Don’t Stop Because You’ve Hit a Block: Unconventional Techniques to Spark Writing Inspiration

by Stephanie Gemmell

While all writers struggle to find inspiration from time to time, grappling with bouts of writers’ block can seriously shake your confidence as a writer. Many writers tend to think of their craft as an aspect of their identity, so facing writers’ block for an extended period of time can easily seep into other facets of life, causing self-doubt or artistic insecurity.

Gathered based on experience and other writers’ recommendations, these 15 techniques include suggestions for how to make authentic progress in your creative process and ultimately overcome writers’ block. While no individual writing approach or activity offers a universal remedy, these methods offer a variety of options to address possible root causes of writers’ block and foster inspiration.


Use the “Cut-Up Technique”

Popularized by William S. Borroughs and subsequently used by artists like David Bowie, this technique can provide writers with a hands-on, creative approach to finding inspiration. By cutting up an existing piece of writing and rearranging words and phrases to create something new, you may be able to spark unique and unorthodox ideas to use in your writing. The physical elements of practicing this technique can also enable your mind to naturally wander, further aiding the creative process.

Try a Guided Writing Journal

Guided journals can be useful to ensure that you dedicate some time to your craft each day, but they can also contribute to ideas for larger projects or creative endeavors. Trying a guided journal that focuses on your home genre or different genres that you want to experiment with can bring some form and structure into the writing process, helping you find a sense of direction as you explore new artistic territory. Another writer recommended Noor Unnahar’s Find Your Voice: A Guided Poetry Journal for Your Heart and Your Art, and it has been a simple, valuable resource to try new approaches in my writing.

Visit a New Place that Stimulates Your Senses

Traveling to new places, even within your local area, can be an incredibly valuable source of inspiration. Encountering new environments provides opportunities for descriptive writing involving all of the senses, and experiencing a place for the first time brings your mind into a greater awareness of your surroundings.

Change Your Daily Routine

Try changing your routine in the morning or evening and see how these shifts impact your mindset throughout the day. If you have a morning commute, consider changing your route or method of transportation for a day and see how this difference in your movement might differently inform your awareness of spaces around you.

Change Your Writing Routine or Environment

Having a consistent, familiar process and environment for writing can feel comfortable and reassuring, especially when embarking on a new creative project. But when you find yourself struggling with writers’ block or grasping for new sources of inspiration, writing in the same environment each day can seem to make your creative mentality stagnate as well. Writing in a coffee shop, outside in a park, or even in your backyard or balcony might open your mind to different ways of thinking and writing. Trying to write at a different time of day than you usually do could also trigger a rewarding shift in your artistic mindset.

Create Blackout Poetry

Similar to the cut-up method, erasure techniques allow you to seek external inspiration in other writers’ words. Blackout poetry can stand alone as an art form, but the process of creating erasure poetry can also be a source of inspiration for other genres of writing or art. In particular, if you don’t consider yourself to be a writer of poetry, this technique can showcase your own capacity to create in a new genre or provide you with distinctive phrases to carry into your other work.

Read Part of a Book You Wouldn’t Normally Choose

Visit a library or bookstore and choose a book off of the shelf that you have little or no interest in. Reading a chapter or even just a few pages could pique your interest, teach you something new, or introduce you to a topic or subculture that you had never considered exploring previously.

Write an Ekphrastic Poem or Narrative

Visual art can hold a powerful capacity to awaken latent creativity by engaging writers’ senses and imaginations. Writing a piece based on a work of visual art could provide you with a new way of approaching your work or introduce you to ideas to explore further in longform writing. Writing based on abstract art in particular can pose a unique challenge to open your mind to idiosyncratic ideas and unconventional ways of thinking.

Write to a Rhythm (Or Don’t)

Songwriters and poets who prefer to write in form often approach their writing with an acute awareness of prosody and the rhythm of language. But being attentive to rhythm in prose can also valuably alter the way writers engage with their work on the sentence level, offering an opportunity to uniquely engage the reader, sharpen dialogue, or diversify your writing style. As Truman Capote explained, “the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the music the words make.”

Conversely, if you frequently write using rhythm as a formal device, consider subverting your usual rhythmic techniques to write freely or bring greater acoustic complexity into your writing.

Force Yourself (Allow Yourself) to Free Write

Being a common exercise in workshops and classroom settings, free writing may be intimidating or uncomfortable for some writers. But seeking to write in an uninhibited way can directly demonstrate the power of vulnerability in your writing. Writing down your fleeting thoughts and ideas can enable you to more clearly see both their rawness and their value, allowing you to more effectively assess what ideas you want to expand and explore moving forward. If you already find yourself actively working on a project but feel stuck, free writing could enable you to get “words on the page” to revise and refine later.

Create Visual Art (Even if You’re the Only One Who Ever Sees It)

If you write and create visual art as well, these two artistic processes can overlap or naturally contribute to each other. But if you consider writing to be your exclusive creative pursuit, trying your hand at drawing or painting could serve as a source of inspiration that enables you to approach your writing from a different perspective.

Change Writing Formats or Mediums

Similar to creating in a brand new visual medium, experimenting with a new genre or format of writing could engage your creative mind in different ways. You could try writing descriptive poetry to incorporate into your fiction, or experiment with writing prose to later refine into poetry. If you write fiction that includes dialogue, try formatting conversations in a script or screenplay style to shift your perspective of the interplay between your characters’ voices.

Make a Collage

Collaging can be a relaxing method to open your mind to visual sources or inspiration—and an affordable way to create distinctive, personalized decor. Being attentive to the colors, textures, and words or phrases that speak to you can provide you with a greater awareness of your mental landscape or state of mind. Creating a collage can also be a useful way to create a hands-on representation of physical settings or emotional undertones that you want your writing to convey.

Seek out the Stories of Your Family and Friends

Talking to relatives and friends often opens new possibilities for both nonfiction and fiction writing. Older relatives in particular may have valuable stories to share about their past experiences, and these can provide you with inspiration while also offering an opportunity to document family history. Giving your friends an opportunity to share their stories or talk about their interests or goals can provide them with a platform for their voice and allow you to get to know each other better. If you plan to use these discussions to inform your writing in a direct way, it is always vital to be upfront about how you would like to utilize the content of your conversations.

Give Yourself (and Your Writing) Some Space

If you find yourself feeling uninspired or feel especially depleted in your writing, taking a break from writing for a few days could be what you really need to get back on track. While giving yourself some space from writing may feel unproductive, it could actually be what your mind needs to come up with new ideas in an organic, unforced way. You may return to your writing feeling renewed and naturally inspired, or you could be able to approach a different technique with greater mental openness. Either way, providing yourself with an opportunity to decompress creatively can jumpstart your artistic process in the long run and allow your writing to flow more freely.


STEPHANIE GEMMELL is a writer and composer currently living in Pennsylvania. Her writing has been featured in Just Place ChapbookCapitol LettersThe Ekphrastic ReviewThe Rival GW, and in the poetry anthology Falling Leaves published by Day Eight. She also attended the 2021 Glen Workshop as a poetry and songwriting fellow. She recently graduated summa cum laude from George Washington University with a BA in Religious Studies and minors in Journalism and Psychology. Her work is motivated by the unique power of art to ask meaningful questions and inspire authenticity.

