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.

Knuckles

I meet Sparky in February, the week Nixon visits China. We’re backyard neighbors, separated by woods and a sagging wire mesh fence. We might as well be America and China. On Sparky’s side of the block, houses are built any which way—homemade additions, leaning-over garages, all clinging however they can to the steep grade. My street, Edgehill Road, forms a wide, flat bench in the middle of the hill. Three-story Victorians with deep back and front yards on one side. On the other, behind a tall, black iron fence that runs along the sidewalk, grass and trees and God at the top—the divinity school campus.

I’m not supposed to be home yet, so I can’t go inside my house. It’s cold, there’s snow on the ground. Voices are coming from the woods at the back of my yard. In my boots and parka, I walk around the house and across the back yard. Head down, I part the overgrown brush with my arms and push forward. Sparky and his sisters—twins named Carla and Darlene—look up at the swishing sound my parka makes against the branches. “I told you a girl lived there,” one of them says.

That year, the year I’m in sixth grade, I decide there are two ways of knowing: the kind that has no edges, that seems like you’ve always known it; and the sudden kind. My father’s story is the first. No one ever sits me down and says, Paloma, your father was the only one in his family to get out of Austria during the war. Just like no one ever tells me he’s dying. Sparky, though, he didn’t exist, and then I pushed down the fence and climbed over, and he did.

The kids are playing some card game, sitting in rusty lawn chairs around a spool table. “Why are you playing out here?” I ask.

“Our dad’s sleeping. He—” The girls both have the same ratty, dark brown hair that falls over their faces. I never learn to tell them apart. One of them says it.

Sparky cuts her off. “It’s an outdoor game.”

“What’s it called?”

“Knuckles.”

The boys in my school play this game when the teachers aren’t looking. I don’t know the rules, only that the winner gets to hit the loser. “I’ll play,” I say.

Sparky gathers up the cards, scrapping the round they’re playing. My bottom sinks too low in the chair he offers me. He deals, thrusts his hands in his pockets to warm them a minute, and then takes up his cards. “It’s like Old Maid, only the one-eyed jack is the card you don’t want to get stuck with,” he says.

When Sparky takes one of my cards, he smiles a quick, secret smile. His front teeth turn in, like he’s been punched. He doesn’t smile at his sisters.

I pick the jack from his hand one turn before he goes out. I have a two, a seven and the jack. The twins go out one after the other.

“Now what?” I look at Sparky.

“Cut the deck. The card tells how many times I hit you.” Sparky has a big, round face and small eyes. When he says this, his eyes narrow.

I  keep staring at him while I shuffle the cards and cut. The card I turn up is the king of clubs. The twins ooh. Sparky says, “Black means I hit hard.” I hold out my hand, my right hand.

The force of his hand pushes mine down when he hits me and I feel a sharp, cold sting. After Sparky hits me the eleventh time, I raise my fist for more. “All the face cards count eleven,” he says. I want him to keep hitting me.

Inside my house, Mrs. Shepler, my piano teacher, is talking to my mother on the phone, telling her that I’ve missed two lessons in a row.

Ever since my father stopped going into his office at the university, I hate playing the piano. I feel him there, listening to me, and the notes get tangled up. It wouldn’t be so bad if he’d criticize me. But that’s not how my family is. The first time I slept over at Allison’s house and heard her father light into her—about her math test, about not doing her chores—I was shocked. But now I understand it’s my parents who are different. The last time I played, my father got up from his chair and stood by the piano a full minute to catch his breath. “You must hold your hands above the keys—” he demonstrated with his own stiff hands “—like this.” My father pronounces each word deliberately. He was a piano prodigy before his hands were frostbitten during the war.

I lose two of the three rounds of Knuckles we play. The twin who beats me doesn’t hit as hard as Sparky, and it’s only five.

My mother’s waiting for me to get out of my parka and boots and open the inside door to the house. “I’ve cancelled your piano lessons,” she says as soon as I do. “We won’t have the money for that kind of thing.” My mother’s edgy since my father got sicker. The future tense means after he dies. As I start to go upstairs, the tea kettle whistles. “I want you to take your father his tea,” she says.

My father looks up from some show about China on the public television station. “Maybe someday you will return to the piano,” he says. “You have my fingers, so long and graceful.” When I set the tea down, he catches my hands in his. His fingers touch the dried blood on my knuckles, and he turns my hand so he can see. “Child, child,” he says.

