Interview with Anders Carlson-Wee

This interview was recorded on March 20, 2019, at a reading in the Writing Center of the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia. We would like to acknowledge the school, faculty members, English department, and Anders Carlson-Wee for their time and support.


Sarah Lao: What does your writing process look like? Where do you get inspiration?

Anders Carlson-Wee: I’m kind of a workhorse of a writer, meaning I’ll stubbornly sit down to write day after day even if I’m not feeling terribly inspired or like I’m not getting a good idea going. And I’m very comfortable, I think more than some people, drafting stuff that just isn’t good, at least in the beginning. So, if I’m on a good writing roll, I’ll just draft a fresh piece everyday. Most of those are terrible, and I throw them away, but once every couple weeks, something starts sticking, and I’m thinking “this piece might have some legs, and I might be able to grow it into something.” I’ll work on this piece for a while, and the process goes on. I’d say it takes me around a year and a half to finish a poem, and I go through a lot of different stages. I’ll show the piece to people who I trust as readers, I’ll go back to it and revise again and again, and I’ll just keep fine tuning it. Eventually, I’ll memorize it and start working on it in my head; I’ll walk around and keep doing the edits. It’s a long process, but in terms of inspiration, it’s hard to know where it all comes from. It’s really a bit of a mysterious process, but for me, I think a lot of it’s about noticing what gets me emotional and noticing what sort of things obsess my mind. Whether they’re stories or topics, I just find ways to write about it, and I’d say the majority of my attempts fail. But, I keep trying to find an angle in that will somehow bring it to life. And most of the pieces don’t work. And then finally some of them do, and I keep editing those. So, The Low Passions is a book of fifty-three poems. It took me more than ten years to write, and I probably drafted two thousand poems to get to the fifty-three.

SL: How did you get involved in poetry?

ACW: I’m dyslexic and when I was little, I didn’t really trust visuals. It took me a while to learn to read and to write, and I did what was called mirror writing which is where you write backwards, and then if you hold it up to a mirror, it looks correct. So it took me a while to learn those basic skills, and I depended a lot on the oral sounds and oral aspects of language. I would memorize long segments of dialogue, and then I was also being inundated with sermons because I was growing up in two churches with my parents. So I was around that a lot and didn’t really notice how much I was taking to it, but I think I really did have a kind of natural knack for memorizing language. But yeah I liked stories and everything but it didn’t really click as a life pursuit until I got to college. I was 21 when I started college, and I ended up in a class with a woman named Mary Cornish. She was such a good teacher, and she really brought poetry to life for me. A few weeks into that class, I was totally hooked, and I was ready to reshape my whole life to make poetry the center of it.

SL: Do you call yourself a poet?

ACW: No, I don’t really like saying I’m a poet when I’m meeting people. I think it’s mainly just the extra baggage of “poet” as a word instead of just saying “writer,” and that’s generally what I say if people ask me what I do. “Poet” seems a little loaded, and somehow it feels pretentious in a way to people—at least where I’m from. It’s a very practical culture in Minnesota. And I think my parents struggle with that as pastors, too. It makes you kind of outside of “normal” human daily life.


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Anders Carlson-Wee (left) with our Social Media Manager, Sarah Lao (right).


SL: Can you tell us a little bit about your newest book, The Low Passions?

ACW: Yeah, this collection is sort of a sequence of adventure stories. On the one hand, there’s a lot about traveling by freight train and bicycle and hitchhiking all around the country. And those adventure stories are counterpointed by these meditations on family that’s happening from the distance of being on the road.

SL: So, what does the phrase “the Low Passions” mean, and why did you pick it as the title for your collection?

ACW: The Low Passions is an obscure term from Christianity. It means all things of the earth, all things tangible, all things of this physical world, and it’s usually used in a derogatory sense to mean the things that seduce us, the things that make us feel greed or lust. It’s a derogatory term as opposed to the high passions, which would be everything spiritual and of heaven. I’m a very tactile person, very physical, and very oriented toward my body. And I think part of the project of the book for me was a desire to craft something that was lifting up those “low passions” theoretically, and the book kind of turned the term on its head and gave it a little more spiritual heft toward something more positive. Being someone who’s deeply invested in the earth and everything tangible—the tactile and the human body—I really wanted that to be considered sacred. So for me, “the Low Passions” was a term I grabbed onto because it was used in a derogatory sense, and fuck that. I wanted to find a way to honor that. Though I’m not religious personally, since I haven’t quite found a form of faith that works for me, I do think the Christian story is incredible, and one of the things that I really value is the idea that God comes down and becomes physical in the form of Jesus. And in that story, that’s the way to know God: through the physical, through the body, through the earth. To me, that’s a powerful story.

SL: How do you put your books together? Is there a specific process you go through?

ACW:  Right. So there’s so many permutations for how you might construct poems into a book. It’s overwhelming. I did have a very long stage where I spread it all out on the floor, and I stood on tables to get an eagle’s eye view just to see everything and try to trick myself into defamiliarizing it for myself. But honestly, my editor at Norton played a big role in shaping the final order. There was a good handful of poems that did a total swap from the front to the back and vice versa, and I think that really helped make the book pop in its final form. I wouldn’t have ever seen that, so that was a moment where having an editor was a great blessing to me.

SL: With how much The Low Passions captures these often forgotten, yet haunting glimpses of destitution and decay in America, and in light of last year’s controversy with “How-To,” how do you think it’s possible to respectively give a voice to those unheard without eliciting offense? Where does the line between artistic freedom and offensive speech start?

ACW: Yeah. I think art is an ongoing sequence of attempts. Artists are always kind of trying things, and all art is a leap into the unknown because art’s not something that needs to be duplicated. Like if you’re building houses, it’s fine to just build the same house twice, more or less, right? Let’s just build the house again. But with writing and with art, you’re not trying to build the same thing that artists of the past have built. You’re trying to find something new and create art into a new space. And so I think art is an ongoing series of attempts. If the attempts don’t work or don’t help the culture in some way, they fall into obscurity. People don’t need to interact with them, and that’s fine. But, if other forms of art seem to help a culture in some way, then they’ll stick around and become part of the zeitgeist and people’s imaginations. And that’s great. I think that’s healthy and good for art. People try things. Some of them work, and some of them don’t.

SL: Do you have any favorite words? Some words that you just enjoy sonically?

ACW: For me, I tend to favor the Anglo-Saxon aspects of the English language: the kind of monosyllabic words like “lake” and “rock” and “crust” that are very consonant heavy. Those types of words are very physical as far as forcing you to slow down because the more consonants you say, the more your mouth needs to come to complete rests before starting the next word. One thing that is really beautiful about the English language is that it combines those kinds of Anglo-Saxon words with a ton of influence from other romantic languages. You can have sentences that have these strong, percussive kind of consonant-heavy sounds that can be almost gravelly and very intense, and then you can suddenly have a word like “beautiful” which has a lot of flow and spreads out across a few syllables. And so in English, you can combine those two types to make some really cool sentences.