Madness and the Inadequacy of Language in Swadesh Deepak’s ‘I Have Not Seen Mandu’

by Abheet Srivastav

‘I Have Not Seen Mandu: A Fractured Soul-Memoir’ by Swadesh Deepak, trans. Jerry Pinto (Speaking Tiger Books, 2021)

“The rest is silence.”
-William Shakespeare

In the beginning of summer, when I read I Have Not Seen Mandu, I thought of this line from Shakespeare that Swadesh Deepak quotes in his book. Mandu is a book of loud silences. I wonder if this is one of the few books that chronicles the life of an individual with bipolar disorder in India, written by the individual themselves. Deepak is telling us that there is no language to communicate his experience. Beyond all that is written on page, the rest is silence. His is an attempt to breach the silence, an attempt to leave us with more of it.

In 2006, Swadesh Deepak went out for a walk in his hometown Ambala and never returned. This was the last book he wrote where he tried to present a collage of his seven years of mental illness. Jerry Pinto has translated the title from मैने मांडू नही देखा: खंडित जीवन का कोलाज, into I Have Not Seen Mandu: A Fractured Soul-Memoir. The second half of the title is not a literal translation, but it sums up an important aspect of the book by highlighting that this is a broken memoir of the soul. The body, which Deepak tried to abandon three times, does not have memories. It is the soul which transcends time, which remembers the dream that the body inhabited for seven long years, which felt the memories that are relayed in this memoir. Deepak himself puts it thus: “Memory lives in the soul and therefore the soul is immortal.” It was, and still remains, the assertion of that immortal soul. 

The question worth pondering, for me, was how do I begin to understand this fractured memoir? How do I inhabit this language, which is borne out of a lack, a madness whose central theme is its failure to be articulated? At the beginning of the book, Jerry Pinto, puts a caveat for the reader, “Where you think fit, add the word ‘perhaps’. For some unsettled memories are fractured.” Hence, we begin with mistrust, or maybe a warning of the fantastical events that will subsequently transpire. Against Swadesh Deepak’s gun with which we hunted his characters, all we have is a ‘perhaps’, rendering the space between language and truth infertile. 

The reader is presented with an interesting choice from the get go, which is absent in the original Hindi version. They are  provided with the ability to approach the book with suspended faith, as a clinical examiner would, adding ‘perhaps’ wherever necessary and thus staying within the bounds of sanity, separating the mad from the lucid, the dreams from reality and, in an extended metaphysical way, the realm of Swadesh Deepak’s body from his soul. This ‘perhaps’ supplied to us by Jerry Pinto adds an entire dimension which not just questions or saves us, but also opens up a whole new world for us–to interpret something that we don’t understand yet, to add a hint of indecision and remind us to not be too certain about our realities, to say that just like Swadesh Deepak, as we try to understand these fractured memories, we can add the word ‘perhaps’ where we see fit.

In a Hamlet inspired sentence, Swadesh Deepak writes, “There is no method in this madness.” As I begin to delve into this fractured memoir, the paradoxical need to understand the absurdity of the structure becomes the central tenet. Despite the lack of method, we need a spatial and temporal “method” to understand both internal and external events. Events which are fractured in time jump forth as isolated memories strung together with a thin thread. They offer the reader the challenge to allocate them in neatly defined temporal slots in order to make sense of it all. 

Spatially, the terrain of the narrative itself jumps between reality and dream. The lines between internal and external drama are often blurred. We move from the internal chaos to an external stasis. The temporal and the spatial tie into each other, as we jump between time and space, or are stuck in an elongated moment that refuses to pass. Often time flows linearly, with him stuck in his hospital bed. People keep arriving and leaving. While, at other times, time abruptly stops in the middle of a sentence and we are transported to different places and different realities. As we search for a “method”, this narrative style offers an insight into both the fractures in thought, and often thought itself.  It gives us, not an objective truth but an attempt to retrospectively reconstruct the thought process of a particular time. 

The other challenge in developing a method to understand this memoir lay in building a shared narrative with Deepak. In an intensely personal work, we share the truth offered to us. However, in a memoir of his meandering thoughts, we are not privy to all the details of the paths we tread with him. The reality we build around him is formless. He sits at a party and wanders off into his dreamland. The parking lot gives way to a fever dream of a stranger prophesying his death. Symbols present themselves in disjointed realities, with varying meanings. It hints at a broader theme, where Deepak is a reader of his own experience. 

While he tries to write a memoir true to his fragmented thoughts, he has to build within it a method with which it can be understood, not just by the reader but by himself. When he writes “But there, I was back from my frightening dreamworld. From dreams, in which I change form, change form endlessly, dreams which do not end or break or fracture until someone drops the curtain…” there is a need to drop the curtain to extend beyond this frightening dream world. The only method that we develop is to approach the fragmented reality on its own terms and when the curtains drop, to introspect about the frightening dream world that he has offered to us.

We are invited to take part in this fragmented reality, which is not just fragmented at a singular level of identity, but at multiple levels, which does not necessarily form a hierarchical structure or move in a fixed direction from outwards to inwards or vice versa. They form a chaotic jarring state that Swadesh Deepak is able to bring out through an honest account of his words. The fragmentation is visible at the outset with his body being a shared inhabitant of both the Psychiatric and Burns Wards. It enters into a linguistic relativity with him being torn between Hindi and English–the two languages he switches between, his multitudinal feelings for the Seductress who visits him constantly, and him dangling between life and death. His dreams are formless and his identity takes various forms in them. Sometimes he is a tiger, sometimes a hunter, sometimes the hunted, sometimes a bird in a cage, sometimes a wolf, and in certain moments of lucidity, a patient tied to his bed robbed of time.

The language of this fragmentation, of this divide that Swadesh Deepak feels within himself, is a space to meditate on the symbology of his language and to form a bridge to the internal psychological state of a person which is both limited and enabled by this language. Throughout the book, we get glimpses into the strained relationship of a writer with his own language and words. He calls English the language of lies, and yet in his most vulnerable moments of breakthrough, he switches to English. There is a threatening quality to English offered throughout the memoir. The language offers alienation and disdain, and yet demands reverence. It is when Deepak switches to English that everyone cowers down and listens to him and yet everyone, from the boy next to his hospital bed to his wife Gita, asks him to never use the damned language. Deepak himself reprimands his children when they show a disregard for Hindi and use English, and yet goes on to quote English authors to transmit some of his most honest emotions. 

The constant tussle between the two languages is present even in his play, Court Martial, where English is given an aristocratic, alien quality, that implies a disregard for the lived reality of the people of the country and yet some of the most sublime moments in the play is when English itself is employed against the colonial and aristocratic heritage it defends. 

Deepak complains of having lost his words and how his illness has not just taken them but his hands with which he held his pen. His break from reality, and its relationship with language comes forth: “When it is an incurable disease, we generally forget even the mother tongue, for one lives in a land of forbidden memories. That’s when we withdraw to a foreign dream world.” In this foreign dream world, the tether to one’s own language is broken. One has to inhabit a foreign language to emote and communicate. The untethered desires and memories need to be translated into a foreign language–the “language of the mad”, as he calls it–to be transmitted to the world. The manifestation of the disease, the Seductress, does not exist in Hindi. “Hindi has no seductress. The only way to talk about Mayavini is in English.” In this confusing relationship with the two languages, I wonder if the disease of alienation from oneself drew him to English more and, at the same time, made him hate it. The use of language by a writer could be a statement in itself, a way to communicate how it feels to be stuck in a self that feels untethered.Yet, we cannot be sure if this is the exchange of one language for another or a hatred of the limited nature of language itself. All language eludes him. He confesses to Giridhar Rathi, when asked to write about his illness, “I don’t want to write about my illness. I don’t remember the events in any order.” Lost in time, there is no language for the spaces he inhabits: “We are international citizens. We have no language.” His distance and unease with literature is also filled with duality. He talks about writers and artists extensively, and then goes on to lambast them. He quotes everyone from Plath, Shakespeare and Eliott to Nirmal Verma, Soumitra Mohan and Faiz, and then writes, “Now I will not sin by reading. Wisdom destroys.” Perhaps, in one of his lucid moments, when asked to talk about his illness, he acutely sums it up: “What do I say? What do I tell you? Words have become enemies. They punish me.” With dreams that cannot be translated, he has to rely on the words of others and a foreign language.

