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.

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.

Traveling in Italy as a Poet

BY DEVANSHI KHETARPAL

I spent the last semester in Florence, Italy, which seems like a long time ago. I returned to my hometown of Bhopal, India, in mid-December still confused about my time there. I thought that choosing to learn Italian or to choose Italian literature as one of my fields of study in college was an impulsive choice on my part. In hindsight, however, given the fact that I was reading works by Elena Ferrante, Italo Calvino, Jhumpa Lahiri and Antonio Tabucchi around the time, it doesn’t seem to be such an impulsive decision now. I don’t know why I decided to go to Italy though. I was happy in New York, a city where I think I truly belong. I didn’t want to leave New York and yet I passively wanted to spend some time in Italy.

My Italian was alright when I got there: I loved listening to Italian music, I could read some short poems in Italian and I could sustain small talk in the language. Yet I never imagined what it would be like to be surrounded by the Italian language, its differences and dialects. When I first arrived in Florence, I realized what it means for a world to be somehow written and formed by a language. Squares became piazzas, train became treno, and other words permeated from the landscape into my own imagination, on to my own tongue and memory. I recalled the world differently, I came to know its greetings differently; the lens through which I saw the world began to fade away and made way for a new one. Today, as I write this in New York, I find it difficult to go back to the way in which I used to look at the world. I have fleeting thoughts in Italian more often now. This afternoon, I had a small thought in Italian and immediately found myself scribbling it onto a piece of paper: Nel mio cuore, c’è un lago.

What does it mean to have a lake in one’s heart? I am not sure at all. My hometown of Bhopal has a lake that I think of when Bhopal emerges in my thoughts or dreams. It is strange that Italian is becoming the language that carries these thoughts of home to me. It is strange that Italian is becoming the language that can so succinctly and accurately describe almost instinctively what my heart is and consists of. How did I get here? Where did this language come from? And how did it become the language of my heart? I lack the most accurate answers to these questions but I think they don’t have accurate answers either. Maybe Italian will not be the only language of my heart and maybe there is another language that knows my heart better. For now, however, I am at peace with these thoughts I harbour in Italian. As a poet, I know that my relationship with language is an intimate one. It goes beyond the realm of love or romance; it exists within the realm of friendship. For so long, Italian and the experience of speaking or writing it and thinking in it, felt strange, foreign. But I have come to realize that like any other friendship, it is one that blossoms with time. Like any other friendship, you grow to be comfortable with it and like any other friendship, a language can make you feel less lonely.

In Italy, the Italian language became my friend. I didn’t have my closest friends with me in Florence and though I now think my childhood was very lonely, loneliness is now something I find painful and almost intolerable. But, on the other hand, I recognize that loneliness is a excruciating yet essential part of writing, and of being a writer. I feel lonely when I conceive a poem but not after I have delivered it. Once it’s on the page, I have something to look at, something to hold on to. In Italy, as I reflected on this practice of writing, I realized that the arrival of language into my mind and on the page is what truly dispels the darkness of this loneliness. With Italian as a third language, I had received another friend to populate the space of my mind, the depth of my heart. Even when I was travelling around Italy, my companion, who had a different temperament than mine, made me feel lonelier at times. It was then that I was forced to keep turning back to Italian, to language and words as way to continue living and thriving. Loneliness can be depressing and isolating and the lack of words usually makes it worse. But with another language, I feel as though I have a way to look at the world even when I am submerged in the depth of the lake that is in my heart.


155389164570624267DEVANSHI KHETARPAL is a sophomore at New York University, majoring in Comparative Literature with a minor in Creative Writing. She is from Bhopal, India, and currently lives in New York. She works as an application manager for The Speakeasy Project, poetry reader for Muzzle Magazine and an intern at Poets House. Her poetry collection, Small Talk, is forthcoming soon from Writers Workshop, Calcutta. She is a recipient of the David J. Travis Undergraduate Research Fund from NYU Florence and her work has been published in Best Indian Poetry 2018, Transom, Aainanagar, Vayavya, TRACK//FOUR and Souvenir among others. Website: www.devanshikhetarpal.co.

