Review of Violets by Shin Kyung-Sook

Published April 12, 2022 by Feminist Press, Translated by Anton Hur.

When I first picked up Violets by Shin Kyung-Sook, I had prepared myself for a narrative that was dark, gritty, and a striking testament to urban loneliness. But what I instead discovered was the innocence of childhood adventures in Minari fields, and dreams full of longing while looking at the gingko trees by the window. I found so much comfort in the daily lives of San, our main character, and Su-ae, whom she first meets at the flower shop and soon becomes her close friend and roommate. Their observations and routine existence left me with so much warmth and a quiet peace.

Despite their opposite personalities, with San being reserved and Su-ae outgoing, together they cultivate a domestic comfort made of early morning swims, ice-creams for breakfast, and working together. What brings them together is a feeling of abandonment and a painful self-rejection with a refusal to seek solace in people. However, what appears to be a bridge between the two ends up being a barrier during turbulent times. And then, the reader finds that San deviates from this routine life and dangerously comes to terms with her painful past and her desire of being wanted.

Beauty and tragedy sit together in this narrative as our writer leads us through domestic abuse, self-harm, and even sexual abuse. But she also offers us the images of a mundane, wholesome relationship between two women working at a flower shop. The urban landscape is a tough place for anyone to build and sustain connections, but for a woman especially, loneliness is akin to vulnerability with predatory men seeking to take advantage. San’s rejection of the self and her desires bring her so much pain and self-abandonment that someone she’s known all this while ends up abusing her. Perhaps she hoped she would find solace or some affection, but instead she meets violence when she doesn’t accept their advances. What is unnerving about this change in the plot is how close it is to the lived realities of women, who are always at the risk of violence and often abuse at the hands of people they thought could care for them.

Unfortunately, there is no arc of redemption or hope, though I did want so much more for San and Su-ae. I wanted their friendship to grow, for San to write more and learn to live with the pain of her past. But reality isn’t as linear, and one more rejection by a man who can’t even remember her name or face after asking her if he could love her is too much for her to bear. Inevitably, this drives her to make rash and dangerous decisions.

I felt understood but I also felt incredibly sad by the time I closed the book. However, I understand why our writer led San in this direction. We have plenty of stories about young women finding a way out of the unbearable loneliness they feel throughout their lives, but what about the ones who don’t make it? As we fish for stories that tell us about the beauty of the world, there is an equally dark and dangerous side to it, which we can succumb to, most of the time simply out of circumstances and not choice.

San writes, “I spent this past summer repeatedly deciding to do things and giving up on them. As if my life were an exhibition of how good I am at giving up.” And she did, she even gives up on herself towards the end, but I don’t think we can hold it against her. Reading Violets was a practice in understanding and recognizing the hidden difficulties faced by people, how the trauma of the past can intersect the present and take us down difficult roads. It’s a revelation of the unkindness and loneliness of the urban environment we reside in and how difficult it is to break out of that. It’s a glimpse of the sadness and suffering of one face, one life, often overlooked amidst the teeming crowds. This is what the writer left us with, not hope for something better, but the tragedy of what is. Even days after reading, this book leaves us asking questions that will never find answers.

The Disappearance of Madge Threshelm

Short story winner of the Fall 2021 F(r)iction Literary Contest.

When my editor tells me that the reigning doyenne of horror and suspense, Madge Threshelm, has specifically requested me to interview her—when I am told the interview will be exactly forty minutes long, and I am not allowed to record it with anything other than a notepad and pen—when I am asked to sign a consent form acknowledging that our interview may result in my death or dismemberment, I am surprised only by the fact that Madge Threshelm has asked to be interviewed by me. Over the course of Ms. Threshelm’s much-lauded writing career, she’s sold over 300 million copies of her books, but has granted only three interviews. One per novel, one novel per decade. Last year, the woman famously declined an interview with Oprah.

I only hesitate a moment, thinking of my six-month-old daughter, before I say yes. I’m such a huge fan of Madge Threshelm that I’ve tattooed a line of hers across my left biceps, yet I, like all of her biggest fans, know virtually nothing about her. This is my chance. I have to take it.

The tattoo is of the last line of my favorite short story, “The Dinner Plate”: My mother taught me not to lick knives, but I do. I have loved Ms. Threshelm’s books for nearly as long as I can remember, since my father gave me his tattered copy of The Twisting Thicket when I was nine years old. I stayed up all night reading the first half and was so tired the next morning that my father let me take a sick day, during which I finished the book, then spent a second sleepless night staring up at the ceiling, waiting for someone to drag me, screaming, into the dark woods behind our house. When morning arrived, I was half relieved, half disappointed to find myself safe in my bed.

My father is in an assisted living facility now, at sixty-two, with late-stage, younger-onset Alzheimer’s—a diagnosis I trip over when I say it out loud. Some days when I enter his room, he mistakes me for a nurse and tells me he’s waiting for his daughter to arrive. I tell him she’ll be here any minute. But when I tell him I’m going to interview Madge Threshelm, he is instantly lucid. He asks if I can get her autograph. I say I’ll try.

The other three interviews all featured a plot twist. Take the 1989 interview in the New York Times about The Twisting Thicket, her first novel. A reporter was blindfolded at the entrance to a hedge maze, then told he had to find Ms. Threshelm at the center if he wanted to conduct the interview. They stopped talking after sunset, and he was left to feel his way out in the dark. In her 1998 cover feature for Vanity Fair, Ms. Threshelm reportedly asked an interviewer to fill out a longform questionnaire before they met. If, at the end of your life, one infamous question asked, you had the chance to live your life over again, but first you had to kill yourself as a child to take over their body—would you do it? By what method?

The reporter was so shaken by the questionnaire that she cancelled. The one who replaced her answered this: I would poison my child-self just before bedtime, after feeding her our favorite meal. The rest of the interview itself was fairly standard, but that response became a crucial plot point in Ms. Threshelm’s second book, The Next Same Life, when it came out in 1999.

For her third book, Speak, Veil, and Disappear (2009), Ms. Threshelm never met the interviewer, instead choosing to communicate her answers through a medium. By the end of the session, the reporter was in tears. The medium had stopped projecting Ms. Threshelm’s answers and was instead channeling a message from the reporter’s fourteen-year-old daughter, who had died three months prior. I’ve always wondered whether the medium was somehow Ms. Threshelm herself, though he was described in the article as a young man, not a woman who would have then been in her late forties.

I’m desperate to read the newest novel. I’d hoped this interview would come with an advance copy; it doesn’t. In emails with Ms. Threshelm’s assistant, Loretta, I am instructed to speak of her life prior to age twenty only if Ms. Threshelm is the one to bring it up. I am not to discuss her husband or their equally reclusive daughter, who writes under the name Emily X. Elm and is herself the author of six well-received suspense novels. I am told to refer to her in the article as either “Madge Threshelm” or “Ms. Threshelm,” but never “Threshelm.” Madge Threshelm has been writing under a pseudonym for so long that neither I nor any other reporter have been able to discover her birth name.

I arrive for the interview twenty minutes early and park two blocks away from her house—another of Loretta’s instructions. Per my nondisclosure agreement, I can’t reveal the intersection where I’ve been told to park, the town where Ms. Threshelm lives, or even the airport I’ve flown into. I can only say that I’m somewhere in the continental United States, walking quickly past rows of large but unshowy houses to the address I’ve been given, wondering if the outfit I’ve chosen is too dramatic—a lacey black dress with long, draping sleeves to cover my tattoo.

When I arrive at a sprawling Tudor-style house, the front door opens before I can ring the bell.

“Ariana?” asks the assistant. “I’m Loretta. Your purse and phone, please?”

