Family history is a tricky thing. I heard the expression from a young age “history is written by the winners” – but how does that really translate to family history? It’s hard to find anyone who is really a “winner”. Not only that, but I also think sometimes people don’t want to be the winners of their family. Or maybe they can only be the winners through omission and that’s how pieces get lost.
My Great Aunt Wren has always been a fixation. She never married or had children. She lived in the house she grew up in nearly her entire life, except for when she ran away for a period of time. I could never get a straight answer as to where she went…sometimes my mom said Maine, California…Montreal…I liked to imagine she went everywhere. She traveled the world, and then came all the way back. She died when I was 15. I feel like I was just starting to get to know her on her own terms. Right before she died she snuck me a cigarette, an American Spirit. I couldn’t finish it. She had a raspy laugh.
This is a conversation I had with my grandfather, Alder Bray. It was for a school project, but I also just wanted to record it. He was a private person, but I thought I could get him to confirm what I thought I knew.
00:00 [shuffling papers. Tap]
00:07 Bryn: Can I get your anything before we get started? Water? Seltzer?
00:12 Alder: No, I’m alright. Why are you recording me?
00:16 Bryn: For posterity…I think it’ll be nice to have a recording of you. Then I can always remember you.
00:25 Alder: Remember me? Do you know something I don’t?
00:28 Bryn: [laughs] Sorry, sorry. For way later. Years and years from now.
00:34 Alder: Alright, alright.
00:43 Bryn: First, tell me your name and where you are from.
00:49 Alder: My name is Alder Ulysses Bray. I am from Dennis, Massachusetts.
0:56 Bryn: What year were you born?
1:01 Alder: 1941. In Hyannis.
1:05 Bryn: Do you mind talking about grandma a little bit? How did you meet?
1:12 Alder: Katherine and I met through some…mutual friends. Family friends. We would have been married…uh…57 years this fall. She was an intensely giving woman.
1:33 Bryn: Yeah, mom always said she was very generous.
1:38 Alder: Yes. Generous to a fault, I would often tell her. If someone needed help, she was there. Not everyone deserved it, but that’s not really what she cared about.She was like that from the moment she met my family.
1:57 [chair creak]
2:00 Bryn: What do you mean by that? – from the moment she met your family?
2:07 Alder: She was introduced to them very early. I typically liked to wait before introducing anyone, but she actually met Wren before she met me. Anyway, she just hopped right in. The first time she had dinner with my parents, she did all the washing after. Wouldn’t let anyone else get an elbow in – she had insisted.
2:32 Bryn: That sounds very sweet. Your family must have adored her.
2:38 Alder: Yes, they certainly did.
2:42 Bryn: Where did she meet Wren?
2:46 Alder: At the hospital. Katherine happened to be working that night. Wren had to go in for…stitches.
2:54 Bryn: How old you both when you had my mom?
2:58 Alder: [cough] Sorry?
3:01 Bryn: How old were you and Grandma when you had my mom?
3:08 Alder: I don’t know. In our 20’s.
3:12 Bryn: [swallow] Can you remember anything about being new parents? What was my mom like as a baby? Or even as a child?
3:23 Alder: Oh, I guess she was a restless baby. Although all babies are. Felt like it was months before she would actually sleep. Up crying all night. Katherine would sit with her all night, rocking her to sleep. There was constantly a bottle of formula warming on the stove. You were a much better baby.
3:44 Bryn: [laughs] I imagine if I wasn’t, you wouldn’t be the one up with me.
3:51 Alder: I suppose that’s true.
3:55 Bryn: Can you tell me what Dennis was like back then? Maybe a little bit about your neighborhood?
4:09 Alder: Sure….ah, there weren’t as many houses as there are now. And certainly, no huge ones you see…just mostly little Cape Codders. P-town was still mostly just Portuguese fishermen. The farm across from where we lived was still operating…producing something. I think now it’s just a historical site. If that doesn’t make someone feel old, I don’t know what will [chuckles].
4:42 Bryn: [laughs] Well, what did they produce? The way you remember it, I mean.
4:51 Alder: They had dairy cows.
4:56 Bryn: What did your parents do?
4:59 Alder: Father’s family were ice harvesters. So, I think he did that for the first part of his life. By the time I was born, it was becoming a less…in-demand profession. He opened a hardware store in Dennis when I was…maybe 4? 5? Mother was mother, that was about it for her. She lost a lot of babies.
5:17 Bryn: That must have been hard for her.
5:22 Alder: It was. For both of them. They were just left with me and Wren by the end of it all. Now it’s just me that’s left, as you know.
5:33 Byrn: Do you sill think about your sister?
5:40 Alder: I do. I still find myself thinking I need to check in on her, but then I remember I don’t need to anymore. Must be something that becomes ingrained in you when you’re the oldest.
5:59 Bryn: Can I ask you something that might be a little – uh – well, it’s just kind of a grim story. I found this article from 1965 and uh –
6:11 Alder: Just ask whatever it is you’re trying to ask, Bryn.
6:18 Bryn: It looks like there was an awful fire at the farm by your home. Several people died or disappeared after it…it looks like you all thought Wren was gone after…her name is listed here…what – what happened?
6:38 Alder: Is this what this has been about the whole time? Trudging up ancient history?
6:45 Bryn: Grandpa…
6:57 Alder: I’m not upset. [sigh] Wren yammered about that for years. Blamed it for all her troubles. Like we did something wrong to deserve it.
7:03 Bryn: Why do you think she felt that way?
7:07 Alder: Maybe it was easier.
7:10 Bryn: Easier than what?
7:13 Alder: Accepting what happened in her life.
7:33 Bryn: Can you tell me about the fire at all? I can’t believe I didn’t know about this.
7:56 Alder: Fine, fine. There was a fire at the barn across the street from our home. Not the large dairy barn, thank God. They had a smaller barn on the edge of the property everyone called the Turkey Barn, but that must have been a relic of a time before me. I don’t recall there ever being any turkeys there.
8:12 Bryn: Did you know the Taylors well?
8:18 Alder: Sure. A lot of folks now don’t even know their neighbors. I was driving the other day and I waved at someone walking their dog. Headphones in. They didn’t even acknowledge me. It never used to be that way.
8:27 Bryn: Hmm mhm, can you tell me about the Taylors?
8:30 Alder: What do you want to know?
8:34 Bryn: I guess…can you tell me about your relationship to your neighbors? And your neighborhood?
8:41 Alder: The neighborhood wasn’t as densely populated as it is now. Wren and I could roam through woods and not see anyone or come to any real property for…miles, it seemed. We did spend some time over at the Taylors. I’d try to help them when I could, they had five children but only one of them was a son, so they could always use an extra pair of hands for the heavy lifting.
9:08 Bryn: Five children, that’s so many.
9:14 Alder: Most farmers had even more than that. But I guess the Taylors never got around to it or preferred their hired help. They would hire anyone.
9:25 Bryn: I’m not sure what that means.
9:28 Alder: Nothing…they hired immigrants and all sorts of folks…who knows if any of them had anything to do with that fire. There would be no way to trace them. No records or anything…[cough]
9:36 Bryn: Grandpa, I – I think that’s not really a fair assumption…
9:42 Alder: [scoffs]
9:45 Bryn: Do you remember the names of the Taylor’s children?
9:50 Alder: Let’s see…there was…Dorothy, she was the oldest. Very beautiful woman. Then…Susan? Samantha? Something with an S….Sarah! And Elizabeth, and…Evelyn.
10:13 Bryn: What about the son?
10:15 Alder: Hmm?
10:17 Bryn: You said there was a son. What was the son’s name?
10:21 Alder: Cormac.
10:28 Bryn: Cormac. Did you spend a lot of time with him? When you would help the Taylors?
10:34 Alder: Sure. We spent some time together. He was a nice enough kid.
10:44: [tap tap tap]
10:46 Bryn: Did Aunt Wren spend any time with the Taylors?
10:50 Alder: She did. We both spent plenty of time over there…running, shooting…that sort of thing. We had a television, but Mother was very strict about it. They might have had one too…but I never saw it. Never went in their home.
11:04 Bryn: Aunt Wren could shoot? I didn’t know that.
11:07 Alder: Oh yes, we all did. She liked to do the Annie Oakley. She would try to shoot a bullseye behind her with just a mirror and the gun on her shoulder. She missed most of the time, she had a much better shot just holding the gun normally.
11:26 Bryn: Wow. Did she learn to do that from the Taylors or…?
11:30 Alder: I’m not sure exactly, I went away for a while to work. I missed some of her teenage years.
11:35 Bryn: Were you…away…when the fire happened?
11:38 Alder: Yes. I must have been.
11:41 Bryn: I read that…Cormac was another one that disappeared after the fire. [papers shuffling] But I couldn’t really tell if that meant he died in it? It sounds like a body was never found.
11:50 Alder: No. No, he didn’t die in it. That’s ridiculous. No one thought that. Cormac ran off, as many people did those days. I think he might have even gone out to California.
11:57 Bryn: But why do you think that?
11:59 Alder: That’s just the sort of person he was. Had his head in the clouds, didn’t think about other people…his family. Sure, he worked hard but I don’t think he ever really knew the value of it.
12:07 Bryn: Did Aunt Wren spend any time with Cormac?
12:16 Alder: I suppose.
12:18 Bryn: What did they do together?
12:20 [tap tap tap]
12:25 Alder: It’s true, she did spend a lot of time at one point with Cormac. He might have even been the one that taught her to shoot so well. I’d have weekly phone calls with Mother and she mentioned them taking long walks together more than once.
12:40 Bryn: I see. Where were you at the time?
12:45 Alder: I was in Lowell. Worked as a truck driver for a few years. Wren wanted to go to college, and she was smart. I wanted to be able to help her with that. I didn’t want her to waste all her time.
12:54 Bryn: Did she?
12:57 Alder: Did she what?
13:03 Bryn: Did Aunt Wren ever go to college?
13:07 Alder: It’s stuffy in here.
13:10 Bryn: I have the A/C going…are you uncomfortable?
13:15 Alder: I’d rather a breeze.
13:19 Bryn: I can turn it off and open a window for you, Grandpa.
13:22 Alder: Hmm
13:25 [chair moving]
13:28 [window opening]
13:35 [inaudible sounds]
13:46 Bryn: Is that better?
13:48 Alder: Yes. We can hear the birds singing too. It’s pleasant.
13:55 Bryn: It is, Grandpa. Remember when we used to go up to Maine? You’d take me with you and your bird watching friends?
14:03 Alder: Yes, you loved it.
14:06 Bryn: I remember seeing the barn owl. That was my favorite.
14:10 Alder: I remember that too.
14:23 Bryn: Wren never went to college, did she?
14:34 Alder: No, it didn’t quite work out that way. After the fire, she was never really the same. She ran off for a while too…but she came back. She needed her family.
14:42 Bryn: She was there when the fire happened?
14:46 Alder: Oh yeah, we were all there.
14:54 Bryn: I thought you said you were away?
14:57 Alder: I must have been visiting.
15:03 Bryn: Alright…can you tell me anything you remember from that day? Did you see Cormac at all?
15:07 Alder: No.
15:11 Bryn: Why do you think Wren was never the same after that day?
15:32 Alder: I think for anyone…it’s a hard day when you realize your world is not safe. That bad things can happen. And when that shattering happens at your own home…I can only imagine what my sister was feeling. Perhaps abandoned. Betrayed.
16:12 Bryn: Grandpa, I just want to know. Did you or Aunt Wren have anything to do with the fire?
16:16 Alder: Fires are not unheard of in the area. Sure, it’s a wet part of the country so we don’t get…sweeping wildfires like they do other places. But accidents happen. There was an accident that day. You asked what I remember? I remember that Turkey Barn going up in flames. I remember the cows were restless at the chaos, but they were tucked safely in their barns. Why would anyone have been in the Turkey Barn? It was an old barn, and not much was kept in there. There was no need for anyone to be in there for any honest reason. Ashes. That’s all that was left, and I think we can leave ashes alone. There’s nothing to find in them.
