Superstition Review is excited to share a podcast project planned and produced by SR intern Claire van Doren. In this four-episode audio series, Claire will be talking with SR’s queer contributors. In today’s episode, Claire interviews EJ Levy, whose work has been published in The Best American Essays, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation and The Paris Review. Her writing has received a Pushcart Prize, as well as many other awards. She holds a degree in History from Yale and an MFA from Ohio State University. To learn more, visit her website.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity. Credit goes to FreeSound.org for the sound effects.
Claire van Doren: Hi! My name is Claire van Doren, and you’re listening to the Superstition Review Pride Community Project. Today we’ll be hearing from EJ Levy. She’ll be discussing her experiences with the queer community and how it impacts her work. This is one of four pride community specials. Stick around to hear from more of Superstition Review’s queer contributors.
EJ Levy: I’m EJ Levy. I’m a lesbian, non-binary writer of fiction and nonfiction. I’m the author of The Cape Doctor, which came out from Little Brown. The book was a New York Times’ book review editor’s choice, and a Barnes & Noble Book of Summer pick. Prior to that, my story collection More than Theory won the Flannery O’Conner Award, among other prizes, and was the finalist for the Land of Literary and Edmond White awards. My anthology Tasting Life Twice: Literary Lesbian Fictionby New American Writers was published by Harper Perennial and won a Lambda Award. And I finally also have an obscure feminist eco-memoir titled Amazons: A Love Story that I allow almost no one to read.
Before I got up the courage to write, I worked as an independent film and home magazine editor in New York City. I edited an LGBTQnewspaper in New Mexico and was an environmental activist. I’m currently faculty in the MFA program at Colorado State University, having previously been on the MFA faculty at American University in DC, and the PhD program in literature and creative writing at the University of Missouri Colombia.
As a young, aspiring writer, I found my way, honestly, to my life—and to the page—through the work of brilliant writers who walked that path. And among them, Audre Lorde, Edmund White, Gertrude Stein, Christopher Ishwerood, Adrienne Rich, David Leavitt, Jeanette Winterson, Toni Morrison,Leslie Marmon Silko—to name a few.
I got to say that when I was in college, I studied Latin American studies and economics. And then I drifted toward a degree in History after a pretty disastrous year in the Brazilian Amazons. I wanted to write, but I didn’t want to write fiction because I didn’t think fiction told a true story. It always seemed to me that stories in books were too shapely, too crafted. That they were a lie against our experience. And after I finished college, a roommate had a copy of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. And I had moved towns and having trouble coming out… And I read To the Lighthouse, and I thought it was a vision of why—it was so awake,even if what it’s portraying is often very simple: a dinner, an effort to paint a picture, a trip to a lighthouse. But I thought, “This is what it is to be awake and to be alive.”And so that book literally saved my life and also brought me to fiction. It made me want to write fiction. And I became a bit of a completist and read everything of Woolf’s. I read a few books about Woolf and was really pleased when one scholar told me that I could be a Woolfian, that I knew so much about the obscure, that she considered me a Woolfian.
But I would really recommend that practice. To let ourselves fall deeply in love with writers, artists, and musicians, and to the whole of their work. Partly because I think it teaches us that when we’re making stuff, sometimes we achieve it pretty fully—and sometimes not so much. I’ve always found a brilliant mind really attractive in friends and in partners. But I’ve also known and loved a lot of people sexually or in my family who were very smart, or inept, at love. So I think that it can be hard to trust the body and its desires and be vulnerable, especially if you live in your head a lot, and especially if you grow up queer in a heteronormative culture—as we do. It’s easy to second guess oneself, and to think too much of love and desire and maybe talk your way out of it—as I often d0. And maybe go astray, instead of trusting your heart.
So writing these stories in my collection—when I was an MFA student—which considers relationships through the lens of a scholarly theory of a kind, whether it’s economic theory or political science. Writing each of the stories was a way of finding my way back to a love story that I could believe in. I kind of—I could trust as I wrestled with questions of desire and monogamy—what it is to be faithful, what it is to be honorable in love. It was also about the fact that in my early thirties, I learned—as my mother did—that my father had been cheating for forty years. It explained a lot, but for me it was also an ambivalent discovery—because I felt, “Thank God,” that there was more authentic desire happening somewhere in the landscape. Even as I thought and understood that he’d made a lie of the relationship with my mom. So I was trying to wrestle through what it is to be faithful. It was a way of finding my way back to a love that I could believe in.
And maybe not surprisingly, after that, I finally was able to settle down.
[Phone hangs up]
CVD: Thanks for joining us! Be sure to check out our YouTube page for more audio and video content, as well as our official Superstition Review blog.
Tune in next Wednesday for the second episode of the Pride Community Project!
Coming in April 2023, The Veil Between Two Worlds, published by She Writes Press, is Christina Vo’s debut book and memoir. With a matter-of-fact and poignant voice, Vo lets readers peak behind the words to glimpse her life. With the loss of her mother at a young age—and a distant father—Vo details time spent trying to heal and find a place she can call home. She draws readers in with her keen descriptions of what “home” is or can be—both as a physical space and an emotional/spiritual one. Vo writes that home is “a place we find within ourselves—warm, comforting, and nurturing.”
The memoir itself recounts Vo’s journey with one of her closest friends—David—as they go on a roadtrip together from San Fransisco to Santa Fe. While they travel, Vo thinks back on her life and what has led her to this point. Ultimately, Vo’s memoir is a deep, hopeful contemplation on how lives intertwine.
Christina Vo is a Vietnamese-American writer. She has worked for international organizations, including UNICEF and the World Economic Forum, in Vietnam and Switzerland, respectively. She also owned and operated a floral design business in San Francisco. She has degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the London School of Economics and Political Science. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. To learn more about her and keep up-to-date on her latest works, visit her website.
We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Christina Vo’s memoir. This interview was conducted via email by our Blog Editor, Brennie Shoup.
Brennie Shoup: You’ve done a lot of traveling, and you’ve lived in a number of countries, including the USA, Switzerland, and Vietnam. How have these experiences contributed to your writing? How do you see your writing in a global context?
