Rina Ayuyang’s The Man in the McIntosh Suit eschews the pursuit of prosperity typically associated with the American Dream, and instead centers one man’s search for intimacy and home. Bobot is a Filipino law school graduate turned migrant farmworker who spends his free time writing love letters to the wife he left behind in the Philippines, even after he’s stopped receiving a response. When he hears a rumor that his wife was seen in America, he sets out on an adventure that carries us from the farms of rural California to the seedy speakeasies of San Francisco, desperate to find his lost love.
Set at the onset of the Great Depression, Ayuyang paints a picture of the national unrest looming over Bobot with precision. Farmworkers whisper about distant protests, and discuss the measures they’d have to take to organize. The book itself opens with a true-to-life opinion piece written by Paul Scharrenberg, a representative of the American Federation of Labor. “There are enough Filipinos in this country at this time to create a problem,” it begins. “They are very lazy, and very vain. They are very quarrelsome… They have no idea of honor, or honesty, or fairness… I believe they should be excluded from this country.” This sentiment manifests within the story on a few striking occasions, most notably in a beating that takes place after a farmworker dances with a white woman in a pool hall. While characters move through immigrant communities for the majority of the book, these instances are more than enough to remind the reader of the racial hostility that awaits them when they stray too far.
Those coming from Ayuyang’s kaleidoscopic memoir, Blame This on the Boogie, may be surprised by the book’s simple color scheme. But just as the story of The Man in the McIntosh Suit draws on the noir genre, so does its aesthetic. Large segments are rendered monochromatically in blue, or green, or rosy golds and reds. These shades intrude on each other at key moments of transition or deep feeling, dazzling the reader as Bobot delves into the mystery of his lost wife. Ayuyang’s love of music also makes a welcome return in this volume, with lyrics of Depression-era songs floating across panels, and playlists of said songs shared on the final pages. When combined, all amounts to a gorgeous love letter to Hollywood’s romantic, black-and-white era, without Ayuyang losing sight of her own distinct flair.
And in The Man in the McIntosh Suit, love is in the heart of things. It drives Bobot’s journey, and as the story unfurls, we learn how it’s driven the lives of the characters in his orbit. There could be a version of this story that centers the economic and racial inequities Bobot and his friends face. It is crucial that many versions of that story have been and continue to be told. But, while Ayuyang doesn’t lose sight of those injustices (just as love drives each character’s journey, a lack of money reliably inhibits it), prosperity and social acceptance isn’t the object of Bobot’s pursuit. Romantic love, platonic love, familial love, and queer love are at the forefront of this story, yearned for and celebrated. In the face of human relationships, country and what it promises you becomes circumstantial. This is a story about how loved ones are home. “But let me ask you,” Bobot says to his wife, “if you could be anywhere, then tell me where I would be?”
The Man in the McIntosh Suit is an ode to Depression-era noir that insists on romance, on hope. All this, without sacrificing the genre’s trademark thrills. We get our heists, our thrilling chases. Mystery begets mystery. As all good adventures do, The Man in the McIntosh Suit left me equal parts hungry and fulfilled. I set down the book longing for these characters, and looking forward to Bobot’s next chapter. Not unlike its characters, I felt nostalgic for a world I was uprooted from far too soon.
Jamel Brinkley is the author of A Lucky Man: Stories, a finalist for the National Book Award, the John Leonard Prize, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; and winner of a PEN Oakland Award and the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. His newest collection, Witness, is forthcoming in August 2023. His writing has appeared in A Public Space, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Zoetrope: All-Story, Gulf Coast, The Threepenny Review, Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, The Believer, and Tin House, and has been anthologized twice in The Best American Short Stories. Raised in Brooklyn and the Bronx, he teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
During his visit to OSU as the Spring 2023 Visiting Writer, The Journal spoke to him about the freedom to wander in short fiction, getting the rain into your story, and the constant present of the past in writing and in life.
The Journal: I’m taking a visual arts class this semester, and in it, we had a discussion about our “first works”—not necessarily the first work we ever made, but the first one that felt true to who they are as an artist—based on the book, No. 1: First Works of 362 Artists. I’d be curious to hear about what you might consider your “first work,” and what about it felt different than work you had created previously, or how it may have influenced the work that came after.
JB: I feel like there’s a few ways I could answer that question, but the response that’s coming to me now is there’s a story called “Infinite Happiness” in the first collection, which I believe is the first story I wrote from that collection, and which kind of feels like a first work in a way. Because it felt like a first person voice I was comfortable with—it felt like it was doing a lot of the things I wanted that kind of story to do, which was to have a first person narrator who was opinionated and had an attitude and was kind of casting aspersions outward, but in fact was revealing himself to be not very much better than the people he was criticizing. And that’s one of the things I think about a lot in first person stories, because when you write in first person, that character, who is also the narrator, has so much power in a story—you’re giving that character these god-like powers of narration. So for me it’s important to find ways to cut against that power, and to allow that character to reveal themselves without violating their point-of-view. That was a story where I felt like I was able to do that and also capture a certain era of Brooklyn that I knew. So a lot of things that were in that story were important to me, so it feels like a first work to me.
The Journal: As someone who came to an MFA with full intent to write a novel but has fallen in love with the short form, I’d love to know what attracts you to short stories—especially for a short form writer whose work has often been described as “novelistic.” What do you think it means for a fiction to “feel” like a novel versus a short story?
JB: There are a few questions embedded in there, good questions, and I’ll try to touch on all of them. What attracts me to the short story? I think I like the constraint. Other writers have said that short stories are the form, the written form, that are closest to poetry, and that feels kind of true to me, because they are these intricate little machines when you come down to it, and they kind of have to work if not perfectly, pretty close to perfectly. So I like that constraint, because I think it provides a useful sort of pressure on your creativity. It makes you be creative. It’s more impressive if you do a back-flip off a tightrope than if you do a back-flip on solid ground, you know? So it’s that kind of thing.
The other thing is that I feel like short stories are close to the way I would narrate my life, like a collection of short stories, or a number of collections of short stories—I don’t know if my life has anything resembling the seamless unity of a novel. It sort of feels like these little pieces that I could narrate in terms of their small arcs, and sometimes they cross over each other and sometimes they’re distant from each other, but when you put them together, you can get a sense of a life. They feel close to memory to me, I guess I would say.
Technically, you can have a slack part of a novel and the novel can still be wonderful. Some of my favorite novels have sections that I don’t love, necessarily. But this doesn’t mean that novels aren’t highly formal, and if the form isn’t right, the novel’s not going to be right. I guess I would say I do like that in a novel it feels like you have more room, even within that formalness, you have more room to digress. And that’s the thing that I try to cart in from a novel to a short story—the freedom to sort of wander a little bit, to go off-track, to stare at a minor character. They might not be very important but there’s something compelling or beautiful about that character that you want to keep in the story. Then you can kind of release them—they can go off and you can imagine them having their own story somewhere. I do like that quality. That’s why I love a writer like Edward P. Jones. Think about his second collection, which was published after The Known World, his novel. Those stories are big. And it feels like they just digress and move and the shapes are odd, but they still hold together in these wonderful ways. They still feel like stories. So it’s a little bit of trying to have it both ways—but why not try to have it both ways?
The Journal: The Chicago Review of Books said about A Lucky Man: “A lot of short stories exist in a snow globe, but the nine stories presented here are each a big bang.” Speaking of that novelistic scope, how do you know what to add in a story to make the world of your characters feel as vivid and alive as it does, and what to subtract, to ensure the narrative remains refined? Can you talk a bit about that balancing act?
It is a balancing act! Well, the first thing I would say is that I think it helps to have models that give you permission to do those things. That’s why Jones is important to me; writers like Alice Munro, or Deborah Eisbenberg are important because it feels like they have this sensibility that can’t be contained in the boniest form of a short story. Once you have these models, of people not only doing it, but doing it brilliantly, it feels like you can do this kind of thing too. I had a teacher once who said of Edward P. Jones’ work that it feels like as the story moves, he’s going from the soul of the story, to the soul of the story, to the soul of the story . . . That’s the form. If you think of a story as having a soul—it’s probably not very helpful, but I think it’s inspiring, and it feels like you can kind of shake off some of the rigid movements of a more tightly constructed short story. Just sort of follow where a story wants to go, because a character wants to go there, because you respect your characters. Oftentimes that’s enough. If it feels like you’re following or honoring your characters just enough to sit with them for a while, even if their thoughts, their actions, don’t necessarily go along with your plan for the story, just honoring that character feels like something that’s important. This kind of goes back to Chekhov, honestly, you know the way his characters just sort of do what they want. The critic James Wood has this phrase about Chekhov’s characters. He says that they “mislay their scripts” for a moment. He feels that they stop being characters per se, they just become people. I guess those moments are worth it; I guess that’s what I’m saying. Those moments when a character has a surprising or random thought or action, even if it doesn’t drive the story forward, that feels worth it to me because it adds to the texture that you need. And I think the balancing act that you’re asking about is all about revision and instinct. There’s only so much wandering you can do before you just wander completely away from the story. You have to remember what the spine of the story is, and constantly remind yourself of that. But I think once you have a firm sense of what the story is, it permits you to wander. When you digress, you have to digress from something, right? And when you know what that something is, you can come back to it. So there’s no surefire craft trick that tells you how to do it, but I think that if you respect your characters you can get those magical moments. And if you really know through revision what the story is, you know where you have to return. So it’s that sense of digression and return that you have to cultivate draft by draft.
The Journal: I’d love to hear about how your collections have come together. At what point do you start seeing connections between multiple works? How conscious might those links be? How do you know when a work belongs in a collection and when it just doesn’t?
JB: I should try to talk about this as specifically as possible, so I’ll talk about it with A Lucky Man and then with Witness, because I think they’re a little different.
So I wrote most of the stories that are in A Lucky Man during my MFA program—or I should say that I drafted them at that point, and then took a couple of years to revise them all. I sort of relentlessly wrote stories in those two years, and I wrote more stories than the number of stories that ended up in A Lucky Man. There are nine stories in that collection, and I think I wrote twelve or thirteen stories, somehow. And there are two things—at least two things—I should mention: one, when I was writing those stories, for a long time, I had no sense or aspiration that I was writing a collection. I vividly remember other folks in the program talking to each other like, “Oh, how’s your novel?” And they’d ask me, “How’s your collection?” and I’d be like, “What are you talking about? I don’t have a collection.” And they’d be like, “Okay…seems like you do!” So it took me a long time to see it. And the second thing I should say is that once I did see it, the connections were surprisingly apparent to me, but only among those nine stories. So the other three or four just didn’t belong, whereas these stories spoke to each other. I felt there were these subliminal connections that made them bind. I think when you sequence a collection, it helps to bring those connections out: figuring out what goes first, how the stories fall from each other in sequence, and what story closes. And I think what that showed me is that there’s a way with a collection that you can kind of trust parts of your mind that you don’t always have conscious access to. Of course, certain things were on my mind, explicitly, when I was writing those stories. But I think a lot of the things that bound them together were things that I wasn’t necessarily explicitly thinking of, but of course my mind was. And it took standing back from those stories to figure out, oh, these are a collection—those others are just some stories. So that was really useful.
With Witness, it was maybe a little different. I think I realized sooner in the process what the collection seemed to be, what was binding the stories. And so, I think with the last story or two that ended up in the collection, I knew I was writing something for a collection, whereas that was not the case with A Lucky Man. I wrote all those stories thinking of them as just individual stories. So with this book, there’s a story I added really late in the game, but I knew where I wanted that story to sit. I knew the company I wanted that story to keep, which was different for me, because I typically don’t write with that much foreknowledge. I’m very much a “mystery writer,” trying to figure things out as I go. And with this one, the process of writing the story was still figuring a lot of stuff out, but I kind of knew more things about the main character and what he was wrestling with when I wrote this story, because I knew what the collection was. The last thing I’ll say about Witness that became a sort of guiding idea for me . . . a quote from James Baldwin became really important to me, and in this line, he basically says that there’s a very thin line between a witness and an actor, but the line is absolutely real. And that quote to me was powerful enough but also suggestive enough that it could guide me without making me feel too restricted. This idea of witnessing what you see out in the world, how you act in response to what you see: those are loose enough but also compelling enough that I felt I could write to that. And I felt like I needed both, that guidance and that freedom.
The Journal: Earlier this year, I read Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode, and ever since, I’ve been fascinated with thinking about the different shapes and structures narratives follow other than the traditional “arc.” In consideration to those ideas, are there any shapes you feel compelled by? How do you set out structuring your stories—and does that ever change in revision?
That’s a good question. I like how that book is scrutinizing the idea of the story arc as the necessary story shape. That feels useful to me because I think every story has its own shape. One thing I’m compelled by is Alice Munro’s idea of experiencing a story like experiencing a house—that is super fascinating to me. I’m not sure I entirely understand it but she talks about when she reads stories, she can start reading the story anywhere, and just kind of move around in it. And it is like a house, right? You don’t necessarily follow a certain path through someone’s house or your own house, so that seems really compelling to me. I’ve been really interested in stories where the shape comes in the form of fragments. A lot of my students have been writing or wrestling with the idea of narrating trauma, for instance, and how do you do that? And the fragment or fragmentation seems to be one story shape that a lot of them are considering or thinking about. It’s interesting because you have a narrative form of fragmentation that actually is, at the same time, resisting narration. So all these things are on the page, but the typical way we would move through a story, with natural connections of a linear sequence—all that stuff is taken out if you have a bunch of fragments. And it calls on the reader to do a lot of work, and it honors the trauma, in a way. It sort of honors the presence of the trauma, and the challenge that trauma exerts on the ability to narrate anything. You can’t assimilate the traumatic experience so how can you narrate it? So I think fragmentation is one thing I’m thinking about, and this house metaphor is another thing I’m thinking about. I’m not sure in my own stories if I actively think about shapes beyond the arc—maybe they play with the arc shape in some way, but you can probably put a narrative arc on most of my stories. But in my reading life and in my teaching life, I’m certainly compelled by other shapes.