16:58 Bryn: I just…wanted to understand the truth.
17:03 Alder: I’ve told you everything that you would need to know.
End of recording.
Gloria Rose-Potts is a writer originally from Cape Cod, Massachusetts with an MFA in creative writing from American University in Washington D.C. She was a stand-up comedian for five years and traveled around the country and once to Scotland to perform. She is interested in fairy tales, ghost stories, and nature writing. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.
Antonio Folcarelli: I saw that you performed stand-up comedy for five years. How would you say improvising and developing a sense of timing influenced your writing? Gloria Rose-Potts: What it really helped me with was developing a sense of tension. I think it is a lot of the reason I am drawn to horror and uncanny writing. Fear and laughter are really all about the control of tension with the audience or reader. It’s been really interesting writing for an unseen audience after performing for a live one.
AF: “Transcribed” has such an eerie undertone to accompany its central mystery. This comes to a head with one of the final chilling lines: “Ashes. That’s all that was left, and I think we can leave ashes alone. There’s nothing to find in them.” How do you build up a mystery in a short time without overwhelming or boring the reader? Did you have any goals in mind when you chose this ending for the story? GR: The eerie undertone always naturally comes out when I set my stories in New England. There must be something in the gray air here.
Honestly, a lot of trial and error. I would write in a lot of details, and then scale it back. Then add things back after feedback when folks told me things had gotten too murky or confusing. For the mystery in this story, I figured I needed a clear roadmap for myself. I needed to know everything that happened, and then I could control what I wanted my reader to know.
I knew it was going to end with Alder still keeping his secrets. The genesis of this story was me thinking about how we hide information from each other, and how we twist stories to fit what we want people to believe – or perhaps what we wish were true. How does all that negotiating get communicated? How do we lie? AF: I really appreciate the framing device of the story. It captures sounds of movement in a small room and even realistically depicts the passage of time in a conversation. How did you come up with this stylized presentation? What were some challenges or limitations that came with it? GR: Thank you, I was really in love with the concept, and then less in love as I was sitting in my bed with my clock app timing out each line. And then I’d do a rewrite and would have to do it all over again. Absolutely maddening. My undergrad degree was in psychology, and we had to transcribe interviews. We had to catch every single sound we heard; we couldn’t leave anything out. It was all important to the analysis. And as I said, I was thinking about how someone would withhold information and twist a story. It seemed like an interesting way to write a story, and it fit what I wanted to explore.
The biggest challenge was I love to describe a room, or the nature around people. There is none of that. To keep the dialogue authentic sounding, I had to keep it all pretty basic. I couldn’t get very descriptive, but I managed to sneak in a few flowery ~ writer-y ~ lines.
AF: In the opening paragraph, there’s this fascinating passage: “I heard the expression from a young age ‘history is written by the winners’ – but how does that really translate to family history?” Since ghost stories and folktales are so influential to our culture, what could up-and-coming writers do to avoid perpetuating stereotypes? GR: Oh man, this is a question I will be trying to find the right answer to for the rest of my life. For right now, I can just say: read. Read everything, but especially contemporary writers. But read the original stories too and pay attention to who is translating (take a translation class if you have the opportunity). If you find one thing that speaks to you or makes sense, find out what that writer is reading. You’ll eventually make yourself a little web of content you can get stuck in like a sweet little fly. You’ll start to notice the things that come up often and don’t ring true anymore (or never rang true). Read the non-fiction stuff about it too – sometimes clear analysis is the best thing for ignorance. AF: In 2022, you wrote the introduction to the story “As They Always Are” by Amber Sparks in the literary journal Grace and Gravity. Could you share what it was like to write that introduction? Had you collaborated with Amber or Grace and Gravity prior to that? GR: I did do that! It was for a class, actually. My professor was (is) the editor of Grace & Gravity Literary Magazine, and this was the From the Attic series. My classmates and I got to choose a writer who had appeared in print previously and write a new introduction to their piece. And then it all got published online.
We had a long list of amazing writers to pick from, and I had not met Amber or read any of her work at the time – but her short story was the type of writing I was aspiring to do. She was kind and thoughtful, and lovely to work with, so I felt very lucky.
AF: Do you have any new or upcoming projects you’re excited about? GR: Currently, I am beating my head against the wall working on another short story – so yes, I am excited about that (this is what creating looks like right?). It is loosely based on Vasilisa the Beautiful – but it’s modern day and takes place in a grocery store. It is exploring hourly customer service with the help of a magical doll. Antics ensue.
I walked into a spiderweb in my backyard today, wispy tendrils spanning the landscape, a fine coating like a silk-strand tightrope, the walls, the fence, the door, it must have taken her days to build, the cobweb was gentle as it broke against my face, nature’s lace, the sun hitting it and the webs looked striped— three short, three long, three short again, the spider sat in the middle, a pin in the pincushion, a dart in the center, a cyclops eye to the soul, her visitors didn’t look too pleased, the flies lazily lounging in her creation, ungrateful bastards, I met a man who knew that pleasure, the high of enjoying another’s handiwork, I needed more from him than fading wordlessly into the background, more than an expert at excuses, more than wrapping himself in the threads of my labor and pretending they weren’t the trappings of love, stuck, a bag of marbles that remembered the feeling of skidding down the drive, a dimmed bulb that reminisced on the time it was turned on, I was done with stuck, so like the sinister weaver of my dreams, so like that darkened widow of the past, I plucked this man-child from the strands, pitied him for what he was, let him fall.
Ambrielle Butler is a writer and poet from Texas. Her poetry can be found in publications like Valley Voices, On the Seawall, Plainsongs, Red Ogre Review, and others. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @ajbutlerwriting.
Daniel Gernant: Did you always plan on writing, or did you start out on another career path before you changed passions? Why did you decide to become a writer? Ambrielle Butler: I’ve been writing stories and poems since I was seven, but I didn’t fully commit to writing until after I became a mother. While I originally was pursuing a career in the sciences, having a baby provided me with time to slow down and tap into my creativity as I sat with all these new emotions and experiences. I started writing again as a way of processing motherhood and I haven’t stopped since.
DG: I really enjoyed your poem In Her Web, could you share what inspired you to write this poem? Why did you choose to employ imagery of spiders? AB: We were given an assignment in a workshop to write a stream of consciousness poem. This piece started as an ode to the busy spider I saw creating her web outside my window. Watching her weave such elaborate handiwork, I couldn’t help but marvel at the lengths spiders go to meet their needs. From there, the poem evolved into a reflection on past relationships and the dynamics therein, the concept of being stuck in a mechanism of your own creation and the inevitable undoing of it.
DG: What is your ideal environment for writing? Please tell us more about it. AB: I have my best ideas at night. I’m less inhibited and can sit quietly with my thoughts. I’ve also always loved writing outdoors. Nature is so inspiring, which is probably why it shows up so often in my work, and helps me feel more connected to the world around me.
DG: If you had to choose a poem of yours that is your favorite, which would you say? Why is it the one you like the most? AB: That’s a hard choice. Every poem is personal and reflects a part of myself, and so some poems have more meaning at different times in my life. I’d say at the moment I’m particularly drawn to the vivid memories that Aubade for the Edge of the Cliffs of Moher brings. It was one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been, and perched on the cliffs, you really feel like you’re dangling at the edge of the world. It’s terrifying and exhilarating, your sense of fear and wonder playing tug-of-war the entire time. I also love the playfulness of Lobster Roll. As a self-proclaimed “foodie”, I had a lot of fun flipping the script and poking at the absurdity of the fine dining experience.
DG: How do you find inspiration when you are having trouble? Tell us about your process. AB: It sounds cliché, but I’ve learned that the best way to find inspiration is to simply start writing. I may sit down and feel like I have nothing to say, but if I can fill a blank page (or two) with words, I’ll usually unearth something worthwhile. I also always carry a notebook with me to jot down thoughts or phrases I may want to write about later. I’ve found inspiration from even the most seemingly mundane days.
DG: What are your future plans for writing? Can you tell us about whatever you are working on next? AB: I am continuing to publish poems and short stories in literary magazines, and hope to publish a chapbook in the near future. I also have a mystery novel I’m currently querying to agents and another one in the works. I’m very optimistic about what the future will bring and look forward to growing even more as a writer.
a couple folks mentioned your name in the list of people who made them feel uncomfortable.
they didn’t provide details
another member left the group voluntarily earlier this year, citing concerns with you
I wait. There’s no more.
It’s me. I’m the witch.
What is it about you? An seesaw from reassurance to self-reprimand. Why do you do this? I am angry at myself. I know why people are uncomfortable with me, and I know why I was informed of this in this manner by someone who’d known me for thirteen years. I know why the message had been written using that phrasing, ‘you made them feel uncomfortable’, rather than putting the state of feeling uncomfortable on them, a reflection of what they’d done, or indeed what they had failed to do. He knew my tendency to internalise guilt, to feel dirty. He knew that I was sensitive to shame. He knew, from having known me since the age of twenty-two, that I let shame grip me by the throat and squeeze, even if I am also aware that I have done nothing wrong. But I am not twenty-two anymore, and I know how this works.
In tech, you can wear a WonderWoman outfit to the office and reclaim the word cunt and talk about your period on Twitter but if you ask a hard question and don’t let it go, you will be caught and tried and burnt. From my very first days as a recent college grad, I couldn’t abide by the misogyny and the violence, and I’ve never lived it down.
I’ve written about abuse and objectification so many times that it feels embarrassing and old. It became my thing, a personality I never meant to adopt. However, people would still send me messages when something happened. Did you see this? And often, I had. I was drawn to it like a moth, not because I found it titillating, but because I felt I’d failed. Frustration, every time one of those messages arrived. Anger, every time.
I began my career in the space between marketing and technology in the autumn of 2006 having recently graduated from Washington State University. Not six months had passed since I’d downed a pint of Mac & Jacks at the Coug in Pullman, removed my graduation robes and driven out of town, and there I was: a woman in tech. During my time at college, I had been a member of the WSU women’s swim team, an endeavour that both brought me to the United States and paid for my education. The majority of the people I knew were tough, able women, including my two coaches. I knew very little about feminism because for twenty-two years, my life had roughly fulfilled the goals of the movement and not included many poor experiences on account of my gender. Perhaps an earlier awakening would have been useful. I entered the professional world at a time when women were supposedly liberated from the constraints of decades past; a lie of appeasement to satisfy contemporary demands. As industries, marketing, advertising and technology were extremely male-dominated, and both my femaleness and the burgeoning mid-2000s culture meant that I was noticeable in a way I had never experienced before.
During its peak, the first decade of the twenty-first century held itself up as a period of victory for women. While still under-represented in many professional spaces, it was at least becoming slightly less acceptable to question why we were there at all. We were allowed to exist, and exist outside the narrow tropes of decades past. At home, my television was perpetually tuned to MTV and VH1’s reality offerings, where streaky-haired girls fought with each other for praise, validation and fame. Their personalities and eventual downfalls were a staple of the cultural diet whose food pyramid layered over-sexed female naivety and conflict as its foundation, but granted these female characters stardom nonetheless. It had been ten years since the Spice Girls’ rise to “power.” We had been liberated from the trials of our mothers. What was left to achieve?
