Interview with Mihir Vatsa

Our Blog Editors interviewed Mihir Vatsa, an Indian poet and the editor of Vayavya, for this week’s blog. In this interview, we ask him about the practice of writing and the habits that pertain to it in some way or another. We also ask Mihir about not only staying committed to writing, but also staying committed to writing about Hazaribagh.


Blog Editors: Ernest Hemingway wrote first thing in the morning. Maya Angelou reserved hotel rooms just to write. Stephen King forced himself to write six pages every day. Susan Sontag instructed people when not to call. Have you developed any specific methods for writing?

Mihir Vatsa: I wish I could reserve hotel rooms to write. Someday, perhaps, I will. I usually write at night– the darkness sorts relevance from distraction. When I am writing to meet a deadline, I set a target. With prose, it is thousand words. Poetry is more malleable that way– just three lines could be a poem too, as long as they are good three lines. I am more relaxed with poetry, less so with prose. The latter demands some discipline, I have learned recently.  

BE: Do you journal? And how well do you work with or meet deadlines?

MV: Unfortunately, no, I don’t maintain a journal. I do have some romantic affinity towards the process though, and I like to hear stories that involve journal writing. I have tried it before, but have stopped midway. Trivial things begin to annoy me– is the notebook cover journalish enough, what if I wrote something and someone read it, if I am doing it on my PC then what should be the password, do I really want it personal or do I secretly want it read? I think of these clearly pressing thoughts and defer it.

I think I can work with deadlines, though I procrastinate a lot. So if the deadline is tomorrow, I would get working today, not sleeping, not eating, a bit possessed. It’s not a healthy practice for a writer, but then writers are not really known for their exemplary health.

BE:Do you outline ideas before or do you let the form teach you what kind of story you are writing?

MV: I do outline, but mostly in mind. I prefer having some ideas, some thoughts about what I should write once I start the computer. Often a poem is left hanging for a few days: one stanza emerges, then there is the wait, then another line comes up. When I am not writing, I am working with collages– cut here, paste there. When I think I have enough to go with, I start typing. With longer poems, I take it slow, filling in the blanks first, then tying the content up as the form suggests. With prose, and especially essays, I have found that it’s helpful to have some pointers beforehand, a road map, on how to progress from one thought to the other without jarring the flow.  

BE: What do you do when you become stuck while writing?

MV: If the deadline is far, I give in to the block. I switch to Netflix or Youtube, or take up a book which I had been meaning to read. You can only watch something for so long. When saturation hits, writing becomes a needed retreat. Sometimes I get stuck because I don’t want to put an idea into a form that I have already done before. Then, reading helps. I go to the internet and read whatever poetry I can find, preferably by poets who are alive. That way, I get to see what other poets in the world are doing, how they are managing language, how they are working with form, and so on. The last time I got stuck, the deadline was close. So I ordered a book and told myself not to touch it before I finished writing. It kind of worked.

BE: How do you stay committed to Hazaribagh? Is there a different lens or observation you require in order to practice the writing of something so close when you want it to reach far?

MV: This is a really good question, actually. My upcoming book A Highland in the East (Speaking Tiger Books 2019) is a memoir about living and travelling in the Hazaribagh plateau, and though I had a great time writing it, I was also often conflicted about my loyalty to Hazaribagh. I am not talking about the town per se– Hazaribagh is like any other small Indian town. It has its half-finished buildings with exposed brickwork, it has its temples and mosques and narrow streets. Somehow these things haven’t appealed to me yet. I am more attached to Hazaribagh’s landscape. Therefore, the hills, the trees, the rivers, etc are my points of affect. I remember, this one time, my friend Raza Kazmi and I were staying for a few days at Palamu Tiger Reserve in Latehar. The place is about a six-hour drive from Hazaribagh. There, I was surrounded by taller hills, denser forests, reliable waterfalls, and it made me sad. What if I outgrow Hazaribagh? “You can be committed to Hazaribagh and still enjoy Palamu,” Raza said something along this line, and though I understood him, I was still uncertain. What I fear is that one day there will be nothing wonderful about Hazaribagh for me. No waterfall will excite me. Been there, done that– that kind of boredom, you know, and so I try to modify perspectives. There is a lot in Hazaribagh, things that I still don’t know, so maybe one day I will enjoy the roads, or the history, or engage with the place in a more direct, participatory way. At the moment, I am gripped by the plateau; later, it might be some other aspect of the town.