The Journal: In reading A Lucky Man, I’m struck by the particular way each story traverses time—it feels like every narrator is on a precipice between past and present, and similarly haunted by both, visions of who they were and who they should be. Like how in “J’ouvert 1996”, the father tells the narrator to stop sending pictures of himself, because he can only see him as the boy he used to be, or in “A Lucky Man,” Lincoln remarks about the divide between him and his wife in thinking that “time had not treated them equally.” In Joan Silber’s The Art of Fiction, she writes that “Time is always in some way the subject of fiction . . . Storytelling is always the contemplation of time.” How much might you agree with this idea? What does time mean to you when writing? What does it mean to your characters?
JB: I totally agree. I think the subject is always time, in a way, you know? It kind of goes back to your last question—maybe the arc isn’t the best way to represent the way a character is experiencing time. Maybe it is fragmentation, maybe it is a kind of wandering progression through a structure, like a house. I think in my stories, I’m always trying to erode or make porous the boundary between what we sort of clumsily call “frontstory” and “backstory.” Because I think that that division isn’t always so neat—it’s probably rarely that neat, or maybe never that neat. There’s that famous Faulkner quote about the past not being past—I actually prefer what he goes on to say in that quote, because he talks about the experience of living in the present is like laboring through webs of the past. And I love that idea, that you’re just constantly walking through this gossamer sensation of what is past. And that’s the way I aim to write in most of my stories—it’s not like here’s what happening now, here’s what happened twenty years ago, and now let’s go back to—you know, like the past neatly explains why the character is doing something in the present. I don’t think that’s what’s happening; I think that the past is always mysterious, constructed—it’s always kind of a question. You’re always kind of reliving it. And so as you move through life, as you move through your present story, you’re always moving through your past story as well. And I kind of want to capture that feeling of a character laboring through these webs, and that nothing you do is discretely set off from what we call “backstory.” The backstory is always there, it’s in the air, even when you’re not aware of it, you’re walking right through it all the time.
The Journal: “Everything the Mouth Eats” begins with the line, “I’ve started this story many times and deleted the page many times.” I was wondering how do stories begin for you? What does it take for a story to feel true, and start a life of its own?
JB: I think they begin in different ways—for instance, that story began as an attempt on my part to talk back to another story that I love. One of my favorite writers does this: Yiyun Li does it a lot. A lot of her stories are talking back to William Trevor stories, or Elizabeth Bowen, or other writers that she loves. And so with that story, I was trying to talk back to “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin. Although that beginning, that first line that you quoted is actually an allusion to The Fire Next Time, I believe, when he’s writing to his nephew [“My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation”]. So that’s one way that stories begin for me, I’m just caught up with something in a story that I love and I want to try to write back to it. Having that story there as a starting point is really useful, but inevitably your story is just going to go in a different direction and become its own thing, and I love when that happens. It’s like, oh yeah, I’m not talking only to you anymore, I have something to say now.
Otherwise, it’s often something you were just talking about, not letting things go. Stories will begin because something won’t let go of me, or will just stay with me. Often it’s a place, or a voice, that just stays in my head, and I feel like I have to write about it. For instance, there’s a story in my new collection that’s set in Brooklyn—it’s set at a location that’s essentially the Brooklyn Museum. I was thinking about the Brooklyn Museum because when I lived in New York, I would go to this monthly event called First Saturdays, and it was always a fascinating event because this huge cross-section of people from Brooklyn and other boroughs would come, a huge diversity of people. It was a mix of music, visual art, and sometimes film, so various arts were represented. And people of all ages. And what I remember about going was that you never knew who you were going to encounter. It just felt like it was inevitable that you were going to see someone that you didn’t expect to see. And that stayed with me, that sense of completely unpredictable encounters. The story I ended up writing was this completely unpredictable encounter that becomes very troublesome for the main character. But I love that feeling, so I wanted to capture that feeling of being in that place, because it just stayed with me, it felt like this doesn’t happen everywhere. Of course it happens, especially in a place like New York, but there it felt really intense and more likely to happen. So either I’m talking back to other stories, or a place or a voice just has this grip on me. What was the last part of your question?
The Journal: What does it take for a story to feel true, and take form—you know, when you start something and it’s not quite the way you have it in your head and you have to kind of recombobulate a few times?
JB: My sense of it is similar to what a lot of writers have talked about—I feel a story starts to feel true when it starts pushing you around a little bit. One of my old teachers would talk about the feeling of when you’ve put down a couple of good sentences, or a couple of good details, or a couple of good scenes in a story, then you have the sensation of losing options, and that sensation of losing options should actually be a good one. It can be scary, but it should be a good sensation, because it means the story is exerting a discipline on you, and exerting its own rules on you. So you know these beautiful details that you’ve set down on a page are actually making certain bad decisions not possible anymore, or they’re sort of suggesting to you, no, don’t do that, follow this path. So for me, when I get that feeling of this is becoming difficult, like this story is kind of fighting me—it’s awful, of course, but it also makes me feel like this story is true, this story is becoming its own thing, it’s not necessarily bound to what my conscious mind wants it to be. I have to respect a lot of what it wants to be. The other thing I would say is that I think a story feels true when any change you try to make to it makes it worse. It’s like, no, no, no, this is it, this is its form, this is its essential form, so I have to respect that, I have to stop messing around with it.
The Journal: What most commonly stumps you in writing? What have been some challenges you’ve faced in bringing your beginnings to their rightful resting place?
JB: That’s a good question . . . I feel like every story has its own seemingly impossible challenges, but I’m trying to think of what recurs. . . I think one of the hardest things to do in stories is to—I see this in my own work, I see this in my students’ work—one of the hardest things to do is to honor all of the characters in a given story. And it’s hard because one of the things you want to do, if you’re writing character-based fiction, one of the things you often want to do is to be true to a certain point-of-view, to a certain perspective on the world. So you’re kind of pledging allegiance to one character in a way, but the difficult task is to do that, but at the same time, not allow that allegiance to one character to diminish the autonomy and the complexity of other characters. So the thing that I always end up wrestling with is how do I write a story that’s deeply embedded in a character’s point-of-view, that feels true to the character’s point-of-view, while also looking at the other players, and making sure they’re not just becoming functions of the plot, sort of adjuncts of the main character, and getting pushed around by the sensibility and the desires of the main character. So how do you render a world in which the subjectivity of your main character is really richly rendered, but you’re also true to what’s external to that subjectivity—which to be honest doesn’t really care about that subjectivity. As we know from our lives. Neither of us wanted it to rain today, right, but it’s raining! If we had our choice, it wouldn’t be raining. But how do you get the rain, metaphorically speaking, into your story? Even if your character doesn’t want it to be there. So for me, a thing that recurs is that how do I make sure that the things that external to my privileged character, the things and people external to my privileged character, how do I make sure those things are autonomous and true and complex, at the same time that this character is rich and true and complex. It’s very difficult!
Yona Harvey’s second poetry collection, You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love, offers a dazzling lyric journey through time and space that spans both the celestial and the personal. This is a book that bursts with energy and defies attempts at simple summary or categorization. Echoing TheOdyssey it references, the poems create a winding voyage that touches on districts (The Dream District, The Frog District, The Sonnet District), elegies, and songs. Although heartbreak and grief weave in and out of its pages, the lingering emotion in my reading of this collection was wonder. Through Harvey’s eyes, we see a narrative rooted in the Black female experience that examines the limitations of relationships, language, and even our own imagination. At the same time, the poet invites us to marvel as she introduces us to whimsical Afro-futuristic possibilities, both utilizing and shattering familiar poetic forms, and teaching us to see “the most beautiful/ dark that hosts the most private sorrows/ and feeds the hungriest ghosts” (9).
Harvey’s poetry is fierce, noting that “An Apology—/ is not an eraser” (14-15) and “we who believe in freedom cannot rest” (5). In addition to social critique, it is haunted by a nearly apocalyptic understanding of climate change, glancing at “the unmistakable absence of the Great Barrier Reef” (65) and envisioning “when the glaciers get to melting” (68). But these poems are also comforting in their glittering beauty, their willingness to leap in form across the page, managing to surprise with each repetition. New meaning is created out of familiar words such as, “okay,” “&,” “yo,” and even “that.” Wordplay, and a deep attention to sound, permeate the poems, such as in the conclusion of “Subject of Retreat”:
Then what? The snow on the other side. The sound of what I know & your, no, inside it.
The use of form here is playful and endlessly inventive, becoming more experimental as the book progresses and taking on a flexibility and musical quality reminiscent of the blues. The poem “The Dream District/ Origins” comes to mind, where three columns can be read independently or intertwined to create multiple interpretations. Where “Sonnet for a Tall Flower Blooming at Dinnertime” is composed as a haunting ode-like American sonnet, a later poem in the manuscript, “The Sonnet District,” challenges our understanding of this poetic structure. Through the use of subversive couplets that maneuver through humorous turns from an ex’s careless words to Shakespeare—the bard himself—the poem overflows what might have been fourteen stanzas into a fragmented and defiant conclusion: “I peeped the conveniently placed escape hatch in the shape of a narrow couplet/ from where I sat.// It didn’t take a telescope to find that.”
“Cutthroat/ The Rising Cost of Fuel” experiments further with em dashes positioned before and after words, making the appearance that the poem is “glitching” on the page as if the words were slashes or pixels. Even the paper feels the wounds of loss.
Cumulatively, Harvey manages to balance a kind of Afro-futuristic surrealism that feels mythic, sci-fi, and slippery. But it is grounded by strong emotions of siblinghood, marriage, and parenthood that encompass an expansive capacity for feelings of love, grief, and betrayal. The poet is not alone on this journey; the collection builds upon a chorus of new and reoccurring voices and invokes such muses as Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Erykah Badu, Madonna, Denzel Washington, and even fantastical frogs to name only a few.
In the same chiaroscuro way that stars shine more brightly against a dark sky, humor and beauty illuminate even the most solemn sections. Nowhere is this felt as strongly as in her unforgettable twenty-eight-part title poem, which reads like a transmission with frequent punctuation and travels the stars as a marriage collapses:
Any launch. changes. everything. The ultimate outcome. is love. or hate. Is success. or failure. Is life. or death.
This is an easy poem to obsess over: it manages to hold freedom and playfulness in the same stanzas that traverse the stages of grief, wielding transmission-like punctuation to emphasize the fragmentation of emotions. The culmination overlaps with the title, offering generously, “You don’t have to go. to Mars for love. / For you to be willing. is more than enough.”You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love achieves inspiring emotional breadth: it devastated me and made me laugh out loud, often on the same page. Harvey reminds us that our journey is not linear. As the penultimate poem declares again and again, “there is no center of the universe” (66). Like the vastness of space, this repetition is simultaneously comforting and frightening. These works urge us not to flinch away from experiences of loss, anger, and sorrow as a sense of freedom and the awe of discovery await on the other side. This is a rich, sparkling collection that you will want to explore more than once.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO GO TO MARS FOR LOVE can be purchased from Four Way Books for $16.95.
October 30, 2022 | Alex Borden | nonfiction special
“It hurts just as much as it is worth.” – Julian Barnes
The story goes that my maternal grandmother, Po Po, had her feet bound when she was a young girl in Beijing. The process was halted when they realized she would have to flee to America during the Communist Revolution.
But no, that doesn’t make sense. Her feet would’ve been visibly disfigured; she would’ve had trouble walking. Perhaps she was just a natural size four?
My mom had me when she was 42 years old, which is to say that she was preparing me for her death since the day I was born. It was less about her actual age than the fact that she seemed to always feel death’s looming presence. She knew she would leave us one day, sooner than she’d liked.
Because of this, I never imagined her crying at my wedding. I never imagined that my future kids would call her a deranged name like Mee Maw or Gam Gam. I always knew that by the time these things happened, she would be gone.
Foot binding is done in private by mother to daughter. Even though she knows the pain well, the mother still pulls and pulls the cloth strips tighter. She remembers the pain, the agony of it, the way it twists her toes under the soles of her feet, breaking the bones into inhumane shapes. The mother does not know any other way.
I woke up at 7am to a text from my dad. Mom died around 2:30am in her sleep. Hospice confirmed and funeral services came to pick her up. Glad you both visited. I didn’t answer because I had nothing to say.
She died, I texted my three best friends. One of them stayed on the phone with me last night as I cried my way back from New York. I told her I couldn’t do it anymore, the waiting. We hung up at 1:30am, 2:30am New York time. The moment she died.
I tried to fall back asleep, putting it all off for a few more hours.
