Superstition Review is excited to share a podcast project planned and produced by SR intern Claire van Doren. In this four-episode audio series, Claire will be talking with SR’s queer contributors. In today’s episode, Claire interviews Cavar. [sarah] Cavar (they/them) is a PhD student and writer of transMad things. They are editor-in-chief of Stone of Madness and swallow::tale presses, and their writing can be found in CRAFT Literary, Split Lip Magazine, Electric Lit, and elsewhere. Their debut novel, Failure to Comply, is forthcoming with featherproof books (2024). To learn more, visit their website, follow them @cavarsarah on twitter, and at librarycard.substack.com.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity. Credit goes to FreeSound.org for the sound effects.
Claire van Doren: Hi! My name’s Claire van Doren, and you’re listening to the Superstition Review Pride Community Project. Today, we’ll be hearing from Cavar. They’ll be discussing their experiences with the queer community and how it impacts their work. This is one of four Pride Community specials. Stick around to hear from more of Superstition Review’s queer contributors.
Cavar: I’m Cavar. I use they/them pronouns. I’m a PhD student in Cultural Studies at UC Davis, and also run around, put my little raccoon hands in a bunch of different writing and editing kinds of projects. I usually describe my work as—not really bridging the creative and the scholarly—but rather, sort of, undoing the binary between them. I hope to write things where dividing them into creative work and academic work doesn’t really make sense anymore. I’m also interested in doing work that really confounds sense-making, as a goal—mad works, quite frankly, which is a theme that comes up again and again.
I think that surrealism, in a lot of ways, is a way that writers approach—and tap on the shoulder—of madness, even if they don’t quite feel comfortable with the terminology of madness specifically. I think that the idea of the surreal—this idea that you’re able to cross from this reality to into a slightly bent or modified reality… It’s something that’s so in line with this “mad politic,” where multiple realities are accepted and celebrated. Instincts that one person might see , might not be the things that you see. And using surrealism to really get into those spaces—I think it’s a really incredibly valuable, mad tool.
It also frees me up to write things that feel a lot truer to me. I feel like I often experience these feelings, thoughts, experiences that go beyond what realism has to offer. And, to be freed up to use the language of the surreal, paradoxically, even though it’s supposedly “fake,” actually allows me to be a lot more honest. So growing up, I actually didn’t write fantasy or science-fiction very much. I think it’s because I associated all of it with—either like the hard sci-fi, where it’s hard to understand it. Or, like, A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy, with the maps and the names and the seven hundred pages. And so I thought that that was completely not for me. And I was right, but there’s a lot more to fantasy and science-fiction than that.
And so I gradually dipped my toes in later and got more enthusiastic about fantasy and science fiction. And I was really compelled by the way the authors used the languages of the future to address those realities and contemporary problems. And I was really impressed by the way that systems of magic and sorcery can be used to articulate everyday forms of violence and strife that we were dealing with now. And from there, I passed from a more grounded sense of fantasy and science fiction, to people beginning to recognize it—folks like Samuel R. Delany, who is taking fantasy and science fiction—being like, “Okay, but what if we challenge the structure of realism itself? What if we didn’t simply imbue future politics or wizards or witches into a kind of present-day logic? What if we up-ended logic?” And I think that both discovering the surreal that way—and also beginning to read my first collections of poetry when I was in college—it really made me realize that I was allowed to write things that didn’t only not exist, but didn’t really make sense in any universe.
One of my favorite authors is actually a literary young-adult author named Neal Shusterman. He writes mostly speculative fiction-slash-dystopian kind of books, for the broad category of reluctant readers. And I was skeptical because I feel like reluctant readers books are often stereotyped as “boy books” and books that don’t really have a lot of interest for people who are already drawn to a bunch of different genres and to writing. But I began reading Shusterman’s books when I was in middle-school. And I physically cannot put those books down—and I still can’t. And I think that that’s a testament to the fact that good work is good work, and it’s going to draw people from all different backgrounds and all different spaces.
I would really like to focus more on forms of writing that right now I simply don’t have the tools or knowledge to do. I talked to a couple of colleagues who are into boardgames, and they’re like, “Oh my God, what if I made a novel that was a game?” Or thinking about multi-modal approaches to writing. Things that involve QR codes and music and videos and all kinds of weird shit.
One of the great things about using mixed media is that it draws in people who are into music and into graphic novels and into computer games and into board games. I would love to work on something where visual art was the central component to it. I would love to work more on “found” documents and work more on archives. Really, just using as many forms and technologies and methods as possible—because so far, my expansion beyond just writing prose on a page has just gotten more fun the more weird stuff I do.
[Phone hangs up]
CVD: Thanks for joining us! Be sure to check out our YouTube page for more audio and video content, as well as our official Superstition Review blog.
Congratulations to Kelly Gray for her upcoming memoir Tiger Paw, Tiger Paw, Knife, Knife, published by Quarter Press. Filled with beautiful pros, each story twists and recurs back on the stories told before it. Gray expertly blends themes of love and abuse, birth and rebirth, and death and life. Her words are complimented by Holly L’Oiseau’s stunning illustrations.
Some of the works within Tiger Paw, Tiger Paw, Knife, Knife spark like tiny flashes of brilliance—as in “The History of Flowers that Eat Meat.” Only a page long, this surreal piece depicts a strange sort of growing up. In the short space, a single word holds dozens of meanings: “I am bog blossom pretty, which is to say, not at all. My skin is fly paper sticky and boys think it’s honey.”
Other, longer works burn more slowly but are no less rewarding. In “Serenade Switchblade,” Gray artfully describes a relationship that descends from teenage infatuation to terrible violence. The last, powerful sentences of the piece grip the reader and won’t let go: “It tasted like the moment before you scream because I am prettier dead than any poem you’ll ever write.”
Kelly Gray (she/her/hers) lives in Northern California on unceded Coast Miwok and Kashaya Pomo land. She writes about what she knows or is trying to know; parenting, eco-grief, mental health, dead things, monsters, prophetic animals, relationships to self and others, and rural life. To learn more, visit her website.
To purchase Tiger Paw, Tiger Paw, Knife, Knife, go here.
We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Kelly Gray’s book. This interview was conducted via email by our Blog Editor, Brennie Shoup.
Brennie Shoup: Tiger Paw, Tiger Paw, Knife, Knife is described as a “folk-told” memoir. Could you discuss what inspired you to write a memoir in such an unusual way?
Kelly Gray: I have always found genres to be containers that don’t fit my writing. The separation of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction (which can hold memoir) seems unnecessarily clinical to me. I hope to have a level of fluidity within my work which represents my beliefs around connection in the world. I want to share my stories while being real about the people in my life. When appropriate, I want to honor and protect other people’s experiences but still be able to say these are my origin stories, this is where I come from.
When I say folk-told, that is a nod towards all the storytellers before and after me, as well as the characters within the stories. Folk-told is my acknowledgment that we have these experiences together and I just happen to be the writer this time. For instance, in Sylvia, I was drawing from my work as an abortion and birth attendant watching families grapple with loss and the logistics of death, but the character Sylvia was coming up through me and my own witnessing of an infant’s death and my desires to be held more fully by my community. The life of Sylvia and William come from a careful folding in of years of experience and influence, told through the lens of fiction, because that is how we get to the fox, which is probably the truest-to-my heart part of that story.
BS: Your memoir blends humanity with nature, often through surrealism. Could you talk about why you chose to do this?
KG: It’s less of a choice and more of an acknowledgment of how I absorb the world. Specific images will take up in my body as I am move through the world. My writing process is often an act of personal translation, from imagery to sentences to stories. My first drafts are my attempts to understand myself—I am learning as I go. The act of revision is when I begin to mold what I’ve learned and through sound and syntax and sometimes trajectories, I get to relate it to others. It comes out as surrealism, or speculative, or fantastical. But I think it’s just where my brain is blooming pictures.
As far as the nature aspect, it may reveal as much about the reader’s place in the world as mine. It’s what I am looking at every day. If you don’t see it as much, maybe it stands out more in the stories. As I write this, I am looking at a wall of trees, and the creek below my house is so loud it sounds like a storm. I can see a raven on a tree and above that, in the sky, a kettle of turkey vultures are out warming their wings after weeks of ravaging rain. This is just what I see, and as a naturalist, I have learned a langue that allows me to name what I am paying attention to.
BS: The title itself—Tiger Paw, Tiger Paw, Knife, Knife—is eye-catching in its specificity, especially with the repetitions. Why did you choose this title for your memoir?
KG: I wasn’t intending to do this initially, but tiger paws and knives come up in several stories, starting with Frank the tiger cutting off his own paw in the face of domesticity. That is the overarching theme of the book: how much we are willing to cut out to find our more authentic selves? For me, apparently, it needs frequent repeating in my life. The titles ends up being a mantra of sorts.
BS: Many of your smaller prose pieces deal with both love and abuse, as in “Coyote Story” and “Switchblade Serenade.” Could you discuss how you balance these themes as a writer, particularly in such short spaces?
KG: This book was always more about the impetus for change as opposed to the change itself. In “Switchblade Serenade,” the main character had to die and be dead for some time before she realized she had been tricked into foregoing love by little affections. Of course, the reader sees it. The reader is like, “Sweetie, this is a horrible situation for you, you should bounce.” But she doesn’t—she stays. I think that is relatable because many of us are in a collective holding pattern with abuse right now.
Abuse is complicated because it’s often shrouded in kernels of what we need for survival. An abuser can make you feel good or can provide you essentials like shelter or income. You may not think you can provide these things for yourself, and sometimes that is true. For instance, this is why we must look at the housing crisis when we are talking about domestic violence, or why union busting tactics often include things dispensing really great benefits in the face of a mounting campaign. My writing is as much about the misconceptions of personalized love as it is about systemic abuse, because what I am really talking about is getting rid of what we don’t need, and that is hard to do when it feels so good, or is legitimately something that you need, such as a parent.
Writing is always an act of self-love because as writers, we are saying I am worth listening to. At the beginning of any piece, no matter how small the work, we have an invisible contract with our reader that says I am taking up this space and that requires some amount of self-love. From there, we can explore all the places love doesn’t exist, and I think the reader is able to go along for the ride because it is story, as opposed to living it or witnessing it in real time. The readers understands that at some invisible yet foundational level, love is beaming up through the work. Love makes writing about abuse palatable whereas the craft makes it engaging.
Superstition Review is excited to share a podcast project planned and produced by SR intern Claire van Doren. In this four-episode audio series, Claire will be talking with SR’s queer contributors. In today’s episode, Claire interviews EJ Levy, whose work has been published in The Best American Essays, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation and The Paris Review. Her writing has received a Pushcart Prize, as well as many other awards. She holds a degree in History from Yale and an MFA from Ohio State University. To learn more, visit her website.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity. Credit goes to FreeSound.org for the sound effects.
Claire van Doren: Hi! My name is Claire van Doren, and you’re listening to the Superstition Review Pride Community Project. Today we’ll be hearing from EJ Levy. She’ll be discussing her experiences with the queer community and how it impacts her work. This is one of four pride community specials. Stick around to hear from more of Superstition Review’s queer contributors.
EJ Levy: I’m EJ Levy. I’m a lesbian, non-binary writer of fiction and nonfiction. I’m the author of The Cape Doctor, which came out from Little Brown. The book was a New York Times’ book review editor’s choice, and a Barnes & Noble Book of Summer pick. Prior to that, my story collection More than Theory won the Flannery O’Conner Award, among other prizes, and was the finalist for the Land of Literary and Edmond White awards. My anthology Tasting Life Twice: Literary Lesbian Fictionby New American Writers was published by Harper Perennial and won a Lambda Award. And I finally also have an obscure feminist eco-memoir titled Amazons: A Love Story that I allow almost no one to read.