***

That I’m not allowed to play with Sparky. That Apollo 16 has landed on the moon. That Allison Langdon says I’m a weirdo. That China gave us two giant pandas, Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling. That Betsy’s father moved into an apartment with one of his students. These are things I don’t know and then I do. That my mother has started going to church, that she doesn’t want my father to know. That I will go to a new school next year. That no one notices whether I play with Sparky or not. These are things I just know. At night, when I can’t sleep, I try to decide which way my father dying will be. Nurses come to the house. He refuses to go to the hospital. Sometimes I get out of bed and sneak into the room that used to be my playroom but is now my father’s sick room. I listen to to him breathe. I can’t tell if he’s asleep or awake. One night he whispers, “Paloma” and I whisper back without thinking, “Vati.” It’s what I called him when I was little. Once I started school I insisted on calling him “Dad” like the other kids. He asks me to start the record on the turntable. “Turn the volume very low,” he says. It’s The Emperor Concerto, his favorite Beethoven. When I was much younger, I would sit in his lap while he played his records. The music was his way of talking to me. Now, I don’t know whether to stand by the bed or sit. I stand there for a few minutes. My father says nothing more. Before the Allegro finishes, I tiptoe out.

***

Every day after school, three girls from the high school at the bottom of the hill chase me down Edgehill Road. It’s a game, I guess. Their black legs are as long as I am tall. To them, I’m a white kid from the private school. I run as as far as the gate in the black iron fence. Once I step onto divinity school property, the girls turn back.

***

Sparky’s house smells of beer, dust, and cat pee. His mother doesn’t live there. It’s the first time I’ve been inside. I stare at his father, who’s sitting at the table drinking beer. “What’re you looking at, Girly?” he says. I look away.

“Her father’s got cancer in his bones,” one of the twins says.

Sparky shoves her. “Get lost,” he says.

The father drains the last of his beer. He tells the twin to get him another one. Sparky pulls me down the hall and into his bedroom. They all must sleep there. There’s a bunk bed and a twin mattress on the floor. Sparky closes the door and sits on the mattress. “Don’t just stand there. Come here,” he says.

I sit.

“Fifty spacecraft have crash-landed on the moon,” he says. “Apollo 16’s sub-satellite will make 51.”

We’re studying the Middle Ages in school. Mrs. Gulliver reads to us from The Fairie Queene every afternoon. You can’t listen the way you listen to an ordinary story. You only get the meaning if you listen sideways. That’s how Sparky talking about spacecraft is too.

He moves closer to me. He says my name, “Paloma.” My name doesn’t sound like me when he says it. When I told him and his sisters my name on the afternoon we met, one twin said it was funny. But Sparky repeated it to himself—“Paloma, Paloma,” rolled it in his mouth. Now he says my name again and draws his fingers through my long hair. His hand feels like a mitten.

“Lie back,” he says. He puts his hand under my shirt. It’s cold. It hurts when he pinches one nipple. My breasts have just started to develop; I don’t wear a bra yet. I lie still, and he switches to the other one. Then he climbs on top of me. His weight is like when he hit me with the cards; I can’t resist the force of it. His breath smells like hot dogs.

A twin bursts in, making kissing and groaning noises. Sparky jumps up and chases her out of the room. He’s slapping her when I walk out the door.

***

My grandmother, Nonna Rosa, has come to stay with us. She squeezes my face in both hands and hugs me until I can’t breathe. My father’s recliner has been pushed to the corner to make room for the hospital bed. Nurses come every day. He calls me Analiese sometimes. My mother thinks it’s a sister. My mother has decided to finish her dissertation on New England meeting houses from twelve years ago. She was my father’s student before they got married. When she got pregnant, she quit. She doesn’t ask where I’ve been.

***

“Get your bike,” Sparky says to me. It’s the middle of May, two days after George Wallace was shot. The kids at my school say he deserved it. Sparky’s dad says he had the right idea.

We pedal all the way down the Canner Street hill. Air rushes past me, balloons my jacket and blows my hair back. For two minutes, three minutes, I am motion and wind, not Paloma. I won’t brake until Sparky does. I fly. A few feet before Whitney Avenue, he stands up and stomps on the brake. We both overshoot the corner. A car swerves to miss us, pulls up short and the driver comes out yelling. “You kids crazy? You could have got yourselves hit—. ”

Sparky turns his bike in the opposite direction. “Come on, Paloma,” he says, bumping up the curb and heading down the sidewalk along Whitney. I follow, let the man’s shouts fade into the noise of the traffic.

“Where we going?” I ask.

“You’ll see.”

We rattle down the sidewalk and then Sparky turns to cross Whitney, a busy four-lane road, without waiting for a cross walk or even a red light. Then we’re on streets I’ve never been on before. The air here smells like exhaust, seaweed, and dead fish; above us cars zoom over entrance and exit ramps to the interstate. When we get close to the train tracks, Sparky hops off his bike and drops it beside a bush.