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.


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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.

826 LA

Inklette’s blog shall be featuring organisations, groups and individuals from all across the world that work to promote creativity among children and underrepresented communities. 

We would like to thank 826LA for being a part of this initiative. Special thanks to Art and Photography Editor, William Higgins. 


 

From the Crazy World Down Here                      

Deisy Garcia

 

Dear grandma,

 

I miss you a lot and I wish we could be together right now. People from el rancho would tell my family, “Oh! She looks just like her grandma!” And I only saw you when I was eleven months old, basically a baby. I don’t have many memories of you.

I have a short, faint memory of you, grandpa, and your son—my dad—when I was running around in the summer where there were crops and dirt. You were all running around, you were giggling and laughing, and so was I. But I still love you a lot. Cancer dragged you out of this world and God knows why. And a couple of months later my dearly loved grandpa took flight and went to the wonderful paradise with you. I just miss you a lot, and I hope to see you one day and be with you forever and ever, and laugh and play with you and grandpa.

I wish that we were together, with grandpa too, and never ever be separated.

 

From the crazy world down here,                                   

Deisy ❤


Just One Day

Samuel Luis

 

All I know is that I used to be a nice kid that would do his work and was focused on his future. With time, that vision I had about myself faded away. Now it seems like I don’t care, but really, inside me I feel bad about myself. When I try to refocus and try to get back on track, it seems like it runs away from me and I go back to not caring. The teachers’ words come through one ear and come out from the other. My mom tries to talk to me but sometimes I just don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t know what it is. I want to get back on that track of success. I argue with my mom a lot now and I feel bad for my mom because she has to deal with me. I feel sad and worried about my mom’s health, she works hard to support us since my dad left to Mexico, not caring about us. That’s why I just wish  I could go back in time and try to change stuff I did. Change something. Change what I did wrong. At least just change one little small thing that would change my future, my present, my past, change something in time. Then I think about it, maybe this is how my life is supposed to be. Maybe God decided to make my life take this path. On times when I’m sad I tend to believe maybe God doesn’t exist, maybe he is just fake. I have asked myself that question and can’t come to the conclusion of whether he exists or not. Why does my life have to be like this? Did I choose for my life to be like this? Maybe I’m looking at my life from the wrong perspective, maybe I need to think deeper. Just maybe I need to think better about my life. All I know is that I will one day change and will get back on that track of success that I seek, and will become that kid that I once was. Not the same but similar. Just one day I will seek what I’m seeking: peace between my thoughts and my feelings. Just one day all the arguing with my mom will stop and there will be peace. Just one day I will have peace. Just one day.


Blue Nail Polish

Nadia Villegas

 

Blue nail polish has a big meaning for me

To others it is just a color

To others it is just nail polish

Blue is my favorite color

After all, blue is the most popular color in the world

Yet that is not why I like blue nail polish

I believe that blue nail polish transcends gender and sexuality

I am surrounded by people wearing blue nail polish, whether they are a boy or girl

 

This is amazing because blue nail polish allows you to express yourself

No matter who you are

 

Yet there are ignorant people that think it’s not right for men to wear blue nail polish

How can such a small little jar of the color blue bring such discrimination?

There is no law or rule anywhere that says men can’t wear blue nail polish

Yet people find it a problem

Why do stupid people start opening their big mouths by calling them gay?

Blue nail polish is freedom

Blue nail polish is expression

Blue nail polish is defiance

Blue nail polish is ignoring what other people think and staying true to yourself


Who Is “Pretty”?

Michael Rodriguez

 

To be “Pretty” takes responsibility,

Cute is Ugly’s best friend,

But Is Ugly really a thing?

You can not call another “Ugly” if you

Can not look at yourself as “Pretty”

Pretty is Perfection,

The real you, it is the best version of you.

Pretty is Reflection,

Reflection on any major events that make you unique.

Pretty is Effort,

The more effort you put to think you are “pretty.”