In the public-facing industry, my young, female contemporaries were placed in a similar position as the women on the TV in my apartment: we were allowed to be there, but there were trades to be made in return. In the throes of Facebook’s roll-out to the public, countless men who only knew me as a new hire at my company added me as a “friend.” Until that point, Facebook had been a platform used only at universities, and I had never met any of the people who now sent me requests and made comments, some more suggestive than others. Many had unsolicited advice, professional or otherwise: a man I didn’t know saw a joke I had posted on a colleague’s Facebook wall and admonished me for it, telling me in the middle of a long-winded diatribe he was going to “slap my wrist.” There it was: the first mention of physicality. I couldn’t smell it yet, but a representation of the stench that passed for networking in the days of early-2000s tech started to emerge. Greasy and confident, patronising and familiar. Laced with violence.
In reality television, happy people make terrible entertainment. Drama sells, and reality TV culture prized the exploitation of other people’s pain above all else. Work ethic, professional output, decency: none of this mattered. Conflict was currency. It still is, of course, but it is clear now that the trend of real-life television drama found a home for regular people on social media. Many of the interactions I had with members of the digital marketing community were not only inappropriately familiar and flirtatious, but fit neatly with the zeitgeist of the time, salivating for the salacious.
To my discredit, I was happy to play the part cast for me: the party girl, the snarky girl, the twenty-two year old girl with the foreign accent who was married. If I had been older, I might have wondered why my marital status mattered to men twice my age who only knew me through blogs and social media. I might have asked why a personality that I did not naturally possess had been cut out for me by the same people, and why I was happy to adopt it as my own. Instead, I let it wash over me. I had a good job, which was becoming less of a given and more of a scarcity as the 2008 economic crisis loomed.
The closest I’ve ever come to self-loathing was after two years of this. I realised with a growing dawn of self-aware horror that I had become someone I did not recognise or like. I had become a pathetic reality TV show character, providing bites of scandal whilst bickering with similarly typecast characters. We were the streaky-haired girls on the television, only we were playing our roles via message boards, blog comments, and Twitter. We were entertainment, sugar and sherbert and fondant icing, a distraction while the grown-ups, almost all of them men, did the real work.
Young women in tech were identified for our social media extroversion and pitted against each other for sport. I wrote off men who sent lewd messages like wanting to see a “cat fight” between another woman and me as losers and perverts, but the objectification still wore me down. Those men were not isolated in their thinking or reasons for approaching us. They operated in the same cultural reality as we did, one that promised female entertainment, conflict, suffering and eventual misery. During the same year as Britney Spears shaved her head and attacked a paparazzo with an umbrella, many women were looked upon to provide tiny versions of Spears’ story to assembled audiences: be hot, be naive, be the centre of attention, make a spectacle of yourselves. I harbour shame for how easily I fell for this exploitative version of fame: on a fairly clear intellectual level, I knew that I had been a more mature version of myself eighteen months earlier as I had competed in my last national championships, completed my final university papers, flat-hunted in Seattle and begun my job search. I had regressed behaviourally, and I knew it. Totally at the mercy of serotonin and with no understanding or tolerance of its effects, this was also the only professional reality many of us had known. In general, we were well-raised, intelligent young women, but we were also coaxed and encouraged by a pit of cheering onlookers who loved the show and, while telling us off, encouraged us to keep it up. Britney and the umbrella, the razor. You crazy bitch! Do it again.
All the same, I was shielded from this breaking all my boundaries and invading my life. I was married, and my husband did not work in technology. He didn’t engage with social media at all. When my marriage ended four weeks before my twenty-fifth birthday, this turn of events piqued the attention of men in my industry who maintained an interest in the personal lives of the industry’s young women.
It was January in Seattle and I was sitting in the tired light of our Capitol Hill office. Going home had become even less appealing than anxiously twirling on my swivel chair until bedtime. A man I only knew from our blog messaged me, prying for information about my break-up. He wrote screeds, instructing me on what I should and shouldn’t do, demanding insight into my life. It was three years later, in a pub underneath my London flat, that I learned this individual was apparently responsible for curating and distributing a list of women in the industry that he and his friends wanted to “photograph naked.” A campaign for revenge porn before it had a name, covert, upskirt, violent. I had been off-limits when I belonged to another man. But in the midst of a break-up! Now we have a mark on our hands. Smudged stamps not yet dry on my divorce papers at the courthouse down the hill, I had been added as a target. Inquiries were being made. Plans were drawn up. He visited London for a conference shortly after I moved there a month later, and he requested a private meeting with me. I didn’t reply. A twenty-five year old’s brain is completing its final stages of maturation, and for me, this came with an alarm system common to most adult women. When it came to this man, the alarm had gone off. I made sure not to meet with him, years before I knew what he really wanted. Later, I was told by a friend that she had lunch with him that week, frozen in terror as he stroked her thigh under the table. Only three years earlier, I couldn’t have told you much about feminism but by the time I was twenty-five and living alone in London, I fucking knew.
But we––mid-twenties women coming to terms with the fact that our empowerment and exaltation had actually been exploitation and objectification––we were never going to be enough. We had enough agency to back out of situations that became dire; we reported our assaults, even as I came to understand that those reports fell on deaf ears no matter the job description of the woman making the allegation. We were presented in the fashion of entertainers but we were not actually being paid for our performances. The industry hungered for more flesh and fewer repercussions. The first time I went to a conference and was presented with a group of hired models as entertainment, we stared at each other with the deadened fatigue of incompatible hardware, software programmed in different languages, a diesel engine looking at a petrol pump. We had no use for each other: they had not been hired to entertain me, and I did not wish to be entertained by them. They perched awkwardly beside male conference attendees, bony relics of the equally toxic nineties/early-2000s era when women were not only meant to be pleasingly dramatic, but excruciatingly thin. I started asking, why are they here? and learned with speed about the existence of weaponised sex positivity.
Do you hate them because they’re beautiful? It was an absolution from criticism, casting me as sex-negative and jealous. It was very effective. Yet again, women were pitted against each other: models from an agency, hired to populate an tech event, and the rest of us. Hate each other, please! Who’d be interested in a cat fight between Jane and Rebecca? asked a man on Twitter who’d also messaged me repeatedly about the end of my marriage. We need to make this happen! another replied. Let’s get it on! They suggested mud wrestling. “Who isn’t interested in that? Does it really matter who wins?” asked a man who, years later, would sheepishly visit my office in London and try to look me in the eye.
There it was again: violence. A request for gendered violence, and one on which they were publicly getting off. A reply, five minutes after the cat-fight request: “I want $5K on Rebecca.” Someone I knew through work was putting money on the table to see me beaten up.
It wasn’t just a joke. It’s not just banter. It’s a scale, a slope, a continuum. Invoking us in relation to sex and violence, over and over again, had consequences. When a group is objectified, disrespected and joked about for years, eventually that treatment becomes normalised and expected; the social blow of real violence is softened by the effect of continuous rhetoric. When a woman is actually beaten, raped or worse, it is just the far end of the continuum from a wager, placed on Twitter, to see us punched at the hands of our colleagues.
That smell, the high-whine of tension and extreme discomfort. It frustrated me to my soul. I knew that if I complained too much, I would be abandoned. I’d no longer be invited to speak at conferences, I would no longer be asked to contribute to articles or studies. Referrals would stop coming the way of my agency. And if people avoided my employer because of me, my job might be in jeopardy. I berated myself: why can’t you just go with the flow? Why can’t you just ignore the semi-naked models, the obscene requests, the hands on your skin? Why do you do this to yourself? Women around me ignored them and were rewarded for their efforts. Why couldn’t I? People noticed my discomfort. Men grew defensive before I’d said anything. One accosted me in a corridor to complain about my feminist leanings, towering over me, shouting. Two years after moving to London, I’d lost my patience.
I wrote a blog post that tore the collision of objectification and harassment apart and I left it in my WordPress drafts for a year. My palms broke out in sweat whenever I thought about the post and the Publish button. I knew that publishing it would be a moment of enormous change. I would lose professional opportunities. I would lose friends. I would lose business. During 2011, I came close to posting it a number of times.
Backed into a bar after an industry event with a hand slithering down my back, finding my low-rise jeans and beginning to rub, I pushed him away and ran, and I thought of that post. Photographs emerged from a conference that hired “nine former Playmates” as entertainment. I thought of that post. I travelled: seminars, networking events, training days. People hugged me too tight, squeezed what they shouldn’t, asked for too much. My female colleagues and I traded intelligence: who was safe, who was not, who had been assaulted and by whom. I thought of the post, sitting in drafts. At a conference in Poland, I was repeatedly taunted by two male speakers about the arrival of yet another hoard of hired models as soon as the event was over and the drinks began. A Twitter discussion about “booth babes” took place a year to the day after I’d written my article, and I was overcome. I had to let it out if I were ever to shake the aching frustration about what I thought I wasn’t allowed to say. At 9:42pm on a Wednesday evening in late December, I clicked the Publish button I’d feared for a year, tweeted the link and turned off my laptop. I turned off my phone. I went to bed.
By the next morning, I had comments to wade through from everyone from my parents to the then-head of SEO at Google. I had indignant, mean, mocking comments to field from men whom I’d upset. It was a few days before Christmas, and in the rush to leave for the holiday I only read an email from my line manager three days after he had sent it. I was, he said, treading on dangerous ground. Some of the men whose behaviour I had criticised were important. These were people we really couldn’t afford to piss off, or so the legend told. You could, he reasoned, make your point without identifying the people who’d perpetuated the culture, who’d shouted the insults, who’d emailed you the requests, who’d grabbed your flesh, who’d left you powerless and afraid. In my second act of defiance, I decided to simply not reply to his message. At that point, firing me for what I had written would have placed him on more dangerous ground than the shaky copse on which I stood. He never mentioned the piece to me again, but I never trusted him again, either.
If I were to spell out the incidents that followed, all the attempts to take back the scrap of power I’d scavenged, it would deteriorate into a laundry list of humiliation that wasn’t dissimilar to the treatment I’d had in years past, but at least included less groping. All the same, I noticed that most of the industry started to clean up its act. At the time, digital marketing was a much smaller community than it is today and it was clear that an industry whose origins were piecemeal and fairly wild-west, was growing up. I took pride in having played a part in this maturation, even though it had earned me all the stigma I’d feared.
The stigma didn’t disappear, but it morphed, and it was rendered somewhat toothless by the mid-2010s and the #metoo movement. Weinstein’s shaming, arrest and imprisonment took the gusto out of every old boys’ club. Quietly, the people who’d bragged about their terrible behaviour not five years earlier, cleaned up their public perceptions. They began to deny they had ever acted in the way they’d previously loudly advertised. I was branded again, but this time as a liar rather than a harpy. The narrative changed from “what we’re doing is fine!” to “we never did that!”
When they tell you the word “gaslighting” has been misused out of any meaningful existence, remember that this is what it originally meant: the things you remember aren’t real. The things you saw weren’t there. The words in your email or chat records, or even the tweets you can still look up? It’s you, you’re the liar. You’re the witch. By 2019, a full gaslighting campaign had come and gone to obfuscate the past. My former boss, not the one who’d warned me via email but the man who’d employed me straight out of college in Seattle, had tried to start an initiative to curtail the inclusion of abusive people at tech events but had abandoned the project due to legal concerns. He was billed to headline an event in the Netherlands. The event was run by a man who’d mocked me about feminism, and who’d sent a number of questionable tweets to both me and other young women. My boss’s wife, a feminist author, also spoke at the event, delivering a presentation on navigating online gendered harassment.
As the week began, historical images and video content of the event’s host and a number of other largely reinvented men flooded the conference hashtag. Not many years earlier, the host had appeared rather proud of the almost-exclusively male industry parties he attended with “playmates”, and video evidence of this had been easy to find, and to share. While it had been lauded on social media as impressive and fun in the time period between Spears’ torment and Weinstein’s downfall, it hit the ground like a sack of wet sick in 2019. The change I had tried to start almost a decade earlier had materialised. It was wild to watch. I was transfixed by the spectacle of an industry forest fire where my little matchstick had once been. The host of the conference publicly apologised for his poor behaviour in years past, remaining the only person from that era to have done so. Well-known as an activist whose primary bugbears were now receiving their proper cancellation, I was naturally blamed for a lot of this publicity and embarrassment. If I had only kept my mouth shut in 2011, and 2012 and 2013 and onwards, they could have had their champagne and drunk it too. The hypocrisy of quietly putting debauchery to bed and capitalising off feminism instead could have gone unnoticed.