I lay my bike next to his and run to catch up to him. He darts across the tracks.

“Hurry up.”

My toe catches on a rail and I stumble, scraping the palm of my hand on the rock chunks between the ties. I lurch forward, and then we’re across. Sparky turns left, walking along the tracks, picking his way through the litter.

“Should we be here?” I ask

He gestures ahead. “Just a little further.”

All I see is the highway overpass running perpendicular to the tracks.

Sparky tilts his head up to the sun that’s a dull lemon against the colorless sky, already low above the city. I’ve never seen the city from this angle. It looks dingy. “Come on,” he says.

At first, I think he’s brought me here to see the graffiti on the concrete walls beside the train tracks: “MAKE WAR NOT LOVE” painted over the picture of a man shooting bullets out of his thing. But then he strides to the middle of the wall and plasters himself against it. The wall is no more than ten feet from the tracks. “Hurry, Paloma,” he says, and I join him, flatten myself against the wall.

We wait, maybe five minutes. We don’t speak. The wall vibrates as cars drive across the overpass.

When I get home, the ambulance will be in the driveway. Nonna Rosa will rush out of the house in tears and hold me against her as the paramedics carry out my father’s sheet-covered body and load it into the ambulance. Nonna Rosa’s hand will move in the air. I won’t be able to see her, but I’ll know she’s making the sign of the cross. We’ll move. I’ll go to public school. I won’t ever see Sparky again.

I feel the train before I hear it, a hum that comes up through my feet. Just before it arrives Sparky says, “My mom, you know . . . .” Then the train is there and the world is sound, air, motion. It’s different from the slap of the cards because it goes on and on and I can’t tell when it will end, if it will. It’s now and always. Maybe I’m dead.

And then the train is gone, air fills the tunnel again. Sparky takes my hand and leads me out. I can’t hear the cars above us, or our feet kicking the debris.

Jenny Dunning writes short stories and essays and is currently revising her novel–from her desk with a view of the Mississippi River in Wabasha, Minnesota. Her work has been published in Literary Mama, The North Dakota Quarterly, The Tusculum Review, Beloit Fiction Journal and Talking River Review, among other publications.

A Dry and Level Space

They gazed across the highway’s gravel shoulder at the gas station, a beacon of light in the howling darkness. A November storm spattered their faces; its bitter wind cut through them. The kid inside the station smoked a cigarette and watched a flickering black-and-white TV, his feet propped up on the desk, the pump island empty.

“What do ya think?” Elliot asked.

Rudy shrugged. “It’d be easy. But the heat’ll catch us if we try stealing anything.”

“Yeah. It’s not worth it, and there’s nowhere to run.” Elliot stared up Highway 101 at the cloud-shrouded forest that surrounded the town of Willits. “We gotta find a place to crash, and soon.”

“Why? We could catch a ride to Portland, Seattle, or even Vancouver and be done with it.”

“You’re dreaming. Not tonight we won’t.”

“Why the hell not?”

“Look at us. I wouldn’t give us a ride, would you?”

Rudy grinned. “Nah, probably not.” The rain made his brown face look slippery silver in the blue station light.

The hitchhikers watched the oncoming headlights, their arms and thumbs extended, their ponchos flapping in the wind and barely covering their backpacks. A logging truck roared past. The spray from its tires drenched them. They cowered near the ditch, cursing. The kid inside the station clicked off most of the neon then padlocked the front door. He walked around the building. His flashlight beam danced in the blackness. It swept the highway and stopped on the two young men. Rudy and Elliot pulled the poncho hoods off their heads and moved toward him. The kid took a couple steps backward then stood his ground.

“He’s big, probably plays football,” Elliot whispered.

“Ah, we can take him,” Rudy replied.

“Let’s not and say we did.”

“What do you guys want?” the kid called as they approached.

Rudy muttered, “Jeez, his Mama musta ironed that uniform.”

“We haven’t looked that good in months.”

The two stopped and slipped out of their packs, groaning. The kid’s flashlight beam moved between their bearded faces. He grinned nervously. “It’s a little late for you hippies to be hitchhiking through.”

“Yeah. Does it always rain like this?” Rudy asked.

“Pretty much, until April or May.”

“Remind me to fire our travel agent,” Elliot said.

The kid laughed but his smile faded quickly. “So what do ya want?”

“Lots of things,” Rudy said. “But we’ll settle for someplace dry to sleep.”

The wind picked up and blew the rain sideways, wetting the concrete under the pump island cover. The kid pulled his yellow slicker closed and buttoned it, never taking his eyes off them. “There’s nothin’ much around here. You’ll get wet if you stay under the canopy…and the sheriff will run ya in.”