In the foreign dreamland, there are ominous signs of an impending disease. This dream reality carries meaning. Symbology of his dreams comes forth in various forms. He is always looking for signs. Just like the reader’s attempt to establish a method to this madness, these disparate symbols are also an attempt to emote something of value to us. He is enraptured by a Seductress, who he first finds after the premiere of his play Court Martial, in Calcutta. She asks him if he would come to Mandu with him, and he insults her in return. Thus starts the fall, the revenge of the Seductress on Swadesh Deepak. The Seductress appears with three parrots. 

When he meets Arun Kamal at an art exhibition and watches the paintings, he recounts looking at a particular painting. “When I asked Arun Kamal about it, he said: Swadesh, I don’t know much about painting. In our folk tales and fairy tales, we always have parrots. They are never female. For the epitome of beauty is always masculine, never feminine; and a female character always wants to bring a beautiful male character into her control. And if she can’t find a man then at least a symbol, the parrot in a cage, will do.” I wonder if each of those parrots is a life offered to Deepak. Having tried to kill himself thrice, he tries to fly away but is captured again and again.

 It is often difficult to decipher if the Seductress is a metaphor for his bipolar disorder or if he was literally haunted by a seductress. I carry both interpretations in parallel as they both together offer a richer view into his inner life than either in isolation. The Seductress becomes a common recurring symbol, which prompts us to ask various questions. Why is the Seductress a woman? Why is the Seductress intermixed with symbology of animals, with birds and leopards? What is the relationship of the Seductress with his impending death? What is the significance of Mandu? When we approach the text, with all these questions in our mind, several symbols jump forth. With most of Swadesh Deepak’s literature filled with violent, male-dominated, testosterone-filled characters, the presence of a woman as both an object of disdain and desire, offers us an avenue to investigate this dialectical relationship. 

In his conversations with the Seductress, he alludes to the trope of the femme fatale, recounting the tale of Helen of Troy and Draupadi. He is misogynistic, and yet finds himself surrendering and belonging to the seductress. He often gives into his lust for the seductress, and finds books on tantric sex in her bookshelves. He is often torn between his immense desire and hatred for the same thing, where he both longs for her to arrive and yet knows that her arrival means his demise. His lust for her often rises to a spiritual sense of oneness and yet shows a lack of religiosity in his life. In his conversations with Nirmal Verma and his repeated allusions to disenchanted Gods, I wonder, if in all his disillusion, he did search for a broader faith that he could hold on to rather than this dangling, constantly oscillating desire. 

It makes sense, even when I extend this to a metaphor for mental illness, where mental illness manifests itself as a mystical being—a being he could not make sense of properly and yet he engaged with it in an integral and complex relationship which lies beyond words. The seductress, at the same time, also occupies the complex terrain between life and death in which Swadesh Deepak finds himself. On some days, the seductress wears a white sari and sings a dirge in his name, whereas on other days, she appears as a three-breasted deity, which might be an allusion to Meenakshi, the three-breasted goddess of fertility. She plots revenge on him and then cradles him in her arms and offers the only tether to belong in this world. 

The symbology of the seductress also hints at the fragility of the machismo he inhabits. This space between life and death is not just inhabited by the seductress, but also premonitions and prophecies. Most premonitions offer a feminine character to the impending doom. When he meets Faiz, he is told, “You will suffer at the hands of women. But why fear? Mirza too suffered much. May Allah protect you. But you are fated to suffer.”, while Amritlal Nagarji tells him, “Swadesh, beauty can often be dangerous….you will be destroyed. Be careful. Be watchful.” In yet another conversation when he travels to Madhya Pradesh, Malay diagnoses his illness as a fear of his machismo being shattered by the non-Hindi speaking audiences of Calcutta, at the first screening of his play Court Martial. In most of his plays, the characters are violent and loud. He is touted to chase his characters with a gun. In the language of his illness, those characters return, seeking revenge for their death. There are limited moments of tenderness, in a disease that has an immense requirement of it. Rather, all tenderness is suspicious. The moments of tenderness are also displayed as distant, acts of sympathy or through self absorption. 

I am never sure if the misogyny and the fragile masculinity is a quality of Deepak himself, or a disease that negates all classically feminine traits, until they arise from the disease itself. However, it does hint at the deeper malaise of the ingrained machismo and the inability to ask for help when brought up in a deeply patriarchal setting. This violent machismo also appears in his description of the Seductress, where he oscillates between conquering her or being destroyed by her. It is in his moments when his machismo falters, that he lets her cradle him and ask him to come with her. And yet, later, in his moments of rage he detests his supposed weakness. In a lot of ways, it opens up a conversation about mental illness in men, and how patriarchy can make it an incredibly violent struggle, both physically and psychologically.

However, the symbology extends beyond the seductress, where premonitions and prophecies abound. A strange man meets him on a lonely night, and tells him first in English, and then in Hindi, that he will die. The wind knocks against his window and whispers to him. He moves in pictures, and the pictures talk to him. The sparrows and the Jungle Babbler, arrive in groups of seven to narrate his death to him. He is warned by the likes of Faiz, Amritlal Nagarji, Ranjit Kapoor and Abrahim Elkazi about his future. Death is represented in all his dreams. He travels to the space between life and death, where tigers abound and recite the poetry of Nirala, and W.B. Yeats makes friends with him in heaven. Leopards arrive along with the Seductress, and he chases them in his dreams, and is chased by them. He is both the hunter and the hunted. He sees horsemen in his dreams, which might be an allusion to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

In chaos that exists in his mind, there are still moments of lucidity. There are moments when Swadesh Deepak, the English professor, the radical playwright with his sharp critique on social issues, and the gifted writer is on display. He talks to his son Sukant and opens up to him about his mental illness. There are moments where he realises his own lack of power with his debilitating condition. The subject of the societal treatment of the mentally ill, though scarcely addressed, also presents itself in a conversation with his doctor who talks about how no one understands the illness properly and there is no language to talk about it in India. In another instance as Deepak sits in his home, an unemployed man working on his next book, we are shown his existence as a non-entity. It is a depiction of the resources and the respect that the mentally ill lack in our society.  Perhaps, that is why he could not find the right words, the right metaphors, in his own mother tongue to talk about his state. Maybe our mother tongue still lacks the accurate vocabulary to talk of mental illness, to discuss it with our close ones. That is why his attempt to create literature out of his experience becomes even more significant. 