SL: So, what’s next? What are you working on currently?

ACW: Well, right now while I’m on tour, I’m just doing all the readings, but I am working on another book. I would not dare give anything away about it yet, but I’m excited to get back to it.


155448716410359295.gifANDERS CARLSON-WEE is the author of The Low Passions (W.W. Norton, 2019). His work has appeared in BuzzFeed, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, Poetry Daily, The Sun, and many other places. His debut chapbook, Dynamite, won the Frost Place Chapbook Prize. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the McKnight Foundation, the Camargo Foundation, Bread Loaf, Sewanee, and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, he is the winner of the 2017 Poetry International Prize. His work has been translated into Chinese. Anders holds an MFA from Vanderbilt University and lives in Minneapolis.

155448712822039068SARAH LAO is a sophomore at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia. She currently edits for Evolutions Magazine, reads for Polyphony Lit, and serves as the Social Media Manager for Inklette Magazine. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Sooth Swarm Journal, Liminality and the Inflectionist Review, among others. When she is not writing, she enjoys eating scones, playing piano, and spending time with her dog.

Interview with Linda Ashok and Jamel Brinkley

Our blog editors, Maria Prudente and Joanna Cleary, were interested in interviewing writers about their obsessions and repulsions and how they influence writing. Scroll down to read their interviews with two writers we love, Linda Ashok and Jamel Brinkley.


LINDA ASHOK

Maria Prudente: I find that writers need to return to their obsessions in their work. Do you write about your obsessions and, is it challenging to find new ways to write about them?

Linda Ashok: I am not sure about what is implied by obsession. Are you referring to recurring motifs? The thing about my writing is that I never have to think too hard and I mostly go with the flow; writing is quite organic for me as I extract elements from my unsettling dreams. In this process, there are elements that appear quite frequently but they neither demand anything nor dictate. 

MP: Are you ever driven to write about what repulses you? How do you fight the urge to not write around it but through it?

LA: Like anybody else, I am repulsed by any kind of violence but I do write about it because it is therapeutic for me. It helps me to see the underlining of what we perceive as violence. It also builds familiarizes the readers to recognize violences they experience in their personal or public spaces.

Joanna Cleary: As a Communications and Branding professional as well as a writer, how do you think the increasing role of virtual reality and communication in our lives has affected your creativity and creative work? 

LA: Well, virtual reality has built and broken our lives in many ways. In my case, I leveraged virtual reality to expand my creative pursuit; I lived places before I literally travelled to those places. Imagining I am in a certain place, imagining the lives of people local to those places, helped me manifest my desire to live those places in real life through positive affirmations. I experienced their poetry, their struggle, their joys through virtual reality. So yes, it contributed a lot to my writing while also exposing me to a lot of toxicity that affected my mental health in several ways. That I am currently dealing with social anxiety is because of being overwhelmed by the duality of people as seen on social media vs real life. And of course when your life is affected, it does reflect in your work too.

JC: Can you speak to what inspired the title of your 2012 book of poetry, whorelight

LA: My book came out in 2017. I imagined a different name for it and that was whorefrost. But over the four years of its preparation, I found a mention of ‘whorefrost’ somewhere on the net and that really upset me. I wanted to have a unique name to my book. So I continued brainstorming until one day I coined ‘whorelight’ to define how light streams into our darkness, sleeps with it, and leaves everything illuminated. I feel it is akin to those sex-workers who somehow fill in a lot of void in the lives of their customers; and therefore ‘whorelight’ talks about many such moments and experiences that prostituted to fill the many spaces in my life forever inquisitive about meanings.

MP: I was so moved by your poem, ‘We Two Women Can Father A Child.’ Can you elaborate on how that particular piece came to be? 

LA: A certain phase of my childhood happened in the company of my biological mother and my step mother. My mother was too courageous to share her family space with my step mother and she did it to help my dad manage his finances better. In the wake of the world being more accomodating of non-binary relationship, that childhood experience of mine acted as a prop wherein I imagined my mothers discussing how they alone can father me without my dad being around. It is also a depiction of my queer sensibilities imagining two women fathering a child with more considerate human values.

JC: When I read “chew my tongue like a cannibal/ eating a red, fleshy berry” from your poem, ‘Tongue-Tied,’ I was  struck by the theatricality of language. Do you ever perform your work live?

LA: I do. But to myself. These poems are not for a listening audience as the kind of patience they have wouldn’t be enough to simulate the interior theatricality of the poem or poems as such. And even if I am given a very patient and perceptive audience, I would still refrain from performing it as these are very intimate pieces. 


JAMEL BRINKLEY

Maria Prudente: Writers seem to write a lot about their obsessions. Maybe that obsession is a place or a type of person. A writer I know constantly writes about going back inside her mother’s womb. Do you write about any of your obsessions?

Jamel Brinkley: I would say I do, but I’m usually not aware of that fact until after after I’ve written and I can retrospectively look at my work to truly see what I have done. For example, only in hindsight did I see that in my book I was writing about, and obsessed with, families, brotherhood and male friendship, masculinity, and love of various kinds.

MP: Are you driven to write about what repulses you? How do you face that challenge head on?

JB: I think I’m driven to write about what fascinates me, about what I have questions about, and perhaps that sometimes means writing about what repulses me. I think the challenge is making sure that what I’m writing about is interesting to me, so if feeling repulsed is the only response I have to a character or action, then I probably won’t write about it. Complicated or even contradictory emotion is key in driving and sustaining my interest in any story.

Joanna Cleary: According to your website’s description of your collection, A Lucky Man, the work “reflects the tenderness and vulnerability of black men and boys whose hopes sometimes betray them, especially in a world shaped by race, gender, and class—where luck may be the greatest fiction of all.” Can you speak to what luck means to you? Is it an obsession or a repulsion, or both? 

JB: I wouldn’t say that luck is a repulsion; maybe it’s something like an obsession. On the one hand, luck, or the idea of being lucky, is one that I mean to take seriously in the book. I hope that every story contains at least one moment of genuine joy or pleasure or grace for my characters, the kind of moment that makes one feel lucky to be alive. On the other hand, or at the same time, I do mean my invocation of luck to be seen with some irony. For the protagonist of my title story, for instance, luck comes to mean something painful. His life hasn’t turned out the way he expected. And the idea of being fortunate, of being blessed by fate, means that his sense of deserving good things in his life is a lie. What I’m talking about now isn’t unrelated to the myth of meritocracy, which, for some reason, so many people in this country believe in wholeheartedly.  

JC: According to your website, you have many literary events and workshops coming up. Can you speak to how you find that participating in these events influence your work as a writer?  