“What about north?” Elliot asked, dragging a hand through his long tangled hair.

“Nothin’ but trees and more rain.” The kid shifted from foot to foot. “So why are ya going north this time of year? Most of you…you guys passed through this summer.”

“It’s a long story,” Rudy said.

“How far north are you going?”

“Far enough,” Elliot said.

“Yeah, I figured. Ya know, it’s raining just as hard in Canada.”

The hitchhikers stayed quiet. The kid continued to bounce from foot to foot. “Me, I’m gonna go west.”

“Where, Hawaii?” Elliot asked.

“No, Vietnam. I’m enlisting in two weeks.”

The gale hammered them. They ducked their heads and pulled on the hoods of their rain gear. The hitchhikers gripped their backpacks to their bodies, bent over, rivulets of rain pouring onto the asphalt. A coughing fit shook Elliot. He staggered, went down on one knee, gasping for breath.

“You okay?” the kid asked. He bent and helped the hitchhiker to his feet. Elliot swayed on spindly legs and smiled weakly.

“My friend’s got the flu or somethin’,” Rudy said. “We really need a place to crash.”

“Sorry, but I can’t help ya.”

Elliot shook his head and clamped his arms around his shuddering body. Rudy grumbled something before asking, “So why the hell are you joining up?”

“It’s just my time, ya know.”

“Good luck with that,” Elliot croaked.

“Yeah, thanks. But how much worse could joining the Army be than being sick and hitchhiking in this storm?”

“They have more than rain in Vietnam,” Rudy shot back.

The kid nodded. “Yeah, but I try not to think about it.”

“How can you not think about it?” Elliot asked.

“I just, ya know, focus on what I’m doing right now. The rest will play itself out without me worryin’.”

The hitchhikers stared at each other and laughed. “Man, you’d make a great hippie,” Rudy said. “But we gotta get outta this rain.”

They pulled on their packs and moved toward the highway. With so little traffic, they heard the rain rattle on the slick blacktop that stretched south to their homes and north toward something else. Elliot took a deep breath, beat his chest with clenched fists, then coughed – a throaty gurgling sound soaked up by the sodden landscape.

“Hey, wait a minute guys. I got an idea,” the kid called. “Come on back.”

They joined him at the station office where he retrieved a ring of keys, then followed him to a row of U-Haul trailers lined up against the side fence. The kid groped around in the dark until he found some concrete blocks and propped them under each end of a 10-footer. He keyed the padlock and opened its rear door.

“What do ya think?” he asked, breathing hard and grinning.

“It looks like the fuckin’ Taj Mahal,” Rudy said.

“Yeah, this is great.” Elliot said.

“Now look, you guys gotta get out of here early. The owner shows up around six and will call the cops if he finds you.”

“We’ll split before then,” Rudy said.

“Lock the door when you leave…and good luck.” The kid walked away.

“Yeah, you too,” Rudy called after him.

The fully-enclosed trailer smelled like it had been used as a kennel. After taking a leak, they climbed in, peeled off their wet clothes, and unrolled their sleeping bags. In the darkness, they shared a soft banana and crackers. Elliot popped some aspirin, washing them down with metallic-tasting water from his canteen. He lay back and pulled the sleeping bag under his chin, shivering.

They didn’t talk, had done that all day and had come away with few answers. Sweat dripped into Elliot’s eyes. The inside of the trailer felt stifling and he unzipped his bag and folded back its top cover. The cold air chilled him quickly and in a few moments he shivered and bundled up again.

“Hey Rude, I think I got a fever, man.”

“I know ya do, your face was all red. Did ya take some of those aspirin I gave ya?”

“Yeah.”

“Good. Just lay back and keep wrapped up. Maybe it’ll break tonight and you’ll feel better in the morning.”

“Yeah…in the morning….” Elliot’s teeth chattered. He wiped his eyes and stared into the blackness. A downpour pounded the trailer’s metal roof, sounding like a row of snare drummers doing a fast roll, like the military bands that paraded up Main Street in Huntington Beach on the Fourth of July.

He thought about past summers spent in Huntington as a boy – the hot sand, the bodacious girls, the surfers, that life before all the chaos closed in around them. He couldn’t keep the confusion out of his head. Thoughts came and went at light speed. Like an undertow, they grabbed him and pulled him down toward crazy delirium. But he remembered what the kid had said, “I just focus on what I’m doin’ right now….”

Elliot rolled onto his side, drew his knees to his chest, and thought about where they lay: the dry level floor, the chilling air, the drum of the rain, the wind slamming the trailer, the sound of Rudy snoring, the smell of dog, the taste of banana, the hiss of each breath he took. Over and over he savored each of those things. After a while he stopped shivering, his muscles relaxed, and he slept.

Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one plump cat (his in-house critic). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, an occasional play, and novels. Since 2005, his poetry and short stories have been accepted by more than 160 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including the Picayune Literary Review, Birmingham Arts Journal and Boston Literary Magazine. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his short story “The Sweeper.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.

Francesca Lia Block, Author

Francesca Lia Block

Francesca Lia Block

During the December 2011 residency at Antioch, I had the pleasure of introducing Francesca Lia Block, who graciously read a selection from her young adult fiction. Before writing the introduction, I read a variety of her work and found a kindred spirit there. So when the opportunity to interview Ms. Block for Lunch Ticket arose, I was happy to oblige.

Yolanda Bridges: You have been quoted as stating that your writing is “contemporary fairy tales with an edge.” What is it that gives your stories that edge?

Francesca Lia Block: Sex, drugs and rock and roll? No, seriously, these are usually present in some form. The line “Any love that is love is right” from Baby Be Bop exemplifies my attitude toward love, including sexual love, in my books. It goes without saying that I define love as consensual and non-exploitative, when I say any love that is love is right. This has been considered radical by some people, including the Christian organization that tried to ban the book–a gay male coming of age story–in libraries a few years ago and then wanted to burn it! I write about drug use because it is part of the reality of this world and many people use it as a means of escape. I write about music, and all art forms, because I consider art a healing force and a positive means of escape.

YB: In which of your works, if any, do you address issues of social justice or activism? When you are creating the story are these themes that you consciously consider?

FLB: I never start writing with a moral message but I hope my beliefs about social justice and equality (that everyone is entitled to these) come through in the stories themselves.

YB: What made you decide to draw on mythology to your write stories?

FLB: My father used to tell me The Odyssey as a bedtime story and I grew up looking at art depicting the Greek and Roman myths. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is one of my favorite books. These universal themes are so inspiring to me.

YB: Fairytales reflect our collective nighttime dreaming where archetypes, such as monsters, show up. Have you ever incorporated your own dreams in your stories? If so, in which stories do your dreams show up?

The inner voice should ALWAYS come first. After it has had the chance to speak, the writer can evaluate the market and come up with strategies.

FLB: I had a recurring dream about giants that is in a few of my books including my new one, which is a take on the Odyssey with a female heroine. I feel that writing is often like dreaming for me, where images and dialogue show up of their own accord.

YB: What is your opinion regarding the changing face of the publishing industry? Is it harder than ever to break into this industry or have recent developments, such as self-publishing, made it easier to become a published author?

FLB: It is harder than ever to be published by a mainstream publisher but self-publishing is a blessing and can give writers a chance to reach wide audiences and make some money.

YB: How do you think that electronic media–Kindle, the Nook, etc.–has affected the publishing industry or book writing on a whole? Has it made it better or encouraged the book to go the way of the dinosaur?

FLB: All I know is that since this development my books are not selling as well as they did before and they are not as available in bookstores, however, my new publishers are working to address this issue and ultimately I think it can be a good thing as long as people are still reading. I also believe that real books will never go away altogether because many people still love the smell and feel of them.

YB: With the type of stories that you write, do you think that you would ever incorporate experimentation into your writing, e.g. links that open, and books that have to be read electronically in order for readers to follow the storyline?

FLB: I am open to all new media. For instance, I am fascinated with making collages of my character’s clothing on Polyvore, doing song lists on Spotify, etc.

YB: Do you think that it is wiser for writers to follow their own muse when it comes to the stories/genres they write or should what is publishable/trendy supersede the author’s inner voice?

FLB: The inner voice should ALWAYS come first. After it has had the chance to speak, the writer can evaluate the market and come up with strategies. Conversely, you can sometimes assess the market and see if your inner voice loves any of the trends and can find a way to create something of integrity from them.

YB: What is your opinion on writer retreats? Do you think that they are worth the investment for new authors?

FLB: I think they can be wonderful if you find the right group leader.

YB: Out of all the stories and characters you’ve created, do you find that you have a favorite? If so, what makes that story or character so special for you?

FLB: Witch Baby is close to my heart because she expresses my frustration and sadness with the state of the world, and also the ferocity of my love. Echo’s life is the most like mine. My new favorite character may be Ariel from The Elementals, my adult novel coming from St. Martin’s Press in October because I have been trying to write this book for almost twenty years and I am very proud of it.

YB: What are your words of advice to anyone trying to find their way in the publishing industry?

FLB: Read what you love, write what you love, find a mentor and a writing group, work hard, be able to handle constructive criticism, avoid destructive criticism and people, don’t be a perfectionist on the first draft–just get it done, be enthusiastic about rewriting or do it anyway, develop connections with people in the industry you admire, self-publish if you can’t find an established publisher, build an audience with social media, don’t give up, write because your heart requires it.