I had nightmares as a child. They varied in plot, but always came to the same end: I would be kidnapped and taken from my mom, never to see her again. I’d wake up in tears and run into my parents’ bedroom, back when they still shared one, shaking my mom awake. Without hesitation or complaint, she’d walk me back to my room, tuck me in, and kiss my forehead. Then she’d curl up on the foot of my bed like a dog, tossing my SpongeBob blanket over herself. My mom was the person I feared most in the world and yet, she was the only person who I was sure could protect me from the dark.
Whenever my mom was late to pick me up from elementary school, Chinese class, or gymnastics, she would find me crying, waiting by the side of the road. Each time, I was sure she wasn’t late—she was dead, just like she always told me she would be.
Two weeks before she died, when my dad told me it was time, I flew home to Long Island. I’d had four years since her initial diagnosis to prepare me for the goodbye. I made sure to pack a lot of black just in case the visit took a turn.
I sat on her bed in our guest room and wondered how you’re supposed to have last words with someone who doesn’t know you’re there. It had been about a year since we’d had a conversation and even then, she was just a shell of herself.
My mom was always on a quest to lose just five more pounds even though she teetered around 95 for most of her life. I looked down at her small frame. My dad told me she couldn’t keep on weight anymore. 74 pounds. I put my hand on her leg above the old SpongeBob blanket and then jolted it back, shocked by the sharpness of bone.
“I’m sure this isn’t how it works,” I said “but if you’ve been waiting to see me, please go. It’s okay to go now.”
Nothing happened. Her mouth remained agape in a horrifying circleof pain. How stupid I was to think she was waiting for me.
That night, my older sister, Lynna, and I went to a Beyonce vs. Drake dance night in Brooklyn. She was dancing, but I was preoccupied with my phone, hoping for a text from a guy I’d been talking to from a dating app. Our first date was set for tomorrow night when I’d be back home in Austin.
We were in purgatory. Our mom was dying, had been for years, but she wasn’t dead yet. All we could do was wait. What we didn’t know was that our wait was about to end. She’d die just 24 hours after we left the bar to eat greasy bodega fries.
I’m overwhelmed with the how are you <3 text messages that flood my phone when people hear the news. Kindness can be so unbearable. I see one that starts with I know you weren’t close with her, but— and decide not to open it. I’d said it plenty of times before. I was an adult. I had no need for something as childish as parents.
But was that true, or just an easy way for me to explain away their absence in my life? What is closeness if not hours spent in the car, if not tears shed, if not the desire, no, the need, for me to be better than she was?
She made me inside of her. Was it possible to be any closer?
At my house in Austin, flowers showed up in a continuous rotation. The first arrangement was nice, but by the eighth I was enraged. I left them all on our coffee table until one of my roommates texted a photo in our group chat saying, These are starting to smell. Are you gonna throw them out?
I dumped the decay in our compost and smashed two of the vases in our carport, but immediately regretted it when I thought about glass getting stuck in my dog’s paws. It took an hour to meticulously clean up all the pieces. Sometimes grief feels like performance art that no one is watching.
My mom hated flowers. She’d say, “Why would I want something that will just die anyway?”
I exercise the morning of the funeral because I think my mom would’ve liked that.
I grew up thinking 100 pounds was too heavy, too much. I’d stand on a scale every night alongside my mom and sister and we’d record our numbers in a notebook. The game stopped being fun when I began to outweigh them at 12 years old.
In the year after she dies, I will gain 25 pounds and keep it on. It surprises me how natural it feels to wear the extra weight. People ascribe it to finding comfort while grieving, or perhaps my new relationship, but I think it’s something different—a release, binds loosening. Why did my mom want me so small?
My sister texts me a picture of herself in a black dress with rainbow polka dots. Do you think it’s okay to wear this? she asks.
Of course, I text back. This is our thing. Who’s gonna tell us it’s wrong? Maybe we can even wear red since that was her favorite color. And it’s a lucky Chinese color too.
No, that’s weird, Lynna says. And red looks bad on me. I tell her I’ll wear my pink pom pom earrings and a black pleated skirt with woven threads of silver so she won’t feel like she sticks out.
My mom’s aides are helping my dad get dressed for the funeral. I guess they’re my dad’s aides now that she’s gone. I wonder if they feel the grief thick in the house or if it’s overpowered by the stench of pee and vomit that’s deep within the upstairs carpets. Did they feel death when it came to take her? Do they know how soon it will come to take my dad?
I get ready in my childhood bathroom, caked with mildew from disuse. I draw a bath even though I’m sure sitting in this tub might make me dirtier. I find a bar of soap crusted to the bottom of a dish and wrestle it free.
I lay in the water, submerging my ears even though my mom always told me that would lead to an infection. I have always taken baths, something she assumed I would grow out of. This is a trait of mine that baffled many old roommates who would find me in the bathtub even at 6:30am before a work day.
A tarot reader once told me that baths mimic the womb space, making you feel held and comforted. Safe. Loved.
My dad doesn’t want to ride with me to the funeral home; he’d prefer to go with the aides. All three of us— my dad, my sister, and me— will arrive separately. Grieve separately.
The BMW is the only remaining car that hasn’t been impounded by the state after his countless DUIs. I find the keys in their old spot—on our dining room table in one of those weird catchall bowls that has somehow held keys, Halloween candy, throw up, and microwave popcorn over the last twenty years.
My mom’s wool Pendleton bag is still there. She hadn’t left the house for more than a walk around the block supported by her aide’s strong arms in over three years, but her purse sat there like she’d just returned from a quick errand.
All three of us had a version of that bag. My sister’s earth tones. Mine cool tones. My mom’s, some strange combination of the two. She was the mess of color we both came from.
“I never want you to have to do this for me,”she told me. I’m nine and we’re outside her parents’ house. “I don’t want you to see me like this. I don’t want you to take care of me. It’s too much. You should be able to go anywhere, do anything.”
Po Po had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years prior and we’d visit frequently to check in on her and Gung Gung. Her decline was sharp and fast and painful to watch.
My mom grabbed me by my wrists and stared deeply into my eyes. “Promise me something, Alex. Promise me you’ll kill me before I get like this.”
“I promise,” I heard myself say.
She asked my dad to kill her for the first time two years ago and every day after that until she couldn’t speak anymore.“There’s nothing I can do,” my dad said. “At least not without going to jail.” I wanted him to say that he’d risk it for her so I didn’t have to think about my own broken promise.
My mom was trapped in a prison of her own mind and the walls closed in on her more and more each day. Why didn’t we do more to set her free?
I hope I won’t suffer when my inevitable diagnosis comes. But I know I will, like her and Po Po and my paternal grandmother before me. This is the legacy of the women in my family— to lose our minds.
I feel the binds pull tighter and tighter, knowing I can’t break them. Knowing that everyone else who felt them tug on their skin before me is dead.
My parents were going to buy an apartment somewhere in Paris’ 6th arrondissement after I graduated college. That was their fantasy at least when they were still in love and in good health and life had so much possibility.
My dad wants to give the eulogy but doesn’t want to stand in front of the room with his walker. I try to arrange an armchair for him to sit in and he gets frustrated with me. It would be hard, I imagine, to go from being a VP at a big company with speaking engagements all over the world to this. When is the last time anyone has seen him? They don’t know what 19 years of alcoholism does to a body, a mind.
My sister meets us at the funeral home with E, her new boyfriend. They’d been dating for a year, but to me he’s still new because I haven’t met him yet. Once, we planned to meet for brunch, but he bailed 30 minutes before, texting my sister that he had a “tummy ache.” I think he’s afraid of me and I like that.
Now, I can tell he’s nervous when he shakes my hand. To be fair, it’s probably not easy to meet your girlfriend’s family for the first time at her mom’s funeral. But also, to be fair, I wish he hadn’t come at all.
People arrive slowly: old neighbors, Lynna’s childhood nanny, my friends, Lynna’s friends, a few Chinese people who I can never remember our relation to. This funeral is more for my dad than my mom. It’s pageantry, just for show. Hell is making small talk with strangers at your mother’s funeral. After 20 minutes of this, I go sit with my dad at the side of the room.
“Do you want to start your speech soon?” I ask him. I don’t know the schedule for these things. Shouldn’t someone say something? Did we make a program? Instead of going to the front of the room my dad quiets everyone from the couch. I’m trapped next to him and feel all the eyes in the room shift to us. He begins his speech and I know I can’t get up and leave him. My sister sits safely with E in the back of the room.
“Kathy died on February 18, 2018 at the age of 66 from complications from Lewy Body Dementia,” he begins.
We’re already doing it wrong. My mom would’ve hated everyone knowing her age, a fact she kept secret from me until I found a birth certificate in the basement. She didn’t trust me not to tell the other moms how much older she was than them.
“She loved New York City, her daughters, and a good sale.”New York City first, me and Lynna second. We deserve to be first, I think. She sacrificed so much for us.
“She loved to travel. When we’d explore a new city on foot, you’d have Kathy walking fast in the front, Lynna a few feet behind her trying her best to keep up, and then me dragging Alex a block back trying not to lose them.” People laugh at this, and I do too. I’ve always been my family’s comedic relief. I look at my sister and am surprised to see her sobbing. Just two days ago, she’d told me she had no good memories of our mom. E gets her a tissue and I want to rip it from his hands.
My dad talks about meeting mom at work. How she gave him his first job in the city at Manufacturers Hanover, a now defunct bank. They traveled Europe together and dated for five years before getting married. If they weren’t my own parents, it would strike me as cool that they didn’t rush into anything while both approaching 40 in the 80s. But then, they took their time and they still got it wrong.
My dad ends his speech by asking for others to share their own memories of my mom. I grimace knowing no one will say anything. But I’m wrong. My mom’s cousin speaks up. “I loved Kathy’s cookies,” she says with a laugh. “So yummy.” That’s all she says. I look at my sister and we inappropriately burst out laughing.
We calm down and our old neighbor, who I’m shocked to see is still alive, starts asking my dad questions about banking in the 90s. When did Manufacturers Hanover close? Didn’t Kathy work at Goldman? And when did you move to Chase? And when did Chase become JP Morgan Chase? Oh god, now they’re talking 9/11. I know we all want to crawl out of our skin except for those who are old and unaware or perhaps those with an interest in finance.
The insufferable conversation goes on for at least five minutes during which I continuously make eye contact with my sister, silently begging her to shut it down. E must be blocking our telepathy because she does nothing. I force myself to stand up and thank everyone for coming, let people know there’s a memory book to sign (Lynna’s idea. No one will write anything) and then thank them again because I don’t know how else to end things.
When she died, my dad asked if Lynna and I wanted to give the eulogy. We both said no. I wanted to, but knew I couldn’t. How could you encapsulate someone so beautiful, smart, complicated, neurotic, and sad into a few paragraphs? I couldn’t boil her down to shopping, fast walking, and cookies. No, I wouldn’t.
I thought of your mom today. Kat, an old friend, texts. I signed up for this expensive pottery class. I almost didn’t but then I remembered what your mom always said– you can never waste money on learning something. I clutch my phone and close my eyes. I sometimes forget she mattered to anyone else but me.
After the funeral, Lynna and I look through our mom’s closet and I notice a small dry-cleaning bag. Curious, I open it and find a collection of handmade, crocheted child-size sweaters with happy patterns of clouds and ducks and frogs and trees. A note is tucked on the hanger in my mom’s almost illegible handwriting– save for grandchildren.
The ancient Chinese believe the body is a gift from one’s ancestors. You must protect it and treat it well. The greatest punishment in ancient China was to be beheaded because it meant your body would be damaged beyond repair. No longer whole. You must keep your body whole if you wish to be reunited with your ancestors in death.
I suppose I am not whole by design. Half Chinese. Half White. I don’t think I believe in an afterlife. But sometimes I think— how will I ever find her? Are we not bound together?
Without each other, can we ever be whole again?
I tell my dad it’s time for me to go back to Austin. For the first time since I was a child, I feel sad to leave him. We don’t hug goodbye; I can’t remember the last time we did that. Instead, he waves me over to his desk drawer to take a stack of $20s. I protest, and then give in when I see he won’t relent.
I leave him alone in our big house, happy that the aides will stay on, checking on him twice a day. I feel the money, heavy in my coat pocket, and can’t help but feel like my dad just paid me to come watch my mom die.
Sometimes in the year after her death, when I’m feeling extra delusional, I’ll wonder if my mom sent me the guy from the dating app. A boyfriend to ease the pain of her absence. But of course, if she could’ve sent me something, she wouldn’t send a man. She would send an all-expenses paid vacation to Europe, a successful business venture, maybe a nice jade necklace, or a Marimekko dress.
On the escalator down to baggage claim at the Austin airport, I see a mother holding a sign that says, “WELCOME HOME, KELSEY!” She is shaking it wildly above her head. A girl in front of me, Kelsey, I assume, starts waving her hands and jumping up and down. I watch her run down the escalator and into her mother’s arms. I wait until I get into my car and then I start to cry. I feel stupid for it. My mom was never that type to run towards me and embrace me. That could have never been us. But then I think, maybe it could’ve been.
Later that year, I will go to San Francisco to get a soul tattoo from a witchy, white woman with soft pink hair. We will meditate together as she designs my tattoo. She’ll show me the design– a rose with deep roots surrounded by cedar, mugwort, and poppy. She’ll say that there is a lot of emotional damage and darkness being held in my womb space. The flowers are the plant medicines I need to cure it. She’ll stab the flower essences mixed with ink into my veins for three hours. Heal me. Heal me. Heal me.
