Race in the Brain

One warm southern California day, I strolled up the sidewalk of my apartment building in West Hollywood and spotted my white seventy-something neighbor sitting at her window, her daily spot.

“Hey Virginia!” I greeted her as I approached.

She glared at me and asked, “Are you a racist?”

“What????” The suddenness of the question and the repulsion in her face and voice sent me backwards.

“All you ever write about is race. Race race race.”

I was too stunned to defend myself, outraged at the person I passionately prayed for when she had open heart surgery. The woman whose newly-purchased treadmill I helped move across our busy street so she could begin her rehab.

How dare she?

“You need to watch who you call ‘racist,’” I told her. “Don’t ever come at me like that again!” I stormed into my apartment cursing.

How could she view my work as racist? My artistic mission statement is, “I am an artist striving to share my life and my observations, acting as a bridge between races, sexes, sexualities, religions, and religious believers and non-believers.” How had I failed?

After giving Virginia’s question much pondering, I found myself asking, Was race all I wrote about? Was I like one of my black friends who couldn’t have a conversation without finding a way to reference “white people?” The one who I once told, “If you ever have brain surgery and your head is cut open, white people are going to crawl out of it.”

My mind downloaded poems, essays, and scenes I had written that disputed her claim. I realized all Virginia knew of my work were two essays. One, featured in the LA Weekly based on a real letter to my seventeen year-old nephew, recounted the experiences his father, my brother, and I had with the police, and what he should to do if he were stopped: Don’t argue, keep your hands down, don’t ask questions, be polite, suppress your anger, get away alive, report them afterwards, if you wish.

The second piece was what prompted Virginia’s question. It was an essay she had just read in the LA Times: three men (two blacks and a Latino) voluntarily stopped what they were doing and helped a surprised white male motorist push his van to the shoulder of a busy street. In the essay, I marveled that these men put aside any possible racial slights in their personal history and dealt with the task at hand—helping a fellow motorist out of the street. The rainbow coalition at work, I joked.

Virginia’s husband was Chinese—they are both dead now—who often told me how horribly they were treated as a newly-wed interracial couple in the late 1950s. This included being verbally assaulted on a train by a group of passengers, but he also shared how poorly her family had treated him. Virginia may have suppressed her memories in the name of a melting-pot society but her husband certainly had not.

I finally realized she just wanted me to buckle down and move on. No time for all this race foolishness. Her criticism reminded me of those from a conservative Latino friend who has been a major supporter of my work and a great friend for seventeen years. Occasionally though, he teases me about the poems I’ve written depicting racial injustice, implying that I give them too much power, that I perversely enjoy the incidents that inspired the work. I laugh it off but it bothers me and adds to the injustice I’ve already experienced. I interpret his mocking and Virginia’s denial as coping mechanisms, refusals to acknowledge oppression and racial slights in their attempts to avoid rage. Admitting that you’ve been slighted or are affected by the horrors going on this world also brings witnesses to your oppression. Who wants to be perceived as a victim?

Perhaps Virginia and my friend possess the ability to move past injustice without being emotionally involved or taking it personally. That is their choice. They are mentioned here because they have made personal comments about my choice. I am oppressed, but I’m not anyone’s victim. I am powerful. That is my worldview based on the madness I have seen and experienced. Choices and thoughts. That is where I practice my freedom. I strive to make sure someone else’s bullshit doesn’t consume my life. When I look in the mirror, I want to see my ancestors, not my oppressors. I have written several solo shows and at the end of each writing process, I inspect my work to ensure all my poems, monologues, and scenes aren’t about experiences with oppression, insult, and racial profiling. I make certain there are pieces that reflect me as a human being, though the culture of race is used as background. (And the culture of homosexuality, too—I’m gay.) Topics I have addressed in my work include ambition, debt, religion, unrequited love, parental issues, family, and self-actualization. But suppose I decided I wanted to address racism or homophobia as a single issue: Would I be guilty of race (or homophobia) in my brain?

Once, in front of a friend visiting from Chicago, the owner of a neighborhood store where I frequently shopped accused me of stealing an eighty-nine cents bottle of Coke while I was wearing almost a thousand-dollars-worth of clothing. The altercation ended with the storeowner screaming from behind his thick glass-plated window, “I saw you! I saw you,” while I, so angry I stood on my toes (according to my friend), yelled, “I’ve never stolen anything in my life!”

A day later, my friend and I sat in a gay bar in predominantly-white West Hollywood, and watched as the bouncer carded every black person who entered (including us). I took the manager aside and informed him. “It didn’t happen,” he yelled repeatedly, angrily waving his large flashlight as the other bouncer stood menacingly at his side.

Shortly afterwards, I wrote “Welcome to LA,” a multi-media poem with video and music, detailing the racism I experienced in my neighborhood the weekend my ex-boyfriend—my soulmate—came to visit, and how the weekend ended: with an exquisitely warm welcome from a white storeowner on the same block, a balm for my anger. For weeks, I sat at my desk enthralled with the writing of the poem, in a state of bliss I don’t get from anything else. I loved writing it. I love performing it. I DESPISE the incident that inspired it.

I began “Welcome to LA” with humor, as I often do when I write a piece that features moments of rage. The humor is a reminder to myself that I am not just that moment. It’s also an attempt to ease the viewer/reader into what will be an unsettling ride:

++++++Silk baseball jacket
++++++Khaki pants from Beverly Hills
++++++Dress shirt from Georgio Armani
++++++I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Spielberg!
++++++I’m a star!
++++++Got on my good shit today!
++++++Soul mate’s coming to town!
++++++Welcome to LA!

++++++Chicago sons—Valedictorians
++++++We trade book recommendations
++++++I am reading on self-esteem
++++++And recite my lessons
++++++Speak up
++++++Speak up
++++++Speak up
++++++I’ve got to speak up for what I believe.

In this poem, I use the metaphor of LA as the film capital of the world to take the piece beyond I was accused of stealing, and the very next day I saw all the blacks carded at a bar in predominantly-white West Hollywood while all the whites were warmly welcomed.

The encounters with the indifferent managers sent me into a rage that resulted in a deeper understanding of the murder of Latasha Harlins. Harlins was a fifteen year-old black female who was killed by a Korean storeowner in Los Angeles almost two weeks after the videotaped assault against Rodney King was broadcast. Six months after Harlins’s death, Soon Ja Du (the storeowner) was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, which carried a sentence of up to sixteen years in prison. The judge sentenced her to time served, 300 hours of community services, and five years’ probation. The 1992 LA uprising wasn’t just about Rodney King; Rodney King was just the last straw.

++++++The store video of young Latasha Harlins
++++++Plays on his face (the storeowner who accused me of stealing)
++++++She is thirsty so she drinks
++++++As she approaches the counter.
++++++The storeowner calls her a thief.
++++++Latasha sees her movies playing on her silver screen.
++++++A child of the inner city
++++++Young and emotional
++++++She curses and swings.
++++++As she turns to leave
++++++She jerks and takes a bullet to the back of her head
++++++The money for the drink spilling out of her hands.

++++++Oh Latasha, now I understand.

++++++Soul mate knows I will not swing
++++++So he allows me to speak
++++++Speak up
++++++Speak up
++++++Speak up
++++++For what I believe.

++++++I’ve come here for years, I say
++++++Every time I say hello
++++++And the only time you see me
++++++Is when you think I’m stealing.
++++++I am on my toes yelling
++++++Soul mate describes the scene later
++++++I remember nothing but Latasha
++++++The store clerk at DeKoven’s (who followed me every time I entered their store when I was a teen)
++++++Water hoses with extreme velocity spraying children
++++++Tar and feathering
++++++Whips and chains.
++++++African drums beat out a warning
++++++It could be you, It could be you.

The poem—as did that week—ended on a hopeful note, but asks, What would have happened if I didn’t have the whites I knew to balance the horrors I was reliving? How would I have perceived that weekend if my friend and I hadn’t met the white storeowner who gave us the warm greeting?

Writing to work out my pains is something I have done since childhood. When I couldn’t bear what I face—bullies, an angry stressed-out mother, the stifling of my personality—I wrote. This carried over to my adulthood. The infuriating incident of being accused of stealing, and being disrespected in a world where customers are supposedly always right, became an epic performance poem. The story of a white cop lying that my brother was speeding the night he was driving me to my high school district’s Board of Education meeting, where I served as a student advisor, was part of my essay on the necessity of telling a young black man I loved what to do when he encountered the police. (This was in 1995, by the way.) I turned that same encounter into a funny scene from “Black Stuff,” a well-received satire on black male identity that I co-wrote with actor/writer Alexander Thomas. Unfortunately, I know there will inevitably come a day when I have another work inspired by a despicable act to add to my oeuvre. In fact, another outrage from the summer of 2015 inspired this essay.

Besides my work being a balm for my ills, it is my calling. I feel I was put on this earth to share my life, no matter my intense need for privacy and someone’s demands I be quiet. When I tell of the incidents that insult my spirit, I release them and hope that my listener/reader will know they are not alone. Others will remember my stories when someone around them asks, Why are black people so sensitive, so angry?

I write my story so it will be there for someone who has never experienced the humiliation that comes with profiling and racial insult and think it doesn’t happen. I write for those who are unable to articulate what they feel when they are slighted, and for those who succumb to the influence of someone like Virginia who wants them to ignore what they’ve experienced or seen, and pretend it didn’t happen. That is what the manager of the bar yelled at me when I pointed out to him that his bouncer only carded black customers: “It didn’t happen.”

As I wrote in “Welcome to LA”:

++++++He can tell me
++++++He’s punishing me for something my brother did
++++++Mother used to do the same.
++++++He can tell me
++++++Only the blacks he knows can enter without being carded.
++++++But he can’t tell me it didn’t happen—
++++++My glasses give me 20/20 vision.

Alexander and I performed the “Black Stuff” scene involving the lying policeman at a national performance conference. A liberal white lesbian from New Orleans I had befriended at the conference stopped me afterwards and asked, appalled, “LeVan, was that true? Did that happen?” I took her beyond her experience. That experience confirmed the necessity of being exposed to lives unlike our own. In order for this to happen, writers can’t sit on their truths.

*     *     *

In 1996, at one of my closest friend’s rehearsal dinner for his wedding, his brother-in-law, who is white (as is my friend), told me that when he witnessed blacks’ ecstatic reaction to the OJ Simpson murder verdict on television (absolute joy at the not-guilty verdict when it looked like Simpson killed his white wife), he was puzzled and wanted to understand. He went to a local bookstore and purchased a bagful of memoirs by black authors and devoured them.

“Do you have a better understanding?” I asked him.

“Not a better understanding,” he replied. “I understand.”

LeVan D. HawkinsLeVan D. Hawkins is a solo performer and published poet and writer. He is a Lambda Literary, Millay Colony of the Arts, and Dorothy West/Helene Johnson Foundation Fellow. He has read his work at venues such as Dartmouth College, UCLA Hammer Museum, Disney Hall REDCAT Theater, Minneapolis Central Library, & Links Hall Chicago. www.levandhawkins.com

Submission as Social Action

Once when I was in my early twenties, the tires on my car had gone bald, and my mother offered to take me to Sears to get replacements. At the time I didn’t even know the department store sold tires. And who still shopped there anyway? But my mom assured me that with a Sears credit card we could get a good discounted price. Having been a working mother of four for over thirty years, she knew more about this than me, and being a new teacher with few funds, I happily accepted her help.

“Will you be paying with a Sears card today, ma’am?” a boyish, blond cashier asked. My car sat on new tires just outside the automatic doors, keys in the ignition.

“I lost the card, but I can give you my ID.” My mother tugged at her license, stuck in a bulging wallet the shape of a brick, and handed over an ID that displayed the same address she has lived at since 1974. I wasn’t born until 1980, but 1974 is an important date in my family’s history because it is the year my parents moved from an apartment in Boyle Heights, a low-income neighborhood in East L.A., to their first and only house in San Gabriel, a sunny suburb ten miles east of Downtown Los Angeles and nestled below the San Gabriel Mountains. At the time, my oldest brother was only three and my mother was eight months pregnant with my second brother.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but your name isn’t on this card,” the cashier said.