Before I got up the courage to write, I worked as an independent film and home magazine editor in New York City. I edited an LGBTQnewspaper in New Mexico and was an environmental activist. I’m currently faculty in the MFA program at Colorado State University, having previously been on the MFA faculty at American University in DC, and the PhD program in literature and creative writing at the University of Missouri Colombia.
As a young, aspiring writer, I found my way, honestly, to my life—and to the page—through the work of brilliant writers who walked that path. And among them, Audre Lorde, Edmund White, Gertrude Stein, Christopher Ishwerood, Adrienne Rich, David Leavitt, Jeanette Winterson, Toni Morrison,Leslie Marmon Silko—to name a few.
I got to say that when I was in college, I studied Latin American studies and economics. And then I drifted toward a degree in History after a pretty disastrous year in the Brazilian Amazons. I wanted to write, but I didn’t want to write fiction because I didn’t think fiction told a true story. It always seemed to me that stories in books were too shapely, too crafted. That they were a lie against our experience. And after I finished college, a roommate had a copy of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. And I had moved towns and having trouble coming out… And I read To the Lighthouse, and I thought it was a vision of why—it was so awake,even if what it’s portraying is often very simple: a dinner, an effort to paint a picture, a trip to a lighthouse. But I thought, “This is what it is to be awake and to be alive.”And so that book literally saved my life and also brought me to fiction. It made me want to write fiction. And I became a bit of a completist and read everything of Woolf’s. I read a few books about Woolf and was really pleased when one scholar told me that I could be a Woolfian, that I knew so much about the obscure, that she considered me a Woolfian.
But I would really recommend that practice. To let ourselves fall deeply in love with writers, artists, and musicians, and to the whole of their work. Partly because I think it teaches us that when we’re making stuff, sometimes we achieve it pretty fully—and sometimes not so much. I’ve always found a brilliant mind really attractive in friends and in partners. But I’ve also known and loved a lot of people sexually or in my family who were very smart, or inept, at love. So I think that it can be hard to trust the body and its desires and be vulnerable, especially if you live in your head a lot, and especially if you grow up queer in a heteronormative culture—as we do. It’s easy to second guess oneself, and to think too much of love and desire and maybe talk your way out of it—as I often d0. And maybe go astray, instead of trusting your heart.
So writing these stories in my collection—when I was an MFA student—which considers relationships through the lens of a scholarly theory of a kind, whether it’s economic theory or political science. Writing each of the stories was a way of finding my way back to a love story that I could believe in. I kind of—I could trust as I wrestled with questions of desire and monogamy—what it is to be faithful, what it is to be honorable in love. It was also about the fact that in my early thirties, I learned—as my mother did—that my father had been cheating for forty years. It explained a lot, but for me it was also an ambivalent discovery—because I felt, “Thank God,” that there was more authentic desire happening somewhere in the landscape. Even as I thought and understood that he’d made a lie of the relationship with my mom. So I was trying to wrestle through what it is to be faithful. It was a way of finding my way back to a love that I could believe in.
And maybe not surprisingly, after that, I finally was able to settle down.
[Phone hangs up]
CVD: Thanks for joining us! Be sure to check out our YouTube page for more audio and video content, as well as our official Superstition Review blog.
Tune in next Wednesday for the second episode of the Pride Community Project!
First, she found a red drop of blood on her bike seat. It was the day my grandmother convinced herself she was dying, splitting in two at the seams, right down the middle. It was rural Iowa in 1941 and information on growing bodies was hard to come by, harder to discuss. Then, there was a fatal pinprick discovered in her younger sister’s heart. The hole was a gate, and it was just wide enough to take her life. Another flood. My grandma lost her sister the year she got her period. It was the year she found out about all this. All this. The possibility of birth. The guarantee of death.
I can imagine the owl’s eyes glowing on a banister in the family barn, chaperoning late nights for lonesome teenagers. I can hear the two “o’s” in “hoot” as my grandma calls back. I can see her grow up, the way she told me she did: the cereal barrels she cleaned at the Kellogg factory after high school; the nursing hat she wore as a hospital aid; the white lace covering her head before Vatican II; her palms touching in devotion, asking, offering. And I can stay here with her, when she was most like me now: young, with just a handful of grays (you get one for each person you love, she told me later), not understanding that everything swings around, keeps swinging back, forward, back and forward, hits you in the face sometimes or comes up from behind. At least I think that’s what happens when you turn 30. I’m only 29.
For years, I watched my grandma. Friday nights. Sunday afternoons. Anytime my parents were both working, my sister and I were escorted to her yellow house. And then I got my period. And my parents divorced. And I moved in with her. And I watched her. I watched as she wallpapered every room in the house twice over. As she scrubbed the tiled kitchen floor each week. As she laughed at The Price is Right. As she made bad smelling food and wore too much purple. I saw everything in her: a childish giggle when we watched cartoons, dentures in a cup when she fell asleep at 4pm. She might ramble an old memory or hum a tune in my ear as I rested in her lap. But never once did I hear her start a sentence with I feel or I love or I want or I at all. I waited. All I wanted was for her to bend down and say I feel sad. I love you. I want to be loved. I need you to understand me. Instead, we orbited. She went through her days. I observed. No one was allowed to be close. To close the distance.
Here’s what happened to her. There was a missed period. There were two wedding rings exchanged, too quickly. There were no birth control pills. There were many rounds of pregnant bellies, many more drops of blood. One child, then another, another, another, another, another, another, another. The sixth baby didn’t survive birth. Another hole in another heart. The seventh baby survived only two days outside the womb. Another fatal pinprick. A gaping hole. A brand of grief, now too familiar. My grandmother’s orbit, predictable encounters with death. The final womb was my own mother. Her entrance into the world was followed by a hysterectomy. The possibility of birth was wrung out.
This next part, I know the least about. I know there were tumblers strewn around the basement by her husband. I know she confessed sins to the priest each week—Bless me, father, but what to confess? I know that one day her second child ran away from home and never came back. I know that on that same day, a hole formed in my grandma’s heart that didn’t kill her but never healed. I know there were conversations that never found their answers—did he call? have you heard from him? I know that eventually she stopped asking. I know she felt echoes of emptiness inside her. I have looked into her eyes.
The “o” in ok, it’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok, she said, if you brought up the past. My grandmother was a broken person.
I like to live in the periphery memories. I like to think about the strokes she made on the cat’s back when she listened to Johnny Cash on her record player. I like to think about her purpley lipsticked mouth asking for a divorce at age 62. I like to remember the mouths of the old tumblers repurposed as cookie cutters; her freshly permed curls the day of her weekly hair appointment; the steering wheel of the Oldsmobile turning away after she dropped me off at Catholic school; the cans of tuna she dumped into the noodle casserole; her famous deviled eggs, extra paprika; the decorative ash trays placed around her home; the teacup collection in her living room; the blue oilcloth that covered the kitchen table; the birthday cake I shared with my cousin the year she made us kiss for a photo; the fitted sheet she secured on the spare bed for me after my parents’ divorce; the bowls of instant oatmeal she heated up for me each morning; the way she contorted her lips when she reminded me to “warsh” the kitchen floors; the trashcan where she found the handle of cheap vodka I hid from her in high school; the black opal ring she gave me one day with no explanation; her eyes when she met my first boyfriend—oh my, he is so handsome; her laugh when I broke up with him—you little heartbreaker, just like me; the curls on my head that she wished were her own; the sound of Alex Trebek’s voice in the vents before she fell asleep each night; the way she repeated Birdie, Birdie, Birdie whenever I came down from my room.
I don’t like to think about: the cloth belt that kept her usually robe closed; her large breasts exposed when I found her unconscious on the floor; the search for a heart specialist; the hole in her neck for dialysis treatments; the hand mirror she held while I brushed her unpermed hair; my own reflection in that mirror: wild curls from knotted sleep, cloudy eyes from studied books, slanted teeth from bitten nails. I realized I had missed her my whole life.
I don’t like to think about: the peppermints she said were soothing; our palms touching; the Burger King hamburgers she wanted everyday near the end; her closed eyes.
On her deathbed, she screamed out. She said, I’m tearing in half right down the middle, right down the middle, right down the middle.
The end. Her blood still in mine. My body. Me, making circles around that block where we lived, sometimes in the middle of the night, thinking I understand what it feels like to live with a little hole in your heart. My blood still circulating.
Bridget Lillethorup is a nonfiction writer living in Omaha, Nebraska. She is a lecturer at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and an editorial assistant at LiteraryMama. More of her writing can be seen in Sweet Lit, Essay Daily, The Rupture, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and others. Learn more about her here.
We are pleased to present an interview with Bridget Lillethorup below, conducted by Taylor Montaño—one of SuperstitionReview’s nonfiction editors for Issue 30.
Taylor Montaño: As a writer who not only lives in Nebraska, but lectures there as well, how has Nebraskan culture affected your writing?
Bridget Lillethorup: I used to say that if you could find the Nebraska landscape beautiful then you could find anything beautiful. But that’s not to say that anything about this state or the many cultures within it is simple. It just takes a more patient observer to see everything. It takes time, energy, and care to see through Midwestern stereotypes and Nebraska’s whitewashed history. I teach writing to mostly first-year and sophomore students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and we discuss this a lot. We talk about who we are, and how often that directly contrasts with who people think we are. Being from here sometimes feels like an ongoing battle to dismantle perceptions, and this tension comes through in my writing. There’s a lot to wrestle with in being from red state in the Great Plains. I often consider geography and the communities that raised me as intersections in my work, and I challenge myself to show them as rounded and complicated, just as they are.
TM: Writing can be challenging to some writers as certain aspects can seem mechanic and mundane. One of these challenges is describing yourself or others. Your craft is interesting in that you describe yourself through comparing/contrasting yourself to others. How do you battle other trials within your writing so that it is original and un-restricting?
BL: I am lucky to be in a writing group with people I trust deeply. For me, writing must always take part in a community. My group has seen my written voice in many forms, some strong examples, and plenty of weak ones too. They help me stay true to myself.
The first drafts of my essays are usually heavy with images and descriptions. Here’s what I saw. Here’s another image it reminds me of. I often struggle to explain to my audience why these images are important to the larger story. My group can see these holes more clearly and quickly than I can. Sometimes it hurts to be vulnerable with this group; they know my weaknesses better than some of my closest friends. But unchecked, I don’t think I could strike the right balance in my writing and would probably write things that would never leave my creaky old desk.
TM: The use of color within Circles is something to take note of. You mention the red blood, the house being yellow, and your grandmother often wearing purple. How has visual effects such as color allowed you to translate a memory into prose for your reader?
BL: Color is a beautiful tool for translating a memory to the page. Recording images precisely from my imagination has always been important to me. I remember falling in love with books as a kid, and then being so disappointed when I saw the movie version, because the movies didn’t look like what I pictured in my head. (I particularly remember this feeling with The Chronicles of Narnia). I would go home after the movie and try to remember what the characters and places looked like in my imagination before I saw the movie. I was terrified of losing my original renditions.
As a writer, translating the visual aspects of old memories seems similarly urgent. I don’t have access to many spaces of my youth anymore. My grandma’s house was renovated and has sold twice since I lived there. I want to remember everything exactly the way it was. It’s a fool’s errand, but an important one. I remember the color of the tiles in the bathroom, but not what she kept behind the mirrors. Why? I was never invited “behind the scenes” of her makeup routine. That’s interesting to me. What I remember, or don’t remember, leads me to meaning, which I can then explore through prose.
TM: Furthermore, how—do you think—does utilizing color allow doors to open within your writing?