Christina Vo: Yes, absolutely—I believe that our sense of place, where we’ve lived, the people we’ve met, and where we call home (can be multiple places actually) have an impact on who we are and who we become. I lived in Vietnam on three separate occasions in my twenties, and as I mention when I speak about a forthcoming project related to Vietnam, living there shaped my adult identity. I didn’t graduate from college and move to a city like San Francisco or New York; I went to Hanoi. At that age, meeting and working with people from all over the world, made me realize—there’s no ONE right way to live one’s life, and I think that ultimately shaped how I thought about my whole life and career—that it didn’t have to be linear. It didn’t have to look like anyone else’s. So yes, my perspective and my writing is inevitably shaped by my travels; however, I think the theme of place really comes in more with my second book.
In regards to how I see my writing in a global context, I remember a friend of mine, who is a Vietnamese writer, told me that if I started off with the Vietnam story, I might be pigeonholed as a writer who can only write about Vietnam. Of course, I don’t entirely believe that’s true; I feel as artists, writers and creators, as we continue to live, we will evolve. However, those words did stick with me. I specifically see The Veil as a story mainly for women who are navigating their paths, so that’s how I connect it to a global context, even though obviously, depending on where a woman is living in the world, she will face different challenges.
But at heart, we all, whether consciously or not, go through the life questions: Why am I here? Why do I hold these wounds? What is stopping me from living my full expression of myself? How do I define myself, beyond the societal expectations of who I should be? And, how do I express the fullest version of myself? Essentially, I see that these questions, which drive this first body of work, are universal to some extent.
BS: You mention creativity and expression in your memoir. When did you know that you wanted to write as a part of your creativity? Have you ever experimented with other art forms, such as drawing or painting?
CV: I believe creativity and expression is fundamental to who we are as human beings navigating this earthly world. In large part, I would classify The Veil as a spiritual memoir, so I feel that it’s natural that creativity and expression come up and through the book as a theme.
I have always been drawn to writing but never really claimed it until the pandemic, and until I really sat down to finish this memoir. Writing has always called to me, even when I was a teenager and facing the death of my mother. I remember something within me saying, “Write this now. So that you can remember it.” Of course, I didn’t, but the things that are truest in your life will always find a way back in your life. And what I’ve learned is that you have to claim them or there will be this quiet dissatisfaction which might eventually consume you.
I have dabbled in other forms of creativity, from trying to create a sustainable handbag line while living in Vietnam and also working with local craftspeople in developing countries to bring their wares to market. I also often worked on small projects helping with interior decorating throughout my career, and of course, started blogs that I also stopped after some time. In my mid-thirties, I ran a flower design business. I was pretty much self-taught, but working with flowers was a huge part of my creative life and healing (and another long topic entirely). It was beautiful—and incredibly challenging—to work with flowers on a regular basis. It taught me a lot about the natural process of life and the powerful lessons of Mother Nature herself.
BS: The Veil Between Two Worlds deals a lot with loneliness vs. connectedness. Did you notice whether any of your topics influenced the form or shape of the book itself? If so, how?
CV: Thank you for mentioning that and for picking up on that theme of loneliness vs. connectedness. That’s actually probably one of my lifelong dilemmas that I came to this planet to grapple with. Bear in mind that The Veil was written during the pandemic, so I also believe the external factors of all of our lives (and the inevitable loneliness of social distance) was pervasive through the writing process.
I had wonderful developmental editing support for this book and also benefited from a six month memoir writing class I took during this time. When I started I didn’t really know what it was about, I didn’t know the arc, and while the book covers a period of my own life between 40-42, a time of deep spiritual transformation, I didn’t want to tell the story chronologically, so it weaves in and out of that period of time and also has a heavy backstory with the interactions with my family.
So, yes, I think that topics did inform the shape, as when we’re experiencing something in the moment, it’s also inevitably related to something else in the past. For example, let’s say we’re facing an ending or a break-up of some sort, we will feel the pain of that experience but it might also trigger something that happened in the past, even a childhood experience. I do believe that is probably what unintentionally shaped the way this story is told—the moving between time, and as referenced in the title, between worlds.
BS: Do you have any other pieces you’re working on?
CV: Yes, I’m working on two larger bodies of work—both of which I’m really excited about. One is what I call an intergenerational memoir, which I’m collaborating with my father on. It’s about our very different relationships with Vietnam. For him, leaving the country he loved and lost at the end of the war, and for me, Vietnam was really where I became an adult in my twenties, having lived there on three different occasions. I feel it’s a beautiful book because it touches on universal themes—intergenerational trauma, father-daughter relationships, immigration and reverse migration.
The second body of work is similar to the first memoir loosely based on my life, but I suppose it would be classified as auto-fiction or a semi-autobiographical novel. I’m really excited about this one because it focuses more on being a woman in the world today and grappling with identity, balancing the masculine/feminine within, and very similar to my own character—being a woman that’s not shaped by society (even though to some extent we all are) but by that I mean, not living based on other people’s expectations on how we should live.
It had been four years since my mother died, but sometimes I could still feel her. A whisper in the wind, a tremor of a touch on my shoulder. She always smelled like cinnamon. Her laugh was like a canary’s airy call. She made me blueberry muffins every weekend and called me, her little fish. Death is an absence, yes, but it’s also a presence. At times, it’s suffocating.
Dad and I lived inside a gated circle. When I closed my eyes, the iron gates closed around my heart. But the gates kept us safe from what was outside them, which was the world—those other people and everything else. The sun with its cell-splitting intense UV light. The gates can’t keep us safe from that, although we have good sun screen, and there are new pills that make our skin more UV resistant. Dad worked on those. Rigorously tested, totally safe, he had said, the first time he offered me one in our kitchen with pale yellow walls. The pill was a light blue, like a robin’s egg. I once saw a robin, but only once.
