Eileen Cunniffe’s Mischief and Metaphors: Essaying a Life

Eileen Cunniffe’s Mischief and Metaphors: Essaying a Life

Congratulations to Eileen Cunniffe for her collection of essays titled Mischief & Metaphors: Essaying a Life, published by Shanti Arts. Its cover art and illustrations accompanying the essays were created by Cunniffe’s mother, Rosie Cunniffe. The collected essays are introspective, exploring the underlying patterns of memories through characters spanning “family members, friends, and co-workers; but also butter, baseball, birds, and assorted articles of clothing.” Cunniffe has created a Spotify playlist to pair with Mischief and Metaphor and can be previewed here.

Eileen celebrated the book’s launch on April 23rd in-person with her mother and community. See photos from the launch on her site here.

Eileen Cunniffe with her mother Rosie Cunniffe

Eileen Cunniffe writes nonfiction that explores identity and experiences through the lens of travel, family, and work. She is known to write prose poetry on occasion. She was a regular contributor to Nonprofit Quarterly from 2013 to 2021, covering arts and culture. Her writing has appeared in literary journals and anthologies. Four of her essays have been recognized with Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards and another received the Emrys Journal 2013 Linda Julian Creative Nonfiction Award. Her nonfiction piece Consignments was published in issue 9.

Mischief and Metaphor: Essaying Life can be purchased here or from Bookshop. To learn more about Cunniffe, visit her website.

The Queering: An Interview with Brooke Skipstone

The Queering: An Interview with Brooke Skipstone

The Queering is a novel written by Brooke Skipstone and published January 2023 through her own company, Skipstone Publishing. Set in Clear, Alaska, the novel follows a 70-year-old grandmother exploring her hidden passion for writing Lesbian romance novels until her secret is made public. Skipstone explores self-acceptance, identity, sexuality, and the way these interact with the LGBTQ+ community at large.

A moving and compelling tale of a journey toward truth and personal liberation. Over the course of this novel, Skipstone’s prose is propulsive, moving a rousing story from past to present at a fast clip. The characters are developed well, and their vivid personalities make them feel like real people. The author’s firm grasp of LGBTQ+ issues and of the queer community’s fight for equality is effectively amplified. As an antagonist, Levi comes across as appropriately frenzied and hateful, while Grace will strike readers as appealingly defiant. Overall, it’s an impressive story that packs a punch.

Kirkus Reviews

Brooke Skipstone is a multi-award-winning author who lives in Alaska where she watches the mountains change colors with the seasons from her balcony. Where she feels the constant rush toward winter as the sunlight wanes for six months of the year, seven minutes each day, bringing crushing cold that lingers even as the sun climbs again. Where the burst of life during summer is urgent under twenty-four-hour daylight, lush and decadent. Where fish swim hundreds of miles up rivers past bear claws and nets and wheels and lines of rubber-clad combat fishers, arriving humped and ragged, dying as they spawn. Where danger from the land and its animals exhilarates the senses, forcing her to appreciate the difference between life and death. Where the edge between is sometimes too alluring. Learn more about her by visiting her website. She can also be reached by email at brookeskipstone@icloud.com

A riveting novel . . . A seventy-year-old closeted lesbian writer faces her past in Brooke Skipstone’s intense, decades-spanning LGBTQ+ novel The Queering—a book about love, courage, and solidarity. . . [T]he book’s pace is consistent, increasing in speed and intensity as events move Taylor toward an inevitable, terrifying confrontation.

5 star Clarion review

To purchase The Queering, go here.

We have the pleasure of sharing an interview with Brooke Skipstone. This interview was conducted via e-mail by Superstition Review’s content coordinator, Anna Miller. She would like to offer gratitude to Brooke Skipstone for taking the time to answer her questions and writing novels that showcase real people of all backgrounds. Reading Skipstone’s newest novel The Queering, made her feel so alive and happy and renewed her love for reading. She hopes that you find Skipstone’s answers as fascinating and insightful as she did, as they discuss publishing, Skipstone’s novels, and LGBT fiction.

Anna Miller: The Queering is the most original story that I’ve read in a long time. The main character is an older queer woman dealing with problems that are usually surrounding the younger generation, in a story full of mystery and suspense. A few of your novels are even mentioned in the story and one of your characters is even named after yourself! I would love to know how you come up with your book ideas.

Brooke Skipstone: I’m a pantser, so when I start to write a book, I’m not entirely sure where the story will lead. And not entirely sure where the germ of a story originates. My last book (The Moonstone Girls) portrayed a beautiful, loving relationship between a brother and sister. In The Queering, I wanted to explore the opposite. In this case, Taylor’s brother, rather than being gay, struggles with his own loathing for gays. In other words, struggles with his own homosexual inclinations. Taylor and her best friend graduate with theatre degrees and hope to continue to live together, not as lovers, but as friends. However, her brother’s murder of a drag queen and insistence on accompanying the girls as they drive across the West forces Taylor and Brooke to worry that they will lose each other before they can express their true feelings. The idea of a post-college trip in a VW van with two girls and a man would seem full of fun and laughter. So twisting this trope into a harrowing, intensely dangerous event was key to the book.

Additionally, the book’s first line came to me in a flash: NO ONE in the world is actually named Brooke Skipstone. What fun? Adding my own name to the mix intensified the intrigue. What if a young woman lost her girlfriend and because of the times felt she couldn’t pursue another lesbian relationship? How many women have married and had children because they were afraid to face their true identity? Taylor did the same but found herself lonely and purposeless late in life until she decided to write lesbian romances. At least her secret life could be significant even as her real life with a cheating, possessive husband devolved into lonely indifference. But when her brother is released from prison, seeking revenge, Taylor must make a choice whether to fight back and expose herself or hide until she is killed.

AM: I love the design of your book cover and the little details that you’ve added, especially the Volkswagen bus in the bottom corner. I recently read an academic paper on queer young adult fiction and it read:

“Not long ago, the cover images for lesbian fiction for young adults all featured what journalist and book reviewer Tirzah Price called the “lesbian hands” trope (“Cover Talk”). This was, essentially, a publishing trend in which every young adult novel with a lesbian protagonist featured a cover image of someone’s hands (Price, “Cover Talk”). Beginning in about 2016, this trend has changed and those books now feature more typical romance covers with the two primary characters depicted in some romantic pose (Price, “Out and Proud”). However, this comes with its own host of problems, because now these books are visibly, obviously queer (Seville, The Wonder of a Target Audience: On the Growth of Queer Young Adult Literature)”

AM: What do you think about the “lesbian hands” trope and the recent shift to more typical romance cover? How do you think this will affect sapphic literature and its demand?

BS: Until reading this question, I had never heard about the “lesbian hands” trope. My covers are designed by Cherie Chapman. I send her links to books similar to mine, descriptions of key scenes, a synopsis, and thematic ideas. For this book, duality and contrast are key ideas: love and hate, truth and lies, past and present, and an author within an author. Plus, the parallels between Taylor and Brooke (in college), Tracy and Shannon at seventy, Grace and Maddi, and Laura and Paige. So I think Cherie’s design was heavily influenced by the duality idea. Thus the hands and the light and dark pink triangles form the background of the cover.

I just looked at the top 100 LGBTQ+ Romance YA books on Amazon. Only three use a photographic representation of a couple. The rest use illustrations/cartoon figures. Of course, this is in the YA category. But even in the Lesbian Fiction category, many of the covers still use illustrations. More use photographs of women, but many that do show one woman only. So there is still a gap between queer romance covers and straight romance covers.

It’s obvious that there is more of a demand for sapphic literature; however, now that many states are banning books and targeting the LGBTQ+ community, I would imagine covers to be less obvious about their content.

AM: The Queering as a whole did not seem to lean into any cliches. What do you think of cliches in queer novels, romance novels, or in general?

BS: I think some of my readers would disagree about my use of cliches or tropes. They are hard to avoid. The trick is to add something unique. Taylor and Brooke go from friends to lovers, but their path in the book is unique. Plus I have two 70-year-old grandmothers go from friends to lovers, but their age and circumstances make their story unique.

Additionally, my characters live in rural Alaska, which is a unique setting and will turn any trope or cliché into something new.

AM: I absolutely loved your most recent novel, and can’t wait to read your previous publications including Crystal’s House of Queers and The Moonstone Girls. Can you tell me if you have any other novels in the works that we can look forward to in the next few years?

