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!

Stalling by Lori Jakiela: An Interview

I am eating a Greek salad at Panera when my phone rings. I don’t usually pick up, but it’s been a week since my biopsy and I’m still sore and my right breast is bruised black and yellow, and I’ve been waiting days that have stretched on like 600 miles of bad road.

My breast looks like Gorbachev’s forehead.

My breast looks like an ink blot.

“Who’s Gorbachev?” my daughter, my Gen-Z-er, asks.

I say, “He tore down the Berlin Wall. Sort of.”

There are bits of The Berlin Wall on display in Ocean City, Maryland, in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not.” I have pictures of my daughter there, in front of the graffiti’d bits, written in English: “Don’t Go with the Flow” and “Move with the Groove.”


In whatever language, rainbows mean hope.

Gorbachev’s forehead birthmark used to be called a port-wine stain. Many people had these when I was growing up, though I never see them now. Doctors, genetics, evolution, who knows. In Gorbachev’s forehead, I see a map of a small country that looks like it’s melting. Crying, maybe.

“I believe in the cosmos,” Gorbachev said when asked about his religious beliefs. “All of us are linked to the cosmos.”

Rorschach, the father of ink blots, died at 37, precisely 18 years younger than I am now. It’s funny the things I think about lately. It’s funny the kind of math I do when I usually shudder away all things math.

Did you know Rorschach looked like Brad Pitt?

Do you remember Brad Pitt was once married to Gwyneth Paltrow?

Gwyneth Paltrow has a lot of ideas about hair and salads, self-care, and conscious uncoupling. Her company, Goop, sells a $3,490 solid gold vibrator called Olga and a candle scented like Gwyneth’s vagina. Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina candle, with hints of bergamot, costs $75, though it’s often sold out and on back order.

I’m sorry if the concept of Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina candle is disturbing. Such is the cost of capitalism, which is draining more than dollars.

Years ago, when I lived in New York, I saw Brad Pitt on the street scooping poop from a snippy little dog I think was Gwyneth’s pup.

What the hell was wrong with you, Brad Pitt?

All ten of Rorschach’s images look like vaginas and ovaries and pelvises. A few of them look like bunnies fighting. Another one looks like the Grecian urn—truth and beauty, beauty and truth.

Brad Pitt played the Greek hero Achilles in the movie Troy.

On camera, Brad Pitt looks immortal, lit through with gold.

On the street in New York, Brad Pitt looked ordinary, another New Yorker scooping poop. A cute, kind, human—a little pimply, even—connected to us all through the cosmos.

My phone rings three times before I pick up.

Truth, beauty.

Beauty, truth.

Those Greek figures chasing each other around that vase, stalling for eternity.

I love the word “stalling.” It’s tiny, but clever, the way the vowels and consonants melt and stick like peanut butter in your mouth.

Stalling. Stalling.

Try it.

The word does what it says. Language is sturdy like that.

My phone’s ringtone is the sound of typewriter keys.

A while back, at The London Times, editors pumped the sound of typewriters into the newsroom, a subliminal thing. The sound of typewriters, even for people who grew up without them, gets writers excited. The words come faster. The pages fill up. Good for deadlines. Good for profits. Writers pumped up on adrenaline move stories forward.

“This is,” I finally say to the voice on the phone who asks to speak with me.

I spear an olive into my mouth.

My breast is a storm cloud.

My breast hurts so much.

Up until this phone call, I’ve been making jokes about my ink-blot boob. These jokes make people other than my husband Newman uncomfortable. Pretty much like Gwyneth’s candle. So it goes.

Newman’s dubbed my 3D-biopsied breast Frankenboob.

“Pitchforks! Fire bad!” he says and waves his arms.

I can’t stop cracking Rorschach jokes.

“Tell me what you see,” I say, and push my boob close to his face.

“My mother never breastfed me?” Newman says.

“I’ve heard that,” I say.

“At least they didn’t stab you in the ass,” Newman says, and grabs my ass hard enough to bruise that too.

My ass is not the same as it was when Newman and I got married at a discount wedding chapel in Vegas. I never appreciated my ass back then, or that I could get away with wearing a white bikini at the pool during our honeymoon at Circus, Circus. It’s been a few years since I’ve donned a bathing suit or asked for the lights on during sex, but my husband makes me feel beautiful.