 

Pretty is Thoughtful,

Thinking of others can affect you more than another.

Pretty is Time,

It takes time to call yourself reliable.

Pretty is Youthful,

Unite with any generation showing purity and youth.


It Has No Meaning

Daniela Martinez

 

Have you ever had someone tell you, “You’re ugly!’’ or, “You are NOT pretty!’’?

Lies, LIES!!!

 

I mean no one, NO ONE, was born good looking or perfect.

“Pretty,” that word can make you feel better or sometimes worse. To me, the word “Pretty” really doesn’t mean a lot.

All the time, ALL THE TIME, I used to get bullied, and all because of that word.

People tell me that I am ugly, that no one will ever go out with me. I mean, some girls say, “Who needs guys anyways?!’’ I totally agree. Dating can wait.

But times change and people change. Time changes when you don’t expect it and people change when they hurt you verbally or physically.

 

I was too scared to go to school because I knew that once I stepped into class, I was going to get bullied. I always heard that they called me names behind my back. When I was at school the only thing I could think about was getting home. By the time I got home, I cried like a baby. And ‘til this day I feel that I am dead on the inside. Thanks to those people, I am shy around people, I am not social, and I am quiet. People that know me don’t know that. Now they know. I am just dead on the inside.

 

I can love my family and friends, but the people that hurt me—NOT EVEN ONE BIT!!! Every time I see them I feel like I want to torture them for every moment they made me suffer. I don’t want anyone suffering like I did. I just heard that my friend got beaten up by a tenth grader. I heard how they called him names. People that go through that: SPEAK UP!!! Don’t stay quiet the same way that I did. It is NEVER too late to say, “STOP!!!”


Who has the rough face now?

Lily Rodriguez

 

I was bullied when I was little for a lot of reasons. I hit puberty at a young age, especially acne. I never had the ability to control how my body was working. I never wanted all the other kids at school to make fun of me because my face was not as smooth as theirs. All the other kids would tell me, “You need some Proactive.”  I did in fact use Proactive, but it only made my face breakout even more. I tried all the acne products, like Proactive, Neutrogena, and even used a lemon. My mother told me to stop touching my face continuously. My mother eventually ran out of money to buy all these products and gave up for a while. It seemed like everywhere I would go I was never safe from these judgments. I began to think that it was not natural for a second grader to be taller than other children in the class, and to have a face that was rougher than all of the other children’s smooth faces. I even began to take birth control pills in the fourth grade! I had to follow so many rules, like not eating certain things at certain times. For example, not eating two hours before taking the pill and waiting thirty minutes after I took the pill to eat. I hated my skin. It was not natural. As I got older, my acne started to fade away; however, the scars still make an appearance.


Barbie

Ciro Benitez

 

I remember a time when I truly missed someone. It’s usually not a good feeling when your pet dies. There are times when you have bad days and all that cheers you up is your pet. My family had a guinea pig, our second one. We adopted her from Petco, four months after our first guinea pig died.

 

She was really cute. I loved her so much that at times it was torture for her. It felt amazing every time I held her, fed her, and overall being with her. When she was dying I felt as if my heart was torn out of my body and thrown into a chest, never to be opened ever again. I felt sad but my eyes didn’t even water. She was struggling to walk in her cage, she couldn’t keep her balance and her whole body would tilt over when she tried. I attempted to feed her but she couldn’t chew. My mom was by my side and maybe that’s why I didn’t shed at least one tear. I don’t like crying in front of others, not even my family. At some point, Barbie––that was her name––just stayed in one spot. She was still breathing but I knew she wouldn’t be moving from that spot. My mom put a big towel over the cage and I went to sleep that night in the same room where my guinea pig was. I will forever remember Barbie and of course every other pet companion I have had or will ever have.