JB: It’s a real pleasure to meet with readers of my work and with those who are interested in reading my work, and it’s fun to meet with people who are devoted to the writing life. That said, there is a difference between being an author (a public figure) and a writer (a private figure), and participating in all these events has pulled me away from writing. I’ve felt less like an artist than a promoter of my own work. In response to that feeling, I’m learning to be a little less precious about the conditions I require. For example I’m learning how to write in the sterile environments of hotel rooms and, at times, even on airplanes, instead of always needing my apartment, my desk, my coffee mug.

JC: Can you tell us about your current writing fellowship at Stanford?

JB: The Stegner Fellowship is a two-year gift of time and money for which I am very grateful. I benefit from the amazing writing and insights of my peers, the other fiction fellows, when we meet for workshop every week. And we all benefit from working with the Stanford creative writing faculty, with incredible people like Elizabeth Tallent and Chang-rae Lee.


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Author of whorelight, LINDA ASHOK is the 2017 Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow in Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Chichester, UK. She is the publisher of RLFPA Editions, Founder/President of RædLeaf Foundation for Poetry & Allied Arts that funds the annual RL Poetry Award (since 2013), and the founding editor of the Best Indian Poetry series. For features, press coverage, published works and more, visit lindaashok.com

 

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Photo credit: Arash Saedinia

 

JAMEL BRINKLEY is a graduate of Columbia University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has received fellowships from Kimbilio Fiction, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and Stanford University. A Lucky Man is his first book. He lives in California.

Interview with Jenn Givhan

In celebration of International Women’s Day, our blog editors, Joanna Cleary and Maria Prudente, interviewed poet and novelist Jenn Givhan for the Inklette blog. Read on to know more about the women writers who inspire her, writing about motherhood and lots more!



Maria Prudente:
In your collection, Landscape with Headless Mama, you include the experiences of what you call “different mother-entities”. What compelled you to write about women through the collective experience and difference in motherhood?

Jenn Givhan: When I first tried having a baby, I experienced infertility and loss. Though I felt like a mother and mothered the unborns of my heart and imagination, I could not bring a living child into this world. At the time I was working on my Master’s degree in literature, focusing specifically on Latinx views and portrayals of motherhood, searching for mothers outside of the narrow definitions of birthmother that Western society put dataURI-1552097845512upon the lexicon, and found that in many other cultures (Latin American/Mexican, for instance) much of the mothering work is shared by tías, hermanas, abuelas, primas (i.e., female relatives) and I was taken, for instance, with Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate and the role of Nacha, the abuela figure, the magical cook, an indigenous woman who is the primary caregiver of Tita as she grows up, and then later, adult Tita as the wet nurse of her sister’s baby, who becomes a Nacha-like figure to the girl, raising her in the kitchen. As I searched through the literature and began forming my own poetics, I asked questions of motherhood such as is the infertile woman the fertile woman’s doppelganger? Does she represent a fear of being without value in patriarchal society? This all helped me develop a poetics of motherhood outside of the patriarchy in my first collection and beyond, and I’m currently working on a lyric-hybrid memoir Quinceañera with Baby Fever that further delves into my experiences as a Latina growing up on the Mexicali border, examining the cultural stigmas toward childbearing and mothering in the Latina community filtered through my own experiences with teenage sexuality, contraceptives, abortion clinics, miscarriages, and violent relationships with machismo boys/men.  

MP: How does your identity as a Mexican-American women influence how and what you write?

JG: My identity as a Mexican-American woman is embedded in everything I write—even when I don’t explicitly examine my cultural heritage or reference it in my work—because it is linked to my worldview, my deepest belief system, how I view the world and myself. As I discussed before, my work tends to examine mothers at the center, all the variations and possibilities for what mother means, and my own Mexican-American mother is at the heart of this. Everything I write grapples with the complexities inherent in straddling cultures, roles, expectations. Where mainstream U.S. culture would ask me why on earth, for instance, I’d try having a baby while still a college student, why I’d adopt a baby in grad school, my Mexican family never once questioned my deep desire to be a mother, even so young. Now, I’m examining the changing perspectives in my culture and re-evaluating the expectations I felt so crucial, and I’m showing my daughter all the myriad choices she has—she’s eight years old, and we’re already planning for Harvard, which is where she says she will attend college, and which we’re visiting this summer after a book expo for my first novel. I love the Mexican-American woman role model I can be for her—she sees that I’m a mother, yes, but that’s just one aspect of who I am and the possibilities she can hold for herself, if she so desires. She is growing up to know her own strength, and that’s the most powerful aspect of our Latina badassery I can pass onto her.

“Alongside these forebears, I strive to weave together a multilayered song of endurance, survival, and, ultimately, celebration sung by the many women of color working together in the resistance.”

Joanna Cleary: Trinity Sight, your debut novel about a woman’s journey through a dystopian New Mexico, combines indigenous oral-historical traditions with modern apocalyptic fiction. What inspired you to do that? 

JG: I started out writing a story about a woman in New Mexico who loses her family and is on her own, and must find her own strength if she hopes to reunite with them, and perhaps more importantly, to see who she always was, with or without her family. The core of this story, then, is very close to my own heart, and speaks to my own greatest fear(s). Because my own family is from New Mexico on my great-grandmother’s side, and has roots to the Puebloan peoples, the stories that I was researching as I was reclaiming my own family history became enmeshed in protagonist’s search for strength and resilience. I didn’t necessarily set out to write a “post-apocalyptic” book, but the stories of the ancients here in the Southwest lend themselves to the cycles of destruction and rebirth that the indigenous peoples here have long known of and recorded in their sacred stories. I’m so grateful that my own inner journey connected with the ancients’—and that I’ve been able to glean a different perspective on dystopian fiction from a Latinx/indigenous perspective, centering us in our lands.

MP and JC: Which women writers have influenced you the most?

JG: My work follows the tradition of lucille clifton, who writes, “we have always loved us” and “come celebrate with me/that everyday/something has tried to kill me/and failed,” and Audre Lorde, who writes, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” My work follows my forebears Sandra Cisneros, Rosario Castellanos, Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz, Toni Morrison, and Ana Castillo, and through paths tread clearer by contemporary poets Lisa D. Chavez, Natalie Diaz, Natasha Trethewey, Patricia Smith, and Margo Tamez. Alongside these forebears, I strive to weave together a multilayered song of endurance, survival, and, ultimately, celebration sung by the many women of color working together in the resistance.

MP and JC: What do you think is the most important message to share with emerging women writers?