BL: I clearly remember my art teacher in third grade giving a lesson on the color red. She told us that red is the first color that the human eye detects. Humans are naturally drawn to its deep hues, she said. The assignment that day was to draw a wintery scene that was blue and white save for one element, which had to be red. It could be the scarf on a snowman, a roof, a shovel, etc. It was our choice—where did you want our audience’s eyes to be drawn? What did we want them to remember?
I don’t know if that factoid about the color red is all truth, and obviously people’s perceptions of color vary vastly. But I like the sentiment behind her lesson: when used sparingly, adding color can highlight even the smallest details, or make our big sentiments bolder. Although, saturating an essay with color sounds fun, too.
TM: Your piece has a voice that is uniquely yours. You have parts in which you are honest with your reader and mention in a matter-of-fact tone that “this is what [you] know.” What are the advantages and disadvantages of your perspective alone?
BL: I think it’s important to acknowledge the limitations of your own perspective in writing. I am reminded of something the late Brian Doyle wrote in his famous essay, “Joyas Voladoras ”: “We are utterly open with no one in the end—not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend.” I agree; you can never really know someone. I don’t ever want to write an essay where I argue that I have the whole story of someone’s life. I can only present what I see and tell you what I think of it.
For this particular essay, I could have interviewed other people in my grandma’s life to get more angles on my own interpretation of her. I’m sure that would have been a rich experience and given me different ideas to think about. The way a person remembers an event or person is deeply individual. I remember color and shapes, but my sister might remember conversations and verbal expressions better than me, while my mother might remember feelings above all else. For this essay, I was particularly drawn to the lines of connection I felt between my grandma and me. I wanted to keep it tight and focus on what a young person can learn from a grandparent, despite age differences and communication barriers.
TM: You take the concept of circles—circling her house symbolizing your blood cycling within you—and use it to clearly tell your story. Do you often find semblances through shapes to tell your stories? If not, how does utilizing this shape within “Circles” help your reader glimpse into what you have experienced?
BL: At some point in the drafting process, I have to visualize a structure in order to move forward. Maybe it’s a braid, a series of folds, or a circle, like in this essay. I think shapes carry meaning and associations just like any other literary element. I was drawn to the circle for this essay because it represents processes: fertility, birth, death, grief, blood circulation. When I think of my grandma, I feel these circles moving around me.
I’ve never forgotten the story my grandma told me of getting her period as an adolescent and being terrified that she was dying. As a young girl myself, I related to that fear a lot, and that was one of the first moments I felt a kindship between our lived experiences. I don’t think my grandma and I had too much in common, but we are related, and her experiences live in me somewhere, even the ones I’ll never know about. Her life still circulates in me, and I feel that deeply.
Six sets of plants and cut flowers surround my mother in varying stages of life and decay. She sits in silence while I help the movers inventory her things. A ficus holds on to the north-facing window. A poinsettia in red foil hasn’t moved since Christmas, and its curled, dried leaves litter the floor. Standing water smells rank in the iris bowl. Bulbs pop out of a wood planter, packed with straw, supposed to foster new spring growth. Instead it’s swampy—she watered it, forgot, then watered it again, and then again and again.
Like a plant, my mother’s mind wilts, molds, droops. First, little things—dates and times—slipped her mind. She fell victim to fraud. She lost words, and without language, she stopped engaging with friends and family. She forgot how to plug in the blender and how to turn off the oven. She failed a driving test.
Now, movers measure the furniture to see if it will fit in her new apartment in the care home. “This?” they say, pointing to a four decade-old lamp with moth holes in the shade. “This?” to a CD tower, untouched in years. “This? This is a good piece of furniture,” they point to the teak dining room table.
“Let’s try to take as much of it as we can,” I say. Mom sits on the couch, silent with cheeks sagging, biting skin off her fingers. When I hug her, she leans in with her head on my stomach but then abruptly pushes me away.
The movers don’t notice the burst of anger. One of them points: “This ficus is a good, hardy plant.” Its spindly, six-foot branches drink in the suburban sun in the same place it’s sat for decades. “We see this all the time: orphan plants,” they say. Pots that can’t possibly move to a space with three windows instead of twelve. Plants that are easier to throw in the dumpster than stack in a moving truck. “It’s sad,” they say, “to see these thriving, living things left behind.” The movers adopt them, give them a new home and attention. They bring them back to life.
This is the revival I envision for my mother, too. She will move into a building with professional caretakers who understand age and infirmity. She will have everything she needs, from a bistro to a salt water pool and spa. Workout classes, lectures, and concerts all day to keep her busy. A new home to give her water, light, and companions.
Before she forgot how to use her email, she sent notes titled “Memories” with no message, just photos from years past. These images show her holding her grandchildren with a recognition and love unseen now for years. The Christmas cactus blooms pink in the background. Fresh cut lilies extend their stamen and perfume the room. These are echoes from the past: the smiles, the smell, the growth and bloom.
I bring fake peonies to her new home, arrange the stems in a crystal vase, and set it on the sill. The next time I visit, I catch her watering them. The sturdy ficus stands nearby, reaching for its new window. All of us are resilient, despite Mom’s forgetting.
Kristina T. Saccone (she/her) writes short fiction and nonfiction. Her work appears in Fractured Lit, Cease, Cows, Gone Lawn, Flash Flood, Luna Station Quarterly, LEON Literary Review, Emerge Literary Journal, and others. She edits a limited-run online literary journal with stories about caring for our aging parents, called One Wild Ride, and she’s querying an anthology on the same topic. Kristina is also a Randoph College MFA candidate.
The following interview was conducted by Taylor Montaño, our Nonfiction Section Editor for issue 30, via email.
Taylor Montaño:One Wild Ride is a unifying development that allows those that we care about to be safe and cared for. How might the readers of S[r] contribute?
Kristina Saccone: Thank you for this question. I started this project to help writers find community in reading others’ stories and sharing their own lived experience. One way to contribute is to read the stories on One Wild Ride and then share them widely. You can keep up with the project by signing up for One Wild Ride’s weekly newsletter. I also encourage writers to keep writing and publishing on this theme. Once I find a publisher for a printed anthology of new pieces about the topic, I’ll open for submissions. Every one of us is affected by caregiving at some point in life, and it’s important to embrace these narratives in several ways!
TM: The permanence of impermanence is explored within Dementia’s Orphans through the decaying of plants. How did you come to understand that this element would help the reader better understand your message?
KS: I think the pandemic amplified impermanence for a lot of us. In my bubble, we had a five-year old struggling with online kindergarten and my mother who, at a distance, was beginning a steady decline into dementia. I had no control over whether my son would flourish, and the situation with my mother was the definition of unpredictable; we suspected something was wrong, but it took a series of crises to be certain she was ill.
My mother always loved flowers. It was part of the rhythm of her life, now turned upside down. So, when I saw my mother’s plants in such decay, I was struck by the parallels between her dying houseplants and her declining mind. Despite well-intentioned caregivers who tried to stop her, she insisted on watering them again and again and again. By overfeeding them, she interrupted their cycle of nourishment. When she moved and we faced throwing them in the dumpster, I realized that the plants had actually been abandoned long ago by a mind that didn’t make sense anymore.
Ironically, I find some stability in the impermanence of living things. Plants, whether in our garden or our homes, are a regular reminder that we can grow something anew from a seed; with nourishment, it flourishes; and at the end of its season, it decays and returns to the earth. That life cycle actually brings me hope.
This year before the frost, we planted allium bulbs. They will blossom in the spring. They will live for a few weeks and then, with summer’s warmth, decay. The cycle of growth mimics how humans hope to live our lives: we are born, we live, and then we die—all things being, hopefully, mostly comfortable, predictable. It is never quite that straightforward though, is it?
TM: How does writing your experiences fulfill closure, both internally and externally?
KS: Writing about my experience with my mother is a necessary thing; I often feel like I’d like to move on from it, write about something new or more creative, but I always return to it. It sometimes brings me closure, but often in the process of writing, I’ll discover connections or truths about the situation that I may not have noticed before. An example from this piece is, as my mother moved, I felt grief for all the things she had to leave behind and the home that we were losing as a family. When one of the movers called the plants “orphans,” it helped label that grief in the moment. But later, writing about it, I realized that the mover had this label in her lexicon because she took personal care with families through these moves. She had deep respect for the lives they were leaving behind. As I wrote, I tried to recenter my experience outside my own grief, tried to see through the eyes of those who do the moving, who experience these types of losses day after day after day. It gave me empathy for this work and immense gratitude for the people who help families like mine through life’s difficult transitions.
TM: At the end of your piece, there is a feeling of hope and reassurance that is undeniably pulled from the reader. What words—aside from your finishing lines—would you like to give to those of us that are in need of support during these situations?
KS: I started this project because, at the beginning of this journey with my mother, I found comfort and support in reading flash-length stories about caring for our aging parents. It was hard to find these pieces scattered across the internet, so I created One Wild Ride to compile some of the reprints in one place. I hope that those who are in need of support can find it there, through the words of others who have been through similar experiences.
TM: Would you mind further discussing how nature has affected your writing in terms of personification, imagery, and syntax?
KS: Before her dementia, my mom liked to remind me how much I hated the outdoors as a child. Then, after moving from the east coast and living in Colorado for 15 years, I adapted to the bluebird skies, the dry climate, the crystalline snow. I learned to love low-water plant environments, with deciduous trees, grasses, alpine Columbine flowers, twin Goldfinches in the neighborhood trees, the rhythm of the breezes. These memories—which are now just images—flow through much of my writing.
When I moved back to the east coast about five years ago, the contrast in climate and nature was disorienting for me. I went from arid to humid summers; tall blowing grasses to tangles of hanging vines like a rainforest; from drought to hurricane conditions. It all felt heavy to me, this wet and gloomy environment, also mirroring the sagging plants overwatered by my mother. Nature here in the mid-Atlantic feels Gothic, and lends to lush-but-often-haunted personifications of people and spaces.
TM: Do you often do research on the plants you write about to better understand how it can benefit your writing?
KS: I’m a former journalist, and one of the old habits I can’t shake is the need to research details in my creative nonfiction. It’s sometimes my downfall because researching for accuracy can go on ad nauseum—sometimes to the detriment of the writing. My process for this story began with a strong image that is linked to a deep emotion. I find that when my writing begins that way, research sometimes derails whatever has inspired me. So for this piece, I went as far as to ensure I was naming the plants correctly, but I left it at that.
A few years ago, I wrote a piece of creative nonfiction about a rogue tomato plant that popped up unexpectedly in my flower bed in October and November. I was fairly sure it would be a story about climate change, but I didn’t want to assume that tomatoes don’t grow that late in the year in my part of the U.S. I did a lot of research about climate zones, tomatoes, and the changing seasons. I wouldn’t have been comfortable putting that story out for print without that research.
So, I believe that sometimes research is absolutely necessary in creative nonfiction, but other times, if you feel it getting in the way of your writing process, I think it’s okay to let it go.
Coming in April 2023, The Veil Between Two Worlds, published by She Writes Press, is Christina Vo’s debut book and memoir. With a matter-of-fact and poignant voice, Vo lets readers peak behind the words to glimpse her life. With the loss of her mother at a young age—and a distant father—Vo details time spent trying to heal and find a place she can call home. She draws readers in with her keen descriptions of what “home” is or can be—both as a physical space and an emotional/spiritual one. Vo writes that home is “a place we find within ourselves—warm, comforting, and nurturing.”
The memoir itself recounts Vo’s journey with one of her closest friends—David—as they go on a roadtrip together from San Fransisco to Santa Fe. While they travel, Vo thinks back on her life and what has led her to this point. Ultimately, Vo’s memoir is a deep, hopeful contemplation on how lives intertwine.