I think about how she’ll look at me and immediately see a giant gaping hole where my womb should be. A hole that wasn’t created by my mother, or even her mother, but maybe a woman generations back: whoever the woman in my family was who decided that to love greatly was a sign of weakness.
I don’t think my mom would’ve wanted a funeral. I imagine she would’ve preferred to go in silence with no big performance for those who didn’t matter to her in the end. She would’ve wanted me and my sister to remember her from before she got sick— her good, her bad, her complicated.
She’d want us to remember her as the woman who didn’t leave her office in the city for over 48 hours because of a deadline. Her eyes dried out so much from the lack of sleep that her glass contacts affixed to her eyeballs and needed to be surgically removed. She’d want us to remember the flat tire she got when she was nine months pregnant with Lynna and how she pulled over on the highway to change it by herself. She’d remind us that she used to design her own clothes, of the importance of our Chinese culture, and how much she loved her own mother.
I think she would have wanted us to know that she was hard on us because she so badly wanted us to be capable and independent when she was gone. Maybe she’d even tell us that we were everything she’d hoped for.
“I have sweetness too, just underneath thicker rinds.” (131)
In the acknowledgements for her short story collection BLISS MONTAGE, author Ling Ma cites film critic Jeanine Basinger as coining the book’s title term. Basinger’s 1993 work A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960 details a phenomenon in film of a woman’s briefly allowed period of happiness before the movement of the plot inevitably invites heartbreak. The audience, Basinger argues, has only a passive engagement in women’s joy, and the “Happy Interlude” or “Bliss Montage” serves only as a prelude to her far more interesting trauma.
The Bliss Montage is a flattening technique, a refusal to recognize a fulfilled woman as complex and whole but to instead portray her as an object upon which the world must inevitably shape a recognizable narrative. But Ma’s characters continually break from their assigned roles and emerge raw. In “Los Angeles,” a woman lives in a sprawling house with her stock Husband and one hundred ex-boyfriends, including an abuser. She luxuriates in her mansion and her adoring suitors while navigating the complexities of victimhood: How does one own their narrative without being reduced to it? In “G,” an Asian-American woman uses an invisibility drug to ease the pressures of moving through her world in a non-white body. “I have done so much G that my adult sense of self formed in the complete absence of my reflection,” the narrator says. “For a person like me, that’s a certain kind of freedom.” (50)
The women in Ma’s stories are constantly changing, shifting and adapting to their world. Her first novel, SEVERANCE (2018), told the almost eerily prescient story of a woman continuing to work in a country shut down by a pandemic. The book was praised by author Jia Tolentino, who called it “the best work of fiction I’ve read yet about the millennial condition—the alienation and cruelty that come with being a functioning person under advanced global capitalism”. BLISS MONTAGE has the same grip on the surreal millennial experience: as the metanarratives Ma’s characters have been told about the world and their place in it fail, they plunge into an adulthood that appears similar in theory but far different in practice to the one they prepared for. In “Returning,” a woman visits her husband’s home country for the first time to experience a local festival together. When he slips away from her in the airport, she is forced to encounter the strangeness of his hometown alone and learns that the festival they have come to attend involves people burying themselves alive overnight in hopes that they wake up healed—if they wake up at all. “Another self,” the narrator reflects, “was needed to move into the future.” (105)
A metamorphosis, Ma seems to suggest, may be the only way to move forward on one’s own terms. In “Office Hours,” a young film professor takes her old mentor’s office only to discover a hole in the wall leading to a world frozen in time. As she navigates the politics of an academic career for which she fought tooth and nail, she teaches her class on The Disappearing Woman, noting that unlike in the films she shows, she cannot simply pick up and move to a new world that meets her expectations. After watching Ghost World, her students agree: “Enid gets to disappear, but most of us can’t do that. Most of us are like Rebecca: we’re critical of the world but we still have to live in it.” (155) Reflecting at the end of his career, her mentor says the same: “The sanest way forward—you have to split yourself up, like an earthworm,” he tells her. (142)
Ma’s women are both anxious and joyful, selfish and caring, unfeeling and full of wonder. They are the before and after of the Happy Interlude we never see onscreen. BLISS MONTAGE asks: How do we break free of the narratives placed on us? We split. We refuse to stagnate. We bury ourselves and regrow into something new.
BLISS MONTAGE can be purchased from Macmillan for $26.00.
David E. Yee is an Asian American writer whose work has appeared in American Short Fiction, AGNI Online, Seneca Review, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. In 2017, he won the New Ohio Review Fiction Contest, judged by Colm Tóibín, as well as the Press 53 Flash Contest judged by Jeffrey Condran. He is based in Columbus, OH, where he works as a bartender, and is a graduate of OSU’s MFA program. He spoke with our Associate Reviews & Interviews Editor, Nikki Barnhart, about his first collection of stories, Mongolian Horse, published this summer with Black Lawrence Press.
There’s so much musicality in this collection—references from the Beach Boys, to the Smashing Pumpkins, to the McDonald’s jingle are tangled into the stories, but there’s also music in the sheer language itself, the rhythmic prose throughout. I’m curious about your personal relationship to music—are you yourself a musician, past or present? How much does listening to music play a part in your inspiration or process?
Music was my introduction to art. I grew up in orchestra, transitioned into bands as a teen, played in jazz bands in college. I associate a lot of wonder and pain with music. Also, I try to focus on all five senses when writing, and noise is so commonly overlooked. Songs carry intrinsic weight when coupled with a moment in your life. I like recreating that in a narrative. I am also someone that doesn’t write in a vacuum. I prefer a busy room which I’m blotting out with music. Certain albums or artists help recreate a mood for me, and when I’m working on a particular piece, I’ll only listen to those works to stay locked in that mode.
Besides music, what would you say are some of your other influences? Did any specific writers or works help you form your own voice, or are there any that you feel in conversation with?
Stylistically, my biggest influences are Stuart Dybek, Toni Morrison, and ZZ Packer. There is a beautiful rhythm to their prose. Dybek and Packer—this collection is definitely informed by their style of short story. I could list a hundred short story writers I admire, but these two are the voices in literature who I feel I strive to be nearer to. I don’t know if there is a writer I worship on a line-by-line level as much as Toni Morrison. I can attribute learning how to tame the more unwieldy parts of working in first-person to reading Kazuo Ishiguro.
Most of the stories in Mongolian Horse take place in Maryland, where you’re from—a Maryland that feels at once sharp and visceral, but also hazy and distant. They feel almost nostalgic, but I hesitate to call them that because they seem to occupy that narrow space of wistful recollection without necessarily a desire for return. How did writing these stories affect your relationship with Maryland as a place both in the world, and in your mind and memory?
Maryland is a large part of who I am, even though I didn’t realize that until I moved to Columbus. I didn’t find value in knowing how to navigate a place without a map until that ability was no longer viable because of my relocation. Every part of Maryland has a memory attached to it. It’s such a compact place, and I could drive around and be reminded of my entire adult life constantly. Leaving felt like closing a chapter, and having a bit of finality made it easier to write toward those memories.
When you’re writing a story, what usually comes first—the imagery, the voice, or the language? Each of these elements are equally prominent in every one of these stories.
To be honest, it’s a bit of a dubious process. Typically there’s an overarching idea that brings me to the page, but I’m always hesitant to write an “idea story” so I try and smash it into a character/circumstance that is also somewhere else in my mind. Sometimes I’ll write from an individual line until it fails or finds ground. Or I’ll have a circumstance and I’ll write toward it. Sometimes the whole thing is amorphous and I have to hack away at it to make it work. Sometimes the only changes I make are on a line level. I try not to overanalyze myself. I want the work to be fun.
In your acknowledgements you say, “I was never a person who was in love with writing. I wrote because I felt trapped, wanting to create but having no outlet.” Can you speak a bit more about that and your journey to becoming a writer?
I’ve always loved stories. I grew up with books. It was one of my favorite ways to pass time in a part of my life when I had very little. But I didn’t start writing with any volume until my band broke up. I sacrificed a lot of relationships for music. I worked in an office and four days a week after work, I’d go straight to band practice, play shows on the weekend, then eat/sleep/repeat. When my band ended, I was just working in an office 45 hours a week with a bunch of very fragile friendships. I didn’t have a creative outlet, and writing felt like a safe way to be imaginative without having to rely on others. And I needed something else to pour myself into. I was already getting ready to go back to college and decided to go for English because of that. But I’m not someone who wanted to be a writer in that modern sense of devoting every minute to the craft. Writing has been a way for me to translate and understand my life. Those years of grad school when it was all-consuming really changed my relationship with it, but the education I received was worth it. I think I was also feeling some kind of woe and longing when I wrote those acknowledgements. Who knows.
Food is another common link in this collection, from fast-food joints, to bakery jobs. Was this a conscious motif?
I focus a lot on sensory details and mundanities in my work. I find a lot of very plain aspects of living to be quite meaningful. Because of that, my stories very rarely have too much wonder or strangeness forced into the world of the character. Especially in this collection with the motifs being small moments in a character’s life that had more meaning than they realized—many of the plot aspects of the story are centered in what would otherwise be very average parts of a routine. We eat a lot.
Can you talk about the process of this particular group of stories coming together as a collection? When did you start to see a connection? Did you write any stories in response to the patterns you noticed yourself working in? What do you see as the ligaments of this collection?
These stories are the bulk of my work from 2012-2017. I found a voice that I set as a boundary and tried to explore different avenues of it. I wasn’t really working on them to be a collection, but was enjoying exploring this particular style. Hung Do’s Kung Fu was the first piece. It was the first time I allowed myself to write an Asian American character which later became another repeated theme. That story feels very close and raw in a way that rereading makes me squirm a little. Donut Man was the last piece I wrote here, and there is a lot more armor being built around the perspective. There are definitely similar shapes to many of these stories with varied breadth being used to accomplish the narrative. My focus became how the shape of these stories can inform the truth of the character.
Can you tell us how “Mongolian Horse,” the last story in the collection, ended up being its title? How do you feel it encapsulates the rest of the works within?
Because I write primarily in first person, many of these stories are in the format of a narrator worrying a memory. The work of the story is the digestion of this memory by the character and how it helps them arrive at a moment of change and truth. This is typically a bit underplayed in some of these narratives, but in Mongolian Horse it is the exact purpose of the character. It’s the story in the collection where the theme and the voice really are the most paralleled. The image of the Mongolian horse—a near-forgotten animal that has great importance—lines up thematically with the rest of the stories. I was very inspired by ZZ Packer on this. The line that her collection is named after (Drinking Coffee Elsewhere) reads so nonchalant but has an immense amount of gravity for the entire book.
In her first memoir, Ingrid Rojas Contreras performs a delicate balancing act of history, memory, and myth. The Man Who Could Move Clouds begins with an echo. On a winter day in Chicago, a biking Ingrid crashes into a car door and suffers from temporary amnesia in the aftermath. The accident is eerily similar to one decades before, when her mother lost her memories after tumbling down a well in Ocaña, Colombia. When her mother’s memory returned, she also gained the ability to see ghosts and hear disembodied voices. Their family rejoiced and feared her new gifts, recognizing them as the same talents possessed by her father Nono—a curandero who could heal the ailing, divine futures, and move clouds.
After her own accident, Ingrid wanders back home and tells no one of her forgetting, privately enjoying the peace her amnesia grants her: “…it wasn’t the terrible thing she implied, but actually the best thing that had happened to me. I was boundlessly rich in loss.” She pantomimes knowledge of her life while her memory slowly returns. But, unlike her mother, she recovers without any notable powers to speak of. Instead, five years after she’s regained the stories of her own life and her family’s, she’s struck by the urge to write them all down.
Her mother becomes furious at the idea of revealing the secrets of their gifts. In an argument, she threatens to never speak to Ingrid again if she chooses to share them with the world. That night, Ingrid goes to bed with the hand-mirror her mother once used to heal her own amnesia beneath her pillow. Whether by its magic or not, she sees Nono in a dream. “I fear he is there to tell me he doesn’t want his story told, just as Mami has done; instead, he takes my hand, and immediately we are transported to Bucaramanga, Colombia… we are in the back garden and he is pointing down the hill to a glittering river, and I hear him clearly as he says, This is the scene.”
Portals abound across the pages. Her mother’s well serves as a passage into the space between reality and un-reality. Mirrors become paths tread by both Ingrid and her mother to return to their memoried selves. Dreams are accepted as a “burrow of the great beyond.” So when Ingrid wakes and finds that her family’s reported similar dreams of Nono requesting to be disinterred, it is only logical for them to take up the quest to share their story, and return to Colombia to lay Nono to rest once more.
In the same way, Ingrid the author acts as our portal to a legacy that extends far beyond her own. Readers are carried across time to the colonial histories of Colombia, its myths, and the spaces where it is difficult to distinguish the two. The reader will find that these distinctions hardly matter. In the Contreras family, all stories begin by asserting their truth: “Other people’s stories began, Once upon a time. Mami’s began, Once, in real life.” Ingrid takes up the mantle of this tradition, asserting early on, “Not once upon a time, but once in a specific time, in a real place…” One might be forgiven for reading this as a request to give her the benefit of the doubt as she shares tales rife with curses, witches, and ghosts. This is a work of nonfiction, after all. But in reading on, it becomes clear that Ingrid is not presenting us with a plea, but a declaration.