“That’s my husband’s name,” my mother said with a flick of her hand. My cheeks flushed because she never had patience for cashiers, phone tellers, or repairmen.

“But it’s not your name, ma’am, so I can’t take it,” the cashier said, looking nervous.

“Well, I wasn’t allowed to have a credit card when we got it,” she said matter-of-factly, and the skinny, reed of a cashier with loose blond hair and I shared puzzled looks.

“Mom, what do you mean you weren’t allowed to have a credit card?” I asked, confused.

“It’s an old card,” she sighed, “I never come to Sears. I don’t know, maybe I won’t come back.” She snatched her ID from the cashier and stuffed it back into her wallet, stuffing the wallet back into her over-filled purse that sat sprawled and gaping over the counter like a sinkhole.

“I’m sorry ma’am,” he said hurriedly, going back to the keys of the cash register, “I guess I can do it this once.” Within minutes the transaction was finished, and we were walking out sliding glass doors to my newly re-tired car.

It was a sunny afternoon. The San Gabriel Mountains created an impenetrable wall behind the parking lot that mirrored the walls I now imagined around my mother, walls I had never before considered.

“Mom, you couldn’t have a credit card?” I asked still dumbfounded.

“No. Back when we first got it, they would only let men have credit cards. I had to put it under your father’s name.” We climbed into the car.

“You put it under dad’s name?”

“Well, yeah. I applied for the card, but I couldn’t use my name. I had to use his.” She was short in her answers, and maybe still agitated by the cashier, so I silenced my questions, started the engine, and drove us home, just two women fixing a car.

Until that moment, I had never realized how close I was to a completely different reality from the one I lived. I was just one small generation away from living in a society that did not allow women to have credit cards, which meant they couldn’t buy their own cars or own property.

The car my mother helped me with was an army green 2004 Scion xB. It was my very first new car, and I bought it with a two thousand dollar down payment I saved from my first year of teaching high school English at a tiny private school in Arcadia. Like the car, the full-time job was a first too. When it came time to sign a loan, my mother agreed to cosign.

I remember sitting side by side at the banker’s desk, the contract laid out in front of us.

“Why are these numbers different?” I pointed to two places where the monthly payment did not match.

“The payments are scheduled for the fifteenth of the month, but today is the eighth. If we schedule payments for the eighth of the month, it won’t be different. Do you want that?” he asked me.

“Yes, let’s do that,” I said. After he made the adjustment, I signed, my mother signed, and then he took us out to the lot to show me my new car.

“You made me so proud, mija,” she said when we met back at home.

“How?” I asked.

“The way you looked over the numbers and asked questions. That made me very proud.” I never thought I was any different from her, but looking back now, I see it’s possible.

In 2011, I co-founded an organization with two other women called Women Who Submit. Our focus was to empower women writers to submit work for publication after VIDA: Women in Literary Arts began counting how many women were published in top literary journals and publications. What they found was no surprise. Compared to men, women were grossly underrepresented in the highest and most prestigious literary journals. When VIDA started asking editors why the numbers were so, the most common reply was, “women don’t submit as often men.” And many believed that statement because women are believed to be quieter than men, less aggressive, and yes, submissive.

When I think of submission and women, I never think of my mother. I think of grandmothers. I think of the 1950s’ kitchen. I think of a poster I once saw of a woman in nothing but an apron and holding a beer, next to a banner encouraging, “Know how to keep your man happy.” And even though my mother was born in 1947, I never thought of her living in that time. Maybe it is because my mother has never been the submissive type. In fact, she despises submissive women with their soft giggles and simple-minded pretenses. I was taught at an early age that I was just as strong and just as smart as boys, and I could never act otherwise. If my three older brothers could do it, so could I. Baseball, camping, twenty-mile bike rides to the beach, algebra summer school classes, if it was good enough for her boys, it was good enough for her girl.

In her own life, my mother worked full-time in Downtown L.A. offices as a secretary and clerk, but also took the jobs no one else wanted, like the office emergency manager—this person created the office emergency plans and scheduled earthquake drills. I never saw her do this job, but I imagine her wearing a hardhat and barking orders. At home, it was often me and my brothers’ responsibility to put dinner on the table and keep the house clean. This makes it sound like my father was not there, but he was. While my mother worked full-time and we were expected to keep the house, my father was allowed to follow his economic dreams and whims after he lost his job as a welder. There was a video rental store, a flower shop, a burrito stand, a party balloon business, a catering business, and weekends spent selling cowboy boots, serapes, and whatever goods my father could pick up on turnarounds to Tijuana at charreadas and banda concerts at the Pico Rivera Sports Arena. My mother worked Monday through Friday keeping the steady money coming in, but come Saturday she rose early to cook a vat of beans for burritos, or drove to the flower shop in East L.A. to bunch batches of white roses into prom corsages and boutonnieres. This was my first introduction to women’s work and gender roles, and from what I saw women could do anything because my mother did everything.

A Women Who Submit submission party

A Women Who Submit submission party

Women Who Submit was created with the idea that if we hosted submission parties—meet-ups for women writers in private homes where women could ask questions, gain support and resources, set goals, and submit work in real time—maybe more women would submit regularly, and maybe the numbers would change. Think 1950s’ Tupperware party, but instead of sharing products to improve our kitchens, we shared information to improve our chances of being published in the literary journals of our choosing.

Our first submission party was in July 2011, at my mother’s house in San Gabriel. Six women gathered around my mother’s kitchen table to create a lending library of literary journals, share food and drink, establish personal goals and submit work for publication. Every time a woman pressed “send” we cheered and clapped. And this is how the first submission party was born.

Soon after, we started to think of a name. I suggested “Ladies who Submit,” because it reminded me of “Ladies who Lunch” and thought it was a fun play on an activity seen as benign and shallow. But that got vetoed for Women Who Submit. I didn’t think much of the name at the time or the double entendre, until other women began to hear of us and make comments.

“Do you know what comes up when you Google Women Who Submit?” one woman prompted. When I tried, I found Bible versus, Christian sites, and the headline, “Submit to your Husband: Should Women be Submissive?”

Recently, our Facebook page received a message from a woman who was recommended to our site by a friend. She wrote: “I have to say, I was thrown by the name of the group. I lived through the ’50s …Cool idea…scary name.”

This statement made me realize that Women Who Submit is in fact the perfect name for our organization, because at its core it is a social action that helps women break free of societal boundaries caused by centuries of female submission.

Sometimes I think $0.77 to every dollar a man makes isn’t so bad. Sometimes I think 20% less representation in journal A isn’t so bad when journal B has equal representation. But then I think of my mother and how unbearably close it was that women couldn’t apply for credit cards, or own property, or work in an office without being harassed. The Clarence Thomas case took place in 1991, and it was only a short twenty-four years ago that the name Anita Hill and the term “sexual harassment” came into our public consciousness. And then I think of Juarez, Mexico where in the present day women are abducted and killed while on their way to work. And I think of those young women in Nigeria who were kidnapped from their beds and sold off because they wanted to go to school. And I think of women in Saudi Arabia being threatened with imprisonment and violence if they dare to drive.

Women Who Submit is a group of women who submit work for publication because they refuse to be marginalized. Through the support of community and resources we seek empowerment and equality in our chosen professions as writers, editors, and publishers. But more than that, it represents a voice for all women who refuse to be intimidated or silenced.

When I think of my mother, I think of her hard edges, her refusal to accept “no” and her ability to put her head down and do the dirty work. She’s a bulldozer, and I think maybe she got that way because no one else fought for her. No one else cheered her on. No one ever told her, “You made me so proud.”

Mom, you make me so proud!

Xochitl-Julisa BermejoXochitl-Julisa Bermejo is the 2013 poetry winner of the Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange, and her manuscript, Built with Safe Spaces, was a 2014 finalist in the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize. She has work published in American Poetry Review, CALYX, Acentos Review, Los Angeles Review, and The Nervous Breakdown. A short dramatization of her poem “Our Lady of the Water Gallons,” directed by Chicano activist and Hollywood director, Jesús Salvador Treviño can be viewed at latinopia.com. She is the creator and curator of the quarterly reading series HITCHED and a co-founding member of Women Who Submit.

Some Memories of Daniel G. Reinhold

Daniel in his studio, Ithaca, NY

Lunch Ticket’s inaugural poetry editor and MFA graduate, Daniel G. Reinhold, died unexpectedly in the early hours of Tuesday, April 21, 2015, while sitting up working at his computer. He died as he lived his entire adult life, engaged with art. Daniel had been a member of the Antioch community in one way or another for five years, touching the lives of countless students and faculty.

Daniel was an artists’ artist—a painter, writer, and poet. In all his media, he infused color with pathos and humanity. His brilliant, vibrant paintings of animals and objects, the surprise of his surreal and absurdist poems (i.e., Icarus eating only chicken because chickens cannot fly, a man who replaced his broken heart with a piñata, a woman in a hospital selling thought balloons to the Thought Police), and the truth-telling of his memoir, were each populated with people and animals, storytelling and engaging loss.

Daniel Reinhold, Watermelon Dog, 1998. Acrylic, 18 X 24 in.

Daniel Reinhold, Watermelon Dog, 1998. Acrylic, 18 X 24 in.

Other younger artists may complain about what art “costs” them in their “outside” lives. For Daniel, there was no “outside” of art. Everything real could fit inside that sphere of his creating. He made a series of digital art, titled after the times he spent “on hold” with various corporations. He sent all his friends an annual rhino holiday card. Daniel’s commitment as a working artist spanned four or five decades and many geographies. During the half-decade he spent connected to Antioch, Daniel shared his move from Ithaca to New Orleans, the construction of a house and studio there, followed by his marriage to Patty (the love of his life with whom he had passionately, triumphantly reconnected), the generous and embracing family they had recently formed together with a young adult son, Lionel, and later with Daniel’s mom and two dogs. Daniel and Lionel planned and took trips together, traveling up to Northern California after Daniel’s MFA graduation, and into many corners of Louisiana.

Daniel Reinhold, Holiday Card, 2011. Electronic art (distributed via email).

One of Daniel’s holiday cards, from 2011. (distributed via email)

Over the years that Daniel and I knew each other, we participated in and shared any number of meaningful conversations about writing, his writing, and community engagement around the arts.

In the last conversation we had in early April 2015, we tossed around ideas about the purpose of art in a life. Was art a stay against oblivion? A method of consciousness, a way of being present here and now? Was the purpose of art to be famous, to have a poem in the New Yorker? Then Daniel suggested that art mattered most to him in the quirky honorable communities of practice that form around its making. He told me that while he worked hard on his poems, and was proud of his craft, and would love to have a poem in the New Yorker one day, it was more important to him to let his art mix and mingle with the art of other people, to show up to readings, even when he felt shy or it was hard, to appreciate the way art delivers us to one another.

Daniel with Zelda the boxer, Ithaca, NY

Daniel with Zelda the boxer, Ithaca, NY

Our wireless connection was spotty. We had set the appointment to ‘catch up’ a week before. But Daniel liked to take artist field trips at the last minute, exploring the Mississippi Delta and its eddies, pulling off into the little communities of Louisiana to write or sketch. So on this morning, he’d decided to take a drive; in fact, we often talked while he was driving across bridges. And so it was that I last heard his tentative, dragging, thoughtful voice against a backdrop of seagulls and car sounds. He had pulled into the parking lot of a general store. The water was in front of him. I heard the light on the water glinting against his thoughts.