The gates were supposed to keep us safe from the outside. Those torrents of wind and rain—hurricanes, tornados, floods. The poisonous clouds that bloomed still from smoke towers in countries elsewhere. Far and distant and still knocking at our backdoors. We had extensive air filtration systems. We were ideally geographically located. Close to one coast, for the view of course, but well above sea level. Close to an ocean that was too cold to suffer from hurricanes. Dad and I moved here just a few months after my mother died. She would’ve hated the iron gates, but loved the proximity to the ocean. Every morning, I ate breakfast with my father. Something simple and healthy. Peanut butter in oatmeal. Eggs and toast. Cold cheese sandwiches. It was usually oatmeal. Animal products were limited, even to us, with our lucky wealth and privilege. Dad worked at one of the big tech conglomerates. Still, specialty food items were to be saved and coveted for momentousoccasions. I liked oatmeal. I added vanilla soy milk, shreds of unsweetened coconut, and lobs of organic peanut butter. Peanuts still grew well, even then. Those sturdy legumes, so good for the soil. There were a lot of peanuts and lentils because of that. I liked the texture of oatmeal, a little gelatinous and gooey. Like the inside of a person. When it comes down to it, we’re all soft and squishy inside. Mostly, I tried to act hard and stoic, but that’s all it was. An act. My skin is flexible, my whole body soft. Even bones break. Our bodies are so capable of crumbling, being turned from solid to dust.
Somewhere, parrot fish still chewed through coral, shifting it into sand. It’s impossible to comprehend all the tremendous changes happening beyond us.
As I ate breakfast with my father, I always pretended I was a parrot fish. One particular morning, when I felt a change in the air in the room—some consuming sweep of grief—I realized my oatmeal was too mushy. Suddenly, everything felt aslant, including my brain. I shook my head, wrinkled my nose at my oatmeal, chewed with my mouth open, molars clicking together, a lump of mush wriggling on my tongue.
“What’re you doing?” Dad asked. “Stop that.”
But I couldn’t stop. I pounded my teeth together. I was a young teenager and I was a parrot fish. I needed coral to chomp. I needed to make sand. But my oatmeal was nothing like oatmeal. There was almost no more coral, at least alive. They left behind their bleached and calciferous bodies. They made their own gravesites. Coral has outer skin that is hard as stone, and even they can’t survive us.
It’s the heat in the water. It’s inescapable. As the oceans warm they uptake more carbon dioxide, because warmer water can hold more. Carbon dioxide drifts from air to water—too much of it everywhere. And so the pH of water shifted, grew more acidic. Seawater was normally a little basic. A basic bitch, is what my friend Tina would call people she disliked. Sometimes, it’s good to have a little levity. The ocean was a basic bitch I loved. Simple in its limitless expansion. How basic! Tina would say of things she found boring. But I wish we could all be basic, return to a simplicity that wouldn’t cause carbon dioxide. As the ocean absorbs it, it gets less and less basic. Goodbye.
Here’s the point. Acidity dissolves calciferous creatures. They cannot build their bodies. The necessary ionic bonds will no longer hold, and so: disintegration. And so: these organisms cease to have homes. They are no longer gated, protected from the outside, which is the world, which is the water. Too much acid. Without protection, we all die. We have forged a world where we need protection.
“Stop that,” Dad said. Salt poured from my face. Oatmeal fell from my mouth. My teeth sounded like shells clattering. I could not stop. I was a parrot fish with nothing left to eat.
I fled from the table. Ever since Mom’s death, my father was used to my sometimes strangeness. My grief counselor said it was normal, even all these years later. I was eleven. Children cannot process death as adults do. The counselor told me to act through my feelings, but said I could never hurt myself.
I never wanted to hurt myself. There was already too much pain. But sometimes, I forgot how to behave. Sometimes I was swept up in something other. Sometimes I felt, my mother was coming for me. I didn’t know if that was terrifying or comforting. The yellow walls of our kitchen began to melt. They swayed like seaweed. Shifting bodies beneath them, within them, begging to be let out.
I ran from the table, my feet bare. I flung myself out of the front door and down the street. Perhaps, I heard my father’s call behind me. Perhaps, he simply let me be. I was safely nestled within the elite gate, and so I was safe from the outside, which is the world. Except I wasn’t safe. We couldn’t be.
I ran from the top of the hill down the winding path that led to the ocean. Of course, it was foolish to live so close to the sea, but the wealthy never could ignore aesthetics. I understood. The call of the ocean, that alluring murky eye. How blue in the sun, how green in the shade, ink-black at night. An expansive ocean view—what promise! No one could resist that. A view and safety at 1500 feet.
It was a luxury being able to run to the ocean. At the edge of our gated community, there was a solar-powered elevator that plummeted to the sand and a twisting metal stairwell. I took the stairs. By the time my toes hit sand, I was breathless, my energy burned out like a dead flame. I flopped to the sand. It was an early spring morning. A weekday. I would be late to school. I wouldn’t go to school at all that day. The beach was empty. Instead of getting ready for school, I was collapsed on the sand, my toes close to touching the upper crest of the tide. Sea foam flecked the sand beyond my feet. I breathed. I arranged my body like a sea star, each limb outstretched. I craned my neck. The sand felt good, sticking to my skin like that. As if eager to maintain the touch between it and my body.
My mind returned to parrotfish and their sand-making. Their voracious jaws and willingness to turn something solid into sand. Sand is solid, but not like a body is solid. Sand takes any shape it wants. Sand withstands. Can cling to a body to become part of someone else.
But in that moment, I was more starfish than parrotfish. Most of the sea stars along this coast had died. Some strange melting event. Their bodies giving up their solidity, transforming into something else.
I stayed there on the sand, waiting for my own body to melt. I wasn’t even thinking of my mother, I was simply swept up in an abstract grief, exhausted. Eventually my body grew tired of being tired. Maybe I had stayed there one minute or two years. Time felt longer when I was younger, and perhaps once I wound up on the sand, I had used up all my genuine sadness, and was playacting a little. I had committed to this bit, but on the sand, I grew tired of it.
I got up. I squinted my eyes in the sun. I did not brush the sand from my skin. I stood, flexed my toes. I placed my body in the exact edge of the sea foam, the darker, ocean-drenched sand slicing across the land. The wedge of still dry sand, bright and lightly hot. This was my favorite place in the world. It was also my mother’s favorite place. Both in and out of the ocean.