My Thoughts on Prison

Nasim Zarenejad

 

Prison is a place with a lot of personalities. At first you only see delinquents and rebels roaming around the hallways trying to act tough and brave. But if you took a second glance and understood each and every person carefully, you can see that most of them don’t have a simple life but a complicated one. Each and every person has their own story, which brought them to that bad place known as prison. They all had a reason to come to that nightmare and they need help. They committed a crime because of a mistake they wish they had never done, or because of an urge for a pleasure because they couldn’t control themselves.  Regardless of whether they regret what they did or not, they all need help emotionally and mentally. I believe that prison should not be a punishment for their crimes or mistakes but a somewhat “school” where they all could learn to understand and fix their problems.


 

Top places I want to go to

Milanka Patterson

 

The top places I want to go to are Paris, Hawaii, New York, Florida, London, and Guatemala. There are probably many other places, but I want to go to those for now.

 

Paris:

 

Paris is such an amazing place and I want to got here because of all their amazing food and of course, to see the Eiffel Tower. I also know there’s lots of things about modeling in Paris, so that’s another reason to go!

 

Florida:

 

I want to go to to Florida because it’s very beachy and summery like Hawaii. I mostly want to go there because of Disney World and to go to Miami and see an alligator in somebody’s pool.

 

Guatemala:

 

I want to to go Guatemala because there are lot of volcanoes there and I really want to see a volcano! Plus, I have family there and I heard they have beaches with black sand––I want to see that! It also seems very adventurous and I love adventures!

 

Hawaii:

 

I want to go there SOOO BADLY! I will one day. It’s super beautiful––all the animals, the beaches, and all of the different activities. I can’t even explain how many things I would do, all the pictures I would take.

 

New York:

 

I also want to go to New York because all the headquarters for acting and modeling are there. Plus, all the lights! The fashion shows! Everything!!!

 

London:

 

I don’t really know why I want to go to London, but I do and I guess it’s because of the queens and kings. I think that’s cool.

 

How would I get there?

 

Whenever I travel, I go with my family. But as I get older maybe my family won’t want to be traveling all the time. So instead, I would want to go with my best friends! Imagine going on plane rides, staying in hotels, going on adventures in a city you’ve never explored before with the people you love! That is my ideal life and how I would want to spend it!


Mexico

Luz R.

 

Mexico is important to me and my family because Mexico is the place where my mom, dad, uncles, aunts, and cousins were born. My mom and dad were born in San Sebastian Tutla. They left when they got married, and haven’t seen their moms and dads in a long time. Whenever I go there they take the trip seriously because instead of them going to Mexico, they send us to visit the family. Whenever we go to Mexico they get sad because they would like to see their families.


The Lake

By Xavyer Fletes

 

There is a myth that people tell of the forest in Pikoro Village. They say in the heart of the forest is a big lake that is full of life, animals, and plants. The lake is said to have a magical essence of a celestial spirit who was once a king. He was the king of the Fiore region. He was the greatest king ever, he made sure the citizens were never in poverty. He made sure everyone was healthy. The kingdom was at the highest point of its renaissance, but the prince was jealous that everyone loved the king and had never paid attention to the prince. The prince took the king’s life, poisoning him with a box of vipers. He put it in the king’s bed and in the morning the king was dead. When the king died the spirits had given him a second chance, but in another form; he would be a lake and control what happens around it. The king wanted the people who drink from it to have some kind of power, so they can carry on his legacy and capture the people who are ill-hearted. To get there is a treacherous journey. Only people who pass are pure of heart, but the people who are tainted are usually not able to come back in one piece, mentally or physically. The king is able to tell who is pure of heart by making a series of challenges they have to pass. He can sense the essence of good-hearted and tainted-hearted people. The king makes sure if they are good-hearted by the test he lays out. The ones who do get through in one piece (which are tainted) would run at the chance of power and destroy everything at sight. The lake has one more defense of action. The sirens would drag the tainted-hearted to the deepest part of the lake and never let them go. The good-hearted people who drink from the lake are granted any power their heart desires.