Under Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet Union practiced a policy called glasnost, a lovely word, which means openness and transparency. Truth. Shine a light.

Truth: I am grateful for my life.

I expect this call from the nurse to tell me everything is fine, it’s just a scare, and I should expect another 20 years of love and ass-grabbing and jokes about fire and angry villagers.

“Can you speak up please?” I say.

The nurse’s voice sounds muffled, like someone is holding a pillow between us to smother our words.

“Can you speak up, please?” I say again.

I spear another olive and think how much I love olives and nurses. I’m thinking of a nurse who is not the nurse on the phone. I am thinking of a nurse with beautiful tattoos, the names of her children, some flowering vines. During my cancer screening this is the nurse who ran tests on me. Somehow we started talking about shaving our pussies.

The proper phrase here would be “bikini line,” but seriously. Glasnost. Truth.

“I knew this stripper once,” the nurse said. “She told me her trick: a little toner and antibiotic cream, and boom, no more bumps.”

I have never been to Cheerleaders in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, but I was at a strip club once in New Orleans. It was called “Big Daddy’s.” There were animatronic legs over the entrance. The legs wore thigh highs and red high heels. The bouncer who perched on a stool beneath the legs was a large woman with a buzz cut and black gauges the size of quarters in her ears. I loved and feared her from the start.

Inside, a beer was $12. Newman and I sat next to the stage where a stripper swizzled around a pool. The stripper had tattoos of flames all around her pussy. The stripper wore shoes I could never stand in, let alone dance in or swirl around a pole. She had a cesarean scar, like my cesarean scar, pink, jagged, Frankenstein stitchery peeping out from all the flames.

“That looks like it hurt,” my husband said, friendly, making small talk like he does.

He meant the tattoo, which stretched from the stripper’s pussy to her ass. It was impressive, really. Intricate. Art. All vibrant reds and oranges and yellows. I can’t imagine how long it took. I assume the procedure was clinical—the stripper lying on an exam table, legs in stirrups, the tattoo artist with a head lamp on, the kind gynecologists and dentists and cartoon coalminers wear.

The stripper, obviously a mother, probably sweet off stage or at least someone who might be a friend, said, “Why? You want to touch it?”

Her voice was a razor, mean, and touching at strip clubs, even I knew, is always off-limits. She said it like she’d love to call in the bouncer, who was built like a hammer, who knew karate or ju-jitsu probably, who knew how to make people not touch each other, ever, no matter why, no matter how lonely or curious or lost.

I drank my $12 beer. It was skunked. The mandatory second beer was skunked too.

The strip club visit was supposed to be fun and sexy.

It wasn’t.

When my sweet nurse said boom she did that karate chop thing professional wrestlers do—hands to crotch—suck it, delete.

“That’s life changing,” I said.

The nurse said, “I know!” and chopped again.

We laughed and chatted and pulled our pants down to compare C-section scars and razor burns. We whined about bathing suits and what the hell, why should we care at our age? Lucky to be alive, lucky to get to the beach now and then.

I want to tell the nurse on the phone about my new friend, the nurse with beautiful tattoos and no razor burn. I want to talk about my love of nurses in general because the nurse on the phone sounds so awkward, and I want her to be okay because I’m pretty sure I am okay, no need for this strangeness between us. I want to tell her my mother was a nurse, and that people called my mother Sarge because she wouldn’t take any nonsense. I want to tell her Sarge was kind too, and how when I was a child in the hospital, my mother—Sarge the nurse—slept on a cot next to my bed and worked double shifts so she could be with me.

Such is the love of a mother who is also a nurse.

“I’m sorry,” the nurse on the phone says, and I’m confused.

“Why do they have to talk like that?” my mother, Sarge the nurse, a proud Italian-American with claims to her family’s own mob ties would say whenever we’d watch “The Sopranos.”

My mother didn’t mind the violence. It was the language she found disturbing.

She wanted her mobsters polite. No swearing. All suits and spiffy hats and pinky rings.

“It wouldn’t be true to life if they said please and thank you,” I’d say, and my mother would say, “Life is hard enough. I don’t need to hear about it on tv.”

When I sense awkwardness, when I feel other people’s discomfort, I fill up the space between us with words. I talk. I keep talking.

You may have noticed this.