It would be a flattening to place The Man Who Could Move Clouds in the realm of magical realism. The memoir is not a spectacle of the fantastic so much as it is a call for the reader to reconsider and expand their notions of reality, to recognize the multitude of fictions we tell ourselves and deem to be real.
In a lesson on divination, Mami tells a young Ingrid, “You have to tell a story that will allow the client to experience the truth without your ever having to name it.” Through this lens, readers will become skeptical of Ingrid’s claim that she didn’t inherit her family’s gifts. With sweeping research and tender lyricism, Ingrid masterfully succeeds in divining a story that sits at the edges of reality, luxuriating in its truth whether you accept it or not.
Sumita Chakraborty’s debut poetry collection, Arrow, is a sprawling expanse of loss. Centering the story of her sister Priya, Arrow is both a testament and letter to her sibling —who died at age 24—as well as a record of the poet’s large and undefinable grief.
The collection is richly inhabited by figures from mythology: a vast array of flora, fauna, and strange objects—orchids, hurricane plants; bees, sarcophagi; fish, bleach; rose bushes; tulips, irises, stags. They permeate the imagined landscape of the poems. The subject of death, ever-present, raw, and real, is encased within fables and stories so the speaker can interact with the painful reality of mourning through a prism of make-believe. Many laments — direct references to death and violence, particularly against women in both existing myth and invented story — spill out with singular focus, as if the poet cannot avoid thinking and speaking about them. Hands, tongues, heads of people and objects are cut off: blood, asphyxiation, shrieking, sacrifice. Although there are attempts at resurrection and renewal, Arrow does not take the easy way out by offering the clarity of healing or time—even at the end, “we arrow from times of grief into—well, into more such times” (75). Sections end with a sense of arriving, emotionally, right back where we started.
“Dear, Beloved,” by far the densest poem, is composed of one continuous stanza of long lines, a lyrical and painful crux of the book. The worldbuilding brims with energy and expands outwards, even as it never veers from the central theme of death. It forms a microcosm of the book as a whole: pain, guilt, anger, and grief’s circular, non-linear shape. It opens with hypothesis: “It would be winter, with a thin snow. An aged sunbeam / would fall on me” (22) and describes a mountainous landscape envisioned by the speaker, where most of the poem takes place. Unlike the real world, here, her sister is present: a living and breathing character in a bleak fairy tale setting. Tied to this world, we see the speaker in deep turmoil: imagining the self as “some fantastical beast with eyes / lining the inside of my body (26),” confessing desires to die in multitudinous ways, only to be amended; “I did not want to die, but I wanted to want death” (26). The speaker’s grief appears in many ways: complicated by guilt, helplessness, inevitability.
This struggle is especially heartbreaking considering the admission towards the end of the poem that “I am lying to you” (32). Tension and tone quickly ramp up: “It was a sky in which every child of every star, / living or dead, could be heard humming” (28). These images—sky, child, humming, living versus dead— are heightened and strengthened through a repetition of loose, gauzy imagery. The ending’s rich language pulls everything together, collecting and funneling into one bottlenecked explosion — a space where she and her sister exist together.
Chakraborty’s work is a study in repetition, in returning. Every recurring thread—ash, singing, hum, lullaby, vegetation, deer, dear, doe, children— is further deepened through layers of meaning, contradiction, and re-definition. Even its title, “Dear, Beloved,” plays on these different associations — and on the meanings of her name: Priya.
At times throughout the collection, the speaker addresses us as readers — but we sense that, despite this, she speaks only to her sister. Readers, along with other secondary characters in Arrow, are just overhearing. Chakraborty uses images that are terrifying and brutal (incision, ash) yet delicate and moving (moths, stars); precise in their meaning, yet, like most moments of intense human emotion, containing a multitude of conflicts and contradictions. Opposite feelings coexist, fighting each other for space in excruciating relentlessness. “Yes, there is much to love about the body. / Too, there is much to hate” (24). We encounter such immense detail that we find ourselves reading everything many times, carefully, to see the whole multi-prismed painting.
Arrow deals with all these particulars of emotional turmoil even as its centering pull is one of grief. It’s not for us to know the origin of every struggle — for them to be named — but we witness the narrator’s pain, both emotional and physical: senses that cannot be separated from each other. “Sister, could I find you on that horse mountain? I wonder / if I want to. Have I made this world?” (27). Moments like this frank confession remain shrouded; we’ll never know the entirety of what the speaker feels. Perhaps the speaker does not either. Neither purely narrative nor image, and never resolving through its very nature what cannot be resolved, Arrow requires us to hold both truths: there is some meaning to grieving, and there is nothing to be gained from it. The poems in Arrow are a mastery in re-definition – they are kaleidoscopic. The refrains presented in this collection leave their tracks all over the speaker’s mindscape, creating a world of tragedy, memory, danger — and some small amount of comfort.
K-Ming Chang’s stories vibrate with energy, lyricism, and the hysteria that comes from the crushing weight of history. As a collection of stories, Gods of Want spans generations—orbiting relationships between women, their bodies, their ancestors, and their wild environments. There is an aura of mythic simultaneity in the work as deceased ancestors, immigration trauma, environmental anxiety, and queer relationships collapse into poignant, uncanny narratives. Chang’s writing style is musical, heady, fabulist, and straddles the line between grotesque and lovely.
As a book, Gods of Want is rich with hauntings. Its stories measure quantities by negative space and absence: what is lost, forgotten, dead—or deadish—as ghosts weave in and out of the pages. Whether it is the woman followed by a legion of spectral relatives in “The Chorus of Dead Cousins,” the aunt swaddling a potato instead of a baby in “Auntland,” the “dark jelly” inside the bellies of shot raccoons in “Dykes,” or the ghostly absence of a cousin in “Anchor,” Chang’s characters experience a full spectrum of griefs and ghosts. In response to this hauntedness, the tales become obsessed with cataloging, with lists ranging from aunts and cousins to widows, foods for the dead, and, most importantly, names. But even these names are slippery with negative space, contradiction, and layers of heritage. The story “Eating Pussy” begins: “Her name was Pussy, but the rumor was she didn’t have one.” These anxiety-inducing inventories are frantic in their attempts to bear witness to what is important before it is lost—even to memory. A conversation in “The Chorus of Dead Cousins” further expounds on the project of the stories: “We need an exterminator, my wife said, but all the ones I called were men who said they didn’t deal with what was already dead.” Men might not be willing to treat with the expired, but that is exactly what Chang’s stories do, placing a finger on the vivid intersections of loss, trauma, queerness, feminism, and the Asian American experience. As a character in “The Chorus of Dead Cousins” explains, “You can’t take a picture of an earthquake…You can only take a picture of the aftermath.”
Threading the tales together is a powerful through-line of gender and queerness as Chang’s feminine protagonists must wrestle with the expectations, duties, and dangers of their families and world. In “Xífù” a woman hounded by her mother-in-law tells her daughter:
That’s the only requirement I have: Don’t marry a man with an origin. Set his family on fire. But she tells me it’s okay, that she’ll marry no one’s son because she’s a lesbian, and I’m so jealous I could kick her in front of a car, the way I once did to the neighbor’s pit bull when it shat maggots on my feet.
The portrayal of cyclical inheritance is dynamic and bracing: in “Auntland” the narrator tells off an aunt for kissing another woman at Costco, but as an adult, finds herself in the same situation, saying “I had an aunt who saw me kiss a girl in the booth of a Burger King and said, I knew it. I knew you were supposed to be born a son.”
As a whole, Gods of Want is a glitteringly surreal collection that flirts with genres like magical realism, humor, and horror but defies the very categorization it attempts—some things can’t be measured, only experienced. Within the book, the lines between lyric essay and fiction blur with repetition and musical language, rewarding intuitive readers who allow the words to wash over them. In a 2021 Editors Panel, Chang told me, “I invented my own queer ancestors so I wouldn’t feel as alone.” Gods of Want is a culmination of that inventiveness—a full community of voices infused with their own complexities, absurdities, and desire.
Quotes from advance uncorrected proofs. Official publication: July 12, 2022 from Penguin Books.
April 19, 2022 | Grace Tessier Culhane | interview
Sebastian Castillo, a Philadelphia-based fiction writer, teaches creative writing at Temple University and at the University of Pennsylvania. His short story “The Cigarette Painter,” was the runner-up of BOMB’s 2021 Fiction Contest and appeared in that magazine’s winter 2022 issue. His second book, Not I, was published by Word West in 2020. Castillo spoke with me over the phone about his recent publications as well as his work in progress. The following interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
Grace Tessier Culhane: One thing I’m noticing about Not I is how much is happening off the page. You’re trusting the reader with a lot of negative space. What led you to make that decision? What’s changed about your expectations for the reader [since publishing 49 Venezuelan Novels in 2017]? Or has anything changed?
Sebastian Castillo: I’m not so sure, because a part of me in the moment of composition only thinks of myself as the reader. I don’t ever conceptualize a phantom future reader, so a lot of those questions fall away or seem less pertinent. I’m just trying to make a compelling experience for myself, both as a writer and a reader.
With that project, and that book in particular, I was thinking about the limitations of what the speaker could say. I was thinking about what they weren’t going to say about themself, or the supposed self, which was suggested with all these first-person declarations. But sometimes I make what the speaker says contradictory. I sometimes suggest a narrative attitude that is then interrupted by non sequitur. So there’s a kind of “there and not there” quality.
GTC: I was struck by its algorithmic quality, the way the statements lull you into a false sense of randomness only to mess with that. I was wondering if you could talk about the work’s relationship to technology, if there is a relationship.
SC: I don’t think there is. But I would say that in terms of questions regarding the algorithm and thinking about procedure and the work, I had the structure first. Before I even wrote a word, I already knew what the book was going to be like. When I was doing research, I looked up, “What does somebody study when they’re trying to learn English grammar, whether it’s for a high school class or a second language?”
I kept seeing this list of tenses in the order that it’s presented in the book. I wrote the book linearly from the simple present to future perfect continuous.
Then as I was editing it, I kept thinking, “What’s the actual experience of going through all these tenses?” A lot of the time in the early part of the book, I wanted to have a quotidian, almost universal quality to all these statements. And then as the book proceeded, I wanted to push against what someone would naturally say in the English language. In terms of writing it, the first draft came out quickly, and then it was really the editing that took most of the time.
GTC: I experienced it as a story. Were readers meant to take that away from it?
SC: Yeah, I wanted it to have a kind of momentum in that sense. I remember when I first talked about it with a friend, he called it a novel, which I thought was hilarious because I didn’t think of it as a novel at all—it’s so short. But I was pleased by that characterization because, especially in the last section of the book, I wanted to gesture at and at the same time push away closure. But that gesture is there. I didn’t want it to be totally anti-climax. I did want to feel like there was a rhythm or a pressure that was building.
GTC: I’m looking at the end now. [You write], “I have been saying pithy aphorisms for the sake of genius.” Is that the climax?
SC: Yeah, I wanted this narrator to be both pitiable, someone you can have sympathy for, but also kind of ridiculous and bathetic. I’m looking at the last page: “I will have been feeling like it didn’t come out right / I will have been trying despite this / I will have been leaving the book on your desk.” This feeling that as much as all of these systems of language allow one to communicate a self, there’s still this kind of lack, or this incompleteness, of not getting it quite right. Which is one of the reasons each tense is repeated twice. I wanted there to be the suggestion of, “I’m gonna say it once and get it right, but no I didn’t, so now I have to say it again.”
In the book there’s an epigraph by Ron Padgett quoting Gertrude Stein. Someone asked her, “Why do you always repeat words?” And she said, “Well, you say something you like, so you say it again.” What I found extremely funny was that despite my best efforts—I even had a friend help me—I couldn’t find the Gertrude Stein quote. Either he made it up or misremembered. I found that really satisfying.
GTC: Can we talk about “The Cigarette Painter”? I was thinking about all the artists that come up throughout the story, and this idea of the randomness of violence and the randomness of despair. I have a broad question, which is, what do you think art’s role is in creating or imposing a kind of meaning on that randomness?
SC: There’s an ability in narrative — and maybe this is one of its false comforts — to create an arc that to some degree systematizes or explains those modes of violence so that they can be given a category and therefore understood. I think at the same time, there’s the ability to demonstrate how unsatisfying that is. Things that are violent in that nature do just happen without a reason, without an explanation, without even really any consequences whatsoever.
[“The Cigarette Painter”] culminates in this stranger entering the house, which coincides with the intervention that’s happening for the father character. [The intervention] is supposed to be this revelatory thing that’s happening. Then it’s punctuated by a random act of violence, and it’s over with. Nothing comes of it. Nothing is satisfied. And all you really have is the memory of it happening.
GTC: Do you want to talk about your process a little bit? Where do you start with a piece?
SC: The thing I’m doing now, a novella—I did a lot of outlining in terms of the story itself. There’s a bit of an Oulipo-style constraint. I’ve done constraints before, but in terms of story planning, I’ve never done anything like what I’ve done with it. I usually just go from a rhythm, with a feel for where the story might end up. I wanted to do something a little more schematic or planned.