In the weeks since his death, there’s been an outpouring of very personal grief from the Antioch University Los Angeles creative writing community and the Lunch Ticket team. It turns out that we each thought some memory of this very private man belonged to us alone. One person’s Daniel had noticed when she felt lost and called her over and introduced her to someone who became her best friend. Someone else’s Daniel had pointed out how to do an annotation in their first term in the program. Several people’s Daniel had recognized a need and had begun the MFA residency’s first twelve-step program. And Daniel’s mentors (I among them) had shared Daniel’s thrilling creative process, and had planned with him how his memoir could be finished, his poems make it out into the world.

Daniel Reinhold, Michael: My Brother, 2000. Acrylic, 48 x 36 in.

Daniel Reinhold, Michael: My Brother, 2000. Acrylic, 48 x 36 in.

Uncertainty and discovery, dogged discipline and shame and suffering, are part of what living as an artist implies. Daniel exampled for so many of us what it could mean to make adequate room for ourselves, for a self the size of an artist’s—not only under duress, but as a day-in, day-out commitment toward self-gentleness. In spite of life’s challenges, he was unendingly positive—returning again and again, in full awareness, to a brighter palette. A kind man, both in art and life, he treated others with tenderness and steady compassion. Something about the space Daniel moved through always increased the possibility for truthfulness in other people.

At his graduation from the MFA program in 2013, Daniel left me an encaustic painting of a sailboat, its vivid yellow sail high against a complex red sky. It hangs to this day in my office. Although we never spoke of it, I think he knew that I’d see it as a life boat. I think he wanted me to have one.

So I like to think of Daniel up there on a bridge. His work is still down here, all around us. Light is glinting off the water. I miss him. I miss that beautiful, positive man who knew all about the shadows, but never loved them or stepped willingly into them. I miss his color and his light.

I need his voice in the darkness.

—Jenny Factor





by Daniel G. Reinhold

The all night pawn shop on Alvarado Street
offered me a hundred and fifty bucks
for the piece of the moon I stole
on that first fragile night we met
after the sweat lodge above San Miguel.
I was passionate about selling it,
driven like a junkie on a mission from God,
sweaty and fidgety, shaking like a leaf
(pardon the cliché I am delirious)
searching for an answer to a question
you had asked me in despair.

You seemed troubled by the enigma and the paradox,
the terrible ennui and angst of the fallen,
angels in the rough you call them,
prisoners of their own desires.
I am indignant and yet pious
as I barter with the pawnbroker.
I want two-hundred and fifty bucks minimum
for that stolen piece of moon
He says two-hundred bucks tops.
It is a Mexican standoff.
(Again pardon the cliché. I am now forsaken)

You have become ambivalent,
deliciously ambiguous at best
after those two years we spent in Algiers.
We were once motherfuckers for the cause,
troubadours of the tenuous night,
succubae for freedom.
I was never a pantheist or a panhandler
though I sold myself for silver and gold.
(I am no Judas.)

All this rigmarole started when I poisoned you
in Marseille
with botulism and grace.
It was before the cabaret
and the hurdy-gurdy man was pissed.
(He was always pissed)
Light a candle made of earwax and alfalfa,
let it burn until its flame expires
and then I’ll promise you anything,
I’ll promise you our little piece of moon,
I’ll promise you anything,
I’ll promise you rain.

Jenny Factor is an archaeologist of object and mind. Her poem collection, Unraveling at the Name (Copper Canyon Press), was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. She serves on the Core Faculty at Antioch University Los Angeles.

Word from the Editor

As this is my final issue as Editor for Lunch Ticket, and thus my last “Word from the Editor,” I wanted to take a moment to reiterate what I think is a core belief of the magazine before exiting.

Now more than ever we writers face the question of whether art can still function as a vessel for social change. I say that it can, but there first needs to be a revaluation of the role of the artist in a world where change is continuous and swift.

How can creative writers make an impact on such a world? Simply put: through sharing the moral imagination. Everyone understands there is a relationship between art and culture. Unfortunately, the growing trend in contemporary writing is to further deepen our culture of impatience, intolerance, and violence. The moral imagination still exists in art, but too often it lives on only in small and often unread pockets. The role of the subjective has become so prevalent and lauded that we need to remember that art is inherently an outward expression—that while we use it as a form of self-expression and self-excision, it is as much a form of communication, a way to share ideas and experiences with others for their sake and benefit. While art is at its core concerned with telling the stories of individuals, it can function as a vessel of wide social address. What we say as writers matters. And we shouldn’t shy away from saying what we must when we worry that it may be disagreeable. We must not be afraid. Art has always been controversial, the controversies and struggles surrounding and depicted in stories and poems and other forms of art lead to change. We must unite private conscience with public responsibility—we must bring our moral imagination into public view. Art is about relations, relationships, and the interpretation of the significance of those relations. Art needs to make us both think and feel.

Many believe that the role of art and literature is simply to be beautiful. That is a damaging stereotype. While there is much beauty in this world and all that it contains, we must remember that we need to also reveal the ugly. Only by presenting the ugly, the brutal and the brutish, the horrifying and the horrifyingly unjust, can we face such things and do something about them.

Art and literature, as aesthetic experiences driven by thinking and feeling, provide a platform for transcendent understanding. It allows us to vicariously experience, live with, and learn from others whose viewpoints are not our own. In other words, they promote empathy, a felt kind of understanding; and from empathy comes compassion. Don’t let the opportunities for widespread social change afforded by that possibility go to waste. Not now when communication on a massive scale is easier and more impactful it has ever been. Make your stories matter.


David Bumpus

Days After

            July 14, 2013 (Not Guilty)

The rally is not the mourning I need. A Protestor wears a new gray, leopard-print hoodie, carries tropical flavor Skittles, 99-cent honey-iced tea. Black boy—still dead. White Man richer, free, alive. Tall White Guy with the Socialist T-shirt is the master of ceremonies, a stale hype man for revolution. White Girl with Dreads and a Djembe talk about body politics and the new laws trying to tag the walls of wombs. Older White Man in Denim Vest with Spray-Painted Peace Sign brought his tambourine and his solidarity stickers. Young Black Youth with Kinki Twist is the closest I come to the realest I sought. She is hurt. She is angry. She is heartbroken. For an instant, I let it be true. A black boy was killed. His murderer is free. I am not surprised.

Today, White Lady at the rally cries holding a picture of that pretty dead boy on the TV. Tomorrow, she sees 6’2’’ black man walking towards her and crosses the street. There is a new moon tonight, and it looks like nothing is in the sky at all. But the moon is there, big and bright as ever, but even I have become so good at giving no glory to things that blend in with the night.

On the way to my car, within a block of the rally, I see: Black Woman my mother’s age drooling on her breast and her stained cotton dress; Black Man sweating in long-sleeve denim suit who could be my father asks me for change; White Couples Behind Glass eating clams, scallops with sautéed onions, talking about the grandkids.


            November 3, 2013 (Did you hear about that girl? She was asking for help.)

Fear, that’s a word. Rage, that’s one too. As is sorrow. As is murder. As is black and that one has several meanings. Sick is a word. Hollow is a word too. What use do I have for them any more? I don’t want to write. I want to burn. I want to burn everything. But I don’t want to live in castles of ash. I barely want to live (but I must—but who is to say I get to?).

I don’t want to talk about hope. I’ll hope next week. As of now, there is no just thing anywhere. I have trouble believing in the mercy of God, but I am ever aware of his creations and how we uncreate so easily.

And if I was unmade tomorrow, would my murderer walk free? Better question: what color would he be? Don’t tell me it doesn’t matter, it always has. If I, tomorrow, was a memory, would my name be more than shapeless smoke from blunts lit in my honor? Would my trial be quiet or cause a wildfire? Would the case set a precedent or continue a pattern? I don’t want to protest anymore. I want to weep. I want the whole world to take a day to grieve, but I know there are people celebrating somewhere. I want to turn off all the noise everywhere. There are some days even music isn’t welcome. I want to hold every black boy in the world. I want my house to change into my mother’s hands. I want nothing more than nothing. I don’t want to write, but how can I not? I’ve taught myself to write to survive. I’ve been taught that I am not guaranteed to survive.


            October 12th, 2014 (Ferguson, October)

I’m smoking on my couch and I’m not doing enough. I’m washing the peaches and I’m not doing enough. I’m screaming a man’s man and I’m not doing enough. I’m trying to figure out when I can get to the beach this week and I’m not doing enough. I wanted to be in Ferguson this weekend and I didn’t. I’m not sure how far rage would take me and I know what I’m capable of. I’m not scared of police and I know my luck. I’m scared of police and I know it’s mutual. I don’t own a gun and I shouldn’t. I know where my grandmother keeps hers and I get it in the will. I will throw it in the river and under my bed. Another boy on the news and I haven’t learned his name yet. Another boy and it’s barely news. A new one and it’s already old. I’m eating yogurt and I’m not doing enough. I wonder if the white girls across from me are thinking about black life, guilt, and I know they’re not. I don’t know his name and it matters. It matters—the boy’s name and the fact that I must know it. I’m thinking about the privilege of asking questions. I’m thinking about whiteness and how it becomes you. I’m thinking about how blackness and how you can call it heirloom or hand-me-down. I’m thinking about my sister thinking about Raven-Symone. I’m thinking about the girl on the news and I’m bringing it up too late. I’m thinking about the girl and what was the last one’s name? I’m thinking about them. All of them. I’m thinking about the news-less girls. I’m thinking about the boys who didn’t deserve it. I’m thinking we might have different standards for innocence. I’m thinking about prisons and how many there are. I’m thinking about jumpsuits made of bad cotton. I’m thinking about this has got to be a dream. I’m thinking this whole thing is someone’s dream. I’m thinking about a dark bird’s sleep. I’m thinking about closing all the windows and locking the door. I’m never going outside again and I want to run to the ocean. I’m American and don’t want to be anything else and I hate that. I’m so damn American. I hit the streets. I change the channel. I tweet about it. I think about it a lot. I sleep about seven hours a night. I get weekends off.

Danez SmithDanez Smith is the winner of a 2014 Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from Poetry Magazine/The Poetry Foundation. He is also the recipient of fellowships from the McKnight Foundation, Cave Canem, VONA, & elsewhere. Danez is the author of [insert] Boy (YesYes Books, 2014) & the chapbook hands on ya knees (Penmanship books, 2013). He was featured in The Academy of American Poets’ Emerging Poets Series by Patricia Smith. Danez is a founding member of the multi-genre, multicultural Dark Noise Collective. His writing has appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, Beloit Poetry Journal, Kinfolks, & elsewhere. He placed second at the 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam, is the reigning 2-time Rustbelt Individual Champion & was on 2014 Championship Team Sad Boy Supper Club. In 2014, he was the Festival Director for the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam. He holds a BA from UW-Madison where he was a First Wave Urban Arts Scholar. He was born in St. Paul, MN.

Word from the Editor

You may not know this about me, but I’m pretty reticent. I am also an able-bodied white heterosexual male (read: abundantly privileged from the get-go). Speaking out and speaking up is a challenge for me, and it’s one I often let get the better of me. I am privileged in more ways than I know, and I know that I take that for granted because I’ve never experienced anything else.

In light of the absolute atrocities that have recently taken place (or, at least those that have garnered the attention of the media, because to say that what the media has been covering is the extent of it would be to dismiss the entire systemic aspect of it), I wanted to speak up. I recognized that being an ally requires taking action, but because of who I am I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know what I could do that would actually contribute in a meaningful way. I was afraid of doing the wrong thing. I was afraid of saying the wrong thing. I was afraid that I would only make things worse—that my privilege and the privileges that I don’t even know I have would somehow keep me from being more than just (white) noise. I wanted to do more than just show support, but didn’t know how to do it correctly, because I wanted to do more than just erect a hashtag in some kind of disconnected solidarity. I was completely paralyzed by that fear. And where some would say that that is prejudice hard at work, I want to say it’s a form of torment. Because I do care. Because black lives do matter. And not just black lives but every life: every single person on the gender spectrum, every single person on the sexuality spectrum, every single person regardless of ability or disability or religion or ethnicity or whatever other facets which they may consider define their identity.