The View

Now I’m embarrassed about how the lady’s face is buried between her friend’s legs, and how they moaning and how it was making me feel fore Momma walked in. I was watching it straight-eyed before she came in and took control of the whole thing—made it a punishment before the whooping. Now I got to watch the rest with her. After that, she gone whoop me. I know she is.

“That’s called gay—Sodom and Gomorrah,” she says without looking at me. “God ain’t no where in that, boy.”

I wish I had somewhere else to look, but she said, since I was looking at it fore she came in, I better look now. Said wrong got to be righted.

When she first stuck her head through the door, rollers in her hair and tired lines on her face, I was sure she wasn’t gone be in here long. I tried to change the channel fore she caught me, but I think that move is what got me caught. Trying to act natural don’t never really work. Natural caught her attention. She went from head-in-the-door to “what was you watching, Naught?”

“I work two jobs,” she say. Her eyes still on the T.V. Now a man standing behind the woman. She still got her head buried in between her friend’s legs and the man moving in and out of her, but I don’t even care no more. I ain’t even taking notes in my head no more. “I don’t work for this kind of mess. I don’t work hard like I do for you to be worried about this kind of mess.” She sound sad. Hurt or something.

I don’t know what to say. I know she think I’m going down to the devil for watching, and I really don’t understand why she making me watch the rest. I guess she done gave up on me and heaven. I wonder if this’ll make me fall deeper into the fire. I was only gone watch a little bit. I was only gone be in a little bit of trouble when it was time to stand fore God. Now I’m in trouble with the God and with her. I wonder if she know she might go to hell for watching it with me. I want to ask her, but the lines around her mouth tell me that ain’t a very good idea.

A few days ago she came in the kitchen, and her gold skin turned bright red when she saw me eating corn flakes from her mixing bowl. I wouldn’t have never ate my cereal out of that bowl if we had some more clean ones—if she would’ve washed them the night before. She didn’t fuss at me for it or nothing. I thought she was going to, but she didn’t say nothing.

All she did was let her beat-up purse slide off her shoulder and onto the counter. She took off her plaid coat—the one she bought from the second-hand store—and laid it on top of her purse. She reached up over her head, and pulled a bigger mixing-bowl from the cabinet and poured the whole box of off-brand corn flakes in it. After she poured a whole lot of milk in the bowl, she picked it up and placed it in front of where I was standing, eating from the smaller bowl.

“Since you woke up feeling all long-eyed, boy. Don’t care nothing bout how hard I work for every box of cereal I bring in here. You eat the whole damn thing, Naught. Just eat the whole damn thing.” And she stood there and made sure I ate every flake. When I was done, I thought I was gone throw up I was so full. She told me to go to her room and bring her the only thing she kept when she took Ruke’s stuff to my granny’s house, the thick leather belt with the snake as the buckle.

“Naught,” she call my name like she panicking or something, but she still don’t look at me. Her eyes still glued to the T.V., and I can’t help but wish the girl on screen shut up with all that hollering. “Anybody ever touch you like they ain’t supposed to, violate you, son?”

“Huh,” I say. I know what she asking. She done asked it before. She been asking me about being touched ever since she taught me to call my dick Mr. Wang. I learned real quick that a dick is a dick when I started P.W. Dastard Middle School, but Momma still call my dick Mr. Wang. Last week, she woke me up to catch the trash man cause I forgot to put the trash out the night before. My dick was standing straight up and she told me flat out, “Fix your Mr. Wang before going out that door, boy. Nasty self.”

“Have anybody ever touched your Mr. Wang, boy?” she ask. I stare at the side of her face for a minute. Her jaw is twitching, and a tear is sneaking down her cheek. I feel bad about the movie. I don’t want to hurt my momma.

“No, ma’am,” I say, letting my eyes drop the scratchy wool blanket covering me from the waist on down.

“You sure? ” she ask, twisting her head to face me for the first time. Her eyes is watery and tired like two wet, rusty pennies, but she still look kind of pretty cause I can remember her smile. I look into them rusty pennies and drop my eyes again. I shake my head but don’t say nothing.

“Cause I can understand this problem if that happened. Just talk to Momma. Tell me if somebody done hurt you, Naught. Pastor’ll pray with us, and we’ll get rid of this old nasty demon.”

I don’t say nothing. Just sit there wishing for all this to be over. Wish I didn’t have no dick and no momma. I wouldn’t wake up wet after them nasty dreams sometimes and wouldn’t be no whoopings. Never.