JG: Believe in yourselves, beauties. Believe in yourselves so strong and resilient, so neverending, that no one, no one, can knock you down longer than it takes you to brush yourselves off and stand up, stronger, taller, braver than before, and to put your whole heart out there again and again and again. People will try to keep you down. And you will fall sometimes. And it will hurt. I wish I could say it won’t, but it will. You might not publish your first poem or story or even your tenth. You might have to send your book a hundred places. All the while you are putting your entire heart out for the world to see, keep learning. Keep growing. Keep shining. Stay open. When doors shut in your face, knock harder, knock louder. Knock the effing doors down. Climb up the fire escapes. Never, ever give up. Keep studying. Keep transforming. Keep shutting down the patriarchy. Shut that shit down every single time. And this all starts here: believe. In yourselves, in your truths, in your worth. As I believe in you. Together, we will change this whole world. ❤


15521042047946229.gifJENN GIVHAN, a National Endowment for the Arts and PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices fellow, is a Mexican-American writer and activist from the Southwestern desert. She is the author of four full-length collections: Landscape with Headless Mama (2015 Pleiades Editors’ Prize), Protection Spell (2016 Miller Williams Poetry Prize Series edited by Billy Collins), Girl with Death Mask (2017 Blue Light Books Prize chosen by Ross Gay), and Rosa’s Einstein (Camino Del Sol Poetry Series, forthcoming 2019), and the chapbooks: Lifeline (Glass Poetry Press) and The Daughter’s Curse (Yellow Flag Press). Her novels, Trinity Sight and Jubilee, are forthcoming from Blackstone Press. Her honors include the Frost Place Latinx Scholarship, a National Latinx Writers’ Conference Scholarship, the Lascaux Review Poetry Prize, Phoebe Journal’s Greg Grummer Poetry Prize chosen by Monica Youn, the Pinch Poetry Prize chosen by Ada Limón, the Joy Harjo Poetry Prize 2nd place chosen by Patricia Spears Jones, and fifteen Pushcart nominations. Her work has appeared in Best of the Net, Best New Poets, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, Ploughshares, POETRY, TriQuarterly, Boston Review, AGNI, Crazyhorse, Witness, Southern Humanities Review, Missouri Review, and The Kenyon Review, among many others. Givhan holds a Master’s degree in English from California State University Fullerton and an MFA from Warren Wilson College, and she can be found discussing feminist motherhood at jennifergivhan.com as well as Facebook & Twitter @JennGivhan. 

Maybe We’re Okay

Stomach-down on a pillow and hunched-back against the headboard, our bodies bend around each other. Ada’s busy sinking into her Art of Problem Solving book, her fingers resting against her lips, integers oozing down her tongue. Meanwhile, I’m slipping into a consciousness that is not my own, submerged in words that are heavier than anything I know. It’s quiet, but there’s a rhythm in the scratches of graphite tips and the clicking of plastic keys, the little quips back and forth between strokes.

“What’s the cube root of 1728?” Ada asks, her words muffled between teeth and nails.

“What’s a synonym for I’m-not-your-calculator?”

“Smartass.”

I laugh, and we fall back into the kind of silence that is anything but empty.

The truth is, I have never understood Ada’s love for math, with its rigidity, its repetition, its sharpness of angles and edges that cuts right through me. In school, I shove numbers and formulas down my throat and try not to choke; she drinks them like honey, sweet and sticky.

Ada has never understood my love for words. Poetry is too flowery for her, too messy, too many little words hiding deeper meanings, or else too many big words without one. She crafts her words slowly, meticulously; I have learned how to swallow them and embrace the burnt aftertaste.

I’ve talked about it, about us, with my therapist, Dr. Frey. She says that numbers are Ada’s anchor, the constants she relies on when everything else changes, and that words are mine, the release I turn to when my brain won’t stop screaming. I think she’s right, that deep down, Ada and I are the same. Ada needs the clean-cut world of numbers, of strict rules and postulates, of numeral realms in which there is always a right answer; I need the shards of language, the downpour of words across a page, the freedom and power of both creation and destruction. Sometimes she thinks the only problems she knows how to solve are the ones plastered in the pages of her textbook; sometimes I think the only life I can control is the one constructed in the taps of my keyboard. The truth is we are both drowning, and somehow we have become each other’s gasping breath.

     These days, Ada spends more time at my house than she does at her own. The change was so natural I hadn’t noticed it at all, like that story about a frog slowly boiled alive. Ada once told me that the premise of that parable is entirely false, that according to modern scientific sources, a frog’s thermoregulation prevents its gradual death. I still like the metaphor.

I’m not sure if I’m the frog in this case or she is, or maybe we’re both immersed in the water together. All I know is one day she brought her history textbook over, the next her English, then her statistics, and now they are all lying flat on a shelf that she occupies alone. The room is becoming as much hers as it is mine, her half-used papers and charger cables splayed across the floor along with my own, a spider web of which we are both producers and prey. 

I hear the zipper of a backpack and turn to see Ada roll off my bed. She walks to the far end of the room, careful not to trip over the wires she no longer brings home, and stops in front of the glass. The past few nights, she has taken to escaping through my window so as not to disturb my parents.

“I should go.”

“Oh. I’ll see you tomorrow.” I pause, and as she reaches for the latch, my mouth unlocks. “You can stay, you know.”

“I wish I could,” she says simply, and I don’t push. We’ve never talked about the reason she stays later because we don’t have to. I’ve known Ada almost all my life, know her well enough to read her chipped nails and cut lip to mean her parents are fighting again.

She shakes her head, a humorless laugh fogging up the glass, guttural in a way I haven’t heard it in months. “He’s drinking more.”

I’m not surprised, not really, and I want to say I hate him or Don’t forgive him again or Will you be okay? but all I can manage is “I’m sorry.”

“I have to make sure he doesn’t kill my mom in the morning. Or himself.” Her tone is too nonchalant, her back too straight as she looks out the window toward her own house two blocks down.

“Worse than last time?”

Ada nods.

“Shit.”

Last time was over a year ago, when Ada’s dad was drunk as often as he was sober. He had nearly hit a pedestrian while Ada was in the car, and her mom had threatened to leave him unless he went back to AA meetings. He did, but I guess they didn’t work this time. They never did for long.

“I should go,” she says again, but doesn’t move.

“Be careful. It’s dark out.”

She nods once more, dragging her fingers across the panel before her, carving clear lines into gray-white condensation. Seconds like minutes pass before Ada finally pushes up the window, adding a stream of biting air and subtracting her body from the room. I fall into the bed, my body sinking into the crevices she’d left, and watch her solo silhouette wander deeper into the expanse of midnight.

    It’s 7:54 according to the classroom clock, which means it’s been five hours since I woke up. Dr. Frey says morning anxiety is perfectly normal—something about cortisol and low blood sugar levels—but I’m not sure what’s normal about watching the dashes on my bedside clock light up for two-hundred minutes, my back stained with sweat.

The bell sounds like the alarm I don’t need, but when Mr. Morrison stands with a stack of papers, I’m the one ringing. My knees hit the underside of the gum-laden desk, fingernails strike the already-scratched wood. I tell myself it’s the AC, and I think back to Ada’s calculation in freshman year that the school could save up to $1.9 million if it set the thermostat in each classroom two degrees higher. I didn’t understand the math any better than I do my body now.