I hand them over, and she escorts me into the living room. It’s Victorian, dark, with a lush black wallpaper patterned in embossed white lilies. There’s a threadbare antique rug the color of rust layered over intricate parquet flooring, the pattern of which resembles the one in my Brooklyn prewar apartment. Twin sconces—Tiffany glass, maybe?—hang on either side of two emerald velvet chairs, and above the fireplace is a large, morose painting of the author, younger, her black hair styled in pin curls of an earlier time, her eyes seeming to follow me around the room. In the painting, her hands are folded primly on her lap, and her expression is regal and austere. All of it suits the queen of suspense. We might as well be in a Gothic novel.

Loretta tells me to take a seat in one of the two armchairs. I want desperately to ask for a tour of the rest of the house. Instead, as I wait, I study the painting. Aside from her iconic Vanity Fair cover shoot and the author photos that have graced her books, there are no photos of Ms. Threshelm to be found on the internet or anywhere else.

A figure appears in the doorway, and I stand involuntarily, fighting the urge to curtsy in her presence. In person, her hair is an elegant grey. The effect is startling, only because every photograph of her I’ve seen is at least ten years out of date, if not twenty. She must be in her late fifties, but her face is still youthful, unsmiling as the portrait.

I stammer a greeting and we sit in the green chairs. While I’ll use quotations for the conversation that follows—I took ample notes, and it is quite literally my job to recall conversations with a terrifying accuracy—what follows is a summary of our conversation, rather than an exact transcription.

“Let’s see it,” she says when we’re seated.

“See what?”

 She points at my arm, and I pull back the lace to show her the tattoo.

“How did you know?” If she has read about my tattoos, it’s not too much of a stretch to guess she’s read the essay about how my father’s diagnosis has me questioning my own casual forgetting. As she smiles at me in silence, I ask the worst of all the questions I’ve prepared. “Why did you pick me for this interview?”

“Because you tattooed my favorite line on your skin,” she says, “and you’ve been fired from two different magazines. At worst, you’re a narcissist, and at best, you’re genuinely interesting.” She stares at me. “Or at least you used to be.”

She’s not wrong. It’s been nearly a decade now since I did drugs or slept with a celebrity I was supposed to be profiling. I’m tamer now, a wife, a mom, a caregiver.

The next book, Ms. Threshelm tells me, is not a thriller at all, but a memoir. Now the agreement I signed before our interview seems downright absurd. An iconic novelist known for her secrecy is writing a book about her life, and I am not allowed to ask her about it.

“I need to write it all down before I forget,” she says. “I’ve written it to make sense of my life. It’s as simple as that. You can end the interview there.” Her gaze is like a dagger, and I almost ask if she’s serious.

“You’ve experienced this, Ariana, have you not? A family member with a loss of memory?” She says it like she’s reading my tarot cards.

“My father has younger-onset Alzheimer’s,” I say. “His mother suffered from it before she died. It seems certain that I’ll lose my memory eventually.”

“And you just had a daughter, yes?”

“Astrid. She’s six months old.” My husband is probably feeding her lunch right now, oatmeal and avocado. I reassure myself, as I have to do so often, that it’s okay I’m away from her. I will feed her hundreds more meals exactly like the one I am missing.

“Babbling,” Ms. Threshold says. “She must be babbling. Did you know the Tower of Babel and the notion of babbling are thought to be completely unrelated? How capricious our language is.”

I nod. I want to ask about her own daughter, but we’re too early in the conversation to break the rules. “What is it exactly that you’re writing to remember?”

“That’s the heart of it, isn’t it? We don’t get to choose our memories, but we do shape our stories. You’ll see when you read it.” She leans forward. “Is there anything you’d exclude from your story, if you could?”

I pause, waiting for more, and she nudges me gently on the arm. “It’s not a rhetorical question.”

I shake my head. “Ms. Threshelm, we’re here to talk about you.”

“But isn’t that your schtick, Ariana? Inserting yourself into the story? Gonzo journalism for the post-newspaper age?”

I have to laugh. “All this time, I thought no one was reading my work.”

“Maybe no one is.” Ouch, I think as she leans back in her chair. Madge Threshelm has sold millions of books, and I have yet to finish one.

“You know,” she says, “there’s a reason I’ve let my work speak for itself without inserting myself into the story. I remember, in the interview for The Twisting…”

She hesitates, and there’s a flicker of fear in her eyes, one I know well.

“The… What was I saying?”

“You were talking about The Twisting Thicket.”

“I remember the title of my own damn book,” she snaps, and in a blink, her assistant is beside her.

“Can I get you anything, Ms. Threshelm?” Loretta asks, and Madge Threshelm shakes her head, then speaks as if the last minute never happened.

“In Speak, Veil, and Disappear—and in all of my work before that—I wanted to talk about moments when the veil has parted. Moments when we’re close enough to death to grasp it. What do you think happens after we die, Ariana?”

I look down at the rust-colored rug. “I like to say I’m an atheist who hopes she’s wrong. I wish I could be more hopeful.”

 “Mm. It’s nice to have hope, isn’t it?”

“It is. Maybe we can talk about how hope and faith intersect in your writing. I’ve noticed how, in all three of your novels, the initial premise—”

“My mother is no longer with us,” she interrupts. “And I believe yours isn’t either, is she, Ariana?”

“No, she’s not. She died when I was a child.”

Ms. Threshelm nods, and for no particular reason I am reminded of the consent form. I shudder. No matter how much I want to be here, I’ve still put myself in a position where, at least theoretically, my own daughter could end up motherless. But I do that every day, I think, whenever I leave the house, get on an airplane, cross the street. I try to shrug off thoughts of my daughter, my husband wiping the remnants of lunch off her face with a dampened cloth.

“Was there a moment in your life where you felt the veil give way to… something more?” I ask. “Or where you questioned your own relationship with faith?” She has never mentioned faith in an interview, but it isn’t on the taboo list.

She looks at the ceiling, then down at me. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

Loretta is back in a blink, holding a glass of water. “Ms. Threshelm,” she says cheerfully, “we’re almost done here. Seven more minutes.”

Madge Threshelm gazes at me like I’m a stranger, and the assistant leans down to whisper something in her ear.

“When my daughter had to have brain surgery,” Ms. Threshelm says. “That’s when I felt the most confusion, the most doubt, and then, when she recovered, a rush of faith that ultimately didn’t stick. I wish it had.”

“I know the feeling,” I say. “What year was that?”

Madge Threshelm turns to her assistant. “What year was it?”

“I don’t know, Ms. Threshelm,” Loretta says.

Emily,” Ms. Threshelm says sternly. “What year was your surgery?”

The woman looks flustered; Ms. Threshelm has confused her for her daughter.

And then I see it. This is her daughter—Loretta is Emily X. Elm, though I can forgive myself for not recognizing her when I met her at the door. She’s wearing a long, straight black wig, thick-rimmed glasses, and dark red lipstick, looking the complete opposite, in every way, from the plain photographs that accompany her books.

“I was nine,” Emily says. “When I had the surgery. We’re almost done here, so let me know if you need anything.” She leaves the room again.

“You see it, don’t you?” Ms. Threshelm says, and at first I think she’s talking about her daughter—of course I see it. “You see what’s happening to me?”

She’s answering a question I couldn’t bring myself to ask, and I nod. My father, I think; she picked me because of my father.

“I’m not sure I’ve gotten anything of much importance down in this silly book, though that won’t bother me too much when I’m gone. But I’m scared, Ariana. If I had my choice of an afterlife, I’d just live my life over and over again in this house, feeling a vague déjà vu as I circled my choices and my family like a dog finding a place to rest.”

It’s almost the plot of The Next Same Life, but I recognize the reference as a subtler one, one of her oldest stories, the miniature skeleton for what would become her second book.

“Like in ‘The Other Circle,’” I say. “You wrote that story when you were… twenty-four?”

She smiles. “Twenty-three.”

“And your feelings haven’t changed? There’s nothing in your life that you’d change or rewrite, if you could?”

“I expect that someday, I won’t be able to write at all,” she says. “But I can relive the best parts, the necessary bits. There’s a joy to remembering what shaped me, a joy in writing it, and I don’t expect that will ever disappear.”