A couple of months later, a different conference circuit stalwart climbed on stage at one of Europe’s leading marketing events and presented a slide that showed the silhouette of a man slapping a woman, the woman reeling backwards. I had fallen foul of this particular speaker in the past because I found his much-touted work with the far-right wing tabloid and network TV press reprehensible. Noting negative reactions to his violent image, he took to Twitter after the talk to claim that the slide had been included solely as “bait” for certain people. Including, presumably, me.
There it was again. A slap. A fight. Violent imagery. He was admonished, but at the same time, his “frustration” with people like me was offered by sympathisers as a point of note. This was more cryptic than in years past; in 2007, someone would just have said that I’d asked for it. He wrote an apology post on Medium, deleting both the post and all his apology tweets at some point after they had received numerous shares and much praise. In the midst of this, I was called “Queen of the trolls” in a large industry Facebook group by a regular keynote who had once taken me aside on the Brighton pier to tell me I was “getting a bad reputation as a feminist.” The picture being painted was that my concerns about misogyny and violence were nothing but trolling. Again, the narrative shifts: from prude to liar to subhuman. Weeks later, I received a message from my first boss about the email network he maintains between industry professionals. It arrived at midnight.
a couple folks mentioned your name
concerns with you
you’re the witch
It starts with a grope, a slur, the acceptance that “she”, whoever she is, doesn’t mind or doesn’t matter or was asking for it. It makes hurting us that little bit more okay. The people whose imagery slapped wrists and faces, or others who asked for sex, others still who leant over me screaming, whose hands slid over my body, who stroked thighs, typed threats: their credibility remains. When millions of women flooded social media in 2021 to say, stop placating and protecting bad men, people looked on in shock, unwilling to recall those emails they received or conversations they had in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2017, with you, trusting them with your story. It’s the first email every time, slate clean. No history, only you: a problem to be solved. A woman who doesn’t know her place. Again.
Jane Copland’s work has been published in Witness Magazine, The Independent, Newsroom New Zealand, Identity Theory, Litro, JMWW, Hayden’s Ferry Review, trampset and other publications. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. Her stories have also been finalists in the Brick Lane Bookshop Prize, the Fresher Prize, New Millennium Writing, and the Nobow Press short story competition. She is from New Zealand and lives in Oxford, England.
Bryan Lurito: In your piece “The Eighth Rule of Fight Club,” I was particularly interested in the line “I’ve written about abuse and objectification so many times that it feels embarrassing and old. It became my thing, a personality I never meant to adopt.” Could you expound upon your personal experiences with this line a bit more? If you could go back in time, would you change anything so as to not obtain this affiliation, or do you feel what you write is important enough that you would still do it all again? How come? Jane Copland: I think it’s a fact that my life and career in technology would have been easier had I never said anything about these issues. That said, if I were given the chance to choose, I would do it again. I started talking about these issues in around 2009, so while I wasn’t the first person to bring them up, this came a few years before #metoo became a phenomenon. By that point, my activism and the work of several others had already made a difference, albeit a small one when compared with the progress made later in the 2010s. That head start was important. Almost fifteen years later, it’s also helpful to be able to look back on the evolution of the movement. In some cases, progress has been made. In others, as I speak about in the essay, people have tried to obfuscate the origins and realities of these problems. My early adoption of this cause helps keep those attempts in check, and provides context for when something damaging or regressive happens. I wouldn’t change this, because I know this work had a positive impact on what was a really grim environment fifteen or twenty years ago.
BL: You have found yourself successful with quite a few literary magazines and short story competitions. What advice would you give to people wanting to break into the writing industry? How did things change as you gained experience within the industry? JC: As repetitive as this may sound, practice practice practice. Write and read as often as possible. My most recent publication was in a short story competition’s anthology (the Brick Lane Bookshop prize here in London). I wrote the first draft of the eventual published piece four years ago. After the book launch this November, I found the first draft in my files and re-read it. It’s not nearly as strong a piece as the final copy; the difference is incredible! It was long-listed (but not published) once in a 2019 competition, but it failed to go any further. I edited it many times over the years, and even filed it away as a publication failure for quite a while, only deciding to try submitting it again this year. Four extra years of practice and experience gave that piece what it needed to earn publication.
It’s also true that for every good story, I’ve written thousands of extra words for the piece that end up getting cut. Those words aren’t wasted. All that “extra” writing solidifies the story in my mind: I know the entire universe inside out by the time the story is complete, and that knowledge comes across in consistency and confidence with place, characterisation, tone and storyline. I used to worry when a story I intended to be (let’s say) 6,000 words was making its way up to 8,000 or more. Now I don’t; I know this is a good thing, so I’d encourage young writers not to worry about this. Write 15,000 words! Maybe it’s actually a novel in waiting! Maybe you’ll find a brilliant 5,000 word piece in there. Just keep writing.
BL: What gives you inspiration when beginning a new story? How much of your work is translated directly from personal lived experience? JC: Some pieces I’ve had published are very thinly-veiled creative nonfiction! In fact, most of my early published flash fiction pieces were like this: translations of personal experience. Only after a while, you run out of good stories from your past to mine. Most of what I write is at least sparked by something I’ve seen or experienced, although it’s normally just a fleeting inspiration. For example, my work-in-progress is about a professional rugby player who finds himself set upon by a tabloid journalist in a lounge at Singapore airport, after the player has suffered a catastrophic knee injury in an international match. I got the idea while sitting in a lounge at Singapore airport with a badly injured knee (suffered running down hospital stairs in New Zealand, not while playing rugby against England!). The sense of place and conflict was so strong, I knew I had to use it. Similarly, my story “The Angel, Islington” was published in Witness Magazine earlier this year. It is about a teenage lifeguard at a central-London health club who is bullied by one of the club’s managers. However, due to circumstances entirely of the manager’s making, the lifeguard ends up saving the manager’s life. This is almost pure fiction. However, I started writing about the fictitious bully manager after watching a woman let her children behave badly at a swimming pool, and claim “my mother works here!” as her defence. They’re small sparks of inspiration, but they can grow into entire worlds.
BL: You repeatedly use the word “witch” to describe yourself throughout the piece. Why did you choose this title specifically? I have noticed there has been a cultural movement in recent times reclaiming the idea of a witch as something positive, however the use of the word within the text appears to be more negative in nature. How did you decide to use the title of witch to depict a form of negative othering? JC: The choice of the word “witch” as a negative wasn’t a literary decision. It was a word that popped into my mind when I received the message from my old boss, telling me I had been named as someone who made others uncomfortable in his email group. “Burn the witch” came to mind due to how I was clearly being blamed for post-#metoo negative publicity. I had done absolutely nothing to make anybody uncomfortable besides tell the truth about women’s treatment in tech. Those truths were the actual source of the discomfort, and I was being lined up as the scapegoat for the ensuing embarrassment. However, just as you say, I found myself internally reclaiming the title over time. A different person called me “the queen of the trolls” during the same period, which I didn’t hesitate to ironically claim as my own (aside from to say that if we’re doing the Tolkien universe, I’m clearly an elf, and my Legolas costume is flawless).
BL: I enjoyed your first-person style, which read like a dialogue or chain of thought rather than a traditional narrative. What made you decide to write in this unique format? How did the writing process differ when compared to writing a piece with a more traditional structure? JC: This was such a personal story to me, and I think the style reflects that. I’m not sure I would be able to write this any other way. Before writing this piece, I had only ever told this story verbally or via emails to friends, which clearly had a huge influence on how I was able to tell it in an essay. It’s a complicated piece in that regard, because it combines memoir with cultural criticism and facts of the period: my personal story is offset against the early 2000s in entertainment, technology at large, and the smaller industry of digital marketing. It’s also a style I like reading.
BL: Your piece is particularly empowering towards female readers while at the same time highlighting some of the issues they may face in the world. What advice would you give to young women transitioning into the workforce? JC: The workforce, including in tech, is a much friendlier place for women than it was twenty years ago. That said, some of these problems remain and, in fact, are just better hidden than they were before. This may sound cynical, but I don’t mean it that way. I think this is just good knowledge; a “trust but verify” prudence when it comes to professional interactions and relationships. People will tell you that they are on your side: that they would never again work with or support someone who abused you, or engaged in gross behaviour. But some people will let you down. I am certainly not saying not to make friends through work: I’ve made so many, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have met so many wonderful folks through work over the years. But especially with people who are purely professional acquaintances, it’s wise to have healthy reservations and internal boundaries. I did not do this. I believed shallow words from people who were not actually good friends, and allowed myself to feel let down by the things they went on to do. This is unhealthy on my part. Tech can easily foster this sort of failing, because it makes us feel very closely connected to people who are, in fact, nearly strangers. It is also a field that can attract people who are very good at leveraging this false sense of community for personal gain. Be mindful of that, and balance the creation of true friendships and professional networks with your own physical and emotional protection.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
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 method—because, 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.
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.
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!
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.
My mother left for Mexico City in the middle of the night. It was really early in the morning, but it was still dark outside, and the sky shone with a million stars. Every star glittered in its place, a canopy of diamonds just out of reach. It was a cold November morning, the air an icy mantle. Temperatures in Phoenix were cold in winter, not freezing, but the morning Mom left for Mexico City was an exception. Mud puddles from recent rains formed tiny frozen islands all over our backyard.
My mother didn’t want me to miss school, so I guess that’s why I didn’t go to Mexico City with her, but I think there was more to it than that. Nobody else went either, except Tía Lola, her husband, Alfonso, and their son, two-year-old Fernando, who was born a water baby and hadn’t died yet. They were on a pilgrimage to the cathedral of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whom we simply called, La Virgen, in Mexico City, to visit the huge church built at Tepeyac where God’s Holy Mother appeared to an Indian peasant named Juan Diego.
“Are you gonna dip Fernando in the holy water?” I asked.
“No. There’s no holy water there, Patrisia. You’re thinking of Lourdes where Bernadette saw a vision of God’s mother.
“Will Fernando get well?”
“We’ll see. Your sister’s still alive, isn’t she? Which is another reason I have to go. I promised La Virgen when your sister was born that I’d name her Guadalupe, and that one day I’d make a pilgrimage to her cathedral to pay my respects. She kept poor Lupita alive! You see; I owe her. A promise is a promise. Your poor sister was born blue, dying the doctor said. Now look at her, three years old and perfectly well! I’ve kept half my promise by naming her Guadalupe. Now I have to keep the second half and go to Mexico City to pay my respects to La Virgen in person.”
“What color was I born?”
“Never-mind Patrisia,” my mother said, fastening shut one of the suitcases she was packing. “What’s important is that your sister’s alive, and I need to pay the debt.”
“What happens if you don’t pay back?”
“I don’t know. Maybe La Virgen will never talk to Christ on my behalf. Maybe I’ll have to do all the talking myself.”
Talking to God was a mystery to me. I didn’t want La Virgen to leave me to do all the talking. What would I say? Suppose God didn’t listen to me anymore because I said something he didn’t like. Maybe his mother would send a bad report about me his way, then he would be mad at me. I didn’t want to take the chance and cause La Virgen grief. Or even worse, insult God’s mother. I know how mad people get when someone insults their mother. Even my friend Nanette defended her mother and everybody knew her mother was a slut.
“That one,” my mother would say to our next-door neighbor, Tillie, “that one doesn’t even wash her sheets before she’s got another man sleeping on them.”
“Why would men want to sleep on dirty sheets, anyway?” I asked.