The graded essays float down around me, one by one, sheets of white dotting desks. Like snow, perhaps. Fragile papers, melting faces. When Mr. Morrison stops at my desk, I catch my essay with blue-veined hands, trace the red scrawl at the top of the page. 

     You are able to hone in on the key details and organize them logically, and you clearly have a grasp on grammar and mechanics, but your writing has no voice.

The compliment is cold. Twenty-four words of praise are erased with three little letters. There is always a but. I reread the last clause. Your writing has no voice. Again. No voice. Again, again, again, until I can’t hear anything but the voice in my head, screaming, loud, too loud. 

     SHUT UP, I scream back it, and I almost don’t notice when the classroom falls silent, startled eyes staring at me, glaring at me.

     I’m back in my room, or maybe I’m not. Words are swirling, voices reverberating, my head the wreckage of a storm it created. All I see is a white page, too white, white like plastic knives, white like bleached teeth, white like a hospital. I want to fill it up, have to, need to, but my trembling hands hold too much blood, and I can hear it crashing like waves, a tsunami, loud, too loud. I slam my palms against the keys, send a string of letters flying down the line, tumbling, plunging, black dots on the screen, in my eyes, click clack, all that noise. I must have made one because Ada looks over at me, concern flickering in her eyes, eyes staring at me, stop.

“You okay?”

Eyes, no eyes, I don’t want eyes. “Spiders,” my mouth says, exhales, chokes.

They are spiders, not butterflies, never butterflies like everyone says, Ada knows, they have always been spiders to me, hundreds of them, crawling through my stomach, my arms, my legs, black, fast, wild, spinning, webs closer, closer, too close to my throat.

“I can’t breathe,” I gasp, words caught in a silk lattice, constricting, convulsing. “Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe.”

“Hey, hey, you can. It’s okay. You’re okay. I’m right here. Breathe on my counts, okay?”

Ada’s hand on my back, I inhale, 1-2-3-4, exhale, 5-6-7-8, feel my spine expand, 1-2-3-4, feel her pulse with me, 5-6-7-8. I break down my breathing, make it voluntary, conscious, still conscious of Ada’s hand, gentle and caressing. Shallow breaths and heartbeats sync, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. Air enters and leaves, Ada stays, and I survive.

     It’s late at night, or almost morning—I’ve never understood time, how a new day starts when the city falls asleep. I remember Ada once saying something about cyclicity and uniformity and equidistance, but all I know is that time lasts longer in the early hours of the a.m., when the sky bleeds to monochrome and the world itself seems to turn slower. 

Ada is lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling, as if analyzing the shapes in the stucco. It’s like indoor cloud watching, and I’ve done it too, my favorite being a spot in the corner that resembles a monkey on the back of a fire-breathing horse. The word for why we can see those images is pareidolia, the tendency to look for recognizable patterns in random data. I like the way the syllables curl my tongue, and I think pareidolia sounds a lot like math, and like me.

“Do you believe in love?”

Ada says it so soft that I’m not sure she said it at all. It’s not the kind of question that can be left hanging outside the lips, so delicate it might dissolve in the seconds that pass. “I don’t know,” I say. “I think I’d like to.”

“Why?”

I laugh, because it’s a dumb question, because it’s not really a dumb question, but I can’t answer it, so what does that make me? I counter the only way I know how, the lilt in my voice acting as both sword and shield. “You don’t want to believe in love?”

Ada shrugs, and I notice for the first time how small she looks, her body sagging into the foam as if the mattress is a cloud she can fall through. She seems almost translucent against the white walls that are all at once too bare, almost blinding. In the silence, our thoughts are tangible.

“Love’s not like math,” Ada says at last, her words drifting like wisps of wind. “You can’t trust it.”

I think about it. There is no formula for love, no postulate to prove, no patterns to follow. Math is neat, love is messy, and I wonder what it means that I’ve never been good at either. “I don’t think it’s love you trust. It’s each other.”

She sits up, looks out the window toward the same spot as always, never able to escape a home she doesn’t want as her own. “What if you can’t trust anyone?”

It is too raw, too sharp, edges of her words cutting my tongue. So I don’t say anything, just sit beside her, hold her hand. I withstand her seismic pulsing, and through our touch of skin and ice, I tell her I trust you and I love you, and when she squeezes back, I know she’d heard me.

     Weeks later, we’re on my bed together. It’s late and I’m tired, my head inches away from using the calculus textbook as a pillow. Ada is trying to explain to me how integration is essentially the inverse of differentiation, but that the integral of the derivative is not equal to the derivative of the integral. My mind’s spinning and I think I’m starting to see shadows.

“Can you turn on the light?”

Ada rolls over and stretches her hand up to hit the switch, the sleeve of her sweater riding up with it. The lamp shines against her forearm, casting its light onto jagged lines etched into bruised skin. It is too bright. Short, red lines, protruding. Serrated flesh. The raw slashes almost glowing. Too bright, breathe.

“What did you do.”

I can feel myself form the words on my tongue and dislodge them from my throat, but I do not recognize the voice. It’s visceral, somehow, rough and splintered like rotting wood. But the four lines on her wrist—those lines are rigid, sharp, clean-cut.

Ada traces my eyes down, grabs the cuff of her shirt, pulls it—

“Don’t.”

She stops, withdraws her arm from the light, lets her sleeve fall with gravity. The silence is chiseled, honed, straight to the bone.  

“Why.” My questions aren’t questions, I don’t want the answers but need them.

She opens her mouth, closes it, opens it again. “My parents…” she trails off, and I let her collect her thoughts as mine simmer, everything under the surface colliding, burning. “It’s bad. I’ve never heard them fight like this before.” She breathes but I can’t. “I just thought, maybe if I had it on my body, I could take it off my mind. Like, solving by substitution, I guess.”

The sound that spills out of me is laughing, choking, screaming. “Goddammit Ada, not everything is math!”

“I know,” she whispers, and her voice is empty but I am overflowing. “God, do you even hear yourself? You’re so obsessed with your perfect little numbers and equations, it’s like you’re not even living in the real world. Get it through your head, Ada, pain doesn’t follow the fucking transitive property!”

The words bubble out of my lungs all wrong. Ada shrinks before my eyes, folds her body up, like maybe if she takes up less space, her scars will too.

“I’m sorry.” I say it too much, never means enough. What I mean is I’ve thought about it too, more than you know, but I’m too scared of pain and now I’m scared of losing you because I’m a coward and I’m selfish and  “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—”

She shakes her head. “You’re right. It didn’t work. I didn’t transfer the pain, I multiplied it.” She pauses, her fingers tugging at the loose threads near her wrist, her lips fraying at the seams. “You always said I was a masochist.”