BS: I am working on a new story set in Alaska a couple of years in the future when artificial intelligence apps have advanced and significantly affected our lives. The characters are gradually forming in my head where they will live for the next many months. As I get to know them, I will tell their stories as best I can.

AM: You’ve started your own publishing company, Skipstone Publishing, and have published your five novels through it. What made you decide to start your own publishing company? Has it always been a dream of yours or did you attempt to sell your novels to agents and publishers prior to the founding of your company? If so, what did this process look like?

BS: My first novel was an altered version of Crystal’s House of Queers. I did try to query agents with no success. Actually, I became frustrated with the game of querying and stopped too soon. Many authors will take a year or more to find an agent. I had no patience and decided to form my own company so I could deduct business expenses. I formed an LLC using a template from Legal Zoom, applied for a business license in Alaska, and applied for my IRS tax ID.

Basically, I learned how to do everything myself, including making and designing ebooks, securing copywrites and ISBN numbers, finding beta readers and editors, and more.

AM: Skipstone Publishing is named after you. I’m curious if you plan on only publishing your own novels or do you plan to expand to other authors in the future? If so, will you be limiting accepted works to ones that focus around LGBTQ+ and queer characters?

BS: My plans don’t include publishing other authors at this time.

AM: When it comes to marketing your novels how do you get the word out to potential readers? And how do you market to booksellers who will ultimately sell your novel to these potential readers?

BS: I secure editorial reviews then post my book on NetGalley to secure Goodreads reviews. I encourage positive reviewers to post on Amazon once my book is available. I’ve also used LGBTQ+ book tours to spread the word and entered my books in various contests.

I use IngramSpark to make my print books available worldwide and have recently used Draft2Digital to make my ebooks available worldwide.

Frankly, I should make more of an effort to market my books, but I’m more interested in writing new ones.

AM: The banning of books is the most common type of censorship in the United States (Webb, Book Banning) and in the last handful of years its frequency has gone up exponentially, from 566 in 2019, to 1858 in 2021, to 2500 in 2022
(Italie, Book ban attempts reach record high in 2022). Do you have any fears about what will happen to your published novels and any of your writing in the future?

BS: I would welcome the banning of any of my books because that would indicate that the books are widely read and considered a threat. The book banners seem to have no idea that anyone with a phone or computer can read the first several chapters of any book online. By condemning certain books, they ensure they will be read one way or another. I’ve never understood how adults think banning a book keeps their children “safe.” Their children have phones and Netflix and HBO, YouTube, Amazon Prime, etc. Do they not realize what their kids can access on these outlets? Banning books is an absolute sham and publicity stunt.

Kat Meads’ These Particular Women

Congratulations to Kat Meads for her new book These Particular Women, published by Sagging Meniscus Press. In this collection, Meads “investigates ten famous/infamous women and the exceedingly contradictory biographical and autobiographical portraits that survive them,” including Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie, Sylvia Plath, and Flannery O’Conner.

Kat Meads’s new collection of essays examines several famous (or perhaps infamous) women—the kind of women often labeled shrill, pushy, angry, bitchy. The reader who is not intimidated by a strong woman demanding her right to make her own plans for her own life will enjoy the author’s quiet but often sardonic tone as she retells these women’s stories by strategically quoting and skillfully questioning those who wrote about but clearly did not understand (and sometimes didn’t even like) them. Kat Meads likes these women, and so will other women, who recognize how they have so often been misunderstood.

—Margaret D. Bauer, author of A Study of Scarletts: Scarlett O’Hara and Her Literary Daughters

Kat Meads has written six novels, three essay collections, two short fiction collections, an epistolary memoir, and a hybrid fiction. She’s won a variety of awards, including five Best American Essays Notable citations. To learn more, go to her website.

Built from bits and grains and jots of detail, built impeccably from exhaustive research and in effortless prose, Kat Meads’s portraits of singular, extraordinary women are particulate in the service of telling the story of whole (and wholly unknowable) women. If you love literary pilgrimages, if you yourself are a literary pilgrim, if you love stories (and stories about stories, and stories balanced like excellent hats on the heads of other stories) you will find this exploration of literary women’s lives thrilling and addictive.

—Elizabeth Cooperman, author of Women Pissing

To purchase These Particular Women, go here.

Kat Meads’ essay “Relativism: The Size of Tsar in Vegas” appeared in Issue 2 of Superstition Review.

An author headshot of Coyote Shook.

Oil and Ice: An Interview with Coyote Shook

Coyote Shook is a cartoonist living in Austin, Texas. Their work has appeared in or is forthcoming in a range of American and Canadian literary journals, including The Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Evergreen Review, SplitLip Magazine, Vox, The Puritan, Shenandoah, and The Northwest Review. They were the winner of the 2020 Jeanne Leiby Chapbook Contest with the Florida Review and have received multiple Best of the Net and Pushcart nominations. To learn more, visit their website.

We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Coyote Shook’s art. This interview was conducted by our Art Editor, Addie Ascherl. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity.

Addie Ascherl: I’ll get started with the first question! On your website, the bio says that you use comics to examine intersections of critical disability studies and the environment. Can you discuss the most common ways these tend to overlap?

Coyote Shook: Yeah! Right now, I’m doing my dissertation on the history of whaling in the US, and I’m doing it as a graphic novel, but I’m looking at intersections between whaling and disability. For the first half of it, I’m looking at how these interactions with whales maim and dismember whalers and cause them to enter the status of disability.

And then the second half is really looking at where we are now with the environmental movement and also the disability liberation movement. And how both of these movements seemed to, in the 1970s, have gotten caught up in this Neo-liberal, individualistic model, where the emphasis isn’t on radical action or sweeping change. It tends to be more on an affective response to the environment being destroyed or an affective response to requests for disability justice—so where these movements kind of lost momentum in this period of time in the 1970s, where we have this potential for liberation. And then we go into the ’80s, where there’s more of a conservative backlash, and again you come out of out this system of, “You can protect the environment by watching a sad movie about whales.” There’s no real call to action attached, and just how that has become an anemic thing.

There’s other ways I think about that, too. One of my pieces I just got published was all about the archival research I was doing for a different project in Montana a few years ago—and being there during the hottest time of the year. And thinking about the impact climate change has when you’re disabled, and how climate change is disproportionately going to impact people who are disabled. So that’s a lot of where my mindset is around these two fields.

In terms of how comics fit into that—one, I think, as a disabled person, I’ve written a lot about comics as a useful research tool, to think of comics as research because it gives people the right to present things the way that they understand them or in the way they remember them and recreate their sort of reality. Or, if you want, it’s a totally plastic universe. So you can create your own image of the way that something happened or the way you remember something—or the way you might wish something had happened. I find that to be really useful and engaging.

And then, from a practical standpoint, I find that people are always more willing to read something if it’s in a graphic novel. Instead of spending four years working on a book that would sit on a shelf and that no one would read, I’m hopeful that I can turn this into something that’s useful and that people want to read and engage with. That’s a very long-winded answer for that, but yes. That’s kind of how those three fields show up in my work.

AA: Nice! That goes into my next question—which is, how do you represent these topics within your art? And you kind of talked about through the visual medium, and being able to adjust that to reflect your own experiences. But what is a piece of yours that speaks greatly about these issues that you stated?

CS: I need to think about that. I would definitely say “Bitterroot,” the piece I just had with Kenyon Review. That sticks out in my mind. “The Young Harris Psalter,” which I did with SplitLip sticks out really heavily in my mind. “Tamar Mepe,” which was with Tampa Review, another one that I really felt combined these things. There’s ways in which I might not make something overtly about the environment, but there will be something in the background that points to it. One thing I really like to do when I’m talking about climate change or talking about comics, where the background is a virulent environment, is to add things being on fire. Really thinking about water. A lot of times I really like having human bodies with animal faces—creating these hybrid bodies, in the style of Donna Haraway or something like that.

I’m also, especially when it comes to disability, very big into leaning into a plastic universe and trying to create this magical realist state of mind, where these ideas, these categories of the body, are no longer relevant or germane. And so bodies can do all sorts of things that you would not think bodies could do in a regular environment. That’s also really important to me, to emphasize the plastic nature of comics as a field, and really trying to go out of my way to not draw very many things being totally realistic. Even in my work right now, I’m doing a lot of gothic magical realism to tell the story. There’s flying whales, and there’s a story about the founding of Nantucket Island. And there’s this whaler, and he’s at sea, and he gets swallowed by a whale. And inside there’s a mermaid and the Devil playing cards for his soul. So I’m able to bring in the Devil, randomly staying in the background for some of the pictures or a mermaid peeping up through the water. Things like that are really important to me.

