This is an episode from the podcast The Nuts and Bolts of Writing. In this episode, Imelda Wei Ding Lo interviews author Tejaswinee Roychowdhury about themes in her writing, her inspirations, and how her legal studies and practice have influenced her approach to writing. Tejaswinee is a writer, poet, artist, and lawyer from West Bengal, India. Her fiction and poetry have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and her work is published or forthcoming in Dreich Magazine, Muse India, Paddler Press, Amity (Hawakal, 2022), The Unconventional Courier, Roi Fainéant, Taco Bell Quarterly, Kitaab, and more. She is also the founder of The Hooghly Review,a literary magazine. To learn more about Tejaswinee Roychowdhury, visit her website.
Imelda asked Tejaswinee the following questions in this podcast episode: 1) What were you inspired by when you wrote your story for The Unconventional Courier, “Where Does The River Go?” 2) What books and themes inspired you the most as a writer? 3) You are a lawyer (as am I). Has your legal practice and studies influenced your approach to writing? If so, how? 4) What kind of stories do you plan to write in the future? Will you be publishing any books?
Imelda Wei Ding Lo is the co-host of the Nuts and Bolts of Writing podcast, the co-founder of The Unconventional Courier, a writer, an artist, and a game developer (Fortunus Games). She’s written two graphic novels—Sam in New York and The Book of Joel—and her work has been published in Victoria Literary Festival’s 2019 short story anthology. To learn more, visit her website.
We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into the work Imelda Wei Ding Lo has done. This interview was conducted via email by our blog editor, Brennie Shoup.
Brennie Shoup: You co-host the podcast The Nuts and Bolts of Writing. What made you want to start this podcast? Are there certain things you look for when you choose to interview a writer?
Imelda Wei Ding Lo: I wanted to start this podcast because I (and the co-hosts, Tete DePunk and R.N. Roveleh) wanted to learn more about other writers and how they approach writing.
As we discovered while working on our own stories, writing can be a lonely journey, especially when you’re waiting to submit novels and short stories to publishers and zines. Most publishers and zines require works to be previously unpublished, so you can’t post your work online for people to comment on.
This means you can only talk about your work with a small group of friends. We wanted to expand that group of friends beyond the three of us to a wider range of people so we could avoid the “echo chamber” effect.
BS: You also co-founded a literary zine, The Unconventional Courier. What made you want to start your own magazine?
IWDL: We started this magazine because we wanted another way to connect with other writers. We wanted to read other people’s writing and also ask them questions about the writing process. Our zine has a section called “Talking Heads” where we ask our submitters questions about writing, such as “How important are themes to your writing?” or “Which movies or books inspire you the most?”
BS: You have two graphic novels—Sam in New York and The Book of Joel. How would you describe your own writing? Do you find yourself linking writing and visual arts often?
IWDL: I would describe my writing as introspective. It’s also a work in progress. I am constantly learning from others (through the podcast and the zine) and also from my “real” (non-creative) life. I put a lot of myself into my characters, so, in a way, my characters are a way for me to digest what’s going on in my life.
Yes, I have always linked writing and visual arts together, ever since I was a child and teen. I grew up as a huge fan of manga (Japanese comics), and I loved how many of the stories combined dialogue with striking visuals. To this day, the manga Oyasumi Punpun by Inio Asano is one of my favorite works. It is just as “literary” to me as giants like Philip Roth and Orhan Pamuk.
BS: Do you feel like your background as a game developer influences the other aspects of your career—either your writing or your work on The Nuts and Bolts of Writing or The Unconventional Courier? If so, how?
IWDL: Game development was really a hobby for me. I never worked in or studied game development and I don’t have a solid grasp of programming, but I did create some interesting visual novel segments back in 2019 by teaching myself Python.
I haven’t had the time to make games recently, but I would say that my interest in game development has helped me think more about the bigger picture. When creating a game, you can’t afford to spend all of the time on the dialogue or art assets—you have to think about the structure, the user interface, and the user experience. I’ve been applying that to my art and stories, and it’s really helped me structure my works better. As I’ve learned, it’s very important to create stories with an audience in mind. Otherwise, you run the risk of creating a bloated work that is hard for the reader to understand and appreciate.
She was riding the bus into work when she felt something give in her belly. They’d been trying for two years now and she knew what it meant and doubled over. She was standing and gripped the metal pole hard. There were three more stops before her office park. It was the first warm day of spring and the sun was already hot between the buildings downtown. She’d worn a fitted dress in light yellow, like the creamy eye of a daffodil. Her computer bag swung over her chest as she fumbled for her cellphone. She was crying. The last two times she’d been at home and they’d cried together, he’d gone to CVS to buy pads and run the sheets through the wash and by morning everything was cleaned up and she was empty again. No one even knew what was lost. Another cramp snapped her forward and something warm began to crawl down her leg. How could there be so much blood? It bloomed across her dress, it pooled under her boots. A man standing next to her jumped back. She’s been shot! He whispered. Someone has a gun, a woman shouted. People started screaming. The bus broke hard and bodies toppled forward. The woman gripped hard to the pole. I’m fine, she was saying, but it hurt to stand up. Everybody get down! A man in a ball cap yelled. They all crawled under seats, curled against the metal floor. The stain moved horribly down towards the driver. For a long while there was quiet on the bus. The radio crackled; the red eye of the security camera stared. I’m okay, she said again, it’s just, she tried to straighten up but the pain bent her double. This time she’d thought for sure. They had a good feeling about it. When the police stormed up the stairs the first officer yelled for her to show her hands. She was shot, a man said, she needs help! The officer looked at the blood and back up at her. Her face was red. She shook her head. The officer said something quietly into his shoulder radio. He holstered his pistol and reached out his hands. She pulled herself from the pole and walked forward, blood in her boots. I want to go home, she told him, but they took her to the city hospital and she lay under crisp bleached sheets, staring up into the glare of fluorescents. What was it about trying that exposed you, she wondered. Such terrible desire. Outside flowers followed the sun across the sky.
Megan has won numerous national awards, including a Pushcart Prize. Her work has been listed in The Best American Essays of 2019. Recent publications included pieces in The Threepenny Review, Hotel Amerika, The Florida Review, and Creative Nonfiction Magazine. Megan mentors young writers and loves developing cross-genre and innovative creative writing pedagogy for her workshops and classes. Megan lives in New Hampshire, running her own small, organic farm and teaching creative writing. Her third book, Twenty Square Feet of Skin, will be published in May, 2023, by Mad Creek Books. To learn more, visit her website.
We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Megan Baxter’s piece. This interview was conducted by our Fiction Editor, Morgan Horner. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity.
Morgan Horner: Hello everyone! My name is Morgan Horner, and I’m one of the fiction editors for the upcoming issue of Superstition Review. I have the honor of interviewing Megan Baxter on her story “Such Terrible Desire.” Megan has won numerous national awards, including a Puschart Prize, and her work has been listed in the Best American Essays of 2019. Megan mentors young writers and loves developing cross-genre and innovative creative writing pedagogy for her workshops and classes. Megan lives in New Hampshire, running her own small, organic farm and teaching creative writing. Well, good morning, Megan. Thank you for joining us today.
Megan Baxter: Nice to see you!
MH: I’m so excited to do this interview with you. I absolutely love this story, and I’m glad I get to know more about it. Before we start, is there anything else you’d like to add?
MB: No, not at all! I’m excited to speak to you more about this piece.
MH: For our first question—in many stories that depict miscarriages, they focus on the emotional trauma that is caused by such an event. In “Such Terrible Desire,” we get to see more of the physical and mental trauma that this woman is experiencing, especially when the idea of a gunshot is introduced into the story. So what inspired you to write about one woman’s experience with miscarriage and the trauma it invokes?
MB: So this story was inspired by the true life story of a friend of mine, who had a similar experience miscarrying on her way to work, all dressed up and headed to the train to take her into her office. And when she related this story to me, the way that she told it was focused on the physical component of the experience. She had had previous experiences with miscarriages, at home with her husband and with her family. And she had not been out in public, wearing the heels, dressed up, ready to go in. And I was just struck by the question of “What do you do in that situation?” When you appear so physically injured, and there’s all those little questions of, “Do I call in? Do I go home? How do I clean myself up for the time being? Do I take an Uber?” How do you recover from the physical and public shock of that moment? So that had me thinking for a while. It’s one of those things that just turns around in your head.
And then I was also thinking a lot about how we often, as you mentioned, imagine miscarriage as something that is very personal, very private, very internal. But pairing it with a public experience made me realize that it’s one of those very few experiences that we have that can be so public, that can be so seen. And there’s so much exposure in that moment. So I was struck by its similarities to other forms of violence and the shock that it might have for other people who are witnessing the event.
MH: I was definitely going into the story not knowing what to expect, and then getting hit by that—I just felt so bad for the main character having to be in a public situation… I could not have imagined. It was very moving.
So, color plays a strong role in this story, from the delicate yellow of the main character’s dress to the vibrant red of her blood. Can you discuss how and why you chose color as a tool to relate this for your readers?
MB: I think color, for me… I’m a very visual person. I’m very image-based in my writing. So color is always something that sticks with me. But I think for this particular piece, because of the shock of blood and its immediate connotations to other forms of violence, it was important for me to stay focused on color as the primary mover. But also because the woman here is thinking about her clothing and thinking about the way she appears. And so I wanted to tie in the dress and some of the joy that we all feel this time of year as spring is beginning to bloom, and there are flowers finally—and we can bring out a beautiful sundress if we want to. So I wanted to tie in some of that and connect it to the world of the blood and the shock of that kind of public exposure.
MH: I definitely think it makes a huge difference, especially by the end when she goes to the hospital, where everything is just white and clean. Color is just so amazing—how it can change a story.
MB: It’s such an evocative technique for me and for many other readers as well.
MH: I was captivated by the form of the story; it’s all one paragraph with no quotation marks around the dialogue. Which, for me, made it feel very panicked, as the main character probably felt in that moment. Can you describe why you chose to write this story as a piece of flash fiction, and what emotions were you hoping to invoke through the use of this form?
MB: I think panic is exactly what I was hoping for with the form. I wanted it to read very quickly on the page, and I wanted the dialogue to feel smashed up into the action as well. I didn’t want to isolate it through the use of any device, like italics or quotation marks or a new line. I wanted it to all feel really immediate.
In terms of choosing a length for this piece, I wanted to linger on the images. And so when I find myself attracted primarily to image, I realize that it’s probably going to be a piece of flash fiction, something that’s shorter and lets me exploit that. Because I don’t think, in this situation, knowing what happens before and what happens after really changes the way we see this one moment.
MH: I think, for me, I definitely have gotten into flash fiction a little more, just within this semester alone. I think it’s so amazing how much you were able to tell in such a short piece of time and how every word matters in that moment as well.
MB: Thank you. I think one of the things I love about reading flash fiction is that there’s a lot of space for the reader, as well. So even if it is just a small little flash or slice of a story, the reader brings a lot to it. I find that I always leave a flash piece feeling like I experienced something really full. I think that that’s a really gracious way to go about writing: leaving more space on the page for the reader to fill in.
MH: Yeah, especially in this story, our main character—we’re never given her name. I think that’s kind of indicative of a lot of flash pieces. It doesn’t need a name; you’re already in that moment, you’re already in that character. The last two lines of the story are incredibly striking. They honestly left me in tears. “Such terrible desire. Outside flowers followed the sun across the sky.” I felt like I was reading a poem. How has your education in poetry and creative nonfiction influenced your writing, this story specifically?
MB: Well, I studied poetry for my undergraduate degree. Arthur Sze, the poet—at Bread Loaf in 2011, I think, when I was there as a poet—very kindly took me aside in his poetry workshop and said, “I really like your writing, but I don’t think you’re writing poetry. I think you’re writing nonfiction.” And he was right; he was completely right. So I started to shift at that point in my life towards writing creative nonfiction, studying it in my undergrad. But I read a lot of poetry, and I think because I am—as I mentioned before—someone who does focus a lot on image, the poem still appears as a form in my prose. And for me, not just image, but lyric and sonic devices are really important. I love pieces that are read out loud. I love the sound of things. So I do try to bring that to sentences as much as I can.
MH: Yeah, it was so beautifully written. I loved it. So, you’ve taught creative writing at the middle school, high school, and college level. What are some pieces of advice that you find yourself repeating to all of your classes?
MB: That’s a good question. Well, I think the one thing that I’m asked the most from students is how do you become a writer? What is your secret to staying focused and being published? What I always tell to students, regardless of their age, is that the authors that they love are people who didn’t give up, are the people who kept writing. So I talk a lot about resilience and the process. That is a consistent thing that I teach. I also focus, as you mentioned, on those more poetic aspects, so writing truly as a form of art and playing with both sound and structure, regardless of genre. I like to teach works that use multiple forms of communication, whether it’s poetry, images, collage. I invite my students to bring all of their artistic interests—and other academic or personal interests—into their work. I like to create pieces, or encourage students to create pieces, that feel both rich and diverse in their inspirations.
MH: Yeah, resilience is definitely something I have to remind myself when I’m writing.
MB: We all do!
MH: There are sometimes when I’ll leave a workshop, just like, “That’s not what I wanted my story to be!” And then I have to remind myself: it’s just one story, and I can write so many more.
MB: You can write so many more, go back and write that. And so often the experience is about learning, not the product. And I think it’s hard, especially for younger people today, to understand process. That the thing that we produce for an assignment might not be the final thing that you are creating. So, not to encourage students to throw away pieces, but to come to the page realizing that not everything you compose is going to end up being a final masterwork. The actual practice of creating something is what you’re in it for.
MH: A lot of my teachers practice this mindset of “refuse to be done.” Matt Bell, he wrote a craft book on it.
MB: Yes, it’s a great book.
MH: That’s one thing I definitely remind myself: not every story is going to be finished the first time, even though I want it to be. It’s something you repeat over and over and over again.
MB: And just wait till you start writing whole books, and you realize that about whole first drafts!
MH: So, you’re releasing a collection of essays titled Twenty Square Feet of Skin this upcoming May. Can you describe your experience with publishing this collection, and are there any other projects you’re currently working on?
MB:Twenty Square Feet of Skin is coming out through Mad Creek Books, which is an imprint through Ohio State Press. And I submitted the manuscript to them via one of their annual contests, and while it wasn’t a winner, it was selected for publication, which was wonderful. And I’ve had an absolutely extraordinary experience with the editors and the staff there. They’ve really helped me make the collection better than it was when I sent it off to them. I think that’s what every writer is looking for in a relationship with a press.