I am reminded of a line of Soumitra Mohan he quotes, “भाग्य कहीं थमा हुआ है। (My destiny is stuck somewhere).” Swadesh Deepak offers us an insight into the complex life of an equally complex man. All I have is to offer theories and methods to understand a part of his experience but beyond all these analyses, all the literature he left behind for us, he teaches us empathy. He leaves us with an intensely human experience, creating a place where we can suspend our belief and exist in contradictions. A place where we can try to open conversation not just about mental illness but the nature of reality in itself and how the imagery processed by the human mind can create such a unique piece of work.


ABHEET SRIVASTAV is an analyst working in the field of Artificial Intelligence, and an avid reader. Always curious, he likes to learn about everything ranging from philosophy to science, and is always tinkering with both ideas and products to create something of value. His work has appeared in The Medley, an anthology of short stories, and various online platforms.  His writings can be found on his Instagram account @abheet_srivastav, and also his monthly Substack newsletter Figuring.

Tell me when the ocean will begin

1 / Rip Tide: A Prelude
Figure 1. “Anatomical figures on a cliff by the sea, their heads illuminated by light. Line engraving and etching by B. Probst.” 1735. Wellcome Museum.

The light in the room is a dim, dark blue. Shadowy people crowd around the bed where I am lying naked on my side, but they are without definition: a busy, blurry hoard.

I don’t feel my skin. I’m not aware that I am crying, though I have been almost continuously since the morning before, when my midwife said that if I went home, my baby would die.

Raising the mask to my mouth, I try hard to fill my lungs even as my body involuntarily compresses and tightens. Then, I have to let the mask fall away since the rubber around its edges only allows air to pass into my body, not out.

Raise to inhale, lower to exhale. Repeat and repeat and repeat. But there’s no change. The pain of the tide rippling through me — electric, uncontrolled — doesn’t recede with the inhalation of the gas. My work becomes still heavier: in addition to the waves engulfing me, I can’t quite catch my breath.

I get my movements mixed up and exhale into the mask and it is as though I am trying to add air to an already full chamber — it goes nowhere, or backwards down my throat. It cannot leave my mouth. In those moments I’m drowning and, though the medium is my own breath, I feel I’m deep in black water.

There are stories so ordinary and widespread that they quietly permeate every human life. They are tales we learn passively, through mention and missive, of water and floods, fire and disaster, of disease and illness and death.

The stories’ cultural commonality makes fear of what they portend rarer than it probably should be, until one or more of their subjects comes into lived life and reinstructs in human smallness.

Wildfire in Northern California is one such teacher, as, every year now, we must live through fire season with bags packed, always ready to evacuate. Flooded streets and subways, buildings that give way in the night — these happenings remind us that we are not in control. That technology and systems fail. That safety is an illusion.

Childbirth, too, can renew this old human awareness of frailty, of our passing nature. I know this from recent experience.

2 / Cyclical Torrent: thirteen months earlier
Figure 2. “The War in Egypt: hoisting invalids on board a hospital ship. Wood engraving.” Date unknown. Wellcome Museum.

In May of 2020, my grandmother — my last living grandparent — died. When my spouse, David, and I showed up at her assisted living complex in Troy, Michigan, there was still snow on the ground. The cold loss I felt came from more than just my grandmother’s absence. The Detroit suburb itself felt bereft — the streets wide and slick, the landscape brown and untended. If I had been from there, I probably would have recognized this as spring, but it was bleaker than any California winter I’d experienced.

Stepping inside her apartment, we found half a cup of coffee, the shower full of cheap shampoos, the fridge still stocked with Tupperware containers of food that no one was going to eat. Our task was to sort through the small mountains of paper and dollar-store jewelry that she had accumulated during her eight decades.

Our work began right away. We sifted through her belongings, placing most things into black garbage bags to be donated, and saving some others — old photos and letters, a notebook containing simple accounting of her monthly bills calculated randomly across its pages, and hand-embroidered handkerchiefs.

Grief and the sorting of her possessions tired us. When we went to prepare for bed that first night, David pulled down the left side of the covers and found that someone — probably my cousin or uncle — had pulled the blanket up over a large brown spot on the sheets. A strong body smell — of perfume, stale laundry, excrement — wafted up from the bed.

This must have been where she had had her stroke and soiled the sheets before falling to the floor. I felt my throat close, and my eyes burn as they filled. She had been alone for hours.

We searched for but couldn’t find replacement sheets. Even if we had found them, the problem would have remained: the stain had soaked through to the mattress. There was nothing to be done, and nowhere else to sleep. David covered the stain back over with the blanket and, pulling me into his side, told me he would sleep there.

That moment conjured the old realization: now she’s gone, my time for knowing her has run out. But the writer and physician Atul Gawande suggests that we ask questions of our dead. That there is more to be discovered, even when the person can no longer physically answer back. Though he means the questions to be asked in the form of autopsy, postmortem inquiry can also be extended to the emotional and ethereal, to things we cannot see.

So, I asked questions of my grandmother’s life there, as we sifted through the remnants of it, and I continued to query after returning home, as I was forced to add others to the group of addressees.

My dead haven’t all died. In the months after my grandmother’s rainy funeral, my birth family fell apart. Fights erupted over differences that had long been there, unconfronted: views on Trump, Black Lives Matter, vaccines, and the pandemic. Siblings blocked other siblings on social media. My mother stopped speaking to me. Though I’m the middle of nine children, and this should mean always being part of a group, I found myself quite suddenly and shockingly alone. It was the final razing of an already shaky structure.

Querying my grandmother and her life brought a still resolve about my future that I hadn’t previously had. Though she had dealt with the alcoholism, abuse, and neglect of family members, worked in a factory for years, and lost my grandfather a decade and a half before her own death, my grandmother had always been ready with a quick, unoffending joke. She regularly drove her friends and grandchildren around town. When she dressed up for her Bingo group’s Halloween party, she chose a cow costume and won the contest. In short, she didn’t wait for others to change before living and loving her life. I didn’t want to wait anymore either. The point, I began to see as the losses accumulated behind me, was to make the choice to take a chance.

So, back home in California, with the awareness of my gutted family life ever present, I made an appointment with my obstetrician to get my IUD removed. Two days after my doctor pulled out the little copper T and set it, still a little bloody, on the blue-papered tray, I got pregnant.

3 / The Present Flood
Figure 3. “Geography: eroded rocks in the sea. Coloured wood engraving.” C. Whymper. Wellcome Collection.

Just after my child was born, I thought that the sadness I was experiencing was due to the way the birth had gone. Low amniotic fluid. Fetal intolerance of labor. Stress and stress and stress. My baby was taken out of my body with a knife and swept to a see-through bassinet for inspection. It was a full ten minutes before I saw my child’s face. When they* were finally placed on my chest, I was too shaky from the drugs flowing into my system through the epidural catheter in my spine to hold on to their tiny body.

I don’t remember being taken back to the room where I would have given birth, and I don’t remember breastfeeding them there for the first time, though there is a photo with a timestamp showing that this happened. This forgetting is a common source of sadness after C-section, and for a while it was mine, too.

At home, my body healed both too quickly and too slowly. My belly was gone and too soon, to the outside world, I must have looked quite like the person I’d been before.

But the line where I was cut open still stood up red and shiny right beneath the place where I zipped my pants. The adhesive from the tape that had held catheters, monitors, and IV in place sat in persistent patches across my body, blackened with lint from my sweats and t-shirts.

Each day in the shower, my grief was Homer’s wine-dark sea, spreading to the limits of the bathroom.