Some of my words may offend. I apologize.

Thank you for your patience and indulgence, all these typewriters clacking in my mind.

The nurse on the phone says sorry again, more pillowed things.

I stop talking and stop eating and look at my salad, all these extra olives.

Panera usually skimps on olives, so these olives are their own miracle.

A love or hate of olives is, scientists say, genetic. So is a love or hate of cilantro. Some people think cilantro tastes like lime. Other people think it tastes like soap.

I love olives. I love cilantro.

Nature over nurture, sometimes even on our tongues.

I love my mother, the mother who raised me. She loved olives, too. What my birth mother loves, I have no idea. Nature over nurture feels like a lie, a betrayal, at least.

After my daughter was born, I found my birth mother through Catholic Charities. I wanted a family medical history, “for my children,” I said. History of cancer? History of heart disease? History of mental illness?

My birth mother refused. Instead, she wished me dead.

As I write this, my birth mother is still alive, and my mother is not.

“Oh, poor baby,” Tony Soprano said. “What do you want, a Whitman’s Sampler?”

The air at Panera is a bright warm blanket of bread and coffee. The sun gleams through the spotless windows some underpaid workers with squeegees must have scrubbed until their shoulders ached. In a booth across from me, a mother feeds her tiny daughter something that looks like pudding. The girl, strapped into a highchair, doesn’t like being locked down, so she bobs and weaves and the sprig of blonde hair ponytailed on top of her head burbles like a fountain, something to wish on.

In Rome I threw coins into a fountain. I’ve thrown coins into fountains in Paris, in Belgium, into a sad koi pond in Monroeville Mall. The fish in the koi pond died, I think, partly from all the coins and empty Orange Julius cups and cigarette butts people threw in there. Poor sweet fish. All that filthy water. All those wishes. Monroeville Mall, home country of “Dawn of the Dead,” birthplace of zombies.

“Help me,” the little girl says, and her voice pops like bubble wrap.

Her mother says, “Shush now, you’re fine,” and spoons more pudding.

The nurse tries twice to pronounce my last name.

“Close enough, no worries,” I say.

I say, “It rhymes with tequila, but without the worm.”

Funny. Funny. Always that.

“Everything’s a joke to you,” my father used to say. “Jackass.”

The nurse on the phone doesn’t laugh.

“Help,” the little girl dodging the spoon says.

“Shush now, you’re fine,” her mother says.

“I’m sorry,” the nurse says. Again. Again.

In Spain, there’s a version of Panera called Pan Pan. Meat and cheese and bread. Everything a person needs to go on living. My first time in Spain, and my second time, and my third time, I lived at Pan Pan. I knew what to order. Carne. Queso. Pan. I knew the order of things.

The little girl in her highchair sounds far away, her cries muffled by pudding.

The nurse says again, “I’m sorry.”

The nurse says, “There’s a malignancy.”

I somehow ignore her, as if English is my second language, Spanish my first.

At Pan Pan, the bread was pillowy, a cloud. La nube. Bread and cheese. Staples. All a person needs in this life. La vida. Te amo.

The nurse says, “I am so sorry.”

I think when people talk about leaving their bodies, near-death experiences, this is how it might feel, the untethering of that.

La nube. El cielo. Lo siento. The cloud. The sky. I’m sorry.

“Shush now,” the little girl’s mother says. “You’re scaring people.”

I miss my mother.

I miss my mother.

The nurse does not say cancer.

She says, “There is a malignancy.”

When I was a flight attendant, my other life, we were trained to call storms “weather” and turbulence “rough air,” and a crash “a hard landing.” A bomb threat was “an incident” and a hijacking was “a trip.” A drink was “a beverage,” no matter how weak or strong.

Never drink coffee or hot tea on an airplane. The water used for coffee and tea comes from the same source as the water used in the toilets. Planes are limited. The ice is suspect too.

Maybe everything on a plane, in the air, on the ground, causes cancer.

Still. Every profession has a language meant to keep people calm. Every profession has its own language of kindness to protect people from panic and pain, to keep people believing we are anchored to this world.

In what world does the word “malignancy” sound better than cancer?

Ours, maybe. More syllables at least.

“Do you want to touch it?” the stripper in New Orleans asked my husband. She spread her pussy like a map, then she pulled back and stomped a heel off the ledge of the stage. She knocked my second $12 Heineken to the ground.