We’d lived farther from the sea when she was alive, but we’d still travelled to it. Family outings, blithe and happy. Mom always loved being in two places at once. Both out of the sea and touching it. She called it liminality. A word so long it sounded like an incantation, like witches gathering at a beach at dusk around a bonfire. They grilled soy dogs over the flame while mouthing secrets to the universe. Perhaps they would also have a cauldron. They would consume their fake dogs and pet their real dogs—they would’ve brought their dogs with them—and then they would fly. That was liminality. The consumption of the mundane paired with exquisite flight. My mom had been a writer, and perhaps some of her whimsy had passed to me.
I looked away from the ocean, and up into the sky’s vast sunlight. I would use the word liminality countless times in high school English essays. A word that sounded smart, but really wasn’t. Being between, experiencing duality. It was simply a truth of life. For years all humans moved through liminal spaces whether we knew it or not. We were always both dead and alive in this vibrantly alive and dying world.
I turned away from the sky. Its blueness that had entered my eyes expanded the iron gate surrounding my heart. I looked to the sea—another blue. Tender blue green that was also dark, that also promised freedom and something else. Something slick touched my foot. I startled. The tide was rising. I was ankle deep. Something beneath the water—tender and tickling—was still touching me. A long slice of something that looked blue. I bent down, plunged my hand beneath that shallow skin of water. A fish. Dead. With two hands, I held her body. Silver in the light. Body as long as my forearm or longer. Amber eyes open and unmoving. A bonefish, I’d discover later that day, as Dad and I perused an identification guide we found online.
Bonefish. A lovely or else sinister name. Bones as strength and structure. Bones as spider-web thin and fragile. Bones as evidence of death. You’re all skin and bones! You’re nothing. A skeleton left in the sand.
It’s strange the way fish scales shimmer. As if actually metallic. What else can glitter like fish scales? The bodies in the ocean are bizarrely bright. Bioluminescence, jellyfish reflecting light, glowing as bright as a beacon. Fish made from slippery silver. From beneath, the ocean creates its own light.
The bonefish was heavy as I held her. My first real witness of death. My mother’s death had been severe and shocking, but abstract. There never was a body. She died in the great eastern flood that killed thousands, so, I had no idea exactly when or how she died, but I knew what it must’ve been like. The water sweeping in and surrounding her body. Her giving up—finally—opening her mouth to let the water in. But how—until the moment when you’re faced with real life and death—can you understand what that’s like? Opening your mouth. Relinquishing yourself to the world’s whims.
As I held the fish in my hand, that was death. Solid and absolute. A fish. As beautiful as glitter.
I inhaled and then lowered her back into the water. Then something else touched my foot. Several somethings. Around me, like a cold iron halo from below, eight or so corpses gleamed. I screamed.
My shout was a lighthouse of sound that lasted, kept lasting. I couldn’t stop. Rushing in pitch, gathering in volume. A wave gathering force as it moved toward shore. My voice reached a higher and higher peak, always about to crest and plummet. Violent energy scattering as sea foam and deeply dark water. My young voice, a force to be reckoned with, a system that couldn’t be controlled. I kept screaming. My sound soaring to the sky. A little girl inside a cloud.
As I screamed, fish gathered around me. Each body barely floating. Water-logged and rancid. These soul-stars of the deep, bonefish and angelfish and cod and pollock and—
Over the next week I would identify them all. My memory picture perfect. Death burns clarity into you.
My father wrapped his arms around me. He said, “Oh god.”
Where had he come from? I have no memory of his walking toward me. He wasn’t there, and then he was. He continued to hold me.
The beach shores filled with fish. Corpses unreal in their tangibility and lifelessness. Tens, then hundreds pooling on the sand. Fine, dead coral particles clinging to their skin. The sand didn’t know that their skin was cold and unmoving. That these bodies could take the sand nowhere.
As my father hugged me, clouds rolled in. The day turned gray, the blue above hiding behind condensed moisture that looked like cotton. And then, a slit of light pierced through the clouds to illuminate the pile of fish bodies as if the earth was saying, look at all of this, look at what you’ve done.
Michelle Donahue has prose published in Passages North, Sycamore Review, CutBank, Arts & Letters, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in creative writing & literature from the University of Utah where she was a Steffensen Cannon fellow. Her work has been supported by the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She is an assistant professor at UNC Wilmington where she teaches publishing and creative writing and is the associate editor of Ecotone. Learn more about her on her website.
We are pleased to present an interview with Michelle Donahue below, conducted by Abygail Leon Zavala—one of SuperstitionReview’s fiction editors.
Abygail Leon Zavala: I noticed that there’s a constant use of color as a form of description within “The Ocean Creates Its Own Light,” specifically the color blue. Could you offer us an explanation on the importance of this color and what this detail means to you?
Michelle Donahue: I’ve always thought there was something watchful about large bodies of water. When I’m by a lake or the ocean, I always feel as if I’m being looked at, as if when water finds itself in the company of many, many water molecules it can forge its own consciousness. I know this isn’t scientifically true, but I can never shake the feeling that bodies of water are exactly that—bodies that can see. Maybe that sounds sinister, but I find it tremendously comforting and awe-inspiring. And so, when I think of water, I think so much of the visual, of color and images. The repetition of blue here is, I think, a result of that. This is a water story, so the visuals matter, and water often is blue. Plus, as you mention in the next question, this is a story about grief, and so blue made sense for the emotional threads too.
ALZ: This piece depicts grief and death as a suffocating and overwhelming event. What inspired you to write about the topic?
MD: This story actually started as a chapter of a novel I’m working on, which is very, very loosely inspired by the epic of Gilgamesh. In that tale, Gilgamesh loses his best friend, Enkidu, and it’s this loss that leads Gilgamesh on a quest to search for immortality. So, I knew I needed a death in the novel, one large enough to inspire the protagonist to go on her own journey. The novel too, is about the grief I feel over the species losses that have happened and are happening because of human actions, so I wanted to pair a specific human grief, like the loss of a mother, with a more abstract but expansive one, like the loss of whole populations. Although the moment in “The Ocean Creates Its Own Light” wasn’t working in the novel draft, I thought with a few changes, it’d make a compelling story that could tackle these griefs on its own.