“Because they don’t know any better,” my mother said sharply. “Never mind, Patrisia, you’ll learn about it later.”
Tillie and mom were best friends. Tillie’s husband had died years ago, neighbors said from drinking alcohol, mostly cheap wine that settled in his liver. She was older than mom, and had grandchildren who stopped by on a daily basis to gorge themselves on the food she cooked. Tillie was good to Lupita and me. She liked to hold us and tell us funny stories, so I was okay with having Tillie take care of us while Mom was in Mexico.
I knew I’d be closer to Nanette’s house at Tillie’s, so close I’d be able to hear private conversations going on at her house just by standing near one of Tillie’s bedroom windows, or hiding behind the hedges against the fence. Nanette’s house was the neighborhood disaster. There was an old rusty car parked in her backyard and used tires stuck into the dirt to make a fence that looked like a hedge of black doughnut holes with weeds sprouting in the middle. Neighbors would walk past Nanette’s house shaking their heads, wondering when Nanette’s mother, Sukie, would get the yard cleaned up.
I had strict instructions to never play at Nanette’s because Mom said there were diseases there. I wanted to ask her what kinds of diseases, but the look on Mom’s face made me keep my mouth shut. Nanette was three years older than me, already in the eighth grade, while I was in fifth. Most every weekend, music pulsated from Nanette’s house—jarring Mexican polkas, hot cumbias and sad love songs played on their stereo at full volume. Sukie loved parties and she was generous with invitations. Cars would park up and down the street on both sides, and even block our front gate, which made my mother call Sukie on the phone and yell at her.
“Don’t go to Nanette’s while I’m gone,” my mother ordered, looking at her reflection in the mirror, touching up her makeup—red lipstick, dark pencil on her eyebrows.
“Why? Nanette’s my friend.”
“Don’t why me, Patrisia! It won’t be long before that girl gets pregnant. Here take this.” Mom said, handing me a small gold-plated medal of La Virgen on a chain. “Wear it for protection. God knows the Devil’s got his eye on every young girl.”
“Will this keep him from looking at me?”
“He can’t bear to look at La Virgen, it makes him jealous, so yes, he won’t want to look at you either.”
I looked up and saw my father staring at my mother from the door of the bedroom. He was solemn, like a man waiting his turn to see the judge, expecting the worst. His thin moustache skewed this way and that as he looked nervously from my mother to the two packed suitcases. Dad’s high forehead and dark, wavy hair made him look like a Mexican movie star. People said Mom and Dad made a stunning couple and I could see why. Mom’s fair complexion and dark hair and eyes, contrasted perfectly with Dad’s olive skin and handsome, rugged features. He walked up to my mother and put his broad, muscular arms on her shoulders, clasping both hands behind her neck, holding her close. He put his face, nose to nose, against hers.
“Wear the coat I bought you. It’s the warmest thing you have.”
“I know,” my mother said. She pulled away from the circle of his arms. He stood back, unblinking.
“Well?” She asked, pointing to the two suitcases. “Will you help me?” He stooped to pick up the suitcases and she walked out of the room. I followed my mother into the kitchen, taking in whiffs of her perfume, a dainty smell that reminded me of baby powder. I grabbed her hand.
“Don’t start Patrisia,” she said looking at the tears in my eyes. “I’ll only be gone for two weeks.” She held me close, and I felt the small, fake pearls sewn into her sweater press into my cheeks and lips. She kissed Lupita and me, stroking our hair. She held Lupita in her arms even though my sister’s legs dangled past her waist.
“Put her down,” my father said. “She’s too big for that.”
My father turned and walked out into the darkness with the suitcases, as we heard the crunch of tires on gravel—Tío Alfonso’s Oldsmobile creeping slowly into the pathway leading to my father’s makeshift carport. As I walked out, I saw Fernando through the car’s window sitting in his infant’s chair in the back seat, his head a huge, uneven circle with the forehead squashed in the middle.
Tia Lola was an enormous woman who sweated constantly. She always had a handkerchief in her purse to dab off sweat from her forehead and under her hairline. Tia got out briefly and hugged us all.
“Pray for my poor Fernando!” She said, “Why shouldn’t La Virgen heal him? She healed Lupita! ”
“Don’t start, Lola!” My uncle’s voice rang out unexpectedly loud. He opened the trunk and helped my dad arrange Mom’s suitcases, both men packing them into the already crowded space.
In the car’s dim light, I saw Mom’s face, a perfect pale oval. She sat next to Fernando in the back seat and closed the door against the cold night. She rolled down the window and reaching for my hand, she raised it to her lips and kissed my fingertips. “Don’t worry, Patrisia, La Virgen will take care of everything while I’m gone,” she said, smiling confidently. Then she rolled up the window and all I could see was her silhouette in the dark and the medal of La Virgen on her chest, reflecting one silver moonbeam. The car moved away and I saw my mother through the back window lean over, and imagined she was placing her hand on the sleeping Fernando. For an instant, I wished I had been born a water baby.
My father didn’t go to Mexico City because he said he had to work at the lumber yard. They couldn’t spare him, he said, the days were long, and the work was heavy, but I think there was more to it than that. There was always more to everything in my family. Nothing was out in the open. When you finally found out the whole truth, you were literally drenched in it.
That morning, Nanette came by, as usual, to walk with me to school.
“How’s your mom?” My dad asked her.
“She’s okay.” Nanette’s eyes shifted from my dad to me.
I stared at my father, dazed that he had asked Nanette about her mother.
“Let’s go,” I said, grabbing Nanette’s hand.
We walked in silence. Every step we took made the silence between us louder. The question I didn’t want to ask her was why my father had asked for her mother, Sukie, when he knew how my mother felt about her. Why had he even talked to Nanette? He never had before, except to say hello.
“You’re not going to believe what happened last night!” Nanette said. She stopped abruptly, looking both ways as if someone might be close by.
“I started my period. It scared me. I thought I had cut myself, then I told my mother and she said it was okay, that I was a woman now and for me to wash up and grab a pad from the box in her room. I’m wearing my dark skirt today, just in case.”
“Yes! And you’re next, Patrisia. You’ll see. It’ll happen before you know it. Your stomach will get upset, you’ll feel like going to the bathroom, then you’ll look down, and you’ll see blood.”
“I don’t want to hear about it!” I reached for the medal of La Virgen hanging on my chest.
“She won’t protect you! She had her period too.”
At school, Nanette held herself proudly. She was one of the eighth-grade girls who had already started and that put her at the same level with the school secretary, the nurse and all the women teachers. If I started my period while Mom was gone, she wouldn’t know I had become a woman until she got back and saw the look in my eyes, her look—seeing everything at once, then nothing. Formal with men, that’s the way I would be. Formal, like she was with my father, keeping him at a distance, turning away from him when he pressed her for conversation.
The next day, Sukie and Nanette came over. “Is your father home?” Sukie asked. She was dressed in a ruffled pink blouse tucked into a pair of black pants. I was ready to tell Sukie that my dad was asleep when he walked into the room.
“Oh, there he is. Pablo, I’ve got dinner for you and the kids. I hope Cristina won’t mind.”
“My wife, would be glad for anyone who fed her children, I would think.”
Sukie had a flowered ceramic pot in her hands and Nanette had a white casserole dish. “Homemade beans,” she said. “Just the way you like them, and grilled meat with picante sauce.” She had tortillas, wrapped in aluminum foil, “to keep them warm.” She said, and my father smiled.
“Join us Patrisia, come on, sit down,” Sukie said, setting dishes on the table and motioning for me to sit on one of the kitchen chairs. She sat in Mom’s chair, and it was all I could do not to yell at her and tell her to get off of it. I thought of the diseases Mom said were at Sukie’s house and worried germs would be crawling all over Mom’s chair.
Dad sat next to Sukie in his usual chair, Lupita sat next to me, and then Nanette. It was as if we were one big, happy family, except I was facing mom’s enemy
“What if my mom comes home right now?” I asked Dad.
“What if she does?” Señora Gomez just came by to give us a bit of food. Isn’t that a nice thing to do?”
It was the first time I had ever heard Sukie addressed as Señora Gomez. Nanette’s last name was Najera, so where did Gomez come from?
We ate, and in spite of my anger, I knew the beans and meat had been cooked to perfection, and the tortillas were hand-made, smooth and delicious.
After dinner, Nanette and I went to my bedroom to listen to the radio, but all I could think about was that Sukie was acting like my mother. Lupita was oblivious to everything, playing with her doll, pushing a doll carriage from room to room.
After only a few minutes, Nanette yawned. “Let’s go watch wrestling,” she said, “Mom and I watch it on Thursday nights.” It was then I noticed my dad and Sukie’s voices coming from the living room, instead of the kitchen. They were already watching the wrestling matches, laughing at the wrestlers. I could barely watch the match as I spied on my father and Sukie, happily watching T.V. drinking cups of coffee as if they were an old married couple.
Next morning, before I left for school, I walked Lupita to Tillie’s and ran straight into Tille’s arms. “Sukie’s acting like she’s my mom!” Tillie sat down on the couch and had me sit by her side. Her arm went around me, and I clung to her neck.
“Don’t cry, Patrisia,” Tillie said. “I’ll get to the bottom of all this today.” “What if Mom doesn’t come back and Sukie gets to be my mom?” My voice quivered, and instantly, my fingertips turned ice cold. “It won’t happen, La Virgen won’t allow that,” she said.
I clutched La Virgen’s medal dangling on my chest, drawing some invisible energy from the fact that mom and I were both wearing the same image. We were connected even if mom was hundreds of miles away.
Tillie must have done something while I was at school because when I got back, she told me she had dinner ready for us, and my father would come by after work and eat with us. After dinner, Tillie and my dad went out to the patio, and sat on two bamboo chairs Tillie had covered over with colorful sarapes. They talked, leaning close to one another, deep in conversation. Their voices were low, and I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but whatever it was; it was urgent. We finally went home, and my father said nothing to Lupita and me, except for us to wash up and get ready for bed.
Later, I saw him sitting alone in the living room, the light from the T.V. blinking back at him in the darkness.
Your dad used to be my mother’s boyfriend,” Nanette said to me while we walked to school the next day. That’s why your mom’s so jealous. Thought you might want to know.” Suddenly, she gave me an angry look and walked ahead of me, as if I was someone she didn’t want to be seen with anymore.
“That’s a lie, I don’t believe you!” I felt for my holy medal.
“Ask Tillie, she’ll tell you.”
It was all I could do to stop thinking about my dad and Sukie at school, and as soon as the day was over, I rushed over to Tillie’s. Nanette had left school early, and it wasn’t until later that day that I found out why.
As soon as I walked into Tillie’s house, I asked her if Dad had been Sukie’s boyfriend.
“I’ll bet Nanette told you.” Tillie said, stirring a pan of potatoes she was frying.
“But is it true?”
“Well, yes. But that was a long time ago.”
“Is that why my mother hates her?”
“There’s more to it than that, Patrisia.”
There was always more to everything. I wanted grown-ups to tell me the truth. Give it to me between the eyes. It would hurt for a good while, but it was better than not knowing.
At Nanette’s house I saw a pick-up truck parked outside with things from their house—boxes and furniture. It looked like they were moving, and later I found out Sukie had picked Nanette up early from school that day so she could help her pack their things. No wonder I hadn’t seen her walking back home.
“Are they moving?” I asked Tillie.
“Yes. Sukie and Nanette are leaving for Nogales, then off to family in Oaxaca.”
“It’s a long story, Patrisia.”
The long story fell in my lap that evening as I waited for my dad to pick Lupita and me up. He had called and told Tillie he was running late, and it wasn’t until almost nine o’clock before he came by.