Venice Beach, California

Ashla Chavez Razzano

 

The salty sea air of Venice Beach, California drifts through the beach town’s streets and past my window. The sun is covered in gloomy marine-layer this morning, like every morning, until the warmth of the afternoon burns through the grey. I spend my time on my roof, balancing above the incline. Balancing above the longtime-locals that roam the streets, artists and surfer and skaters alike. On my roof, I gaze at the streets’ movement and distant buildings, trees, and mountains. At different times of day, the scene changes, reflecting the change in mood of the community. My favorite time to be here is dawn, when the fresh scent of day is soft and cold, and the dim blue sky is slightly illuminated by the oncoming sun (5:35 AM). Soon the morning becomes noon and the warmth of the day reaches its peak. Summer, and weekends, the crowds of locals and currents of tourists run through the neighborhood, holding skateboards and backpacks full of towels with sand stuck to their flip flops. This is when chatter fills the air, with my neighbor’s “oldies-radio” playing loud from their front yard. The day is anything but still (3:17 PM).

 

By the evening, my neighbor’s radio has been turned off, and behind my home I see other locals chain smoking on outside tables, holding conversation as the sky darkens and their windows’ lights create shadows under their tapping feet. With the dozen or so restaurants and bars and cafes on my street, there’s still a distant chatter. It’s calm and soft, but surrounded by movement (6:53 PM).


 

Did you know…

Estefania Flores

 

You grab

the ball, you dribble

and you shoot. You throw

the ball after you aim, and

eagerly watch the round sphere, hoping

it will go through the net. You can’t

travel or kick the ball. You

cannot even dribble with

two hands. Yes, I play basketball.    

I don’t look like the kind of

girl that plays a sport. But… I’m #14

on the court, don’t judge.


MISSION STATEMENT:  826LA is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. Our services are structured around our understanding that great leaps in learning can happen with one-on-one attention, and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success. With this in mind, we provide after-school tutoring, evening and weekend workshops, in-school tutoring, help for English language learners, and assistance with student publications. All of our programs are challenging and enjoyable, and ultimately strengthen each student’s power to express ideas effectively, creatively, confidently, and in his or her individual voice.

My Adolescence in Google Searches (Please Erase When I Die)

I am nine years old when my misery forces me to Google: “ways 2 not wear a bra”

Something is on Dad’s mind. I know this because of the way his hand hovers over the key in its ignition, the hesitation that keeps his lips apart. His expression is a mix between thought and discomfort, where his eyebrows meet the wrinkle that is smack-dab in the middle of his forehead. “Your mom told me you have to start wearing bras,” he announces, with an air of authority that he is not sure he possesses in this moment.

The color drains from my face. I’m haunted by the training bras that Mom bought for me, all of which are some variation of a neutral color. “Crazy colors will just show through your shirts. You don’t want anyone seeing that,” she tells me. They sit in the corner of my room in a department store bag, untouched, save for the one I wore for a half-day before declaring my contempt for my cotton prison.

Ushering in the bra means boys talk to me more and stare longer. My best friend, Kayla, declares her jealousy and talks endlessly about how she can’t wait to get a bra – a pink one, with lace, just like the one her big sister wears.

My chest aches when I run in gym class and my transition into puberty is obvious when the room is a bit drafty. I’m painfully aware that I’m the only girl in my class who has developed so quickly, so young. I walk with my arms crossed unnaturally over the mosquito bites I call my breasts, my own bra made out of flesh and bone.

“It’s just something you have to do when…” he takes his sunglasses off, stows them in a compartment above his head. He is not looking directly at me, and I’m grateful for that. “…Well, when it’s time. You don’t want boys noticing things they shouldn’t notice.” He sounds just like Mom. I wonder if mentioning that will amuse him.

I don’t want people to notice that I’m not wearing a bra as much as I don’t want them to notice I am wearing a bra. It’s the point of no return; if I made bra-wearing more routine, what’s next? Will I have to do my taxes and sit at a desk and find a husband? Will I have to kiss him and share a bed even if he takes up all the space? Will we get divorced? Will there be a custody battle? Will he have them “every other weekend”? I’m not ready for what I think is the inevitable fate of every person coming into adulthood.