During my first attempts to pick open the knot of my sadness, I thought these quick bodily changes and my absence of memories of our birth were the reasons my heart was broken, despite my healthy baby. But as I gathered up the days between my various presents and the static, murky “then,” my understanding of exactly what I felt I had lost was changed. My child’s difficult birth drew out the many other deaths in my life — the many people and relationships that I couldn’t resurrect. It brought to my awareness the very small amount of control I had over the family I had brought into existence by creating my child. I could not mend my first family with the birth of a second. I had not bought myself safety, but greater than ever vulnerability.

With them napping on my chest, their head close to mine, their tongue working inside their mouth and smiles flashing across their dreaming face, I realize again and again that they will die. That this is the reality of what I have made — that they are something that will live briefly, hopefully beyond the span of my own life, and then die, as we all will.

If I tried to protect my child from all risk, they would grow up fearful, and I knew from experience that fear inhibits love and the ability to engage with the world in joy. We are not safer when we are afraid. The fear itself offers no protection.

4 / Coda: Without Inventing a Life Preserver
Figure 4. “An écorché seal: five figures showing the musculature of the body, with details of the muscles of the face.” Lithograph by C. Berjeau, 1872. Wellcome Collection.

In her poem, “Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich has her speaker intone: “there is no one / to tell me when the ocean / will begin.” When I first read this poem aloud to myself sometime in 2016 while taking a poetry class just because, I hadn’t yet lost my brother-in-law to overdose, my graduate school mentor to heart attack, my grandmother to stroke. My family, though troublesome to me, still felt like a coherent whole. And so, I didn’t quite understand what “the wreck” might be, or why an experienced diver would need someone else to tell them where their medium of travel — the water — began.

I know now that the water is engulfing sadness. The boat ladder from which the speaker must descend is the bridge between the “normal” world, calm and unaware of that which lies beneath, and the other. The wreck is the thing lost — the source of grief — drawing the mind like a circling explorer, again and again. The equipment is insufficient because you can never, no matter how many times you’ve made the trip, be prepared for what you’ll find below.

I was lucky: My expedition wasn’t doomed from the start as some birth adventurers find theirs to be. But there is still no one to tell me when the next ocean will rise up and swallow me whole. You might call it postpartum depression. But that doesn’t help me understand what this period of life is or means.

Grief is one of the skeletal structures of life, always there but not felt until something breaks. As I labored that late spring night, I wore my grandmother’s earrings. In that dark passage, I met her— myself engaged in birthing and she in dying — both of us knowing that this was the end of life as we had known it.

It is not a hormonal condition to grapple with the glimmering mortality of love and life.

My story is not the one I thought I would tell, of pushing my baby out and pulling them up onto my chest. I never had control over the process. That was taken the moment I learned my baby might not survive. But I know, even before that, I had only the illusion of it. That is one point of the common tales of destruction and loss — to remind of frailty and vulnerability. Another is just to tell of the endings that visit us all. I am grateful to share a beginning, though difficult, with my child.

I birthed my baby as ports birth ships — with the help of a large crew. We don’t know yet the voyage we’ve begun, though that horizon, always, looms.


*My spouse and I refer to our child using they/them pronouns.


SARAH HOENICKE FLORES studied creative writing (BA) at Mills College in Oakland, California, and journalism (MJ) at UC Berkeley. They are now working on their PhD in Comparative Literature at UC Irvine. They write about many different subjects — from inequities in the maternal healthcare system to Jesus Christ’s Instagram account — for a range of publications, including the New York Times, Literary Hub, and many others.

Editor’s Note

Dear reader,

I often feel as though I am becoming a keyhole: the interstice of encounters and trespasses, inspecting, alert. A few days ago, on Hay Beach at Shelter Island, I stepped into the water for the first time. I had no expectations, only uncertainties; I have walked along beaches or seen them from afar. I think I’ve even been in love with water, or at least rapturously fascinated by it before even knowing it, touching it. But my body has been losing itself for some time— starving, refusing to bleed every month. In the water, however, I felt it hold its own for the first time. In the wide expanse of the water— the estranging, insupportable, unsustainable, transcending, intimidating, permeable, rhythmic element that it is— I felt the singularity of being witness for the first time. Small fishes floated around, seaweed wallowed against my ankles. Rocks and pebbles rubbed my feet. I did not experience loneliness, abandonment, anonymity or illegibility. It was the state of being a witness, and in freedom.

I’m thinking of the small life of this issue: from the time we launched our submissions period to this very day. Our editors, contributors and submitters from across the world have undergone tumultuous inner journeys. I must admit that during the worst moments of the past few months, shrouded and dead, I questioned why we publish this magazine, why people choose to write and submit to us. In hindsight, I think the presence of art and writing occupies a space like the sea: a necessary other, something to help us hold our own, transcendent but unreliable, unsustainable. “Pain is only pain with a name,” writes Kinshuk Gupta in his poem, ‘Case History of Pain.’ Perhaps that is the best way to put the experience of the past few months.

Publishing this issue, at least for me, doesn’t come without the guilt and grief of the past few months. Having something to do when the world is gathering losses is a preoccupation that wounds as much as it supports. Your works, dear contributors and readers, presented us with that challenge and allowed us to witness the world through your eyes, made us feel immersed in your language. From the 472 submissions we received, these are the nine works of writing that helped us survive, weather, hold on. That is a rare gift. As I am writing this, I am thinking of survival even in the presence of lack, in the absence of desire. Reading this issue, I am grateful for the hard work and hours put in by the editorial team, including several new staff members, and your trust in us. We hope you witness with us, beside us. Thank you so much. So much for standing, kneeling, holding on to something so we can learn to see, touch, emerge, love, desire and survive again.

Sincerely,

Devanshi Khetarpal

Editor-in-Chief and Founder

Inklette Magazine

There Is Something Worse

Lillian Barfield

If LeeAnn works at the Dollar General for much longer, she thinks she will become a shrivelled prune on the shelf, identical to the one sitting front and center between the coffee mugs and plastic bowls. Her body will become a dried out piece of fruit and will stench up the whole place just out of spite. Her hands are cracked. They look like they belong to someone who has spent the past three years underwater. Her nails are cracked and the nail polish she put on two days ago has mostly scratched off. Tonight she will put more on, she is not a prune yet, she will still have beautiful hands, but god, she is so tired of putting nail polish over layers of wiry nails every two days. She thinks that tonight she’ll choose the maroon polish and she’ll add sparkles over the top. The light blue sparkles that make everything look a little more like a disco ball. If anyone tells her to take it off, she’ll leave the middle finger alone and tell them where to stick it.

She bends over at the cash register, shirt halfway tucked in, and decides that the amount of cash is correct without actually counting it. Her head thumps on from the migraine threatening to return. She remembers the night before, the swirling of two dirty margs in a Red Bull can that had been cut in half. The smell of it gave her reflux before the swallowing did. She remembers the smell of tequila being poured into dixie cups turned shot glasses and how after five minutes the paper melted. She remembers being alive for the four hours she was drunk and wishing she felt less alive five hours later when she woke up. She grabs the water bottle under the desk and throws back the golden liquid while she swallows her ibuprofen. One of them will help, probably. She wishes they would catch her. She thinks about leaving. She grabs the cash again and shuffles through it mindlessly, before the knocking starts.