Perception is universal– the way I perceive Hazaribagh may be similar or different to people who perceive other places, but the act is not uniquely mine. As writers, we work in and with shared cultures, so I think while Hazaribagh may be a little-known, “niche” place to write about, the things I feel when I am in Hazaribagh do resonate with people outside. When I post a photo of a hill range and see the reactions on it, I know I am doing something right. I try to understand the relevance of Hazaribagh for other people, and this is a conjecture at best, but I think that in Hazaribagh, I work through a dual-gaze. I am both an insider and the outsider, insider to the town, outsider to the plateau. When I look for information on, say, how the lake came about, or how the hill was fashioned earlier to appear the way it does now, I am being a hopeless local historian; on the other hand, when I venture into the forest, trailing a stream and not knowing where it would take me, I feel more like a tourist. Perhaps this duality works, though I am not sure yet.

BE: Do you think your editorial practice, or editorial ethics, have impacted your practice as a writer?

MV: Maybe? I don’t really know. Earlier I used to get irritated at the long wait to get a response, but as someone who has also been on the other side of things, I realise now that such delays happen, especially if you are working as a small, un- or underpaid team. One thing that I loved doing as an editor was to really edit– and not just select– a poem for publication, you know, the old-fashioned way. I would chance upon a poem which was almost ready, except that it didn’t work in some parts and patches. Whenever it was the case, I offered detailed feedback, putting the ball in the poet’s court. Here is what I think. If you agree, we can go ahead with the publication. With my own writing too, I am not averse to feedback or revision. I appreciate it if someone devotes a chunk of their time to offer comments on my work. This is something that I cherish with respect to writing, mine or someone else’s.


155727205559673739MIHIR VATSA is the author of the poetry collections Painting That Red Circle White (Authors Press 2014) and Wingman (Aainanagar & Vayavya 2017). A former Charles Wallace Fellow of Writing at University of Stirling, UK, Mihir is the winner of Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize and a Toto Funds the Arts Award in Writing. Mihir lives in the plateau-town of Hazaribagh, India, where he works across the disciplines of literature, writing and human geography.

Staff Recommendations: Short Stories

If you happen to be looking for some good reads to browse through as the days lengthen, perhaps on your porch or at the beach, look no further. The Inklette team has compiled a list of beloved short stories and short story collections for you to peruse at your leisure.

  1. Jagannath (Karin Tidbeck)

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This collection of short stories, covering narratives from people falling in love with machines to a girl following vittra in the woods, explores how disorienting, beautiful, and downright absurd our reality is when observed through different lenses. I’d recommend this collection to anyone interested in science fiction and fantasy with an intimate streak of psychological realism.  

–Joanna Cleary, Blog Editor  

 

  1. The Dead Go to Seattle (Vivian Faith Prescott)

511wRxVnmzL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This collection is made up of 43 linked stories that take place in Wrangell, Alaska and are told by a young woman named Tova. Through the stories Tove tells, she reveals elements of herself, her hometown, the people with whom she grew up, the history and even the myths from her small town. I’d recommend this collection to anyone who loves stories centered around place and how place shapes identity, and to anyone who loves cultural mythology.   

–Lisa Stice, Poetry Editor

 

  1. Her Body and Other Parties (Carmen Maria Machado)

41N7lsvNg2L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Women begin to physically fade away during the Great Recession. Bodies respond to weight loss attempts in a terrifying manner. In this collection, readers will find stories that combine horror, fairy tales, queer love, and all manner of darkness and light. Machado’s writing defies categorization, and her deft exploration of the meaning of women’s bodies through gorgeous prose will appeal to fans of Neil Gaiman and Helen Oyeyemi.

–Sophie Panzer, Prose Editor

 

  1. Dove mi trovo (Jhumpa Lahiri)

411j4O8mOvL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThis might seem like a strange choice. Lahiri’s second book written in Italian is a romanzo, a novel. But every chapter of the books reads like a short story, a very short story story, and some chapters even read like microfiction. Although only available in Italian currently, the book is extremely different from anything Lahiri has ever written. There is something dialogic about her work– the way the narrator speaks with isolation, the isolation of places around her and the isolation of time. Everything is fused closely within the scope of her minute, razor-edged words, and yet everything seems dispersed. The close of every chapter leaves you with a gasp. Instead of folding close, every chapter folds in on itself as most endings in the form of the short story do.

–Devanshi Khetarpal, Editor-in-Chief

 

  1. Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit (Aisha Sabatini Sloan)

513CkfAho0L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Race, sexuality, youth, memory, family, art, violence, pop culture and more all intersect in Sloan’s collection of essays. All twelve pieces read as separate stories within the continuum of her life. Sloan plays with form, teaching the reader how to read the page which shape-shifts throughout each story. Somehow we find intimacy in the moments of ambiguity and concern in her profound critique over what it means to be a living, breathing, complex human of right now.