Dad asks me if I would please promise him that I will do as Mom asks so she can get off his back. They haven’t been married for seven years now and are blindly feeling their way through “co-parenting.” Sometimes they talk on the phone, but when things are strained, they send passive aggressive emails that they think I don’t read when I’m allowed to have my allotted thirty-minutes-a-day on the computer.

I pick at a scab on my ankle and, in desperation for an end to the conversation, promise him. His wrinkle disappears. “Good, good,” he chants. “That’s very good.”

We retreat inside where I watch Cartoon Network. Dad makes me a root beer float. A peace offering. Or a mutual agreement of silence on the matter. I can live with both.

I am ten when my eagerness prompts me to Google: “when will I get my period??????”

I notice something curious when I pull down my pants to use the restroom: a quarter sized spot, brownish-red in color, like rust. Oh, no, I think, fumbling out of my underwear and tossing them down the laundry chute. Mom is going to be so mad at me. 

Only five minutes after I discard my shame, Mom is standing in the doorway of the room I share with my twin sister, Morgan. The incriminating evidence – white with multi-colored stars and that damned copper crotch stain –  dangles from two fingers. She looks like a detective who is keen on finding the culprit.

I am scared shitless.

“Whose are these?” She has her Mom Voice on, which translates into meaning business, and there’s no good cop to bail me out.

I think of a lie becauseI do not want to admit to Mom that I lapsed on the hard work she put into potty-training me. Ten-year-olds don’t have accidents, I reason, because we are practically adults now. “Not mine,” I tell her. Her focus then turns to Morgan. I effectively damn my sister to interrogation, and it feels good.

Mom pulls her to the restroom. Morgan, confused, maintains her innocence.

“Do you know what’s happening?” I overhear Mom ask, her voice making those hitch-pitched squeaks that it does when she’s stressed.  When I’m mad at her, I mimic those squeaks to myself, reenacting an argument in my favor. “You got your period.”

Oh.

That changes everything. I’ve read the coming of age books – the ones where the protagonists develop those sacred mounds of confusingly erotic fat on their chest and get the guy – with the same reverence that some read the Bible. I often wish for my period and no longer reject bras. Now, I’m wearing real ones with padding even though Mom thinks I’m too young for them, but is too exhausted to argue against it. I want to be like the sophisticated, beautiful women I see on the television. I want to feel womanly, whatever that means, and escape my lanky, awkward body. I want to shave my legs like Mom does, and I puff my chest out when I walk to make my breasts appear bigger, and I want to put on makeup, and style my hair, and say things like “whoopsy, it’s that time of the month” or “this wine is a good vintage, isn’t it?” and “let’s do brunch!”

I’m positive my period is the first step to being womanly. And makeup. And brunches. And C-cup breasts.

My head pokes through the doorway. Morgan is sitting on the toilet and mortification stains her cheeks an apple-red. A small, cotton torpedo is in Mom’s hand while she reads some paper instructions aloud, pointing at the illustrations as she goes along.

Time to come clean, to confess my crime. I clear my throat and put on a deeper, more impressive woman’s voice.

“Mom? I actually think that underwear is mine.”

Despite my tenuous confidence, the end of my sentence ends in a high-pitched squeak.

I am fourteen and desperate when I Google: “how to get boys to like you”

When the teachers wheel in the television stand for students to watch the coveted Bill Nye Science Guy, or when there is in-class group work, there is a game that 8th graders play. My assigned seat is with three boys, and the one that sits directly next to me – Eric, who almost exclusively wears shirts that are too big for him – likes to play this game with me. He rests his hand on my knee and, slowly, always slowly, approaches my upper thigh.

The boys will contend that I Am Not Like The Other Girls, not stuck-up or prude or annoying.  I laugh at their “your mom” jokes and the drawings of anatomically incorrect penises. I listen attentively to their stories about smoking weed with an older cousin, or the chick that lets you touch her breasts underneath some school stairs (she insists on not taking off her bra, which is, apparently, a really big bummer).