I can’t let that silence go on. To be silent is to let the oppressive forces go unchecked. It’s time to step up; writers should not be passive—and not just writers: no one, really, should be passive. As the editor of this journal, I have the privilege of giving platforms to voices that aren’t privileged. Lunch Ticket’s mission is to publish work by under-privileged voices, to promote social justice through publishing without hesitation or apology meritorious work that challenges the toxic status quo of oppression. It’s time for all of us to step up. It’s time for all of us to do what we can—to remember that to be an ally is to be an ally: that being an ally is not sitting idly by for whatever reason. From Danez Smith’s essay to the interview with Antonia Crane to Noh Anothai’s translations of Thai political protest poems, this issue of Lunch Ticket does not compromise on its vision but pushes forward in every way it can.

I can at least start here. I can do right with this. If you’ve been caught up in the same fears, I hope you’ll find the strength to join me.

David Bumpus

Wizard Grits: The Secret Life of the Indie Publisher

I never thought I’d be doing this. I recall sitting in a foxhole as a paratrooper, reading the book of Psalms and thinking, hey, I kinda looove this. I always thought the point of poetry was to confuse.  Thousands of couches later, five books and literary festivals all over the world, I want to take a second to share the addictive effects of writing which led to the strange world of becoming a full on publisher.

For the last ten years I have been launching books of poetry into the world via my press, Write Bloody Publishing, which began as a labor of love for poets I’d meet on the road who only had crappy looking chapbooks to sell. Our first year we sold 40 books. This year we sold over 22,000 physical copies. Our small mode of success all came from “punch in the gut” lessons that led to nuggets of truth. I want to share these with you, so you don’t have to make the same mistakes, as an author or publisher. So you load up on some useful knowledge which can be applied to your own writing or book-producing life.

Write Bloody now has over 100 titles, but when I looked back I realized I blew it, in some way, every single year. As I was mentoring a local young press here in Austin, I realized I have spent many years dumbfounded and naïve in terms of making money at publishing. It shouldn’t take you this long. I don’t want you to have to pull your hair out, sweating over the returned books and bizarre profit margins.

Most of us have the same goal in the indie publishing world of hunting down the unknowns and letting their voice be heard. I hope my chuds and fails, I hope they can help that vision expand. Here are your nuggets.

Make them like the first poem. Every book is a first date. They gotta like the way you look and then see what you’re about.

I spent a lot of time on cover art, hashing it out with the authors and tweaking every little nuance. Don’t do this. Once you have something cool, which means cool enough to suck the eye in and let the book be opened, stick with it. That’s all you want and, even more so, need. Also, don’t let authors choose cover artwork. They are talented but don’t speak the language of design. Learn the language of design so the cover artist isn’t pulling their hair out when you say, “It doesn’t pop,” or, “There’s too much orange going on.” Work with authors and ask them their current favorite covers, but don’t let them grind you down when they might not even be sure of what they want. There will always be tiny changes that DO NOT MATTER or help the movement, mood, or sale of the book. Put it in the contract that authors can comment but the final design will be determined by publisher. Authors don’t have a clear idea that time equals money and the more edits they make to the art will not increase the sales of the book, or the “wow” of the cover. Tinkering will grind down your budget fast. You can also just save a ton of money and do a minimal approach like Wave books to cover art. Their books look great, and they show their great taste in author selection with great font design.

Make them like the first poem. Every book is a first date. They gotta like the way you look and then see what you’re about. If the cover looks good and the first poem rules, you have sold a book. It isn’t always like that. 50 Shades of Grey has a horrible gloss cover with no spatial design or fascinating color palette. They still sold a ton of books. But if you are struggling in a tiny market like poetry or short fiction, your covers have to rule.

I know what works, but I am not good at texturing and adding dimension in Illustrator. I hire freelancers and hunt them down if I like another cover, or a rock poster. If design isn’t your strong suit, don’t skimp on hiring someone to do the cover, but don’t hire the most expensive. Make talented friends.

You will have some bigger sellers than others. I have learned, as author and publisher, that the bigger sellers love the people. They have long lines to get books signed after an event, and they sign something unique in each one. At the end of the Sarah Kay reading at AWP, there were over 120 people in line. We learned to have a handler prepping the names, a money taker, and the author sitting to sign. The handler keeps the conversations down to 30 seconds max. The book becomes a souvenir of the reading, and you gain a life long fan once it is signed.

Use this to your advantage. Do you have an author that can be funny, tell stories and be moving? Put them on the road. Our bigger sellers were champions of the road. They didn’t oversaturate their hometowns. They did a great huge book release party at home and then hit the libraries, theaters, house shows, and slams of the U.S.

The big sellers, before we signed them, had a website, press kit, press photo, mailing list, and merch. They had merch beyond just their book on the road. Cool hand towels with sayings on them, book bags, posters, koozies. It all made the road a place to make money, instead of just a promotional money dump by the press.

We tried to run a booking agency, and financially it wasn’t doable. We realized we can’t pay for the tours. But we realized that telling the author to hit the road did something to the touring author: If they didn’t put on a good live reading, they wouldn’t sell books, and thus wouldn’t be able to afford the hotel room or a good meal, and then would be tired for the next reading. Every reading, all of sudden, really matters. Being on time matters. Being nice to promoters and signing books matters. The audience begins to feel like the author gives a shit about being there, and they are often rewarded financially and with a lasting fan-base.

The constant tricky decision and choice that can make or break a press came up this year: Do we order 1000 copies and pay 2 bucks a book in China, or order 250 for 3.90 a book and print IN THE USA? You aren’t sure how long it will take to move 1000 copies. One mis-step, where you hire three new authors and all the books tank and take too long to make back the money can fold and shut down a press. It was important for us to print in the USA. We had to pay more but we also get to hold our head up higher. And the smaller quantity meant less profit, but less risk. Less risk is key in the beginning. This was so important. We also only had a storage unit for the copies so less was better and the slow growth meant we didn’t need a loan.

We used to pay quarterly. Big mistake for a small press. You should only pay royalties once a year. Books have returns. I was paying out money that didn’t exist—meaning that I should’ve waited to see how the year played out, January to December, and then waited 4-5 months due to the delay in returned books showing up. I used to pay an author for their sales of 200 books and that money was gone. 5 months later 120 of those copies would come back as destroyable returns but I had already paid out the money on 200 like an idiot. I had no idea when I started that if a book is opened and there’s a crease on the spine, that book is no longer sellable if returned. The glue makes it an awful recycle option. This was the year we cut into our profits a little more by using Eco-Libris to plant trees for the first run of books. It was a good lead to drumming up press for our publishing house, and the authors thought it was badass. It never made us get more sales, but it felt good.

2007 was the year I knew we needed better distribution. I had no idea how to cold call a distributor, one that had a sales team and hit all the trade shows for us. I thought distribution made you rich. I found out that amazon takes 50% and a distributor takes 27%. They wanted to see three years of accounting records before they would sign us. A big mistake was that I kept no records. I paid my taxes, but couldn’t show growth. The distributor told me to not get my hopes up, because most poetry titles they had didn’t sell. I became determined to keep better records and hire an accountant to help me keep monthly records. It was a hard time for poetry book sales. Bookstores were folding. I found that collecting money myself from 50 bookstores across the USA was a nightmare. The manager wasn’t in, some books might have been stolen, the check is delayed, etc.

Some writing is for the journal and stays asleep. Some is purely for the book. Some is for the book that sounds wonderful out loud. Find those pieces and create a relationship where you are on the audience’s side.

I also found out this year that shipping grinds you down. If you ship 200 books a year, no problem. If you start shipping 500 a year, it steals 8 hours out of every week. I found U-Line and they can send bubble mailers next day way cheaper than Staples or OfficeMax, and I started using Endicia, a program that helps with labels, printing shipping labels, and storage of addresses. I tried having a third party ship, but there were a lot of mistakes. I for sure needed distribution to handle it all.

Have a debrief when an author comes back from the road. Find out which cities and readings sucked or ruled. Ask if they want to tour with others. You make more money alone, but it can wear you out. I recommend touring with one or two authors max, so you can stay in one hotel room and save dough. It also gives you more stage time, which leads to more book sales.

When you do a reading, if you are at a venue with an open mic, or other readers and folks are drinking, 25 minutes is plenty. An hour is good if you are a headliner at a college and are famous. Adjust your set once you are there. What if the mood is grim and you planned all your fart haiku’s based on Eileen Myles’ Peanut Butter poem? Adjust your set, wear a watch or set your cell phone stopwatch on. NEVER ASK IF YOU CAN DO JUST ONE MORE. If there’s a standing ovation, you don’t need to ask, just do it. Have that piece planned. Never say thanks for coming out. Never say “are you still with me?” It is not your job to express yourself, and if they don’t get it, fuck ‘em. It is your job to make them know. Make them know. Some writing is for the journal and stays asleep. Some is purely for the book. Some is for the book that sounds wonderful out loud. Find those pieces and create a relationship where you are on the audience’s side. They do not need your enlightenment. They are honoring you with their time, sometimes money. Do not shit on them. Every time you do, you shit on the next 100 writers that have to fight to change their minds.

You will get hate mail from scorned writers that don’t realize that your position of power as a publisher is miniscule. They will think you have all the cards and aren’t being fair. Let them go on. When sending rejection letters, make suggestions for where else you appreciate as a press.

For us we have a mission: We know most folks think poetry is a drag and we are determined, as long as our family of authors have the energy to keep going, to change an audience’s minds and let them know that a great line of poetry is a bullet and a novel is a slow strangle.

When you get distribution, you will need to put around 100 of each title in stock, more for the hot titles. Get that money ready ahead of time if all your records for growth in 3 years looks right on.

We were asked to make ebooks. Ebooks are only 10 percent of our profit. Poetry is different. People want to smell poetry books and rub them on their butts. They want to crack them, dog ear, and rip apart and put them onto their bulletin boards. This is beautiful.

Amazon is a beast. But the public loves it. We link all our titles to only Powells.com, but most our sales still come from Amazon. They have a new rule where if your distributor runs out of stock, they will reject orders. Keep your stock hot and up to date. Strange things will occur where you didn’t know you were out of stock because a book store snatched up a load suddenly. You will be playing constant chess regarding having some money, needing to buy book stock, and not having the actual money for 6 months. Hopefully you have a financial wizard on your team. Or a real wizard made of grits.

Why am I still making books after ten years of struggle and unforeseen obstacles? Why are any of us in the indie lit world pushing up against the behemoth of the mainstream publishers? Is it a war? Is it a winnable war? Is it a war worth winning? I think we have a little something extra. For us we have a mission: We know most folks think poetry is a drag, and we are determined, as long as our family of authors have the energy to keep going, to change an audience’s minds and let them know that a great line of poetry is a bullet and a novel is a slow strangle. To show them the evidence that poetry is working class. Poetry is the future of lit. Its power is becoming common and greater. I can feel it.

swiss_derrick_061109DERRICK C. BROWN is the winner of the 2013 Texas Book of The Year award for Poetry. He is a former paratrooper for the 82nd Airborne and is the president of one of what Forbes and Filter Magazine call “…one of the best independent presses in the country,” Write Bloody Publishing. He is the author of four books of poetry. The New York Times calls his work “…a rekindling of faith in the weird, hilarious, shocking, beautiful power of words.”

Word from the Editor

I knew that being the editor of Lunch Ticket would require filling some pretty big shoes, but it wasn’t until I was directing the journal that I fully understood the extent of what that implied: it wasn’t just a matter of successfully leading a staff of almost 40 volunteers, but of building upon what the editor before me had established. The goal of that structure, though, wasn’t just to stitch together various pieces of writing and art that we thought were good, and call it our latest issue. The goal of that structure was to curate a publication that mattered.

But who am I to say what matters? And who are we to say that our publication matters? Well, that’s a great question. But hear me out, and then decide for yourself—because that, I think, is the point.