The manuscript itself was sort of born out of my Master’s thesis at Vermont College of Fine Arts under the supervision of Patrick Madden, who’s an essayist out of Utah. And he and I focused a lot on experimentation and adding additional source material to the essays. So the collection as a whole explores the body through a multitude of lenses and influences. There’s a lot of essays about music, but there’s also essays about things that I felt weren’t “writerly” enough to write about, like giving pedicures or going to the gym. Things that are very much part of our every day, but don’t often end up being the material that we see celebrated in the personal essay. So over a series of revisions and additions, the book is now complete, and I have never been more proud of anything that’s gone out for publication, so I’m really excited to see what people think about it.
MH: I definitely will be looking out for it. As soon as I read your story, I was like, “This is someone I want to pay attention to for the long haul.”
MB: Well, I will say, to continue your question about any other projects I’m working on, I have moved out of the realm of writing nonfiction, at least for the time being. I’ve written three books and published three books of nonfiction since 2018 to today. In a very short period of time, I wrote a lot of material. And I won’t say that I’m out of material, but I’m definitely taking a little bit of a pause, and I’m turning my gaze toward fiction. So submitting pieces like “Such Terrible Desire.” But I’m currently working on a novel and also a lot of other stories and flash pieces.
MH: That’s so awesome. I admire how you’re able to switch through these different genres.
MB: It’s so much fun. Fiction has been such a joy. And you sit there and you think, “Oh my gosh, I can just make something up?” And it’s amazing.
MH: I love that. That was one of my favorite parts of fiction, and then I took a research-based fiction class, and I was like, “Oh, there’s some things that need to be very accurate!”
MB: My novel is heavily research-based, and it is exhausting.
MH: I can imagine. I finished a story last night for my research class, and afterwards I was like, “I’m not doing any more homework; I’m going to sleep.”
MB: Your mind really works on overtime.
MH: It felt so good to close all the tabs on my computer.
MB: I’ll be very happy to get rid of all these research books, which make me look like I have very strange interests. Eventually those will go away.
MH: I understand that. I’m so excited for you! I will definitely be on the lookout for Twenty Square Feet of Skin and anything else you publish in the future. Thank you again so much for doing this interview. I’m really excited for our SR followers to read “Such Terrible Desire” and get to learn more about you and this story. It’s definitely something that a lot of our readers will connect with and love.
MB: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you about the piece, and I’m excited to see it go up on the blog!
In Michelle Brafman’s forthcoming novel Swimming With Ghosts, published by Keylight Books, she explores the darkness and humor of children’s competitive swimming. Themes of family secrets, obsession and friendships shine through the lenses of childhood and the feuding families of the characters.
I really enjoyed Swimming with Ghosts, for the excellent characters, unusual plot inside the world of local competitive swimming, the fine writing, and the frequent insights and humor. I raced right through it.
ANNE LAMOTT, author of Bird by Bird
Michelle Brafman’s writing has been featured in Lilith Magazine, LitHub, and San Francisco Book Review. She has received numerous awards for her fiction, including a Special Mention in the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story prize, and first place in the Lilith Magazine Fiction contest. In 2019 she received the Excellence in Teaching Award for creative writing. Swimming With Ghosts will be her third published novel after Bertrand Court (2016) and Washing the Dead (2015).
Swimmers and readers rejoice! Michelle Brafman’s Swimming with Ghosts is proof that the most important events in life happen at the pool. Fast-paced and frequently hilarious, we unsuspectingly float on the novel’s wry, quirky humor until we’re suddenly over deep water, gazing into the depths of our need for purpose, friendship, and love. Anyone heading to a pool or beach this summer should have a copy of Swimming with Ghosts in their swim bag.
DAVID MCGLYNN, author of A Door in the Ocean
Swimming With Ghosts releases June 13th, 2023 and can be pre-ordered here. Learn more about Michelle Brafman’s writing and teaching by visiting her website. Her short story “Brain Freeze” was featured in Superstition Review issue 13.
I barely remember my final high school wrestling match. I know I lost but can’t remember to whom or how. I was seventeen and trying to will my broken body—a dislocated a bone in my right foot, torn cartilage in my left shoulder, and habitually sprained wrists and thumbs—to keep fighting. The state tournament was four weeks away; I told myself there’d be time to heal if I could make it until then.
I didn’t make it.
As a child of Rarámuri and Mexican migrants, living on occupied O’odham Jevved, I’ve learned movement is essential to how we relate to our homelands. Huhugam and Anayáwari, alike, cultivated mobile relations with the places, creatures, and elements responsible for our knowledge. I remember reading a story once about Rarámuri youths in the 1920s who were taken from our homelands, in the mountains of Chihuahua, to Mexico City to participate in national Indigenous programming. They became so homesick, they ran home, nearly 1000 miles.
Traveling to different high schools for matches and tournaments taught me about the factions in my home state—why and how strangers regard me and my kind as beneath them and their children. Defying these strangers’ expectations felt almost revolutionary. Losing to them, like the rule of law.
Aside from the state tournament, the two biggest wrestling tournaments during the final year I wrestled were the Warrior Classic in December and the Aztec Duals in January. I nearly went unbeaten in both.
Running and wrestling brought me peace. For those twenty, forty, or six minutes, I evaded what otherwise couldn’t control, and focused, instead, on the opponent or ground directly in front of me.
Unlike my final high school wrestling match, two matches I remember vividly—too vividly, perhaps—are the semi-final and final matches of the Aztec Duals. I won the former, despite dislocating a bone in my right foot at some point during the fray. I should’ve won the latter, despite the freshly acquired, mummified appendage. In that final match, I faced an opponent I’d previously defeated at the Warrior Classic; hence, I say “should’ve.”
For something so indebted to memory, notice how disciplined I am about writing “I remember.” Maybe none of this, ultimately, is limited by what survives the passage of time: acquisitions, losses, and complications of experience.
I’ve learned nothing stings, lingers, like being unable to do something I could previously do. Wrestling introduced me to this lesson; aging has become my reluctant, life-long enrollment. Months after the season ended, my foot was surgically repaired. In post-op, the doctor said to expect arthritis as early as my mid-30s. As I write this, I’m thirty-three years old. It took me nearly a year to be able to run again.
I still know the name of my final opponent at the Aztec Duals, which I’m tempted to write here, but I won’t. I will, however, write that he and I are both Mexican, but we attended, and wrestled for, schools on opposing sides of history. I wouldn’t make this claim if he hadn’t shoved me after I beat him in our match during the Warrior Classic.
Could I be extrapolating too much? Possibly, but why expend energy trying to parse interpersonal hostility from expressions of hegemony?
I run when I can.
I hope to keep the previous sentence in present tense for as long as possible.
There’s a cliché about how all fighters feel, regardless of their final fight’s outcome, as though they have one good performance left in them. If they won, it’s evidence they have something left to give; if they didn’t, then they should fight again and try to go out on their own terms, right? The bitter taste of failure, ultimately, is what’s risked when we fight. I hope I never forget, hope I never let it keep me. Consider what we’d lose, otherwise, if we became too defeated to keep fighting.
Oscar Mancinas is Rarámuri-Chicano poet and author. His books of poetry include the chapbooks JAULA (Gasher Press, 2020) and ROTO: A MEX-TAPE (rinky dink press, 2020), as well as the full-length collection des____: papeles, palabras, & poems from the desert (Tolsun Books, 2022). His debut collection of short fiction, TO LIVE AND DIE IN EL VALLE (Arte Público Press, 2020) won a 2021 Border Regional Library Association Southwest Book Award. He’s a proud resident of Mesa, Arizona’s Washington-Escobedo Neighborhood. To learn more, visit his website.
We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Oscar Mancinas’ essay. This interview was conducted by our Nonfiction Editor, Olivia Grasso. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity.
Olivia Grasso: Hi! I’m Olivia Grasso. I’m the nonfiction editor for Issue 31 of Superstition Review. Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing Oscar Mancinas for the SR blog. Oscar is a Rarámuri-Chicano poet, writer, and teacher based here in Arizona. His debut collection of short fiction, TO LIVE AND DIE IN EL VALLE won a 2021 Border Regional Library Association Southwest Book Award. Welcome, Oscar. Thank you for being here!
Oscar Mancinas: Thank you for having me.
OG: So my first question is about your essay titled “The Warrior Classic and the Aztec Duals.” In this piece, you write that “movement is essential to how we relate to our homelands.” I was wondering if you could share a bit more about this idea and how it informs your writing.
OM: Sure! Yeah. In that particular passage, I use the terms both Huhugam and Anayáwari, which are respectively O’odham and Anayáwari words that—to translate them into English—sort of mean “those who come before us.” “Ancestors” is I think the most literal translation. But my understanding of these terms is that they’re much more expansive. They don’t simply refer to human ancestors, but also beings and non-living things that have predated us and really inform the way we live, the way we come to know the world around us.
That idea of movement is informed both by the fact that I have migrant parents—who are both, you know, from the other side of the political boundary that separates the United States and Mexico. My father is Rarámuri, so his homeland is… There is another sort of layer of movement there because he didn’t grow up on our ancestral land. I’m interested how that isn’t a deviation of norms, but is its own way of living for some many, right? You know, if you live in Arizona—or the US in general—movement, migration, displacement, you know, whatever term comes to mind… It ends up really informing complete ways that people live.
And so that’s the big, broad thing. And I’ve sort of connected that to different research topics I’ve looked at and history. But then also, in this very interpersonal sense, exercise, movement, and just how integral that is to understanding the southwest—maybe even just the Salt River Valley and the Sonoran Desert—at different times of year, at different times of day… You experience where we live pretty differently. And trying to take stock of what that teaches us or connecting things like mental health to a practice that is as simple as walking around, running around, and moving your body in the space.
OG: That’s really fascinating, and I like the idea of physical movement being a way to connect to the land around you. Because I think a lot of the time, we think in emotional terms—an emotional connection to your homeland—but bringing physical movement, and even exercise, as you mention, kind of adds a different layer.
And that brings me to my next question. Along the lines of physical movement, this essay is about your experience as a wrestler. And I was wondering what inspired you to choose that experience to write about, and did you face any challenges with writing from memory?
OM: So I was a high school wrestler, which the essay is seemingly kind of about. It’s going back to my final year—the final months—I spent being a high school wrestler. Because—for anyone out there who’s ever wrestled in high school or at a high level—it’s an interesting experience, the sport. I have a lot of love for it. I catch a random NCAA college or high school wrestling thing on TV. I’ll stop and watch because once you’ve been on the inside, you understand the sport. Not that there’s a high bar of entry, but it’s not the most publicized sport, right? Unless you know someone or were involved in it. It just looks like people grappling to you, and it can be tough to know, like, “Who’s winning? Who’s losing?”
I’ve known for a while that I wanted to write about that experience because it had been so important to me when I was young—to the point where, when I could no longer do it, it really dramatically altered how I thought of myself and also where I thought I was heading. I thought I was going to potentially go to college—not to major-league D1. I don’t want to bring myself up here in case anyone who was around high school wrestling in Arizona in the late 2000’s knows. But I was getting mild offers, and I thought—you know, when you’re young, “This is just a thing I do. This is just part of who I am. I can’t ever imagine my body failing me in this way, or this being too overwhelming physically.” Because when you’re young, you bounce back from things—or you tend to bounce back from physical things pretty quickly.
And so I wanted to write about wrestling. This probably won’t be the last time I really get into it. I mentioned wrestling in short fiction pieces. I’m interested in—obviously, it’s rich for metaphor when it comes to writing. It’s sort of one-versus-one—it’s a sport that’s as physically taxing as it is psychologically taxing. It’s a very isolating sport. You’re technically on a team, but you don’t take the field of play—the mat, in this case—with your team. It’s you out there. In that ways, it is a bit distinct from other team sports that I think people can do in high school.
Plumbing back into it, the sort of memory element of it—to the second point of your question—it is curation. Like, what’s relevant here and why? Because part of me wanted to write a, you know, “This is it. This is when I had to hang it up.” I still get an itch; I still think about it, as the piece alludes to. But I’m also, now, reaching an age where a lot of the physical consequences of being in this sport so intensely are showing themselves. My left shoulder just hurts randomly at times. I’ve had to deal with other consequences from breaking that bone in my foot. It’s thankfully not arthritic yet—like I sort of write in the piece. But, you know, that’s coming.
And I’m just being mindful—I’m on the other end of where this journey began with the piece. I knew the debt would come for this—the bill would come due. And now I’m experiencing it, and looking back—or even looking back and projecting forward—how do I feel about it? Do I have any second-guesses or do I yearn for things to be different? And on the one hand, yeah—it’d be cool to not have parts of your body randomly hurt. But this sport was really important to me at the time, and I remember really wanting to push myself to get everything I could out of the sport, out of myself, at the time. And that’s sort of where the piece formulated out of.
OG: Those things you mentioned—your shoulder hurting or your foot—those are pretty vivid reminders of that whole experience in high school. So you were kind of already thinking through these things, just in your daily life.
OM: Yeah, because you remember—oh, yeah, that’s when this happened. And sure, I’ve done other sports since. I’ve done other physical activity that hasn’t helped, like rolling an ankle here and there when you’re playing pick-up basketball or reaching for something funny. But, yeah, the genesis of the body I have now—that’s where it came from, in the midst of that. And specifically that final year where I had to quit.
OG: I’m also interested in another point you brought up, which is that our physical fitness can be so interrelated with our identity. For you, being a wrestler in high school was a very significant part of who you were and still are, to an extent. With that in mind, how central to your writing in general are these concepts of identity and belonging?
OM: Probably almost inextricable from most of the things I’ve written thus far. I’ve thought about these things, and they’re part of other work I do—including my dissertation research, as well. Again, because of biographical details about me. I have migrant family. I was born in a different country than a good chunk of my family, but I have family that sprawls across multiple borders. Especially when the rhetoric of exclusion, of extraction, all of the rhetoric around closing things off, deportation—I’ve swam in those waters since the moment I was born. So it’s difficult not to think of yourself in relation constantly to those terms because they are so—even if you don’t want to think about them—they are in your face.
And so, not to try to resolve those things, but understand them, engage them, and maybe even invert them—is pretty central to how I write. Because, on the one hand, what belonging feels like is so subjective. What does belonging actually feel like, are we conscious of it when we feel like we truly belong? I know there are a lot of wonderful pieces of writing that try to get at the heart of that. This is where I felt I truly belonged or when I finally arrived. This stops being a question.