I’m also very much interested in the grotesque and trying to make grotesque things beautiful and beautiful things grotesque. And shifting those ideas and those categories. And I think for me, as a disabled person, those are terms that I think we sit with a lot. And, especially considering the history of categorizations of disability in the US, there’s something that I really like to screw with and see how I can challenge them in my work. And maybe not in overt ways—maybe just in minor ways, like in winks to the audience. That’s also really important to me when it comes to my creative work.

AA: Mm-hmm. That’s also—what you were stating earlier, with fire in the background and stuff—definitely relates to something I noticed within your work. A lot of the pieces are black and white or muted tones, but when you do include color, it’s often reds and oranges—that kind of color scheme. So, what draws you to this theme? Is that more the climate change impact on the environment—with the fire?

CS: Yeah, I think that’s, in my most distilled form, yes. Because this one being “Oil and Ice,” is ultimately talking about climate change. So there is these weird things—there’s a scarlet macaw in Alaska. And it’s a tropical bird; it’s not supposed to be there. I do like using those reds and oranges to allude to fire. So overall in the graphic novel, the only three colors I use are red, orange, and blue. So there’s the blue when I’m doing the oceans, but then there’s red. Red has a lot of different meanings here—like, one, blood, but also it can be used for fire. I limit myself on my color palette a little bit, more so than I normally would.

When I first started with comics, I was not using color at all. I was very much trying to model myself after Edward Gorey style—strict black and white. But then I came across some Edward Gorey’s where he had used color, and I really liked them. So I guess I became a color minimalist, where when I do have a color I’m including, I do want it to be deliberate. For this dissertation, all in all, it’s mostly black and white, but on pages where there is color, those are the ones that get used.

AA: Okay, interesting! It seems very intentional and symbolic, so it definitely comes through with your pieces. Going off of what you were saying, what are some of your inspirations for your work—what are some general inspirations? What are you generally inspired by?

CS: In terms of artistic inspirations, Edward Gorey’s a big influence. Remedios Varo’s a big influence. Leonora Carrington. Carol Walker is doing really cool stuff. Manuel Lozano, María Izquierdo. I’ve been looking at Mexican surrealists for the past few years, and trying to get into the work that they’re doing. Artistically, I’m also drawing a lot right now from French New Wave films and thinking about images that come out of French New Wave. I kind of want my comics to have a jarring effect, with abrupt stops and odd camera angles and repeat camera angles that are meant to comment something. So those are artistic inspirations.

In terms of cartoonists, very much Lynda Barry, who was my mentor at Wisconsin. I really love her methods of telling stories and drawing stories. I go back to that a lot. Emil Ferris, who wrote My Favorite Thing is Monsters, another really big inspiration. Ebony Flowers, who did Hot Comb, I think she’s doing really great stuff. Isabel Greenberg, who did Encyclopedia of Early Earth. Those are again people I’m really inspired by when it comes to comics and comic storytelling.

In terms of life, what I draw a lot of inspiration from, I really am just kind of an art history nerd. I think that’s what excites me. Every time I go to a museum, I always come out with a beehive of the different things I want to draw. I’ve just been inspired by different styles I’ve seen or different color combinations that I’ve seen.

I’m still kind of riding a high; I went to the Boston Fine Arts Museum for the first time a couple weeks ago, and it’s still really resonating with me. When I was in Wyoming, I was near Grand Teton, and sometimes I would go and sit and draw while I was there. It was more that I liked being outside and the weather was pleasant; I’m not really a big “draw things from life” kind of person. But it can be really nice to find a cool place with a nice climate to just go outside and be present in nature and draw.

AA: Yeah, cool. I definitely find that, getting inspiration from other art—and museums and stuff. So on your website, it states that you received your MA in Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Could you discuss how these studies in that discipline present themselves in your work?

CS: That’s a great question! My first ever long-length graphic novel I did was actually my Master’s thesis at Madison, which was about disability and gender in the school house blizzard of 1888, which impacted these three teachers. So how categories of disability and gender were constructed in that disaster. I was able to turn that into a comic. So, again, I hold that in my core—that feminist lit comics are a feminist research method. A lot of feminist researchers bring that into the conversation—drawing an interview with somebody and showing them what they described to you. And then giving them editorial control to say, “No, it looked more like that” or “It looked more like that.” I think that’s all really important in terms of humanizing research and humanizing experiences that humans have that they’re trying to convey through research. So that’s always at the corner of my work, because that’s what I’m trying to do now, as a disabilities studies scholar, is really bring in that category of disability.

It’s also interesting because I have really had to, with this research, dig deeper into questions of masculinity and masculinity studies that I had maybe not paid as much attention to as I should have before. But that’s been really interesting. So today, for example, I was reading an article on masculinity in Jeffersonian democracy, and that’s having to show up in my work now. Because right now, when I’m talking about whale ships, there just weren’t as many women on board because typically women would have been viewed as bad luck or women wouldn’t be allowed for whatever reason. So that’s something I’m having to think about and sit with. That’s always in the background of my work.

And again, a lot of the things that I write about deal with researching feminist studies. Like the one “Bitterroot” comic that was just published is about how I was working as an education outreach coordinator for a project about Radcliffe Hall and Una Troubridge and just the frustration that came out of researching these deeply frustrating and problematic women who also were pioneers, in a way, and pioneers for queer rights in a way and having to sit with those nuances and how frustrating that can be.

I have a long-term goal—I’ve not started it yet—of doing a comic about Betty Friedan being trapped in this bardo where she has to watch early 2000’s reality TV shows that involve a man taking a wife from a pool of twelve applicants, and it all delves into nonsense and chaos. So topics like that are still really important to me and show up in my work a lot. I began a cartoonist by thinking of it as a feminist research method and a justice-based research method. It’s something that’s very important to my work and something that I still hold onto as I continue this process.

AA: That’s interesting. I’ve never really thought about it that way—the justice research methodbecause, like you said earlier, it can definitely being a representation of how somebody perceives their world. That’s a really cool way of viewing it. I have one last question. You kind of touched on this earlier, but many of your pieces have this central character that is often human-like and then has animal parts, like maybe an animal face. Could you comment on this theme and explain the intentions behind this?

CS: I don’t know—I like the magical realist element of it. I find it surreal and jarring and—I don’t want to say horror—but I’m kind of trying to lean into eco-horror a little bit. I think these unsettling images are important if you’re trying to tell a story that is deeply unsettling, but that I think a lot of people just regulate to a part of history. They think of whaling as being sad, but also what’s happening right now with climate change and the fact that we’re killing more whales than we did in the heyday of Yankee whaling, with ship collisions. People treat it with this aura of finality—that it’s not something to be distressed about.

Part of it is that I like disrupting the idea of the body being a single, static thing or trying to draw a person that looks like “an ideal person.” I do like this mix and match of human bodies and animal heads and things like that in order to—one, comment on how we think about bodies and what we think of as “correct” and “incorrect” bodies. Also, to look at these interactions between humans and animals—that we’re not always quite sure what to do with. These interactions between humans and whales were usually pretty violent, and it’s the same thing with humans and sharks. But that’s because humans are going into these animals’ habitats and trying to kill them, so of course they’re going to be violent. So if you don’t want to be crushed by a sperm whale, don’t go hunt sperm whales. If you don’t want to get bitten by a shark, don’t go into shark-infested waters to deliver a bomb, you know, like in WWII. It’s that kind of sight of these human-animal interactions that sometimes can end up being violent that I’m just really fixated on right now. I think that’s part of it.

I also like the idea of eco-horror being a genre in and of itself. These elements of horror existing visually in a place where slow violence is taking place against humans to get people thinking about that is really important to me and my work. And for a very long time, I’ve always been fascinated by the interactions between humans and animals. So I think that’s a very long-winded summary of where my mind is when I go in with this human-hybrid approach. Because I want it to be unsettling, and I want people to be disturbed by it. And I also want to include something in the background that people would find unsettling or disturbing. In one, a man’s face is a stingray, and behind him is an oil freighter. So thinking about what is really terrifying about this concept. That’s just a very long-winded overview of why I have that as a motif that occurs in a lot of my work.