As it is affiliated with Antioch University Los Angeles, Lunch Ticket has a social justice-oriented mission. Accordingly, we seek to publish work that pushes this agenda. But how does a piece do that?

Pieces that are social justice-minded show a capacity for the moral imagination. That doesn’t mean it has to be sugar and rainbows—in fact, it tends to be the opposite: they ask the hard questions; they look issues squarely in the eye that people generally shy away from; and they tell the reader that they now have to make a conscious choice. The reader, once the piece has been put down, has been made aware of things through a point of view not necessarily their own, and must take newfound responsibility for the way they act in relation to all others. These pieces are simply trying to make sense of the world, but they do so in a way that reveals something about the state of humanity that forces us to make a choice about it, whether personal or extra-personal, because we find that it isn’t necessarily the world itself that has to be made sense of but the people inhabiting it. And as such the effects of that choice ripple outwards. These pieces close the gap between what is you and what is not you; and in so doing, their purposes pass from simply invoking feeling to having true meaning.

Therefore, I think it matters what a piece of art, in general, has to say. The pieces in this issue, then, as with all others, aren’t just shouting into a void or adding to the noise: people are listening. And I think they listen more carefully than we give them credit for.

David Bumpus

How to Make Your Family Proud

In the past couple years, I’ve written essays about writing bondage erotica at the age of thirteen, suffering from bipolar II, and idly standing by while my Nazi cousin nearly killed a man for being black. Once, I wrote an essay on bisexuality in which I was tied to a bed having trouble climaxing while being attended to by a man, trying to prove to myself that I could just be gay, but the problem was that I only could finish when I thought about Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In other words, I write about the kinds of things parents love to read about their children.

Long before I was a writer, editor and teacher, I was a grad student in political science and a lackey for the Democratic Party. I was going to singlehandedly save the world, if I could, because it was the Bush years, the world was in apocalyptic shape, and I’d watched way too many superhero movies.

While working for a congresswoman, it was beat into me that everything I did in my life was a reflection on her. Every story we told and every action we took had to be approved of in writing by her Chief of Staff. It all had to be a part of a carefully orchestrated campaign to shape an image.

As part of the job, I met some soldiers and Marines coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injury. I saw men with dents in the sides of their skulls, missing limbs and eyes and ears, so angry—and justifiably so—that I was sometimes afraid to be in the room with them, who kept asking me to help them, to fix this. Men who really didn’t know what to ask for because what they wanted—for this never to have happened—was impossible

I quit that job to go to grad school in upstate New York, but those stories stayed with me. I hid from the Syracuse snow in an old bomb shelter they’d turned into student offices, torturing regression analyses to show how America uses war to get each new generation involved in civic engagement—how we have gotten to a point where we need war to survive as a polity. It may or may not have been true, but I was doing this not to get to any sort of scientific truth but to craft compelling propaganda.

One May, I climbed out of the bomb shelter to take a week-long creative nonfiction course with a writer named Minnie Bruce Pratt. The first day, she laid out our project: we were to write, and we were to write honestly. She told us stories from her history: in the 1970s and 1980s, in a time when same-sex love could land you in jail and cost you custody of your children, she was leading lesbian-themed poetry readings that galvanized communities everywhere from New York to the deep south. In many places, these readings were not embraced by the authorities.

Can you imagine police breaking up a poetry reading?

She also told us to remember something else: everything we put on paper has the potential to be read by someone, has the potential to be read by the wrong someone, and this could have dire and real consequences for our lives.

This was the power of the personal narrative, I realized. It can create and mold and heal, and it can destroy.

I quit politics and started studying creative writing.

I sent my mother the essay about bisexuality before it was published. I was not expecting it to be well received. I told her she wouldn’t want to read it. She wanted to read it, she said. When I saw her response in my inbox, I turned off my computer and spent an hour stress-eating Cheez-Its. I was expecting a lecture on how I was ruining my job prospects, how I might be ruining my future, how I should’ve taken the job offer the congresswoman had given me rather than saying fuck it and paying to go to graduate school.

But she wrote back this instead:

“Seth, this is wonderful, powerful work. Mainly, I have this mix of being proud of your courage and sad that you have had to suffer… Our brains just need to get better and bigger to enlarge the either/or to AND. ”

I’d been terrified to send this to her, expecting smallness out of her, expecting the worst. Instead, I got the best sort of wisdom. Instead, I got the best reason I’d ever heard for writing about the most intimate details of our lives.

A few days later, when it was published on the Internet, I heard from nearly 1000 people, all saying “Thank you for telling this story. No one is telling my story. I feel like maybe now I can tell my story.”

And that, quite possibly, is the thing I’m most proud of in the world.

One of the men on the Traumatic Brain Injury Unit, Lance Corporal Jason Poole, once said to me:

“I walk around, and a whole bunch of strangers are just staring at me. Because I look like a war. My face is all scarred up, you know? Scars all over my body. So this stranger, he’ll look at me, he’ll look forward, then he looks at me again. ‘Sorry,’ and then he walks on. But he’s thinking, ‘I wonder what happened to his face?’ … But I’m a very open person, so if anybody is just like, ‘Hey, what’s wrong? What happened to your face?’ you know. I would love to tell them.”

Jason is way ahead of most of us because he’s an inspiration, but also because he has to be. Most of us walk around telling sanitized versions of our lives because no one can see our scars. Every human I’ve ever met has manipulated their image in order to succeed and survive. We have to. I’m not about to mention my bipolar disorder in a job interview. My essays have cost me clients, and some day they may cost me more than that. Some people can’t tell their stories honestly because it could cost them their lives, careers or children, which is why this has to be a choice that each of us makes for ourselves. But I also think sometimes, we’re more afraid than we need to be. Often, though not always, we will find that the world is much kinder to us than we would expect, that it will move to fit our truth once we tell it, because we are making it safer for other people around us to tell the truth, too.

SethSeth Fischer’s writing has appeared in Best Sex Writing 2013, Buzzfeed, Pank, Guernica, and elsewhere. His essay “Notes From a Unicorn” was named a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2013. He is a contributor and former editor at The Rumpus. He teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles and Writing Workshops Los Angeles and is a Jentel Arts Residency Program fellow. You can find more of his work at www.seth-fischer.com.

My Hilarious Depression

I like to tell people—uncomfortably early in the conversation—how I’ve had three times more therapists than lovers. When someone asks me why I stopped responding to email communication for two weeks, or why I disappeared from Facebook for three months, I might say that I was busy weeping under my desk while curled up in the fetal position. I tell people that I can’t go out on Wednesday because I’m scheduling that night to bathe in a tub full of gin and self-loathing. Or that I can’t go out to lunch because I’d like to dwell on the accumulation of my failures. I can’t make it to the party on Friday night because I am too upset about being uslideshow-morbid-mix-tapenable to masturbate due to an overwhelming sensation of self-disgust.

There are some exaggerations here. I occasionally just go for a cheap laugh at my pathetic persona’s expense. But every one of those excuses stems from a truth about an emotion that I know well.

Depression wasn’t initially so amusing to me. It used to be that everything I wrote or said about the subject was oozing with melodrama. Poor, poor me. I took myself and my mood so damn seriously. (I have a notebook full of failed essays and stories that start with the actual line: “I’m so damn depressed.”)

It’s tricky to navigate this terrain. Depression can be dangerous. It merits serious attention and often requires outside support. Even if you don’t go through bouts of suicidal tendencies or rate highly on the spectrum of clinical depression or get into a destructive habit like self-mutilation, it can still eat into your body and soul, cloud your view of the world. It distorts. It destroys friendships and relationships. It weighs on your shoulders, day and night.

There was a time when I spent afternoons curled under my desk crying. I would brood over arguments I had with my father ten years prior. I re-enacted every trivial scene in my day, thinking how stupid everything I said was. Even an unmemorable, awkward moment with a cashier at the grocery store could crush me. And, like the main character in my first novel, I secretly cut myself on my waist and arm and ass while brooding about what a failure in life I was (even though I was successfully making my way through an engineering degree while hanging out with a group of fabulous friends).

With the help of a series of therapists and a few phases of anti-depressant medication (one of which caused nightly dreams of tarantulas crawling on my crotch, but made me happy enough at the time to feel that it was worth the spiders), I’ve gotten a glimpse of what it feels like to live as a non-depressed person.

It is fabulous. It is clean. It is easy. I never knew it was possible to walk around with so little dread and self-hatred. I never knew it was legal not to be paralyzed by a sense of failure. I used to assume that any person of depth spent most of their time disgusted with who they were, and only fools could walk around feeling okay about themselves. I figured it was the price of living a non-superficial life. And so I was uneasy with that feeling of easiness. Like the last moments of drunken joy before a hangover too severe to Advil away. But it turned out there weren’t any repercussions. I don’t walk around all day in this illegally easy state, but I’m happy not to hate myself most of the time.

slideshow-nearly-competent-workI’ve also grown a new appreciation for my depressed state. It’s heavy and horrible, but there is also a sort of gravity in there that adds a level of reflection and poignancy to life that I might have missed in a simpler, happier state. There’s something in there that I can carry into my healthy life. Now when I look up at the sky and take a breath and think that it’s a beautiful day, I’m also aware that there are moments when I (or another person) can’t imagine what the stupid fucking sky has to do with beautiful. There are moments when the idea of something beautiful seems impossible and greedy and disgusting. This awareness makes the beauty at that moment seem so much more potent. And fragile.

There’s a silly bit of dialogue in the movie Rushmore between the fifteen-year-old Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) and the older Herman Blume (Bill Murray) that I can’t stop thinking about whenever I talk about going through a difficult experience:

Max Fischer: So you were in Vietnam?

Herman Blume: Yeah.

Max Fischer: Were you in the shit?

Herman Blume: Yeah, I was in the shit.

It’s that quick use of the phrase “in the shit” that I love, a connection between these two about a traumatic experience that occurred to Herman long before Max was even born. In one way, it’s funny because of course this child doesn’t understand the experience of a soldier who fought in a war. But I also like this moment because maybe he does understand it. Maybe this kid had his own war already.

I think about all the amazing creative people that I know. Almost all of them were in the shit. Sometimes, it was an actual war. Other times, it was depression. Or abuse. Or addiction. Or dealing with being gay in a hostile environment. Or divorce. Or grief. Or having to sit through the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy on video. Being in the shit often delivers (along with the shit) some wisdom.

I talk about transforming my depression state into a productive writing state in this short video I made last year for my “I’m a Failed Writer” series.

I learned this other thing about depression: it is pretty damn funny.

Without trying to conjure up a great philosopher, there’s an absurdity to our existence. Depression can accentuate that absurdity. It can push life close enough to the edge of the cliff to make the whole proposition of existence seem crazy. And why not be amused by that?

You can’t tell me it isn’t a little funny that in my college years, during my weekend visits to my girlfriend’s place, I would cry on Friday night because I was depressed about it being so close to Monday. Some weekends I destroyed every single minute of the visit. Sad. Pathetic. But funny, a little bit…?

slideshow-martini-drinkingIt took some time to learn where the humor was in all of this. It started by reading my early stories aloud in a writing group. I was still writing mostly melodramatic autobiographical stories, but I noticed that the other writers were laughing when my main character (usually named Yuvi) kept worrying and brooding and obsessing in destructive ways. My first instinct was to be offended. Why is it so funny that my main character wants to hide in the closet with his girlfriend and cry about his feelings all day? Who wouldn’t want to do that? But over time, I started to see the humor in it myself. And so I intentionally tried to walk a line that would be keep the story funny, but also have a touch of poignancy and humility in there.

Even if my humor is an attempt to point out the ridiculousness of some depression-induced behaviors, I think I also try to simultaneously pay tribute to that state of existence. I want to light a candle to the experience, to the people going through such heaviness. In the midst of being in that state, it is hard to imagine that any other feeling can exist. But if we get to the other side, we can discover something remarkable we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

I discovered a type of humor that allows me to expose my fears and weaknesses and mood problems in a way that gives me such a relief.