But I’m also curious about—what if that is a constant process? And we have to work actively at it. And we have to remind ourselves to pursue it, in the same way that I mention in the piece—the anecdote about movement and belonging and the Rarámuri youths. In the 1920s, a group of them were taken from our homeland to Mexico City, and you might say, “This is the same nation. They belong here. What other nation would they belong to?” But they didn’t feel that way because—for people who don’t know the piece—the story goes that they ran home. That’s how out of sorts they felt. And again you have movement—this idea of movement. That belonging can be so localized, that even within the national boundaries, it doesn’t quite convey the same.
And so negotiating those terms is simultaneously so personal, but also really collective. And, at least, that’s the balance I try to strike in my piece. Because I’m not O’odham, although I am Indigenous. My Indigeneity is not to the Salt River Valley, it’s not to the Sonoran Desert, and it’s not to the place I was born and raised. So I want to try and be mindful of that and to sort of work toward, “What does it mean to belong in another’s occupied land?” in terms of how I think of myself and how I write about the place that I do love. I love home—it is home; I call it home. It’s not as simple as, “I call this home, and so it’s home. End of story. There’s nothing left to say.” I think there’s a ton more to say.
OG: The idea you brought up of “localized belonging” is really fascinating to me, and the challenges that come up with moving physically and being forced to find a new sense of belonging. And so, would you say that, for you—you’ve been able to feel that sense of belonging in multiple places in a genuine way? Or is there one place in your mind where you feel the strongest sense of that?
OM: I think it’s the former. I’ve been fortunate too—because I’ve moved around a little bit throughout my life. Mostly after I got out of high school. I went to college on the other side of the country, and I also did graduate school out there. I’ve lived out of the country briefly. All the while—and this goes back to creating the belonging—I was fortunate, along the way, to find some great communities. To find and create community. And even if I didn’t feel like I belonged—in a permanent sense—to a place, where I felt like, “This is where I’m settling” or “This is where I’m going to live.” It did help to meet other people who pursue similar interests, to share things. I did a creative writing program, and I would not have made it through had it not been for the fact that I made friends. I found colleagues; we shared writing. We shared our enthusiasm for the kinds of writing we thought important, the kinds of books we like, the kinds of books we didn’t like.
And as it pertains to belonging here, where I’m home, part of that is my family’s here. My family has been here for a few generations. And I’m familiar with it. And part of it has been reading—reading works by Arizona authors like Ofelia Zapeda, like Alberto Ríos. I sort of refer to them as literary elders. Seeing how people have tried to put this into words before. What does that look like? What can I learn from them—for my own writing and for my own research?
OG: There’s definitely so much value that can be found in a community of writers, especially writers that share a homeland or a place, as you do. There’s a lot of understanding that can come from that, seeing how they have experienced the same land or something that you have. I really like that.
Moving on to another question I have. You’ve written fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and I’m wondering how your approach to each of those genres differs. And any other genre you’ve experimented with.
OM: Kind of going back to seeing what’s been written before… It’s where a lot of this process starts, where I’ll read something, or I’ll come across a piece of writing or a piece of art that I like or just sticks with me. Where I’m like, “That’s a really fascinating way to engage with this, or to write about this.” Part of the structure of this piece was inspired by Wayne Koestenbaum, who’s also a poet and nonfiction writer. And this essay he wrote, called “My 1980s,” which is similarly written in this non-linear, sort of vignette structures. And that piece is specifically about his experiences as a young gay man in New York City throughout the 1980’s—the AIDs epidemic is at times in the background, at times in the foreground.
What I really find striking about the piece is the representation of, “This is what time would feel like in the midst of an epidemic.” That’s where the inspiration came from. For anyone who’s been conscious for the last couple of years, time has not felt linear. It’s been really hard to track things, and I knew I wanted to write a piece eventually in that structure. I didn’t really know what it would be, but I come across structures like that, or I come across interestingly crafted pieces. And I go, “I wonder what I would write if I were to take on this form?” Or, “I wonder what I would say about this?” And kind of gestate on that for however long. I first read that piece nearly a decade ago, and I come back to it periodically. Because not only did I borrow the structure from it, but there’s a lot of meta-commentary or fourth-wall breaks where Koestenbaum commentates on his own writing in a really funny way. The final part of that essay is really funny I think. It’s pretty understated, but it’s very funny.
And so this could’ve easily been a poem, or the structure could’ve been easily used in a piece of fiction. I think the only consideration is that I start with something like a line or an image or, again, an idea, a structure. I think what feels appropriate? Or what feels like a conscious inversion of this? Is there anything there? Do I want to keep working on it? I’ll share it with colleagues, with friends—get notes, get feedback. And depending on what I hear back, sometimes this doesn’t totally work like this, and I have to put it away. There’s something I can extract to use in a different piece at some point. I’m sort of like a packrat: I hold on to drafts of things. The end result is that sometimes they’re an essay, sometimes they’re a poem, sometimes they’re a piece of fiction, sometimes they’re a hybrid. I’d like to believe that I have more of a conscious, a more deliberate thought going into a lot of this stuff. But it’s not always the case.
OG: I think some of the best work happens intuitively. But with structure in mind, with this piece—”The Warrior Classic and Aztec Duals”—the nonlinear structure suits it really well because it’s about memory and recall. And people don’t really recall things in a linear way, in a streamlined way. I like the vignettes and the very fragmentary form. I think it works really well. And you also have a meta quality, I would say. There’s a line where you draw attention to the fact that you’re relying on memory: “For something so indebted to memory, notice how disciplined I am about writing ‘I remember.'” I thought that was a great line. You’re conscious of the fact that you’re recalling things as you go and piecing them together, and I think that’s a really clever structural thing.
OM: Thank you. I didn’t want to bore a potential reader with “I remember, I remember, I remember.” Which, I think, can be melodic in some pieces. But for this, I don’t know—I don’t think it would work quite as well.
OG: It’s so funny you say that. Because I just had to read this piece for a creative nonfiction class. And I forget the author, but the form was every sentence begins with “I remember.” And it’s one hundred and sixty or so pages, and it does get a little tiring.
OM: Well, I mean, you have to commit. I felt like I either had to commit and write something, really follow-through with the structure—to the point of overdoing it. Or I had to pull back because I think, for the length of the piece… I didn’t want to get caught in the in-between.
OG: I’m sure there were a lot more memories that you could’ve brought into the piece. My next question is… So you’re also a teacher. How has your experience as a teacher shaped your writing?
OM: It is a great chance to be around writing, to be around people figuring out writing and figuring out their own relationship to their writing and to each other’s writings. The way I was trained as a writing teacher—there was an emphasis on peer-reviews, on collective and group work. It’s great for me because I’m not much of a lecturer. I really believe in trying to decentralize a classroom a little bit and go with where the students really want to go.
Being a writing teacher has been great because—again—you get to work alongside the writers. In some cases, who rely on you more. In some cases, who don’t rely on you as much. Young writers come from all over and go all over. Including young writers who go “I hate writing. I don’t actually believe in it.” And they end up writing some of those brilliant things, of course. It’s a nice, humbling reminder—because, as I just said—I will read a line, a sentence, an image… And I go, that is a really, really incredible passage from this younger writer. It makes me excited to encounter it. And it makes me more determined to be constantly evaluating how I engage language, how I write.
Because there’s something to be said for experience and practice. But then there’s also just the spontaneity. Sometimes you sit down at the computer or the notebook, and the idea comes to you, or the line. Whatever it is, it comes to you nearly fully formed, and you’re like, “I got it. I did a month’s worth of work in five minutes.” I wish the relationship between time and effort and outcome were more linear, but it’s not. I really relish the opportunity to teach writing, to learn from the writers that I get to work with, learn what are some of their favorite writers. It helps me keep up with things like that, which I otherwise might not have as much exposure to.
OG: That’s wonderful that you can find inspiration in a classroom with young writers just starting out. Because I think there’s a lot of value to being able to see what a young person is doing right from the start, with no prior experience. Just kind of something unique about that, and sort of their perspective on things as not very experienced writers. They’re figuring out their own style and voice and everything. It’s pretty fun to witness that.
My final question for you is—can you tell us anything about what you’re working on now? Any projects?
OM: Yeah, sure. I’m obliged to say that I’m working on my dissertation. I’m a doctorate candidate at ASU in transborder studies. For my advisors or anyone else watching, I am working on the dissertation still. I’m hoping to make great progress on that and be finished within a year, possibly longer—but there’s that.
Also, I just published my first full-length collection of poetry called des____: papeles, palabras, & poems from the desert.It’s out through Tolsun Books. It came out in December of 2022. I’ve had a chance to read at the Tucson Festival of Books. At the end of this month, on March 31st, I will be reading at the Northern Arizona Festival of Books. Northern AZ Book Fest, that’s what it’s called.
Yeah, so I’m hoping to have more opportunities to share that work with folks. I still work on fiction and nonfiction. I have stuff I will periodically send out, including this piece, which Superstition Review was gracious enough to house on the blog, along with this interview. So I think those are the big things, for now.
OG: That’s wonderful! Congratulations on your poetry getting published, and good luck with your dissertation.
OM: Thank you; I’ll need it.
OG: Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down for this interview today. I really appreciate it, and it’s been a joy to talk with you.
Michelle Matthees’ latest book of poetry—Complicated Warding—is ambitious in its form and message, a captivating examination of history through a contemporary lens. As described by Matthees, it’s an “inmate case file stuffed with assorted poems, images, and historical texts about institutionalization at the turn of the last century.” Old photographs and state records are interspersed between Matthees’ poignant poems, which shine as imaginings of what the people in the pictures might have been thinking, altered records, and current musings. These pictures are on semi-transparent vellum, the words visible through the faces.
Matthees’ poetry in this collection is elusive, bizarre, and almost uncertain. It leaves out unnecessary words and lets the reader do the work of connecting, which makes it all the more rewarding when meaning begins to form. During the “State Hospital” section, her lines flow into one another with a unique, stream-of-consciousness style: “…my antlers, / my fin, my jaundiced claw / (I need this for killing) / but not in a way that should scare you / though it might if you’re smart.”
In contrast, her “State Reformatory for Men” section removes itself from the minds of the documented. Instead, Matthees examines the records from a modern place, grounding her readers: “I work through the archived noise / of one hundred years in a box. / I drop my pencil and reach / into your corner. You retreat / with your odd geometry of eyes. / How must I touch you?”
With an excellent eye for detail, Matthees’ poems and use of photography, records, and paintings create a unique texture. Even in its abstractions, however, her words spark delightfully in both the past, the present, and the ties between the two. She contemplates life, violence, and death with the precision of a surgeon: “…you’ve just begun to pick at the scab of / your very own demise.”
Michelle Matthees is a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s MFA program in Creative Writing. She has received grants and awards from The Jerome Foundation, The Minnesota State Arts Board, The Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, AWP, and other arts organizations. Her work has appeared in Memorious, PANK, The Prose Poem Project, The Bellingham Review, J Journal, 22 Magazine, andelsewhere. Her first collection of poems, Flucht, was published in 2016. To learn more, visit her website.
Two of Matthees’ poems—”Distinguishing Marks” and “Skeleton #1018. 1903. Lake Como.”—were published in Issue 20 of Superstition Review.
My mother left for Mexico City in the middle of the night. It was really early in the morning, but it was still dark outside, and the sky shone with a million stars. Every star glittered in its place, a canopy of diamonds just out of reach. It was a cold November morning, the air an icy mantle. Temperatures in Phoenix were cold in winter, not freezing, but the morning Mom left for Mexico City was an exception. Mud puddles from recent rains formed tiny frozen islands all over our backyard.
My mother didn’t want me to miss school, so I guess that’s why I didn’t go to Mexico City with her, but I think there was more to it than that. Nobody else went either, except Tía Lola, her husband, Alfonso, and their son, two-year-old Fernando, who was born a water baby and hadn’t died yet. They were on a pilgrimage to the cathedral of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whom we simply called, La Virgen, in Mexico City, to visit the huge church built at Tepeyac where God’s Holy Mother appeared to an Indian peasant named Juan Diego.
“Are you gonna dip Fernando in the holy water?” I asked.
“No. There’s no holy water there, Patrisia. You’re thinking of Lourdes where Bernadette saw a vision of God’s mother.
“Will Fernando get well?”
“We’ll see. Your sister’s still alive, isn’t she? Which is another reason I have to go. I promised La Virgen when your sister was born that I’d name her Guadalupe, and that one day I’d make a pilgrimage to her cathedral to pay my respects. She kept poor Lupita alive! You see; I owe her. A promise is a promise. Your poor sister was born blue, dying the doctor said. Now look at her, three years old and perfectly well! I’ve kept half my promise by naming her Guadalupe. Now I have to keep the second half and go to Mexico City to pay my respects to La Virgen in person.”
“What color was I born?”
“Never-mind Patrisia,” my mother said, fastening shut one of the suitcases she was packing. “What’s important is that your sister’s alive, and I need to pay the debt.”
“What happens if you don’t pay back?”
“I don’t know. Maybe La Virgen will never talk to Christ on my behalf. Maybe I’ll have to do all the talking myself.”
Talking to God was a mystery to me. I didn’t want La Virgen to leave me to do all the talking. What would I say? Suppose God didn’t listen to me anymore because I said something he didn’t like. Maybe his mother would send a bad report about me his way, then he would be mad at me. I didn’t want to take the chance and cause La Virgen grief. Or even worse, insult God’s mother. I know how mad people get when someone insults their mother. Even my friend Nanette defended her mother and everybody knew her mother was a slut.
“That one,” my mother would say to our next-door neighbor, Tillie, “that one doesn’t even wash her sheets before she’s got another man sleeping on them.”
“Why would men want to sleep on dirty sheets, anyway?” I asked.
“Because they don’t know any better,” my mother said sharply. “Never mind, Patrisia, you’ll learn about it later.”
Tillie and mom were best friends. Tillie’s husband had died years ago, neighbors said from drinking alcohol, mostly cheap wine that settled in his liver. She was older than mom, and had grandchildren who stopped by on a daily basis to gorge themselves on the food she cooked. Tillie was good to Lupita and me. She liked to hold us and tell us funny stories, so I was okay with having Tillie take care of us while Mom was in Mexico.
I knew I’d be closer to Nanette’s house at Tillie’s, so close I’d be able to hear private conversations going on at her house just by standing near one of Tillie’s bedroom windows, or hiding behind the hedges against the fence. Nanette’s house was the neighborhood disaster. There was an old rusty car parked in her backyard and used tires stuck into the dirt to make a fence that looked like a hedge of black doughnut holes with weeds sprouting in the middle. Neighbors would walk past Nanette’s house shaking their heads, wondering when Nanette’s mother, Sukie, would get the yard cleaned up.