“Well, I don’t get it then, Naught,” she say. Then she just sit there for a second. “This Ruke fault. I wish I’d have been smarter than to let his dope-dealing self get me pregnant with you. Should been smart enough to know he couldn’t never be no daddy,” she say, turning back to the television. “That on that screen,” she say, pointing a lazy finger at the small screen on the rickety dresser. “Ain’t nothing you need to worry bout.”

I just nod my head and think about the whooping that’s coming.

“Go out yonder and get you a baby, how you gone feed it?” she ask, without looking at me. I lift my eyes and look toward the screen. Then I move them to a crack in the wall above it when I see the man holding his dick over one of the women’s mouth. She holding her tongue out beneath him to catch his juice.

A roach crawl out from the crack and start crawling down like it’s gone go behind the T.V. I wonder if Momma see it, or if she looking at the man juicing in the woman mouth. She hate roaches, but we can’t seem to rid of them on the count of our neighbors. Momma say them folks nasty, and roaches follow nasty.

“I been working extra hours to get you a new bike. Get you out this house some time. Thirteen-year-old boy need to be doing something. Idle mind be all the devil need to do something like this,” she say.

I think about my last bike and try to remember if it was powerful enough to make me forget about my dick. Maybe so. I didn’t think about girls and wake up hard and wet when I still had it. I was ten back then. I fixed that bike up all on my own. Before she brought that old sorry looking thing home from the thrift store, I had almost gave up on the idea of ever having a bike of my own. I bought things one at a time. The sandpaper to get the pink paint and princess power off. The gray paint because I like that color. The seat. The pivotal. Didn’t have no manual or nothing. Took me a whole year to get that thing rideable. I built that bike from the ground up, and then somebody from this old raggedy complex stole it off the back porch. Momma whooped me. Said she spent ten dollars on that thing, and I should’ve had better sense than to leave it outside and give it away.

“This how you say thank you. While I’m working, you letting sex demons in my house,” she say, standing up. She looking at the roach now. I can tell by how still her head is, and how mean her voice done got. He done stopped like he listening to her fuss at me. All things go quiet when Momma speaking.

The arms of her wool housecoat is cut off cause it used to be mine. She had to cut them off to make the housecoat fit her. When it was mine, I wouldn’t never wear it. She wear it every night. It’s been washed so much it look paper thin. The blue look dull and ashy. She look dull and ashy. She still pretty though. To me she pretty and smell like cinnamon, and she good at helping with my math. Even when she don’t know nothing bout it, she try.

She stand in front of the T.V., and I can’t see it no more. The man moaning loud, and that’s almost as bad as me being able to see him.

She look around the little room. Her eyes don’t even touch me. She turn her body and squeeze through my bed and the wall toward my closet. I think about the belt hanging up in there. All of sudden I want the movie to last longer, but words is running up the screen. I fix the cover on me. Make sure everything that need to be covered is covered. Make sure I won’t feel a thing.

“Where you get that shit from, Naught? Who give you something like that to watch?” she ask, bending her upper body toward the floor of my closet. I’m scared cause Momma don’t never cuss. She pray hard and loud, specially at church. She got a mean shout, too. Almost look like she dancing on Soul Train or in a Big Daddy Kane video. She be moving like she free and done forgot everything. She holy. She talk tongues. She don’t cuss.

I think about pushing her into the closet, and jumping off the bed and running away. I grew taller than Momma last year. She always say Ruke tall, but I never really paid attention. He was always sitting down when we used to visit him at the pen in Lamesa. Even when we stood up to take pictures, I ain’t notice. Everybody was taller than me the last time I saw him. Everybody was tall to me back then.

I think about what I’m gone do when I make it out the house, after I push her down in the closet. What I’m gone eat. Where I’m gone live. I wonder what she gone do without me here. I think about her smile when she give me stuff. When she gave me the housecoat she wearing, she was proud. Told me bout how she ain’t never have one when she was a girl. How she want me to have more than her. Be better than her. I stop thinking bout pushing her. I stop thinking bout running.

My heart start beating fast when she stand up with my size ten converse in her hand. She whooped me with shoe when I was ten. I peed in the breezeway of the G building, and Ms. Meddalton caught me. Ms. Meddalton whooped me with a switch cause Momma was still at work when she caught me doing it. Momma got me with a shoe when she came home. Said just cause the breezeway already smell like pee don’t mean I got and make it stronger. That whooping hurt worse than a switch, or a belt or a extension cord even. She couldn’t hit me how she wanted to cause of the grip she had on the shoe, so she hit me in the head, on the back, everywhere.