I’m nodding. “But is the memoir also an attempt to shape the story people tell about you? A chance to leave a legacy? Or is it really just—”

A timer goes off in another room, and Emily appears beside us again.

“Well,” she says, looking at her mother, not at me, “I’m afraid we’re out of time.” She hands me my purse, and I think this is it, the part when something ominous happens. I try not to be scared, though my mind is racing. I’ll be abandoned in the basement, maybe, and left in the dark for an hour to contemplate my life. I think, but am not sure, that I hear footsteps above us, someone walking upstairs. Her husband, maybe.

I take a deep breath and thank Ms. Threshelm for her time, and she nods. There’s no handshake, certainly not a hug—I would not have guessed Ms. Threshelm to be a hugger—before Emily directs me toward the front door.

“Wait!” I call. “Ms. Threshelm?” She turns back, already halfway into the next room.

“Can I get your autograph? It’s for my father—the one who introduced me to your books.”

She takes the notebook from me and writes something in it. When she hands it back, Emily grabs my elbow gently and steers me out the door. I tell her it was nice meeting her, and I’d love to interview her sometime, too.

“We’ll look forward to proofing the final interview,” she says. Surely Emily doesn’t actually work as her mother’s assistant. Is there a real Loretta? Maybe a whole team of Lorettas.

As Emily closes the door, I see someone clothed in black move swiftly behind her. I start to say I hadn’t realized anyone else was here, but the door is already shut. The interview is over. As I walk back to my car, I’m left with a familiar, conflicted feeling—glad to have escaped safely, disappointed once again that I haven’t been dragged into any literal twisting thickets.

When I reach my car, I sit in the driver’s seat and flip through my notepad, hoping there’s enough for the story. Some good quotes, plus the revelation that Ms. Threshelm is almost certainly losing her memory. I feel strange revealing it in print, but why else would she have summoned me here? When I’ve reassured myself that I have the bones of a story—it takes a few minutes, at most—I reach for my phone to let my husband know the interview is done and I’m heading back to the airport.

But my phone is not in my purse.

I empty the contents of my bag onto the passenger seat. I search my pockets. I look in the glove compartment of the rental car, in the trunk, under the seats. No phone.

They still have it; they have my life, the phone numbers of everyone I know and love, my husband, my father, my editor. It’s all backed up in some cloud, I’m sure, but the thought of it unravels me, what she could do with that information.

“No, no, no,” I mutter as I drive the two blocks to the house. The curtains are drawn when I ring the doorbell. There’s a pause like the house itself is holding its breath.

“Hello? Emily? Ms. Threshelm?” I ring again, wait. I try the handle, and the door opens.

I am in the wrong house.

Gone are the emerald chairs and twin sconces. Gone is the rust-colored rug, the morose painting, the white-lilied wallpaper. Gone is the parquet flooring; now, the floors are made of what looks to be a cheap imitation wood. There’s a grey mid-century modern couch that looks just like the one I have at home, along with the same pale blue rug I keep under it. The walls are as white as a sanitorium.

I run my fingers along the walls of the living room, then along the floor, hoping they’ll be sticky, maybe, looking for any sign that there was wallpaper or another kind of flooring here a moment ago.

“Hello?” Anxiety takes root like a weed in my chest. I walk through the kitchen—nothing on the shelves except a lone succulent with leaves like a baby’s plump fingers—then past it, throwing open each door. There’s a bare desk in one room, an empty dresser in another.

I am in the wrong house. I leave and look up at the facade, wood paneling on a custard-colored exterior. I circle the block. There are no other Tudors, no other houses that remotely resemble this one. How many people would it take to have unraveled the house so quickly? I enter the house again. I sit on the couch, my couch, wondering if I’ve imagined the whole interview, until the front door creaks open.

“Hello?” someone calls. Then there are three people in the doorway, silhouetted against the sunlight. A white woman in a blazer and jeans and heels steps inside the house. She is holding a clipboard. I feel like I am losing my mind.

“Hello!” she says. “I’m Janice.”

“Ariana. Nice to meet you.”

“My clients and I have the two-thirty showing, but we can wait outside if you need a few more minutes.” The couple behind Janice looks at me nervously.

I shake my head. “I was just going.”

I walk back to my rental car wondering if that, too, will have moved in my absence. Back in the car, I remember that I still don’t have my phone, and a new panic sparks in my chest—surely they can’t actually have taken my phone and kept it?

But no, my phone is under the passenger seat, as if it’s been there the whole time. As if I threw my purse on the seat and the phone slipped there by itself. Maybe I did. But wasn’t I meant to go back to the house and find everything altered, our interview erased? Didn’t I lock the car when I went back into the house to look for my phone? Didn’t I already check under the seats? My mind is hazy as a dream, the wallpaper nagging at me, all those white lilies. Aren’t there white lilies in one of her earlier stories? And don’t the sisters in The Twisting Thicket sit in emerald, velvet chairs?

My phone buzzes, startling me. My husband, asking how the interview went.

It was… weird, I write back. But I’m done. Call you from the airport in forty-five?

He sends back a thumbs-up and a heart. I open my email to tell my editor the interview is over, but when I search “Threshelm,” there is not a single email in my inbox about the profile, nothing from assistant@threshelmbooks.com, no record of Loretta’s existence.The address for the house is no longer in my GPS history. Was my phone’s password on the nondisclosure form? I’m sure I’d remember writing it down.

I sit there for probably ten minutes, my mind blank as a sheet of paper, until I do what I have always done when my own life has been rendered unrecognizable. I call my father.

When he answers, he sounds like he’s just woken up from a nap.

“Dad? It’s Ari.”

“Who?”

One of the bad days, then. I imagine him in his assisted living facility, sitting on his shiny beige couch and looking up at his beige walls. I picture him staring at the floor and squinting like he does so often, when he knows he should be able to remember something but doesn’t.

“It’s Ariana. Your daughter?” I say it at least once a week, and every time, it comes out a question. Do I still belong to you, I want to ask, if you can’t remember who I am?
           
“I thought you said Mary. You know how my hearing’s going. How are you, my dear?”

A lucid day after all. I tell him everything I can remember, leaving out only Ms. Threshelm’s memory lapses. I will tell him later how he and she are the same. But for now, he’s laughing over the phone as I tell him she called me a narcissist. When I tell him about the empty house, my confusion, he believes me.

“Man,” my father says. “She really pulled one over on you!”

I flip back through my notes, trying to describe as precisely as possible what the house looked like before, after. I stop when I see it, a tight scrawl that’s not my own. Her autograph, though she hasn’t signed her name. Only in telling the story, she’s written, do we discover the truth.

The Relationship of Poetry with Food

My relationship with food has often been tumultuous. Over the years, it has been the object of my anger, my partner in crime and a companion that holds me close through long, tiring days. Sometimes it is even subject to my lack of attention as I mindlessly take bite after bite. While I have not yet put these observations in verse, poets over the years have used food as a metaphor to express the complexity of emotions and situations they find themselves in. These metaphors explore so many things: wonder, seasons, memories, family history, new beginnings and even love. The seven poems below are examples of how food can be used to express emotions and meaning. 

1. Persimmons by Li-Young Lee 

Lee delves into the struggles of remembering with so much sincerity and how a persimmon reminds him of his childhood, his lover and how his father is losing his sense of sight. The final verse of the poem reads: 

“He raises both hands to touch the cloth, 

asks, Which is this? 

This is persimmons, Father. 

Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk, 

the strength, the tense 

precision in the wrist. 

I painted them hundreds of times 

eyes closed. These I painted blind. 

Some things never leave a person: 

scent of the hair of one you love, 

the texture of persimmons, 

in your palm, the ripe weight.” 

It begs the question: What is one thing you will always remember? What is one image you would hold onto if you begin to lose your sense of sight? Through this poem, a fruit causes Lee’s father to confess the one thing he would never forget even when his sense of sight is lost.  