I’m on the third draft now. My hope is to finish it soon. But that’s something I like about writing. I can create these conditions for every new thing. Especially with longer, book-length projects, I like to create a different way of tackling it that makes it interesting.
GTC: It feels like a lot of your previous work is defined by a kind of restriction or a constraint, and it sounds like you’re moving away from that with your novella. Is that a permanent shift? Or just the mood you’re in?
SC: Well actually there is a constraint in this book! It’s written in small chapters, and with every chapter there’s a system in how many characters the narrator can talk to per chapter.
I’ve always been drawn to the Oulipo writers. Everything they did, even when they wrote about very serious things, feels animated by a sense of mischief. There’s this real spirit of fun and mischief in their books. It’s a way of getting at a project, rather than just sitting down and saying, “I want to write about loneliness.” I don’t have much to say about loneliness, but I could probably make some weird game out of a book.
GTC: Are you reading anything good right now?
SC: I’ve been reading more plays in the last few months than I ever usually do. I’ve been reading everything from classical dramas like [Heinrich von] Kleist and [Georg] Büchner to more contemporary things, Caryl Churchill and some of Thomas Bernhard’s plays, and — I’m not sure this even counts — the scripts from Seinfeld. The second half of the novella I’m writing is written like a play, and I wanted to immerse myself in some of that writing. I was interested in how you get things moving beyond expository writing, where it’s really relying on simple movement and dialogue. I just really wanted to get into that energy.
GTC: I’m excited to read it. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk.
SC: Thank you! Thanks so much for reading my work. It was a pleasure.
“This is the era of building/ and taking apart, our landscapes/ and skylines changing, shaken/ as the tectonics of the moon…/ This isn’t hyperbole–/ we’re terrified of entropy, of the world/ as it once was. This is the era of discontent/ where imagination’s gone mad” – Brianna Noll, “Aesthetics for Toxic Times”
Brianna Noll’s second collection of poems, The Era of Discontent, is laden with both the frustrated and hopeful ruminations of a society in crisis.Written and published during the Covid-19 pandemic, the collection is a rallying cry for those disillusioned by the promises of modernity — and a call to remember humanity’s roots as we rebuild.
Noll’s work is enigmatic– deliciously rich in its intricacies, it requires careful contemplation from the reader. She masterfully weaves a vast array of muses into the collection’s fabric, blowing the dust off of forgotten artifacts, individuals, and legends. Noll’s prose emboldens us with a sense of urgency and wonder as we scour the internet for additional context. In “How to Give Birth to a Rabbit (after Mary Toft, 1726)”, Noll approaches the universal, heart-wrenching grief of a miscarriage via the story of Mary Toft, who infamously convinced several 18th-century doctors she’d given birth to a rabbit following the loss of her pregnancy. It was later revealed to be a hoax, and Toft became the subject of much scrutiny.
“This makes you a monster,/ of course” Noll writes. “Tread lightly./ No one will think about/ your miscarriages, your/ empty salt cellars and/ candles re-formed from/ their drippings, which alone/ mean little but add up to/ a fervent kind of desperation.”
It’s in her compassionate treatment of stories like Toft’s that Noll shines. She mixes current events and cultural oddities to evince ideals that transcend space, time, history, and belief—placing her squarely in conversation with something more overtly cosmic.
Still, these detours don’t detract from the collection’s purposeful and timely narrative arc. The collection is broken into three untitled sections artfully structured by Noll to play off of each other. In the opening pages, Noll cheekily offers her readers insight into her central line of inquiry. “Epistemological Snapshot” finds Noll rebelling against the assumed, unquestioned truths of our existence — comparing them to a ruler in both measurement and rigidity. Noll implores her readers not to become complacent and to remain curious, writing, “You know you cannot know what actually exists–/ you’re just tired of the same old stories.”
After setting up her epistemology, Noll peppers the first section with sharp criticism and warnings. In “Isolationism,” we find a rare moment where Noll uses the first-person to reflect. She laments, “But I worry we’ve otherwise become/ strangers in our own worlds, / and isolated in turn. What do we hold/ on to when the world around us/ fades at twilight? There’s little and less/ to grasp when our eyes, so used/ to light, must acclimate to the dark.”
Positioned against the woes of the first section, Noll’s voice in the second is luminous, baptismal water. It offers solace, companionship, and encouragement. In “The Lake We Call Medusa,” Noll pleads:
“You must be/ a light-bearer,/ or the water will/ make a statue/ of you, calcify you/ from the outside in… You are/ your own instrument./ You must learn/ to cast light/ from your fingertips,/ your vocal chords,/ or better yet, your/ pores. The demon/ in this water cannot/ bear the dawn.”
The final section crescendos with a deep ache to reconnect with our humanity, exemplified in “The Collective Unconscious”:
“Some things have been with us/ a long time, like the words spit, / fire, and mother, or the color/ black. We are born with them/ on our tongues, as we are born/ knowing that haloed suns foretell/ rain. We share the land and / the language to speak it, but/ these commons grow fewer, / and we’ve stopped trusting/ in lore… Look backward:/ anyone who’s seen a lingonberry has named it for an animal: cowberry, foxberry, bearberry, cougarberry. / This is the legacy we leave—truths we feel in each other’s bones.”
The Era of Discontent provides readers with a welcomed respite from the loneliness, chaos, and confusion of our current cultural epoch: a gaze into our ancestral precedence, creating a concrete antithesis to the digital-age’s intangibility. In “Elegy for the Ground We Walk On,” Noll ends with a message of hope as she considers the changes necessary for a brighter future, writing, “This need not be a disaster:/ we could better cultivate our sight, / unclench our hands, and learn new/ words for a world we do not shape/ to our will, but shapes itself–/ more pliant than we’ve ever believed.”
The Era of Discontent is available from Elixir Press for $17.00.
In her recent collection of prose titled World of Wonders, Aimee Nezhukumatathil explores the world’s most extraordinary forms of life whose striking characteristics often mirror and complement human experience. In a series of short essays, Nezhukumatathil introduces a range of enchanting species that have proved important in her own life.
The book begins in Nezhukumatathil’s youth in Kansas where her mother works at a mental institution. Around the institution, she recalls riding bikes with her sister beneath the shade provided by Catalpa trees. This is the first of many homes Nezhukumatathil describes throughout World of Wonders. By the end of the essay, she is an adult in Mississippi, gazing at another Catalpa tree on the campus where she teaches.
The book follows the years she spent moving around the country, first with her family and then as a young adult. Nezhukumatathil finds an intrinsic sense of home in whatever nature surrounds her, from the Catalpa trees of Kansas to the shores of the Aegean Sea, to monsoon season in southwest India. Wherever life leads her to wander, Nezhukumatathil is a willing observer, an active participant in whatever space she calls her own.
It’s as if she has scoured the corners of Earth to illustrate the creatures that make up the planet’s beauty—no stone is left unturned. Through observing and explaining the characteristics, habits, subtle and overt beauties of each creature, Nezhukumatathil often offers mirrored qualities between the species and her life. Each species offers a lens through which she views life as a daughter, mother, wife, educator, and writer.
In doing this, she uncovers some of our world’s failures and lack of insight. In describing the axolotl, what is also known as the Mexican Walking Fish, a pink salamander with a smile, Nezhukumatathil writes, “If a white girl tries to tell you what your brown skin can and cannot wear for makeup, just remember the smile of an axolotl.” In describing the axolotl’s wild, neon-lined eyes, she travels back to being in junior high, trying out “various shades of Wet n Wild lipstick, including a red the color of candy apples…” She remembers the past and current pain of forcing a smile both in junior high and as an adult professor dealing with racist colleagues. The section ends with more about the charming axolotl, whose seemingly harmless image hides its strength and enthusiasm. “And when it eats—what a wild mess—when it gathers a tangle of bloodworms into its mouth, you will understand how a galaxy first learns to spin in the dark, and how it begins to grow and grow.”
World of Wonders reminds us of our undeniable tie to the natural world, the human and non-human characteristics of all living beings. The book’s end encourages us to become active members in our world, lest we forget its intricacies and differences. She suggests we “start with what we have loved as kids and see where that leads us.”
World of Wonders is the beginning of springtime in a book—the relief after a long, lifeless, unforgiving winter. A book that comes at the perfect time for all of us—an awakening after so much darkness and isolation. To read World of Wonders is to be “shot through with bud and bloom,” as Nezhukumatathil writes. The world around me sprung from its roots with every page. We are not only reading a book about nature, but the animal kingdom’s guide to navigating human life. Nature, we learn through World of Wonders, has much to teach us.
Moth Funerals, by teenage poet Gaia Rajan, opens with Juliet I, a poem that flits across the page. It can be read in multiple ways, (an introduction to the wonderful use of space throughout the work) and read in any direction, the poem captures the reader’s interest, leading them directly into the heart of the chapbook. There is no time here to linger — Rajan’s words are urgent.
Rajan, the managing editor of The Courant and a poetry editor for Saffron Literary, demonstrates in her debut chapbook that her ability to capture the reader within the life of her work is already impressive. These poems weave dreams through solid moments, beautiful images with bitter truths.
“The truth is/ my first love had to be/ myself,” Rajan writes in Juliet I. With these words, the life of the chapbook is unwound — this is a work that bursts with the tangled spell of teenage girlhood, as well as Rajan’s own lived experience. Rajan’s voice becomes identifiably hers early on, carrying with it a strength of emotion that never seems to fade. In [self-portrait as moth], she writes, “I can’t stand being named: once/ as they ask where I’m from, again/ when are you sure. When what kind/ of girl are you. The kind who answers:/ to make the body a country, one must tear/ away its wings.”
Poems such as We Were Birds float between the anger of youth and the pain of early loss. “That night he wore a white shirt and leapt/ into the river. Didn’t surface for air. More water/ than body, more tide than blood./ We’d just turned thirteen. After,/ I closed every window.” The body slips through water, the world slips through loss, but we cannot fully slip away.
Such is the nature of Moth Funerals. We have been let into Rajan’s life, her art, and until the final poem has finished, the flow of her work captures us in its sharp stream. In Nostalgia Is The Prettiest Liar, Rajan both observes and responds. “I sit in the dark and watch a white woman cosplay 1930./ She says it must’ve been simpler back then,/ incants it like a prayer, smiles and snaps white/ gloves on. I heard that back then, if your hands/ were darker than the gloves, you were sent/ to a different immigration center. I heard/ the alternate centers ordered more coffins/ than water.”
We are carried through the chapbook on the wings of something ethereal. As promised by the title, moths are ever-present here. In [self-portait as cocoon], they’re used to their full potential, fluttering and restless. Rajan asks us: What does it mean for her to reach us through poetry? What does it say about the way we consume?
“I’m trapped in here I don’t want/ to be free anymore I just want you/ to know me I can’t speak and you/ imagine wings that flutter pretty from my lips/ green like dead-body phosphorus pretty/ enough to forget anything ever happened”
Even in moments when the reader might identify a young poet, or lines with room to become more focused, the clarity of vision is strong. A variety of rhythms, images, forms, and feelings give the chapbook its breath.
Moth Funerals is striking; Rajan’s writing is shiver-inducing, catching us at unexpected angles. Poem In Which I Do Not Become A Bird is full of these glimpses. “How all your pockets are weighed/ with sea, how when the hotline is yours/ finally a bodiless voice whispers it gets better,/ which is what people say when they do not know/ what to do with their hands.”
We are thrust from beauty to rawness and back again. “I know/ the truth. His death was his death, his life his life, the birds/ just birds,”.
Toward the end of the chapbook, in When I Dream I Dream of Diamonds, we see Indian women taking back their stolen cultural artifacts from a museum. “We tremble outside to the rain/ and it washes us clean as if we could be anything,/ as if without memory we could be/ real, as if gems and pictures could be enough. For a moment/ we are silent and running and there is no country/ to belong to.”
This moment in the poem sings. She writes: “Promise me–/ our bodies will always remember/ what was taken./ We will loot it back/ forever, reaching behind the glass,/ ours & ours & ours:” Here, Rajan emerges from her cocoon.
Author Lee Matalone and her debut novel, Home Making,follows the main character, Chloe, as she learns to navigate what it means to be a daughter, mother, friend, wife, and homemaker.
Room by room, the story follows Chloe as she decorates her new dream house, the one she is forced to move into when her terminally ill husband no longer wishes to be with her. He provides all the money Chloe needs to start fresh, but Chloe finds the work slow and tedious.
When she and her husband were young, they spent date nights walking around fancy neighborhoods. They dreamed of building a space completely theirs. And now, Chloe is forced to reconcile a space that is hers alone.
Matalone is an author that works in scale. She examines the tiniest of details–a sheepskin imported from Reykjavik, a vase of cut flowers, a stack of white plates. She writes, “Beneath the prettiness we are all a mess. We are all struggling. We do not know how to make a home. Let’s leave bleach stains on the darks together. Let’s put too much sugar in the cake and celebrate our efforts, our failures.”
Through these details, we start to understand the larger histories of the characters: Chloe, her mother, Cybil, her best friend, Beau. From Japan to Tucson to Virginia to Louisiana, the places from which we come never quite lose their grasp on us. Whether we are trying to forget them, come to terms with them, or even celebrate them, the details of a place become engrained in our DNA. It is what calls to Cybil as she learns how to be a single mother after being adopted from a Japanese orphanage. It is what Beau tries to both embrace and escape after an unhappy childhood in the South. It is what Chloe continues to seek for herself, a place that she has chosen, that has chosen her.