It was skunked, like I said, but expensive, and the options at Big Daddy’s were limited.

Gwyneth Paltrow was on my flight once. Gwyneth fake-gagged and threatened everyone and required oxygen because she thought her first-class vegetarian meal may have nestled against her seatmate’s prime rib.

Malignant! Malignancy!

Gwyneth, who friends call Gwynie, fanned her face like she was on fire. She stuck out her pretty pink tongue so I could check it for poison.

Gwyneth’s lovely baby-butt complexion splotched over as her anger flared. Her seatmate, his meat bleeding a bit, looked mortified.

Their meals never touched I swear.

Whatever, Gwyneth Paltrow, you beautiful, rich creep.

May you live forever even so.

On the phone, the nurse’s voice has the tentativeness of someone who’s uncomfortable speaking, though she, like me, fills the air between us with a lot of words.

She says, “I don’t think we’ve met before.”

She says, “Not that we’re meeting, actually.”

She says, “I’m sure we will meet at some point, but I didn’t want you to wait. Waiting’s the worst, right? And the doctor is on vacation. The Bahamas, actually. Or maybe it’s Aruba. I get confused.”

I’ve been to Aruba.

I’ve been to the Bahamas.

In Nassau, I ate conch fritters and rented a rusty Volkswagen, a stick shift, and tried to drive it on the wrong/right side of the road without stalling, but I gave up and got a bicycle instead. The bike wobbled a lot. The brakes worked only sometimes. Later, I rented a jet ski and took it out, even though I’m a terrible swimmer and terrified of sharks. But the jet ski was cheap and came with a life jacket.

“Being afraid of living is just the same as dying,” an Ohio band I likel—Two Cow Garage—says.

I wish everything in this world came with a life jacket.

The water was blue and clear and seemed safe, as if I could see straight to the bottom of the ocean, as if I could see danger coming and get out of the way.

The ocean looked shallow as a bathtub.

The ocean looked endless as the universe.

I didn’t think about death then, not even with my fear of sharks and drowning.

How long ago was that?

I try to do the math.

Over 20 years.

“We’re here for you,” the nurse on the phone says.

Limited. The beer choices at Big Daddy’s. Gwyneth Paltrow’s palate. The reach of a tiny band from Ohio, no matter how brilliant. The choices of words to cover moments like this.

The nurse says, “If you need us or have questions.”

The little girl in her highchair says, “No,” and starts to cry harder.

My tits hurt and I don’t know if it’s the nurse’s words that make it so or if it’s real.

I want to ask but I don’t know how.

What should I feel? What shouldn’t I feel?

How does anyone know if they’re dying when we all are, all the time, really, even so?

“Did it hurt?” my husband asked the stripper at Big Daddy’s.

All those flames. All those needles. I had my own questions, too, but I kept quiet.

Tattoos before the C-section or after? How many children? What were their names?

I had my first C-section after 21 hours of labor with my son. My daughter’s birth was scheduled, and she came out through the same scar, easy-peasy.

Imagine coming into the world through all those tattooed flames. There’s another song by one of my favorites, Ike Reilly. “Born on Fire.” It’s so heartbreaking and good. Give a listen if you can. It’s a story, like all of Ike’s songs are stories, but this one is about a father who can’t answer
his son’s questions about faith and love and where we go when we die.

I’d love to know the stripper’s story. I’d love to know everyone’s story. I’d love to save them here.

There’s so little we can do for one another. I write a lot about people I love who’ve died. It’s a way to keep the music of their lives playing. It feels less lonely, having them here on the page.

“Writers aren’t people exactly,” F. Scott Fitzgerald said. “They’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.”

That too.

Lori Jakiela is the author of several books, including Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (Atticus Books/Autumn House Press), which received the Saroyan Prize from Stanford University. Her next book, They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice, is forthcoming in October 2023 from Atticus Books. She lives in Trafford, Pennsylvania—the last stop in Pittsburgh’s Electric Valley—with her husband, the author Dave Newman, and their children. To learn more, visit her website.

We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Lori Jakiela’s essay. This interview was conducted via email by our Nonfiction Editor, Olivia Grasso.

Olivia Grasso: “Stalling” includes references to Gorbachev, Rorschach, Gwyneth Paltrow, and others. Can you share your thought process for including public figures such as these? What do you want your reader to take from them? 