ALZ: I enjoyed the description of liminality in this story and how it is a natural human experience. Can you draw on a few of your own experiences within a liminal space? In what instances do you feel the most “alive” in this “dying world”?
MD: I share some of the protagonist’s frustration and obsession with the word “liminality.” It’s a word that sounds pretentious and complicated but is such a simple, common experience. We cross boundaries and exist between them every day, perhaps most notably in the way we’re very much animals ourselves—driven by biological desires and needs—but can be so removed from the natural world. Also, as someone who is mixed raced but white appearing, I often feel like I exist in a bit of liminal space too, which is perhaps compounded by the fact that I’ve lived in five states literally coast to coast in the last five years. Sometimes I’m not sure who I am or where feels like home! I always feel most alive when I’m outdoors. Yes, humans have been responsible for a lot of destruction, but when I’m in a forest or on the coast, it’s impossible to ignore how much beauty, how much life there still is.
ALZ: On the About page of your website, I read that you are a lover of all bodies of water and have studied environmental biology along with creative writing. Could you explain how these interests came to be, and how it affects the process of writing something such as “The Ocean Creates Its Own Light”?
MD: As a child, I always loved stories, and I think it was around high school that being a writer felt like this beautiful, impossible dream. It was also around that time that I took AP Bio and fell in love with the discipline. Both writing and science feel like two vastly different and similar ways of trying to know the world.
I’ve always found it hard to articulate how the science background affects and influences my creative work. As one of my former students observed, “You write about animals. A lot.” And that’s perhaps the best way to put it. I write about what I love, what I’m obsessed with, and so often that’s the strange and beautiful life of animals, or in the case of this story, their deaths.
ALZ: In your bio, it is stated that you will be working on Ecotone. Could you further elaborate on what your role will be and the goals you are working towards?
MD: Yes! I just joined the brilliant faculty at UNC Wilmington, where Ecotone is published. In addition to teaching publishing and creative writing, I’m the associate editor at Ecotone where I’m working primarily on prose. At Ecotone our goal is to publish a diverse range of writing that reimagines place. An ecotone is an area of transition between two ecological communities (talk about a liminal space!), so at the magazine, we very much want work that explores the ecotones between scientific and literary disciplines, literary genres, identities, and so on. We’d love to see work from Superstition Review readers and staff, so keep us in mind in the future.
ALZ: What advice can you give to those who seek a publishing career or seek to get their work published?
MD: I think the best advice is simply: never give up. The only real way to fail as a writer is to stop writing. Any published writer knows it takes many, many rejections to accrue a few successes. As for a publishing career, I’d say find a good mentor. This can be done through an internship or first job, or through an academic program (here at UNC Wilmington we offer both a BFA and MFA certificate in publishing). Publishing really is an industry of love; you have to love the work you do, but if that’s true it’s incredibly rewarding.
The following short story and interview contain mentions of suicide. If you or a loved one is struggling with suicidal ideation, know there are resources out there. For the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, call 988.
Roger loved Beth, of course, but he had hoped age would slow her down. She had never lost her frenzy for what she believed was her life’s central mystery.
In the meantime, grandkids banged on pots and pans at all hours. AM radio was always on full blast with talk about opera and the end of the world. A clipping of wisteria she’d taken from a friend had turned into a full invasion of the trees in their backyard. Butterfly stickers were plastered all over the window that looked out over his vegetable garden.
“I’d rather see real butterflies in my garden,” he told her.
“They hardly ever come around, and I want to see them all the time.”
She paid no attention to his grumbling, and of course, he felt guiltier about criticizing her when they found out she was dying.
“Death is inevitable,” he reassured her on the way back from the cardiologist.
“You wouldn’t say that if it was happening to you.”
“It is happening to me! My heart’s just as bad. I’ll probably die before you.”
“No such luck,” she said with a little laugh, and he didn’t know if she meant her luck or his.
He stopped at their favorite fast food spot and bought her a hot dog and an ice cream sundae, and he got a basket of chili fries, and they sat on one of the picnic tables overlooking the baseball field where the high school kids were practicing.
“They don’t have a care in the world. They’re not thinking about what it all means. Or else, they’re thinking about batting averages. It’s the only thing they have to prove,” she said.
Her eyes were a little red, but she wouldn’t let a tear fall. He hadn’t seen her cry for decades, not since their youngest’s body was found in the woods. Their only little girl. After that, Beth had wanted to talk about it all the time, like that would bring her back. He’d asked her to think of his feelings, and she hadn’t liked that. But what was there to do about it? Bad things happened. Death was really and truly inevitable.
“What do you think it all means? ” he asked, deciding to humor her.
She brightened like he’d given her a compliment, and she put her burger down so she could concentrate on her explanation.
“Life is about understanding the people you love. Once you understand them, you can let them go.”
“You don’t understand me,” Roger said.
“Oh, please. I understood you after our first date.”
He savored his fries and waited for her to resume her theorizing. He didn’t think he was so easy to figure out.
“I’m happy with the life we’ve lived in every way but one. I really am.”
“I believe you. But I’ve been telling you for years, we should leave that house. It brings back bad memories sometimes. We could make a fresh start even if we only have a few months. Why not? We could move to assisted living. It might be nice.”
“I can’t, Roger. She might speak to me again and finally tell me what happened. She’s still there.”
He could feel his ire rising, but he tried to tamp it down. Getting angry wouldn’t do anyone any good. It was hard to be the hard one all the time.
“She’s not there. She’s moved on, Darling. I’m sure of it. She’s not haunting us.”
Beth gave him the most furious expression she could make, her eyebrows arching lower than they used to. “But I will. I will haunt you for the rest of your life if you don’t try to help me make my peace before I die.”
“You know I’ll do anything I can!” he started, intending to defend himself against the implied accusation that he was too lazy to help his dying wife. It was hard to think of Beth’s absence, and it scared him to think of how much he’d miss her, but he didn’t want her to haunt him. She’d do it, too. If there were any way to do it, Beth would find it. He’d never get a good night’s rest again.