Watching the commotion going on at Nanette’s, I couldn’t sleep, even though Lupita by then, was fast asleep. Tillie was in the kitchen washing dishes, as I crept out and quietly opened the patio door. That’s when I heard my dad’s voice coming from Sukie’s backyard. I moved close to Tillie’s thick hedges and listened intently. Through the mesh of leaves I could see my dad and Sukie’s silhouettes barely visible, standing facing one another. Dad’s arms were around her shoulders, his hands clasped around her neck.
“It’s the only way out of this,” he said.
“I knew she’d win! I just knew you wouldn’t have the guts to tell her.”
“What good would that do? It would only make more trouble.”
“I’ll send money, I promise. I’ve never stopped giving you money.”
I heard Sukie’s voice break, as if she was trying not to cry.
“That’s not what I want.”
“But she’s my child too, and I always keep my obligations. Things will turn out all right. Write to me—send the letters to your brother’s house.”
I saw my father hold Sukie in his arms, and for a brief moment their lips touched, and then he went off into the night. I walked back into Tillie’s holding onto La Virgen’s medal, not knowing how in the world I would ever face my mother again. I walked into the kitchen just in time to hear my dad knocking at the door. He was there to pick us up. Tillie brought out Lupita, still sound asleep in her arms and placed her in Dad’s arms.
“Ready?” Dad asked. He smiled gently. But how could he smile, I thought when I knew the truth. I said nothing, not knowing it was to be the first of many times I would find out truths that I would learn to keep to myself. I guess it was another part of becoming a woman.
Mom arrived early in the morning at about the same time they had left. Overhead, a million stars twinkled in the sky’s dark canopy. It was déjà vu—one of life’s circles that had been completed. Dad woke me up, and I ran out of the house in time to see Mom getting out of Tío Alfonso’s car. Dad had already unloaded the luggage, and in the car’s dim light, I saw Fernando wrapped in a blanket, asleep in the back seat, his head still huge and deformed.
“We’re back, safely,” Tía Lola said. “Thanks be to God!”
I felt the tiny, fake pearls in Mom’s sweater press into my cheeks and lips as I hugged her. A moonbeam bounced off the medal of La Virgen around her neck, and I saw her face radiate with a passion I had never seen before.
“Sukie and Nanette are gone!” I said looking into her eyes. In that instant, I realized Mom already knew.
It would be twenty years before I would ever see Nanette again, and of all places, in Mexico City, both of us, by then women who had been married, divorced, and now single. Her mother had stayed on in Oaxaca and by then my mom was widowed and still living in Phoenix with Lupita.
Nanette was a clothes designer with her own line of clothing, and I was a buyer working for a women’s clothing chain based in Chicago. Already seated at a table, Nanette was waiting for me in one of Mexico City’s swank restaurants. She was wearing a red linen suit with a black velvet hat decorated with a shiny rhinestone. Her look was sophisticated and sheik. I could hardly believe she was the same girl I had once seen walking out of the house that was the neighborhood disaster. I walked in wearing one of Nanette’s own creations, a light blue, tight skirt with a jacket trimmed in dark blue fur.
“Nice outfit,” she said smiling as she stood and hugged me.
“I love it! Your design!”
We both laughed and hugged again, holding onto each other. “It’s so good to see you!” She said, kissing my cheek. “The little kid all grown up!”
We sat down and sneaked looks at each other as we ordered appetizers and Sangria—two women hungry to find approval in each other’s eyes. The truth of who we were was suspended between us. A deluge was about to begin.
“Funny, how we’re both in the same line of work,” I said.
“Blood runs thick, I guess,” Nanette said, watching my reaction, closely.
“My dad died five years ago. I suppose you know.” The words our dad, hung in the air like a neon sign.
“Yes, I know, my mom was so upset.”
“So was mine,” I said, remembering my mom’s cold, aloof ways with Dad, and her endless tears after he was gone. Glimpsing our reflection in a gilt mirror nearby, the resemblance astonished me.
“Your mom visited Mexico City once, long ago, didn’t she?”
“How could I forget? You moved away even before she got back.”
“Destiny, I guess. I see you still wear your holy medal of La Virgen.”
“Well, today I’m wearing it because I knew I’d meet you, and it has a lot of memories. Remember, we were both becoming women back then and who better to lead the way?”
“Where’s he buried?” Nanette asked suddenly. Her words sent a small shock wave through my body, electrifying the space between us. “In Phoenix, at St. Francis Cemetery. I can take you there if you’d like.”
“I’d like that very much,” she said, lifting her glass of Sangria. “Salud,” and we both took a drink, Nanette’s eyes, shiny with tears.
The drizzling remnants of who we were cascaded between us, a crystal-clear waterfall. We stood underneath it—drenched.
Stella Pope Duarte’s writing career was inspired by a dream she had in 1995. Her first collection of short stories, Fragile Night, won a creative writing fellowship from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and was named a candidate for the Pen West Fiction Award. In 2001, Duarte was awarded a second creative writing fellowship for her highly acclaimed, debut novel, Let Their Spirits Dance. Duarte’s work has won honors and awards nationwide. Her most recent novel Raul H. Yzaguirre: Seated at the Table of Power won the International Latino Book Award for Best Biography in 2017. Duarte was born and raised in the Sonorita Barrio in South Phoenix. An interview with Duarte was featured in issue 3.
We are also thrilled to share an interview with Duarte that discusses Drenched in further detail. This interview was conducted via Zoom by our Fiction Editor, Morgan Horner. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity.
Morgan Horner: Hello everyone, I am Morgan Horner, the Fiction Editor for Superstition Review. Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Stella Pope Duarte about her story “Drenched.” Stella is described as a magical weaver with a sure hand and a pure heart and praised as an author who will enlarge humanity. Her work includes novels, short stories, memoir, and much more. Duarte has won honors and awards nationwide including a 2009 American book award, a Pulitzer prize nomination, a Southwest Books of the Year award, and a Book Sense 76 Selection. Welcome Stella, thank you so much for doing this interview with us, I am so honored to be doing it. When I first read Drenched I just fell in love with the stories and the characters and I’m so excited to get to know more about it. So before we start, is there anything else you’d like to add?
Stella Pope Duarte: Well I’d like to say that I’m very grateful for this interview, because ASU—I love ASU, so I have high regards for the Superstition Review. I’ve been published there before. Anything to do with ASU I like to do anything complimentary that I can as an alumni, and just because I care for ASU. My daughter works there, she works for the provost. My daughter is very mathematical. I am not mathematical, I’m on the other side of the equation, very much images and [those kinds of things], but she is mathematically inclined. I’m just a very faithful alumni person for ASU.
MH: I’ll just pop in with our first question. In your memoir, you discuss how you create stories through revelations, vision, and dreams, as well as through experiences from growing up in the barrio. Could you describe the experiences that inspired you to write this story?
SPD: This story is actually an imprint of who I was as a child around the same age as my main character Patrisia. So we have Patrisia saying goodbye to her mother as her mother is on her way to Mexico City. Patrisia in the story lives in a barrio, just like I did, and “barrio” is not a Spanish word, it is an indigenous word. It means a small neighborhood … like a small town, because we lived in this (mainstream America would say) a terrible place, how they would describe it when I was around Patrisia’s age in the story. There was a documentary and they were documenting some of the barrios in Phoenix and they were saying my little barrio … (this is the way I heard it as a child on TV) was “one of the worst slum areas in Phoenix.” They were showing our humble homes—we were a combination of Black Chicano people in the barrio. Next door was my godmother (I was named after her, she was a wonderful lady), down the way was my uncle Solomon Pope because my aunt was Rosanna Pope (our ancestors were Irish as well), and then down the way was my house of twelve cousins living in [one] house. It was a real community. That’s where Patrisia’s from.
Right away it talks about the Bible … She is saying goodbye to her mother, exactly what I did, because my mother … was having a lot of trouble with her pregnancies. She had eight children. In those days, there was no protection for women, there was nothing really to help them … the doctors would have to go to the home to deliver the babies, or the midwife, or whoever it was they were using. So, my mother was having a lot of trouble with her last pregnancy, which was my sister Lupita, as is named in [“Drenched”]. My mother made a vow—and this was done all the time in my home—to whom: La Virgen. They called her “La Virgen Morena,” the brown virgin, because she appeared as an indigenous woman. She appeared to a peasant in April, 1581, 10 years after the Spaniards had come in and oppressed the indigenous tribes. The majority of them were the Aztec, there was many other tribes involved, but the Aztec called themselves “Machikas” … that’s where the word Mexican, Mexican-American, [and] Chicanos [comes from].
I’m a Chicana. You know, I was born on this side of the border but I have relatives in being from Mexico and Ireland, as well. Here they call themselves “Los Chicanos.” So in the story, Patrisia is like me, a Chicana. She’s born on this side of the border, but now, because her mother made a vow … to pay her respects to the Virgin if her child [survived]—this is true, my mother was having so much trouble with my little sister she almost died at birth. My mother vowed to loving La Virgen that she would go all the way to Mexico City to La Basilica where—I don’t know if the Basilica was totally built at that time, because they had an old church. But because Mexico is a Marshland it has a lot of earthquakes, so I don’t know if the whole Basilica [was] as it is now. I’ve been to the Basilica. If you have not been, those that are listening to me, if you have never been to the Basilica and La Virgen in Guadalupe, the Dark Virgin, you need to get over there. And I’m telling you one thing, [she] never spoke Spanish, she spoke to this peasant man in the language of the Machikas … people don’t understand that, she never spoke Spanish. She identified with the oppressed indigenous people. In every room of my mother’s house, there was an image of her. Either a candle, picture or little statue. She was a member of our family. You need to understand how powerful this image is in the story.
La Virgen surfaces again in some of my other work, but this work is specifically about her identification with this little girl, who is now saying goodbye to her mother. I was clinging to my mother and I remember it was dark outside when my mother left … I was terrified bandits would get her, she had to go through mountains, Heaven only knows if she’d come back to me. So at a time when this child, Patrisia, was going to face one of the darkest secrets [in her family]. I’m attracted to secrets—oh and I love rumors too, I tell my my college students “if you have any rumors just just tell them to me you know and I’ll build them into a story.” [Patrisia’s] family has a very dark secret, and this little girl is going to face it, when? When her mother is gone. And she’s not just gone, she’s gone to another country. She can’t call her on the phone or anything like that. Here you have Patrisia just swept into the elements of this family.
You know, the Latino family is very open-hearted, they talk about everything in front of their kids, but they also have their secrets, things they will not speak about. I [asked some] students, “are you good at guarding secrets, and who in your family has guarded secrets? How do you know?” All of this is very special to me, it’s the imprint of Patrisia, it’s really me as a child saying goodbye to my mom.
MH: That is so beautiful … Reading the story about the barrio [there was] a huge sense of community and just loving family, [I] felt that within me and I just love that you put it out on paper like that. That’s wonderful.
You kind of led us into our second question. Throughout “Drenched,” we see the recursion of the image of La Virgen through the medal given to Patrisia by her mother. Could you discuss how your faith has inspired and shaped your writing?
SPD: The faith in my family—I’m sure many other Latino Hispanic families, Chicano families as well—was huge, huge girl! I mean, for me to see my mom praying in front of the image of our Lady or El Niño Christo, Santo Niño de Atocha is what they call him, a little Christ child figure, was normal. For her to have … [A white] beautiful linen set with flowers because it was a day of love, eating, or whatever, it was normal. So my faith continues to be such a strong force within me, my connection to God, to Jesus Christ, it continues to live very vibrantly in me. And it was a part of our everyday life for me to hear somebody in the family say, “We’re going to ask La Virgen to guard us while we’re doing this,” or whatever, so it was like she was at the table with us for Christmas!