2. Dawn Revisited by Rita Dove 

Imagine you wake up 

with a second chance: The blue jay 

hawks his pretty wares 

and the oak still stands, spreading 

glorious shade. If you don’t look back, 

the future never happens. 

How good to rise in sunlight, 

in the prodigal smell of biscuits – 

eggs and sausage on the grill. 

The whole sky is yours 

to write on, blown open 

to a blank page. Come on, 

shake a leg! You’ll never know 

who’s down there, frying those eggs, 

if you don’t get up and see. 

On days when it’s hard to wake up in the morning and feel that the sunlight will bring about something good, Dove goes back to breakfast. Through this first and most filling meal of the day, she challenges the reader to wake up and take on the day fearlessly. This poem reminds us how food can mark the passage of time, how a new meal can signify a new beginning, a new day gifting us hope and brimming with possibilities.  

3. Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem by Matthew Olzman 

In this poem, Olzman expresses his own love language by talking about his wife’s love language. Through its tenderness and attention to detail, this piece shows the reader that love is in the small things. After all, what is a greater expression of love than the following lines? 

“And one day five summers ago, 

when you couldn’t put gas in your car, when your fridge 

was so empty—not even leftovers or condiments— 

there was a single twenty-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew, 

which you paid for with your last damn dime 

because you once overheard me say that I liked it.” 

In buying that bottle of Mountain Dew despite being broke, Ozlman’s wife reveals her love for him. Through this act of recognition and care, embodied in a food item, she displays the great depth of her emotions.  

4. Here there are blueberries by Mary Szybist 

While Rita Dove challenges the reader to wake up and see the wonder a day can hold, Szybist offers quieter hope. She encourages the reader to look at what they have and pay attention to the small details. For her, there is no grand reason for living life, as we’re often told. She asks the reader to stop running after this very reason and instead to lie down on the grass and savor the blueberries—a metaphor for life unfolding. Her message is that, even on the most mundane of days, life is worth living. 

“You must live for something, they say. 

People don’t live just to keep on living. 

But here is the quince tree, a sky bright and empty. 

Here there are blueberries, there is no need to note me.” 

5. june 8, the smiley barista remembers my name by Wo Chan 

Through their routine order at a café, Wo Chan talks about how they’ve started to forgive themselves for their past mistakes and live a better life. In the poem, having a newfound appreciation for life isn’t final. Instead, Chan remarks that life is an ongoing conversation, which means that at times there will be agreements, at other times conflicts and the failure to see eye to eye—but there will also be hope for understanding. It is in building a routine through the act of ordering the same food at that same cafe that Chan starts recognizing what it takes to build a life.  

Beauty on earth so blue, even the cheese flowers 

a culture with no democracy… Yesterday (for example), 

I ate the same sandwich I eat every week: eggplant 

roasted in red pepper aioli, a focaccia jammed full 

by arugula, capers sweaty in browned butter. How 

have I come to love routine? I’m thirsty and abashed. 

The fabric of my childhood underwear triple axels in the wind—wow. 

The whole neighborhood watches me do emails, go to therapy: she shed 

revenge for forgiveness. I said it, “i forgive you” slipping 

like a key beneath a door, where never was a house attached. 

Is it beauty on earth, so blue? Each side stalled, you are touched, 

forstanding the sun. Its fat macula borne down grips 

(i wish! i saw! i fear! i heard! i dream) like an emotion. 

This is not a feeling. This can be, I think, a conversation. 

6. Oranges by Roisin Kelly 

“This is how I will choose 

you: by feeling you 

smelling you, by slipping 

you into my coat.” 

Through oranges, Kelly discusses love, choice and recognition. She imagines how she will find her lover, choose them, know them in the midst of a crowd and love them. Unlike most love poetry that describes the real feeling of being in love, this one stands off to the side by imagining it. By comparing her imaginary lover to an orange she crafts similarities between the act of choosing a sweet orange with that of finding a sweet lover and the joy and excitement that arises from that process.  

7. At a Waterfall, Reykjavik by Eileen Myles 

I still feel like 

the world 

is a piece 

of bread 

I’m holding 

out half 

to you. 

This poem exemplifies how gentle, tender and loving the act of sharing is. “I would give you half my bread,” says Myles, but what she means is, “I would give you half of my world because that is all I have to give.” In a mere seven lines of verse, she expresses her depth of emotion for the person she loves. As a bonus, check out Peanut Butter—another of her poems that uses food to describe something else. 

With these curated food treasures top of mind, a question: What food in your fridge is begging to become a poem? Think about what food represents for you, whether it is love, emptiness, grief, transformation or anything else. If you end up writing something, don’t forget to submit to F(r)iction so we can read it! 

Rosy

The following piece is the flash fiction winner of F(r)iction’s Fall 2021 Literary Contest.

I left the day my fingernails turned into rose petals instead of Mick coming home in time to eat dinner while it was still warm. Chicken Kiev, like his grandmother taught me. I hated that dish. I’d been vegetarian for a decade, but Mick wouldn’t even try. I dumped his plate into the sink, stood there fuming as petals piled up in the sauce, floated to the cracked linoleum I’d just washed that afternoon. Their beauty hurt like a cramp. They didn’t belong there and neither did I.

This time, I left my car behind because it felt more dramatic. Maybe Mick would notice this way, if I was gone-without-my-car-gone—the only thing he claimed I cared about when our fights got bad, the thing I always used to come back to him. I won’t mention her make or model, her color or the way her driver’s seat was the only place that ever felt like home.

I tried to ignore the petals as I shoved clothes and photos into my old gray cheerleading duffle, but I couldn’t stop thinking that it was weird there were more than ten.

I’m pretty sure I left them everywhere. I’m pretty sure they were pink.

I’m pretty sure I meant to go back. Won’t get to test that theory now, though.

I dug my housekey into the side of Mick’s truck on my way down the driveway, then dropped it on the sidewalk. Maybe someone would find it, break in, and steal his new TV and the weed he bought me for my birthday. I’d asked for a massage at the spa, but he said this would be more relaxing for the both of us. I wish I’d spat at him then.

Or maybe the thief would see the petals strewn everywhere and back out, thinking some lovey-dovey couple who did stupid romantic shit were celebrating an anniversary and not the complete and utter end of fifteen years of taking what we could get.

I felt ransacked. I’d lost so much time waiting for the next escape. My head ached. Another petal flaked off from the top of my pointer finger like a scab and drifted away behind me. Did I want to go back for the weed? It helped with my headaches, maybe it would stop the petals thing.

No. Mick would probably show up just as I creeped back in. I didn’t want to see him. Like, ever again.

Still, I was already rehearsing the fight—loud, repetitive, the make-up sex—boring in the way we both pretended to hate, and the weird conversation we’d have to have about my fingernails—so fucking weird.

I hesitated at the end of the driveway, then went and ripped all the lilacs off the bush growing by the electric meter. My mother planted it as our anniversary gift the year before she died, and a decade had made it flourish. Mick liked to take the flowers into the shop to cut the smell of men and metal. He joked that the bouquets made the women taking their cars in less nervous, so he could rip them off more. How much more stereotypical could he be? How could I love this asshole?

I didn’t. That’s what I told myself as my fingers went thorny, shredding the lilac bundles as quickly as I picked them. I panicked then, dropping my bag, and the zipper cracked open and vomited all my things out onto the grass. I fell to my knees, the headache now a half-blinding scream, and tried to shove everything back inside, but my fingers were no better than claws, thorns sharpening along the sides and splintering at the tips.

The bag went to ribbons in my now green hands, useless as an unstrung pompom. And even though I swore I wouldn’t cry about leaving Mick, this stupid bag….

Tears slipped loose, and when I went to wipe them away, I found my palms stuck. And not just stuck but sinking, the cool damp topsoil at the foot of the lilac bush going soft and silty. Suddenly, I was up to my wrists, then my elbows as my forearms thinned out into tender roots. A soft mossy green bled up through my skin and darkened towards my shoulders. My forehead pressed into the dirt and my headache peaked in a burst of reds, browns, and pinks, then my eyes went dark.