Christina Vo is a Vietnamese-American writer. She has worked for international organizations, including UNICEF and the World Economic Forum, in Vietnam and Switzerland, respectively. She also owned and operated a floral design business in San Francisco. She has degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the London School of Economics and Political Science. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. To learn more about her and keep up-to-date on her latest works, visit her website.
We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Christina Vo’s memoir. This interview was conducted via email by our Blog Editor, Brennie Shoup.
Brennie Shoup: You’ve done a lot of traveling, and you’ve lived in a number of countries, including the USA, Switzerland, and Vietnam. How have these experiences contributed to your writing? How do you see your writing in a global context?
Christina Vo: Yes, absolutely—I believe that our sense of place, where we’ve lived, the people we’ve met, and where we call home (can be multiple places actually) have an impact on who we are and who we become. I lived in Vietnam on three separate occasions in my twenties, and as I mention when I speak about a forthcoming project related to Vietnam, living there shaped my adult identity. I didn’t graduate from college and move to a city like San Francisco or New York; I went to Hanoi. At that age, meeting and working with people from all over the world, made me realize—there’s no ONE right way to live one’s life, and I think that ultimately shaped how I thought about my whole life and career—that it didn’t have to be linear. It didn’t have to look like anyone else’s. So yes, my perspective and my writing is inevitably shaped by my travels; however, I think the theme of place really comes in more with my second book.
In regards to how I see my writing in a global context, I remember a friend of mine, who is a Vietnamese writer, told me that if I started off with the Vietnam story, I might be pigeonholed as a writer who can only write about Vietnam. Of course, I don’t entirely believe that’s true; I feel as artists, writers and creators, as we continue to live, we will evolve. However, those words did stick with me. I specifically see The Veil as a story mainly for women who are navigating their paths, so that’s how I connect it to a global context, even though obviously, depending on where a woman is living in the world, she will face different challenges.
But at heart, we all, whether consciously or not, go through the life questions: Why am I here? Why do I hold these wounds? What is stopping me from living my full expression of myself? How do I define myself, beyond the societal expectations of who I should be? And, how do I express the fullest version of myself? Essentially, I see that these questions, which drive this first body of work, are universal to some extent.
BS: You mention creativity and expression in your memoir. When did you know that you wanted to write as a part of your creativity? Have you ever experimented with other art forms, such as drawing or painting?
CV: I believe creativity and expression is fundamental to who we are as human beings navigating this earthly world. In large part, I would classify The Veil as a spiritual memoir, so I feel that it’s natural that creativity and expression come up and through the book as a theme.
I have always been drawn to writing but never really claimed it until the pandemic, and until I really sat down to finish this memoir. Writing has always called to me, even when I was a teenager and facing the death of my mother. I remember something within me saying, “Write this now. So that you can remember it.” Of course, I didn’t, but the things that are truest in your life will always find a way back in your life. And what I’ve learned is that you have to claim them or there will be this quiet dissatisfaction which might eventually consume you.
I have dabbled in other forms of creativity, from trying to create a sustainable handbag line while living in Vietnam and also working with local craftspeople in developing countries to bring their wares to market. I also often worked on small projects helping with interior decorating throughout my career, and of course, started blogs that I also stopped after some time. In my mid-thirties, I ran a flower design business. I was pretty much self-taught, but working with flowers was a huge part of my creative life and healing (and another long topic entirely). It was beautiful—and incredibly challenging—to work with flowers on a regular basis. It taught me a lot about the natural process of life and the powerful lessons of Mother Nature herself.
BS: The Veil Between Two Worlds deals a lot with loneliness vs. connectedness. Did you notice whether any of your topics influenced the form or shape of the book itself? If so, how?
CV: Thank you for mentioning that and for picking up on that theme of loneliness vs. connectedness. That’s actually probably one of my lifelong dilemmas that I came to this planet to grapple with. Bear in mind that The Veil was written during the pandemic, so I also believe the external factors of all of our lives (and the inevitable loneliness of social distance) was pervasive through the writing process.
I had wonderful developmental editing support for this book and also benefited from a six month memoir writing class I took during this time. When I started I didn’t really know what it was about, I didn’t know the arc, and while the book covers a period of my own life between 40-42, a time of deep spiritual transformation, I didn’t want to tell the story chronologically, so it weaves in and out of that period of time and also has a heavy backstory with the interactions with my family.
So, yes, I think that topics did inform the shape, as when we’re experiencing something in the moment, it’s also inevitably related to something else in the past. For example, let’s say we’re facing an ending or a break-up of some sort, we will feel the pain of that experience but it might also trigger something that happened in the past, even a childhood experience. I do believe that is probably what unintentionally shaped the way this story is told—the moving between time, and as referenced in the title, between worlds.
BS: Do you have any other pieces you’re working on?
CV: Yes, I’m working on two larger bodies of work—both of which I’m really excited about. One is what I call an intergenerational memoir, which I’m collaborating with my father on. It’s about our very different relationships with Vietnam. For him, leaving the country he loved and lost at the end of the war, and for me, Vietnam was really where I became an adult in my twenties, having lived there on three different occasions. I feel it’s a beautiful book because it touches on universal themes—intergenerational trauma, father-daughter relationships, immigration and reverse migration.
The second body of work is similar to the first memoir loosely based on my life, but I suppose it would be classified as auto-fiction or a semi-autobiographical novel. I’m really excited about this one because it focuses more on being a woman in the world today and grappling with identity, balancing the masculine/feminine within, and very similar to my own character—being a woman that’s not shaped by society (even though to some extent we all are) but by that I mean, not living based on other people’s expectations on how we should live.
It had been four years since my mother died, but sometimes I could still feel her. A whisper in the wind, a tremor of a touch on my shoulder. She always smelled like cinnamon. Her laugh was like a canary’s airy call. She made me blueberry muffins every weekend and called me, her little fish. Death is an absence, yes, but it’s also a presence. At times, it’s suffocating.
Dad and I lived inside a gated circle. When I closed my eyes, the iron gates closed around my heart. But the gates kept us safe from what was outside them, which was the world—those other people and everything else. The sun with its cell-splitting intense UV light. The gates can’t keep us safe from that, although we have good sun screen, and there are new pills that make our skin more UV resistant. Dad worked on those. Rigorously tested, totally safe, he had said, the first time he offered me one in our kitchen with pale yellow walls. The pill was a light blue, like a robin’s egg. I once saw a robin, but only once.
The gates were supposed to keep us safe from the outside. Those torrents of wind and rain—hurricanes, tornados, floods. The poisonous clouds that bloomed still from smoke towers in countries elsewhere. Far and distant and still knocking at our backdoors. We had extensive air filtration systems. We were ideally geographically located. Close to one coast, for the view of course, but well above sea level. Close to an ocean that was too cold to suffer from hurricanes. Dad and I moved here just a few months after my mother died. She would’ve hated the iron gates, but loved the proximity to the ocean. Every morning, I ate breakfast with my father. Something simple and healthy. Peanut butter in oatmeal. Eggs and toast. Cold cheese sandwiches. It was usually oatmeal. Animal products were limited, even to us, with our lucky wealth and privilege. Dad worked at one of the big tech conglomerates. Still, specialty food items were to be saved and coveted for momentousoccasions. I liked oatmeal. I added vanilla soy milk, shreds of unsweetened coconut, and lobs of organic peanut butter. Peanuts still grew well, even then. Those sturdy legumes, so good for the soil. There were a lot of peanuts and lentils because of that. I liked the texture of oatmeal, a little gelatinous and gooey. Like the inside of a person. When it comes down to it, we’re all soft and squishy inside. Mostly, I tried to act hard and stoic, but that’s all it was. An act. My skin is flexible, my whole body soft. Even bones break. Our bodies are so capable of crumbling, being turned from solid to dust.
Somewhere, parrot fish still chewed through coral, shifting it into sand. It’s impossible to comprehend all the tremendous changes happening beyond us.
As I ate breakfast with my father, I always pretended I was a parrot fish. One particular morning, when I felt a change in the air in the room—some consuming sweep of grief—I realized my oatmeal was too mushy. Suddenly, everything felt aslant, including my brain. I shook my head, wrinkled my nose at my oatmeal, chewed with my mouth open, molars clicking together, a lump of mush wriggling on my tongue.
“What’re you doing?” Dad asked. “Stop that.”
But I couldn’t stop. I pounded my teeth together. I was a young teenager and I was a parrot fish. I needed coral to chomp. I needed to make sand. But my oatmeal was nothing like oatmeal. There was almost no more coral, at least alive. They left behind their bleached and calciferous bodies. They made their own gravesites. Coral has outer skin that is hard as stone, and even they can’t survive us.
It’s the heat in the water. It’s inescapable. As the oceans warm they uptake more carbon dioxide, because warmer water can hold more. Carbon dioxide drifts from air to water—too much of it everywhere. And so the pH of water shifted, grew more acidic. Seawater was normally a little basic. A basic bitch, is what my friend Tina would call people she disliked. Sometimes, it’s good to have a little levity. The ocean was a basic bitch I loved. Simple in its limitless expansion. How basic! Tina would say of things she found boring. But I wish we could all be basic, return to a simplicity that wouldn’t cause carbon dioxide. As the ocean absorbs it, it gets less and less basic. Goodbye.
Here’s the point. Acidity dissolves calciferous creatures. They cannot build their bodies. The necessary ionic bonds will no longer hold, and so: disintegration. And so: these organisms cease to have homes. They are no longer gated, protected from the outside, which is the world, which is the water. Too much acid. Without protection, we all die. We have forged a world where we need protection.
“Stop that,” Dad said. Salt poured from my face. Oatmeal fell from my mouth. My teeth sounded like shells clattering. I could not stop. I was a parrot fish with nothing left to eat.
I fled from the table. Ever since Mom’s death, my father was used to my sometimes strangeness. My grief counselor said it was normal, even all these years later. I was eleven. Children cannot process death as adults do. The counselor told me to act through my feelings, but said I could never hurt myself.
I never wanted to hurt myself. There was already too much pain. But sometimes, I forgot how to behave. Sometimes I was swept up in something other. Sometimes I felt, my mother was coming for me. I didn’t know if that was terrifying or comforting. The yellow walls of our kitchen began to melt. They swayed like seaweed. Shifting bodies beneath them, within them, begging to be let out.
I ran from the table, my feet bare. I flung myself out of the front door and down the street. Perhaps, I heard my father’s call behind me. Perhaps, he simply let me be. I was safely nestled within the elite gate, and so I was safe from the outside, which is the world. Except I wasn’t safe. We couldn’t be.
I ran from the top of the hill down the winding path that led to the ocean. Of course, it was foolish to live so close to the sea, but the wealthy never could ignore aesthetics. I understood. The call of the ocean, that alluring murky eye. How blue in the sun, how green in the shade, ink-black at night. An expansive ocean view—what promise! No one could resist that. A view and safety at 1500 feet.
It was a luxury being able to run to the ocean. At the edge of our gated community, there was a solar-powered elevator that plummeted to the sand and a twisting metal stairwell. I took the stairs. By the time my toes hit sand, I was breathless, my energy burned out like a dead flame. I flopped to the sand. It was an early spring morning. A weekday. I would be late to school. I wouldn’t go to school at all that day. The beach was empty. Instead of getting ready for school, I was collapsed on the sand, my toes close to touching the upper crest of the tide. Sea foam flecked the sand beyond my feet. I breathed. I arranged my body like a sea star, each limb outstretched. I craned my neck. The sand felt good, sticking to my skin like that. As if eager to maintain the touch between it and my body.