She quits fumbling through sweaty bills to unlock the doors and let Cal in, who storms past her and immediately begins taking inventory in the back. He wears burgundy Nike’s to work everyday, tells the manager to take it up with his wife when they tell him it’s not up to dress code because what are they even going to do, its a fucking Dollar General. He walks around the storage room in the back for a full ten minutes just running through his laundry list of tasks for the day before finally settling in on one, deciding that there is nothing as important in that moment than focusing on what he’ll get from Dina’s next door for lunch.

LeeAnn walks in to find him sitting criss crossed on the ground, fumbling through an unlabelled cardboard box. She learned months ago that Cal would rather take twice as long to do one simple thing than rush through a shift and that includes rummaging through a molded and soaking wet box that had been left in the corner of a stock room for weeks on end. She thinks about that dried out piece of fruit again and wonders if he’s a prune too. But he’s not even a fruit. He’s just hollow. LeeAnn wants to know what his life looks like. She wants to know someone else is hollow.

Cal works with his hands everyday and he loses his wedding ring every two weeks. Maybe it’s unintentional. LeeAnn thinks so. She pretends that his hands get too sweaty and greasy from what he does in a day, that his fingers are becoming wrinkled like the prune too, and the ring just slips right off. Some days, she catches him studying his ring, like it’s become a weight that makes slicing through the packaging tape impossible. Some days she sits in the parking lot, right before he pulls in, shifting gears in a thirty year old toyota, and she sees him wipe sweat off of his cheeks; it’s probably sweat. It’s probably just sweat.

***

            Last night, LeeAnn sat on a velvet couch covered in piss stains and faded paint stripes, waiting for her mother to set down her keys and grab the Coors Light on the counter. Monica left it there overnight, so the minute she walks over to take a gulp, she flinches and pours it down the drain. She works at the diner on Main Street, pulls 24 hour shifts. LeeAnn was sure it’s illegal.

            Her mother’s boyfriend, Joe, sits down beside her and asks if she wants a drink. She usually doesn’t, but Joe is already handing her half of a jagged Red Bull can. She takes it gladly and sips on the yellowish liquid for the next hour. She thinks about how Joe probably made this for himself, but Monica gave him a glance across the kitchen and he knew that she wanted the two of them to talk about something, even if it was about tequila in a metal can.

            “Take the rent to Bobby before you go to work tomorrow.” Monica is rummaging through her purse to try and find the crumbled envelope with cash stuffed inside. LeeAnne looks at her through the entryway and grimaces.

“Rent was due two weeks ago, mom.” Monica doesn’t even look up.

“He gets it when he gets it. He owes me.”

LeeAnn knows that. She remembers a year ago when her mom ran into Bobby’s house to write him a check, only to find him tangled in the sheets with the gas station clerk. When Bobby’s wife came by the house later asking if she knew anything, Monica said Bobby wasn’t home and she left the check on the front porch by the ferns.

“It’s been awhile, mom,” LeeAnn tells her. “Eventually, that excuse is going to run out.” By the time she’s finished her sentence, the envelope is sitting on the table by the door and Monica has dragged Joe into the back room for a smoke.

Once she finishes her first drink, she makes two more and soon she’s alone in her own home, watching I Dream of Jeannie and festering over her next day off work. She thinks she’ll call out sick tomorrow, maybe grab Taco Bell before looking at job ads. She’s not sure how much notice she’ll give Cal before she quits. She knows that she cannot dumpster dive through any more cardboard boxes or fling back layers of plastic looking for treasure in disposable bins.

***

She’s in her car now, in the parking lot of a Trader Joe’s, three parking spaces from the end, dreaming about the cheesy gordita crunch that she could have had if only they had kept the lettuce off or if she had the gall to take it back to the front. She shifts in her seat, focused on a video of a mother’s testimonial about her child swallowing Drano. She thinks maybe he thought it was liquid licorice, or maybe he just wanted to see what it would do, or maybe there was no other way around it and he needed to know something that no one else knew. But then his mother smelled him burning, literally burning, and she thinks that somehow she is also a Drano swallower. She can’t take the floppy cheesy taco back into the restaurant but she could swallow a gallon of Drano in one quick chug.

She wonders if Cal would do the same thing. She wonders if his throat tastes like ash like hers does. His hands are stained with oil and grime, though she watches him wash them three times a day. His finger is never stained where the ring sits. Her hands are stained with paper cuts and calluses and blisters that pop over and over until they begin to bleed. Maybe she’s projecting, but she thinks that his throat feels coated in plaster, that he never talks to her because he can’t, because someone threw an entire Ace Hardware’s worth of putty into his mouth and forced him to swallow it. She wonders if it was his wife, if that’s why he feels suffocated at work with the ring on, if it squeezes his hand throughout the day, if he leaves it in his car for the twelve hour shift, searching for a moment of peace. She wonders if there is something worse than being shriveled, if there is something worse than being alone.

***

            There is a seven year old boy sorting through the candy at the register while his mom plans out their next meal. She picks out minute rice and a can of beans and looks around the freezer section for a bag of cheese that’s maybe less than three dollars, and when she finds none, she walks back to the beans and decides what else she can grab in a hurry. The kid is wide eyed at the chocolate bars and rainbows in front of him, and his mother is putting back the can of beans for a smaller one.

LeeAnn cannot help herself, so she runs to the back before going to the register to check out the woman and asks Cal, “Why do you take the wedding ring off at Dollar General but leave it on while you’re layering yourself in grease like a beefy five layer burrito?”He throws the box cutter on the floor and walks away, but turns once to tell her she needs to mind her business. She thinks about his hands again, like the world revolves around the oil that has stained its way into the deepest grooves of each finger. She thinks he has to love his wife. She wonders if his wife has found her way into those same grooves. She thinks that maybe he only has enough room for one thing to know him well, she thinks maybe his wife didn’t make the cut.

            The next day, he tells her, “I bought the ring too small after I lost my first one at the beach. I can’t cut the boxes with the ring on or it feels like my finger’s gonna fall off.”They both chuckle and walk in the opposite direction of one another. They both know they’re lying. She doesn’t ask any more questions, though. She stares at the wedding ring, now shining on his hand where the stains used to linger. He cuts open the next box and dives into work and LeeAnn walks back to the front, out the door, takes a five minute break to chug something she had leftover in her car, and comes back in to find the boy has thrown skittles all across the floor.

***

The next day Cal quits, and LeeAnn puts in her two week notice. She can feel herself begin to shrivel and she commits to a job at the thrift store a few blocks away, deciding that sorting through sweaty underwear and used shoes is better than living on the shelf, unused. She wants to remember what it is like to have your breath catch in your throat. The thrift store is not that, but it maybe can be closer than where she is right now.

The first day she walks through the doors, a news story plays over the retro television sitting on the counter about a meth lab exploding, somewhere local. They make it seem like it’s a huge thing, like it was a statewide procedure. It was a small town – her mom would call it backroad bullcrap. It wasn’t high quality meth. But there was a fourteen year old boy there. He walked to his friend’s place. The parents were cooking meth in the back room, poorly, and someone lit the house up, burned the trailer to the ground; no one made it out. The trailer park shook. The trees started to burn. Both of the neighboring trailers started to burn too, the rubber roofs melted into the ground. But the 14-year-old boy was the only person LeeAnn could pay attention to. They didn’t even show his picture on the television, just said something about him being there in the first place.