What had been my top-down understanding of my body went wild and stretched in every direction at once. I found the roots of the lilac bush reaching out to me, and I embraced her back, any fear chased away. I felt myself branch up, my spine and legs unfolding into the limbs of a rosebush. I vined and budded, I rounded and I thorned, and each small shift took with it a pain I’d been clinging to, my family’s silences, my loneliness, my never chased hopes turned regrets. The world was now temperature and light, wind and the acidic bite of earth. And I found my sadness was gone.

But the anger was still there.

Mick came home hours later, dropped off drunk by one of his useless buddies. I imagined him waiting to tell me how right I’d been to come back, how wishing for anything different didn’t make me better than him.

It took him until the following afternoon to find the remains of my things, scattered beneath a shower of rose petals and crushed lilacs.

I sharpened my thorns as he leaned down and tugged free my favorite pair of panties, the purple ones with the small hole on the side that he liked to worry at. He pricked the side of his hand on my lowest branch and the petals of my almost bloomed flowers trembled with joy inside their buds.

It took him until the sun was well down to call the cops.

I’m sure I meant to go back.

But I’m fucking glad I can’t.

Exploring Reproductive and Menstrual Health: 5 Creative Works

Creative written work is a landscape for invention and imagination—a place where we see our deepest emotions mirrored and articulated. But although there are unending—and important—works that interrogate love, heartache and desire, there aren’t many that address menstrual and reproductive health and all the issues, complexities and wonders that come with it. People around the world experience illnesses such as PCOS, fibroid, endometriosis, debilitating periods and infertility, but these issues are rarely represented in creative work in recognizable ways. Discovering works that explore these topics meaningfully can bring solace. Here are five creative works that explore menstruation, bleeding and pain in affecting and human ways.  

1) Deluge by Leila Chatti  

This is a stunning compilation of poems that chronicles the writer’s experience with an illness that caused incessant bleeding in her early 20s. As readers, we weave in and out of hospitals and surgical rooms, witness cold, clinical doctors and become privy to the poet’s most personal and vulnerable moments. Chatti examines big ideas—religion, desire, female bodily autonomy—and ties them to personal themes such as relationships, love and shame, making this a deeply stirring read. At one point, she writes, “The doctor speaks to me/as I am told one day a husband might,” and then, “My body the crux of the relationship.” Though she recognizes how women’s bodies are often weaponized against them, she rejects this entirely, instead articulating her desires, pains and transformation on her own terms.  

2) Bore by Haya Alyan  

This quiet, powerful poem is harrowing and painful as it traces the aftermath of a miscarriage and the helplessness that comes with it. Intensely lyrical, it personifies the uterus, noting its “pink and crinkle” as though the uterus were the baby itself—a living, breathing thing that occupies much of the space in the poem. Through this, Alyan skillfully explores her complex relationship with her body.  

3) Healing Saga by Alanna Okun and Aude White 

The visual art in this work situates the reader more intensely in the world it creates. Though the writer documents a very personal experience with fibroids here, it’s easy to relate to her tribulations, doctor visits and ceaseless anxieties. The black and white calendar with red dots, the red pills, the ghost outline of a baby’s crib: these are all vivid and searing images that impact the reader. This piece outlines the real physical, mental and financial costs of having a debilitating illness that many will find relatable.  

4) poem in praise of menstruation by lucille clifton

Some nights when I’m on my period, despite the pain, I feel that it connects me to the world at large and overarching natural systems. In this poem, clifton calls this “wild water…beautiful and faithful and ancient.” I turn to this poem when I want to celebrate myself, my body and the many functions it fulfills.  

5) Jordan convinced me that pads are disgusting by Olivia Gatwood

This poem, tender and light-hearted, offers a glimpse into what a moment like getting your period can mean for teenagers, friendships and feeling that you’re at the beginning of something. Gatwood’s fresh, humorous voice immortalizes a moment with her friend that is specific yet universal. It makes me laugh every time. You can also watch her perform this work here

These creative works have served as important reminders that reproduction and menstruation are multifaceted, with aspects to them that are painful, beautiful, ugly, confusing and so much more. They have illustrated that such topics are worth writing about and can offer a shared sense of catharsis. In five distinct though equally stunning writing styles, these writers have provided unique insight into the inner processes of our body, and how we might try to understand them. Discover more creative work on the F(r)iction Log

Writers Talking About Anything but Writing: Jubi Arriola-Headley on Kilts, Beaches, and Public Transportation

Laura Villareal (LV): I’ve known you for a little over four years, but I don’t think I ever asked about your love of kilts, so let’s start there. I remember that you visited a kilt shop when we were in either Philadelphia or Portland. When and how did get into kilts?

Jubi Arriola-Headley(JAH): Back in 2007 I attended the Folsom Street Fair (“Folsom”) for the first time. Which, I think, if I start the story this way, sets up my love of kilts as a fetish or a kink (see what I did there?)—which it might in fact be. Folsom, for folks who don’t know, is an annual event in San Francisco that features kinky (in the sexual sense) scenes or performances; booths or stalls selling all sorts of kink-related gear and wear; organizations that promote safe, sane, and consensual kink; companies that produce kinky porn; kink-focused or inspired artists and craftspeople; and corporate (of course) entities that might in some way benefit from an association with the folks that frequent such an event. Et cetera. So—I passed by a booth that was selling kilts and it might have been the thick hairy calves of the person selling the kilts that first caught my eye (I’m a leg man), but, in any case, I decided to try one on and the clearest thing I can tell you is that I felt at once transgressive and at home in this kilt, and in my own skin in a way that I never had before. Ever since that moment I’ve had a deep and abiding love of kilts. The superstitious part of me, before Sibling Rivalry agreed to publish original kink, said a prayer to God or The Universe or whomever that if my baby found a home that I’d wear a kilt to every reading I did thereafter. And even though I didn’t anticipate at the time I’d be doing most of those readings via Zoom, I’ve by and large honored that. So even if you, dear reader, can’t see my legs, just know I’m rocking a kilt during my reading. If Omicron or some future variant doesn’t end us all, I’m looking forward to many more in-person kilted readings. My own calves are quite lovely, for those of you who enjoy such things.

LV: I hope one day we get to see you kilted and reading your incredible poems in person! You’re wearing quite a lovely kilt in your author photo on your website. Was that one your first kilt?

JAH: No, actually, that’s my most recent kilt. On my “About” page there’s a photo of me in a blue tank top and a green Utilikilt (see below for an explanation of what this is)—my second kilt, actually. That photo was taken in 2008, if I remember correctly. My beard’s a lot grayer and the laugh lines and crows’ feet have deepened but I think otherwise I look much the same.

LV: What are some places you might recommend if folks are looking to buy a kilt?

JAH: USA Kilts is a wonderful resource. Not only do they have literally hundreds (maybe thousands) of tartans to choose from. They also have a YouTube channel where the owners (two good-natured middle-aged white guys) post dozens of entertaining and informative videos on how a how to measure yourself for a kilt, how you should wear your kilt, general kilt etiquette, the different types of kilts, which tartans anyone can wear (“universal” tartans), and so on.

That all said—traditional kilts aren’t cheap (a good one, most often made of wool, runs you easily upwards of $400). Also, they tend to be heavy (see previous reference to wool material) and formal feeling. If you’re looking for an unbifurcated garment with a lower barrier to entry, consider Utilikilts. These non-traditional kilts (invented by a dude who, to me, looks like the original poster for Burning Man, but don’t let that stop you from living your best kilted lyfe) tend to run cheaper than traditional kilts, and have the added benefit of being lighter on the frame as well as the wallet (they’re made of heavy-duty cotton instead of wool), AND—they have pockets. (Traditional kilts don’t.)

LV: Talk to me about your favorite beaches, Jubi. You live in South Florida with beautiful beaches within driving distance. Is there one you visit more than others? What do you like most about the beach?