My mind returned to parrotfish and their sand-making. Their voracious jaws and willingness to turn something solid into sand. Sand is solid, but not like a body is solid. Sand takes any shape it wants. Sand withstands. Can cling to a body to become part of someone else.
But in that moment, I was more starfish than parrotfish. Most of the sea stars along this coast had died. Some strange melting event. Their bodies giving up their solidity, transforming into something else.
I stayed there on the sand, waiting for my own body to melt. I wasn’t even thinking of my mother, I was simply swept up in an abstract grief, exhausted. Eventually my body grew tired of being tired. Maybe I had stayed there one minute or two years. Time felt longer when I was younger, and perhaps once I wound up on the sand, I had used up all my genuine sadness, and was playacting a little. I had committed to this bit, but on the sand, I grew tired of it.
I got up. I squinted my eyes in the sun. I did not brush the sand from my skin. I stood, flexed my toes. I placed my body in the exact edge of the sea foam, the darker, ocean-drenched sand slicing across the land. The wedge of still dry sand, bright and lightly hot. This was my favorite place in the world. It was also my mother’s favorite place. Both in and out of the ocean.
We’d lived farther from the sea when she was alive, but we’d still travelled to it. Family outings, blithe and happy. Mom always loved being in two places at once. Both out of the sea and touching it. She called it liminality. A word so long it sounded like an incantation, like witches gathering at a beach at dusk around a bonfire. They grilled soy dogs over the flame while mouthing secrets to the universe. Perhaps they would also have a cauldron. They would consume their fake dogs and pet their real dogs—they would’ve brought their dogs with them—and then they would fly. That was liminality. The consumption of the mundane paired with exquisite flight. My mom had been a writer, and perhaps some of her whimsy had passed to me.
I looked away from the ocean, and up into the sky’s vast sunlight. I would use the word liminality countless times in high school English essays. A word that sounded smart, but really wasn’t. Being between, experiencing duality. It was simply a truth of life. For years all humans moved through liminal spaces whether we knew it or not. We were always both dead and alive in this vibrantly alive and dying world.
I turned away from the sky. Its blueness that had entered my eyes expanded the iron gate surrounding my heart. I looked to the sea—another blue. Tender blue green that was also dark, that also promised freedom and something else. Something slick touched my foot. I startled. The tide was rising. I was ankle deep. Something beneath the water—tender and tickling—was still touching me. A long slice of something that looked blue. I bent down, plunged my hand beneath that shallow skin of water. A fish. Dead. With two hands, I held her body. Silver in the light. Body as long as my forearm or longer. Amber eyes open and unmoving. A bonefish, I’d discover later that day, as Dad and I perused an identification guide we found online.
Bonefish. A lovely or else sinister name. Bones as strength and structure. Bones as spider-web thin and fragile. Bones as evidence of death. You’re all skin and bones! You’re nothing. A skeleton left in the sand.
It’s strange the way fish scales shimmer. As if actually metallic. What else can glitter like fish scales? The bodies in the ocean are bizarrely bright. Bioluminescence, jellyfish reflecting light, glowing as bright as a beacon. Fish made from slippery silver. From beneath, the ocean creates its own light.
The bonefish was heavy as I held her. My first real witness of death. My mother’s death had been severe and shocking, but abstract. There never was a body. She died in the great eastern flood that killed thousands, so, I had no idea exactly when or how she died, but I knew what it must’ve been like. The water sweeping in and surrounding her body. Her giving up—finally—opening her mouth to let the water in. But how—until the moment when you’re faced with real life and death—can you understand what that’s like? Opening your mouth. Relinquishing yourself to the world’s whims.
As I held the fish in my hand, that was death. Solid and absolute. A fish. As beautiful as glitter.
I inhaled and then lowered her back into the water. Then something else touched my foot. Several somethings. Around me, like a cold iron halo from below, eight or so corpses gleamed. I screamed.
My shout was a lighthouse of sound that lasted, kept lasting. I couldn’t stop. Rushing in pitch, gathering in volume. A wave gathering force as it moved toward shore. My voice reached a higher and higher peak, always about to crest and plummet. Violent energy scattering as sea foam and deeply dark water. My young voice, a force to be reckoned with, a system that couldn’t be controlled. I kept screaming. My sound soaring to the sky. A little girl inside a cloud.
As I screamed, fish gathered around me. Each body barely floating. Water-logged and rancid. These soul-stars of the deep, bonefish and angelfish and cod and pollock and—
Over the next week I would identify them all. My memory picture perfect. Death burns clarity into you.
My father wrapped his arms around me. He said, “Oh god.”
Where had he come from? I have no memory of his walking toward me. He wasn’t there, and then he was. He continued to hold me.
The beach shores filled with fish. Corpses unreal in their tangibility and lifelessness. Tens, then hundreds pooling on the sand. Fine, dead coral particles clinging to their skin. The sand didn’t know that their skin was cold and unmoving. That these bodies could take the sand nowhere.
As my father hugged me, clouds rolled in. The day turned gray, the blue above hiding behind condensed moisture that looked like cotton. And then, a slit of light pierced through the clouds to illuminate the pile of fish bodies as if the earth was saying, look at all of this, look at what you’ve done.
Michelle Donahue has prose published in Passages North, Sycamore Review, CutBank, Arts & Letters, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in creative writing & literature from the University of Utah where she was a Steffensen Cannon fellow. Her work has been supported by the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She is an assistant professor at UNC Wilmington where she teaches publishing and creative writing and is the associate editor of Ecotone. Learn more about her on her website.
We are pleased to present an interview with Michelle Donahue below, conducted by Abygail Leon Zavala—one of SuperstitionReview’s fiction editors.
Abygail Leon Zavala: I noticed that there’s a constant use of color as a form of description within “The Ocean Creates Its Own Light,” specifically the color blue. Could you offer us an explanation on the importance of this color and what this detail means to you?
Michelle Donahue: I’ve always thought there was something watchful about large bodies of water. When I’m by a lake or the ocean, I always feel as if I’m being looked at, as if when water finds itself in the company of many, many water molecules it can forge its own consciousness. I know this isn’t scientifically true, but I can never shake the feeling that bodies of water are exactly that—bodies that can see. Maybe that sounds sinister, but I find it tremendously comforting and awe-inspiring. And so, when I think of water, I think so much of the visual, of color and images. The repetition of blue here is, I think, a result of that. This is a water story, so the visuals matter, and water often is blue. Plus, as you mention in the next question, this is a story about grief, and so blue made sense for the emotional threads too.
ALZ: This piece depicts grief and death as a suffocating and overwhelming event. What inspired you to write about the topic?
MD: This story actually started as a chapter of a novel I’m working on, which is very, very loosely inspired by the epic of Gilgamesh. In that tale, Gilgamesh loses his best friend, Enkidu, and it’s this loss that leads Gilgamesh on a quest to search for immortality. So, I knew I needed a death in the novel, one large enough to inspire the protagonist to go on her own journey. The novel too, is about the grief I feel over the species losses that have happened and are happening because of human actions, so I wanted to pair a specific human grief, like the loss of a mother, with a more abstract but expansive one, like the loss of whole populations. Although the moment in “The Ocean Creates Its Own Light” wasn’t working in the novel draft, I thought with a few changes, it’d make a compelling story that could tackle these griefs on its own.
ALZ: I enjoyed the description of liminality in this story and how it is a natural human experience. Can you draw on a few of your own experiences within a liminal space? In what instances do you feel the most “alive” in this “dying world”?
MD: I share some of the protagonist’s frustration and obsession with the word “liminality.” It’s a word that sounds pretentious and complicated but is such a simple, common experience. We cross boundaries and exist between them every day, perhaps most notably in the way we’re very much animals ourselves—driven by biological desires and needs—but can be so removed from the natural world. Also, as someone who is mixed raced but white appearing, I often feel like I exist in a bit of liminal space too, which is perhaps compounded by the fact that I’ve lived in five states literally coast to coast in the last five years. Sometimes I’m not sure who I am or where feels like home! I always feel most alive when I’m outdoors. Yes, humans have been responsible for a lot of destruction, but when I’m in a forest or on the coast, it’s impossible to ignore how much beauty, how much life there still is.
ALZ: On the About page of your website, I read that you are a lover of all bodies of water and have studied environmental biology along with creative writing. Could you explain how these interests came to be, and how it affects the process of writing something such as “The Ocean Creates Its Own Light”?
MD: As a child, I always loved stories, and I think it was around high school that being a writer felt like this beautiful, impossible dream. It was also around that time that I took AP Bio and fell in love with the discipline. Both writing and science feel like two vastly different and similar ways of trying to know the world.
I’ve always found it hard to articulate how the science background affects and influences my creative work. As one of my former students observed, “You write about animals. A lot.” And that’s perhaps the best way to put it. I write about what I love, what I’m obsessed with, and so often that’s the strange and beautiful life of animals, or in the case of this story, their deaths.
ALZ: In your bio, it is stated that you will be working on Ecotone. Could you further elaborate on what your role will be and the goals you are working towards?
MD: Yes! I just joined the brilliant faculty at UNC Wilmington, where Ecotone is published. In addition to teaching publishing and creative writing, I’m the associate editor at Ecotone where I’m working primarily on prose. At Ecotone our goal is to publish a diverse range of writing that reimagines place. An ecotone is an area of transition between two ecological communities (talk about a liminal space!), so at the magazine, we very much want work that explores the ecotones between scientific and literary disciplines, literary genres, identities, and so on. We’d love to see work from Superstition Review readers and staff, so keep us in mind in the future.
ALZ: What advice can you give to those who seek a publishing career or seek to get their work published?
MD: I think the best advice is simply: never give up. The only real way to fail as a writer is to stop writing. Any published writer knows it takes many, many rejections to accrue a few successes. As for a publishing career, I’d say find a good mentor. This can be done through an internship or first job, or through an academic program (here at UNC Wilmington we offer both a BFA and MFA certificate in publishing). Publishing really is an industry of love; you have to love the work you do, but if that’s true it’s incredibly rewarding.
The following short story and interview contain mentions of suicide. If you or a loved one is struggling with suicidal ideation, know there are resources out there. For the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, call 988.
Roger loved Beth, of course, but he had hoped age would slow her down. She had never lost her frenzy for what she believed was her life’s central mystery.
In the meantime, grandkids banged on pots and pans at all hours. AM radio was always on full blast with talk about opera and the end of the world. A clipping of wisteria she’d taken from a friend had turned into a full invasion of the trees in their backyard. Butterfly stickers were plastered all over the window that looked out over his vegetable garden.
“I’d rather see real butterflies in my garden,” he told her.
“They hardly ever come around, and I want to see them all the time.”
She paid no attention to his grumbling, and of course, he felt guiltier about criticizing her when they found out she was dying.
“Death is inevitable,” he reassured her on the way back from the cardiologist.
“You wouldn’t say that if it was happening to you.”
“It is happening to me! My heart’s just as bad. I’ll probably die before you.”
“No such luck,” she said with a little laugh, and he didn’t know if she meant her luck or his.
He stopped at their favorite fast food spot and bought her a hot dog and an ice cream sundae, and he got a basket of chili fries, and they sat on one of the picnic tables overlooking the baseball field where the high school kids were practicing.
“They don’t have a care in the world. They’re not thinking about what it all means. Or else, they’re thinking about batting averages. It’s the only thing they have to prove,” she said.
Her eyes were a little red, but she wouldn’t let a tear fall. He hadn’t seen her cry for decades, not since their youngest’s body was found in the woods. Their only little girl. After that, Beth had wanted to talk about it all the time, like that would bring her back. He’d asked her to think of his feelings, and she hadn’t liked that. But what was there to do about it? Bad things happened. Death was really and truly inevitable.