The novel begs you to consider your own living space.
My apartment contains a master bedroom, a guest room, a bathroom, a kitchen, and a shared dining and living room area.
But Matalone would rather inspect the assortment of mugs in the kitchen cupboard, mismatched and chipped, collected from trips, given as gifts, stolen from roommates and friends and family over the years. She’d touch the ratty white blanket at the end of the bed, kept because it is soft and the dog likes to lay there.
It is place and the people in those places, Matalone argues, that make us who we are today. And just as various rooms make up a house, our heartbreak and loss and love and joy and struggle are what make a home.
“I thought/ surely I will die, so much of me/ outside of me and still more/ leaving,” Leila Chatti confesses in the title poem of her shimmering debut collection. Afflicted in her twenties by a uterine tumor that caused her to bleed without stopping – to flood, as physicians described it – Deluge dissects her experience and the places it overflows into gender, desire, illness, and faith with intimate lyricism.
Chatti’s unflinching perspective throughout the collection is striking. She refuses the impulse to shy away from what history names shameful or taboo, instead looking at both her body, and outside responses to it, without blinking. A number of poems illuminate her experience with medical treatment where Chatti delves into multicultural responses to illness, which range from religious shame to the callous indifference of the U.S. medical system. In The Handsome Young Doctor, Who is Very Concerned, she describes one visit to us:
“…I say I’ve read
this is dangerous. He says, impassive, of course,
everything has its risks.
Already checking the time on his wrist.”
Equally searing is her tangled and dynamic exploration of faith, in which ruminations of the body and health bleed over to the topic of desire. What sets Chatti apart is how deftly she balances feelings of defiance and isolation with real and searching devotion. From the first poem, Confession, the character of Mary from the Holy Qur’an is developed as a woman whose embodied experience plays out parallel and inverse to Chatti’s, immaculate conception counterpoint to barren flooding:
(oh Mary, like a God, I too take pleasure
In knowing you were not all
Holy, that ache could undo you
Like a knot)—
The investigation and questioning of Mary braided throughout Deluge positions Chatti in the tradition of Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine and Marie Howe’s Magdalene, but with her distinctly brave, taut language and narrative stream. Intertwined with explorations of Mary are Chatti’s own direct addresses to God, such as in one of the Annunciation poems: “If there/ is something you need/ to tell me, God, you must/ tell it to me/ yourself.” By repeating titles like this—Annunciation four times and Deluge twice—the poems take on a nearly liturgical quality, an echo like prayer.
The poems are masterfully ordered, often flowing directly into each other. For example, Zina closes with the lines “each time he touched me/ anew as though making me/ with his own two merciful hands” while the next poem, Nulligravida Nocturne, opens with “He touches me,” perfectly stair-stepping from one piece to the next. Similarly, the conclusion of Hymen, “and that’s the heart/ of it, isn’t it? Of a woman, you/ the only blood worth anything” transitions skillfully into the next title, The Blood. Beyond the linkage from page to page, Chatti crafts a narrative that is both personal and historical, spiraling inward. While she lays herself bare with the defiant vulnerability of her narrative, the collection wraps itself, almost comfortingly, around the reader, layer after intimate layer through the ripples of repetition. What the poem Tumor does formally, circling the page, the collection executes on a larger scale, gaining nuance with each recurring motif, confession, and doctor’s visit.
Contributing to the sensation of blanketing layers is the often-present darkness in the collection, presented not as fearsome, but consoling. From Night Ghazal’s repeating “black” and the redacted words in Etiology to Metrorrhagia where her partner Henrik gardens, “thumb turning in black/ soil. Birds scattering, spotting the dark,” Chatti’s is an interior, embryonic darkness. Where other narratives search the shadows of the foreign, Deluge is an exploration within the poet herself, a quest that is physical, spiritual, and emotional.
Cumulatively, Deluge’s chiaroscuro calls for healing and empathy from the darkest of places, to find a kind of frightening beauty in even a grapefruit-sized tumor. With her ability to land unerringly on what feels like the perfect word and a nearly primordial sense of embodiment, Chatti offers a collection that will linger within readers.
Throughout I Hold a Wolf By the Ears, Laura van den Berg’s new collection of short stories, the reader finds bits of evidence that something devastating has happened. “The bartender asked me to tell him my story, and I describe the places I have lived. Eight cities in 10 years. Many different jobs. Few possessions or attachments. I’ve had some drinks. I go on. ‘You on the run from something?’ the bartender asks. ‘Yes,’ I say, without hesitating.” These clues point to some missing piece at the center of these stories, and make the stories feel like mysteries. The reader’s primary interest, however, is not in solving what has happened, but in watching how the characters maneuver the fallout of their tragedies.
Like its characters, the stories revolve around some avoidance or failure. There’s a train that never comes, a doomed last trip, children that do or do not appear, absent sisters, and impersonators of the living and the dead. In each story, characters want to deceive themselves, believing that they can evade their problems. “I did not want to confront whatever was happening in my neighbor’s apartment; I only wanted to get away.” These characters close their eyes against what haunts them in a desperate attempt to persevere. “[The hypnotist] believed with all her heart that something unspeakably awful had happened to me and that my memory had concealed this awfulness, in an attempt to save my life, and that this unprocessed trauma was the source of all my troubles. After she said this, I refused to go under hypnosis. My commitment to the truth simply did not run that deep.”
These are case studies on the difficulty of holding pain in perpetuity, the way it “wants nothing more than to destroy your life.” The collection forms a catalogue of living with trauma, of finding a way to survive with one’s grief. “I considered the possibility that our thoughts were the most important thing to know, because they made up the stories we told ourselves about the world and our place in it, what was possible and what was sacred and what was forbidden.” The lives, and in fact the very worlds, of these characters deform to accommodate what has become forbidden and sacred in the aftermath of devastation.
To avoid their pain, characters repeatedly escape into the safety of other lives. “I cannot deny that I have always enjoyed being other people.” Inhabiting the lives of sisters, in particular, echoes throughout the book. The characters mirror and merge into the personas of their sisters, perhaps like how the sisters of trauma and grief, or the sisters of devastation and self-destruction sometimes merge. “I find a pair of opal earrings on [my sister’s] dresser, next to a photo of my sister and Pat. They are on a beach in southern Maine, smiling wide. I put the earrings on and I am surprised by their weight. [Their] bed is unmade. I get under the sheets.” Other times, characters try to evade pain by obliterating themselves. In the title story, a character hands over her passport to hotel reception and “thinks about how happy she would be to leave the woman in that picture behind.” When one of the many therapists in these stories asks how a new coping method is going, the protagonist explains, “I felt obliterated,” then clarifies, “I told her it was working.”
Of course, just like in life, ignoring and denying their pain only worsens the lingering effects for these characters. “Grief, especially when it was not properly tended, could turn even a reasonable human being hostile and confused.” And, as another therapist says, “that which cannot be forgotten must be confronted.” But gore is hard to look at, and these characters have a relentless aversion to contending with their pain. In one story, a character admits she is being abused, but then takes it back. When later explaining why she retracted her admission, she says, “I wasn’t ready.” But once acknowledged and named, there is no way of really denying truth. “Once you have a thought like that, there is no turning back, there’s only pretending to.” And that pretending has reverberating repercussions. “I didn’t yet understand that refusing one kind of narrative could activate another.”
I Hold a Wolf By the Ears is riddled by its characters’ trauma and grief. The reader watches the characters maneuver the complicated task of living with their ghosts, sometimes closing their eyes against them, sometimes approaching the lurking shadows. “I thought the universe had granted me a chance to remake my life,” a character says. Later, she laments, “As it turned out, I have been doomed to live the same old story, with the same ending.” These stories examine characters as they try, fail, struggle, and persist against their histories. And the reader joins them in their grief, knowing that there is no simple escape from this kind of monster. “I hold a wolf by the ears. She’d understood the phrase to mean something along the lines of—there is no easy way out.”
Carmen Maria Machado’s newest release, In the Dream House, is a haunting memoir of her experience with same-sex psychological abuse. The “Dream House” is literally where Machado’s unnamed partner lives, and figuratively a metaphor for the dreams the two had as a fresh couple, the dreams for an idealistic, romantic life together. The Dream House begins like a fairytale, but quickly turns into a nightmare. The house also serves as a symbol of Machado’s mind, which slowly becomes her own prison in a harrowing situation.
Split into short chapters of one to ten pages, each section explores the Dream House from a different perspective. The chapter titled, “Dream House as Hypochondria,” for example, discusses Machado’s attempt to get mental help for her partner, and the chapter titled, “Dream House as Spy Thriller,” describes the shameful details of her relationship as a secret she has to hide from the world. Rather than following chronological order, chapters skip around in the narrative, instead ordered by intensity, as if following the flow of Machado’s own mind. The building intensity paired with the short chapter form allows the reader to quickly fly through the book.
Machado uses a second person perspective in order to help the reader place themselves in the situation. In situations of abuse, it is all too easy for readers to think that they would have seen the warning signs, that they would have left before it escalated. But by using the second person, Machado forces the reader to experience it. She demands that we go through the Dream House with her.
When we first meet the unnamed partner, she seems like an average person. She wears “white-blonde hair pulled back in a short ponytail. She has a dazzling smile, a raspy voice that sounds like a wheelbarrow being dragged over stones. She is the mix of butch and femme that drives you crazy.” Machado then follows the progression of their relationship with interludes of her own thoughts. If she had been able to see into the future, would she have done anything differently? Is she a better person now, after having gone through the experience? Contrasted with the honeymoon phase narrated alongside them, such questions bring the reader a sense of imminent dread for what is about to come.
Machado interlaces her own narrative with research and thoughts on abusive same-sex relationships, a taboo subject. Often, when we think of an abusive relationship, the man is the perpetrator and the woman is the victim. If women are victims, how do abusive lesbian relationships exist? Stereotypes of lesbian relationships as men-free utopias are harmful to queer women, but so are stereotypes that one woman must be the “man” of the relationship. Because of the already existing misconceptions about abusive relationships, the abuser in same-sex relationships becomes the “man.” Machado struggles with these ideas throughout the memoir. By telling her story, she asks if she is bringing to light the experiences of hundreds of victims, or if she is strengthening the fallacy that same-sex relationships must follow heteronormative stereotypes.
In an interview with The Paris Review, Machado explains that she wants to provide a broader context, to convince the reader that her experience was not an anomaly. She also provides research as a way to further her own understanding of the experience. “How can I understand it,” Machado said, “as not just a thing that happened to me, a discrete thing, but also in the context of history and in queer history, and in the history of gender?”
She understands it by writing through it. And through Machado’s own understanding, readers are transported into a world they may have never thought about. Machado comes to grips with the situation by morphing it into a narrative, a powerful tale to reach all types of readers. Readers who have never deeply considered what an abusive relationship can look like other than the stereotypical man-on-woman violence. Readers who have experienced an abusive relationship and are looking for a companion, someone who believes them. Readers trying to come to terms with the fact that lesbian relationships are not a romantic utopia, an escape from the problems associated with men. Machado has been each of these. By writing through her relationship and its subsequent abuse, Machado has created a poignant memoir that brings much-needed nuance to a larger dialogue on domestic violence and abuse.
Dan Kois is an editor and writer at Slate, contributing writer at The New York Times, and co-host of the podcast, Mom and Dad are Fighting. His recently published memoir, How to Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Family Around the World to Find a Different Way to Be Together, is about the year him, his wife, and their pre-teen daughters left their busy lives in the D.C. suburbs to live in four very different places—New Zealand, The Netherlands, Costa Rica, and small-town Kansas—to learn how families live in other parts of the world. Kois recently visited The Ohio State University to teach a visiting writer workshop and spoke with our Associate Reviews and Interviews Editor, Lizzie Lawson, about the experience, writing, and researching of How to Be a Family.
Lizzie Lawson: Your memoir, How to Be a Family, incorporates research about overarching systems in each of the different places you traveled, including healthcare systems, work-life balance, parenting styles, and schooling methods. Can you talk about how you approached this research?
Dan Kois: It seemed like a more interesting experience for me and for readers if I wasn’t viewing each of these places as a kind of magical flower that had sprung up and could never be understood. Obviously, I was not going to come out of the Netherlands or Costa Rica in three months and know everything about those places, but I had the tools as a reporter to start to dig into why those places were the way they were and what that means for those of us in situations like mine who are interested in changing things. Sometimes it was talking to a researcher in the Netherlands about his research on family happiness and satisfaction. Sometimes it meant talking to the parents we made friends with in a real formal interview setting with me recording and a set of prepared questions. And sometimes it meant reading, and reading deeply, into the literature, laws and media to get a sense of the stories affecting parents and their lives. What are the fears about parenting and family reflected in those stories, whether fictional or news? What can we see in each of these places that is or isn’t reflected in the place we come from and are planning to return to?
LL: In How to Be a Family, you talk about different parenting styles, especially in the section about the Netherlands, with the polder model, which you seem to actively dislike despite the Netherlands claiming to have the “happiest kids in the world.” Now that you are back in the States, is there anything you find yourself particularly grateful to have learned about parenting on this trip?