JAH: It might not surprise you to learn (based on my previous answer) that I’m a nudist. One of the main draws of moving to South Florida, where my husband and I now live, is the beautiful Haulover Beach, one of the few legal clothing-optional beaches in the United States, which is less than an hour drive from my home. There’s something liberating (figuratively as well as literally) about sunbathing nude among like-minded folks. Somehow, exposing the body renders one less visible, less subject to a judging gaze. I can’t quite explain it yet—I’m working on an essay on the topic but I’m still fumbling for the words. For now, let’s say it’s like the Matrix—you can’t be told what it is… you know how the rest of that line goes.

But I don’t spend all my beach time at nude beaches. I live about two miles as the crow flies from the middle of a 50-odd-mile stretch of beach through Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties that’s home to some of the best beaches you can find anywhere. A few of my favorites: Lauderdale-by-the-Sea is home to a chill, family-friendly beach that never feels too crowded in my ever-so-humble opinion—super important in the COVID era, right? North Miami Beach is a city in its own right, and the beaches there can sometimes get touristy but are home to boutique hotels and cafes and also have lovely mangrove patches to get lost in and overall feel about less 104% stressful than South Beach, which is located (surprise surprise) to the south of there. Finally, Virginia Key is a historic, secluded beach—once Miami’s official “colored only” beach, FYI. If you pick just the right spot, you’ll feel like you’re on a secluded island in sometime other than now—either in the past or future. Also: I had the great fortune to participate in a group reading of Zong! there that I’ll never forget. (“Reading” feels inadequate to describe that experience; I should call it a ritual or a summoning.)

LV: It’s wonderful to hear you describe these beaches. I totally agree about the importance of finding a place outside that’s not crowded in these times. More than ever before I find myself needing to be outside in nature. Do you find yourself going to the beach more now than before the pandemic?

JAH: Absolutely! So many places I used to go are off-limits to me now (COVID, right?)—I tried to go back to the gym in August and five minutes into my attempt at a workout I knew that was a bad idea. I haven’t been to the movies since 2019 sometime, nor have I sat indoors in any restaurant or coffee shop. (Luckily, living in South Florida, many restaurants and cafes have outdoor seating, which feels a lot safer, but still not fully safe safe, you know what I mean?) So, I spend more time outdoors in general, taking long walks, and sunbathing at the beach. Plus, the ocean, I feel, has a calming, restorative effect on me, and in the wake of all the horrorscape that’s been the past two years, I’ve needed calm and restoration more than ever.

LV: What would your perfect beach day be like? How do you like to spend your time—sunbathing, reading, swimming, collecting shells, or perhaps everything?

JAH: I went to the beach two days before New Year’s and the worst part about it was the traffic on the way home. I brought lunch with me, went into the water twice (mainly to cool off, not to spend any time actually swimming, that sounds like WORK) and spent the rest of my time laying out, listening to the waves crashing, talking to no one, dozing off every so often, remembering to flip occasionally so as to brown equally on all sides. That took up most of the five hours I spent at the beach that day. That was pretty close to perfect for me.

LV: Sounds like a perfect day!

Public transportation varies so wildly across the U.S. Where I live in Texas we rely on cars since there are few, if any, forms of public transportation, but other areas of the U.S., like the East Coast, have trains, buses, or even ferries readily available. If I remember correctly, you’ve lived in quite a few different places like Massachusetts and Texas. How did your experience with public transportation differ and what’s your favorite form of travel?

JAH: I love a city with a robust public transportation system—which for me (fight me) means trains and trolleys (more than just buses in other words). In Boston, where I grew up, there’s three intra-city train lines (Red/Blue/Orange) and on top of that a trolley system (Green) and an extensive set commuter rail lines (Purple) that venture not only into the suburban areas outside Boston but into neighboring states. I didn’t get my drivers’ license until I was twenty, for no other reason than I didn’t need it. Public transportation in Boston—if defined by how extensive it is in terms of track miles, or how well the train/trolley infrastructure is developed—is top-notch. New York of course surpasses it. (Though maintenance there is an issue, for obvious reasons.) DC’s public transportation system is pretty good, based on these criteria; other cities, like Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, have decent public transportation but are limited by the reach (or lack of reach) of their train lines. Los Angeles’ system was a surprise to me when I spent six months there in 2018 on a fellowship; it’s a lot more extensive than I thought it’d be. There’s tiers below these cities (Baltimore, Atlanta, Miami); beyond these cities I’ve named, though, I’m not sure that most U.S. cities have any more than highly limited (in terms of track miles) light rail.

I did spend time in Texas; there’s a car-worship culture there that’s dispiriting. I lived for eight years in Houston—for five of those years I lived in the Westbury neighborhood, and the regional transit board came up with a plan to bring light rail to our area. Maybe half of residents loved the idea, but the other half hated it and the idea died and never came to fruition. I’d moved to Houston because the cost of living there was inexpensive (read: for a dude), but I think the day I learned they’d killed the transit plan was the day the cheap sheen of the city started to wear off for me.

I also love Amtrak—or, more accurately, I would love to love Amtrak. The Acela train which bounds up and down the Northeast Corridor, connecting Boston to New York to Philly to Baltimore to DC, is the closest we might ever get in this country to the way Europe—not just cities or individual countries but the continent, in general—approaches mass transit. In Europe, you can take a high-speed train from country to country and have it rival, in cost and speed, a flight. Of course, tight geography helps. But it’d be nice if more cities in our country could benefit from high-speed rail.

LV: It’s illuminating to hear you describe each city’s public transportation. Boston sounds like a dream in terms of ease of travel. I wish we had high-speed trains like in other countries. Perhaps this is a silly question, but if in the future we had high-speed trains available, do you think you’d give up flying and driving?

JAH: I do love high-speed trains. LOVE. I remember taking a train from Paris to Lyon about ten years ago and falling in love with high-speed rail on that ride. I think if you have access to high-speed rail, if you’re traveling anywhere within 500 miles of your home, it’s a no-brainer to travel via high-speed rail instead of a plane. It’s more environmentally friendly, and all that time you spend checking in at the airport and navigating security, you spend instead chilling on the train, enjoying watching the landscape whiz by. I would also consider taking overnight trains, if that was a viable option. I know “the billionaires” (at least two of them—you know who they are) are working on bringing us high-speed rail so superfast you could theoretically cross the country (Say, New York to San Francisco) in half a day. But I really don’t trust they’re putting as much effort into that project as they are into their cockrockets. So I’ma wait until phase three or so before I jump on a hyperloop.

An Interview with Tex Gresham

This being your first novel, how did you know when you were done? How many shelved novels came before this one and do you think you’ll take any of them off the shelf?

There was a long time where I kept going, I’m done, but I was lying to myself. When I felt there was nothing more I could add, that’s when I was like alright, now I’m done.

I have four shelved works that came before this—three novels and a collection of stories. Two were straight-up horror, and I’ll probably rewrite them to make them more what I like now. Another I’m definitely going to bring back is an absurdist pulp-detective story called Hard Boiled Dick.

What is your writing process like? Do you sit down every day or have a ritual?

I’m of the mindset you don’t have to sit down every day. I think the demand to sit down every day is kind of cruel. You’re tapping into something special, and the idea of forcing it is cruel to that thing; you can’t force a plant to grow, you can only water it.

I give myself false deadlines, or I ask someone to give me a deadline. When inspiration hits I sit and write. I try to continuously work on something, be it a script or otherwise. I’m always alternating. I don’t really have a routine I just kind of work on stuff. When I get deeply involved in something I get obsessive and I work on it every day. But right now, I’m taking a break because Sunflower just came out and it’s a huge relief.

How did you find your voice?