–Maria Prudente, Blog Editor

 

  1. Thirteen Ways of Looking (Colum McCann)

51jkI9h7e1L._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_McCann’s novella-length piece, the first narrative in his eponymous collection of tales about empathy, is, at heart, an experimental inspection of male aging. Peter Mendelssohn’s story of growing old is elegantly woven into a detective frame and contemplates the many losses that old age provokes. It’s an angry piece that reeks of bodily inabilities and slow decay—but reads as a poetic exploration of words, language, and life. McCann’s story is thus a painful read with some unexpected twists and turns, but more importantly, one that cautions us to be patient with each other.

-Stela Dujakovic, Prose Editor

To view staff bios, please visit our Masthead page.

On Shakespeare’s 455th Birthday

BY JOANNA CLEARY AND MARIA PRUDENTE

Joanna Cleary: I’m so excited that we’ve agreed to have a conversation on the best-known playwright in the history of English literature– William Shakespeare — in honour of his birthday. As an English and Theatre major, it probably comes as no great shock to hear that I love his plays and sonnets. However, it might come a surprise to find out that I didn’t consider myself a fan of his work until I saw it performed in the theatre. My first exposure to Shakespeare came when my ninth grade English Literature class studied Romeo and Juliet. While I loved the rich images Shakespeare created, I struggled with the unfamiliar language and often grew frustrated because I read the script much more slowly than I read contemporary works. When my class when to see a live performance of Romeo and Juliet, however, I found myself absolutely immersed in the world being created in front of me. I grew to deeply appreciate Shakespeare as one who not only writes about the human condition but does so in a way that allows everything he focuses on – from emotional character development to philosophical questions – to take on an ephemeral life of itself. Now over to you – when did you first learn about Shakespeare?

Maria Prudente: Romeo and Juliet was my first experience too. My first monologue class was a Shakespeare workshop. I began, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks” and I remember the creative director of the theatre looking utterly confused. In retrospect, I love that at twelve I didn’t bother to gender the monologue, but in actuality, I just liked it best. I thought it was elegant and beautiful, I didn’t care that a man said it. In my freshman year of high school, I was cast as Rosaline for our production of R&J. I was gutted. I had no lines though I got to wear a special floral head-piece. For a character who never speaks, it was easy to create an interpretation of her because Shakespeare offers us information on “fair Rosaline” through other characters: Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio. I am not surprised to hear that you became a fan after seeing his work in the theatre. I support the notion that Shakespeare should be seen, not just read. In terms of writing, what I’ve always liked about Shakespeare is that there is no subtext; the language does the work for you and that, in essence, is the brilliance of Shakespeare’s writing. There is a vast legacy of work to choose from — what is your favorite Shakespearean sonnet or play?

JC: I know it’s a bit of a cliché to cite this as my favourite Shakespearean text, but I love Romeo and Juliet. While it’s often dismissed as overly dramatic and unrealistic, I strongly believe that the dramatic tension and spectacular plotline is precisely what captures the feeling of newfound love in the play. My favourite line of the first act is when Romeo first sees Juliet and declares “[o], she doth teach the torches to burn bright” (Act 1.5.42) — the statement is so simple, but also so profound and bursting with emotion. I completely support the contemporary social emphasis on people knowing how to be independent, I also think that love — platonic love, romantic love, and everything in between — has an important place in the human condition and deserves to be recognized in poetic expressions such as this. Speaking of how Shakespeare relates to the modern world, what do you think are the best contemporary adaptations of his work?

MP: I agree with you that the universal themes of love are why Romeo & Juliet is so captivating. We understand it as kids because they, too, are impulsive, impassioned kids and we nostalgically, sympathetically relate as adults. For me, I measure the best contemporary adaptations of his work by what is most relatable. Whether we are consciously aware or not, what we connect to when we watch The Lion King is what we connect to in Hamlet, and, what we connect to when we watch My Own Private Idaho (a classic Gus Van Zant film) is what we connect to in Henry IV. My favorite is Ten Things I Hate About You as a modern adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. At theatre conservatory, I was selected to perform Kate’s monologue for several hours over several days for prospective students and I resented the fact that Kate wasn’t more like her modern adaptation in 10 Things I Hate About You. In the movie, we see Kat as a feminist figure, and in Shrew, Shakespeare characterizes Katherine as a fiery female turned anti-feminine, submissive wife. Would Kat have said to Patrick, “Humble your pride, then, since it’s useless, and place your hand beneath your husband’s foot? As a gesture of my loyalty, my hand is ready if he cares to use it”? I don’t think so. That’s why I think modern adaptations are important because they spark a bigger conversation. Was Shakespeare commenting on misogyny and feminity in Taming of the Shrew? Do we believe this was his point of view? Did 10 Things I Hate About You try to deconstruct gender and female oppression and correct the characterization of Katherine through Kat? Shakespeare is still challenging us in the 21st century. Aside from comparing modern adaptations, what do you suggest people do if they want to understand and enjoy Shakespeare’s work?