AA: That just got me thinking actually about how a lot of people—or at least an issue with some people—is that humans will often have more empathy for animals that get hurt than other humans that get hurt. So that’s an interesting way of combining the two that I didn’t think of before this.

CS: I think one of the things… I’m hesitant when I talk about empathy because it’s a term I don’t know how valuable I find it is—in the sense of the idea of feeling something for someone is perceived of as being enough. But I’ve done a lot of research into why people get more sad when animals die than humans. One is that it’s got to be a weird deflection or self-delusion technique to help people emotionally distance themselves from that horror of human suffering.

And also, I think my work is drawing on the histories of colonization and that part of the animal compassion movement had its roots in colonization. Like, “We’re going to the Philippines to ban cock fighting because that’s such a horrible practice.” And these people mistreat whales, and we would never. And this whole gospel of kindness towards animals is kind of rooted in this idea of control and dominance that I find uncomfortable. And again, I’m vegetarian, and I’ve always really liked animals, and I also, until recently, hadn’t thought about the number of times I’ve heard people say that they’re always more sad in a movie when a horse dies than a human. And I’m like, “That is a very peculiar thing to say. You can be sad about both.” And there’s this personification of animals being totally innocent, and this personification of all humans as being innately evil… It’s very strange to watch War Horse, and you walk away feeling sad for the horse, you know? Like, you just watched sixteen-year-old German soldiers get shot for abandonment. It’s just a very… It’s not necessarily something I blame people for, but I do think it’s something that’s imbued in a lot of white dominant culture—that people have not fully reckoned with yet.

AA: Yeah, very true!

A photo of Matt Bell. Description: He is white, with short salt-and-pepper hair. He's wearing a plaid button-up.

Coffee & Craft: Free Revision Lecture by Matt Bell

On Saturday, April 22nd at 10:30 AM AZ time, Matt Bell will lead a revision workshop “Refuse to Be Done,” named after his own book on revising novels. The workshop will take place in room LC369 inside the Language & Communication building located on Scottsdale Community College’s campus. Participants will learn Bell’s own process for breaking down revision into manageable steps and meet other aspiring writers of all skill levels.

Bell’s award-winning writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, American Short Fiction, and other publications. His novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods was a finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award and an Indies Choice Adult Book of the Year Honor Recipient, and was selected as the winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award. Both In the House and Scrapper were selected by the Library of Michigan as Michigan Notable Books.

Coffee & Craft is a new, recurring series of Saturday morning creative writing workshops at Scottsdale Community College. The first was on poetry and led by Scottsdale poet laureate Lois Roma-Deeley. The workshop is free and open to the public. Seating is first come, first serve, and subject to limited capacity. Learn more about Matt Bell at his website. A map of Scottsdale Community College’s campus can be found here. A map of the Language & Communication building itself can be found here.

The Nuts and Bolts of Writing with Tejaswinee Roychowdhury: Interviewing Imelda Wei Ding Lo

This is an episode from the podcast The Nuts and Bolts of Writing. In this episode, Imelda Wei Ding Lo interviews author Tejaswinee Roychowdhury about themes in her writing, her inspirations, and how her legal studies and practice have influenced her approach to writing. Tejaswinee is a writer, poet, artist, and lawyer from West Bengal, India. Her fiction and poetry have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and her work is published or forthcoming in Dreich Magazine, Muse India, Paddler Press, Amity (Hawakal, 2022), The Unconventional Courier, Roi Fainéant, Taco Bell Quarterly, Kitaab, and more. She is also the founder of The Hooghly Review, a literary magazine. To learn more about Tejaswinee Roychowdhury, visit her website.

Imelda asked Tejaswinee the following questions in this podcast episode: 1) What were you inspired by when you wrote your story for The Unconventional Courier, “Where Does The River Go?” 2) What books and themes inspired you the most as a writer? 3) You are a lawyer (as am I). Has your legal practice and studies influenced your approach to writing? If so, how? 4) What kind of stories do you plan to write in the future? Will you be publishing any books?

Imelda Wei Ding Lo is the co-host of the Nuts and Bolts of Writing podcast, the co-founder of The Unconventional Courier, a writer, an artist, and a game developer (Fortunus Games). She’s written two graphic novels—Sam in New York and The Book of Joel—and her work has been published in Victoria Literary Festival’s 2019 short story anthology. To learn more, visit her website.

We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into the work Imelda Wei Ding Lo has done. This interview was conducted via email by our blog editor, Brennie Shoup.

Brennie Shoup: You co-host the podcast The Nuts and Bolts of Writing. What made you want to start this podcast? Are there certain things you look for when you choose to interview a writer? 

Imelda Wei Ding Lo: I wanted to start this podcast because I (and the co-hosts, Tete DePunk and R.N. Roveleh) wanted to learn more about other writers and how they approach writing. 

As we discovered while working on our own stories, writing can be a lonely journey, especially when you’re waiting to submit novels and short stories to publishers and zines. Most publishers and zines require works to be previously unpublished, so you can’t post your work online for people to comment on. 

This means you can only talk about your work with a small group of friends. We wanted to expand that group of friends beyond the three of us to a wider range of people so we could avoid the “echo chamber” effect.

BS: You also co-founded a literary zine, The Unconventional Courier. What made you want to start your own magazine? 

IWDL: We started this magazine because we wanted another way to connect with other writers. We wanted to read other people’s writing and also ask them questions about the writing process. Our zine has a section called “Talking Heads” where we ask our submitters questions about writing, such as “How important are themes to your writing?” or “Which movies or books inspire you the most?”

BS: You have two graphic novels—Sam in New York and The Book of Joel. How would you describe your own writing? Do you find yourself linking writing and visual arts often?

IWDL: I would describe my writing as introspective. It’s also a work in progress. I am constantly learning from others (through the podcast and the zine) and also from my “real” (non-creative) life. I put a lot of myself into my characters, so, in a way, my characters are a way for me to digest what’s going on in my life. 

Yes, I have always linked writing and visual arts together, ever since I was a child and teen. I grew up as a huge fan of manga (Japanese comics), and I loved how many of the stories combined dialogue with striking visuals. To this day, the manga Oyasumi Punpun by Inio Asano is one of my favorite works. It is just as “literary” to me as giants like Philip Roth and Orhan Pamuk.

BS: Do you feel like your background as a game developer influences the other aspects of your career—either your writing or your work on The Nuts and Bolts of Writing or The Unconventional Courier? If so, how?

IWDL: Game development was really a hobby for me. I never worked in or studied game development and I don’t have a solid grasp of programming, but I did create some interesting visual novel segments back in 2019 by teaching myself Python. 

I haven’t had the time to make games recently, but I would say that my interest in game development has helped me think more about the bigger picture. When creating a game, you can’t afford to spend all of the time on the dialogue or art assets—you have to think about the structure, the user interface, and the user experience. I’ve been applying that to my art and stories, and it’s really helped me structure my works better. As I’ve learned, it’s very important to create stories with an audience in mind. Otherwise, you run the risk of creating a bloated work that is hard for the reader to understand and appreciate.

Such Terrible Desire: An Interview with Megan Baxter

She was riding the bus into work when she felt something give in her belly. They’d been trying for two years now and she knew what it meant and doubled over. She was standing and gripped the metal pole hard. There were three more stops before her office park. It was the first warm day of spring and the sun was already hot between the buildings downtown. She’d worn a fitted dress in light yellow, like the creamy eye of a daffodil. Her computer bag swung over her chest as she fumbled for her cellphone. She was crying. The last two times she’d been at home and they’d cried together, he’d gone to CVS to buy pads and run the sheets through the wash and by morning everything was cleaned up and she was empty again. No one even knew what was lost. Another cramp snapped her forward and something warm began to crawl down her leg. How could there be so much blood? It bloomed across her dress, it pooled under her boots. A man standing next to her jumped back. She’s been shot! He whispered. Someone has a gun, a woman shouted. People started screaming. The bus broke hard and bodies toppled forward. The woman gripped hard to the pole. I’m fine, she was saying, but it hurt to stand up. Everybody get down! A man in a ball cap yelled. They all crawled under seats, curled against the metal floor. The stain moved horribly down towards the driver. For a long while there was quiet on the bus. The radio crackled; the red eye of the security camera stared. I’m okay, she said again, it’s just, she tried to straighten up but the pain bent her double. This time she’d thought for sure. They had a good feeling about it. When the police stormed up the stairs the first officer yelled for her to show her hands. She was shot, a man said, she needs help! The officer looked at the blood and back up at her. Her face was red. She shook her head. The officer said something quietly into his shoulder radio. He holstered his pistol and reached out his hands. She pulled herself from the pole and walked forward, blood in her boots. I want to go home, she told him, but they took her to the city hospital and she lay under crisp bleached sheets, staring up into the glare of fluorescents. What was it about trying that exposed you, she wondered. Such terrible desire. Outside flowers followed the sun across the sky.