I had strict instructions to never play at Nanette’s because Mom said there were diseases there. I wanted to ask her what kinds of diseases, but the look on Mom’s face made me keep my mouth shut. Nanette was three years older than me, already in the eighth grade, while I was in fifth. Most every weekend, music pulsated from Nanette’s house—jarring Mexican polkas, hot cumbias and sad love songs played on their stereo at full volume. Sukie loved parties and she was generous with invitations. Cars would park up and down the street on both sides, and even block our front gate, which made my mother call Sukie on the phone and yell at her.
“Don’t go to Nanette’s while I’m gone,” my mother ordered, looking at her reflection in the mirror, touching up her makeup—red lipstick, dark pencil on her eyebrows.
“Why? Nanette’s my friend.”
“Don’t why me, Patrisia! It won’t be long before that girl gets pregnant. Here take this.” Mom said, handing me a small gold-plated medal of La Virgen on a chain. “Wear it for protection. God knows the Devil’s got his eye on every young girl.”
“Will this keep him from looking at me?”
“He can’t bear to look at La Virgen, it makes him jealous, so yes, he won’t want to look at you either.”
I looked up and saw my father staring at my mother from the door of the bedroom. He was solemn, like a man waiting his turn to see the judge, expecting the worst. His thin moustache skewed this way and that as he looked nervously from my mother to the two packed suitcases. Dad’s high forehead and dark, wavy hair made him look like a Mexican movie star. People said Mom and Dad made a stunning couple and I could see why. Mom’s fair complexion and dark hair and eyes, contrasted perfectly with Dad’s olive skin and handsome, rugged features. He walked up to my mother and put his broad, muscular arms on her shoulders, clasping both hands behind her neck, holding her close. He put his face, nose to nose, against hers.
“Wear the coat I bought you. It’s the warmest thing you have.”
“I know,” my mother said. She pulled away from the circle of his arms. He stood back, unblinking.
“Well?” She asked, pointing to the two suitcases. “Will you help me?” He stooped to pick up the suitcases and she walked out of the room. I followed my mother into the kitchen, taking in whiffs of her perfume, a dainty smell that reminded me of baby powder. I grabbed her hand.
“Don’t start Patrisia,” she said looking at the tears in my eyes. “I’ll only be gone for two weeks.” She held me close, and I felt the small, fake pearls sewn into her sweater press into my cheeks and lips. She kissed Lupita and me, stroking our hair. She held Lupita in her arms even though my sister’s legs dangled past her waist.
“Put her down,” my father said. “She’s too big for that.”
My father turned and walked out into the darkness with the suitcases, as we heard the crunch of tires on gravel—Tío Alfonso’s Oldsmobile creeping slowly into the pathway leading to my father’s makeshift carport. As I walked out, I saw Fernando through the car’s window sitting in his infant’s chair in the back seat, his head a huge, uneven circle with the forehead squashed in the middle.
Tia Lola was an enormous woman who sweated constantly. She always had a handkerchief in her purse to dab off sweat from her forehead and under her hairline. Tia got out briefly and hugged us all.
“Pray for my poor Fernando!” She said, “Why shouldn’t La Virgen heal him? She healed Lupita! ”
“Don’t start, Lola!” My uncle’s voice rang out unexpectedly loud. He opened the trunk and helped my dad arrange Mom’s suitcases, both men packing them into the already crowded space.
In the car’s dim light, I saw Mom’s face, a perfect pale oval. She sat next to Fernando in the back seat and closed the door against the cold night. She rolled down the window and reaching for my hand, she raised it to her lips and kissed my fingertips. “Don’t worry, Patrisia, La Virgen will take care of everything while I’m gone,” she said, smiling confidently. Then she rolled up the window and all I could see was her silhouette in the dark and the medal of La Virgen on her chest, reflecting one silver moonbeam. The car moved away and I saw my mother through the back window lean over, and imagined she was placing her hand on the sleeping Fernando. For an instant, I wished I had been born a water baby.
My father didn’t go to Mexico City because he said he had to work at the lumber yard. They couldn’t spare him, he said, the days were long, and the work was heavy, but I think there was more to it than that. There was always more to everything in my family. Nothing was out in the open. When you finally found out the whole truth, you were literally drenched in it.
That morning, Nanette came by, as usual, to walk with me to school.
“How’s your mom?” My dad asked her.
“She’s okay.” Nanette’s eyes shifted from my dad to me.
I stared at my father, dazed that he had asked Nanette about her mother.
“Let’s go,” I said, grabbing Nanette’s hand.
We walked in silence. Every step we took made the silence between us louder. The question I didn’t want to ask her was why my father had asked for her mother, Sukie, when he knew how my mother felt about her. Why had he even talked to Nanette? He never had before, except to say hello.
“You’re not going to believe what happened last night!” Nanette said. She stopped abruptly, looking both ways as if someone might be close by.
“I started my period. It scared me. I thought I had cut myself, then I told my mother and she said it was okay, that I was a woman now and for me to wash up and grab a pad from the box in her room. I’m wearing my dark skirt today, just in case.”
“Yes! And you’re next, Patrisia. You’ll see. It’ll happen before you know it. Your stomach will get upset, you’ll feel like going to the bathroom, then you’ll look down, and you’ll see blood.”
“I don’t want to hear about it!” I reached for the medal of La Virgen hanging on my chest.
“She won’t protect you! She had her period too.”
At school, Nanette held herself proudly. She was one of the eighth-grade girls who had already started and that put her at the same level with the school secretary, the nurse and all the women teachers. If I started my period while Mom was gone, she wouldn’t know I had become a woman until she got back and saw the look in my eyes, her look—seeing everything at once, then nothing. Formal with men, that’s the way I would be. Formal, like she was with my father, keeping him at a distance, turning away from him when he pressed her for conversation.
The next day, Sukie and Nanette came over. “Is your father home?” Sukie asked. She was dressed in a ruffled pink blouse tucked into a pair of black pants. I was ready to tell Sukie that my dad was asleep when he walked into the room.
“Oh, there he is. Pablo, I’ve got dinner for you and the kids. I hope Cristina won’t mind.”
“My wife, would be glad for anyone who fed her children, I would think.”
Sukie had a flowered ceramic pot in her hands and Nanette had a white casserole dish. “Homemade beans,” she said. “Just the way you like them, and grilled meat with picante sauce.” She had tortillas, wrapped in aluminum foil, “to keep them warm.” She said, and my father smiled.
“Join us Patrisia, come on, sit down,” Sukie said, setting dishes on the table and motioning for me to sit on one of the kitchen chairs. She sat in Mom’s chair, and it was all I could do not to yell at her and tell her to get off of it. I thought of the diseases Mom said were at Sukie’s house and worried germs would be crawling all over Mom’s chair.
Dad sat next to Sukie in his usual chair, Lupita sat next to me, and then Nanette. It was as if we were one big, happy family, except I was facing mom’s enemy
“What if my mom comes home right now?” I asked Dad.
“What if she does?” Señora Gomez just came by to give us a bit of food. Isn’t that a nice thing to do?”
It was the first time I had ever heard Sukie addressed as Señora Gomez. Nanette’s last name was Najera, so where did Gomez come from?
We ate, and in spite of my anger, I knew the beans and meat had been cooked to perfection, and the tortillas were hand-made, smooth and delicious.
After dinner, Nanette and I went to my bedroom to listen to the radio, but all I could think about was that Sukie was acting like my mother. Lupita was oblivious to everything, playing with her doll, pushing a doll carriage from room to room.
After only a few minutes, Nanette yawned. “Let’s go watch wrestling,” she said, “Mom and I watch it on Thursday nights.” It was then I noticed my dad and Sukie’s voices coming from the living room, instead of the kitchen. They were already watching the wrestling matches, laughing at the wrestlers. I could barely watch the match as I spied on my father and Sukie, happily watching T.V. drinking cups of coffee as if they were an old married couple.
Next morning, before I left for school, I walked Lupita to Tillie’s and ran straight into Tille’s arms. “Sukie’s acting like she’s my mom!” Tillie sat down on the couch and had me sit by her side. Her arm went around me, and I clung to her neck.
“Don’t cry, Patrisia,” Tillie said. “I’ll get to the bottom of all this today.” “What if Mom doesn’t come back and Sukie gets to be my mom?” My voice quivered, and instantly, my fingertips turned ice cold. “It won’t happen, La Virgen won’t allow that,” she said.
I clutched La Virgen’s medal dangling on my chest, drawing some invisible energy from the fact that mom and I were both wearing the same image. We were connected even if mom was hundreds of miles away.
Tillie must have done something while I was at school because when I got back, she told me she had dinner ready for us, and my father would come by after work and eat with us. After dinner, Tillie and my dad went out to the patio, and sat on two bamboo chairs Tillie had covered over with colorful sarapes. They talked, leaning close to one another, deep in conversation. Their voices were low, and I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but whatever it was; it was urgent. We finally went home, and my father said nothing to Lupita and me, except for us to wash up and get ready for bed.
Later, I saw him sitting alone in the living room, the light from the T.V. blinking back at him in the darkness.
Your dad used to be my mother’s boyfriend,” Nanette said to me while we walked to school the next day. That’s why your mom’s so jealous. Thought you might want to know.” Suddenly, she gave me an angry look and walked ahead of me, as if I was someone she didn’t want to be seen with anymore.
“That’s a lie, I don’t believe you!” I felt for my holy medal.
“Ask Tillie, she’ll tell you.”
It was all I could do to stop thinking about my dad and Sukie at school, and as soon as the day was over, I rushed over to Tillie’s. Nanette had left school early, and it wasn’t until later that day that I found out why.
As soon as I walked into Tillie’s house, I asked her if Dad had been Sukie’s boyfriend.
“I’ll bet Nanette told you.” Tillie said, stirring a pan of potatoes she was frying.
“But is it true?”
“Well, yes. But that was a long time ago.”
“Is that why my mother hates her?”
“There’s more to it than that, Patrisia.”
There was always more to everything. I wanted grown-ups to tell me the truth. Give it to me between the eyes. It would hurt for a good while, but it was better than not knowing.
At Nanette’s house I saw a pick-up truck parked outside with things from their house—boxes and furniture. It looked like they were moving, and later I found out Sukie had picked Nanette up early from school that day so she could help her pack their things. No wonder I hadn’t seen her walking back home.
“Are they moving?” I asked Tillie.
“Yes. Sukie and Nanette are leaving for Nogales, then off to family in Oaxaca.”
“It’s a long story, Patrisia.”
The long story fell in my lap that evening as I waited for my dad to pick Lupita and me up. He had called and told Tillie he was running late, and it wasn’t until almost nine o’clock before he came by.
Watching the commotion going on at Nanette’s, I couldn’t sleep, even though Lupita by then, was fast asleep. Tillie was in the kitchen washing dishes, as I crept out and quietly opened the patio door. That’s when I heard my dad’s voice coming from Sukie’s backyard. I moved close to Tillie’s thick hedges and listened intently. Through the mesh of leaves I could see my dad and Sukie’s silhouettes barely visible, standing facing one another. Dad’s arms were around her shoulders, his hands clasped around her neck.
“It’s the only way out of this,” he said.
“I knew she’d win! I just knew you wouldn’t have the guts to tell her.”
“What good would that do? It would only make more trouble.”
“I’ll send money, I promise. I’ve never stopped giving you money.”
I heard Sukie’s voice break, as if she was trying not to cry.
“That’s not what I want.”
“But she’s my child too, and I always keep my obligations. Things will turn out all right. Write to me—send the letters to your brother’s house.”
I saw my father hold Sukie in his arms, and for a brief moment their lips touched, and then he went off into the night. I walked back into Tillie’s holding onto La Virgen’s medal, not knowing how in the world I would ever face my mother again. I walked into the kitchen just in time to hear my dad knocking at the door. He was there to pick us up. Tillie brought out Lupita, still sound asleep in her arms and placed her in Dad’s arms.
“Ready?” Dad asked. He smiled gently. But how could he smile, I thought when I knew the truth. I said nothing, not knowing it was to be the first of many times I would find out truths that I would learn to keep to myself. I guess it was another part of becoming a woman.
Mom arrived early in the morning at about the same time they had left. Overhead, a million stars twinkled in the sky’s dark canopy. It was déjà vu—one of life’s circles that had been completed. Dad woke me up, and I ran out of the house in time to see Mom getting out of Tío Alfonso’s car. Dad had already unloaded the luggage, and in the car’s dim light, I saw Fernando wrapped in a blanket, asleep in the back seat, his head still huge and deformed.
“We’re back, safely,” Tía Lola said. “Thanks be to God!”
I felt the tiny, fake pearls in Mom’s sweater press into my cheeks and lips as I hugged her. A moonbeam bounced off the medal of La Virgen around her neck, and I saw her face radiate with a passion I had never seen before.
“Sukie and Nanette are gone!” I said looking into her eyes. In that instant, I realized Mom already knew.
It would be twenty years before I would ever see Nanette again, and of all places, in Mexico City, both of us, by then women who had been married, divorced, and now single. Her mother had stayed on in Oaxaca and by then my mom was widowed and still living in Phoenix with Lupita.
Nanette was a clothes designer with her own line of clothing, and I was a buyer working for a women’s clothing chain based in Chicago. Already seated at a table, Nanette was waiting for me in one of Mexico City’s swank restaurants. She was wearing a red linen suit with a black velvet hat decorated with a shiny rhinestone. Her look was sophisticated and sheik. I could hardly believe she was the same girl I had once seen walking out of the house that was the neighborhood disaster. I walked in wearing one of Nanette’s own creations, a light blue, tight skirt with a jacket trimmed in dark blue fur.
“Nice outfit,” she said smiling as she stood and hugged me.
“I love it! Your design!”
We both laughed and hugged again, holding onto each other. “It’s so good to see you!” She said, kissing my cheek. “The little kid all grown up!”
We sat down and sneaked looks at each other as we ordered appetizers and Sangria—two women hungry to find approval in each other’s eyes. The truth of who we were was suspended between us. A deluge was about to begin.
“Funny, how we’re both in the same line of work,” I said.
“Blood runs thick, I guess,” Nanette said, watching my reaction, closely.
“My dad died five years ago. I suppose you know.” The words our dad, hung in the air like a neon sign.
“Yes, I know, my mom was so upset.”
“So was mine,” I said, remembering my mom’s cold, aloof ways with Dad, and her endless tears after he was gone. Glimpsing our reflection in a gilt mirror nearby, the resemblance astonished me.
“Your mom visited Mexico City once, long ago, didn’t she?”