JC: I definitely agree that contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare’s work often help make the material more relatable to people who aren’t familiar with the language or the era in which he was writing. However, I also think that people should also experience performances of his original scripts in order to fully appreciate the nuanced worlds Shakespeare creates through his language; after all, he’s known for being a poet just as much as he is for being a playwright. If there are no performances of Shakespeare’s work playing, I’d recommend listening to his work via audiobook to hear his words being said aloud, which is how they are intended to be heard. I had to listen to an audiobook recording of Othello when I studied the play in my Gr. 10 English Literature class. Initially, I hated that audiobook because it moved too fast for me to keep up, as I wanted to stop every time I came across a word I didn’t understand (which was often) and look it up. However, I gradually came to understand that it didn’t matter if I didn’t understand every word because hearing the play aloud helped me more deeply emotionally connect to the world being created before me. Anyways, going back to your acting background, what Shakespeare character (regardless of sex or gender) have you always wanted to play?

MP: I’m jealous of those boys playing Hamlet. There’s even a play by William Missouri Downs called, Women Playing Hamlet where a woman cast as Hamlet has a massive existential crisis during the whole process. Because Hamlet is so consumed by his masculinity (or lack thereof), it would be fun and challenging maybe to regender him; to flip his questioning his bravery “am I coward?” and the insult of “unmanly grief” on its head. What role would you like to play?

JC: I’ve always wanted to play one of the three witches in Macbeth. Like all delightfully grotesque characters, I think it takes skill to not overdo their persona or characterize them in a predictable way that’s been already been done. Personally, I’m interested in looking at the witches as characters who raise questions on class and status in the play – what does it mean for Macbeth, a member of the upper class, to talk with witches and, later in the play, go as far as to seek them out? What does that say about class corruption? And, if one looks at the witches as symbols of femininity, what do they say about gender roles and dynamics? What does it mean for them to, in a way, seduce Macbeth? I would love to take on a role rich with the potential to explore topics such as these. I also greatly enjoy ensemble work and would relish the opportunity to work with two other actors playing my fellow witches, as it has been my experience that a show is strongest when members of the cast are united. Moving onto Shakespeare himself, however, what’s one question that you’d ask him if you two were somehow able to have a conversation?

MP: I think I would ask how much politics during the Elizabethan era influence him. I think his work verges on the political by way of his characters and it would be interesting if there were specific issues that felt so pressing he needed to write about them. We are living at a time of extreme political polarization so I would be interested to know what he would write about today.  What would you ask?

JC: Hmm, interestingly, I don’t know if I would ask him anything. I thought I’d have lots of questions ready in response to you, but nothing seems to be coming to mind. I think perhaps I don’t want Shakespeare himself to influence my perception of his work, as so many insightful and creative relationships between us and him have been built precisely because of the fact that there are huge gaps in our knowledge of his life. That said, I think today is a wonderful opportunity to spend some time pondering the many mysteries of William Shakespeare and re-read some of his poetry, be it his sonnets or his plays. And now over to you, dear readers – we hope that you too can spend some time reading Shakespeare on his 455th birthday!


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JOANNA CLEARY is an undergraduate student double majoring in English Literature and Theatre and Performance at the University of Waterloo. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in The /tƐmz/ Review, The Hunger, Pulp Poets Press, Every Pigeon, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Subterranean Blue Poetry, among others.

155113583331125364MARIA PRUDENTE has written about feminist ethics for Manifest-Station and is featured in Grey Wolfe Publishing’s upcoming anthology of nonfiction short stories. Maria is a professional stage and film actress. She received her training from the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute and graduated from the American Musical & Dramatic Academy with a concentration in Musical Theatre performance. Maria is the Content Editor at CountrySkyline, LLC and proud member of Actor’s Equity Association. She lives in NYC where she studies Creative Writing at Columbia University.

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.