“What do you think it all means? ” he asked, deciding to humor her.
She brightened like he’d given her a compliment, and she put her burger down so she could concentrate on her explanation.
“Life is about understanding the people you love. Once you understand them, you can let them go.”
“You don’t understand me,” Roger said.
“Oh, please. I understood you after our first date.”
He savored his fries and waited for her to resume her theorizing. He didn’t think he was so easy to figure out.
“I’m happy with the life we’ve lived in every way but one. I really am.”
“I believe you. But I’ve been telling you for years, we should leave that house. It brings back bad memories sometimes. We could make a fresh start even if we only have a few months. Why not? We could move to assisted living. It might be nice.”
“I can’t, Roger. She might speak to me again and finally tell me what happened. She’s still there.”
He could feel his ire rising, but he tried to tamp it down. Getting angry wouldn’t do anyone any good. It was hard to be the hard one all the time.
“She’s not there. She’s moved on, Darling. I’m sure of it. She’s not haunting us.”
Beth gave him the most furious expression she could make, her eyebrows arching lower than they used to. “But I will. I will haunt you for the rest of your life if you don’t try to help me make my peace before I die.”
“You know I’ll do anything I can!” he started, intending to defend himself against the implied accusation that he was too lazy to help his dying wife. It was hard to think of Beth’s absence, and it scared him to think of how much he’d miss her, but he didn’t want her to haunt him. She’d do it, too. If there were any way to do it, Beth would find it. He’d never get a good night’s rest again.
“I’m only asking this one thing,” she said, interrupting his defending. “I still don’t know what happened to Sweet Wendy. I don’t know why she went into the woods that day. I don’t know who hurt her. I don’t know what she was thinking.”
“She was sad, Beth. The police found her diary, and she said she was depressed. It was a tragedy—the greatest tragedy of our lives. But we already know why it happened.”
“But why? She never told me she was depressed. I don’t believe it, Roger. I’ll go to my grave not believing it.”
They’d been over the story thousands of times. Beth had the same questions, and he gave the same answers. At first, they’d both demanded answers and investigations and had called in detectives and pastors and priests and rabbis and psychics and anyone else who had any chance of helping. After a couple of years, Roger had faced the facts. Their daughter had been depressed. It didn’t make sense to him either—she hadn’t seemed sad. She was only sixteen, rather young to give up on life. But that’s what the evidence said. Beth had even called in a guy from the university who made podcast shows to investigate Wendy’s death, but he couldn’t get up enough mystery content for a single show. He said he was sorry, and then he left without giving them any more answers than they’d had before. Humiliation after humiliation! Everyone in town knew them as the poor couple who had lost their daughter in their own back woods. Everyone was sorry, but they were all alone in the depth of their sorrow. Not even their sons, Wendy’s two older brothers, had understood, though they had pain of their own.
He was ruminating on the injustices they had suffered as he drove home, and Beth made the same case she’d made for years. Wendy was always one who followed the rules. She had just won that dance competition, and she had another coming up that she was practicing for (and yet she wasn’t going overboard or stressing out too much). She wanted to be a vet, and she was volunteering at the animal shelter. She loved her family. Even that diary (which Beth had always suspected was a plant) had made that much clear. She wouldn’t have wanted to hurt her parents or her brothers. If she really felt she had to die, she would have explained it better.
When they got home, she was still ranting away as she followed him into the kitchen where he was going to get a glass of water, and she pointed to one butterfly sticker that had fallen to the floor beside the picture window.
“It’s Wendy! That sticker is a sign!”
“Damn it, Beth, that sticker just fell down. It’s nothing supernatural.” He was glad to have one less sticker to look at. It was the weird glittery-purple one, too, the one that didn’t look like any kind of butterfly he had ever seen in real life.
“These stickers don’t just fall off. Try getting another one off.”
He’d never attempted it, knowing he wouldn’t hear the end of it if he displaced one of her precious butterflies. When he tried scratching at a pink butterfly with his fingernail, it wouldn’t budge.
“You’d have to get a scraping knife to take these off,” she said.
He groaned. Maybe it would be a project for their sons when they were both dead.
“That’s her talking to me, Roger. She hasn’t left me a sign in a long time. I think it’s finally happening again because you’re finally listening again. On account of my dying. Not a second too soon, either.”
He examined the fallen butterfly. It wasn’t anything like a real butterfly, but he already sort of missed it. He was used to seeing it there on the window. Was it really Wendy speaking to them after so long? Hadn’t she moved on to heaven yet?
“Promise me you’ll keep listening, and that you’ll believe. For my sake, the last wish of a dying woman.”
“I’ll listen!” he called out, raising his hands in the air as if he were a holy roller. “I believe! I’ll listen! I believe!”
“Now, you keep paying attention, and I will too. She’s sure to spark up again soon.”
While they were watching television later that evening, they heard a light commotion outside. Animal sounds. When they went to investigate, they looked through the picture window and found a striped cat sitting at a distance from the house and staring at them.
“That’s her,” Beth said.
“Our daughter is not a cat,” Roger said. The cat was cute, though. It looked at them with a sense of purpose, swinging its tail from side to side as if to get their attention.
“Remember when she was little and she wanted to be in school plays, but she was so shy? You used to tell her to pretend like she was a cat. Cats think they’re the best, and that other people are lucky to be around them.”
“I forgot that. It sounds like so-so advice. It wouldn’t help if you were really and truly scared. You can’t just become a cat.” He wasn’t sure if he had ever given Wendy good advice. Maybe that was why she didn’t come to him before the end.
“Unless you’re a ghost,” Beth whispered. “Let’s follow the cat. The cat wants us to. Can’t you tell?”
He had promised to believe, after all, which meant he had to try.
They rarely went out at night anymore. It was early spring, and some crickets were waking up. There was a chill to the air, so Beth ran in to grab jackets for them, though he didn’t see the point since he didn’t think the cat was really going to lead them anywhere.
But the cat did lead them into the woods. Roger had only been in the woods a few times since the tragedy. A couple of times he’d gone out looking for the boys’ dog, and another time he had to help one of them find different kinds of leaves for a school project.
“You promised,” Beth said, so he followed the cat even though he felt angry about it.
He hadn’t done anything wrong, so why should he always be punished? They should have left a long time before. As soon as he could, he was going to move them into a retirement community. Then whichever one of them died last would have company while they waited. There were people playing cards and checkers and chess, and they had good hot meals. There was even a duck pond.
By grumbling to himself, he was able to ignore the thorns and creepiness of their journey into the woods. They walked slowly, and the cat would stop and wait for them sometimes. It really did seem to be leading them somewhere in particular. Finally, they found themselves in a clearing near a small creek, and they recognized the spot. This was where it had happened. There was that log that had fallen halfway in the water, still rotting slowly.
“I used to come here every day to leave flowers or little trinkets that made me think of her. But I stopped a long time ago, because it was too sad.” Beth was about to cry, and Roger felt responsible. He shouldn’t have let them get carried away.
“You did the best you could, Beth. You did a great job as a mom.”
She shook her head. His eyes had adjusted to the low light from the half-moon above, and he could see her and the cat clearly. The cat jumped up to sit on the dry portion of the log, twitching its tail as an invitation.
They had no choice, they felt, but to sit on the log where the cat wanted them to. They had come so far, and they had to finish their task.
“Look at that,” he said as he looked up.
The stars were so cold and distant, it scared him at first. It had been years since he had really looked at them. The bigger the town got, the harder it was to see them, and there was something comforting about that. The restaurants and the baseball games and the backyard parties were so bright and loud, no one had to see the stars and feel creepy about them. There was a time when people found pictures and stories up there, but the maddening silence must have made them dreamy. He couldn’t see any patterns up there. It was just a wild scatter of dots, like the holes in one of those posters they have at shooting ranges. Maybe God was up there shooting at them and kept missing.
“Beautiful,” Beth said. “This was the last thing she saw.”
That made his eyes sting. The last thing their sweet daughter knew was that cold, comfortless sky? He hoped she had closed her eyes and thought of something cozy. But then, why had she gone all the way out there if not to see that sky in the end?
“Someone told her to do it,” Beth said. “Maybe she did it herself, but someone told her to.”
“Who? Who would do something like that?”
Soon Beth was crying like a child, and Roger was, too. Who would do something like that?
“Maybe you’re right. That morning, she told me she’d go fishing with me that weekend,” Roger said. “She never lied. She always did what she said.”
“This was an exception, because something happened. Maybe she wasn’t murdered exactly. Maybe there won’t be any justice. Maybe not in this life, maybe not ever. I get the feeling…I get the feeling she wants us to forgive, to forgive her and whoever hurt her.”
Roger felt a foreign softness against his hand, and he shouted and jumped up. It was the cat coming up to them.
“Kitty?” he said, trying to sound brave.
“Wendy,” Beth said. “I know why you brought us out here. You wanted us to know what you were feeling. You felt like things were too big for you. You were sensitive, and someone was rooting against you. Maybe more than one person.”
The cat looked up. What was up there? The sky. The more he looked at it, the less alien it seemed. It was just a sky seen from a planet. The stars were fireballs. It was incredible. A cloud crept across the half-moon, and it looked like a fairy gown lit up by magic, like one of those princess things Wendy had liked to wear when she was little.
“This was what she saw before she died. And it was good,” Beth said.
He didn’t know what to say. It must have been so.
Wisteria hung from the branches above. When he was focused on the stars, he hadn’t noticed the blossoms, but now he saw.
“Was this wisteria there when she died?” he said. “I can’t remember when you set it down back here and it caught on.”
“No, it wasn’t here then. She loved purple flowers. Remember?”
“I don’t.” His voice was hoarse.
“I guess I planted it for her. And when she looks up now, she can see it there.”
When they looked down again, the cat was gone. It had done its job. They went back to the house in a kind of holy silence, holding hands. It had hurt to be so close to the sky. He was glad to be back inside. It was too hard to discuss at first. She went to bed, and he stayed up another hour to watch TV, though he wasn’t really paying attention. He was basking in the warm colors and thinking about old times.
They were able to speak at breakfast, and they agreed it had been a sign.
“I’m almost at peace,” Beth said, and he couldn’t help but laugh.
“What more could you want? She came back for us, didn’t she?”
“There’s one more thing I have to understand. Is she still sad about it? Wherever she is, whatever her spirit does…is it sad, or is it at peace?”
He nodded. It seemed like it would be a good thing to know.
“If you have something else to tell us, Wendy, we’re listening,” he said. This time, he meant it.
That evening, they didn’t turn on the television. Beth suggested they read, and he knew it was so they could hear better in case Wendy came to call again.
Again, they heard tapping at the window, but this time it was insistent and gentle as rain. They ran into the kitchen, but nothing was out there. No cat this time. It wasn’t until Beth turned on the outdoor lights that they could see a swarm of bugs infesting their backyard.
“Probably those damn mosquitos,” Roger said, but it was too early for them.
When they stepped outside, they saw wings fluttering all around their garden. As they got closer, they could it was a swarm of butterflies.
“At night, Roger! At night! Not moths, but butterflies.”
There were at least a dozen of them, and they were the most vivid colors. No pale ones. Just electric blues and oranges and purples.
“Even at night. Wendy is like this even at night. Is this what death is, Roger?”
He could see it clearly now in the porchlight. He didn’t have to strain his eyes. He was going to lose his wife. It took his breath away. It was inevitable, and it happened to everyone. It had happened to their daughter before them. But now it was happening to them. It wasn’t fair. It didn’t matter if they all became butterfly spirits, happy as could be. It wasn’t fair to live so close to someone and then lose them. It wasn’t fair to get so old and lose everything. Hadn’t they done the best they could? They had done what they were supposed to do.