I don’t reply, because I don’t know how, because I’m thinking about how love and pain are supposed to be inverses, but that the love of pain and the pain of love are far from the same. So I hold her, chest to chest, feel her heartbeat against mine, listen to all of the blood still roaring inside her veins.

     Ada is sitting up today, back pressed against the wooden headboard, eyes focused on nothing at all. She’s been quiet since morning, and it’s not the usual kind, when she’s drifting in and out of calculations. Her shoulders are taut, but her nails are cut, and I can’t read her like I want to.

I keep watching her watch something, or the absence of something, until finally I break. “What are you thinking about?”

She doesn’t respond, doesn’t even look up. I’m not sure if she heard me, and I’m thinking about asking again when she says, “My mom told my dad that she’s getting a divorce.”

My mouth runs dry, all words withered on my tongue, so Ada keeps going. “She’s already contacted an attorney. I think it’s real this time. I think she’s really leaving him.”

I still can’t speak, can’t think anything but divorce divorce divorce is she okay. My eyes flit toward her wrist for just a moment, find it covered by an oversized sweater.

“I didn’t. And I won’t.”

I don’t meet her eyes, but something in her voice is so honest it’s bruising. I swallow. “Are you okay?”

A beat passes, then two. “Yeah,” she breathes, and I believe her.

I believe her because she is bleeding and I am suffocating, but we are still here. Because maybe we are the frogs in heating water, but we will jump out when the time comes. Because maybe our lives are just random data, but we are still searching for the patterns we need. Because maybe we are the snow and that makes us fragile, and maybe that’s okay.

Dr. Frey says I rely on metaphors because they’re easier to stomach, because they allow me to look at my life without looking within myself. I know she’s right, but I’m learning. So when Ada decides to stay that night, when we are lying on my bed together, two indentations side by side, I think about who we are, not what we maybe are—two girls, a mathematician and a writer, opposites and the same, hurting and loving and being.


SANDRA CHEN is a 16-year-old from California. Her work has been recognized by the National Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and the National Poetry Quarterly, and can be found in the Vassar Review, Ellipsis Zine, and Rising Phoenix Review, among others.

Ice

        Ever since the cold Sunday afternoon where her father took her to the ice rink, Emily had always dreamed of the day when she would tie up her skates and cross a frozen Pacific Ocean.             

        When she was a sophomore in high school, every winter morning, Emily woke up hours before school started and ran to a local pond. She would need to be in excellent physical condition to endure the long journey across the Pacific. The pond was about the size of her Algebra classroom. Emily carved circles into the ice from above as a ring of leafless trees watched from above. The sun hadn’t come out yet but Emily figured that would help prepare her for the long stretches of darkness that she would be sure to encounter.

        On mornings where she was up early enough that her brain had yet to realize it no longer should be dreaming, Emily imagined her father. She imagined him right by her side, there to be balanced on, holding her the way he used to when Emily wanted to go back home because her legs were tired and the air was cold. She imagined wearing the snug, purple jacket her father had gifted her, which barely fit over her shoulders, the soothing weight of her father’s golden necklace she’d inherited heavy against her chest.     

        Skating on the Pacific, they could talk about all the fish that they could see just beneath the frozen surface of the sea. Maybe they would see a whale. Emily’s father used to love going on and on about whales. Every time Emily passed by an aquarium or hopped into her mother’s sedan, she remembered her father. She could hear his voice:   

        “Emily, Emily. Did you know that a blue whale’s tongue weighs as much as an elephant? Did you know they have hearts the size of cars? Do you get how mighty big that is, Em? Our hearts are this big,” he would say chuckling, waving his fist.

        Of course, Emily couldn’t spend every morning skating. Some mornings mom would need extra help getting Charlie out the door with his books in his backpack and his lunch in his hand. Other mornings she had to go grocery shopping or make a run to the laundromat or the pharmacy. And, though she didn’t like to admit it, some mornings the promised warmth of hot chocolate, a good book, and her pink blanket, which had earned the nickname The Giant Tongue from her father, kept her off the ice.

        But Emily promised herself that she would never go more than three days without skating. It was a trick her father taught her.

        “It’s okay to take a day or two off, Em,” he would say. “But never let me catch you going more than three days without practicing, even if it’s only for five minutes.”

        And though Emily had given up piano many years earlier, she still heard her father’s words on lazy winter mornings or when she caught a cold. She always made it out to the ice, purple jacket slung over her back, necklace pressed firmly into her chest as if pulled by her own gravity. And when it was too warm and the ice melted away, Emily put on her socks and slid around her room.

        By the time she was sixteen, Emily had begun to pack for her journey. Stacks of canned tuna and packets of almonds sprawled across her bedroom floor. A pair of flashlights, a dozen batteries, and a pocket knife sat on top of maps that Emily had used to chart her way through the Pacific. She left on a warm Tuesday.

 

      The day she died, Emily’s desk was covered with all sorts of maps, most of them drawnover and annotated with thoughts or quick reminders. They dripped sporadic, ripped edges and all. On the Northwest corner of a map charting the migration pattern of Gray Whales in the Pacific, in skipping black ink, Emily had written down another one of her father’s favorite sayings: “A fish stuck in a rip current can go its whole life working very hard to stay very still.”

        Occasionally, on cold Sunday mornings, a bright gold necklace can be seen swimming alongside whales.


MAX PAIK is an incoming senior at Half Moon Bay High School. Though he has many interests, sunsets and avocados top his list of favorite things. When he’s older, he hopes to get the chance to travel the world. He also likes math, though he tries to keep that relatively private.

Unseen

Camphor, I decided, as I sniffed the air delicately. It had to be. My head throbbed; rubbery veins would pump with thick red blood that threatened to tear the walls of its containers. I clench my jaw to calm the throbbing. It works, and the musty aroma settles on my skin, my mouth. Taste buds on my tongue curl into oblivion; hoping to avoid the smell that fast travels through my nostrils; it won’t be long before-

You’re awake, the voice says; it’s oily. I nod, aware that the voice cannot see me. Have you slept at all? he asks, concern clouding his voice.

I shake my head, ever so slightly. This time he knows because my hair rustles against the fabric of my pillow. Blue, he told me, is the color of our pillows, when we dressed them in their cases last week. I imagine resting my head against the sky when I sleep.

Do you want me to tell you a story? he asks softly, after a pause of uncertainty.

My moods for my husband’s stories vary greatly; I lust after them on some days, on others they make me sick with all the improbable plots.

Today, I crave a story, and he tells me one about a girl with only four fingers on one hand. I imagine jagged flesh, unevenly cut; yellow bone peeking out of the pink flesh. The handiwork of a jealous lover, he says unfeelingly. Handiwork, handy work, hands, cut hands. My tongue flips these words around. No man ever gave her a ring. There was no finger to place the ring on. My stomach turns at the thought of fresh blood, smelling of coarse iron dripping on her skirt, unable to stop. When it finally ceases, she smiles, the worst is over.  

