, he knew exactly what he wanted to write about. However, before our conversation ended, he said, “You know, I wish people would stop reaching out to me to write essays about being black and gay.”
I understood what he meant. For a moment, I wanted to backpedal, to invite him to write about anything of his choosing. But we both knew that I had called because I wanted him to write about exactly that. We need writers willing to share their personal stories about moving through a world that is often oblivious to its own biases and stereotypes. We need writers who are willing to write about the intersection of their personal lives amid the socio-political climate. Their willingness to share their experiences can change the world for someone who identifies with those experiences, yet never sees them reflected on the page. So, too, they can change the world for all of us, by shining a light on experiences that, while new or uncomfortable to some, need to be known by all. And we need publishing platforms: newspapers, film and television outlets, online media, and literary and art journals that are passionate about publishing our collective and individual realities.
At Lunch Ticket, we believe in excellent craft, moving stories, intriguing art, and social activism. Reading and publishing is both a reflective and radical act. It is both local and global and it is unacceptable to strive for anything less than the removal of the prefix “under” from underrepresented. We must shift the meaning of marginalized away from any particular group of people, reserving it for that space where editors and others write notes. When we read works that illuminate the emotional connection between the familiar and the unfamiliar, we gain insight, empathy, and compassion toward others in our global community. This is our mission at Lunch Ticket: to be an amplifier for stories that move beyond historic conventions and traditional constraints into a truer reflection of our diverse, culturally rich, and complex world.
In this Winter/Spring 2016 issue, we feature 65 new pieces, from original material to translated works, across fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, author interviews and essays. Several pieces touch on grief and longing, as in Sara Walters’s “Where the River Ends,” a story in verse about a teenager grappling with love and loss, and in Dana Mele’s “Bats in the Attic,” about miscarriage. Many of our authors, poets, and translators take us on cultural journeys—to China, Vietnam, Israel, Argentina, Turkey, Japan, Ecuador, and more. Others share narratives that capture the complex multicultural U.S. quilt, as in Talar Malakian’s piece “Want Cokes?” about Armenian- and Mexican-Americans, Sabrina Fedel’s “Honor’s Justice” about an Iraqi-American family as their daughter assimilates, and Yoshie Sakai’s video installation, “‘Koko’s Love’: A Soap Opera Tale of One Family” about Japanese-American stereotypes. In their photography collections, Candace Jahn and Brooke Johnson tackle gender stereotypes, and in Robert Robinson’s “Boiler Rat,” he offers an insider view of the working conditions in an Iowa industrial power plant. These are powerful, moving works of art and literature, ones that we believe should be out in the world and read.
Of the whole collection, however, Carmella Guiol’s flash CNF “Lifted” perhaps best sums up what Lunch Ticket is about. In this piece, strangers standing on line at a grocery store connect over an unexpected moment of beauty. Music sparks the shoppers to connect with each other in just a glance across imagined and real differences. Throughout this issue of Lunch Ticket, I hope that you find meaningful engagement with narratives that resonate both familiarly and with strange newness. And, writers among you, whatever your journey through the infinite and constantly evolving combinations of identity, cultural or otherwise, I hope you’ll choose to share your unique voices and perspectives. After all, readers turn to story not only to discover other worlds, but to retrieve something that will be of use to them back in their own.
Take good care,
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