“I’m only asking this one thing,” she said, interrupting his defending. “I still don’t know what happened to Sweet Wendy. I don’t know why she went into the woods that day. I don’t know who hurt her. I don’t know what she was thinking.”
“She was sad, Beth. The police found her diary, and she said she was depressed. It was a tragedy—the greatest tragedy of our lives. But we already know why it happened.”
“But why? She never told me she was depressed. I don’t believe it, Roger. I’ll go to my grave not believing it.”
They’d been over the story thousands of times. Beth had the same questions, and he gave the same answers. At first, they’d both demanded answers and investigations and had called in detectives and pastors and priests and rabbis and psychics and anyone else who had any chance of helping. After a couple of years, Roger had faced the facts. Their daughter had been depressed. It didn’t make sense to him either—she hadn’t seemed sad. She was only sixteen, rather young to give up on life. But that’s what the evidence said. Beth had even called in a guy from the university who made podcast shows to investigate Wendy’s death, but he couldn’t get up enough mystery content for a single show. He said he was sorry, and then he left without giving them any more answers than they’d had before. Humiliation after humiliation! Everyone in town knew them as the poor couple who had lost their daughter in their own back woods. Everyone was sorry, but they were all alone in the depth of their sorrow. Not even their sons, Wendy’s two older brothers, had understood, though they had pain of their own.
He was ruminating on the injustices they had suffered as he drove home, and Beth made the same case she’d made for years. Wendy was always one who followed the rules. She had just won that dance competition, and she had another coming up that she was practicing for (and yet she wasn’t going overboard or stressing out too much). She wanted to be a vet, and she was volunteering at the animal shelter. She loved her family. Even that diary (which Beth had always suspected was a plant) had made that much clear. She wouldn’t have wanted to hurt her parents or her brothers. If she really felt she had to die, she would have explained it better.
When they got home, she was still ranting away as she followed him into the kitchen where he was going to get a glass of water, and she pointed to one butterfly sticker that had fallen to the floor beside the picture window.
“It’s Wendy! That sticker is a sign!”
“Damn it, Beth, that sticker just fell down. It’s nothing supernatural.” He was glad to have one less sticker to look at. It was the weird glittery-purple one, too, the one that didn’t look like any kind of butterfly he had ever seen in real life.
“These stickers don’t just fall off. Try getting another one off.”
He’d never attempted it, knowing he wouldn’t hear the end of it if he displaced one of her precious butterflies. When he tried scratching at a pink butterfly with his fingernail, it wouldn’t budge.
“You’d have to get a scraping knife to take these off,” she said.
He groaned. Maybe it would be a project for their sons when they were both dead.
“That’s her talking to me, Roger. She hasn’t left me a sign in a long time. I think it’s finally happening again because you’re finally listening again. On account of my dying. Not a second too soon, either.”
He examined the fallen butterfly. It wasn’t anything like a real butterfly, but he already sort of missed it. He was used to seeing it there on the window. Was it really Wendy speaking to them after so long? Hadn’t she moved on to heaven yet?
“Promise me you’ll keep listening, and that you’ll believe. For my sake, the last wish of a dying woman.”
“I’ll listen!” he called out, raising his hands in the air as if he were a holy roller. “I believe! I’ll listen! I believe!”
“Now, you keep paying attention, and I will too. She’s sure to spark up again soon.”
While they were watching television later that evening, they heard a light commotion outside. Animal sounds. When they went to investigate, they looked through the picture window and found a striped cat sitting at a distance from the house and staring at them.
“That’s her,” Beth said.
“Our daughter is not a cat,” Roger said. The cat was cute, though. It looked at them with a sense of purpose, swinging its tail from side to side as if to get their attention.
“Remember when she was little and she wanted to be in school plays, but she was so shy? You used to tell her to pretend like she was a cat. Cats think they’re the best, and that other people are lucky to be around them.”
“I forgot that. It sounds like so-so advice. It wouldn’t help if you were really and truly scared. You can’t just become a cat.” He wasn’t sure if he had ever given Wendy good advice. Maybe that was why she didn’t come to him before the end.
“Unless you’re a ghost,” Beth whispered. “Let’s follow the cat. The cat wants us to. Can’t you tell?”
He had promised to believe, after all, which meant he had to try.
They rarely went out at night anymore. It was early spring, and some crickets were waking up. There was a chill to the air, so Beth ran in to grab jackets for them, though he didn’t see the point since he didn’t think the cat was really going to lead them anywhere.
But the cat did lead them into the woods. Roger had only been in the woods a few times since the tragedy. A couple of times he’d gone out looking for the boys’ dog, and another time he had to help one of them find different kinds of leaves for a school project.
“You promised,” Beth said, so he followed the cat even though he felt angry about it.
He hadn’t done anything wrong, so why should he always be punished? They should have left a long time before. As soon as he could, he was going to move them into a retirement community. Then whichever one of them died last would have company while they waited. There were people playing cards and checkers and chess, and they had good hot meals. There was even a duck pond.
By grumbling to himself, he was able to ignore the thorns and creepiness of their journey into the woods. They walked slowly, and the cat would stop and wait for them sometimes. It really did seem to be leading them somewhere in particular. Finally, they found themselves in a clearing near a small creek, and they recognized the spot. This was where it had happened. There was that log that had fallen halfway in the water, still rotting slowly.
“I used to come here every day to leave flowers or little trinkets that made me think of her. But I stopped a long time ago, because it was too sad.” Beth was about to cry, and Roger felt responsible. He shouldn’t have let them get carried away.
“You did the best you could, Beth. You did a great job as a mom.”
She shook her head. His eyes had adjusted to the low light from the half-moon above, and he could see her and the cat clearly. The cat jumped up to sit on the dry portion of the log, twitching its tail as an invitation.
They had no choice, they felt, but to sit on the log where the cat wanted them to. They had come so far, and they had to finish their task.
“Look at that,” he said as he looked up.