In the morning, I kiss his arm; the velvety skin like a pot of honey, like the ones my father would gift my mother on their anniversaries. As kids we found it touching, though she never liked honey. The pots were always the same; glass and rounded. They had a ribbon tied around the neck, always baby pink. Sometimes, the honey stained the ribbon. I would dip my chubby finger in the pot when my father was not looking and suck it. The chalky, cloying honey left a bitter aftertaste. The dregs that remained on my fingers would be wiped against the back of my dresses. He grunts contentedly, possibly happy that my kiss woke him up rather than the piercing alarm. He lightly reciprocates the kiss on my forehead, like a grazing feather. We are late; me for my dog-sitting and him for his magazine job. I write, he told me once, stories, thought pieces, anything they want me to write.

Anything? I asked.

Sometimes, he replied, they ask you to write against what you stand for. I do it anyway. The real world has no place for morals.

That’s not true. You are not firm enough, my voice rises.

And you don’t understand the real world, he retorted immediately, almost too fast, as if he had rehearsed the answer.

I cry for a long time after that, he brings roses. The silky texture of the flowers calms me. It’s as if he never uttered those words. Roses are the flowers I like the least, he knows it.

When he returns home from work, the honey on his skin disappears, instead replaced by salt, not like the salt in sea-water. Stale, musty sweat, a fluid I believe only he secretes. I relish it.

Oli, I hear him coo. My neighbor’s ten year old labrador jumps from my lap towards him. Do you think we should get a dog? he asks absently. The thumping of Oli’s tail on our wooden floor tells me he is scratching the dog under his ear, and then moving his fingers just above his snout, finally cupping Oli’s face in both his hands. I would love one, I answer. The conversation is a script. A reused one. It repeats periodically but never materializes. As he walks towards me, the smell of his sweat mixed with Oli’s odor floats towards me, reaching me before he does. We kiss for a moment, the duration decreases every day, knowingly or unknowingly. Oli is probably watching, wondering about the depth of our affection. Quite shallow, old boy, I say in my head. If we were dogs, him and me, we could fuck and separate. Unfortunately, we are human beings with a pressing need to commit.

Growing up on a farm, I prayed for modernity to hit my family like a truck. They were old-school. The frills in the collars of my dress suffocated me and I wore my hair long enough to tie it around my neck like a noose. Let me cut it, please, I begged routinely. Yet they were adamant.

Jesus wore his hair long, too. If he could, as a man, you can, my mother said, eliciting giggles from my father and oldest brother. I cut an inch or two every month and buried the strands in the soil. A subtle act of rebellion. I was empowered. Then, I saw him. He was scrawny, built like a thirteen year-old boy instead of eighteen. Sparse tufts of hair grew on his face, above his lip. I wanted to know what his body would feel like against mine, how my skin would redden when his prickly beard chafed it. When we had sex, it was bumpy, like pulling a worn car over a rocky hill. It didn’t matter. The entire time he was inside me, I thought of how invigorating it was to break yet another rule my parents bound me by.

The next day, I went blind.

Blind is too absolute. What happened to me was slightly different. I ceased to see. My eyes refused to open, like they were glued shut. The days that followed, I felt different fingers on my face. My mother’s sleek, pearl-like finger tips that were scented with cocoa butter, the lotion my aunt sent her from abroad that she used, tried to pry my eyes open. My father pushed hers aside and did the same with his stubby fingers coated with the sour smell of smoke. Doctors’ fingers touched my face too. I remember a particular doctor, a middle-aged man with soft hands. His gentle touch comforted me. Amidst all this, I was oddly peaceful. My usual bellowing nature rested gently against the adversity, accepting its fate without question. Perceptive, the doctor stated one day. I could smell fairly well. I could distinguish scents, flavors, fragrances. Fresh pine, citrus, floral, mint, rot. I made an inventory in my head. Smells were stacked up against each other, available to me when my sight failed.

My only friend back then visited our house every day, brimming with gossip and stories. My eyes remained closed, a mystery according to doctors. Surprisingly no illness accompanied my sudden loss of sight. I was healthy. My friend would hold my hand and we would walk by a lake for hours. She told me about her cousins abroad who wore mini-skirts and dyed their hair; about Sandi the German shepherd that the postman adopted; about her boyfriend who was saving himself until marriage. I was abreast with the news of the world around me.

He asked about you, she said on one of such walks, referring to the boy I hadn’t seen since the night we slept together.

What does he say?

He wants to meet you again. I told him about what happened, she said. We arranged a meeting, for him to meet me. It had to be discreet, away from my house lest my parents found out. On the day of the meeting, I rubbed some of my mother’s cocoa butter lotion on myself. By then, I knew all my dresses just by their textures. I chose the one which I would wear for a party; slightly shorter than the others and lavender. I pulled it down so that the beginning of the line of my cleavage was visible. I hoped he hadn’t changed since the day I saw him and slept with him.

Does it hurt? he asked, not wanting to be insensitive.

No, I shook my head.

I wanted to ask you if- if I could, well, see more of you?

I smiled in assent.

It was during our courtship that my eyes opened. I woke up one morning, and my eyelids were open. My family jumped with joy and clapped, but I still could not see. It was dark.

You have magnificent eyes, he said when he saw me.  They are like little globes. I could stare at them forever.

They are empty, I said. He touched his lips to my eyebrows. His strong perfume overpowered my sense of smell. My eyes watered. A cheap, imitation perfume that stores sold, with a picture of a man with bulging muscles, I assumed. Beneath that, I drew in his coconut-like scent, the one that he carried with him even after we got married.

Our wedding was a modest affair, like our marriage. All the guests could fit into the large canopy my mother designed in front of our house. He stood by me the entire time, describing every single aspect of the ceremony. My dress, he told me, was an ivory colored satin piece that clung to my upper body and then flowed to the ground. It shone in the sun, he said, like a pearl. Its sleeves ended at my elbows and the neckline plunged. I carried a bouquet of roses, his choice. The intense fragrance seeped into the roof my head during the ceremony and developed into a slight headache later. That night, after all the guests left, we made love in my bedroom. It felt different from the first time. This time, he knew what to do with his hands; his tongue did not slobber all over my chin; he asked if I was pleased at regular intervals and I was. We slept on our wedding clothes afterwards.

After Oli’s mother, an old, cheerful woman took him back home, I feel a strange sort of loneliness. I want a baby, I tell him that evening. My hands try to grasp something in the empty air, in vain, hoping for a presence, something new to play with. I hear him sigh. His face would contort next, scowling, deepening the lines that are drawn vaguely on his shapely face, I assume.

Why, he says. It’s not a question. He does not expect an answer. The gentleness in his voice brings in a deluge of memories from the days of our courtship; of him stroking the back of my neck as my cantankerous self would send a barrage of questions his way, demanding to know this and that. The answers would come promptly, in vivid details so that I could conjure images not visible to me. It was easier for us then, without the ache of a marriage balancing on a thin thread gnawing at us.