Megan has won numerous national awards, including a Pushcart Prize. Her work has been listed in The Best American Essays of 2019. Recent publications included pieces in The Threepenny Review, Hotel Amerika, The Florida Review, and Creative Nonfiction Magazine. Megan mentors young writers and loves developing cross-genre and innovative creative writing pedagogy for her workshops and classes. Megan lives in New Hampshire, running her own small, organic farm and teaching creative writing. Her third book, Twenty Square Feet of Skin, will be published in May, 2023, by Mad Creek Books. To learn more, visit her website.

We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Megan Baxter’s piece. This interview was conducted by our Fiction Editor, Morgan Horner. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity.

Morgan Horner: Hello everyone! My name is Morgan Horner, and I’m one of the fiction editors for the upcoming issue of Superstition Review. I have the honor of interviewing Megan Baxter on her story “Such Terrible Desire.” Megan has won numerous national awards, including a Puschart Prize, and her work has been listed in the Best American Essays of 2019. Megan mentors young writers and loves developing cross-genre and innovative creative writing pedagogy for her workshops and classes. Megan lives in New Hampshire, running her own small, organic farm and teaching creative writing. Well, good morning, Megan. Thank you for joining us today.

Megan Baxter: Nice to see you!

MH: I’m so excited to do this interview with you. I absolutely love this story, and I’m glad I get to know more about it. Before we start, is there anything else you’d like to add?

MB: No, not at all! I’m excited to speak to you more about this piece.

MH: For our first question—in many stories that depict miscarriages, they focus on the emotional trauma that is caused by such an event. In “Such Terrible Desire,” we get to see more of the physical and mental trauma that this woman is experiencing, especially when the idea of a gunshot is introduced into the story. So what inspired you to write about one woman’s experience with miscarriage and the trauma it invokes?

MB: So this story was inspired by the true life story of a friend of mine, who had a similar experience miscarrying on her way to work, all dressed up and headed to the train to take her into her office. And when she related this story to me, the way that she told it was focused on the physical component of the experience. She had had previous experiences with miscarriages, at home with her husband and with her family. And she had not been out in public, wearing the heels, dressed up, ready to go in. And I was just struck by the question of “What do you do in that situation?” When you appear so physically injured, and there’s all those little questions of, “Do I call in? Do I go home? How do I clean myself up for the time being? Do I take an Uber?” How do you recover from the physical and public shock of that moment? So that had me thinking for a while. It’s one of those things that just turns around in your head.

And then I was also thinking a lot about how we often, as you mentioned, imagine miscarriage as something that is very personal, very private, very internal. But pairing it with a public experience made me realize that it’s one of those very few experiences that we have that can be so public, that can be so seen. And there’s so much exposure in that moment. So I was struck by its similarities to other forms of violence and the shock that it might have for other people who are witnessing the event.

MH: I was definitely going into the story not knowing what to expect, and then getting hit by that—I just felt so bad for the main character having to be in a public situation… I could not have imagined. It was very moving.

So, color plays a strong role in this story, from the delicate yellow of the main character’s dress to the vibrant red of her blood. Can you discuss how and why you chose color as a tool to relate this for your readers?

MB: I think color, for me… I’m a very visual person. I’m very image-based in my writing. So color is always something that sticks with me. But I think for this particular piece, because of the shock of blood and its immediate connotations to other forms of violence, it was important for me to stay focused on color as the primary mover. But also because the woman here is thinking about her clothing and thinking about the way she appears. And so I wanted to tie in the dress and some of the joy that we all feel this time of year as spring is beginning to bloom, and there are flowers finally—and we can bring out a beautiful sundress if we want to. So I wanted to tie in some of that and connect it to the world of the blood and the shock of that kind of public exposure.

MH: I definitely think it makes a huge difference, especially by the end when she goes to the hospital, where everything is just white and clean. Color is just so amazing—how it can change a story.

MB: It’s such an evocative technique for me and for many other readers as well.

MH: I was captivated by the form of the story; it’s all one paragraph with no quotation marks around the dialogue. Which, for me, made it feel very panicked, as the main character probably felt in that moment. Can you describe why you chose to write this story as a piece of flash fiction, and what emotions were you hoping to invoke through the use of this form?

MB: I think panic is exactly what I was hoping for with the form. I wanted it to read very quickly on the page, and I wanted the dialogue to feel smashed up into the action as well. I didn’t want to isolate it through the use of any device, like italics or quotation marks or a new line. I wanted it to all feel really immediate.

In terms of choosing a length for this piece, I wanted to linger on the images. And so when I find myself attracted primarily to image, I realize that it’s probably going to be a piece of flash fiction, something that’s shorter and lets me exploit that. Because I don’t think, in this situation, knowing what happens before and what happens after really changes the way we see this one moment.

MH: I think, for me, I definitely have gotten into flash fiction a little more, just within this semester alone. I think it’s so amazing how much you were able to tell in such a short piece of time and how every word matters in that moment as well.

MB: Thank you. I think one of the things I love about reading flash fiction is that there’s a lot of space for the reader, as well. So even if it is just a small little flash or slice of a story, the reader brings a lot to it. I find that I always leave a flash piece feeling like I experienced something really full. I think that that’s a really gracious way to go about writing: leaving more space on the page for the reader to fill in.

MH: Yeah, especially in this story, our main character—we’re never given her name. I think that’s kind of indicative of a lot of flash pieces. It doesn’t need a name; you’re already in that moment, you’re already in that character. The last two lines of the story are incredibly striking. They honestly left me in tears. “Such terrible desire. Outside flowers followed the sun across the sky.” I felt like I was reading a poem. How has your education in poetry and creative nonfiction influenced your writing, this story specifically?

MB: Well, I studied poetry for my undergraduate degree. Arthur Sze, the poet—at Bread Loaf in 2011, I think, when I was there as a poet—very kindly took me aside in his poetry workshop and said, “I really like your writing, but I don’t think you’re writing poetry. I think you’re writing nonfiction.” And he was right; he was completely right. So I started to shift at that point in my life towards writing creative nonfiction, studying it in my undergrad. But I read a lot of poetry, and I think because I am—as I mentioned before—someone who does focus a lot on image, the poem still appears as a form in my prose. And for me, not just image, but lyric and sonic devices are really important. I love pieces that are read out loud. I love the sound of things. So I do try to bring that to sentences as much as I can.

MH: Yeah, it was so beautifully written. I loved it. So, you’ve taught creative writing at the middle school, high school, and college level. What are some pieces of advice that you find yourself repeating to all of your classes?

MB: That’s a good question. Well, I think the one thing that I’m asked the most from students is how do you become a writer? What is your secret to staying focused and being published? What I always tell to students, regardless of their age, is that the authors that they love are people who didn’t give up, are the people who kept writing. So I talk a lot about resilience and the process. That is a consistent thing that I teach. I also focus, as you mentioned, on those more poetic aspects, so writing truly as a form of art and playing with both sound and structure, regardless of genre. I like to teach works that use multiple forms of communication, whether it’s poetry, images, collage. I invite my students to bring all of their artistic interests—and other academic or personal interests—into their work. I like to create pieces, or encourage students to create pieces, that feel both rich and diverse in their inspirations.

MH: Yeah, resilience is definitely something I have to remind myself when I’m writing.

MB: We all do!

MH: There are sometimes when I’ll leave a workshop, just like, “That’s not what I wanted my story to be!” And then I have to remind myself: it’s just one story, and I can write so many more.

MB: You can write so many more, go back and write that. And so often the experience is about learning, not the product. And I think it’s hard, especially for younger people today, to understand process. That the thing that we produce for an assignment might not be the final thing that you are creating. So, not to encourage students to throw away pieces, but to come to the page realizing that not everything you compose is going to end up being a final masterwork. The actual practice of creating something is what you’re in it for.