She imagines what he looks like. He’s such a small boy. He’s probably 5’2” and didn’t get a haircut when he was supposed to. LeeAnn thinks that if he would have known how to drive and how to shift the gears he would have left in time. She doesn’t know the kid’s name and so she pretends it’s Tommy. She thinks if there is a peace in the universe it is burnt orange and smells like marshmallows when you first open the thin bag. She hopes that Tommy smells like marshmallows now. She thinks his hands would have been shaking and he would have fumbled the keys. She thinks his breath would have smelled like menthol, but not like tequila. She doesn’t know if he even smoked, but he was at a meth lab in a trailer park, so he probably did. She thinks his last cigarette would have been dangling from his lips when he jumped the car off by the side of the road.

She thinks he would have driven himself to Trader Joe’s. He would have ran inside and asked the cashier for her number. She thinks she would have laughed and told him no, but secretly wrote it down on a receipt. And maybe Tommy would have thrown the receipt away on accident. She knows that when you are fourteen you have nothing much to live for. That when you are fourteen, living is the worst part. And so she thinks that one year is enough to make a difference and she pretends that Tommy is alive right now and that he is out on a date with the beautiful cashier with the red cheeks and colorful hair clips and that he will go on more dates and become a tall young man and his legs will outgro the rest of him first and maybe that was the only thing he needed. Just one more year.

She throws everything she needs into a locker in the back of the store. They tell her to sort through blankets and clothing for holes and if the holes are small enough to put them on the floor anyways. She does, and she thinks back to the boy again. She wonders if his shoes had holes in them. If he shopped here. If his hands ever held the same door handle hers are holding now. If he ever ran out of the store like she’s doing now. If the cigarettes he probably smoked were Camels or Marlboro or if he tried to roll them himself. So she smokes. She smokes and she thinks of him and she stuffs the rest of her pack into the cement block sitting by the glass doors, and she doesn’t think she’ll touch them again.

***

LeeAnn wonders if being a prune is the worst thing that can happen to someone, after all. Her hands have quickly softened from folding laundry and hanging artwork in the corners of each section of the store. She doesn’t miss the metal shards from broken cans or the splinters she would get from cleaning the loading dock. The nail beds of her thumbs no longer crack and bleed with each flip of a twenty dollar bill. She handles so little money, but her hands are whole again. She remembers the last time she felt warm, the last time her hands didn’t scare her when they brushed against her own skin. She thinks that being warm is more than most people feel and so she decides to no longer shrivel.

While she’s stocking the last shelf of folded towels and fitted sheets, she watches an older woman fumble through the door, her walker hitting the glass door no matter how hard she shoves. She’s trying to carry a box of Old Navy flip flops on top of the walker, so LeeAnn rushes over to hold the door open. The woman’s name is Cheryl. She comes in every weekend with another box. Small things like shoes and clothes, once a lamp, once an old John Deere collectible helicopter, once an old pair of wooden clogs that are still sitting on the floor of the showroom beside the old coat hangers. Her husband died three months ago, and she doesn’t like his stuff to stay in her house. She says it’s all haunted anyways, and James would have wanted it gone. She leaves a box on the front desk every weekend and walks out, without saying a word to anyone. She goes through his belongings one box at a time and brings it all in when she can handle it. It’s been three months. LeeAnn couldn’t expect more from someone after only three months.

Today, she comes in and walks straight toward the section of mismatched cups and bowls. Her eyes are tinted yellow and she is so small, smaller than she was last weekend, already the stature of a gargoyle. She tells LeeAnn that while she was sorting through the cabinets she dropped an old cup. She’d had it since her honeymoon kind of old. She wants to find something else that’s old to replace it. LeeAnn thinks that the old woman is insane, she could drive 30 minutes to get to a Target and buy three cups for half a dollar. But Cheryl sifts through the junk for a few minutes, finds something small and blue that she likes, and pays the dollar for it. She smiles at LeeAnn when she leaves, and LeeAnn wonders if she’ll ever see her again. If there will be any more weekends. If maybe she is going to be the next 14 year old boy on the news, if something unfortunate will happen again. She will make up scenarios for this old woman in a few days and pretend that she won the lottery and took a paid vacation to the Bahamas or went to Las Vegas.

And so LeeAnn decides that being alone is the worst thing you can be. There is something worse than being shrivelled on a shelf and she knows this when Cheryl does not come in the store again, and she does not see Cal again, and the 14-year-old boy did die, and she is slowly curling in on herself, and she did drink the drain-o and nothing even happened.


LILLIAN BARFIELD is a graduate student and writer from Honea Path, South Carolina. She often writes about the people she feels are most forgotten in an effort to never forget them. Her work is published or forthcoming in Sink Hollow, Firewords, and Holyflea.

Life Changes in an Instant

PRIYANKA CHAKRABARTY

On 6th June 2015 I came to Bangalore. On 10th June 2015 M and I sat in the same classroom for the first time. On 23rd November 2019 afternoon with a little help from M I confirmed I am queer. On 23rd November 2020 we met for lunch and talked about her impending marriage while the sun burnt bright. Perhaps the brightness stopped her from looking into my eyes when she said how much she loves him and how great it feels, this socially sanctioned love business. The café caramel sundae is an ice cream that I blame for inducing queerness in my veins. It is the coffee, yes the deep dark rich coffee which makes me feel heady and wants to live a little more than I have been made to believe I am allowed. That ice cream tastes of liberation with the roasted cashews which I tasted on your tongue. Since then I have always spared some an extra moment of thought because when I taste those cashews I taste you, I taste that afternoon, the afternoon of my queerness and your continuous denial of it.

M, have you ever stood under the bright scorching sun for a very long time? The same kind I stood under when I waited for you outside Coconut Grove holding the chocolate coated biscuits wrapped in golden paper just for you. Standing in the bright sun for a really long time makes your vision momentarily blurred when you walk indoors. Blurred patches of black, red and purple swirl in front of my eyes as I wondered if it was going to be an afternoon of blurred lines. The drinks made us tipsy and our hands accidentally touched while we searched for poetry among the bookshelves of Blossoms. We kept chancing upon the same books, wanting to read the same blurb at the same time. I wanted to hurl myself miles away but stayed rooted to the ground.

Later in the evening we sat under bright yellow lights. I had just tasted the bitterness of the coffee at the back of your tongue. You took pictures of me because the light deepened the brown of my eyes. But you didn’t meet my eyes; I guess lasting eye contact was not for phases. You asked “How are you feeling?” I said, very asexual, still asexual. Once again you asked me to just wait for the right person to come along. Oh M, the right and the wrong people had come and gone. But my heart, oh my heart, stayed frozen, denied to beat while I stewed under your simmering gaze and lingering touch. I had wanted for my heart to skip a beat, feel breathless and goosebumps. I had none. I could be buying vegetables, making my bed, chatting with the sales man or having sex; it was all the same for me. The same when I kissed M, D who came before M and ABCs that have come after. It’s all the same, it always been the same. I had exhausted my explanations. M, your continuous denial was the force that pushed me to continuously accept. That evenings and, many evenings after that when we hurriedly dressed ourselves because your roommate could knock at any moment, I said out loud I am asexual. You gave me a long look and excused yourself.

We left when the sun had set. I reached for your hand, one last time. You gripped it tightly. We walked till the parking lot in silence. I wanted to look at you but it was sufficiently dark and our eyes couldn’t meet. You asked me one last time, are you okay? I said, “Yeah sure! Enjoy the biscuits; hopefully the chocolate has not all melted due to the heat”.