I pray Eric doesn’t go much farther than what he usually does, that he doesn’t become too bold, because I know I won’t stop him. A confident piece of myself wants to let Eric know how uncomfortable it makes me. But I have no voice, and I am not there yet – I Am Not Like The Other Girls, and the Girl Unlike Other Girls knows that it’s just a game, nothing serious, lighten up.

When class is dismissed, the game is done, and the skin on my thigh is red-hot and dirty. I am relieved that it never goes too far, but this is the price that you have to pay to be Not Like The Other Girls.

I am willing to pay it in full.

I am fifteen and terrified of hellfire when I ask Google: “Will I go to hell if I have sex?”

Mrs. Nguyen sits crossed-legged on the floor, beaming at my Church youth group. She is the mother of an outgoing girl named Grace who sports a band t-shirt of religious music that I don’t listen to. Once, I joked that I am always able to tell the difference between secular and non-secular music within five seconds. In return, Grace said that I was so funny, but the skin around her eyes didn’t crinkle when she smiled, and I didn’t feel so funny.

Mrs. Nguyentucks her pin-straight dark hair behind her ear before she starts to talk about relationships.

“Your purity is the best gift you can give your future husband,” Her demeanor changes into grave seriousness. “You can’t just give it away to anyone; a woman’s virginity is special from God.”

She makes eye contact with every single one of us, and I’m pretty sure she is reading my mind. Does she know about my curious Google searches? The responsibility of where those internet queries take me are replaying in my head: pictures and videos that were the source of a virus on my brothers’ computer years ago. Shame creeps into my face and burns like hellfire.

“If you’re reckless with your gift, what will you be worth to your partner? Don’t you want to give your special gift to him, and not someone who doesn’t value you as a woman of God?”

God terrifies me. I think I love Him, but it is the kind of love that is born from obligation. During worship, when I observe my friends shaking and crying about their relationship with Him, anxiety creeps inside the bottom of my stomach and rises like bile, paints my taste buds with acid. I close my eyes and pray hard during the songs that praise Him. I want to cry. I want to experience God the way my friends experience God, but I can’t.

God is all around me, but not in the way Mrs. Nguyen tells me He is. He doesn’t come to me in dreams or burning bushes. I see Him when Mom creeps in, late at night, when she wakes up five a.m. to get us ready for school and to go to work, only to return at 10 p.m. from night classes, to eat a bowl of cereal and to do it all again tomorrow. I feel Him when Dad grabs my hands and guides me across the grocery store parking lot and his callouses and the rough, dead skin of his hands rub against the smoothness of my own and I am reminded of his twelve-hour shifts at Honda and the online classes and how he goes out himself to chop the wood for his fireplace.

God is the electric buzz that runs from my heart to my inner thighs when my first kiss touches the small of my back. It is the taste of victory when an older boy wants me. God is the thump thump thump of my heartbeat in my throat when I’m alone and begin to get to know my body.

He is the shameful excitement of doing something that wrong. He is the kiss on my forehead when I fall asleep watching television. He is shaking legs and fingers clutching pillowcases. He is baked mac-and-cheese and canned pears for dinner. He is delicious shame.

When Mrs. Nguyen leaves, we all sit in silence, still digesting what she said.

I go home and contort my body around Mom’s handheld mirror. I wonder: if God’s most precious gift is in-between my legs, couldn’t he have made it look prettier?

I am sixteen when I search: “losing your virginity”

My friends have told me horror stories about losing their virginities. There is Laurie, at the age of thirteen, to a boy who was eighteen on a football field. A last hurrah, he contends, before he goes off to college. He promises he loves her. He swears he will visit every weekend that he is not studying or doing the things that mature, collegiate guys do. She says the stadium lights were still on but the bleachers had been deserted for a couple hours, only candy wrappers and soda cans left behind. She says she bled a lot, she says he never did call.

Then there is Britany at sixteen. Britany tells me it was so uncomfortable that she could not stop crying even though, at the time, she insisted she was fine.

“It was like someone was inside of me, banging around my insides,” she cringes with the type of shudder that overtakes her whole face and I think she may be there again before she snaps her bright blue eyes open.