I want a baby, I repeat again. My shoulders ache; I realize I have been slouching. The newspaper crinkles as he folds it and places it on the table. It will be a baby, a tiny human being. It’s not as easy as taking care of a dog, he says in exasperation at my stubbornness.

I have half a mind to throw a fit, fling myself against the wall and sob heavily, a tactic that has worked in the past. Instead, I resolutely push my chin up. I know, I say. A scenario flashes through my mind. A round-faced girl with curls that stick out from behind her ears, as tall as my knee, pushes her arms upwards, asking me to carry her. I say no, pouting, as if carrying her is an impossible task. She shakes her head with tenacity only capable of her mother and scrunches up her nose. We name her Eve; the first woman, who defied convention.

His breathing deepens. Okay, he says.

My insides burn with ecstasy. I will be a mother, soon, if nature wills.

That night he tells me a story again, about a woman who adopted a puppy and raised it lovingly in the mountains. The puppy grew up to love her like she was his own. Their bond thrived away from civilization, in the cold mountains. One day, a man looking for shelter stayed in their cottage, a cosy place. The next morning, the man’s limbs were found away from his body, ripped apart brutally. The dog was a wolf.

I wake up to his hands on my body, softly running them across my stomach, my hip bone and the flesh of my thighs. My eyes remain closed because they will never open again.


CEMA D’SOUZA, 19, is currently pursuing her triple major in Journalism, Psychology and English Studies at Christ University, Bangalore and breaking her New Year resolutions at an alarming speed. A quintessential bookworm, she can always be found with her nose buried in a good book.

In Defense of Fiction

BY JOHN S. OSLER III

It’s been bugging me for a long time that whenever I want to compare something I’ve written to another story, it’s almost invariably a movie or TV show. Ever since I read Stephen King’s On Writing and made a lot of oathes of dedication to the craft of fiction (which were, ironically, pretty poorly worded) I’ve been careful to spend more time reading than watching. But still, even when I’m conceiving a scene for something I’m writing, it’s usually in the language of film, working out the lightning, color palette, scenery layout, and audio. It’s usually a struggle to incorporate senses like smell, touch, or taste, senses you can’t see on the screen. And I can’t help but ask myself why.

Of course, there are plenty of innocuous explanations. You can watch seven or eight movies in the time it takes you to read a book, so of course more characters on film come to mind than those in print. And then there’s the fact that people talk more about movies and TV than about books, so they get reinforced mentally. But I think it’s important to know about your format when you’re telling a story or making art; knowing what it can do well, what it can’t do well, and what it simply can’t do. For too long I thought that I would be a writer because of a series of negatives and only one positive: I can’t draw, I can’t find a decent camera or boss people around to much effect, I can’t tell stressed from unstressed syllables upon pain of failing an English assignment, I want to tell stories, so that really only leaves one option open. There needs to be more to it than that, I know there does, and in this piece I’m going to try and find out what.

My knee jerk response to the prose-versus-film debate is that they’re just two different forms of communication: words and images. That sounds like a pleasant, if evasive, answer, but it doesn’t really work even on a superficial level. Because isn’t poetry more a format of words than prose? Poetry is meant to be read aloud, the sounds of the words matter more than they do in prose. The words themselves became the smallest unit of communication, rather than the sentences. There’s the argument that prose is more efficient for constructing a narrative, but narrative poetry is an ancient and ongoing tradition. From this perspective, prose is something of a neutral husk in a spectrum with the immersive images of film on one end and the musical language of poetry on the other. People turn still frames of movies into posters (I have quite a few hanging in my dorm), and even in our increasingly illiterate society people quote poetry. Cinematic book covers or quoting prose with the rhythm of poetry always makes it seem like it’s trying to fit it into a format that it’s not, to say that it would have been better off incarnated some other way.

I’m simplifying things. Movies have scripts, of course, and poetry is much more complicated than I’m making it out to be. The spectrum of art isn’t two dimensional, it has more axes than the human mind can comprehend. Still, I can’t help but ask, what does fiction prose have to offer?

I have a few answers. One is imagination. In both of the formats I described, what you see is essentially what you get. There is no imaginative work to watching a movie, what happens in each frame is an indisputable fact of the story (unless there’s some artsy twist) and there’s nothing past the edges of the frame but a studio lot. And even if a line from poetry brings to mind an evocative image, that image is inextricably linked to the words that spawned it. But written fiction is different. There are too many words to memorize or even remember fully when you move on to the next paragraph. The words work as a sort of outline, then, a framework from which you build a scene in your mind. Imaginary scenes aren’t as memorable as cinematic ones, but they have their advantages. One is that the reader gets a sort of ownership of them, and often that interpretation lets the text be a window into the reader as much as the writer. In the novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, the reader is inevitably posed the question of whether Kevin or his mother is responsible for his violence, a question that each reader has to answer alone (and many disagree on). This question is still there in the movie, but it’s not as strong or as poignant.

Another strength is that it can be more immersive. I haven’t actually seen any first person movies, but from what I’ve read they’re invariably disorienting and ineffective. Voice over monologues can achieve a similar effect, but that’s essentially a tactic from fiction appropriated by another genre. Poems from perspectives are common, but let’s be honest, no one talks in rhyme or meter or line breaks. No one thinks like that either, and that’s one of the real triumph of fiction: not just to put you in someone else’s position, but to insert you into their very brain. More than any other art form, fiction is about empathy, and its power is to force you to realize the humanity in anyone dreamt up by some scribbler.

Which kind of blends into my final point. Say your parents are picking you up from college. You haven’t seen them for months and don’t know how to start to explain everything that happened in that time. What do you do? You don’t show them a video record of your life, you don’t spend hours laboring over the syllabic construction of every word. You don’t sing, you don’t dance, you don’t paint, you don’t do whatever verb goes with a multi-media experimental abstract expression campaign about the feelings of disillusion that come with growing up. You don’t write either, I guess, but you do tell a story. Maybe it’s character study searching for the impetus of your roommate’s violent radical political views, maybe it’s a tragic four-hour epic about your crippling anxiety, maybe it’s nothing more than a dirty joke you heard in the dining hall that you realize is probably out of bounds for family talk when the rest of the car ride home passes in silence. No matter what, it’s essentially prose. It’s the oldest type of storytelling, it’s the most basic to our nature and, damnit, I’ll come right out and say it: it’s the best.


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JOHN S. OSLER III is a sophomore at Grinnell College. He has written over two hundred satirical articles for his underground newspaper The Southern View, and a few for his high school’s legitimate newspaper, Zephyrus, on the side. He has published short stories in the Grinnell Underground Magazine, Sprout Magazine, The Phosphene Journal, Moledro Magazine, and Random Sample Review.