Though it also doesn’t hurt that I really really like my latest therapists. All three of them.

Yuvi Zalkow

Yuvi Zalkow is the author of A BRILLIANT NOVEL IN THE WORKS and is the creator of the “I’m a Failed Writer” online video series. Yuvi has an MFA from Antioch and his stories have been featured in Glimmer Train, Narrative Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, Carve Magazine, and others. He is currently failing his way through another novel. For more information, check out http://yuvizalkow.com.

Word From the Editor

I was privileged to take over editorship of Lunch Ticket after the first issue. I’ve worked at other publications, but this was my first venture into literary publishing. I’d like to thank each and every person who has ever contributed to this publication, and to the hundreds of others like it. Even if your work is not published, you are providing a service that you may not even know about. You’ve taught me what really matters when publishing a literary journal.

I don’t care about your credentials or your connections or your alma mater. What matters to me is the story. Too many writers are afraid of offending. Afraid of bad words, negative emotions, family secrets, public opinion. But those writers who don’t want to make their characters ugly or stupid or stubborn won’t go on to write great works.

David Foster Wallace wrote “…writing fiction becomes a way to go deep inside yourself and illuminate precisely the stuff you don’t want to see or let anyone else see, and this stuff turns out (paradoxically) to be precisely the stuff all writers and readers everywhere share and respond to, feel. Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likeable.” (Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, p. 191)

Anna Karenina was vain and foolish, and we love her because we can be that way too, sometimes. Achilles had anger management issues, but we never tire of him. Even The Little Prince was a bit of a dictator with his demands for sheep, but he was beautiful.

Our featured essayist, Yuvi Zalkow, lets us know that even our darkest moments are worth examining and mining for material. We are also proud to announce our very first winner of the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction, Josie Scanlan, whose essay “Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation” does not shy away from pain and anger.

Ultimately, what negativity offers the reader is the chance for redemption. These characters changed their lives: you can too. These characters paid the ultimate price: learn from their mistake. These characters never saw it coming, but you’re smarter than that, aren’t you?

If you’re reading Lunch Ticket, you are, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Tribute to Diana Woods

Diana Woods

Diana Woods

I first knew Diana Woods as a fiction student in the Antioch MFA program.  Though I primarily teach creative nonfiction, she was assigned to my workshop two years ago during a genre jump into creative nonfiction.  She was just recovering from a round a chemo then and came to class with a different, brightly colored cap each day, along with a deep desire to learn and an unquenchable zest for life.

After she graduated, she contacted me to see if she might join my bi-monthly writer’s group.  At first, she worked on a speculative novel set in the future.  But when she veered from that work and brought in an essay on her experience with ovarian cancer, all members of the group perked up.  In that more personal work, Diana’s voice had become stronger than we’d previously experienced it and we encouraged her in that direction.  She wrote a good few essays on related subjects:  preparing to leave her children, how she’d try to contact (but not haunt) her daughter Rani after her passing, about the difficulties obtaining edible pot goodies to fend of the effect of chemo, and of the challenges she faced on a daily basis.  Not once in all the writing she did on that subject did she come anywhere near the abyss of self-pity.  She just did what the best artists do: reported honestly from the borderland she was experiencing.  Near the end of her life, she was often accompanied to the group’s meeting by Rani, or would ask a member of the group to read her work aloud since she no longer had the strength to do so herself.

After Rani read them aloud, each writer told Rani how much Diana meant to them and how she had shaped and encouraged them. Rani took in all the words of love and sympathy, and when the warm sentiment was finished said, “Yes, but she’ll kill me if I don’t come home with edits!”

The last time we critiqued her work, just a few weeks before her death, her daughter came alone with Diana’s pages.  After Rani read them aloud, each writer told Rani how much Diana meant to them and how she had shaped and encouraged them.  Rani took in all the words of love and sympathy, and when the warm sentiment was finished said, “Yes, but she’ll kill me if I don’t come home with edits!”  Diana wanted to hone her skill as a writer to the very end.  We gave Rani those edits and that essay appeared two days later (with our edits reflected in it) in The Nervous Breakdown, titled Hospice 101.

How she did that, lying on her deathbed, continues to amaze me.   Diana is an example of what it means to be an artist in this world and I am honored, as the entire Antioch community is, to have known her and shared a portion of this life journey with her.

Bernadette Murphy has published three books of narrative nonfiction, including the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting. She recently completed a first novel, Grace Notes, and is at work on a nonfiction book about women and motorcycling: Don’t Call Me Biker Chick: Embracing a Love Affair with Risk. She teaches creative writing at the Antioch University Los Angeles MFA program, is the mother of three nearly adult children and makes her home in Los Angeles.

Feet in the Sand

Diana Woods in Kona, photo: Rani Woods

The heat swells up from the boardwalk as I descend from the second floor open-air restaurant in Kona on the Big Island. Only a block away the ocean slaps onto the shore within the breakwater surrounding the cove. I grip onto one side of the iron railing, moving one hand over the other as I lower each leg and place my foot carefully in the center of each wooden slat. I’d gorged myself on filet mignon and baked potato, and gurgling noises rumble up through my belly. Sweat pools in the hollow of my collarbone. My daughter Rani and her partner Sonia gallop past, taking two steps at a time. My frizzy-haired grandson Ben bumps into my hip as he sprints behind in their wake.

For years, I’d taken Ben out to parks and movies twice a month, but since my treatment for ovarian cancer began two years ago I’d stopped driving and left home only for clinic appointments. I’d lost most of my hair, and other than my grotesque, swollen belly, the rest of my body had shriveled. When my son Brian and his wife Emily brought Ben over to visit, he stared at me with his blue-grey eyes as if I were a villain from the anime books I used to buy him. I imagined him thinking, Where did grandma go?

Now halfway down the stairs I hear a man’s voice. “Need an arm?” he asks.

With no thought as to what kind of man he might be or even a glance at his face, I wrap my skinny arm around his bicep. He crushes my elbow against his chest and slows his pace.

I shake my head. So far, I’m doing okay. If I need help, I’ll holler at my children. I try to be independent so they won’t worry about leaving me alone as they snorkel and hike. But when I glimpse the stranger’s crooked arm, muscles bulging, tanned and glistening, waiting for me to latch on, something snaps inside me. With no thought as to what kind of man he might be or even a glance at his face, I wrap my skinny arm around his bicep. He crushes my elbow against his chest and slows his pace. I look down at the stairs to avoid tripping us both. At the age of seventy-one, with baggy shorts slipping down over my swollen belly, I am no Cinderella prancing down a winding staircase. My sprigs of damp hair are plastered onto my skull. My breasts have shriveled to prunes. My belly button stands out like a coat hook, and my hips are flat as a wooden plank. With chemotherapy infusions every three weeks, I feel barely alive. But holding his arm for a moment makes me feel like a young woman again.

When we reach ground level, I turn to face him. He isn’t young, but not yet old. His eyes sparkle like brown crystals. His hair is the color of straw. I see stubble on his chin and wiry hairs poke out from the neck of his flowered shirt. With one hand pulling up my drooping shorts, I thank him. Then he turns to leave. I can’t remember for sure but we may have exchanged a few words. Perhaps he asked where I was staying on the island. Or I volunteered that information. Was it only my imagination?

As an old woman who has been through four husbands and so many lovers that I can’t recollect their names, my memories are jumbled. The faces and bodies of my lovers blend together like a crossword puzzle. At times I seem to be living parallel lives, everything in my past occurring side-by-side. Yesterday and today, one and the same.

My children would never understand. Why him? You have us. How could I explain? Once a rational person, my mind now rambles between decades. I can’t trust myself to know the day or the year. What seems like reality rapidly dissolves into fantasy. My son Brian has plenty of fat and muscle and would gladly give me his arm if I asked. But there’s something humiliating about clinging onto your children. Once a mother in charge, now an aimless old woman. Although there’s so much that I can’t do for myself, I yearn to be independent. Why burden Brian if I can cope? He has his own family to worry about. On this, the 15th anniversary of his marriage in Kona, Emily will want his attention.

“What are you doing?” my 26-year-old daughter Rani asks, grabbing my hand. I’d adopted her from Calcutta, India and raised her from the age of three months. Now, she cooks my meals, changes my bedding, drives me to my clinic appointments and quizzes the doctors. She’s learned about blood counts, fentanyl patch dosing, and the side effects of chemotherapy. “I may be overestimating myself,” she recently told me, “but I don’t think you’d be around today if I hadn’t been taking care of you.”

If I tell her why I’d grabbed onto the stranger’s arm, she’d think I was loony. Romantic thoughts and gestures are for the young, not old feeble women like me. When I close my eyes at night, I dream about having a lover, but she wouldn’t want to know. When I’d tried to tell her my love stories of the past, she raised her chin high and her eyes opened wide. “I don’t want to hear about your promiscuity,” she said.

“It was different back in the 60s and 70s.”

“I know…just don’t tell me what you did.”

“Okay. If that’s what you want.”

“Mom, I’m not judging you.”

“Promiscuity isn’t a nice word,” I said.

She patted my arm. “I didn’t mean it that way.”

Someday she’ll find out that a passionate young woman lingers behind a crumpled face. The hope to relive moments of lust and love never dies. My body ages and decays but my emotions are those of a sixteen-year-old.

Rani’s partner Sonia recently gave up her apartment to move in with us. The gals like to travel and eat out at restaurants. Now they’re learning how much time, effort and money are required to keep up a home and yard. They bicker over the daily routines-cooking, cleaning, budgeting, feeding of the dogs and cat—all the things I used to do. And even though I’m useless, I’m persnickety about how things get done. We’ve agreed on a housekeeper who comes in to clean twice a month, but there’s still more. The gals need this vacation to forget about chores and have fun together. They’re both athletic and adventurous. With kayaking, snorkeling, surfing, and hiking, they’ll be busy.

My children planned this Hawaii vacation thinking it would be my last chance to travel, a time for us to create memories that will survive after my departure. They pushed my wheelchair through the airport and helped me pre-board the plane. Carried my luggage. On most days we gather together for breakfast and dinner. I don’t tell them how much my body aches inside and how difficult it is to take care of myself away from home. My skin itches and burns from the chemotherapy: no direct sunlight or I’ll blister. I have an open line into a blood vessel in my upper right arm for chemotherapy infusions and can’t leap into the ocean. Other than shop and eat, there’s not much I can do on an island. I’m envious of all the people with young, healthy bodies who swim with the dolphins and the manta rays, and the elders who walk around in swim suits, oblivious to how quickly their years are passing.

I’m alone in my hotel room furnished with two queen beds and a large-screen television. I sleep on the bed nearest the bathroom, exactly fourteen steps from the toilet, but there are times when I don’t make it. The housekeepers don’t complain when I ask for extra linens and to have my bedding changed daily. Back on the second day, a housekeeper declined to enter until I’d left for lunch. Later that afternoon, her supervisor appeared and talked as she worked.

“Cancer,” she said, “I know about that. My mother died only two years back. The doctors treated her fractured hip but didn’t discover the colon cancer until too late. She died within weeks of her diagnosis. Here on the island, they didn’t have the services we needed.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, nodding my head. Her mother may have been fortunate to have passed quickly. On some nights, I hope to die in my sleep. It’s not the dying I’m afraid of, only the pain, and there’s been too much of that in chemotherapy.

I return from dinner that evening to find a box of chocolates next to the big screen and a get-well card signed by a dozen people I may not have seen. Everyday, a different housekeeper. Who should I thank? Most go about their business with little conversation but others notice my discomfort and offer kind words. One woman took my hand and prayed. Although I’m not a believer, I felt less alone that afternoon.

Once I awoke from a nap to find two large gray birds and a smaller redheaded one feasting on the saltine cracker crumbs that I’d dropped onto the carpet. My three visitors returned everyday through the open balcony door. I tried to snap a photograph but wasn’t quick enough. The two larger birds flew across the courtyard and perched on the roof of a six-story building. I struggled to lift my head off the pillow.