MH: A lot of my teachers practice this mindset of “refuse to be done.” Matt Bell, he wrote a craft book on it.

MB: Yes, it’s a great book.

MH: That’s one thing I definitely remind myself: not every story is going to be finished the first time, even though I want it to be. It’s something you repeat over and over and over again.

MB: And just wait till you start writing whole books, and you realize that about whole first drafts!

MH: So, you’re releasing a collection of essays titled Twenty Square Feet of Skin this upcoming May. Can you describe your experience with publishing this collection, and are there any other projects you’re currently working on?

MB: Twenty Square Feet of Skin is coming out through Mad Creek Books, which is an imprint through Ohio State Press. And I submitted the manuscript to them via one of their annual contests, and while it wasn’t a winner, it was selected for publication, which was wonderful. And I’ve had an absolutely extraordinary experience with the editors and the staff there. They’ve really helped me make the collection better than it was when I sent it off to them. I think that’s what every writer is looking for in a relationship with a press.

The manuscript itself was sort of born out of my Master’s thesis at Vermont College of Fine Arts under the supervision of Patrick Madden, who’s an essayist out of Utah. And he and I focused a lot on experimentation and adding additional source material to the essays. So the collection as a whole explores the body through a multitude of lenses and influences. There’s a lot of essays about music, but there’s also essays about things that I felt weren’t “writerly” enough to write about, like giving pedicures or going to the gym. Things that are very much part of our every day, but don’t often end up being the material that we see celebrated in the personal essay. So over a series of revisions and additions, the book is now complete, and I have never been more proud of anything that’s gone out for publication, so I’m really excited to see what people think about it.

MH: I definitely will be looking out for it. As soon as I read your story, I was like, “This is someone I want to pay attention to for the long haul.”

MB: Well, I will say, to continue your question about any other projects I’m working on, I have moved out of the realm of writing nonfiction, at least for the time being. I’ve written three books and published three books of nonfiction since 2018 to today. In a very short period of time, I wrote a lot of material. And I won’t say that I’m out of material, but I’m definitely taking a little bit of a pause, and I’m turning my gaze toward fiction. So submitting pieces like “Such Terrible Desire.” But I’m currently working on a novel and also a lot of other stories and flash pieces.

MH: That’s so awesome. I admire how you’re able to switch through these different genres.

MB: It’s so much fun. Fiction has been such a joy. And you sit there and you think, “Oh my gosh, I can just make something up?” And it’s amazing.

MH: I love that. That was one of my favorite parts of fiction, and then I took a research-based fiction class, and I was like, “Oh, there’s some things that need to be very accurate!”

MB: My novel is heavily research-based, and it is exhausting.

MH: I can imagine. I finished a story last night for my research class, and afterwards I was like, “I’m not doing any more homework; I’m going to sleep.”

MB: Your mind really works on overtime.

MH: It felt so good to close all the tabs on my computer.

MB: I’ll be very happy to get rid of all these research books, which make me look like I have very strange interests. Eventually those will go away.

MH: I understand that. I’m so excited for you! I will definitely be on the lookout for Twenty Square Feet of Skin and anything else you publish in the future. Thank you again so much for doing this interview. I’m really excited for our SR followers to read “Such Terrible Desire” and get to learn more about you and this story. It’s definitely something that a lot of our readers will connect with and love.

MB: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you about the piece, and I’m excited to see it go up on the blog!

Michelle Brafman’s Swimming With Ghosts

Michelle Brafman’s Swimming With Ghosts

In Michelle Brafman’s forthcoming novel Swimming With Ghosts, published by Keylight Books, she explores the darkness and humor of children’s competitive swimming. Themes of family secrets, obsession and friendships shine through the lenses of childhood and the feuding families of the characters.

I really enjoyed Swimming with Ghosts, for the excellent characters, unusual plot inside the world of local competitive swimming, the fine writing, and the frequent insights and humor. I raced right through it.

ANNE LAMOTT, author of Bird by Bird

Michelle Brafman’s writing has been featured in Lilith Magazine, LitHub, and San Francisco Book Review. She has received numerous awards for her fiction, including a Special Mention in the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story prize, and first place in the Lilith Magazine Fiction contest. In 2019 she received the Excellence in Teaching Award for creative writing. Swimming With Ghosts will be her third published novel after Bertrand Court (2016) and Washing the Dead (2015).

Swimmers and readers rejoice! Michelle Brafman’s Swimming with Ghosts is proof that the most important events in life happen at the pool. Fast-paced and frequently hilarious, we unsuspectingly float on the novel’s wry, quirky humor until we’re suddenly over deep water, gazing into the depths of our need for purpose, friendship, and love. Anyone heading to a pool or beach this summer should have a copy of Swimming with Ghosts in their swim bag.

DAVID MCGLYNN, author of A Door in the Ocean

Swimming With Ghosts releases June 13th, 2023 and can be pre-ordered here. Learn more about Michelle Brafman’s writing and teaching by visiting her website. Her short story “Brain Freeze” was featured in Superstition Review issue 13.

A headshot of Oscar Mancinas.

Oscar Mancinas’ The Warrior Classic and Aztec Duals: An Interview

I barely remember my final high school wrestling match. I know I lost but can’t remember to whom or how. I was seventeen and trying to will my broken body—a dislocated a bone in my right foot, torn cartilage in my left shoulder, and habitually sprained wrists and thumbs—to keep fighting. The state tournament was four weeks away; I told myself there’d be time to heal if I could make it until then.

I didn’t make it.

As a child of Rarámuri and Mexican migrants, living on occupied O’odham Jevved, I’ve learned movement is essential to how we relate to our homelands. Huhugam and Anayáwari, alike, cultivated mobile relations with the places, creatures, and elements responsible for our knowledge. I remember reading a story once about Rarámuri youths in the 1920s who were taken from our homelands, in the mountains of Chihuahua, to Mexico City to participate in national Indigenous programming. They became so homesick, they ran home, nearly 1000 miles.

Traveling to different high schools for matches and tournaments taught me about the factions in my home state—why and how strangers regard me and my kind as beneath them and their children. Defying these strangers’ expectations felt almost revolutionary. Losing to them, like the rule of law.

Aside from the state tournament, the two biggest wrestling tournaments during the final year I wrestled were the Warrior Classic in December and the Aztec Duals in January. I nearly went unbeaten in both.

Running and wrestling brought me peace. For those twenty, forty, or six minutes, I evaded what otherwise couldn’t control, and focused, instead, on the opponent or ground directly in front of me.

Unlike my final high school wrestling match, two matches I remember vividly—too vividly, perhaps—are the semi-final and final matches of the Aztec Duals. I won the former, despite dislocating a bone in my right foot at some point during the fray. I should’ve won the latter, despite the freshly acquired, mummified appendage. In that final match, I faced an opponent I’d previously defeated at the Warrior Classic; hence, I say “should’ve.”

For something so indebted to memory, notice how disciplined I am about writing “I remember.” Maybe none of this, ultimately, is limited by what survives the passage of time: acquisitions, losses, and complications of experience.

I’ve learned nothing stings, lingers, like being unable to do something I could previously do. Wrestling introduced me to this lesson; aging has become my reluctant, life-long enrollment. Months after the season ended, my foot was surgically repaired. In post-op, the doctor said to expect arthritis as early as my mid-30s. As I write this, I’m thirty-three years old. It took me nearly a year to be able to run again.

I still know the name of my final opponent at the Aztec Duals, which I’m tempted to write here, but I won’t. I will, however, write that he and I are both Mexican, but we attended, and wrestled for, schools on opposing sides of history. I wouldn’t make this claim if he hadn’t shoved me after I beat him in our match during the Warrior Classic.

Could I be extrapolating too much? Possibly, but why expend energy trying to parse interpersonal hostility from expressions of hegemony?

I run when I can.

I hope to keep the previous sentence in present tense for as long as possible.

There’s a cliché about how all fighters feel, regardless of their final fight’s outcome, as though they have one good performance left in them. If they won, it’s evidence they have something left to give; if they didn’t, then they should fight again and try to go out on their own terms, right? The bitter taste of failure, ultimately, is what’s risked when we fight. I hope I never forget, hope I never let it keep me. Consider what we’d lose, otherwise, if we became too defeated to keep fighting.