But she don’t even look my way now. She stand up and get in front of the T.V. again. She short, and her body wide and flat in the back. Her hair smashed like she been laying on it, and I can see some of her scalp through her thin hair. She moving her head around like she looking for something, and that make me remember the roach. It make me itch, and I want to pull the covers off of me to make sure ain’t none in my bed. Sometimes they climb up here and wake me up, and sometimes they already chilling in my bed fore I get in it. I don’t. But I ain’t pulling nothing back long as she got that shoe in her hand.

I hear a crash and stop thinking about the roaches under my cover.

“Thought I didn’t see you, didn’t you?” she say, looking around the dresser. She done smashed the roach and dropped the shoe. “There you is,” she say. Then she just drag herself out my room on her old house shoes. She don’t even look at me.

I look at my shoe laying on top of the VCR and think about jumping out my bed and hiding it. I think about closing my door and getting under the cover with the other roaches. I think about not getting no whooping at all. I hear her sliding back to my room. When she come through the doorway, she got a wad of tissue in her hand. She headed toward the VCR, and my eyes is on her. She notice and stop right where she at. She looking at me, and I’m looking at her. Her lips start quivering, and her eyes get real watery. I drop my head.

“Look at me, Naught,” she say. She sound soft and not at all like my momma. I look at her. I’m ashamed cause I’m nasty, and I can’t control it.

“Stop. Just stop. Okay?” she say, nodding her head. “This kind of stuff is so ugly, baby.”

I nod my head and feel like I’m gone cry.

“I mean… if you have a question that you need to ask me, I’m here, Naught, but baby…” she stop talking, and I look up at her. She grabbing her lips with the tips of her finger. Tears is really coming down her face and when she open up her mouth again, I can hear them in her throat. “Baby, you can’t want to do stuff like this. This is the devil’s mess.”

I nod my head, and she start looking blurry to me. Momma tears always bring mine. “I won’t do it no more, Momma. I’m sorry. I don’t know why I do this kind of stuff.”

She nod her head and wipe her eyes. She start making her way back to the T.V. She clean up the dead roach with tissue and eject the tape from the VCR when she finish. She put the balled of tissue down on the dresser and open the flap on the videotape. She start pulling out the film like a mad dog or something. She toss the destroyed tape on the edge of my bed.

“Return that to whoever you got it from,” she say. Ain’t no more tears in her voice.

Momma turn back to the T.V. and pick up the tissue paper. Then, she reach over and grab the shoe off the top of the VCR. I grip the edge of the cover and get ready to scream. I always start screaming fore she even hit me. On her way over to the side of my bed, where I’m getting my tonsils ready for her, she put the balled up tissue in the grocery bag I use for trash hanging on the inside of my doorknob.

She stand directly in front of me and do something that really shock me. She just drop the shoe—drop it right there on the floor.

“Momma,” I say. “Wh—”

“Maybe you got questions that need answering, Naught. Maybe you do. But sex ain’t okay, you hear?” she ask. “I’m gone give you this one time to know everything you need to know cause ain’t nobody never do it for me. After this, don’t you never bring up this nasty mess again,” she say and look at me like she waiting for me to say something. “You bet not close your eyes, and you bet not turn away,” she finally say, messing with the knot on her robe-belt. “You loose my baby, Satan,” she scream as loud as she can, making me jump a little bit.

She start chanting it over-and-over again, and I get nervous cause she got the same look on her face that she get when she start shouting at church. She close her eyes and keep saying, “You loose my baby, Satan. You can’t have him.” She still saying it when her belt come untied, and she still saying it when she begin to ease the robe off her shoulders. She still saying it when her robe hit the floor, and she standing there naked. And she still saying it when she open her eyes and look me in mine.

I’m too scared to close my eyes or look away. She got a serious look in her eyes. I can’t keep looking in them, so I drop my own to her breasts. They long and flat against her chest. My eyes trail down because her sand-dollar nipples pointing that way. Below her belly, which look big and jiggly like the inside of a bucket of pork chitterlings, is a thick, tangled afro. I think about how much I hate chitterlings and afros and whoopings.

She getting blurry to me again, and my eyes burn like somebody chopping onions. After a while, she stop chanting and bend down to pick up the old robe. She wrap it around her and tie it back up.

“That demon ought to be gone,” she say. “Don’t let it back in my house, boy.”

She walk out the door and leave me sitting there. When I hear her shoes sliding down the hallway, I slide down from my bed onto the floor. I kind of ball up on my knees and have a real good cry. Then, I get in praying position next to the bed.

And I pray for myself long into the night.

LaToya Watkins holds degrees in literary and aesthetic studies from the University of Texas at Dallas. Her stories have appeared in Specter Magazine and Kweli Journal. She is the author of two novels. LaToya lives, teaches, and learns in Texas.