“How could I forget? You moved away even before she got back.”
“Destiny, I guess. I see you still wear your holy medal of La Virgen.”
“Well, today I’m wearing it because I knew I’d meet you, and it has a lot of memories. Remember, we were both becoming women back then and who better to lead the way?”
“Where’s he buried?” Nanette asked suddenly. Her words sent a small shock wave through my body, electrifying the space between us. “In Phoenix, at St. Francis Cemetery. I can take you there if you’d like.”
“I’d like that very much,” she said, lifting her glass of Sangria. “Salud,” and we both took a drink, Nanette’s eyes, shiny with tears.
The drizzling remnants of who we were cascaded between us, a crystal-clear waterfall. We stood underneath it—drenched.
Stella Pope Duarte’s writing career was inspired by a dream she had in 1995. Her first collection of short stories, Fragile Night, won a creative writing fellowship from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and was named a candidate for the Pen West Fiction Award. In 2001, Duarte was awarded a second creative writing fellowship for her highly acclaimed, debut novel, Let Their Spirits Dance. Duarte’s work has won honors and awards nationwide. Her most recent novel Raul H. Yzaguirre: Seated at the Table of Power won the International Latino Book Award for Best Biography in 2017. Duarte was born and raised in the Sonorita Barrio in South Phoenix. An interview with Duarte was featured in issue 3.
We are also thrilled to share an interview with Duarte that discusses Drenched in further detail. This interview was conducted via Zoom by our Fiction Editor, Morgan Horner. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity.
Morgan Horner: Hello everyone, I am Morgan Horner, the Fiction Editor for Superstition Review. Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Stella Pope Duarte about her story “Drenched.” Stella is described as a magical weaver with a sure hand and a pure heart and praised as an author who will enlarge humanity. Her work includes novels, short stories, memoir, and much more. Duarte has won honors and awards nationwide including a 2009 American book award, a Pulitzer prize nomination, a Southwest Books of the Year award, and a Book Sense 76 Selection. Welcome Stella, thank you so much for doing this interview with us, I am so honored to be doing it. When I first read Drenched I just fell in love with the stories and the characters and I’m so excited to get to know more about it. So before we start, is there anything else you’d like to add?
Stella Pope Duarte: Well I’d like to say that I’m very grateful for this interview, because ASU—I love ASU, so I have high regards for the Superstition Review. I’ve been published there before. Anything to do with ASU I like to do anything complimentary that I can as an alumni, and just because I care for ASU. My daughter works there, she works for the provost. My daughter is very mathematical. I am not mathematical, I’m on the other side of the equation, very much images and [those kinds of things], but she is mathematically inclined. I’m just a very faithful alumni person for ASU.
MH: I’ll just pop in with our first question. In your memoir, you discuss how you create stories through revelations, vision, and dreams, as well as through experiences from growing up in the barrio. Could you describe the experiences that inspired you to write this story?
SPD: This story is actually an imprint of who I was as a child around the same age as my main character Patrisia. So we have Patrisia saying goodbye to her mother as her mother is on her way to Mexico City. Patrisia in the story lives in a barrio, just like I did, and “barrio” is not a Spanish word, it is an indigenous word. It means a small neighborhood … like a small town, because we lived in this (mainstream America would say) a terrible place, how they would describe it when I was around Patrisia’s age in the story. There was a documentary and they were documenting some of the barrios in Phoenix and they were saying my little barrio … (this is the way I heard it as a child on TV) was “one of the worst slum areas in Phoenix.” They were showing our humble homes—we were a combination of Black Chicano people in the barrio. Next door was my godmother (I was named after her, she was a wonderful lady), down the way was my uncle Solomon Pope because my aunt was Rosanna Pope (our ancestors were Irish as well), and then down the way was my house of twelve cousins living in [one] house. It was a real community. That’s where Patrisia’s from.
Right away it talks about the Bible … She is saying goodbye to her mother, exactly what I did, because my mother … was having a lot of trouble with her pregnancies. She had eight children. In those days, there was no protection for women, there was nothing really to help them … the doctors would have to go to the home to deliver the babies, or the midwife, or whoever it was they were using. So, my mother was having a lot of trouble with her last pregnancy, which was my sister Lupita, as is named in [“Drenched”]. My mother made a vow—and this was done all the time in my home—to whom: La Virgen. They called her “La Virgen Morena,” the brown virgin, because she appeared as an indigenous woman. She appeared to a peasant in April, 1581, 10 years after the Spaniards had come in and oppressed the indigenous tribes. The majority of them were the Aztec, there was many other tribes involved, but the Aztec called themselves “Machikas” … that’s where the word Mexican, Mexican-American, [and] Chicanos [comes from].
I’m a Chicana. You know, I was born on this side of the border but I have relatives in being from Mexico and Ireland, as well. Here they call themselves “Los Chicanos.” So in the story, Patrisia is like me, a Chicana. She’s born on this side of the border, but now, because her mother made a vow … to pay her respects to the Virgin if her child [survived]—this is true, my mother was having so much trouble with my little sister she almost died at birth. My mother vowed to loving La Virgen that she would go all the way to Mexico City to La Basilica where—I don’t know if the Basilica was totally built at that time, because they had an old church. But because Mexico is a Marshland it has a lot of earthquakes, so I don’t know if the whole Basilica [was] as it is now. I’ve been to the Basilica. If you have not been, those that are listening to me, if you have never been to the Basilica and La Virgen in Guadalupe, the Dark Virgin, you need to get over there. And I’m telling you one thing, [she] never spoke Spanish, she spoke to this peasant man in the language of the Machikas … people don’t understand that, she never spoke Spanish. She identified with the oppressed indigenous people. In every room of my mother’s house, there was an image of her. Either a candle, picture or little statue. She was a member of our family. You need to understand how powerful this image is in the story.
La Virgen surfaces again in some of my other work, but this work is specifically about her identification with this little girl, who is now saying goodbye to her mother. I was clinging to my mother and I remember it was dark outside when my mother left … I was terrified bandits would get her, she had to go through mountains, Heaven only knows if she’d come back to me. So at a time when this child, Patrisia, was going to face one of the darkest secrets [in her family]. I’m attracted to secrets—oh and I love rumors too, I tell my my college students “if you have any rumors just just tell them to me you know and I’ll build them into a story.” [Patrisia’s] family has a very dark secret, and this little girl is going to face it, when? When her mother is gone. And she’s not just gone, she’s gone to another country. She can’t call her on the phone or anything like that. Here you have Patrisia just swept into the elements of this family.
You know, the Latino family is very open-hearted, they talk about everything in front of their kids, but they also have their secrets, things they will not speak about. I [asked some] students, “are you good at guarding secrets, and who in your family has guarded secrets? How do you know?” All of this is very special to me, it’s the imprint of Patrisia, it’s really me as a child saying goodbye to my mom.
MH: That is so beautiful … Reading the story about the barrio [there was] a huge sense of community and just loving family, [I] felt that within me and I just love that you put it out on paper like that. That’s wonderful.
You kind of led us into our second question. Throughout “Drenched,” we see the recursion of the image of La Virgen through the medal given to Patrisia by her mother. Could you discuss how your faith has inspired and shaped your writing?
SPD: The faith in my family—I’m sure many other Latino Hispanic families, Chicano families as well—was huge, huge girl! I mean, for me to see my mom praying in front of the image of our Lady or El Niño Christo, Santo Niño de Atocha is what they call him, a little Christ child figure, was normal. For her to have … [A white] beautiful linen set with flowers because it was a day of love, eating, or whatever, it was normal. So my faith continues to be such a strong force within me, my connection to God, to Jesus Christ, it continues to live very vibrantly in me. And it was a part of our everyday life for me to hear somebody in the family say, “We’re going to ask La Virgen to guard us while we’re doing this,” or whatever, so it was like she was at the table with us for Christmas!
There was no separation of her, and then we had Saint Anthony’s Church. You talk about faith and how faith has… just gone into almost every story I’ve ever written—because it was so important! I would walk to the church, which is Saint Anthony’s, and it wasn’t far away—it was maybe I would say three miles four miles from home—you know crossing a few streets and getting to Central Avenue from 7th Avenue. But in those days children could walk, now they cannot. It’s too dangerous now … now you see a child walking, [you] call the police—I’m serious, because of the danger that we have now. But in those days you could walk with your little pals or by yourself. So I was a child that that wanted to be a good little girl—oh gosh—because I was horrified they showed us pictures of devils the old catechism, you know, Saint Michael fighting this demon with a pointed tail … I thought oh no I don’t want to go there, I don’t want to go to Hell. I used to go to confession every Saturday, I have no idea what I confessed—maybe that I kicked my sister’s doll? I don’t know what sins I might have had. But I remember going, [we were] so very dedicated. The Saint Anthony’s was not only a focal point for the faith, but for our culture, because [when] we would go there we would have fiestas, we would have the queen of the of the fiesta that year, music… So our entire culture was was set around the church Saint Anthony’s church and then the home became like a domestic church as well. There was really no separation and no sense of, “am I following the right faith?” There was no question about that. We were following the right faith. In our in our minds we’re worshiping God and his mother. So you see, the mother—is that where you’re asking me if she gave her that little medal?
SPD: The mother gave her the medal of navitant because she was trying to comfort her daughter. You know, “Here, we’re both gonna wear the medal [of La Virgen Guadalupe].” You’ll see Patrisia grab the medal every so often, especially when she’s facing Nanette her neighborhood little friend and she grabs it she grabs it for support and it makes her feel that her mother’s close by. So you have a frightened little girl away from her mother for the first time in her life and this is what I went through, too, when my mom was gone. I was so glad when she came back it, was like she came back from the dead!
MH: It’s beautiful. Yeah, I immediately picked up on the medal and I just think it’s so wonderful how she just can find solace in this tiny medal. It’s just so much more than that to her and I just think that it’s such a great image to have throughout the story.
So, our next question is: In this story, the main character, Patrisia, is approaching the age of womanhood but has not quite reached it yet, while Nanette has achieved womanhood by getting her period. Can you explain the intention behind telling this story through the eyes of a young girl instead of a young woman?
SPD: I think Patrisia needed to tell that story because she was the one struggling with her mother gone separated for the first time. Then all of a sudden and—I don’t want to give the story away because I want people to read it. I think it’s a it’s a story that that they hopefully they will enjoy and so I’m cautious that I don’t want to give it away—but as her mother is is gone, she’s going to find out something very important that is going to cast a shadow on her for the rest of her life, but yet she’s gonna face it. She’s going to have the strength to do it and part of her strengths comes from that medal, from La Virgen being present in her life as well. In other words, like—Nanette has already started her menstrual. That was a big deal and it’s still a big deal for for young women and I lament the fact that in the United States we don’t really have, like some other cultures do, a ceremony. The indigenous do, I believe they have a ceremony, or when when young girls start their menstrual or they begin to be a woman we have Quinceaneras, but that is like when they’re 15 and they’re ready to go into society, not when they begin their menstruals. There are some cultures that do celebrate when the the young woman begins to [menstruate] because now she can have babies, you know, so here you have Nanette, her friend, walking and saying, “Guess what happened last night? I started my period,” so [Patrisia’s] like “What!” like “No!” and Nanette’s like, “Yes, yes!” So she’s very proud of that because now she’s like one of the women at the school and this eighth grader had started her menstrual, but [Patrisia] is in fifth, she’s not likely to start, but she’s horrified. And as she clutches the medal, of course Nanette says, “[La Virgen] had a period too!” … So now my character is afraid of this coming to be a woman.
When your mother’s gone … there’s an isolation that goes there, but I wish we would celebrate that more, because we don’t. It’s not only a physical passage with of time within the child but it’s psychological as well and we don’t even address it in the school—I’m a long time educator from preschool to University, 30 years of university, college, everything—I’ve taught every age and there is no celebration. Bar Mitzvah is for the Jewish Nation to observe the entrance of a young boy and now I hear they’re doing it for girls as well, so I would want something to celebrate that more, but I wouldn’t even know how to begin. I remember when I first got my period I think I hit it for a month or two before I finally went to my mom I was like, hey Mom, because I was just so—it’s just not talked about enough I don’t think and I think it’s so interesting how in this story Patrisia, she’s not quite in Womanhood yet [and] doesn’t have her period, but she’s really entering in this adulthood where she kind of has to … learn these family secrets.
Of course in that story like that is kind of pushing her into the adulthood rather than getting her period like Nanette so I just think it’s and then she sees her dad respond to them in a different way that he had before. Now … she doesn’t trust her father as much as she does her mother, you see that trust level. She trusts her mother much more she does her father, but then she questions because Nanette tells her something very important, “Guess what? Your dad used to be my mom’s boyfriend! Thought you’d like to know,” and she’s in shock! Again, clutches the medal. And her mother’s nowhere for her to run to, not the neighbor Tilley [who helps her out]. I wish there was [a] more conscious level of where a young woman is during that time. I remember that I was told to go down the alley—we live by the alley … I saw everybody go through that alley, from drunks to people just going to the Chinese Merchant store, because you have to pass the alley across the street [to get to the] Chinese Merchant.
There was always Chinese merchants in our barrio and they they spoke Spanish right along with us. I remember my mother giving me money to go to what they call the Chino store and buy a box of Kotex and I’m like no, I don’t want to go! I was such a shy kid at school but inside of me was this whole world of words. Words! We used to collect words. I used to sing them inside my head.
I thought people thought, “what’s wrong with her?” I mean I my mother would say, “I don’t know!” … I bought the [pads], I was humiliated. I’m glad he put it in a brown paper bag. So that’s how I took it home. Some women might be listening to us here and saying, “Oh my goodness, I have a story to tell!”
MH: Oh yeah, I’m sure every woman [does]. I know so many crazy stories from high school and people—my friends—were getting their periods, so I just I know every woman out there has an idea of how important getting their period is in terms of adulthood and womanhood. I totally agree with you. We should have some sort of like celebration for it because it is something that should be celebrated, definitely.
Moving on to the next question, as a mother of four and a grandmother, family is very important to you and I think this can be seen very clearly within this story. So what messages regarding family do you want readers to be left with after they read “Drenched?”
SPD: Family, for one thing—family is crucial in the Latino world.
And if I could say to the people who are in [a] family… There are stories to be told from family, and when I encourage my students—because they say “well so I don’t do good with memoir,” that’s okay! You can take something like like the imprint that I had of myself being Patrisia saying goodbye to my own mother on a dark night when there was a canopy of glittering Stars overhead. I remember that as a child … and then the rest of the story is creative, so then you humbly move away from your story—how shall I say—you allow the power of the story to be told. Every single family has a way of addressing the stories that represent who they are and those stories can be represented as the nucleus of your theme.