Oscar Mancinas is Rarámuri-Chicano poet and author. His books of poetry include the chapbooks JAULA (Gasher Press, 2020) and ROTO: A MEX-TAPE (rinky dink press, 2020), as well as the full-length collection des____: papeles, palabras, & poems from the desert (Tolsun Books, 2022). His debut collection of short fiction, TO LIVE AND DIE IN EL VALLE (Arte Público Press, 2020) won a 2021 Border Regional Library Association Southwest Book Award. He’s a proud resident of Mesa, Arizona’s Washington-Escobedo Neighborhood. To learn more, visit his website.

We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Oscar Mancinas’ essay. This interview was conducted by our Nonfiction Editor, Olivia Grasso. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity.

Olivia Grasso: Hi! I’m Olivia Grasso. I’m the nonfiction editor for Issue 31 of Superstition Review. Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing Oscar Mancinas for the SR blog. Oscar is a Rarámuri-Chicano poet, writer, and teacher based here in Arizona. His debut collection of short fiction, TO LIVE AND DIE IN EL VALLE won a 2021 Border Regional Library Association Southwest Book Award. Welcome, Oscar. Thank you for being here!

Oscar Mancinas: Thank you for having me.

OG: So my first question is about your essay titled “The Warrior Classic and the Aztec Duals.” In this piece, you write that “movement is essential to how we relate to our homelands.” I was wondering if you could share a bit more about this idea and how it informs your writing.

OM: Sure! Yeah. In that particular passage, I use the terms both Huhugam and Anayáwari, which are respectively O’odham and Anayáwari words that—to translate them into English—sort of mean “those who come before us.” “Ancestors” is I think the most literal translation. But my understanding of these terms is that they’re much more expansive. They don’t simply refer to human ancestors, but also beings and non-living things that have predated us and really inform the way we live, the way we come to know the world around us.

That idea of movement is informed both by the fact that I have migrant parents—who are both, you know, from the other side of the political boundary that separates the United States and Mexico. My father is Rarámuri, so his homeland is… There is another sort of layer of movement there because he didn’t grow up on our ancestral land. I’m interested how that isn’t a deviation of norms, but is its own way of living for some many, right? You know, if you live in Arizona—or the US in general—movement, migration, displacement, you know, whatever term comes to mind… It ends up really informing complete ways that people live.

And so that’s the big, broad thing. And I’ve sort of connected that to different research topics I’ve looked at and history. But then also, in this very interpersonal sense, exercise, movement, and just how integral that is to understanding the southwest—maybe even just the Salt River Valley and the Sonoran Desert—at different times of year, at different times of day… You experience where we live pretty differently. And trying to take stock of what that teaches us or connecting things like mental health to a practice that is as simple as walking around, running around, and moving your body in the space.

OG: That’s really fascinating, and I like the idea of physical movement being a way to connect to the land around you. Because I think a lot of the time, we think in emotional terms—an emotional connection to your homeland—but bringing physical movement, and even exercise, as you mention, kind of adds a different layer.

And that brings me to my next question. Along the lines of physical movement, this essay is about your experience as a wrestler. And I was wondering what inspired you to choose that experience to write about, and did you face any challenges with writing from memory?

OM: So I was a high school wrestler, which the essay is seemingly kind of about. It’s going back to my final year—the final months—I spent being a high school wrestler. Because—for anyone out there who’s ever wrestled in high school or at a high level—it’s an interesting experience, the sport. I have a lot of love for it. I catch a random NCAA college or high school wrestling thing on TV. I’ll stop and watch because once you’ve been on the inside, you understand the sport. Not that there’s a high bar of entry, but it’s not the most publicized sport, right? Unless you know someone or were involved in it. It just looks like people grappling to you, and it can be tough to know, like, “Who’s winning? Who’s losing?”

I’ve known for a while that I wanted to write about that experience because it had been so important to me when I was young—to the point where, when I could no longer do it, it really dramatically altered how I thought of myself and also where I thought I was heading. I thought I was going to potentially go to college—not to major-league D1. I don’t want to bring myself up here in case anyone who was around high school wrestling in Arizona in the late 2000’s knows. But I was getting mild offers, and I thought—you know, when you’re young, “This is just a thing I do. This is just part of who I am. I can’t ever imagine my body failing me in this way, or this being too overwhelming physically.” Because when you’re young, you bounce back from things—or you tend to bounce back from physical things pretty quickly.

And so I wanted to write about wrestling. This probably won’t be the last time I really get into it. I mentioned wrestling in short fiction pieces. I’m interested in—obviously, it’s rich for metaphor when it comes to writing. It’s sort of one-versus-one—it’s a sport that’s as physically taxing as it is psychologically taxing. It’s a very isolating sport. You’re technically on a team, but you don’t take the field of play—the mat, in this case—with your team. It’s you out there. In that ways, it is a bit distinct from other team sports that I think people can do in high school.

Plumbing back into it, the sort of memory element of it—to the second point of your question—it is curation. Like, what’s relevant here and why? Because part of me wanted to write a, you know, “This is it. This is when I had to hang it up.” I still get an itch; I still think about it, as the piece alludes to. But I’m also, now, reaching an age where a lot of the physical consequences of being in this sport so intensely are showing themselves. My left shoulder just hurts randomly at times. I’ve had to deal with other consequences from breaking that bone in my foot. It’s thankfully not arthritic yet—like I sort of write in the piece. But, you know, that’s coming.

And I’m just being mindful—I’m on the other end of where this journey began with the piece. I knew the debt would come for this—the bill would come due. And now I’m experiencing it, and looking back—or even looking back and projecting forward—how do I feel about it? Do I have any second-guesses or do I yearn for things to be different? And on the one hand, yeah—it’d be cool to not have parts of your body randomly hurt. But this sport was really important to me at the time, and I remember really wanting to push myself to get everything I could out of the sport, out of myself, at the time. And that’s sort of where the piece formulated out of.

OG: Those things you mentioned—your shoulder hurting or your foot—those are pretty vivid reminders of that whole experience in high school. So you were kind of already thinking through these things, just in your daily life.

OM: Yeah, because you remember—oh, yeah, that’s when this happened. And sure, I’ve done other sports since. I’ve done other physical activity that hasn’t helped, like rolling an ankle here and there when you’re playing pick-up basketball or reaching for something funny. But, yeah, the genesis of the body I have now—that’s where it came from, in the midst of that. And specifically that final year where I had to quit.

OG: I’m also interested in another point you brought up, which is that our physical fitness can be so interrelated with our identity. For you, being a wrestler in high school was a very significant part of who you were and still are, to an extent. With that in mind, how central to your writing in general are these concepts of identity and belonging?

OM: Probably almost inextricable from most of the things I’ve written thus far. I’ve thought about these things, and they’re part of other work I do—including my dissertation research, as well. Again, because of biographical details about me. I have migrant family. I was born in a different country than a good chunk of my family, but I have family that sprawls across multiple borders. Especially when the rhetoric of exclusion, of extraction, all of the rhetoric around closing things off, deportation—I’ve swam in those waters since the moment I was born. So it’s difficult not to think of yourself in relation constantly to those terms because they are so—even if you don’t want to think about them—they are in your face.

And so, not to try to resolve those things, but understand them, engage them, and maybe even invert them—is pretty central to how I write. Because, on the one hand, what belonging feels like is so subjective. What does belonging actually feel like, are we conscious of it when we feel like we truly belong? I know there are a lot of wonderful pieces of writing that try to get at the heart of that. This is where I felt I truly belonged or when I finally arrived. This stops being a question.

But I’m also curious about—what if that is a constant process? And we have to work actively at it. And we have to remind ourselves to pursue it, in the same way that I mention in the piece—the anecdote about movement and belonging and the Rarámuri youths. In the 1920s, a group of them were taken from our homeland to Mexico City, and you might say, “This is the same nation. They belong here. What other nation would they belong to?” But they didn’t feel that way because—for people who don’t know the piece—the story goes that they ran home. That’s how out of sorts they felt. And again you have movement—this idea of movement. That belonging can be so localized, that even within the national boundaries, it doesn’t quite convey the same.

And so negotiating those terms is simultaneously so personal, but also really collective. And, at least, that’s the balance I try to strike in my piece. Because I’m not O’odham, although I am Indigenous. My Indigeneity is not to the Salt River Valley, it’s not to the Sonoran Desert, and it’s not to the place I was born and raised. So I want to try and be mindful of that and to sort of work toward, “What does it mean to belong in another’s occupied land?” in terms of how I think of myself and how I write about the place that I do love. I love home—it is home; I call it home. It’s not as simple as, “I call this home, and so it’s home. End of story. There’s nothing left to say.” I think there’s a ton more to say.