****

In 2015 I came to Bangalore. I finally had a home of my choosing. I knew no one in the city and prized my anonymity of just existing without scrutiny. Bangalore came with its canopied roads starching far off into the distance. I got what I had always wanted, hoped and prayed for- a clean slate, a fresh start. I was Priyanka and for the first time I could be who I wanted to be. The possibilities were endless and then I was hit by my queerness and M’s continuous reminder that it was just a phase.

Now, when I walk down the same long winding partially canopied roads, there is a cacophony of, “You are queer” on loop. Moments like these, my barely held together self is in grave danger of scattering on the roads. In an odd way, the city is reflects my interiority; while I am perilously close to spilling over, the city is already spilling over in every direction. My home in Jayanagar and some ruins in MG Road next to a sparkling Starbucks gives an inkling of the city I glimpsed when I occasionally visited, before finally settling down in this city. But it was quickly demolished. Concrete hurriedly pored over and the old parts kept getting replaced with new, shiny and gleaming parts. This city doesn’t know what was supposed to be and why does that resonate?

Enlarged, well lit closets often create the mirage of freedom. I am sitting in a locked room staring at the door. Taking in the stunned silence, the smallness of my metaphorical closet starts to close in on me. I share a poem on my instagram stories which goes as End of love should be big event/It should involve hiring a hall. M responds to that message; just want to let you know I wouldn’t ever stop loving you. I respond, I know that and I believe you. There is a cruel charm to this story; I shudder at what would have happened if the afternoon of 23rd November 2019 had turned out differently. Would I have continued the lead the straightjacketed life? Every time I think of kissing the razor blade of your collarbones I remind myself, the ones that entice also leave with a warm gush of blood.

***

M, it is grossly unfair and unjust, to leave me drowning in the sludge of queerness. I know you have said your apologies and I said it’s alright. You tinged me with queerness and I accepted it ; every time I reach for my favourite ice cream to drown the weight of living you are there in every bite, that afternoon is there in every bite. How much of what I love do I have to give up, to forget?

The fag end of Sunday and I am standing on the highway staring at the sky watching shadow of the half-moon peeping out. The sky is a sharp blue preparing for sunset. Slowly the sky swirls into an innocent yellow which has lost its capacity to scorch and burn. The yellow merges into the lovechild of orange and pink. My sister picks up the phone to capture the sunset. The dark green of the trees became black silhouettes on the screen against the setting sun, quietly shadowing the sky willing to lose its colour for a while. I lower the car window and let the wind smack against my face. The lingering winter chill reminds me of swiftly changing seasons. The queerness runs in my veins and the shadows of cost linger while the sky turns a pitch black.

Joan Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking wrote Life changes fast/Life changes in the instant/ You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. I sat down to café caramel sundae and life as I knew it changed. My life was suddenly marked by absence. The presence of queerness marked the absence of M. The presence of asexuality marked the absence of sexual desire. My absences were also my certainties. Life changed fast. I had a closet to maintain, identities to explore and reassess the business of living and loving. I spent many nights wishing queerness was a piece of clothing that I could wear when I wished and folded away neatly in the closet hidden from plain view. But queerness was my skin; sewn into the very fabric who I was and with options to peel it away like paper. My body is the only body I will ever inhabit and it is queer. I am queer.


PRIYANKA is a law student living in Bangalore. An ardent reader of prose and poetry, she has keen interest in social justice and human rights movement. She is a queer person and aspires to be a human rights lawyer.

The Couple on the cliff, or, The Last Story

William Kitcher and

Nick ran along the windy trail, looking behind him. “Come on! Come on!”

Unsure of hearing any response, he continued down the trail to the cliff. Thunder roared, and he thought he heard a gunshot. He reached the cliff and turned around again. “Come on! Come on!”

Staggering down the trail came Caroline, her coat torn and flapping in the wind, blood running down her face.

Nick waved and she saw him. They ran along the edge of the cliff until they found a bite taken out of it, and they began to descend the cliff face. Grabbing hold of rocks as well as they could, they went down, finally reaching a small ledge. Looking about them, there seemed to be no escape.

“Are you kidding me?” said Nick.

There was no response except for the howling wind and the crashing surf below.

“Are you kidding me?!!!” he cried again.

There was no human response.

Nick looked up. “Hey you, the guy writing this!”

“Me?” I said.

“Yes, you, you idiot. How do you plan to get us out of this? We’re going down a cliff face. And there’s no way out. What happens now?”

I felt slightly embarrassed. “I hadn’t really thought that far ahead, to be honest.”

Nick looked at Caroline and then back at me. “You mean you don’t know what happens next?”

“No, sorry.”

Caroline sighed with frustration. “Jeez, man, my head’s bleeding, and it’s damn cold out here, especially with a torn coat. Why is my head bleeding anyway?”

“I don’t know. I thought I’d come back to that.”

“And the gunshot?” asked Nick. “What was that about?”

“I thought I’d come back to that too…” I trailed off.

“Wow, you’re so disorganized.”

“I figured that if I couldn’t use it, I’d just go back and take it out.”

“You’re hopeless.”

I was offended now. “It’s called spontaneity.”

“It’s called logorrhea,” said Caroline, unkindly.

I had no response to that, not knowing what “logorrhea” meant. The wind whipped around their bodies as they huddled together.

“Would you please cut out the sound effects?”

The wind subsided.

“‘Subsided’, really? You couldn’t have just said ‘stopped’. Did you even have to say anything?”

“Well, I…,” and that’s as far as I could get, having no more to say.

“Is this how you always write, just start to write something with no idea what’s going to happen next?”

“Well,” I stammered. “I’m sure by the time I get to the end of this, it’ll look like I knew what I was doing all along. Sometimes I write like this. Sometimes I first know what happens in the middle. Sometimes I know the ending first. Have you read my story ‘The Dawn’? In that one, I knew how it ended and I—”

“No, I haven’t read any of your stories! We’re fictional characters! And by the way, what’s with our names? Why did you name us after your niece and her husband?”

“Well, I needed to call you something— hey, wait a minute. How do you know I named you after my niece and her husband?”

That stumped them, as I didn’t know how they would know that. They said nothing and, because of that, I had nothing to say back to them.

We were stuck in a loop and I was unsure what was happening. Was I writing them? Were they writing themselves? Perhaps even only occasionally? Were they writing me? No, that seemed unlikely. And yet…

The three of us looked at each other for quite some time, perhaps weeks, I don’t remember.

No, it was only a couple of minutes. Which has now stretched into several minutes. And I made myself a cup of tea. And went outside for a smoke. And had a nap.

And I had my answer.

“Well, what are you going to do? Hmmm? What’s going on now?”

I remained silent, just to piss them off.

“Oh really. You’re just going to leave it up to us. You prick. OK. What happens if we go back up?”

“Guys with guns.”

“OK. Can we fly?”

“No.”

“What’s at the bottom of the cliff?”

“What do you want there to be at the bottom of the cliff?”

“A nice comfy airbag?”

“No.”

“How about just water and no rocks?”

“OK.”

Nick and Caroline launched themselves into the ocean, and began swimming.

* * *

The tea had become cold in the half-empty cup on the desk. The three people looked at the man slumped over his typewriter. The grandfather clock ticked morosely.

“No, officer, he was dead when we got here.”

The cop looked at the young couple. “Why are you two wet?”


BILL‘s stories have been published in America, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Eire, Great Britain, Holland, and India. He hopes to be published in Denmark and France, so that he has the first part of the alphabet covered.