DK: I hate the polder model, which in the book I describe as this notion in the Netherlands that all decisions, not just family decisions, are subject to consensus by everyone who will be affected by the decision. In the Dutch company, that means that any change in strategy is decided not just by the CEO, but by the CEO, all the Vice Presidents, and all other rank and file down to the janitors in the office building. Everyone needs to come to the table and agree before that change is to be made. In families, everything a family does and every rule a family follows is subject to negotiation between the parents and the children.
As you note, I hated that. I wanted to tell my children what to do and have them do it, which of course is not what happens usually. But I felt much better being enraged that my children didn’t do what I told them than subverting what I viewed as my own authority to let them make suggestions that I knew were obviously wrong and crazy. Yet, after coming home, I found that in our family decision making we are dramatically more likely to talk to our children, to take their opinions into account, to compromise somewhere in between what we want and what they want. In part, because I saw it work for Dutch families and also in part because the experience of the trip was one big experience of learning what happens when you make an enormous family decision without consulting your children at all, which is that you end up going on a year-long trip that they are angry and resentful about because they weren’t consulted and didn’t buy into this crazy idea that me and my wife had.
LL: You write very honestly about the challenges that came along with this year-long family trip. One of the goals of the trip was to spend more time together, but that was also ended up being of the biggest challenges. Can you talk about the difficulty of spending excessive time together as a family?
DK: In the winter of 2016, there was this enormous snowstorm that snowed us together in our house for ten days. We were all driven insane like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and my “solution” to that problem was to spend a year together in places where we would be stuck together in houses and wouldn’t know many people. It isn’t logically sensical when you think about it that way, but that snowstorm taught me how frustrating it was for the four of us to coexist in one space for long periods of time without retreating to our separate corners. On the trip, I was striving to find the balance between the time we were together and engaged with each other and the times we gave each other space.
Different people in my family have different senses of that instinct. My youngest daughter she wants people to be doing things with her all the time, and for her the challenge of the trip was finding ways to be alone productively when we couldn’t be with her. I prize solitary time, and when that is interrupted by a kid or spouse who needs or wants something from me, I get frustrated. To me, the trip was about finding ways to be together, sitting at a table or in a room, and not feel like productivity was escaping me but instead engaging and focusing on that moment and what we could be doing together. And it was hard. I was often not good at it. I think the book is a testament to not only the times it worked but the times I wasn’t good at it.
After we got back from the trip, we have seen real tangible changes for us as a family operating in the same place. We are all a lot more conscious of each other and each other’s needs in a way that does not come naturally to children and often doesn’t come naturally to adults either.
LL: Looking back, are you glad you chose the places you chose?
DK: I am. The struggle always was we wanted there to be more places. The original goal was to go to six places in a year and a half, but we didn’t have enough money.
I don’t think I would change the places. The place everyone always asked about when I would tell them about the trip was Kansas. We would talk about the exotic places we were going—the Netherlands, Costa Rica, New Zealand—and then everyone would say, Kansas? Eventually our kids would start saying it too, Kansas? That was the place I was most worried about, having this trip of a lifetime and spending three months of it in Kansas. But I wouldn’t change that, because those last three months helped us gain perspective on the goals of the entire trip and what we were looking for. Kansas was a place like home, but not. Even the kids could see the very subtle differences between those two worlds, which became very clarifying from a writing perspective. I also think for the project of the book it was necessary to go to another place in the United States. But also, we just loved it. We loved being in Kansas and everyone was so nice in ways that I’m sure if you lived there your entire life could be stultifying and annoying. But for three months it was great.
LL: What was it like to write about your family while living with your family?
DK: It was great. If I had any questions, I could be like, “Lyra, what do you think about this?” and I’d write it down. I write about my family a lot, and I talk about my family a lot on a parenting podcast that I host. They are very used to the idea that things that happen in our life may end up being in print or on a podcast. As they get older, they get less and less comfortable with that. The trip was taken at an age in which they still thought it was neat that they might appear in a book. I think for Lyra, in particular, my older daughter, the experience of being one of the subjects of the book has made her a lot more skeptical about that now. One of the battles of the book was over what I should and shouldn’t say about her and how I portray her. That was a learning process for her and for me.
Another difficulty when writing about my children, is being faced everyday with the way they are while writing about the way they were. There’s a little disjunction there, especially a year after the trip when I was at the last stages of writing and editing the book. Kids change so fast. It was like trying to remember creatures from a different eon, like the dinosaurs or something, trying to remember Harper at nine while sitting in my house and she’s eleven and bouncing around being a completely different kid. That was really challenging, and I think in a lot of ways I didn’t do a great job. I had notes to deal with, but I also think the kids morphed over the course of the book, into some kind of hybrid version of the kids they were and the kids they had become.
LL: I found the inclusion of passages written by your wife, Alia, and daughters, Harper and Lyra, to be particularly rich and delightful to read. Was it always part of the plan to include these passages?
DK: It was. It was part of the book proposal, in fact. I would have been happy to have even more passages from them if they’d had the willingness or energy to write, but they also have lives and things to do. As Alia memorably told me, “This book is not my problem. This book is your problem.”
It was always the plan for a couple of reasons. One, I thought it would make it a better book to have their voices here and there to give people a break from my voice. I think that my voice can be a lot on the page, and you’re really getting it like full-bore over the course of this book. I was also thinking about the ways someone might view the book as exploitative, annoying, an object of privilege, and so on. Certainly it is all of those things, but I did want the rest of my family to have a chance to give their sides of different stories and things we were struggling with and the stories that I told, to help people who might otherwise mistrust the book trust it a little bit more.
In the end, those sections, and particularly Lyra’s section at the end, very aggressively did that because I ended up asking her essentially to respond to the book. I knew the book’s portrayal of our relationship and the ways we clashed over the course of that year was obviously slanted in my favor. There’s no way I could write it any other way. As kind as I tried to be to her and as much as I tried to follow my rule of always portraying myself as the worst guy in any scenario with those kids, there was going to be things about it that bothered her, and it seemed like it would be absolutely unfair to not give her that chance.
For five years, Heather Christle embarks on an experiment, documenting and mapping each time she cries. This experiment, when shared with others, leads Christle to conversations with friends, to research, to her past, and ultimately to her debut nonfiction collection, The Crying Book. As a self-coined highly sensitive person, I was drawn in immediately.
Her book, a segmented, meditative lyric essay, is a compilation of observations about crying. In her first meditation, she discusses how crying in public is a way to feel seen. A page later, she complicates her own experience with research, stating that crying in public often leads to “a worsening mood. You can be made to feel ashamed.” And yet, she continues, “criers report others responding with compassion, or what the study categorizes as ‘comfort words, comfort arms, and understanding.” Early on, she shows how complex the process of pain and crying can be.
The form of the lyric essay allows Christle to accumulate a large quantity of material. Much of her book is focused in research, including but not limited to: psychologists, philosophers, and research studies; other writers and artists interrogating pain; politics and social movements; gender and racial inequalities; and murder, suicide, and death.
Reading a lyric essay collection can often feel like a light whiplash, taking hard turns into seemingly unrelated topics. The build Christle organizes feels unending, encompassing so many crying-related topics. She touches on an almost exhausting number of examples, reminding me of how exhausting it is to feel such deep emotions.
Christle writes about how tragic events, like the suicide of her friend, lead to despair and crying, showing how our emotions are often a response to the world around us. However, she also suggests that our emotions, when unable to be expressed, can be catalytic, and lead to violence. She writes: “They say perhaps we cry when language fails, when words can no longer adequately convey our hurt. When my crying is not wordless enough I beat my head with my fists.” Violence, onto the self, and to others, becomes a large theme present in her work. Christle balances research and narrative, sometimes simultaneously, to answer the question, Why? She continually interrogates, attempting to answer why she feels the way she does, why people take their lives, why people commit acts of violence, and more. She discusses Kent State, shows us a picture of a young woman “kneel[ing] beside the body of a slain student, her whole body an anguished question,” – Why?
The way Christle weaves social issues and politics into her own narrative shows a universal hurting, and how powerless we can feel to violence. Through recognizing her own pain and digging into research, Christle has found a whole world, a history of people who have endured suffering.
Kaveh Akbar, in his blurb of Christle’s work, suggests that The Crying Book is “about crying, yes, but secretly it’s a book about everything: pain, sleep, joy, despair, birth, art, exile, atrocity, language, weather, fish.” I am in awe of the multitudes this book contains. Christle addresses many topics, and yet her voice is constantly focused and microscopic. She spans centuries of history, but readers will never feel lost in time.
Amidst the amount of research Christle compiles, the book is anchored by her own narrative, following the five-year timeline of her child, beginning with conception. While motherhood is only one of many themes in her book, Christle has created a subtle way to keep readers grounded in a form that can often be difficult to follow.
The ability to jump from topic to topic requires trust in the reader that we will follow, and delicate attention to organization from the writer. The lyric essay, Christle’s especially, reminds me of the video game, Katamari Damacy, where players roll a sticky ball over random objects, growing and growing until it takes on the size of a planet. It’s a snowball effect – she collects research and stories, places them next to one another, and builds them into something whole.
Since reading Christle’s book, I have been fixated on her opening pages, which seem to resonate even louder the longer I’m away from it. I think of her opening pages when I read the news, when a friend confides in me, when I accidentally step on my dog’s tail. Crying is a reflection of our pain. And our pain, when not treated properly, can lead to violence. However, our pain, when shared, can be even more powerful. It can become a bridge, leading us to compassion, to comfort words, comfort arms, and understanding.
Marathons echo across decades and centuries in Noé Álvarez’s debut book Spirit Run. He tells the story of the 6,000-mile marathon he undertook at age 19 with Peace and Dignity Journeys (PDJ) — a First Nations/Native American movement in which participants run across North America to rekindle connections with their cultures, communities, and homelands.
Álvarez interweaves the journey of the run with stories of his upbringing in Yakima, Washington as a son of Mexican immigrants. The marathon of the work day in the fruit-packing warehouses where Álvarez worked alongside his mother tests his stamina. He writes, “Only now, this summer, do I learn the pangs resulting from standing for long hours in a factory. The uncirculated blood below the knees crushes my feet. I wonder how my mother has sustained this for as long as she has. Decades.” The work, like running, is physically and mentally grueling. Not only does this work set up Alvarez to endure the conditions of PDJ — running tens of miles every day with little food and rest — but it illustrates how the PDJ marathon is part of a much longer journey. While Alvarez’s parents work in the fruit industry where “they become one monotonous shape, the shape of a worker,” Alvarez runs in PDJ to honor his parents labor and the marathon journeys they made to the U.S. His father not only made the journey once, but twice, after being stopped by immigration police and getting deported. Álvarez carries forward his parents’ work in the run and their stories in his writing, while also starting his own journey of reconnecting with the North American land that he has grown to hate — a land brutalized by corporate farming and used to wear down his own family.
Starting in Prince George, British Columbia and running all the way to the Zaculeu Ruins in Guatemala, Spirit Run, written in short chapters, moves at a rapid pace through mountains, forests, deserts, beaches, and cities. Though the narrative is fast, it retains the meditative quality of journal entries grounded in place and people. Álvarez writes, “We continue to slip in and out of society like ghosts in the night, connecting our hearts and minds with the land and the many tribal peoples who cross our paths every single day, carrying the heavy thread of prayers of hundreds of individuals.” Hazel of the Stetliem Nation invites the runners to his mountain cabin where he serves them coffee and describes his role in reoccupying land and keeping watch over the forest. A community in Oaxaca prepares a feast of beans, rice, tortillas, and frijoles. Chapito from the Fisherman People of the Seri Nation accompanies the runners on a raft to Shark Island off the coast of Mexico where he was born. These individuals and communities give nourishment to the runners’ bodies and minds. In Spirit Run, themarathon is not just about the amazing endurance of an individual, but also about the survival of family, indigenous nations, and cultures. The success of the marathon depends on community.
Álvarez’s book is also a collective narrative, telling the stories of other PDJ indigenous runners alongside his own. Through his fellow runners’ stories, Álvarez highlights the diversity within the indigenous community and the different perspectives the runners bring to PDJ. Indigenous women’s voices play an important role in these sections. Zyanya Lonewolf expresses anger toward the truck drivers who purposefully try to run her off the road while she runs. She explains she decided to join PDJ because her cousin Ramona Lisa Wilson was murdered on the Highway of Tears — a stretch of highway in British Columbia where many indigenous women have disappeared. Another runner, Ipana, decides to leave PDJ part way through the route to help her community in Alaska protect the caribou that have provided food and shelter to her people for centuries.
Every member has their own reasons for joining the run, as well as leaving it, and sometimes their philosophies clash. Some participants believe only the strongest runners should continue the run so as not to deplete food, water, and supplies. Others call out individuals for bullying runners and creating a toxic atmosphere. These tensions are often aired in Circle — a space for the community of runners to gather, converse, and resolve conflict. While the various runners’ stories weave throughout the narrative, they are highlighted in the prologue and the last section, “Today.” Bookending the narrative with these stories reflects the communal Circle and shows how the runners’ life circumstances have changed from before the run to after it. These stories of indigenous runners that Álvarez intertwines illustrate how running together is an act of collective struggle and liberation. In the words of Andrec, a PDJ member, “That’s the ceremony of running.”
Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land will be on sale starting March 3, 2020.