The stars were so cold and distant, it scared him at first. It had been years since he had really looked at them. The bigger the town got, the harder it was to see them, and there was something comforting about that. The restaurants and the baseball games and the backyard parties were so bright and loud, no one had to see the stars and feel creepy about them. There was a time when people found pictures and stories up there, but the maddening silence must have made them dreamy. He couldn’t see any patterns up there. It was just a wild scatter of dots, like the holes in one of those posters they have at shooting ranges. Maybe God was up there shooting at them and kept missing.
“Beautiful,” Beth said. “This was the last thing she saw.”
That made his eyes sting. The last thing their sweet daughter knew was that cold, comfortless sky? He hoped she had closed her eyes and thought of something cozy. But then, why had she gone all the way out there if not to see that sky in the end?
“Someone told her to do it,” Beth said. “Maybe she did it herself, but someone told her to.”
“Who? Who would do something like that?”
Soon Beth was crying like a child, and Roger was, too. Who would do something like that?
“Maybe you’re right. That morning, she told me she’d go fishing with me that weekend,” Roger said. “She never lied. She always did what she said.”
“This was an exception, because something happened. Maybe she wasn’t murdered exactly. Maybe there won’t be any justice. Maybe not in this life, maybe not ever. I get the feeling…I get the feeling she wants us to forgive, to forgive her and whoever hurt her.”
Roger felt a foreign softness against his hand, and he shouted and jumped up. It was the cat coming up to them.
“Kitty?” he said, trying to sound brave.
“Wendy,” Beth said. “I know why you brought us out here. You wanted us to know what you were feeling. You felt like things were too big for you. You were sensitive, and someone was rooting against you. Maybe more than one person.”
The cat looked up. What was up there? The sky. The more he looked at it, the less alien it seemed. It was just a sky seen from a planet. The stars were fireballs. It was incredible. A cloud crept across the half-moon, and it looked like a fairy gown lit up by magic, like one of those princess things Wendy had liked to wear when she was little.
“This was what she saw before she died. And it was good,” Beth said.
He didn’t know what to say. It must have been so.
Wisteria hung from the branches above. When he was focused on the stars, he hadn’t noticed the blossoms, but now he saw.
“Was this wisteria there when she died?” he said. “I can’t remember when you set it down back here and it caught on.”
“No, it wasn’t here then. She loved purple flowers. Remember?”
“I don’t.” His voice was hoarse.
“I guess I planted it for her. And when she looks up now, she can see it there.”
When they looked down again, the cat was gone. It had done its job. They went back to the house in a kind of holy silence, holding hands. It had hurt to be so close to the sky. He was glad to be back inside. It was too hard to discuss at first. She went to bed, and he stayed up another hour to watch TV, though he wasn’t really paying attention. He was basking in the warm colors and thinking about old times.
They were able to speak at breakfast, and they agreed it had been a sign.
“I’m almost at peace,” Beth said, and he couldn’t help but laugh.
“What more could you want? She came back for us, didn’t she?”
“There’s one more thing I have to understand. Is she still sad about it? Wherever she is, whatever her spirit does…is it sad, or is it at peace?”
He nodded. It seemed like it would be a good thing to know.
“If you have something else to tell us, Wendy, we’re listening,” he said. This time, he meant it.
That evening, they didn’t turn on the television. Beth suggested they read, and he knew it was so they could hear better in case Wendy came to call again.
Again, they heard tapping at the window, but this time it was insistent and gentle as rain. They ran into the kitchen, but nothing was out there. No cat this time. It wasn’t until Beth turned on the outdoor lights that they could see a swarm of bugs infesting their backyard.
“Probably those damn mosquitos,” Roger said, but it was too early for them.
When they stepped outside, they saw wings fluttering all around their garden. As they got closer, they could it was a swarm of butterflies.
“At night, Roger! At night! Not moths, but butterflies.”
There were at least a dozen of them, and they were the most vivid colors. No pale ones. Just electric blues and oranges and purples.
“Even at night. Wendy is like this even at night. Is this what death is, Roger?”
He could see it clearly now in the porchlight. He didn’t have to strain his eyes. He was going to lose his wife. It took his breath away. It was inevitable, and it happened to everyone. It had happened to their daughter before them. But now it was happening to them. It wasn’t fair. It didn’t matter if they all became butterfly spirits, happy as could be. It wasn’t fair to live so close to someone and then lose them. It wasn’t fair to get so old and lose everything. Hadn’t they done the best they could? They had done what they were supposed to do.
“It’s all right to die, then, Roger. It really is.”
Beth was happy, but he couldn’t be.
“I want to die first,” he said. “Sometimes I wish I had died suddenly a long time ago, so I wouldn’t have to think about these things.”
He sat down in the garden, and the butterflies whizzed around his head. By instinct, he almost swatted one.
“It doesn’t matter who dies first,” she said. She sat down in the grass beside him. He couldn’t think of the last time they’d sat on the ground like that, and he wasn’t sure if they’d be able to get up again. “Whoever goes will make a way. The other will follow. When moment doesn’t follow moment…you see, all the moments are there.”
He didn’t see. It didn’t make sense. But Wendy was there, at least. She was dancing again in the forms of a bunch of night-drunk butterflies. She had loved the night. Where was she? They were closing in on her territory, wherever she was.
They kept their holy silence all night. The next day, they sat for hours by the picture window. Once or twice, one of them spotted a butterfly. They had seemed so rare before, like creatures that only came out for photographers. But they were everywhere.
That night, they talked about Wendy. They didn’t talk about the end, but they talked about the different moments along the way. It hadn’t always been clear who she was. They had known she was kind (most of the time), but they hadn’t realized before what a great guide she was. They had to piece her together from all those scattered moments after she was gone.
“It is a great gift that you and I have lived together so long and know each other so well,” Beth said.
“Maybe it’s a gift that I’m not a mystery. I’m a simple person,” Roger said.
Months later, when Beth died in her bed at home, she knew she was going. The kids and grandkids went to see her one last time, and she gave everyone strange tokens, from sheets of stickers to stones she liked to little sketches she’d made of the house and backyard. Roger was alone with her that evening when she passed over.
“I know you helped me solve the mystery like you promised, but I’ll haunt you anyway. It would be my pleasure to haunt you.” That was one of the last things she said.
“Go right ahead.”