On the day my family plans a six-mile hike, my daughter-in-law Emily decides to stay back and spend time with me. We wander into the tourist shops and lick the edges of chocolate mint ice cream cones.  When I notice a bead shop, I remember reading that the earth’s energy and healing powers are encapsulated within precious rocks and stones. Perhaps these jewels will help me connect with the spirits of the earth and make my transition easier. Emily, who knows how to make jewelry, walks eagerly into the store. We browse the drawers and trays of glass, ceramic, and wooden beads. The precious gems and crystals are strung on nylon strands and dangle from overhead bars. I purchase a string of turquoise stones to dispel negative energy. I also pick out a strand of small, round shell beads to keep my vision of the shoreline when I prepare to close my eyes for the final time.

“We’re lucky” Emily says. “Some of these beads—well, we won’t find them anywhere else.”

That night we huddle in front of the television in my room to watch the spectacular swimming and gymnastics feats taking place in London at the opening of the Summer Olympics. I’m not the only one who envies all those sleek and muscular bodies. We picture ourselves as young forever and the world full of possibilities, but after training for so many years and winning the gold, what’s left? How will these athletes be able to accept the cycle of aging and decline? Their muscles will turn to flab and their name soon be forgotten. Will they find new purpose and meaning? Everyone has challenges, many as great or greater than mine.

After everyone leaves, and I’m drifting off to sleep, I hear a voice beckoning me from my room. Perhaps that stranger on the stairway or someone from my past. I can’t be sure. I hear the waves rippling up into the sandy cove, the luau dancers stomping their feet with the beat of the drums, and the laughter of the couples drinking at the poolside bar. In the morning when I awake to the crying of the gulls, do I only imagine the wet sand on my sneakers?

The next day, my family takes me to visit the Place of Refuge at the Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National Park. Tall majestic palms surround the temple complex that sits on a 20-acre finger of lava jutting out into the ocean. We stroll within the treacherous, rocky cove where vanquished warriors and those who broke the kapus set out by the chiefs once swam or kayaked across a bay known as the shark’s den to reach a place where they could be forgiven. I could almost hear the moans of those who drowned or were killed before reaching safety.

At the time of my son’s wedding, fifteen years earlier, I visited this sacred place where life began anew. Back then I remember hearing the spirits of the earth talking to me. The voices of the dead had seemed ready to welcome me, but I wasn’t ready.

Today, in the hot, humid weather, my family wears shorts and t-shirts. I cover my pale, fragile skin with a sweatshirt. The sun makes me dizzy, and I reach for Rani’s warm hand. We stroll beside the great volcanic rock wall that once separated the commoners from the royalty and venture out onto the rocky shoreline where the surf bubbles up over the edges of stones in front of the grass- and cane-matted Hale o Keane temple housing the bones of twenty-three noble chiefs. Rani snaps a photograph of me standing between two ki`i statues guarding one side of the temple. Their huge blade-like teeth are bared and their eyes stare out over the foamy sea. For centuries their glistening lava bodies have withstood the sun, wind, rain and surf. I dig my feet into the sand beside them.

Diana Woods, who has since transitioned, exuded unwavering intellectual curiosity, pursuing and receiving secondary degrees in law, social work, political science, and most recently,  creative writing. She received her MFA from Antioch University at the age of 70 this past December.  She was regularly published throughout this calendar year, and has publications dating back to 2004.

Word From the Editor

We’ve just come through a contentious election, and regardless of your pick on election day, the election process asked people to examine their beliefs and make choices accordingly. Our lives are full of choices from the second we get up in the morning and have to decide what to wear until the minute we decide to turn off the light at the end of the day.

We can spend years of our lives dissecting, re-living, regretting or celebrating some decisions. We may make the same decisions over and over or come to be defined by some decisions – a UCLA alum, a struggling day trader, a heroin addict, an expatriate.

Jillian Lauren, writer, performer and subject of our featured interview, presents her life in her memoir Some Girls without any of the angsty, blame-ridden “what if” one might expect from a woman whose choices are the stuff of cautionary tales.

…we knew that on the one end are our authors whose hearts and souls went into the words you’ll read on Lunch Ticket, and on the other end are our readers who deserve to have their horizons broadened and their minds expanded.

Diana Woods, author of our featured essay, similarly skipped the self-recriminations as she relates her life with cancer. At the end of life, many people look back and regret choices made or not made, actions taken or not taken, but Woods managed to look back with less regret and more compassion for herself and her life. Unfortunately, Ms. Woods did not live to see her piece published in Lunch Ticket, but her family has established the Diana Woods Award for Creative Writing to be awarded to an outstanding entrant in creative nonfiction. Keep an eye on the Lunch Ticket website for more details about the award and how to enter.

The Lunch Ticket staff has had to make some tough choices. We’ve made decisions about the look and feel of the magazine that will premier in future issues, and we’ve had some lively discussions about what constitutes exceptional art and literature.  Even though history will probably not be made by any of our decisions, we knew that on the one end are our authors whose hearts and souls went into the words you’ll read on Lunch Ticket, and on the other end are our readers who deserve to have their horizons broadened and their minds expanded. We took our responsibility seriously, and we hope that it shows with the outstanding literature and art we’ve put together in this issue.

Fiction and Social Responsibility: Where Do They Intersect?

Abandoned Breakfast, Lance Nizami

Abandoned Breakfast, Lance Nizami

I recently attended the Third International Conference on Genocide, where I presented a paper on the rights and responsibilities of cultural appropriation. I wrote the paper because, having penned a novel from the point of view of a young Tutsi boy coming of age in the time surrounding the Rwandan genocide, it is a topic with which I frequently wrestle. During the Q&A, a Rwandan man raised his hand. “Don’t you feel silly,” he asked, “writing fiction about the Rwandan Genocide?”

After my initial shock and a few clarifying words, I realized that the question was not, as I had first thought, flippant but rather a query into the nature of fiction itself and into its ability to engage an event so vast and unspeakable as genocide. I realized, too, that for me, it was actually a conflation of the two central questions that define my writing. Why do I write about social justice? And, given that I am driven to address these issues, why indeed do I use fiction to address them?

­­­Perhaps the answer to both these questions is that in my case, neither of them is a choice. I have written fiction since I was a young child; fiction is in large part the way I organize the confusion of this world in order to make sense of it. I was also raised in an environment that cultivated concern for issues of social responsibility. For me to conflate the two was therefore instinctive and reflexive. I cut my novelistic eyeteeth on the literature of social responsibility—it was much of what my parents gave me to read—so when I began to write as an adult, I naturally gravitated toward similar subjects. Until the gentleman from Rwanda called this conflation into question, I had never given it much thought.

One cannot talk about about the literature of social justice without speaking of social responsibility. The term “social responsibility” means that the awareness of social injustice, from the local to the global, necessitates specific actions to combat those injustices. In other words, social responsibility and social activism are inextricably intertwined; once aware of the injustice, one is morally obliged to act. Taking the logic one step further, fiction, in my case, becomes a form of social activism; it is one of the primary weapons I have chosen as a means to fight injustice.

The relationship between fiction writers and social responsibility is a long one. It began with Don Quixote when he became a knight-errant and set off on his quest to “right all manner of wrongs.” It continued with Dickens and Jane Austen, with Elie Wiesel, Chinua Achebe, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Isabel Allende, J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. It continues today with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Shahriar Mandanipour, Shahrnush Parsipur and Orhan Pamuk. Social responsibility fuels passion, and passion fuels great writing. What would this world have lost if the great writers of social justice had not chosen to change the world through the written word and specifically through the art of fiction? Many of those writers live or lived in a place where speaking out in public is forbidden. By couching their message in allegory, they could slip their protests into the world.

Writers, to be sure, are not safe from imprisonment, torture and death. Oppressive governments are well aware of the power of the book. Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian activist and writer, was hanged for his social activism against the government’s environmental policies. A book burning campaign was one of the first coordinated actions when the Third Reich came to power in 1933.

I am a social activist. I am also a fiction writer. Both are part of my identity as a human being, as a teacher, and as a writer. To take either one away would be like cutting off a limb, and to have one without the other would not be possible. I chose Antioch University for my MFA in large part because it is a school devoted to “a social justice perspective.”

Social justice infuses nearly all my fiction, whether directly or indirectly, and I cannot imagine what shape my stories would take if they did not in some manner address this. Issues concerning social justice are most often what first move me to put pen to paper, even if the threads of the injustice are woven into a seemingly unrelated arc. Conversely, my fiction also drives my awareness of social justice. It was the extensive research I undertook to understand the Rwandan genocide that led me to a commitment to the work of ending genocide on a global scale. It was one of the most important decisions I have made in my life, both as a writer and as a human being.

The awareness of social justice causes and the propensity to dwell inside a world of my own fictive creation have been with me since I can remember. I have been a storyteller since I knew how to speak. I was an extremely active child, and inventing stories was how my parents kept me calm and entertained. In the car, my mother and I concocted lives past, present and future for the occupants of every house we passed. At home, my father wrote illustrated stories for all my stuffed animals, and I had quite a few.

One of the first role models my mother gave me was Joan of Arc, and what I loved about her was that she was willing to give up her life to defend her beliefs. Despite my young age, it was a message that went straight to my heart and burrowed in, and it has stuck with me all these years. My mother’s choice of heroines was not accidental, even if unconscious. A refugee from the Bukovina region of Eastern Europe, she was born in a horse-drawn wagon while her parents fled WWI. Her great-grandmother, who refused to flee, was murdered with her own Shabbas candlestick. My mother and her parents settled in Zurich, and she came of age during Hitler’s rise to power. As was the case with many Jews at that time, she was active in communist youth groups and in anti-Nazi activities. When the German ambassador visited Zurich, my mother climbed on his car and ripped off the Nazi flag. Her actions did not go unnoticed—my mother had flaming red hair—and her family was threatened with deportation. My grandfather, understanding what returning to the Bukovina meant, booked immediate passage on a ship bound for Australia. They never made it beyond Canada, but that is another long tale, the result of which was my birth.

I tell my mother’s story for two reasons. The first is because I firmly believe that my own relationship with social activism was passed down to me through her DNA. She fought her way into medical school in Canada when there was a strict quota both for women and for Jews. When she married my father in 1944, she fought to retain her identity by hyphenating her last name. When my parents came to the United States, she fought her way into a professorship in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and fought for the creation of a special department in women’s studies at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. Later, after I was born, she fought for civil rights and to end the war in Vietnam. I only hope that I have become half the fighter she was.

But I also tell my mother’s story because nested in that same sequence of DNA is the need to tell stories. As I have said, the two are paired inside the double helix and cannot be unpaired. The story of Joan of Arc and the issues of justice for which she fought could not be divided in my mind, and so, when I came to understand that I had to tell the story of the Rwandan genocide, fiction was the only way I knew to tell it.

This brings us to the second part of the question, the part the gentleman from Rwanda directly addressed. Is fiction indeed an appropriate modality when dealing with atrocity and injustice on the scale of genocide, or does it somehow demean the topic? In the case of the Holocaust, this question has long been settled. During the symposia to honor the centennial celebration of the Nobel Prize, the literary symposium concentrated on the genre of  “Witness Literature.” As Michael Bachmann states in his paper, “Life, Writing, and the Problems of Genre in Elie Wiesel and Imre Kertész,” the literature of witness is “the formative genre of the 20th century.”  Today’s literary canon is replete with examples that extend witness literature to apartheid in South Africa, slavery and racism in the US, and dystopian societies that symbolize governmental injustices, to name a few.

What is it specifically about fiction that justifies its use as a weapon against social injustice on a massive scale? I believe it has to do with the empathy that the world of a novel creates. In her recent New York Times op-ed, “And the Winner Isn’t,” which addresses the failure of the fiction judges to pick a winner for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, Ann Patchett states,

“Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps.”