“It’s all right to die, then, Roger. It really is.”
Beth was happy, but he couldn’t be.
“I want to die first,” he said. “Sometimes I wish I had died suddenly a long time ago, so I wouldn’t have to think about these things.”
He sat down in the garden, and the butterflies whizzed around his head. By instinct, he almost swatted one.
“It doesn’t matter who dies first,” she said. She sat down in the grass beside him. He couldn’t think of the last time they’d sat on the ground like that, and he wasn’t sure if they’d be able to get up again. “Whoever goes will make a way. The other will follow. When moment doesn’t follow moment…you see, all the moments are there.”
He didn’t see. It didn’t make sense. But Wendy was there, at least. She was dancing again in the forms of a bunch of night-drunk butterflies. She had loved the night. Where was she? They were closing in on her territory, wherever she was.
They kept their holy silence all night. The next day, they sat for hours by the picture window. Once or twice, one of them spotted a butterfly. They had seemed so rare before, like creatures that only came out for photographers. But they were everywhere.
That night, they talked about Wendy. They didn’t talk about the end, but they talked about the different moments along the way. It hadn’t always been clear who she was. They had known she was kind (most of the time), but they hadn’t realized before what a great guide she was. They had to piece her together from all those scattered moments after she was gone.
“It is a great gift that you and I have lived together so long and know each other so well,” Beth said.
“Maybe it’s a gift that I’m not a mystery. I’m a simple person,” Roger said.
Months later, when Beth died in her bed at home, she knew she was going. The kids and grandkids went to see her one last time, and she gave everyone strange tokens, from sheets of stickers to stones she liked to little sketches she’d made of the house and backyard. Roger was alone with her that evening when she passed over.
“I know you helped me solve the mystery like you promised, but I’ll haunt you anyway. It would be my pleasure to haunt you.” That was one of the last things she said.
“Go right ahead.”
After the funeral and the lunch at their oldest son’s house, Roger drove himself home. Everyone said he should stay over at his son’s, but he wanted to go back to see if Beth had left him a sign.
It was late spring, and he was shocked to see that wisteria had spread into the front yard. Had it been that way the night before? He hadn’t noticed it. It must have spread from the back to the front overnight. It was invasive and brilliant, the most beautiful flower.
After he sold the house, he took a cutting of it with him to plant outside his window at the assisted living place. Whether he liked it or not, life was without end. Before he died, the wisteria would spread even farther.
Ivy Grimes lives in Virginia. Her work has appeared in Potomac Review, Pithead Chapel, Salt Hill, Vastarien, Shirley Magazine, and elsewhere. To learn more about her, visit her website.
We are also pleased to present an interview with Ivy Grimes about “Picture Window,” conducted by Superstition Review’s fiction editor, Margaret LaCorte. Read it below.
Margaret LaCorte: The perspectives you chose to write about in Picture Window are from that of an older couple, Roger and Beth, struggling to cope with the loss of their child several years down the road. What made you want to write the story from this perspective?
Ivy Grimes: I grew up in a smallish town, and most of my family was a ten-minute drive away, so I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and great-aunts and other elders. The process of aging and coming to terms with dying is fascinating and horrible and beautiful. In some ways, people who live to old age are very lucky to experience so much life, but they also grapple with so much suffering and loss. They have more time to puzzle over existential problems for which there are no obvious answers.
I also think that most of us expect others to pass through grief quickly, when really the loss never ends. It’s hard to truly enter into someone else’s pain, and I wanted to explore the perspective of people who were happy in many ways and yet dealt with extraordinary grief over a long period of time.
ML: Death is a central focus of this piece. How have your own experiences with death shaped the manner in which you wrote “Picture Window”?
IG: I was raised as a Christian in the South, and while I have problems with much of the orthodoxy now, I still believe in the life of the spirit. I believe in the peace that sustains us all. I don’t necessarily want to believe this, and I know it doesn’t make sense to believe it given the suffering that exists, but I can’t help it. Struggling with my faith and trying to make sense of the world we live in has led me to write some depressing stories, and yet for me, there’s something inexpressibly comforting behind it all.
I’ve experienced death and grief, but not in the same way the characters in the story have—not with the same intensity. They feel responsible for their daughter, and to lose someone so close and so young is a different kind of grief. Plus, they wonder what they could have done. There’s something especially shocking about suicide, and often there’s no sense of why and whether the person found peace. Suicide rips a hole in the fabric of a community. People often blame themselves when they weren’t to blame as individuals, but we are responsible as a community. We have to continually think of how to create communities where we notice and address suffering.
ML: Roger and Beth struggle in understanding what really was the cause of their daughter’s death. What made you decide to incorporate this level of uncertainty into the story?
IG: I think it’s common not to know why people commit suicide, even if the person leaves behind an explanation. In many cases, there’s been no direct communication about thoughts of suicide (which is why it’s so important to share these thoughts when they arise and to seek help). I wanted to show how this confusion might affect those left behind, and how they might grapple with those feelings. Whenever anyone dies, or when they leave us behind, we’re generally left with anger and grief, and we want to know why…in a larger sense, why does life have to be this way? And I’d like to think that if you remain open, you might not find clear answers, but you might find signs and some sense of peace.
ML: Setting plays a big role in Wendy’s death, as well as her parents’ acceptance of it. Can you speak to the significance of placing the setting of her death within the woods behind Roger and Wendy’s home?
IG: Many tragedies in our lives happen in our homes or right outside our doors, and so a place associated with wonderful memories can also be associated with deep sadness. I’ve especially seen older people cope with this, and it’s mind-boggling to me. I hate the idea of living in a house for fifty years and letting the place be a repository for all my ghosts and memories.
For most people, the woods are lovely, but with a hint of danger. For Roger, the woods outside his house became a place he couldn’t go, because he couldn’t bear thinking about what had happened there. By confronting the place and his daughter’s perspective, he was able to see that the woods might have looked different to his daughter. They might have become a place of peace instead of simply a place of suffering.
ML: I found it interesting that Beth’s character is dying through the events of the story, motivating the couple to finally come to terms with their daughter’s death. During the process of writing this, what was the most difficult part of capturing this perspective?
IG: Roger wants to leave the house, and Beth wants to stay close to her daughter’s memory and spirit. I’d want to leave, personally, which is probably why I chose to focus more on Roger’s perspective. I have a hard time sitting with grief for very long, and my response to problems is often to search for a logical explanation, and if I don’t find one, to forget about it as best I can. Roger realizes that his wife has stuck around to find her daughter or some hint of an explanation, and he wants to help. Sometimes when people in our lives believe in something we don’t believe in, we can be harsh. But there’s something healing about taking people seriously, even when we feel like they’re being dramatic or fantastical. So entering into Roger’s perspective wasn’t very hard for me. By the end, he has gained some kind of inexpressible insight, which is something I’ve felt at times. I had a harder time understanding Beth, who keeps striving and mourning and searching her whole life. Fortunately, I was approaching her from the outside.
ML: Your use of symbolism through the recurring use of the wisteria flower was one of my favorite parts of the piece. During the process of writing this story, what other options did you consider using to symbolize the everlasting nature of life?
IG: I considered no other options! Wisteria was the impetus for writing the story. I always enjoyed writing, and my Grandmother Grimes would sometimes come up with subjects for me to write about. She was a natural storyteller, and she loved to tell odd tales to children about creatures in the woods, and she loved talking to adults about what the family and the neighbors and the women in her Garden Club were doing.
So anyway, one day, she told me I should write a story about a man who comes home after his wife’s funeral and sees that the wisteria she once planted (not realizing it was invasive) was everywhere. Everywhere. In truth, my grandmother had planted some wisteria that invaded her trees, and I think she admired it but was also alarmed by its persistence. I don’t know how my grandfather felt about it, but maybe he felt the same. I thought it was a great idea for a story, but I couldn’t think of how to do it justice. I probably still haven’t! But I did the best I could at present. So thank you to my grandmother for that idea and many others!
Matt Bell is the author of numerous books, the two most recent being Appleseed (a New York Times notable book) and Refuse to Be Done, a craft guide on writing, rewriting, and revision. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Tin House, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, Orion, and elsewhere. Originally from Michigan, he now teaches creative writing at Arizona State University. Read more about him on his website.
In this post, we feature an interview with Matt Bell conducted by Bailey Wood, Superstition Review’s nonfiction editor for Issue 30. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity.
Bailey Wood: Hi, Matt. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. You are a creative writing professor here at ASU. You have published books including Appleseed, Scrapper,In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, and most recently your craft book Refuse to Be Done. What motivated you to write a book on the craft of writing?
Matt Bell: I started working on Refuse to Be Done as a lecture. It was my traveling show for a long time. You know, you’d occasionally get asked to give craft talks at conferences or other universities. So I was giving this talk on revision, and it really came out of my own trying to learn how to revise—especially longer form fiction. Initially, it was this loose group of revision tips that I would talk about when asked to give those talks. And over time, it became a more novel-focused talk and became those three drafts that Refuse to Be Done breaks the process into.
At some point, maybe four or five years ago, I gave the talk at the University of Alabama. A professor there, Heidi Staples, came up to me afterwards, and said, “You know that talk’s a book, right?”
And I was like, “No, I did not. But maybe I’ll write it.”
And so I was lucky to have Heidi Staples’ push to get me to put it into book form.
BW: That’s awesome—I know you mention that in your book as well. What did your writing process look like for Refuse to Be Done, and how was it different from writing a fiction novel?
MB: Maybe the big difference was that I don’t really outline when I’m writing novels in advance, and I think with Refuse to Be Done I had a little better idea of how I wanted to go through it.
People are always asking about technology for writing—or using Word or Scribner, different things like that. And I’ve never written fiction in anything but Word, but I actually wrote Refuse to Be Done in Scribner. That worked really well for me. It saved the outline, and it’s arranged in a different way—it’s the only thing I’ve written in that. It was sort of a different process.
And then, weirdly, the revision process for this book and revision was also the process outlined in the book. So I did a lot of the things that the book said to do with fiction as I was working on the non-fiction version of it. There’s something kind of crazy about doing your tenth draft of a book on how to revise a book in three drafts, right? But it was useful in that way.
So, in some ways pretty similar. Of course, I had first readers who I thought of as play-testers. I had some friends who were revising books who read the book while they were working on it. Seeing what was useful to them and what wasn’t was really great to par down some of what was in it.
BW: So something you’ve mentioned already is that you have this three-draft approach. And within those three draft sections, there’s exercises that the readers can go through depending on what stage of writing they’re in. How did you decide which exercise to include for each chapter?
MB: It’s a little bit of a kitchen sink book: here’s a lot of what I knew to do. I felt, when I got done with it, that I’m going to have to develop some new ideas. A lot of it is what I do and what’s useful to me. I think some things could go in different drafts. The kind of stuff you’re doing in the first draft—you’re still doing some of it in a third draft. But I was really trying to think about what’s most useful to put it together: the three drafts having that focus on generator revision, and then narrator revision, and then polishing revision. Just thinking about what most naturally fits in each place.
And then also thinking about what carries forwards. Like I said, a lot of the first draft stuff, you really do it again in draft two. Presenting that kind of material first obviously means that you already know it when you start thinking about draft two. So a little bit of just thinking through the process.
There’s also a combination from my own teaching of novel writing. I’ve been teaching novel writing workshops at ASU and other places for ten years. You get a sense, especially that first draft work, of what people need in that phase or what kind of advice is most useful. So a combination of my own experience as a writer and what I see in my students and friends, and what kind of thinking is most useful at what stage in the process.