As writers we reveal the human condition in our work and there’s nothing to show you that human condition more than a family. You have people that will take their stand and say this is what happened at Christmas and you say, no it wasn’t, that’s the Christmas you got that bike and I’ve got that stupid little transistor radio. [They’ll say] no it wasn’t, excuse me, but that was the time that you got that expensive radio—oh my gosh, and there’s a fight over a memory, right? I would just say to people you know keep track of the things that are important throughout your life, in your family life. Can you set them in two parts of your stories? Can you move away from them and create something new? That’s up to the person, because you don’t want to tie yourself down to something—what happens sometimes with people when they do memory work of their families is, “was the tablecloth checkered or was it [not]?” Memory is not accurate. You can remember it was a really rainy day [when] it wasn’t, it hadn’t rained in Phoenix for days, but those kinds of things are subjective. I would say don’t be afraid of anything to do with family.
[What Patricia’s story is really telling is] she’s she’s guarding the [family] secret, and actually if you notice when because—I wouldn’t want to get into the secret itself—but when the mother gets back … watch how beautiful it is [to tell your mother something] in a story. In real life, in a family without her mother telling her anything, just the look of her mother told her that her mother already knew … when [her mother is] gone, that meeting is going to take care of everything.
MH: That’s wonderful. Yeah, family is just—I think it’s something that’s just so important. You grow up around these people, they’re going to influence your life in so many ways, and I was blessed with three younger siblings so I definitely know how to pick apart their little actions, write them in my own little stories and I just loved the family and the community in this story. I just thought that was it was just so beautiful. You have published works in several genres, from memoir to short story. Can you describe how your writing process changes and adapts for each form?
SPD: That’s a really important question because it has to do with this huge source of energy that is creative writing. Sometimes people don’t understand that. Well, they do, but we live it out each day and we forget that we are energy. That’s who we are. The blink of our eyes the gesture of our hand, our movements, the way we move this way or that way or the way we approach something… We are energy and creative writing is a huge energy. Unless we understand—I’ll say that again in in the last question, it’ll connect with that—how do you connect with your own creative energy? I can’t tell you how important that was because as a child I used to go and read all kinds of books and come home with a stack of books. my mother would say I was going to go blind—well she wasn’t far from the truth! I’m like “can I still see?” because I was reading always so much.
Then I get the neighborhood kids together. I was real shy at school, an introvert, I was voted the shyest girl in school throughout my life. I would come in I had all these words … it was the creative energy. I thought it was just something wrong, how come people didn’t think like this? I could describe anything at the drop of a pin and people would say “How did you describe that?” I have no idea! I just did it. So here I was, full of all of these words and all of these longings and all of these things that is part of the creative process and I suffer depressions—understand I’m talking to writers now. When you are producing something you’re way up here because that’s how strong creative energy is, you have to come down from there. This is why drug addicts who unfortunately get involved, you know, in getting their high—guess what, they gotta come crashing down. That’s why they’re going to go look for their drug again, to keep their their mindset because the brain is is no fool. Once it’s getting something from the outside it’s going to make the body demand that. That’s where the addiction comes in, I’m talking about something very separate, but creative energy also goes up then it comes down. See, I didn’t understand that at all.
Every one of these genres has its own creative energy. It’s the same energy, but it moves in the direction—if you’re a poet, some of you that are listening to this are poets—you have the same creative energy that I’m talking about, and it’s going to move in a different way. I want people to understand that writing anything is like writing a symphony. It really is. Your own voice is caught up in the paper … when I started with short stories—short stories in my mind is my strongest genre—I love short stories. I love short stories because, in a short story, you can take one thing that’s important and explore it more than than you could [in other forms]. You can do that in the novel as well, but in a short story you can do it in less time and maybe keep people more attracted to what it is you’re doing. So the short story is a powerful way to to do it if you can only stay out of the story—let the characters run your life. Let them push you around, let them tell you what to do, and don’t get in the way of the story. If if a person finds themselves too close to the protagonist, they may be stumbling on their own shoelaces. So they need to step back from the story.
The story in each genre is different. I found that when I started doing the novel I had to shift a little bit because the novel is longer and you can tell a little bit more. You can narrate more. A short story? No, it’s quicker. Your narration has to be specific, your dialogue has to be there, you always want to show more than you tell, and then of course poetry—it’s all rhythmatic. I’ve taught poetry to tiny little kids that have stood—I’ve showed them how to get on microphones and read their work to the public—and boy, I’ll tell you… Once they understand that it’s a deep [imitates beats] hump-ty dump-tysat on a wall… Ah! “No they don’t have to be in straight lines, you’re doing poetry! You see how it’s the same energy, but you’re using it in a different way.
Then of course there’s screenplays. I’ve done it all—I’ve had one of my plays performed at ASU and they did a very good job. It was a one-act play about a community … related to immigration. It was a very painful type of experience, but I kind of put a [comedic] kind of layer to it, and I’ll be darned—I was in the audience watching my play performed at ASU West and the people loved it. I thought, “Wow, take a look at this!” They were charmed by it, they were clapping, and I thought “Oh so this is what it feels to do a play and to see the people’s reactions.” I’ve done a screenplay as well [adapting one of] my novels. That’s what I had [to write] for the big screen. Every one of them is a different kind of energy, but it’s [also] the same energy. When I’m working sometimes with an editor, say, from Michigan, I remember that he would um change a word in the sentence that wasn’t a spelling error, it wasn’t … a verb tense error problem … so I started asking, why did you change that sentence? He was putting it maybe in the way that he heard it. I said, don’t you understand there’s a symphony going on on the pages there’s a song being sung? I said that’s the way I do my work. That’s what you call the voice of the author. People want to read your word because they love your voice. I said, in other words, I was trying to tell them, don’t change my voice.
Every one of the writers—whoever’s listening to me—you have your own distinct voice. You might have to shift it or the genre that you’re addressing and you can do that, but it’s that same powerhouse that I’m talking about. The more you use it, guess what? Just like you practice baseball, you practice whatever sport, you get better … for any writer who’s listening to me now, if you are not reading your work aloud, no matter what it is, no matter what genre it is, you are failing yourself because you are not hearing what the readers are going to hear inside their heads. I always tell my my students at the beginning levels you don’t have to read it all the way to but, at the beginning levels you do, because you want to get your voice like a symphony on those pages. Then later you can read it silently so you can hear how you sound in someone’s head. Does that make sense to you?
MH: As a writer I’ve never read to myself. I will definitely start doing that now because I just I love that—how your voice is a symphony. I’ve never heard it that way before I think that’s really wonderful. I love that phrase, now I’m gonna put that on my inspiration board.
SPD: Trust me, I tell students [if they’re] going to be successful they’ll need to read their work aloud to themselves so they can hear how they sound. They’re like, “I sounded like that?” and then the realization of how real your voice is on paper.
MH: Wonderful! That also leads us into our next question. You’ve taught and spoken on creative writing for many years, what is one piece of advice that you find yourself repeating most often and what is one piece of advice that has been most helpful to you?
SPD: Well for one thing what I encourage [writers] to do is respect their own creative energy. Take a look at where their Creative Energy is going—the highs and lows. I’ve presented all across this nation and when Covid hit, it took that away from me, the ability to go all over the place and [present]. Now I’m zooming in here, I’m zooming in there, I’m zooming into classroom, I’m zooming into conferences, whatever, but I used to come home—I have four children, I had three jobs. Anybody who tells me [they] don’t have any time, I’ve been to so many conferences and sometimes I’m the keynote speaker [or] I’m a workshop person. People will tell me, “It’s just as soon as we sell the house I’ll have more time,” or “I’m changing careers right now. As soon as that happens I’ll have more time.” There’s never a good time. You have to carve out the time for your work to be done because there’s this force inside of you. And if you don’t relate to that force, whatever you ignore, it becomes a squeaky wheel and it becomes almost your enemy… It’s going to take you down in one way or another because you’re not paying attention to that force that is your own strength. It’ll start squeaking.
I do a lot of “dream work”, so dreams are very important to me, too. I have my whole thing [of] writing through revelations, visions, and dreams, and that’s my own little memoir and this is [all] internal stuff. Inside of every one of my writers—I tell my writers, trust your self, trust yourself, look internally. The writer is in here. The writer is not out there scattered, the writer is internal, so respect that internal writer. I told them if you have things that come to you while you’re writing from left field—out of nowhere, all of a sudden, you’re thinking of some Insanity—it’s not insanity… You’re writing a short story or you’re writing poetry, it’s a writer within you giving you something that appears to be disconnected. I tell people one of the reasons why we’re on the earth is to connect the dots of who we are. Nobody can connect the dots of who you are, Morgan, except you. You, who pays attention to an internal part of who you are and begins to say, “Wait a minute—oh, I see, okay, right! So, that’s what happened when my mother left from Mexico City,” Patrisia [realizes], “That’s what happened [that caused her mother to] move away from the neighborhood…” Now she’s connecting the dots.
If something comes from left field—I’ll give you a real quick example—I was writing LetTheir Spirits Dance released by Harper Collins … I was writing in the beginning parts of of the novel. So I’m here, I am writing it, all of a sudden I start thinking of bats. You know, bats that fly out and at night and see insects, then go back to their cave and so forth. Bats. I kept on writing and the bats kept coming into my mind so now, little by little, I learned how to stop and go to left field—I mean things that don’t make any sense. So I closed the document I was working on and I opened a new document on “bats,” [the] word “bats.” I started writing on these crazy bats—oh my God—one of the most powerful characters that I have ever worked with appeared through that left field experience.
here comes [character] Don Florencio, a (tlachisqui)—an ancient word in the machika language meaning “a seer”—here comes Don Florencio into Let Their Spirits Dance, so powerful that he almost took over the entire novel. And he came out of the word “bats.” Had I not followed left field into the word bats, I would have never known Don Florencio. I had to calm this old guy down—I’m serious—I don’t know who’s going to play him in the movie, but … I said, “Look, don’t Florencio you can’t have this novel.” This novel was suggesting he’s the one that was killed in Vietnam … He permeated the novel all the way through with his magic and his ability to see through everything. So don’t be afraid of left field, okay, and let me tell you something very important—I get asked this all the time, every conference I’ve ever been to, somebody is asking me this. I was just asked the other day because I was zoomed into a high school class a, writing club—[about] writer’s block.
[They ask me about] writer’s block. I have had people in conferences raise their hand … “I haven’t been able to write in like a year,” and there’s almost tears in it. Sometimes people are almost teary-eyed because they can’t write and got writers block. They don’t know what to do… I tell people everywhere and I tell my students and I told the kids two weeks ago when they [asked] what writer’s block was. I said, “Are you guys ready? I’m gonna tell you the secret of writer’s block.” When I say that to a large audience I can see them with their little pens ready to write down Stella’s secret. I said here’s the secret about writer’s block: it’s a lie. it’s a lucrative lie. People make a lot of money selling that lie. You go on the internet right now and put in the words “writer’s block” and you’re gonna find a bunch of books that are going to give you the solution and how to get out of writer’s block. So you can continue to do your work but it’s nothing but a lie. You know what writer’s block is? It’s just a silent writer inside of you. Just like when something is brewing you’re cooking something in the oven and you gotta leave it in there for 13 [or] 15 minutes, and then it’s done, there’s things brewing. You cannot push your creative energy … the Creative Energy is so powerful it will push you, you don’t have to push it, so you wait until it’s ready—let me tell you something about creative energy and this crummy thing of writer’s block. Our internal person doesn’t go by [your] wrist watch. It’s inside of you, you’re timeless.
You’re a timeless human being. You can wake up at two o’clock in the morning—when I often do—on my night hour you can call me at two in the morning and I will answer the phone, I’m [a] hopeless night owl. I do a lot of work because there’s no calls. I had four children, you can imagine them, I’d come home tired from New York City or whatever and they were fighting over a bag with potato chips. Reality hit me real quick. Mom’s home now, oh my god get all the dirty clothes and—oh my goodness. By then, some of them were teenagers, so they’re supposedly taking care of themselves … but don’t be afraid of the energy inside of you, of communicating with it. You might be at an intersection … you might get the next part of the story just like that. One time my kid wrote it on the palm of his hand because we were driving, I said, “Son write this word down I need it because it’s part of the story,” and he goes, “Where Mom?” [I said], “Write it in the palm of your hand—get my pen.” So he writes down what I told him. You can get a revelation anywhere. Revelation is just understanding something that’s already there inside of you—am I making sense?—it’s already there!
You’re the one who has to be conscious of it and don’t believe a bunch of lies. Trust who you are … let your characters push you around, that’s okay if they push you around, they don’t want to obey you that’s fine. They don’t need to obey you, you’re just a scribe, you’re at their mercy. Writing is the human experience and we have the right to tell it … [and] do not ever send to submission a first draft, don’t do that. Because the first draft is a jumble—it should be a jumble because you’re getting everything together. It might go this way, it might go that way… The other day I’m on a board—I don’t want to name where I’m on a board for—one of the solutions was the first draft and I said right there we should not have gone forward any longer because the first draft is never ready. Trust yourself, be careful, this is real important are you listening to me. writers? Be careful who you show your work to. Not everybody’s a writer … you might go to a friend who isn’t really a creative writer who might look at your work and say this is pretty good and it might be the worst thing that that has ever been done. So be careful … that person can destroy your work—especially when you’re barely starting to work and you show it to somebody and they’ll say that’s that’s really good, you should go this way, they don’t know because you don’t have your story set. The story belongs to you—or the poem or whatever—you’re the one who has to form it now once you get it straight.
Do you know how many versions I have of my work? I’m a workaholic—look at me—you can tell already sometimes I have played versions of one novel and that’s not enough but I still have to polish it and nobody has seen it yet. Maybe I’ve read a few things to people. I have my … wonderful sister of mine Rosie who passed away and she was my greatest supporter in the family. I still turn to her even though she’s gone. I tell her, spiritually, you know, “Sister you know what a knucklehead I am?” Then I seem to get an idea, “Thanks sis.” Use whatever causes you more power but be careful who you show your work to. Be sure that you at humbly stepped away from it to allow your work to come forth from you and then with confidence you might show it to someone. Does that make sense to you?
MH: Yeah! Awesome. This was so insightful and I deeply enjoyed this interview thank you again for agreeing to do it I’m so excited for our SR followers to read your story and learn more about you and “Drenched.” This is just so much fun, thank you so much.
SPD: Thank you thank you for your time. I appreciate it very much. God bless you.