OG: The idea you brought up of “localized belonging” is really fascinating to me, and the challenges that come up with moving physically and being forced to find a new sense of belonging. And so, would you say that, for you—you’ve been able to feel that sense of belonging in multiple places in a genuine way? Or is there one place in your mind where you feel the strongest sense of that?

OM: I think it’s the former. I’ve been fortunate too—because I’ve moved around a little bit throughout my life. Mostly after I got out of high school. I went to college on the other side of the country, and I also did graduate school out there. I’ve lived out of the country briefly. All the while—and this goes back to creating the belonging—I was fortunate, along the way, to find some great communities. To find and create community. And even if I didn’t feel like I belonged—in a permanent sense—to a place, where I felt like, “This is where I’m settling” or “This is where I’m going to live.” It did help to meet other people who pursue similar interests, to share things. I did a creative writing program, and I would not have made it through had it not been for the fact that I made friends. I found colleagues; we shared writing. We shared our enthusiasm for the kinds of writing we thought important, the kinds of books we like, the kinds of books we didn’t like.

And as it pertains to belonging here, where I’m home, part of that is my family’s here. My family has been here for a few generations. And I’m familiar with it. And part of it has been reading—reading works by Arizona authors like Ofelia Zapeda, like Alberto Ríos. I sort of refer to them as literary elders. Seeing how people have tried to put this into words before. What does that look like? What can I learn from them—for my own writing and for my own research?

OG: There’s definitely so much value that can be found in a community of writers, especially writers that share a homeland or a place, as you do. There’s a lot of understanding that can come from that, seeing how they have experienced the same land or something that you have. I really like that.

Moving on to another question I have. You’ve written fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and I’m wondering how your approach to each of those genres differs. And any other genre you’ve experimented with.

OM: Kind of going back to seeing what’s been written before… It’s where a lot of this process starts, where I’ll read something, or I’ll come across a piece of writing or a piece of art that I like or just sticks with me. Where I’m like, “That’s a really fascinating way to engage with this, or to write about this.” Part of the structure of this piece was inspired by Wayne Koestenbaum, who’s also a poet and nonfiction writer. And this essay he wrote, called “My 1980s,” which is similarly written in this non-linear, sort of vignette structures. And that piece is specifically about his experiences as a young gay man in New York City throughout the 1980’s—the AIDs epidemic is at times in the background, at times in the foreground.

What I really find striking about the piece is the representation of, “This is what time would feel like in the midst of an epidemic.” That’s where the inspiration came from. For anyone who’s been conscious for the last couple of years, time has not felt linear. It’s been really hard to track things, and I knew I wanted to write a piece eventually in that structure. I didn’t really know what it would be, but I come across structures like that, or I come across interestingly crafted pieces. And I go, “I wonder what I would write if I were to take on this form?” Or, “I wonder what I would say about this?” And kind of gestate on that for however long. I first read that piece nearly a decade ago, and I come back to it periodically. Because not only did I borrow the structure from it, but there’s a lot of meta-commentary or fourth-wall breaks where Koestenbaum commentates on his own writing in a really funny way. The final part of that essay is really funny I think. It’s pretty understated, but it’s very funny.

And so this could’ve easily been a poem, or the structure could’ve been easily used in a piece of fiction. I think the only consideration is that I start with something like a line or an image or, again, an idea, a structure. I think what feels appropriate? Or what feels like a conscious inversion of this? Is there anything there? Do I want to keep working on it? I’ll share it with colleagues, with friends—get notes, get feedback. And depending on what I hear back, sometimes this doesn’t totally work like this, and I have to put it away. There’s something I can extract to use in a different piece at some point. I’m sort of like a packrat: I hold on to drafts of things. The end result is that sometimes they’re an essay, sometimes they’re a poem, sometimes they’re a piece of fiction, sometimes they’re a hybrid. I’d like to believe that I have more of a conscious, a more deliberate thought going into a lot of this stuff. But it’s not always the case.

OG: I think some of the best work happens intuitively. But with structure in mind, with this piece—”The Warrior Classic and Aztec Duals”—the nonlinear structure suits it really well because it’s about memory and recall. And people don’t really recall things in a linear way, in a streamlined way. I like the vignettes and the very fragmentary form. I think it works really well. And you also have a meta quality, I would say. There’s a line where you draw attention to the fact that you’re relying on memory: “For something so indebted to memory, notice how disciplined I am about writing ‘I remember.'” I thought that was a great line. You’re conscious of the fact that you’re recalling things as you go and piecing them together, and I think that’s a really clever structural thing.

OM: Thank you. I didn’t want to bore a potential reader with “I remember, I remember, I remember.” Which, I think, can be melodic in some pieces. But for this, I don’t know—I don’t think it would work quite as well.

OG: It’s so funny you say that. Because I just had to read this piece for a creative nonfiction class. And I forget the author, but the form was every sentence begins with “I remember.” And it’s one hundred and sixty or so pages, and it does get a little tiring.

OM: Well, I mean, you have to commit. I felt like I either had to commit and write something, really follow-through with the structure—to the point of overdoing it. Or I had to pull back because I think, for the length of the piece… I didn’t want to get caught in the in-between.

OG: I’m sure there were a lot more memories that you could’ve brought into the piece. My next question is… So you’re also a teacher. How has your experience as a teacher shaped your writing?

OM: It is a great chance to be around writing, to be around people figuring out writing and figuring out their own relationship to their writing and to each other’s writings. The way I was trained as a writing teacher—there was an emphasis on peer-reviews, on collective and group work. It’s great for me because I’m not much of a lecturer. I really believe in trying to decentralize a classroom a little bit and go with where the students really want to go.

Being a writing teacher has been great because—again—you get to work alongside the writers. In some cases, who rely on you more. In some cases, who don’t rely on you as much. Young writers come from all over and go all over. Including young writers who go “I hate writing. I don’t actually believe in it.” And they end up writing some of those brilliant things, of course. It’s a nice, humbling reminder—because, as I just said—I will read a line, a sentence, an image… And I go, that is a really, really incredible passage from this younger writer. It makes me excited to encounter it. And it makes me more determined to be constantly evaluating how I engage language, how I write.

Because there’s something to be said for experience and practice. But then there’s also just the spontaneity. Sometimes you sit down at the computer or the notebook, and the idea comes to you, or the line. Whatever it is, it comes to you nearly fully formed, and you’re like, “I got it. I did a month’s worth of work in five minutes.” I wish the relationship between time and effort and outcome were more linear, but it’s not. I really relish the opportunity to teach writing, to learn from the writers that I get to work with, learn what are some of their favorite writers. It helps me keep up with things like that, which I otherwise might not have as much exposure to.

OG: That’s wonderful that you can find inspiration in a classroom with young writers just starting out. Because I think there’s a lot of value to being able to see what a young person is doing right from the start, with no prior experience. Just kind of something unique about that, and sort of their perspective on things as not very experienced writers. They’re figuring out their own style and voice and everything. It’s pretty fun to witness that.

My final question for you is—can you tell us anything about what you’re working on now? Any projects?

OM: Yeah, sure. I’m obliged to say that I’m working on my dissertation. I’m a doctorate candidate at ASU in transborder studies. For my advisors or anyone else watching, I am working on the dissertation still. I’m hoping to make great progress on that and be finished within a year, possibly longer—but there’s that.

Also, I just published my first full-length collection of poetry called des____: papeles, palabras, & poems from the desert. It’s out through Tolsun Books. It came out in December of 2022. I’ve had a chance to read at the Tucson Festival of Books. At the end of this month, on March 31st, I will be reading at the Northern Arizona Festival of Books. Northern AZ Book Fest, that’s what it’s called.

Yeah, so I’m hoping to have more opportunities to share that work with folks. I still work on fiction and nonfiction. I have stuff I will periodically send out, including this piece, which Superstition Review was gracious enough to house on the blog, along with this interview. So I think those are the big things, for now.

OG: That’s wonderful! Congratulations on your poetry getting published, and good luck with your dissertation.

OM: Thank you; I’ll need it.

OG: Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down for this interview today. I really appreciate it, and it’s been a joy to talk with you.

OM: Likewise. Thank you so much for having me!