BW: I think something that you mentioned, too, is that there’s parts of each section that you maybe can apply to different drafts or work through that. It provides different exercises as you’re going through the phases, which is really awesome for readers.
In an interview with Hannah Gerson from The Millions, you mention how your novel gives a concrete series of steps to take, not the nebulous “keep making it better until it’s finished.” Keeping that in mind, how did you know that the works you’ve produced and published so far had reached a point where no more revision could be made and were completely finished?
MB: That’s a great question! It’s funny because I feel like the premise of the book is “refuse to be done,” and the question everyone wants to know is, “but, really, when are you done?” It feels appropriate.
For me, the process that’s in Refuse to Be Done is really everything I do before I show it to someone. I think when I get to the end of that process—which can be a couple years for a book—I usually feel pretty good about it. I at least feel like I’ve done everything I know how to do, which is a different way of being done. It’s the point that’s the farthest I can take it on my own. At this point, of course, I’ve written enough books that I’m used to going through my agent, my editor, my outside readers, but I really go into that process feeling like I’ve done everything. There really is a tightening that happens in that third draft phase that if you haven’t gone through the whole process by yourself at this scale, there’s this moment where everything is getting right-sized and you can feel the language is suddenly like “this is sort of what books on the shelf sound like” instead of first draft language. You do feel that completeness come in.
There’s always a place where I’ve over-edited it a little bit, where I’m now starting to make it a little worse or I’m subbing out words for the same word. On any given day, I might make this choice or that choice, but both choices are fine. I get into a place like that, where I’m no longer making productive change. And that’s a really good time for outside readers. I just went through with an outside reader on the book I’m finishing right now, and it was the time I needed someone else to light up other possibilities for me. I had done everything I could see. And she, of course, imm found me more stuff to work on. So, done and then not done, but that’s also part of the process. It’s not really-really done until it’s on the shelf.
BW: As a follow up to that question, is there any sort of intuition towards getting into that third draft, where you feel like “this is pretty close, and I could be done soon”? Does that happen at all?
MB: I think so. I think—especially having read enough of other people’s manuscripts and knowing where they go into the publishing process and things like that—there’s always this point a month from when I’m done with a novel where I could stop. I could probably send it to my agent here, and he would enjoy it, as much as he probably will in a month. But that last month of work is also a place where I’m going to forsake that last round of editing with someone else. That willingness to go a little past the point of acceptability or past the point of good, trying to get to great. A lot of great work gets done in that. It could be done with an agent or an editor, but I would rather take it a little farther myself if I can.
But I always feel that point, where I’m itchy to send it out to somebody—I’m ready to go. I know if I sit with it a little longer, I’ll get the rust out of it. Late in the process for me, I work really long hours. Normally, I write two hours a day or something, but late in the process, I’ll try to write eight, ten, twelve, so I can hold the whole book in my head. It lets me remember more of it. It’s really hard to get back in that state. It costs so much time. There is a tendency when I’m in it to get everything out of it because you never want to do this again. That’s the phase where I’m a writer in a movie: I’m an insane person who can’t talk to anyone, I’m dressing weird, and I haven’t eaten right. You don’t want to have to go back to that place, so it’s best to get what you can out of it while you’re there.
BW: I completely understand that. Something that is frequently mentioned in creative writing courses is an encouragement for students to read and write what they’re passionate about. What kind of books do you look for when you read? Are there any writers you’ve read recently that have inspired your work?
MB: I read really widely; I like things in a lot of different genres. I’m always reading different stuff. I think most of what you read—even if you don’t like it—it’s influential because of the way you don’t like it. So everything helps you hone your case, your interests, your aesthetics. That feels really great.
There are people I go back to all the time that are really important to me. Writers like Denis Johnson, Ursula LeGuin, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthary, Toni Morrison, and Anne Carson. Some of those people are always on my mind, and there’s always nearby. My desk is always full of things that are important to me or inspiring. I think my childhood The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is in my desk. It makes me happy to have it around, thinking about these books you love and care about.
Who I’ve read recently that I really liked… I just read a book called The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson. It’s a political fantasy novel that I just thought was speculator. It felt like a model for how to write a certain kind of book that was really thinking about politics and colonialism and utopia and things like that. It was a great story. You kind of felt like “oh, this how you write a really smart book that’s also a great adventure.” I’m always happy to find something like that—the real keys to the kingdom.
Not every book you’re going to take apart as you read it. A lot of books just get read. Every once in a while, you read something where you’re like, “Well, I’m going to keep thinking about this. I’m going to study how this is done.” Which I think it’s one of the pleasures of being a writer.
BW: Absolutely. One final question for you today. How has your experience as a teacher help shape your writing?
MB: I think it’s shaped it a lot. Even in reading widely. I think when I first started teaching, I always taught pretty diverse syllabi and had lots of different kinds of writers on the course reading list. I realized at some point that a lot of my examples, just off the top of my head, would come from what I liked—but which is not always connected to students. I realized that I wanted to read really widely so I had an idea of what students were doing, even if it wasn’t a genre that was my preference.
For instance, I had not read a lot of YA, but we have a lot of students who are writing YA. So I read some, so I know what people are up to. It’s not a drudgery to do that; I just find all this good stuff in genres I had not read much in. And that ends up being really exciting, so that’s a big part of it.
Maybe the other half is that, in having to explain how to do some of the stuff, you of course learn how to do it better yourself. The things that were really easy for me—or that are intuitive for me—were, when I first started teaching, very hard to teach. The two hardest things to teach are the things you’re best at and the things you’re worst at. The good stuff, you’re like, “Well, I don’t really know how I do this, I just do it,” and that’s frustrating for students. And the stuff you’re bad you, you shy away from because you’re not good at it. So teaching has been a reason to deepen my craft and be a better teacher that way. Refuse to Be Done would not have been written if I wasn’t a teacher. I just wouldn’t have the material in that format, and I wouldn’t be able to talk about what I do. I’m just lucky.
As you know, from being in the class that you’re in—both at the undergrad level and at the MFA—every year, a new cohort of smart, interesting, talented people to talk writing with comes through. And that’s a pretty neat gift to have in your life. This constantly renewing source of good writers, so I think that’s a really lucky thing that I get to experience at ASU.
BW: I definitely think that there’s something at play with that, too—you get to work with writers of all experiences. You get to work with the process of different students, too.
Well, that was all my questions for you. Thank you so much for you time.
Winner of the Kore Press Institute Poetry Prize, Jessica Lawson’s new poetry collection Gash Atlas is both beautiful and devastating. Combining sexual violence, history, and the speaker’s own complicity, Lawson creates a twisted mirror of our own world. Suffusing this world is the figure “Christopher Columbus,” a villain personifying a long legacy of colonization and current political terror. Columbus’s lines are filled with haunting references: “there is no turning the globe can make away from me… The fake news says there is no / oxygen in space, but anywhere is breathable if you know who to pay.” This is a collection that lingers.
Gash Atlas gives us a map of words—the physical and philosophical language—to navigate a visceral reckoning. History and the present move insidiously through bodies that serve as “soft / places to plant menace.” There is relentless difficulty, complexity, setbacks, toughness, rage. There’s hard humor alongside the exhaustion of everyday fear. Actual and symbolic horror, borne and delivered through the tender precarity of motherhood and violently performative femme-presence, show us the unsustainable cost of institutional force. How intimate it is, how prevalent, how invasive even to one’s own private thoughts—“I have a fantasy of lying down in snow and not being.” Jessica Lawson’s poems, images and stagings take the pulse of existence and offer a bold, intimate conversation that shows us just how close we—humans—are to the ultimate wreck, if we continue charting our world according to the persistent peril of ignorance.
Khadijah Queen, author of I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On
Jessica Lawson’s work has appeared in TheRumpus, Entropy, The Wanderer, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere. Gash Atlas is her first book. To learn more about Lawson, visit her website.
Behind every great man/ is too much forgiving/ and an awl of blood” writes Jessica Lawson in Gash Atlas, a collection that erodes the statue Christopher Columbus has erected like a gash in each subjectivity colonized by powerful men. Lawson has given us poems that strike a balance between daring to ask the urgent questions and posing them with the care of one who knows how language often operates as a colonial mode.
Raquel Salas Rivera, author of lo terciario/ the tertiary and while they sleep (under the bed is another country)
We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Lawson’s collection. This interview was conducted via email by our Blog Editor, Brennie Shoup.
Brennie Shoup: What inspired you to create Gash Atlas?
Jessica Lawson: I had multiple moments of inspiration, or at least motivation, that defined this project for me. The first was the 2016 election, which transformed my previous plans to write a manuscript about maps into a project that was much more directly political. I began to accrue poems about the terror of that current moment, as well as the violent histories informing it. The character of an antagonist emerged, who would later become Christopher Columbus. Then a second defining moment came, this time more quietly but perhaps more powerfully. It was when I realized that my book wasn’t just, or only, about Trump, but was about the complicity of my own speaker in the violence he was performing. The book didn’t really come together for me until I did the difficult work of problematizing the voice through which the book itself is coming, letting the book question its own speaker. The book and its composition, in real time, became about strategies for fighting against a system that imbues one’s own subject position. It’s why I gave the book an epigraph that came from a protest slogan by liberal white women, and attributed it to Columbus. My book is about maps, about violence, about Trump, and about white womanhood, and I realized each of these through the act of writing it.
BS: Your collection includes what’s been described as visual and poetic “maps.” Would you be able to discuss why you used the forms you did in this collection?
JL: Visually experimental literature is something I’ve been passionate about for a long time, and is reflected in a lot of the work I’ve already published. I think there is sometimes a misconception that visual literature, or experimental literature more broadly, is necessarily apolitical, and I’d love to see that change. Visual and hybrid poetry gets associated with a messed-up school of poetic elitism that uses “experiment” as a way of looking down upon any readers who can’t (or don’t wish to) understand it. And while there are absolutely writers who create experimental literature that way (those are the boring ones), there is also a rich history of activist writers who use experimentation to activate their texts and their readers, jolting us out of our seats by demonstrating that this is not business as usual. So, that’s a big part of why the forms of these pieces are so important to me. Sometimes, the political needs of the time necessitate breaking away from the forms we’ve inherited. Sometimes, when the world feels like it’s breaking apart, the pages and words need to break with it.
BS: Gash Atlas examines both past and present atrocities, with a particular focus on Christopher Columbus. Could you describe what your research process looked like?
JL: I was researching for this book long before I ever knew I’d write it. I remember years ago learning that Columbus was a terrible navigator, that he thought that the globe was shaped like a pear (or breast) rather than a sphere, that he wholly mistook the place he landed for an entirely different continent. I didn’t know I’d ever be using those bits of information to write poems, but once I decided to include Columbus in the book, this entire set of trivia flooded back in. From there, most of the other research had to do with the present moment I was writing in. I wrote about the United State’s opposition to the U.N. resolution banning the death penalty for homosexuality as it happened. I felt like my book wasn’t just reaching back into a history I’d already learned, but sprinting frantically forward after history as it was happening. The very last poem I put in the book, days before my draft was due to my press, responded to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. I was scared as I wrote it, both about what had just happened, and about having to let go of the manuscript before Trump left office. In a way, it feels like he never did.
BS: Do you have plans for future poetry collections or novels?
JL: I’m currently working on a second book of poems (though, like Gash Atlas, it includes hybrid elements that sometimes complicate its status as poetry). It’s about the body’s relationship to money, sexuality, and trauma. I’m getting pretty far along: the structure is falling into place, and a substantial portion of the poems have been written. Now I’m working on making the space to really look at it and push it toward completion (which is a challenge to do while I’m teaching four classes and raising three children). I’m excited and scared about it, which makes me think I’m where I need to be.