Sarah Louise Wilson is an artist based in California. She writes, directs, produces, paints, and acts. Her courage puts her on an edge that cannot be fabricated; rather, it comes as a natural part of who she is and what she stands for.
In 2010, with her company Stella Bella Productions, she penned and starred in her pseudo-autobiographical romantic comedy “Jelly,” starring Natasha Lyonne (Orange Is the New Black) and Hollywood icon Ed McMahon. The script alone attracted name talent and funded the film into release. After screening in competition at several renowned film festivals, the film went on to win four Accolade awards and is represented by Cinetic Media. It has since been released on Netflix, Fancast, Hulu, PBS, and The Sundance Channel.
Throughout her career, Sarah wrote and directed short films, plays, music videos, documentaries— Anything she could get her hand on. In early 2016, when Sarah was living in Almaty, Kazakhstan, she shot her feature film No Exit entirely on location. The movie went on to win multiple awards and was written up by Esquire, Good Housekeeping, and Variety. To learn more, visit her website.
We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Sarah Louise Wilson’s art. This interview was conducted via email by our Art Editor, Khanh Nguyen.
Khanh Nguyen: What is the difference between how you tell a story in your paintings versus in your films?
Sarah Louise Wilson: In films, you have millions of pictures to tell a story but in painting, you only have one.
KN: What kinds of stories do you like to tell? What is the importance of telling those stories?
SLW: I like to tell stories about hope because the world is bleak enough.
KN: How has painting influenced your film-making and vice versa?
SLW: Painting teaches me to be visually concise in filmmaking. Filmmaking helps me to understand light.
KN: Some of your work, like “She is Palestine,” features subjects outside of the United States. You also worked in Kazakhstan for a while and held an exhibition there in 2015. What interests you and inspires you about non-American subjects?
SLW: I’m interested in understanding the human condition as much as possible.
KN: Much of your art focuses on honoring past and current African American icons and social justice leaders. What does this work mean to you personally, and how do you think this work affects the fight for social justice?
SLW: Some of my work, as of late, does honor past and current African American icons because I find their point of view to be exciting and enlightening. I do not think my work alone affects the fight for social justice. I believe the collective work of artists expressing like-minded issues that need a spotlight, can affect the fight for social justice.
KN: What does your work space look like?
SLW: Messy when working. Clean when not because I like to make a mess.
Congratulations to Arizona State University alum Tucker Leighty-Phillips for his upcoming flash fiction chapbook Maybe This is What I Deserve, published by Split/Lip Press. It won the 2022 Split/Lip Chapbook Contest, selected by Isle McElroy. Leighty-Phillips explores themes of childhood innocence, parenthood, and existentialism rooted in everyday life. His collected stories demonstrate compelling prose and unrelenting authenticity delivered with concision.
Each story in Maybe This is What I Deserve is funny or melancholic, sometimes a little bit of both, as seen in the story “Togethering.” Leighty-Phillips’ precise diction layers atmosphere in his succinct tales that gets richer through rereads. Other stories showcase his ability to play with structure and white space, such as in “Another Story” and “The Rumpelstiltskin Understudies,” which makes this collection perfect for readers who want to read something familiar yet refreshing.
With prose that constantly surprises and pleases, Maybe This Is What I Deserve is the kind of flash collection that will make you rethink how you see the world. Beneath the arresting imagery of sweaty mashes of bills and noses flowing like gratitude is the heartbeat of an author equally invested in language as character. These stories shock, they entertain, and they stick in your mind.
Isle McElroy, author of The Atmospherians and People Collide
Tucker Leighty-Phillips is a writer from Southeastern Kentucky. He is the author of Maybe This Is What I Deserve (Split/Lip Press, 2023), and his work has been featured in Adroit Journal, The Offing, Passages North, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter at @thenurtureboy and on his website.
I love Tucker Leighty-Phillips’s wild imagination, his privileging of the emotions of childhood, his ability to find the magic that’s ever-present in the messiness of community. In Maybe This Is What I Deserve, Leighty-Phillips delivers us a surrealism suffused with joy and generosity and wit, grounded in sincere love for Kentucky and for the irrepressible potential of its people.
Matt Bell, author of Appleseed
Maybe This is What I Deserve releases June 20th, 2023. You can pre-order it here.
We had the pleasure of interviewing Tucker Leighty-Phillips about his book and writing process. This interview was conducted over email by our Blog Editor, Antonio Folcarelli.
Antonio Folcarelli: Many of the stories in Maybe This is What I Deserve speak to childhood and parenthood. What inspired you to write from these perspectives?
Tucker Leighty-Phillips: I grew up in a primarily single-parent household, and a lot of my childhood experience was filtered through that. Having one parent meant our household only had one income, and one person to raise myself and my sisters. It was a tremendous task, and my mom really worked hard to ensure we were safe, fed, and happy. I think a lot of these stories are a means of processing what that was like for me, now that I’m older and can differentiate my childhood from other people’s childhoods, and these stories are also a space to explore what that experience must have been like for her. When you’re a kid, especially one in a low-income household, you don’t realize all the structural factors working against you, or the systems meant to help that aren’t helpful. I wanted to try to revisit some of those situations from a new point-of-view, particularly that of the parent.
AF: One quote the collection opens with is by film director, producer, and screenwriter Wong Kar-Wai: “One’s memories aren’t what actually happened—they’re very subjective. You can always make it much better.” Why did you choose this quote?
TLP: Many of the stories in here are autobiographical, at least partially, even in some small way, and I think many of these stories invoke memories for me. I liked having a reminder to myself that each story, and each memory embedded within the story, is an attempted reconstruction of whatever my experience was. Sometimes I’ve benefited from hindsight, and sometimes that hindsight has frustrated or upset me. I wanted this collection to be a space of thoughtful nostalgia–not one that simply yearns for another time, but interrogates it.
AF: What challenges did you face in layering humor, intimacy, and poignancy in flash fiction? How do you keep emotional depth concise?
TLP: Great question! I’ve always kind of grappled with this. I want to be serious, but not melodramatic. I want to be playful, but not flippant. It’s a game of fine margins in that way. I am trying to navigate how much humor will help accurately portray the heart of the thing I’m writing about. Sometimes, a punchline helps alleviate some of the tension of whatever I’m exploring in a story, and gives me a sense of positive emotional reflection. Sometimes, it doesn’t, and feels like it takes away. That’s why stories like “Groceries” or “Toddy’s Got Lice Again” are in there–they are stories about feelings that I really want to be earnest about, and felt that humor took away from that earnestness. I don’t always get that emotional tenor right, but it’s always being tweaked.
AF: What works or authors do you turn to for inspiration?
TLP: I think it depends on the day, my mood, and what project I’m working on. For MTIWID, my primary inspirations were people like Deb Olin Unferth, Lucy Corin, Ana María Shua, Meredith Alling, Ross Gay, Zachary Schomburg, and Louis Sachar. But I also have a lot of non-literary influences that always shine through in my work. The Adventures of Pete & Pete is a big one–it was a television show that really made the mundane aspects of rural/suburban life feel really expansive and fantastical. I also really love cartoons and the narrative logic that exists within them–Looney Tunes, Scooby Doo, Courage the Cowardly Dog. I always try to let my writing create its own internal logic, and I do my best to let it guide me.
AF: The story “Stages of Grief” was co-written with Rachel Reeher. How did collaboration affect your writing process?
TLP: Every single collaborative project is different, depending on the partnership, the process, the medium–so each one kind of shifts my perspective on how collaborative work is done. Rachel and I are a couple, so there’s a lot of trust already instilled between one another. I had an idea, but wasn’t sure how to go about it, and she helped bring a lot of the idea into tangible language. Technically, there’s one other collaborative project in the collection–”The Rumpelstiltskin Understudies (play)” uses a drawing made by my then-eleven year old sister. I didn’t tell her what I was working on or how it fit into the narrative, but she trusted me and made something that really expanded the story.
AF: What projects are you working on now?
TLP: I’m a little scattered, but I will mention the thing that is the furthest along–especially since it relates to the prior question. I’m currently working on a collaborative anthology, where each writer contributed a fiction piece based on a prompt, but didn’t know what anyone else was working on, and ultimately created a vast, innovative, sometimes contradictory worldbuilding project. The title is still TBD but it’s in the final editing stages now!
I am eating a Greek salad at Panera when my phone rings. I don’t usually pick up, but it’s been a week since my biopsy and I’m still sore and my right breast is bruised black and yellow, and I’ve been waiting days that have stretched on like 600 miles of bad road.
My breast looks like Gorbachev’s forehead.
My breast looks like an ink blot.
“Who’s Gorbachev?” my daughter, my Gen-Z-er, asks.
I say, “He tore down the Berlin Wall. Sort of.”
There are bits of The Berlin Wall on display in Ocean City, Maryland, in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not.” I have pictures of my daughter there, in front of the graffiti’d bits, written in English: “Don’t Go with the Flow” and “Move with the Groove.”
In whatever language, rainbows mean hope.
Gorbachev’s forehead birthmark used to be called a port-wine stain. Many people had these when I was growing up, though I never see them now. Doctors, genetics, evolution, who knows. In Gorbachev’s forehead, I see a map of a small country that looks like it’s melting. Crying, maybe.
“I believe in the cosmos,” Gorbachev said when asked about his religious beliefs. “All of us are linked to the cosmos.”
Rorschach, the father of ink blots, died at 37, precisely 18 years younger than I am now. It’s funny the things I think about lately. It’s funny the kind of math I do when I usually shudder away all things math.
Did you know Rorschach looked like Brad Pitt?
Do you remember Brad Pitt was once married to Gwyneth Paltrow?
Gwyneth Paltrow has a lot of ideas about hair and salads, self-care, and conscious uncoupling. Her company, Goop, sells a $3,490 solid gold vibrator called Olga and a candle scented like Gwyneth’s vagina. Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina candle, with hints of bergamot, costs $75, though it’s often sold out and on back order.
I’m sorry if the concept of Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina candle is disturbing. Such is the cost of capitalism, which is draining more than dollars.
Years ago, when I lived in New York, I saw Brad Pitt on the street scooping poop from a snippy little dog I think was Gwyneth’s pup.
What the hell was wrong with you, Brad Pitt?
All ten of Rorschach’s images look like vaginas and ovaries and pelvises. A few of them look like bunnies fighting. Another one looks like the Grecian urn—truth and beauty, beauty and truth.
Brad Pitt played the Greek hero Achilles in the movie Troy.
On camera, Brad Pitt looks immortal, lit through with gold.
On the street in New York, Brad Pitt looked ordinary, another New Yorker scooping poop. A cute, kind, human—a little pimply, even—connected to us all through the cosmos.
My phone rings three times before I pick up.
Those Greek figures chasing each other around that vase, stalling for eternity.
I love the word “stalling.” It’s tiny, but clever, the way the vowels and consonants melt and stick like peanut butter in your mouth.
The word does what it says. Language is sturdy like that.
My phone’s ringtone is the sound of typewriter keys.
A while back, at The London Times, editors pumped the sound of typewriters into the newsroom, a subliminal thing. The sound of typewriters, even for people who grew up without them, gets writers excited. The words come faster. The pages fill up. Good for deadlines. Good for profits. Writers pumped up on adrenaline move stories forward.
“This is,” I finally say to the voice on the phone who asks to speak with me.
I spear an olive into my mouth.
My breast is a storm cloud.
My breast hurts so much.
Up until this phone call, I’ve been making jokes about my ink-blot boob. These jokes make people other than my husband Newman uncomfortable. Pretty much like Gwyneth’s candle. So it goes.
Newman’s dubbed my 3D-biopsied breast Frankenboob.
“Pitchforks! Fire bad!” he says and waves his arms.
I can’t stop cracking Rorschach jokes.
“Tell me what you see,” I say, and push my boob close to his face.
“My mother never breastfed me?” Newman says.
“I’ve heard that,” I say.
“At least they didn’t stab you in the ass,” Newman says, and grabs my ass hard enough to bruise that too.
My ass is not the same as it was when Newman and I got married at a discount wedding chapel in Vegas. I never appreciated my ass back then, or that I could get away with wearing a white bikini at the pool during our honeymoon at Circus, Circus. It’s been a few years since I’ve donned a bathing suit or asked for the lights on during sex, but my husband makes me feel beautiful.
Under Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet Union practiced a policy called glasnost, a lovely word, which means openness and transparency. Truth. Shine a light.
Truth: I am grateful for my life.
I expect this call from the nurse to tell me everything is fine, it’s just a scare, and I should expect another 20 years of love and ass-grabbing and jokes about fire and angry villagers.
“Can you speak up please?” I say.
The nurse’s voice sounds muffled, like someone is holding a pillow between us to smother our words.
“Can you speak up, please?” I say again.
I spear another olive and think how much I love olives and nurses. I’m thinking of a nurse who is not the nurse on the phone. I am thinking of a nurse with beautiful tattoos, the names of her children, some flowering vines. During my cancer screening this is the nurse who ran tests on me. Somehow we started talking about shaving our pussies.
The proper phrase here would be “bikini line,” but seriously. Glasnost. Truth.
“I knew this stripper once,” the nurse said. “She told me her trick: a little toner and antibiotic cream, and boom, no more bumps.”
I have never been to Cheerleaders in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, but I was at a strip club once in New Orleans. It was called “Big Daddy’s.” There were animatronic legs over the entrance. The legs wore thigh highs and red high heels. The bouncer who perched on a stool beneath the legs was a large woman with a buzz cut and black gauges the size of quarters in her ears. I loved and feared her from the start.
Inside, a beer was $12. Newman and I sat next to the stage where a stripper swizzled around a pool. The stripper had tattoos of flames all around her pussy. The stripper wore shoes I could never stand in, let alone dance in or swirl around a pole. She had a cesarean scar, like my cesarean scar, pink, jagged, Frankenstein stitchery peeping out from all the flames.
“That looks like it hurt,” my husband said, friendly, making small talk like he does.
He meant the tattoo, which stretched from the stripper’s pussy to her ass. It was impressive, really. Intricate. Art. All vibrant reds and oranges and yellows. I can’t imagine how long it took. I assume the procedure was clinical—the stripper lying on an exam table, legs in stirrups, the tattoo artist with a head lamp on, the kind gynecologists and dentists and cartoon coalminers wear.
The stripper, obviously a mother, probably sweet off stage or at least someone who might be a friend, said, “Why? You want to touch it?”
Her voice was a razor, mean, and touching at strip clubs, even I knew, is always off-limits. She said it like she’d love to call in the bouncer, who was built like a hammer, who knew karate or ju-jitsu probably, who knew how to make people not touch each other, ever, no matter why, no matter how lonely or curious or lost.