After the funeral and the lunch at their oldest son’s house, Roger drove himself home. Everyone said he should stay over at his son’s, but he wanted to go back to see if Beth had left him a sign.
It was late spring, and he was shocked to see that wisteria had spread into the front yard. Had it been that way the night before? He hadn’t noticed it. It must have spread from the back to the front overnight. It was invasive and brilliant, the most beautiful flower.
After he sold the house, he took a cutting of it with him to plant outside his window at the assisted living place. Whether he liked it or not, life was without end. Before he died, the wisteria would spread even farther.
Ivy Grimes lives in Virginia. Her work has appeared in Potomac Review, Pithead Chapel, Salt Hill, Vastarien, Shirley Magazine, and elsewhere. To learn more about her, visit her website.
We are also pleased to present an interview with Ivy Grimes about “Picture Window,” conducted by Superstition Review’s fiction editor, Margaret LaCorte. Read it below.
Margaret LaCorte: The perspectives you chose to write about in Picture Window are from that of an older couple, Roger and Beth, struggling to cope with the loss of their child several years down the road. What made you want to write the story from this perspective?
Ivy Grimes: I grew up in a smallish town, and most of my family was a ten-minute drive away, so I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and great-aunts and other elders. The process of aging and coming to terms with dying is fascinating and horrible and beautiful. In some ways, people who live to old age are very lucky to experience so much life, but they also grapple with so much suffering and loss. They have more time to puzzle over existential problems for which there are no obvious answers.
I also think that most of us expect others to pass through grief quickly, when really the loss never ends. It’s hard to truly enter into someone else’s pain, and I wanted to explore the perspective of people who were happy in many ways and yet dealt with extraordinary grief over a long period of time.
ML: Death is a central focus of this piece. How have your own experiences with death shaped the manner in which you wrote “Picture Window”?
IG: I was raised as a Christian in the South, and while I have problems with much of the orthodoxy now, I still believe in the life of the spirit. I believe in the peace that sustains us all. I don’t necessarily want to believe this, and I know it doesn’t make sense to believe it given the suffering that exists, but I can’t help it. Struggling with my faith and trying to make sense of the world we live in has led me to write some depressing stories, and yet for me, there’s something inexpressibly comforting behind it all.
I’ve experienced death and grief, but not in the same way the characters in the story have—not with the same intensity. They feel responsible for their daughter, and to lose someone so close and so young is a different kind of grief. Plus, they wonder what they could have done. There’s something especially shocking about suicide, and often there’s no sense of why and whether the person found peace. Suicide rips a hole in the fabric of a community. People often blame themselves when they weren’t to blame as individuals, but we are responsible as a community. We have to continually think of how to create communities where we notice and address suffering.
ML: Roger and Beth struggle in understanding what really was the cause of their daughter’s death. What made you decide to incorporate this level of uncertainty into the story?
IG: I think it’s common not to know why people commit suicide, even if the person leaves behind an explanation. In many cases, there’s been no direct communication about thoughts of suicide (which is why it’s so important to share these thoughts when they arise and to seek help). I wanted to show how this confusion might affect those left behind, and how they might grapple with those feelings. Whenever anyone dies, or when they leave us behind, we’re generally left with anger and grief, and we want to know why…in a larger sense, why does life have to be this way? And I’d like to think that if you remain open, you might not find clear answers, but you might find signs and some sense of peace.
ML: Setting plays a big role in Wendy’s death, as well as her parents’ acceptance of it. Can you speak to the significance of placing the setting of her death within the woods behind Roger and Wendy’s home?
IG: Many tragedies in our lives happen in our homes or right outside our doors, and so a place associated with wonderful memories can also be associated with deep sadness. I’ve especially seen older people cope with this, and it’s mind-boggling to me. I hate the idea of living in a house for fifty years and letting the place be a repository for all my ghosts and memories.
For most people, the woods are lovely, but with a hint of danger. For Roger, the woods outside his house became a place he couldn’t go, because he couldn’t bear thinking about what had happened there. By confronting the place and his daughter’s perspective, he was able to see that the woods might have looked different to his daughter. They might have become a place of peace instead of simply a place of suffering.
ML: I found it interesting that Beth’s character is dying through the events of the story, motivating the couple to finally come to terms with their daughter’s death. During the process of writing this, what was the most difficult part of capturing this perspective?
IG: Roger wants to leave the house, and Beth wants to stay close to her daughter’s memory and spirit. I’d want to leave, personally, which is probably why I chose to focus more on Roger’s perspective. I have a hard time sitting with grief for very long, and my response to problems is often to search for a logical explanation, and if I don’t find one, to forget about it as best I can. Roger realizes that his wife has stuck around to find her daughter or some hint of an explanation, and he wants to help. Sometimes when people in our lives believe in something we don’t believe in, we can be harsh. But there’s something healing about taking people seriously, even when we feel like they’re being dramatic or fantastical. So entering into Roger’s perspective wasn’t very hard for me. By the end, he has gained some kind of inexpressible insight, which is something I’ve felt at times. I had a harder time understanding Beth, who keeps striving and mourning and searching her whole life. Fortunately, I was approaching her from the outside.
ML: Your use of symbolism through the recurring use of the wisteria flower was one of my favorite parts of the piece. During the process of writing this story, what other options did you consider using to symbolize the everlasting nature of life?
IG: I considered no other options! Wisteria was the impetus for writing the story. I always enjoyed writing, and my Grandmother Grimes would sometimes come up with subjects for me to write about. She was a natural storyteller, and she loved to tell odd tales to children about creatures in the woods, and she loved talking to adults about what the family and the neighbors and the women in her Garden Club were doing.
So anyway, one day, she told me I should write a story about a man who comes home after his wife’s funeral and sees that the wisteria she once planted (not realizing it was invasive) was everywhere. Everywhere. In truth, my grandmother had planted some wisteria that invaded her trees, and I think she admired it but was also alarmed by its persistence. I don’t know how my grandfather felt about it, but maybe he felt the same. I thought it was a great idea for a story, but I couldn’t think of how to do it justice. I probably still haven’t! But I did the best I could at present. So thank you to my grandmother for that idea and many others!