I believe there is a second reason that is related to the specific craft of fiction. Although one is certainly constrained by the holistic sense of facts when writing a novel meant to represent historical events—surely one does not have the freedom to reinvent that history—as a fictional accounting, the writer does have the liberty to shape those truths into a broader “story truth,” as Tim O’Brien puts it. In painting “story truth,” the writer can add a little lightness here, cast a shadow there, in order to heighten emotion and empathy, to guide the reader toward one certain picture of the world and away from another.

That I would tell the story of the Rwandan genocide through fiction was never a question for me. I returned to writing fiction, after a long hiatus, at the same time that I became involved with the local African refugee community. I returned to writing because after my father’s death, I knew it would make me feel alive again. I decided to work with the local refugee community because the Lost Boys of Sudan were much in the news, and there was a large community of refugees from Darfur in Tucson, where I live. I knew I had to do something more than wear a green wristband and send thirty dollars to the Save Darfur Coalition, as worthy as those actions might be. Through a series of serendipitous events, I ended up working with the Somali Bantu community in Tucson  as a volunteer with Jewish Family and Children’s Services. Their personal stories broke my heart and took my breath, but what stayed with me was the spirit and determination of the people. Soon, fictional stories started to grow in my mind, seeded by the experiences of these quietly courageous human beings.

I decided to focus on the Rwandan genocide when I visited Rawanda in 2002. While walking on the beach at Lake Kivu, I discovered human bones in the sand. I got down on my hands and knees and gathered some of the bones together and held them in my palms. It was a seminal moment. I realized that what I cradled were not just bones but stories. I realized, too, that if someone did not tell the stories of the bones, those stories would be lost forever. That was the moment I decided to write a novel about Rwanda.

As much as I fought that decision (who was I to tell the stories?), it would not leave my mind or my heart. Before going to Rwanda, I knew a little bit about the genocide, but not much beyond the fact that it had happened, and that a lot of people were killed. The story resonated with me because I grew up with the ghosts of the Holocaust wandering around my house. Hardly anyone in my mother’s extended family survived; her side of the family is a black hole around which a few old photographs orbit. The words never again formed the core of my mother’s being; they lit the flame of her social activism, and she passed the flame on to me.

When I came back from Rwanda and began to talk about my experiences, I realized how little people in the West knew about what had happened there. I had made friends during that first trip, and their stories had become important to me. I wanted those stories to become important to others as well. I began the long process of researching the genocide. I read every book on Rwanda I could get my hands on. I went back to Rwanda for three more extended visits, staying with Rwandans who had become my friends, interviewing survivors, standing in the sites where genocide had occurred, and listening to testimonies given during the memorial services that mark the annual April commemoration of the onset of the event. I wanted Westerners to understand that the genocide was more than a few seconds of news footage to turn away from during dinner; it was an unspeakable event that changed the lives of everyone in the country forever. Its ripples spread out across the continent, and its effects are still felt today, far beyond the borders of Rwanda.

I also wanted Westerners to understand that the genocide was not just a fight that spontaneously erupted between two tribes. It was meticulously planned and carefully orchestrated, and in the case of Rwanda, the Hutu and Tutsi are not really two separate tribes; they are one people whose imposed permanent division was largely the result of colonial intervention. I wanted Westerners to understand that genocide could happen anywhere. It could happen here, in the United States. It could happen to us.

The only way I knew to tell this story was through fiction. I needed to create characters that lived and breathed as they moved through a world in which the noose of genocide slowly tightened around their necks. I needed human beings whom the reader would come not only to believe in but also to love. I needed the reader to come to understand the insidious beast of genocide by letting those human beings I created, partly from my own imagination and partly from the melting pot of my friends and their stories, into their hearts.

As a teenager, I chose to change the world by marching and sleeping on the steps of the Pentagon, but those days for me—at least for the moment—are over. Now I fight with the word. Just as I believed then that I could reach a wide audience by adding my voice and my footsteps to the crowd, I believe now that the power of the written word will effect change. I believe that someone can read a novel and be moved to say, “There must be something I can do,” and beyond that, to do it.

The literature of social justice changes the world one reader at a time. Sometimes, the enormity of injustice can seem overwhelming. Rather than demean its scope, I believe fiction has the power to shape events so that the reader can grasp them rather than turn away. It has the power to shine a focused beam by actually deflecting it. I understood this when as a child I recreated the story of Joan of Arc in my head. My mother understood it when she first told it to me. At the time, I had no idea that the story that lay beneath the surface of this telling was of the near-annihilation of a people. Our people. But so it is with fiction. We fall in love with a world and the characters that populate it, and so, despite the unspoken horror, we keep reading.

Naomi Benaron’s debut novel Running the Rift won the 2010 Bellwether Prize for a novel addressing issues of social change. Other awards include the Sharat Chandra Prize for Fiction, the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Prize and the Joy Harjo Poetry Prize. Her fiction, poetry, and reviews appear in many print and online journals. She teaches writing online for UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and is a mentor for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.

An Alumnus Reports from the Field: Occupy The Globe

I don’t remember when I first started reading about the Occupy Wall Street Movement last year, but I do remember where.  Facebook.  People started posting about Occupy, asking why nobody was reporting on it.  At first I thought the word Occupy was code for something I didn’t understand.  Having lived outside the US for over seven years now, I’m often out of the loop when it comes to matters of pop culture.  I read the New York Timesreligiously online everyday to stay in touch with my country and the city I call my hometown, but I had not seen anything about Occupy.  Why were we not hearing about it?

If there is something I believe in more than ever after living in China for the past seven years it is the right to freedom of speech and to a free press.  When I thought the word Occupy was code for something else, my perception was also influenced by years of learning code words my Chinese friends use to get around the “Great Firewall” of internet censorship they take for granted and find creative ways to circumvent.  But, I am an American and our Constitution guarantees us the right to freedom of speech and a free press.  Why was the reporting on the Occupy movement being squelched?

The Chinese government is having a field day with this.  Just today, May 28, 2012, the China Daily, an English language newspaper published in China, printed an article saying that harsh criticism of Beijing caters to needs of the US election, and it took a jab at Washington’s annual report on China’s human rights, saying that the US government’s crackdown on protesters in the Occupy Wall Street demonstration is the real illustration of American democracy and denial of free speech.  In a report, Beijing demanded the US stop its double standards, saying the US turned a blind eye to its own woeful human rights situation and remained silent about it, using the lack of reporting on the Occupy Wall Street Movement as the prime example of this.  In other words, who are we to judge?

Another thing I believe in more than ever after living in China is capitalism.  It’s very hard to be judgmental about capitalism and the global economy when you have observed how capitalism can help people pull themselves out of poverty.  As someone who grew up with nothing, who went home from school everyday wondering if my family was going to be evicted from yet another ratty house or apartment my parents were renting, I understand the scrabbling and scraping that survival entails.  I also know what it feels like to pull yourself out of meager circumstances, along with the help of others, and I know what it feels like when you have enough money in your pocket for the first time not only for your basic needs, but for your future as well.  I lived through this as a child and young adult and I lived through it again teaching young Chinese people how to open up their own small businesses.

The Chinese people I know don’t have time to be concerned with the Occupy Movement.  They are too busy trying to scrabble and survive and too busy working to spend the time it takes to navigate around the layers of censorship the Chinese government has cloaked around the word “occupy” on the internet.  The notion of the Occupy Movement is in the ether, though, and if the government can’t keep artificially propping up the economy and the phenomenal growth rates continue to slow down, the reason for the government’s existence—preventing luan (chaos)—will be called into question.  There are no secrets in China and once people have time on their hands because the work has dried up and word gets out about Occupy I will be watching to see how long some semblance of an Occupy Movement can be sustained in China, if at all.

I will also be watching to see if the Occupy Movement can be sustained in the USA or in the rest of the world for that matter.  The idea of leaderless, nonviolent resistance is a beautiful thing.  But like all ideas, the execution is where success or failure happens and so far, in the execution of the Occupy Movement, I think that the lack of solid leadership has been a detriment.  I believe in this movement, believe in the power of nonviolent resistance and would like nothing more than to see a sustained global solidarity complimenting a sustained global economy.

My world is wider now from having lived abroad and I believe in the power of joining hands across continents to accomplish great things.  My deepest hope is that the Occupy Movement figures out how to move forward and finds leaders who can help it grow and mature and move forward.  With the mess the world is in now, the Occupy Movement is more necessary than ever.

Welcome to Lunch Ticket

Since 2003 I’ve had the privilege of directing an MFA in creative writing program that is like no other, a program dedicated not only the education of literary artists but to community engagement and the pursuit of social justice—a program that stresses not only the refinement of craft and artistic vision but the rights and responsibilities of writers in the many communities in which we live and work. Teaching in this kind of program is a genuine joy. Our students choose Antioch University Los Angeles because they know, whether consciously or instinctively, that creative writing is more than mere self-expression—that the act of writing creatively necessarily includes engagement with others, with differences, with the problems and issues that writers and those we write about must face each day as social beings.

For all its distinctive and innovative features, until now the MFA Program has always lacked one important element:  an ambitious literary journal dedicated to publishing the very best literary writing available, written by anyone, anywhere, on any subject. I’m delighted to announce that void is now filled by AULA’s new online literary journal:  Lunch Ticket.

In addition to publishing the best fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, writing for young people and visual art that its editors can find, Lunch Ticket will include interviews with established writers such as Rick Moody, Natasha Trethewey, Francesca Lia Block, Susan Orlean, and Aimee Bender, as well as essays on topics that reflect the MFA Program’s special emphasis on community engagement and the pursuit of social justice, such as “Fiction and Social Responsibility” by Bellwether Prize winner Naomi Benaron, which kicks off this premier issue. Lunch Ticket is edited by selected MFA students who are supervised by MFA Core Faculty and Staff and advised by a select group of MFA alumni who live and write in places as diverse as Paris, France, Vancouver, Canada, Bologna, Italy, the Hawaiian island of Kaua`i, and a sprinkling of communities across the mainland USA.

Lunch Ticket has been in development since 2005, when its name was chosen by MFA students, some of whom now serve on the MFA Alumni Lunch Ticket Advisory Board. The name Lunch Ticket pays homage to the MFA Program’s and Antioch University’s historic focus on issues that affect the working class and underserved or underrepresented communities.

The combination of student editors and faculty mentors is no accident. Back in 1980 when I was an MFA student at Bowling Green State University I had the opportunity to conceive, design, propose, and ultimately help edit a new literary journal called Mid-American Review. The idea was to make this new journal “the face” of an already well-established creative writing program. My main partner in this venture was my friend and fellow student Scott Cairns, who served as the magazine’s first poetry editor. Although mostly student-edited, MAR would enjoy both continuity and institutional memory through its faculty Editor-in-Chief, Robert Early and other participating faculty and alumni staff members. MAR enjoyed the consistent support necessary to evolve into a respected literary journal that published work by new and established writers from all over the world. Thirty-two years and numerous accolades later, I’m happy to observe that all those goals have been achieved, through the efforts of the many students, faculty, and staff who have served that fine magazine.

Lunch Ticket will serve an equivalent role for Antioch University Los Angeles’s MFA Program and its students, alumni, and faculty. And it will serve a growing audience of discerning readers unconnected to our institution. Lunch Ticket will not only publish outstanding refereed writing and visual art by talented writers and artists from all over the world, it will engage the issues that progressive institutions like AULA were founded to address. To paraphrase Naomi Benaron, who speaks to our intentions in creating this journal, literature is one of the primary weapons with which humanity fights injustice.

At first glance, much of what you encounter in these pages may not seem to be a fight for or against anything. But, as every discerning reader knows, things are seldom as they initially appear.

Congratulations to Editor Raymond Gaston and an excellent, dedicated staff. Thanks to AULA administration and faculty for your enthusiastic support.

And welcome, everyone, to the beginning of something important and good.