“Wasn’t someone, technically? Banging around your insides?” I ask, genuinely confused. She glares at me. I inwardly chastise myself and further avoid satiating my inquisitiveness.

I do not hear good stories, justa plethora of inexperienced hands applying inexpert pressures in unintelligible places, a dash of the hurried covering of exposed body parts at the sound of a garage door, and the occasional “oh shit, oh shit, oh shit” followed with an “I’m so sorry, that doesn’t usually happen, we can try again in fifteen minutes?”

No, I do not hear good stories, but I know they exist. They must exist. I despise the notion that there is no toe-curling, no laughing because you’re comfortable and minimally embarrassed, no accepting that your satisfaction rests in impossibly incapable hands without reciprocation, and that is just how things are. It reinforces that Mrs. Nyugen is right, and in the past couple years, I’ve realized that I desperately want her to be wrong. She still insists that sex is inherently shameful. Sex is inherently bad. Sex is only beautiful when it’s in the marital bed, between a man and a woman, when they are exchanging their “pure gifts” as a testament for God’s love.

I’m not entirely sure why, but I desperately want her to be wrong.

Romanticism is the only thing that gives me faith in sex, in spite of my own virginity. It’s one part a desperate feeling that sex might actually be pleasant, and another part fear. Fear of porn. I am no longer curious-for-curiosity’s-sake about it. I avoid it when I can, circumvent tempting keywords when I spend my time on my family’s computer.

Maybe because it makes me self-conscious: I am short, not long-limbed, with frizzy curls, not bleached blonde extensions, and I am on medicine for acne (that I, for some reason, had to sign a waiver at the Dermatologists stating that I won’t sue if I get pregnant and my baby has physical deformities as a side-effect) and do not have their smooth, poreless skin.

But wait, no, that’s not it – that’s not it at all.

I’m starting to think my faith in Good Sex has a lot to do with the fact that I’m different. I do not want to assign myself to these unsatisfying intimate moments. Maybe that’s why I avoid porn. Because as much as I’m looking at the men, I’m looking at the girls, too. And I don’t think Mrs. Nyugen will approve of that very much.

I am seventeen when I get my own laptop and put in the Google search bar: “bisexuality”.

I lay in Caroline’s bed and watch her get dressed. She’s not the first person I am intimate with, after a year of self-struggling, but she is the first woman. She is a little older, pretty with long hair and full lips and skin that tans easily. She brings me a glass of water and watches me lift the glass to my lips.

“Everything okay?” Caroline asks.

Her bed is not a proper bed: if you fold it, it transforms into a futon. If you concentrate, you can feel the metal bars through the mattress. But I don’t mind. She’s a freshman in a college, and I will be in a couple months, too. I’m ready to leave my hometown, and I hope to feel the metal bars of my own shitty bed, too, because I know it’ll be mine, backache and all.

I shrug. “I don’t feel any different.”

She raises a brow, leaning forward. “How did you think you’d feel?”

I blink, taken aback. I haven’t considered that, not really. Sex was never painful for me, and this time was no exception to that. I don’t regret my first time with Caroline. In fact, I hope this isn’t the last time we get to spend time together. She is kind, and thoughtful. She is polite to my friends when they invite her out for dinner and she makes conversation between the dinner rolls and salads that are 25% lettuce and 75% Caesar dressing. To top it off, she used to be the only openly queer person in my school, a gay goddess when I was a junior and she was a senior, making me wrestle with the dichotomy of wanting to be her or deciding if I wanted to be with her.

“I don’t know,” and it’s the truth. “I don’t know if I should be in pain, or if I just bought my one-way ticket to hell, or if I should feel…” The words swam unguided in my brain.

“Should feel, what?”

“Feel bad, I guess.”

Caroline frowns. She puts her arm around me, her palm rubbing circular motions into my upper arm.  My mother does the same thing when she knows I’m upset. “Do you feel bad?”

“No,” I say. “No, I don’t.”


KASEY RENEE SHAW is in her final semester at Ohio University and is pursuing a B.A. in English. She has been previously published in Sphere Literary Magazine.