I drank my $12 beer. It was skunked. The mandatory second beer was skunked too.
The strip club visit was supposed to be fun and sexy.
When my sweet nurse said boom she did that karate chop thing professional wrestlers do—hands to crotch—suck it, delete.
“That’s life changing,” I said.
The nurse said, “I know!” and chopped again.
We laughed and chatted and pulled our pants down to compare C-section scars and razor burns. We whined about bathing suits and what the hell, why should we care at our age? Lucky to be alive, lucky to get to the beach now and then.
I want to tell the nurse on the phone about my new friend, the nurse with beautiful tattoos and no razor burn. I want to talk about my love of nurses in general because the nurse on the phone sounds so awkward, and I want her to be okay because I’m pretty sure I am okay, no need for this strangeness between us. I want to tell her my mother was a nurse, and that people called my mother Sarge because she wouldn’t take any nonsense. I want to tell her Sarge was kind too, and how when I was a child in the hospital, my mother—Sarge the nurse—slept on a cot next to my bed and worked double shifts so she could be with me.
Such is the love of a mother who is also a nurse.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse on the phone says, and I’m confused.
“Why do they have to talk like that?” my mother, Sarge the nurse, a proud Italian-American with claims to her family’s own mob ties would say whenever we’d watch “The Sopranos.”
My mother didn’t mind the violence. It was the language she found disturbing.
She wanted her mobsters polite. No swearing. All suits and spiffy hats and pinky rings.
“It wouldn’t be true to life if they said please and thank you,” I’d say, and my mother would say, “Life is hard enough. I don’t need to hear about it on tv.”
When I sense awkwardness, when I feel other people’s discomfort, I fill up the space between us with words. I talk. I keep talking.
You may have noticed this.
Some of my words may offend. I apologize.
Thank you for your patience and indulgence, all these typewriters clacking in my mind.
The nurse on the phone says sorry again, more pillowed things.
I stop talking and stop eating and look at my salad, all these extra olives.
Panera usually skimps on olives, so these olives are their own miracle.
A love or hate of olives is, scientists say, genetic. So is a love or hate of cilantro. Some people think cilantro tastes like lime. Other people think it tastes like soap.
I love olives. I love cilantro.
Nature over nurture, sometimes even on our tongues.
I love my mother, the mother who raised me. She loved olives, too. What my birth mother loves, I have no idea. Nature over nurture feels like a lie, a betrayal, at least.
After my daughter was born, I found my birth mother through Catholic Charities. I wanted a family medical history, “for my children,” I said. History of cancer? History of heart disease? History of mental illness?
My birth mother refused. Instead, she wished me dead.
As I write this, my birth mother is still alive, and my mother is not.
“Oh, poor baby,” Tony Soprano said. “What do you want, a Whitman’s Sampler?”
The air at Panera is a bright warm blanket of bread and coffee. The sun gleams through the spotless windows some underpaid workers with squeegees must have scrubbed until their shoulders ached. In a booth across from me, a mother feeds her tiny daughter something that looks like pudding. The girl, strapped into a highchair, doesn’t like being locked down, so she bobs and weaves and the sprig of blonde hair ponytailed on top of her head burbles like a fountain, something to wish on.
In Rome I threw coins into a fountain. I’ve thrown coins into fountains in Paris, in Belgium, into a sad koi pond in Monroeville Mall. The fish in the koi pond died, I think, partly from all the coins and empty Orange Julius cups and cigarette butts people threw in there. Poor sweet fish. All that filthy water. All those wishes. Monroeville Mall, home country of “Dawn of the Dead,” birthplace of zombies.
“Help me,” the little girl says, and her voice pops like bubble wrap.
Her mother says, “Shush now, you’re fine,” and spoons more pudding.
The nurse tries twice to pronounce my last name.
“Close enough, no worries,” I say.
I say, “It rhymes with tequila, but without the worm.”
Funny. Funny. Always that.
“Everything’s a joke to you,” my father used to say. “Jackass.”
The nurse on the phone doesn’t laugh.
“Help,” the little girl dodging the spoon says.
“Shush now, you’re fine,” her mother says.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse says. Again. Again.
In Spain, there’s a version of Panera called Pan Pan. Meat and cheese and bread. Everything a person needs to go on living. My first time in Spain, and my second time, and my third time, I lived at Pan Pan. I knew what to order. Carne. Queso. Pan. I knew the order of things.
The little girl in her highchair sounds far away, her cries muffled by pudding.
The nurse says again, “I’m sorry.”
The nurse says, “There’s a malignancy.”
I somehow ignore her, as if English is my second language, Spanish my first.
At Pan Pan, the bread was pillowy, a cloud. La nube. Bread and cheese. Staples. All a person needs in this life. La vida. Te amo.
The nurse says, “I am so sorry.”
I think when people talk about leaving their bodies, near-death experiences, this is how it might feel, the untethering of that.
La nube. El cielo. Lo siento. The cloud. The sky. I’m sorry.
“Shush now,” the little girl’s mother says. “You’re scaring people.”
I miss my mother.
I miss my mother.
The nurse does not say cancer.
She says, “There is a malignancy.”
When I was a flight attendant, my other life, we were trained to call storms “weather” and turbulence “rough air,” and a crash “a hard landing.” A bomb threat was “an incident” and a hijacking was “a trip.” A drink was “a beverage,” no matter how weak or strong.
Never drink coffee or hot tea on an airplane. The water used for coffee and tea comes from the same source as the water used in the toilets. Planes are limited. The ice is suspect too.
Maybe everything on a plane, in the air, on the ground, causes cancer.
Still. Every profession has a language meant to keep people calm. Every profession has its own language of kindness to protect people from panic and pain, to keep people believing we are anchored to this world.
In what world does the word “malignancy” sound better than cancer?
Ours, maybe. More syllables at least.
“Do you want to touch it?” the stripper in New Orleans asked my husband. She spread her pussy like a map, then she pulled back and stomped a heel off the ledge of the stage. She knocked my second $12 Heineken to the ground.
It was skunked, like I said, but expensive, and the options at Big Daddy’s were limited.
Gwyneth Paltrow was on my flight once. Gwyneth fake-gagged and threatened everyone and required oxygen because she thought her first-class vegetarian meal may have nestled against her seatmate’s prime rib.
Gwyneth, who friends call Gwynie, fanned her face like she was on fire. She stuck out her pretty pink tongue so I could check it for poison.
Gwyneth’s lovely baby-butt complexion splotched over as her anger flared. Her seatmate, his meat bleeding a bit, looked mortified.
Their meals never touched I swear.
Whatever, Gwyneth Paltrow, you beautiful, rich creep.
May you live forever even so.
On the phone, the nurse’s voice has the tentativeness of someone who’s uncomfortable speaking, though she, like me, fills the air between us with a lot of words.
She says, “I don’t think we’ve met before.”
She says, “Not that we’re meeting, actually.”
She says, “I’m sure we will meet at some point, but I didn’t want you to wait. Waiting’s the worst, right? And the doctor is on vacation. The Bahamas, actually. Or maybe it’s Aruba. I get confused.”
I’ve been to Aruba.
I’ve been to the Bahamas.
In Nassau, I ate conch fritters and rented a rusty Volkswagen, a stick shift, and tried to drive it on the wrong/right side of the road without stalling, but I gave up and got a bicycle instead. The bike wobbled a lot. The brakes worked only sometimes. Later, I rented a jet ski and took it out, even though I’m a terrible swimmer and terrified of sharks. But the jet ski was cheap and came with a life jacket.
“Being afraid of living is just the same as dying,” an Ohio band I likel—Two Cow Garage—says.
I wish everything in this world came with a life jacket.
The water was blue and clear and seemed safe, as if I could see straight to the bottom of the ocean, as if I could see danger coming and get out of the way.
The ocean looked shallow as a bathtub.
The ocean looked endless as the universe.
I didn’t think about death then, not even with my fear of sharks and drowning.
How long ago was that?
I try to do the math.
Over 20 years.
“We’re here for you,” the nurse on the phone says.
Limited. The beer choices at Big Daddy’s. Gwyneth Paltrow’s palate. The reach of a tiny band from Ohio, no matter how brilliant. The choices of words to cover moments like this.
The nurse says, “If you need us or have questions.”
The little girl in her highchair says, “No,” and starts to cry harder.
My tits hurt and I don’t know if it’s the nurse’s words that make it so or if it’s real.
I want to ask but I don’t know how.
What should I feel? What shouldn’t I feel?
How does anyone know if they’re dying when we all are, all the time, really, even so?
“Did it hurt?” my husband asked the stripper at Big Daddy’s.
All those flames. All those needles. I had my own questions, too, but I kept quiet.
Tattoos before the C-section or after? How many children? What were their names?
I had my first C-section after 21 hours of labor with my son. My daughter’s birth was scheduled, and she came out through the same scar, easy-peasy.
Imagine coming into the world through all those tattooed flames. There’s another song by one of my favorites, Ike Reilly. “Born on Fire.” It’s so heartbreaking and good. Give a listen if you can. It’s a story, like all of Ike’s songs are stories, but this one is about a father who can’t answer his son’s questions about faith and love and where we go when we die.
I’d love to know the stripper’s story. I’d love to know everyone’s story. I’d love to save them here.
There’s so little we can do for one another. I write a lot about people I love who’ve died. It’s a way to keep the music of their lives playing. It feels less lonely, having them here on the page.
“Writers aren’t people exactly,” F. Scott Fitzgerald said. “They’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.”
Lori Jakiela is the author of several books, including Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (Atticus Books/Autumn House Press), which received the Saroyan Prize from Stanford University. Her next book, They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice, is forthcoming in October 2023 from Atticus Books. She lives in Trafford, Pennsylvania—the last stop in Pittsburgh’s Electric Valley—with her husband, the author Dave Newman, and their children. To learn more, visit her website.
We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Lori Jakiela’s essay. This interview was conducted via email by our Nonfiction Editor, Olivia Grasso.
Olivia Grasso: “Stalling” includes references to Gorbachev, Rorschach, Gwyneth Paltrow, and others. Can you share your thought process for including public figures such as these? What do you want your reader to take from them?
Lori Jakiela: “Stalling” is all about the way someone’s—my—mind works when facing a dire health diagnosis. I wanted to trace the way my mind moved when I was waiting for my doctor’s office to call and let me know if I had cancer (I did; I’m fine for now).
I think it’s wonderful and weird and so beautifully human the way our brains work under stress—the things we think about, the things we ponder—Gywneth’s vagina-scented candle!—the connections we make, the ways we distract ourselves from mortality and so on.
I think all these public figures showed up in my thoughts because they are part of my DNA—people who have flickered in the cinema of my mind, weird connections that don’t completely connect, figures who are part of my life in some way that I can’t fully articulate.
In this essay, which is an excerpt from my forthcoming book (They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice: On Cancer, Love, and Living Even So; Atticus Books 2023), I wanted to write about mortality and disease in a way that interested me most. The waiting time between tests and diagnosis. The things I thought about in that space. The things I thought about that were strange and seemingly disconnected but somehow connected.
I think it’s fascinating, the ridiculous things we think about when we think about our own mortality. I want to try to connect those moments for readers, who I hope might get it. Mortality isn’t tidy. I love that somehow. Mapping my memories, how strange and disconnected they seem and are, gives me a strange joy—like collaging, maybe. I think of this essay as a collage. I hope readers can find their images in there, all those layered shared experiences.
OG: This piece embraces a fragmentary style that shifts between past and present preoccupations. What was your process for organizing these fragments? Did you start with a central image or idea?
LJ: I pretty much worked from a stream-of-consciousness place. I was most interested in mapping the way my brain works. I hoped I could find some way that readers could follow along. There’s so much written about cancer, disease, etc. That seems like the biggest part of the story, but I find it somewhat boring. Sorry. I’m more interested in the moments before the diagnosis. In the moments when we’re most alive in the face of mortality. I’m interested in what people think about when faced with such awfulness, since we are all at some point faced with such awfulness, whatever its form. I’m interested in writing what I thought about in those moments when I had to consider whether I might die, that eventually I would die, like everyone forever amen. I was in love with the strange series of images and memories that surfaced for me in those moments. How seemingly random they were, but how if you write through it, you can—I could—find connections and meaning there. I think of Anne Sexton saying “not that it was beautiful, but that I found some order there.” Crafting order out of chaos. Finding some kind of map that makes almost-sense. That’s what I’m most interested in.
OG: What sort of subjects do you gravitate towards in your writing?
LJ: It’s probably not shocking that I write a lot about mortality. But I write a lot about family. As an adopted person, family means so much to me. It’s multi-layered. Super complicated. I also write funny. I’m very interested in the funny part of the tragedy of being human. Knock knock. Who’s there? Not sure, but I hope there’s a great punchline at the end of this life.
OG: How does your work as a journalist and poet influence your approach to nonfiction writing?
LJ: Truth is both fluid and not. I always feel like the world gives and gives and that there’s so little need to make things up. Paying attention is vital. If I’m feeling stuck as a writer, I go out into the world—a little walk about, a visit to a dead mall. The human stories are everywhere. It’s important to stay open to them. It’s important to pay attention, always.
OG: How would you describe your approach to incorporating humor into your work? Do you have a certain audience in mind?
LJ: Humor is my own way of getting by. I think everything we endure as humans can be translated as horror or humor. Mostly both. I think of E.B. White’s Charlotte the Spider who taught us we’re born, we live a while, we die. The human condition. What a tragedy. And how funny and strange is that?
OG: Can you share a bit about your forthcoming book, They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice?
LJ: My book is pretty much an exploration of both living and a diagnosis that will determine whether I could go on living. It’s a strange book—very much focused on that kind of stream-of-consciousness writing about the moments between those initial doctors’ visits and a diagnosis.
The title comes from New York Street fairs, where people write your name on a grain of rice. The writing is so microscopic. It’s amazing, really. No one can read your name without a magnifying glass, though you know it’s there. Any contact with water and the rice grain and the name disappears. It’s a fragile, beautiful, intricate art—this writing of names on rice grains. It’s also a metaphor. How temporary and essential we all are. How small, but beautiful. How silly. What a miracle. That. Yes.
On Monday, March 27, at 4:00 PM AZ time, Matt Bell will be leading a worldbuilding workshop that examines “democracy, consensus, and communal problem solving” in imagined worlds. These workshops invite audience members to “engage in worldbuilding… inventing new ways of imagining and interacting with the world around us.”
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.
This event will take place online. It’s free and open to the public, although it does require registration. Go here to learn more.