There was no separation of her, and then we had Saint Anthony’s Church. You talk about faith and how faith has… just gone into almost every story I’ve ever written—because it was so important! I would walk to the church, which is Saint Anthony’s, and it wasn’t far away—it was maybe I would say three miles four miles from home—you know crossing a few streets and getting to Central Avenue from 7th Avenue. But in those days children could walk, now they cannot. It’s too dangerous now … now you see a child walking, [you] call the police—I’m serious, because of the danger that we have now. But in those days you could walk with your little pals or by yourself. So I was a child that that wanted to be a good little girl—oh gosh—because I was horrified they showed us pictures of devils the old catechism, you know, Saint Michael fighting this demon with a pointed tail … I thought oh no I don’t want to go there, I don’t want to go to Hell. I used to go to confession every Saturday, I have no idea what I confessed—maybe that I kicked my sister’s doll? I don’t know what sins I might have had. But I remember going, [we were] so very dedicated. The Saint Anthony’s was not only a focal point for the faith, but for our culture, because [when] we would go there we would have fiestas, we would have the queen of the of the fiesta that year, music… So our entire culture was was set around the church Saint Anthony’s church and then the home became like a domestic church as well. There was really no separation and no sense of, “am I following the right faith?” There was no question about that. We were following the right faith. In our in our minds we’re worshiping God and his mother. So you see, the mother—is that where you’re asking me if she gave her that little medal?
SPD: The mother gave her the medal of navitant because she was trying to comfort her daughter. You know, “Here, we’re both gonna wear the medal [of La Virgen Guadalupe].” You’ll see Patrisia grab the medal every so often, especially when she’s facing Nanette her neighborhood little friend and she grabs it she grabs it for support and it makes her feel that her mother’s close by. So you have a frightened little girl away from her mother for the first time in her life and this is what I went through, too, when my mom was gone. I was so glad when she came back it, was like she came back from the dead!
MH: It’s beautiful. Yeah, I immediately picked up on the medal and I just think it’s so wonderful how she just can find solace in this tiny medal. It’s just so much more than that to her and I just think that it’s such a great image to have throughout the story.
So, our next question is: In this story, the main character, Patrisia, is approaching the age of womanhood but has not quite reached it yet, while Nanette has achieved womanhood by getting her period. Can you explain the intention behind telling this story through the eyes of a young girl instead of a young woman?
SPD: I think Patrisia needed to tell that story because she was the one struggling with her mother gone separated for the first time. Then all of a sudden and—I don’t want to give the story away because I want people to read it. I think it’s a it’s a story that that they hopefully they will enjoy and so I’m cautious that I don’t want to give it away—but as her mother is is gone, she’s going to find out something very important that is going to cast a shadow on her for the rest of her life, but yet she’s gonna face it. She’s going to have the strength to do it and part of her strengths comes from that medal, from La Virgen being present in her life as well. In other words, like—Nanette has already started her menstrual. That was a big deal and it’s still a big deal for for young women and I lament the fact that in the United States we don’t really have, like some other cultures do, a ceremony. The indigenous do, I believe they have a ceremony, or when when young girls start their menstrual or they begin to be a woman we have Quinceaneras, but that is like when they’re 15 and they’re ready to go into society, not when they begin their menstruals. There are some cultures that do celebrate when the the young woman begins to [menstruate] because now she can have babies, you know, so here you have Nanette, her friend, walking and saying, “Guess what happened last night? I started my period,” so [Patrisia’s] like “What!” like “No!” and Nanette’s like, “Yes, yes!” So she’s very proud of that because now she’s like one of the women at the school and this eighth grader had started her menstrual, but [Patrisia] is in fifth, she’s not likely to start, but she’s horrified. And as she clutches the medal, of course Nanette says, “[La Virgen] had a period too!” … So now my character is afraid of this coming to be a woman.
When your mother’s gone … there’s an isolation that goes there, but I wish we would celebrate that more, because we don’t. It’s not only a physical passage with of time within the child but it’s psychological as well and we don’t even address it in the school—I’m a long time educator from preschool to University, 30 years of university, college, everything—I’ve taught every age and there is no celebration. Bar Mitzvah is for the Jewish Nation to observe the entrance of a young boy and now I hear they’re doing it for girls as well, so I would want something to celebrate that more, but I wouldn’t even know how to begin. I remember when I first got my period I think I hit it for a month or two before I finally went to my mom I was like, hey Mom, because I was just so—it’s just not talked about enough I don’t think and I think it’s so interesting how in this story Patrisia, she’s not quite in Womanhood yet [and] doesn’t have her period, but she’s really entering in this adulthood where she kind of has to … learn these family secrets.
Of course in that story like that is kind of pushing her into the adulthood rather than getting her period like Nanette so I just think it’s and then she sees her dad respond to them in a different way that he had before. Now … she doesn’t trust her father as much as she does her mother, you see that trust level. She trusts her mother much more she does her father, but then she questions because Nanette tells her something very important, “Guess what? Your dad used to be my mom’s boyfriend! Thought you’d like to know,” and she’s in shock! Again, clutches the medal. And her mother’s nowhere for her to run to, not the neighbor Tilley [who helps her out]. I wish there was [a] more conscious level of where a young woman is during that time. I remember that I was told to go down the alley—we live by the alley … I saw everybody go through that alley, from drunks to people just going to the Chinese Merchant store, because you have to pass the alley across the street [to get to the] Chinese Merchant.
There was always Chinese merchants in our barrio and they they spoke Spanish right along with us. I remember my mother giving me money to go to what they call the Chino store and buy a box of Kotex and I’m like no, I don’t want to go! I was such a shy kid at school but inside of me was this whole world of words. Words! We used to collect words. I used to sing them inside my head.
I thought people thought, “what’s wrong with her?” I mean I my mother would say, “I don’t know!” … I bought the [pads], I was humiliated. I’m glad he put it in a brown paper bag. So that’s how I took it home. Some women might be listening to us here and saying, “Oh my goodness, I have a story to tell!”
MH: Oh yeah, I’m sure every woman [does]. I know so many crazy stories from high school and people—my friends—were getting their periods, so I just I know every woman out there has an idea of how important getting their period is in terms of adulthood and womanhood. I totally agree with you. We should have some sort of like celebration for it because it is something that should be celebrated, definitely.
Moving on to the next question, as a mother of four and a grandmother, family is very important to you and I think this can be seen very clearly within this story. So what messages regarding family do you want readers to be left with after they read “Drenched?”
SPD: Family, for one thing—family is crucial in the Latino world.
And if I could say to the people who are in [a] family… There are stories to be told from family, and when I encourage my students—because they say “well so I don’t do good with memoir,” that’s okay! You can take something like like the imprint that I had of myself being Patrisia saying goodbye to my own mother on a dark night when there was a canopy of glittering Stars overhead. I remember that as a child … and then the rest of the story is creative, so then you humbly move away from your story—how shall I say—you allow the power of the story to be told. Every single family has a way of addressing the stories that represent who they are and those stories can be represented as the nucleus of your theme.
As writers we reveal the human condition in our work and there’s nothing to show you that human condition more than a family. You have people that will take their stand and say this is what happened at Christmas and you say, no it wasn’t, that’s the Christmas you got that bike and I’ve got that stupid little transistor radio. [They’ll say] no it wasn’t, excuse me, but that was the time that you got that expensive radio—oh my gosh, and there’s a fight over a memory, right? I would just say to people you know keep track of the things that are important throughout your life, in your family life. Can you set them in two parts of your stories? Can you move away from them and create something new? That’s up to the person, because you don’t want to tie yourself down to something—what happens sometimes with people when they do memory work of their families is, “was the tablecloth checkered or was it [not]?” Memory is not accurate. You can remember it was a really rainy day [when] it wasn’t, it hadn’t rained in Phoenix for days, but those kinds of things are subjective. I would say don’t be afraid of anything to do with family.
[What Patricia’s story is really telling is] she’s she’s guarding the [family] secret, and actually if you notice when because—I wouldn’t want to get into the secret itself—but when the mother gets back … watch how beautiful it is [to tell your mother something] in a story. In real life, in a family without her mother telling her anything, just the look of her mother told her that her mother already knew … when [her mother is] gone, that meeting is going to take care of everything.
MH: That’s wonderful. Yeah, family is just—I think it’s something that’s just so important. You grow up around these people, they’re going to influence your life in so many ways, and I was blessed with three younger siblings so I definitely know how to pick apart their little actions, write them in my own little stories and I just loved the family and the community in this story. I just thought that was it was just so beautiful. You have published works in several genres, from memoir to short story. Can you describe how your writing process changes and adapts for each form?
SPD: That’s a really important question because it has to do with this huge source of energy that is creative writing. Sometimes people don’t understand that. Well, they do, but we live it out each day and we forget that we are energy. That’s who we are. The blink of our eyes the gesture of our hand, our movements, the way we move this way or that way or the way we approach something… We are energy and creative writing is a huge energy. Unless we understand—I’ll say that again in in the last question, it’ll connect with that—how do you connect with your own creative energy? I can’t tell you how important that was because as a child I used to go and read all kinds of books and come home with a stack of books. my mother would say I was going to go blind—well she wasn’t far from the truth! I’m like “can I still see?” because I was reading always so much.
Then I get the neighborhood kids together. I was real shy at school, an introvert, I was voted the shyest girl in school throughout my life. I would come in I had all these words … it was the creative energy. I thought it was just something wrong, how come people didn’t think like this? I could describe anything at the drop of a pin and people would say “How did you describe that?” I have no idea! I just did it. So here I was, full of all of these words and all of these longings and all of these things that is part of the creative process and I suffer depressions—understand I’m talking to writers now. When you are producing something you’re way up here because that’s how strong creative energy is, you have to come down from there. This is why drug addicts who unfortunately get involved, you know, in getting their high—guess what, they gotta come crashing down. That’s why they’re going to go look for their drug again, to keep their their mindset because the brain is is no fool. Once it’s getting something from the outside it’s going to make the body demand that. That’s where the addiction comes in, I’m talking about something very separate, but creative energy also goes up then it comes down. See, I didn’t understand that at all.
Every one of these genres has its own creative energy. It’s the same energy, but it moves in the direction—if you’re a poet, some of you that are listening to this are poets—you have the same creative energy that I’m talking about, and it’s going to move in a different way. I want people to understand that writing anything is like writing a symphony. It really is. Your own voice is caught up in the paper … when I started with short stories—short stories in my mind is my strongest genre—I love short stories. I love short stories because, in a short story, you can take one thing that’s important and explore it more than than you could [in other forms]. You can do that in the novel as well, but in a short story you can do it in less time and maybe keep people more attracted to what it is you’re doing. So the short story is a powerful way to to do it if you can only stay out of the story—let the characters run your life. Let them push you around, let them tell you what to do, and don’t get in the way of the story. If if a person finds themselves too close to the protagonist, they may be stumbling on their own shoelaces. So they need to step back from the story.
The story in each genre is different. I found that when I started doing the novel I had to shift a little bit because the novel is longer and you can tell a little bit more. You can narrate more. A short story? No, it’s quicker. Your narration has to be specific, your dialogue has to be there, you always want to show more than you tell, and then of course poetry—it’s all rhythmatic. I’ve taught poetry to tiny little kids that have stood—I’ve showed them how to get on microphones and read their work to the public—and boy, I’ll tell you… Once they understand that it’s a deep [imitates beats] hump-ty dump-tysat on a wall… Ah! “No they don’t have to be in straight lines, you’re doing poetry! You see how it’s the same energy, but you’re using it in a different way.