Lori Jakiela: “Stalling” is all about the way someone’s—my—mind works when facing a dire health diagnosis. I wanted to trace the way my mind moved when I was waiting for my doctor’s office to call and let me know if I had cancer (I did; I’m fine for now). 

I think it’s wonderful and weird and so beautifully human the way our brains work under stress—the things we think about, the things we ponder—Gywneth’s vagina-scented candle!—the connections we make, the ways we distract ourselves from mortality and so on.

I think all these public figures showed up in my thoughts because they are part of my DNA—people who have flickered in the cinema of my mind, weird connections that don’t completely connect, figures who are part of my life in some way that I can’t fully articulate. 

In this essay, which is an excerpt from my forthcoming book (They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice: On Cancer, Love, and Living Even So; Atticus Books 2023), I wanted to write about mortality and disease in a way that interested me most. The waiting time between tests and diagnosis. The things I thought about in that space. The things I thought about that were strange and seemingly disconnected but somehow connected. 

I think it’s fascinating, the ridiculous things we think about when we think about our own mortality. I want to try to connect those moments for readers, who I hope might get it. Mortality isn’t tidy. I love that somehow. Mapping my memories, how strange and disconnected they seem and are, gives me a strange joy—like collaging, maybe. I think of this essay as a collage. I hope readers can find their images in there, all those layered shared experiences.

OG: This piece embraces a fragmentary style that shifts between past and present preoccupations. What was your process for organizing these fragments? Did you start with a central image or idea?

LJ: I pretty much worked from a stream-of-consciousness place. I was most interested in mapping the way my brain works. I hoped I could find some way that readers could follow along. There’s so much written about cancer, disease, etc. That seems like the biggest part of the story, but I find it somewhat boring. Sorry. I’m more interested in the moments before the diagnosis. In the moments when we’re most alive in the face of mortality. I’m interested in what people think about when faced with such awfulness, since we are all at some point faced with such awfulness, whatever its form. I’m interested in writing what I thought about in those moments when I had to consider whether I might die, that eventually I would die, like everyone forever amen. I was in love with the strange series of images and memories that surfaced for me in those moments. How seemingly random they were, but how if you write through it, you can—I could—find connections and meaning there. I think of Anne Sexton saying “not that it was beautiful, but that I found some order there.” Crafting order out of chaos. Finding some kind of map that makes almost-sense. That’s what I’m most interested in. 

OG: What sort of subjects do you gravitate towards in your writing?

LJ: It’s probably not shocking that I write a lot about mortality. But I write a lot about family. As an adopted person, family means so much to me. It’s multi-layered. Super complicated. I also write funny. I’m very interested in the funny part of the tragedy of being human. Knock knock. Who’s there? Not sure, but I hope there’s a great punchline at the end of this life.

OG: How does your work as a journalist and poet influence your approach to nonfiction writing?

LJ: Truth is both fluid and not. I always feel like the world gives and gives and that there’s so little need to make things up. Paying attention is vital. If I’m feeling stuck as a writer, I go out into the world—a little walk about, a visit to a dead mall. The human stories are everywhere. It’s important to stay open to them. It’s important to pay attention, always. 

OG: How would you describe your approach to incorporating humor into your work? Do you have a certain audience in mind? 

LJ: Humor is my own way of getting by. I think everything we endure as humans can be translated as horror or humor. Mostly both. I think of E.B. White’s Charlotte the Spider who taught us we’re born, we live a while, we die. The human condition. What a tragedy. And how funny and strange is that? 

OG: Can you share a bit about your forthcoming book, They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice?

LJ: My book is pretty much an exploration of both living and a diagnosis that will determine whether I could go on living. It’s a strange book—very much focused on that kind of stream-of-consciousness writing about the moments between those initial doctors’ visits and a diagnosis. 

The title comes from New York Street fairs, where people write your name on a grain of rice. The writing is so microscopic. It’s amazing, really. No one can read your name without a magnifying glass, though you know it’s there. Any contact with water and the rice grain and the name disappears. It’s a fragile, beautiful, intricate art—this writing of names on rice grains. It’s also a metaphor. How temporary and essential we all are. How small, but beautiful. How silly. What a miracle. That. Yes.