Then of course there’s screenplays. I’ve done it all—I’ve had one of my plays performed at ASU and they did a very good job. It was a one-act play about a community … related to immigration. It was a very painful type of experience, but I kind of put a [comedic] kind of layer to it, and I’ll be darned—I was in the audience watching my play performed at ASU West and the people loved it. I thought, “Wow, take a look at this!” They were charmed by it, they were clapping, and I thought “Oh so this is what it feels to do a play and to see the people’s reactions.” I’ve done a screenplay as well [adapting one of] my novels. That’s what I had [to write] for the big screen. Every one of them is a different kind of energy, but it’s [also] the same energy. When I’m working sometimes with an editor, say, from Michigan, I remember that he would um change a word in the sentence that wasn’t a spelling error, it wasn’t … a verb tense error problem … so I started asking, why did you change that sentence? He was putting it maybe in the way that he heard it. I said, don’t you understand there’s a symphony going on on the pages there’s a song being sung? I said that’s the way I do my work. That’s what you call the voice of the author. People want to read your word because they love your voice. I said, in other words, I was trying to tell them, don’t change my voice.
Every one of the writers—whoever’s listening to me—you have your own distinct voice. You might have to shift it or the genre that you’re addressing and you can do that, but it’s that same powerhouse that I’m talking about. The more you use it, guess what? Just like you practice baseball, you practice whatever sport, you get better … for any writer who’s listening to me now, if you are not reading your work aloud, no matter what it is, no matter what genre it is, you are failing yourself because you are not hearing what the readers are going to hear inside their heads. I always tell my my students at the beginning levels you don’t have to read it all the way to but, at the beginning levels you do, because you want to get your voice like a symphony on those pages. Then later you can read it silently so you can hear how you sound in someone’s head. Does that make sense to you?
MH: As a writer I’ve never read to myself. I will definitely start doing that now because I just I love that—how your voice is a symphony. I’ve never heard it that way before I think that’s really wonderful. I love that phrase, now I’m gonna put that on my inspiration board.
SPD: Trust me, I tell students [if they’re] going to be successful they’ll need to read their work aloud to themselves so they can hear how they sound. They’re like, “I sounded like that?” and then the realization of how real your voice is on paper.
MH: Wonderful! That also leads us into our next question. You’ve taught and spoken on creative writing for many years, what is one piece of advice that you find yourself repeating most often and what is one piece of advice that has been most helpful to you?
SPD: Well for one thing what I encourage [writers] to do is respect their own creative energy. Take a look at where their Creative Energy is going—the highs and lows. I’ve presented all across this nation and when Covid hit, it took that away from me, the ability to go all over the place and [present]. Now I’m zooming in here, I’m zooming in there, I’m zooming into classroom, I’m zooming into conferences, whatever, but I used to come home—I have four children, I had three jobs. Anybody who tells me [they] don’t have any time, I’ve been to so many conferences and sometimes I’m the keynote speaker [or] I’m a workshop person. People will tell me, “It’s just as soon as we sell the house I’ll have more time,” or “I’m changing careers right now. As soon as that happens I’ll have more time.” There’s never a good time. You have to carve out the time for your work to be done because there’s this force inside of you. And if you don’t relate to that force, whatever you ignore, it becomes a squeaky wheel and it becomes almost your enemy… It’s going to take you down in one way or another because you’re not paying attention to that force that is your own strength. It’ll start squeaking.
I do a lot of “dream work”, so dreams are very important to me, too. I have my whole thing [of] writing through revelations, visions, and dreams, and that’s my own little memoir and this is [all] internal stuff. Inside of every one of my writers—I tell my writers, trust your self, trust yourself, look internally. The writer is in here. The writer is not out there scattered, the writer is internal, so respect that internal writer. I told them if you have things that come to you while you’re writing from left field—out of nowhere, all of a sudden, you’re thinking of some Insanity—it’s not insanity… You’re writing a short story or you’re writing poetry, it’s a writer within you giving you something that appears to be disconnected. I tell people one of the reasons why we’re on the earth is to connect the dots of who we are. Nobody can connect the dots of who you are, Morgan, except you. You, who pays attention to an internal part of who you are and begins to say, “Wait a minute—oh, I see, okay, right! So, that’s what happened when my mother left from Mexico City,” Patrisia [realizes], “That’s what happened [that caused her mother to] move away from the neighborhood…” Now she’s connecting the dots.
If something comes from left field—I’ll give you a real quick example—I was writing LetTheir Spirits Dance released by Harper Collins … I was writing in the beginning parts of of the novel. So I’m here, I am writing it, all of a sudden I start thinking of bats. You know, bats that fly out and at night and see insects, then go back to their cave and so forth. Bats. I kept on writing and the bats kept coming into my mind so now, little by little, I learned how to stop and go to left field—I mean things that don’t make any sense. So I closed the document I was working on and I opened a new document on “bats,” [the] word “bats.” I started writing on these crazy bats—oh my God—one of the most powerful characters that I have ever worked with appeared through that left field experience.
here comes [character] Don Florencio, a (tlachisqui)—an ancient word in the machika language meaning “a seer”—here comes Don Florencio into Let Their Spirits Dance, so powerful that he almost took over the entire novel. And he came out of the word “bats.” Had I not followed left field into the word bats, I would have never known Don Florencio. I had to calm this old guy down—I’m serious—I don’t know who’s going to play him in the movie, but … I said, “Look, don’t Florencio you can’t have this novel.” This novel was suggesting he’s the one that was killed in Vietnam … He permeated the novel all the way through with his magic and his ability to see through everything. So don’t be afraid of left field, okay, and let me tell you something very important—I get asked this all the time, every conference I’ve ever been to, somebody is asking me this. I was just asked the other day because I was zoomed into a high school class a, writing club—[about] writer’s block.
[They ask me about] writer’s block. I have had people in conferences raise their hand … “I haven’t been able to write in like a year,” and there’s almost tears in it. Sometimes people are almost teary-eyed because they can’t write and got writers block. They don’t know what to do… I tell people everywhere and I tell my students and I told the kids two weeks ago when they [asked] what writer’s block was. I said, “Are you guys ready? I’m gonna tell you the secret of writer’s block.” When I say that to a large audience I can see them with their little pens ready to write down Stella’s secret. I said here’s the secret about writer’s block: it’s a lie. it’s a lucrative lie. People make a lot of money selling that lie. You go on the internet right now and put in the words “writer’s block” and you’re gonna find a bunch of books that are going to give you the solution and how to get out of writer’s block. So you can continue to do your work but it’s nothing but a lie. You know what writer’s block is? It’s just a silent writer inside of you. Just like when something is brewing you’re cooking something in the oven and you gotta leave it in there for 13 [or] 15 minutes, and then it’s done, there’s things brewing. You cannot push your creative energy … the Creative Energy is so powerful it will push you, you don’t have to push it, so you wait until it’s ready—let me tell you something about creative energy and this crummy thing of writer’s block. Our internal person doesn’t go by [your] wrist watch. It’s inside of you, you’re timeless.
You’re a timeless human being. You can wake up at two o’clock in the morning—when I often do—on my night hour you can call me at two in the morning and I will answer the phone, I’m [a] hopeless night owl. I do a lot of work because there’s no calls. I had four children, you can imagine them, I’d come home tired from New York City or whatever and they were fighting over a bag with potato chips. Reality hit me real quick. Mom’s home now, oh my god get all the dirty clothes and—oh my goodness. By then, some of them were teenagers, so they’re supposedly taking care of themselves … but don’t be afraid of the energy inside of you, of communicating with it. You might be at an intersection … you might get the next part of the story just like that. One time my kid wrote it on the palm of his hand because we were driving, I said, “Son write this word down I need it because it’s part of the story,” and he goes, “Where Mom?” [I said], “Write it in the palm of your hand—get my pen.” So he writes down what I told him. You can get a revelation anywhere. Revelation is just understanding something that’s already there inside of you—am I making sense?—it’s already there!
You’re the one who has to be conscious of it and don’t believe a bunch of lies. Trust who you are … let your characters push you around, that’s okay if they push you around, they don’t want to obey you that’s fine. They don’t need to obey you, you’re just a scribe, you’re at their mercy. Writing is the human experience and we have the right to tell it … [and] do not ever send to submission a first draft, don’t do that. Because the first draft is a jumble—it should be a jumble because you’re getting everything together. It might go this way, it might go that way… The other day I’m on a board—I don’t want to name where I’m on a board for—one of the solutions was the first draft and I said right there we should not have gone forward any longer because the first draft is never ready. Trust yourself, be careful, this is real important are you listening to me. writers? Be careful who you show your work to. Not everybody’s a writer … you might go to a friend who isn’t really a creative writer who might look at your work and say this is pretty good and it might be the worst thing that that has ever been done. So be careful … that person can destroy your work—especially when you’re barely starting to work and you show it to somebody and they’ll say that’s that’s really good, you should go this way, they don’t know because you don’t have your story set. The story belongs to you—or the poem or whatever—you’re the one who has to form it now once you get it straight.
Do you know how many versions I have of my work? I’m a workaholic—look at me—you can tell already sometimes I have played versions of one novel and that’s not enough but I still have to polish it and nobody has seen it yet. Maybe I’ve read a few things to people. I have my … wonderful sister of mine Rosie who passed away and she was my greatest supporter in the family. I still turn to her even though she’s gone. I tell her, spiritually, you know, “Sister you know what a knucklehead I am?” Then I seem to get an idea, “Thanks sis.” Use whatever causes you more power but be careful who you show your work to. Be sure that you at humbly stepped away from it to allow your work to come forth from you and then with confidence you might show it to someone. Does that make sense to you?
MH: Yeah! Awesome. This was so insightful and I deeply enjoyed this interview thank you again for agreeing to do it I’m so excited for our SR followers to read your story and learn more about you and “Drenched.” This is just so much fun, thank you so much.
SPD: Thank you thank you for your time. I appreciate it very much. God bless you.
Sarah Louise Wilson is an artist based in California. She writes, directs, produces, paints, and acts. Her courage puts her on an edge that cannot be fabricated; rather, it comes as a natural part of who she is and what she stands for.
In 2010, with her company Stella Bella Productions, she penned and starred in her pseudo-autobiographical romantic comedy “Jelly,” starring Natasha Lyonne (Orange Is the New Black) and Hollywood icon Ed McMahon. The script alone attracted name talent and funded the film into release. After screening in competition at several renowned film festivals, the film went on to win four Accolade awards and is represented by Cinetic Media. It has since been released on Netflix, Fancast, Hulu, PBS, and The Sundance Channel.
Throughout her career, Sarah wrote and directed short films, plays, music videos, documentaries— Anything she could get her hand on. In early 2016, when Sarah was living in Almaty, Kazakhstan, she shot her feature film No Exit entirely on location. The movie went on to win multiple awards and was written up by Esquire, Good Housekeeping, and Variety. To learn more, visit her website.
We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Sarah Louise Wilson’s art. This interview was conducted via email by our Art Editor, Khanh Nguyen.
Khanh Nguyen: What is the difference between how you tell a story in your paintings versus in your films?
Sarah Louise Wilson: In films, you have millions of pictures to tell a story but in painting, you only have one.
KN: What kinds of stories do you like to tell? What is the importance of telling those stories?
SLW: I like to tell stories about hope because the world is bleak enough.
KN: How has painting influenced your film-making and vice versa?
SLW: Painting teaches me to be visually concise in filmmaking. Filmmaking helps me to understand light.
KN: Some of your work, like “She is Palestine,” features subjects outside of the United States. You also worked in Kazakhstan for a while and held an exhibition there in 2015. What interests you and inspires you about non-American subjects?
SLW: I’m interested in understanding the human condition as much as possible.
KN: Much of your art focuses on honoring past and current African American icons and social justice leaders. What does this work mean to you personally, and how do you think this work affects the fight for social justice?
SLW: Some of my work, as of late, does honor past and current African American icons because I find their point of view to be exciting and enlightening. I do not think my work alone affects the fight for social justice. I believe the collective work of artists expressing like-minded issues that need a spotlight, can affect the fight for social justice.
KN: What does your work space look like?
SLW: Messy when working. Clean when not because I like to make a mess.