I tried to write a certain way for a long time—introspective literary fiction—but then I got fed up with it and was like you know what, fart jokes, let’s go. I think you have to get really angry and disappointed, and then there’s going to be this breakdown of what you thought you wanted and what you thought you could do and how you wanted to do it. You’re going to be like forget it, I’m just going to do this, and you’re going to spitefully write something different, and you’ll realize I like that, that’s actually good. I can’t tell you how many bad stories I’ve written. Practice the bad, and the moment you’re fed up, that’s when you find your voice.

You spent about ten years working on Sunflower. Once it was finished, how long did it take to get published—from that moment of I know I’m done to signing with Spaceboy Books?

It was a weird process. I sent Spaceboy an older manuscript and told them there were some things I wanted to do with it, and they let me. It was probably a year of sending out the one I didn’t have anything more to add to, and then Spaceboy took it, and when they did I realized I wanted to rearrange things and make it bigger. Then, I realized that there’s more sci-fi elements in it than I anticipated. I saw they were interested in weird, innovative stuff and they let me play around with the manuscript. The freedom to make it however I wanted to make it really made me realize they were who I wanted to go with.

As for querying, it was a typical query but instead of the usual response you get from a query letter, we instead started a conversation. My experience querying agents was more formal but with Spaceboy, it became a casual conversation. A similar thing happened at Atlatl Press with Heck, Texas, where it was a casual conversation and I had the freedom to do what I wanted. When you and your publisher both love what you got going—that’s the key.

I’m curious how you devised the book’s structure. Did you always envision it in this nonlinear way?

It was always nonlinear. What changed when I sent it to Spaceboy was the inclusion of additional chapters, deleted scenes, and setting it up the way I did with the deleted scenes in the back. But start to finish, it was always exactly how it is. There wasn’t a whole lot of rearranging.

What came first, the story you wanted to tell, or the framework for telling it?

Both the framework and the characters. The first chapter—the one about Heather who is sick in her room and thinks she’s dying and she’s watching TV—that was the first thing I started writing for Sunflower. I wrote the Delta chapter next and then I started crafting those characters. The framework of Act One was to introduce these characters. Taking so long with the book’s intro, was the satirical framework that I wanted for the beginning. A movie should be quick in the first act but I wanted to take the most time I possibly could.

Your comedic timing is incredible; you often undercut dramatic scenes with a super funny joke, like a spoon full of sugar that helps the misery go down. Was it a goal to include comedy, or did it come naturally?

[laughs] I like that a lot. I wish I could put that on the cover now. My mindset is always: how can I make this really tragic moment be funny? The awkwardness of situations automatically makes me laugh. I kind of wanted a Looney Tunes vibe with the book. If you take away the funny moments of Looney Tunes, it is so unfunny; they are really demented and weird and violent. I think everything I write has to have something that’s funny, at least to me, and if other people see it as funny, great.

I’m drawn in by the macabre, visceral gore, and body horror in both of your books. What do you find compelling about those themes?

I get freaked out about the delicacy of the body—just a little bit of something can throw it all off. One little change can destroy. In Sunflower, it’s all about the idea that the individual is the body, not like this mind or spirit or whatever. Moments in the book like when the coyote turns inside out and things like that; they’re reiterations of that delicacy. Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation touches on that too, where the rearranging of the body can be horror. But it’s actually an evolutionary step and to see it as something fearful is to betray that evolution, and to embrace it is to embrace the future and transcend beyond the body.

One thing I really wanted for Sunflower while reading was a map of North America like you would see in a fantasy novel. Is that something you considered?

I think I wanted it to be vague and disorienting where you can’t get a grasp, but really it’s just the exact same thing as it is now. Except that above Santa Barbara, along the border of where Nevada and California meet and all the way down to Mexico, is broken off. Everything is the same . . . kind of. Because of that breaking off some things were rearranged—the concept of what hasn’t broken off and what hasn’t changed, the name, the laws, the rules and all that. 

Sunflower seemed more influenced by film than literature; reading it felt more like the novelization of a film. The narrative mimics film storytelling devices—the camerawork, editing, and score are just as important as the plot. Was this a conscious choice because the story is about a script and the film industry, or is this your style as a novelist that you will continue using?

The next thing I’m working on is kind of but not really film-related, so I don’t know if I’ll continue to use it. Here, it was a conscious choice. Originally, the title was Sunflower: A Novelization of the Final Film by Simeon Wolpe and I wanted it to look like one of those movie tie-in novelizations. Some of those are really good. I read the novelization of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and story-wise, that book is superior to the movie. There’s all this stuff not in the movie because the script got cut for budget reasons and to make the film feel more claustrophobic. The book is a bit more expansive with the characters’ intricacies. So, the score, editing style, and cinematic techniques are in my novel because I wanted it to feel like reading a movie.

That’s very much how it feels. I also thought it felt more like a DVD with all the bonus features.

One of my original concepts for Sunflower was a release where I could somehow get it as two books in one box. There’d be the novel and a little extra bonus booklet, like the ones you get for a Criterion release. That’s what I wanted originally, a fake Criterion Collection release. I even had a mockup cover that I photoshopped.

To me, the book is begging to be adapted. Do you feel like that would be possible? Would a theatrical cut work with all the bonus material? What is your fantasy of that whole process?

I think it could make a decent miniseries, like a five-episode miniseries or something like that. I think it could be a movie. I’m working on a screenplay version that cuts out quite a bit, but because it’s more of the film version you have to lose certain things. It’s almost like Inherent Vice, where the movie cuts out a lot from the book. Some of it’s really important and interesting but when you watch the movie, it leaves out so much that you want to read the book. The movie intentionally leaves those blanks so that when you read the book it becomes a tandem, complimentary experience.

Do you prefer writing scripts or fiction? How do they inform each other for you as a writer?

I think going into a fiction-y thing, the plot is the first thing I think of. Then when I think of that I can throw it away and write what I want to write. There are restrictions with screenwriting and I like those because it’s like painting by numbers but in a good way; that structure makes it fun. I was a screenwriter first. I started writing scripts and then I came to fiction later. But I think screenwriting is harder. Fiction isn’t as hard because I could just write, write, write. With screenwriting, you have to make convincing moments for the story to move forward. Whereas with fiction, you can expand on things and clarify and present the emotion.

You’ve been getting recognition lately for writing scripts. How is that whole process going?

It’s going well. I’ve had some meetings with people and I’m working on something now that could be cool, we’ll see. I got hired to write something, so we’ll see what happens. No one’s really interested in buying or making my features yet, but I’m not going to stop writing. I feel like I’m on the right track. I just need to have the right conversation with the right person.

What are you working on now?

KKUURRTT and I started a press called 100 & 900% Press. We only publish collaborative work, and the first book we’re putting out is a collaborative-journal novel about two guys traveling across America on a vaguely disguised book tour. But in reality, they’re going to deliver drugs to someone. I also have a poetry book coming out from RlySrsLit called This Is Strange June, sort of like an autobiography in poetry. In 2023, Tolsun Books is putting out my short-story collection Violent Candy. As for scripts, I’m working on one called Toothhammer, which is about a retired boxer helping a young girl learn how to fight. The other one is my version of Uncut Gems but at a golf course.

My next big project that’s going to take time is what I’m calling Beyond the Map. It’s four novellas that connect and span time. It starts in the 1800s with a woman getting revenge on someone. Then it goes to the 1960s when a trans man faces the foreclosure of his library where people bring in their pictures, journals, or notebooks and other people can check it out and learn about those people. Then, it goes to the 1990s when a mom dying of cancer goes on her final tour with her band. And then finally to the future, in an unknown time when the world is going blind and a scientist is trying to make a device that people can use to see other people’s dreams—à la Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World—but all he’s seeing is the three novellas that came before, and he’s trying to figure out why he’s only seeing those three moments in time. Another weird multicharacter thing.

Six Indigenous-Authored Books to Break Open this Fall

Many governments around the world are currently focused on reconciling with their country’s Indigenous people. Whether you live in Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Australia, or anywhere else with a history of colonialism, the importance of reconciliation cannot be understated. Here at Brink, we love to see communities come together and uplift one another by raising their voices and sharing stories of resilience. Indigenous communities have always been a hub for beautiful storytelling. Recently, many Indigenous-authored books have caught my eye, and these books are too good not to share!

Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq

Tanya Tagaq is an acclaimed Inuit throat singer from Nunavut. Split Tooth is her debut novel. This was one of the best books I have read in recent years. Tagaq’s style is unique and breathtaking. Part memoir, part poetry, part prose, and laden with heartbreakingly beautiful imagery, this unforgettable book is a must-read. In it, Tagaq blurs the line between the real and the imagined as she explores the relationships between good and evil, animal and human, and family and love.

Nîtisânak by Jas M. Morgan

Jas M. Morgan is “a Cree-Métis-Saulteaux curator, editor, writer, SSHRC doctoral scholarship recipient, and McGill Art History PhD student.” This memoir is an exploration of blood relatives and chosen family, and how to honor both of them equally. According to GoodReads, it is a “groundbreaking memoir spanning nations, prairie punk scenes, and queer love stories.” Morgan uses a cyclical narrative throughout their book as they explore the grief surrounding the loss of their mother.

Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice

Waubgeshig Rice is the host of Canadian radio show “Up North,” and he recently released this post-apocalyptic thriller. In Moon of the Crusted Snow, a small northern Anishinaabe community goes dark just before winter. With supplies dwindling up north, people start to panic. The band council, aided by some community members, try to keep the peace, until an unexpected visitor arrives. As society starts crumbling further south, people begin flocking to the northerner’s community.

Disintegrate/Dissociate by Arielle Twist

Arielle Twist is a Cree Two-Spirit poet based in Eastern Canada. Her debut poetry collection, Disintegrate/Dissociate, explores human connection after death. It considers all of the emotions, trauma, and displacement the deceased leave behind, and depicts the life of an Indigenous trans woman as she dreams about the future.

For a Girl Becoming by Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo is the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. She is a member of the Mvskoke Nation, and has written nine poetry collections, two children’s books, and acclaimed plays. She also performs the saxophone and flutes, both solo and with the Arrow Dynamics Band. For a Girl Becoming is an image-rich, poetic story of a girl’s journey from birth, to adolescence, to adulthood

When Sun and Moon Collide by Briar Grace-Smith

Briar Grace-Smith (Ngāpuhi) is an award-winning playwright and short fiction writer. She also writes radio and television scripts. Her book, When Sun and Moon Collide, follows protagonist Isaac as he runs a tearoom in a middle-of-nowhere town, watching life pass him by from the window. Two of his customers meet by chance, after which Isaac finds himself in the middle of a sinister situation.

All of these writers explore what it means to be Indigenous—and what it means to be human—in insightful, authentic, and empowering ways. Cozy up with one of these books and a soft blanket, and read the night away!

A review of The Women’s March by Jennifer Chiaverini

Published July 27, 2021 by William Morrow

As a lover of historical fiction and a feminist, I was so excited to read this book. The Women’s March: A Novel of the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession was thoroughly researched and well-rounded—a total pleasure to read. Though I’m Canadian, the American suffrage movement helped pave the way for my own right to vote, and so much of our countries’ histories are intertwined. While I’d heard stories about suffragists before, I’d never been able to get inside their heads and experiences—until I opened this book.  

Jennifer Chiaverini has given readers an excellent story depicting the nuances of the suffrage movement, intersectionality, and the different challenges various groups of women faced while achieving the right to vote. So often, the American history that is taught in schools excludes women of color and their stories, yet they played a crucial role in shaping the rights we have today. By portraying characters’ intersectional experiences with sexism, racism, and classism, the book is not only richer but more historically accurate. Chiaverini didn’t shy away from depicting the hard truths and rougher parts of the suffrage movement. I learned a lot from reading the book, which is exactly why I love historical fiction. I appreciated how the book gave readers a glimpse into the nitty-gritty details of planning the march (right down to the colors of individual marchers’ uniforms), and the drama that went on behind the scenes of such an event.  

I also admired the variety of perspectives offered throughout The Women’s March. Ida, Maud, and Alice give readers a unique insight into the frustrations, mundane elements, setbacks, triumphs, and range of emotions experienced during the women’s suffrage movement. Alice’s experience fighting for suffrage in Great Britain—facing imprisonment and hunger strikes—colored her approach to suffrage in the US. Maud’s experience as a working woman and her notoriety for interrupting politicians’ speeches with pointed questions gave readers insight into the working-class fight for suffrage. Ida’s strength and determination as someone born into slavery and fighting for both racial justice and women’s suffrage added complexity to the conversation that history classes so often gloss over. The stakes of women’s suffrage are different for all three women, and we see them pave the way for a movement that includes people of many backgrounds and experiences united against a common goal. The book brought to light many details that we don’t discuss anymore, such as how suffrage movements were originally state-by-state and that a vote on women’s suffrage could only occur every ten years in some states. It also depicted challenges that, unfortunately, still largely persist today, particularly when it comes to racial injustice. The book was empowering, insightful, and interesting. Though the action is more of a slow drip than an intense battle scene, I would recommend it to historical fiction buffs

While I thoroughly enjoyed The Women’s March, there were a few elements of the novel that needed refining. At times, the narrative felt a bit choppy as the story pulled readers in three different narrative direction. But I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on Maud, Alice, or Ida’s perspectives. However, I did find myself skimming earlier passages to remind myself where each character’s storyline was at. The suspense was so great that I wasn’t as interested in the smaller details on the page—I found myself wanting to skip ahead or skim pages to get to the action. That being said, I appreciated the lasting tension Chiaverini created—clearly, she had me hooked! While melding the three stories together did cause some confusion at times, their story arcs were well-rounded and exciting. Each woman’s story could have been a stand-alone piece, but weaving them together allowed readers to understand the complex fight for women’s suffrage. By following these three characters for so long, and getting to know them intimately, it becomes even more exciting for readers to see them eventually meet at the march.  

One of the most striking layers of complexity in The Woman’s March was learning how various Suffrage groups disagreed on the approach they should take as advocates—disagreements that ranged from what level of government to target, to class divisions, state divisions, and racial injustice. Ida’s story was particularly outstanding to me, and I appreciated the care the author took with her narrative to show readers how much harder she had to fight, the discrimination she faced, and how the stakes for women’s suffrage differed for Black and other marginalized people. This perspective adds weight to the cultural understanding of our shared history. The more society unpacks concepts of intersectionality, racism, sexism, and elements of identity, the more we also need to look into the past and add to the edited version of history taught in schools.

Overall, The Woman’s March was a rich, complex glimpse into the women’s suffrage movement. Upon closing the pages, I saw history from a different perspective, and I appreciate the opportunity to step into Ida, Alice, and Maud’s shoes for a few hundred pages. I’d definitely recommend the book to anyone interested in historical fiction, social justice, or women’s rights, particularly if you’re looking for an intersectional way to consider history. Each of the three protagonists were relatable—even though I’ll never share some of their experiences, getting to walk in their shoes for a while was incredibly moving. I appreciate the opportunity Jennifer Chiaverini has given me and other readers to take a march through our predecessors’ stories, giving us powerful moments to consider along the way.  

A Review of Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury

Published June 15, 2021 by Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Liselle Sambury’s debut novel, Blood Like Magic, combines the allure of hidden magic and advanced technology set in a not-so-distant future. The story revolves around Voya, a witch tasked with finding and destroying her first love in order to receive full witch power from her ancestors. This book promised an engaging plot via a Black-witch fantasy, LGBTQ+ representation, strong family focus, and a unique hate-to-love romance, but it doesn’t quite deliver on most of these promises.

The book aims to bring marginalized identities to the forefront with a Black-girl protagonist and a myriad of LGBTQ+ characters. But the way Sambury talks about certain identities, especially the transgender community and Asian community, seem to perpetuate microaggressions that these communities already face daily. For example, one scene in the book revolves around Voya wanting to avoid a conversation about her Calling (the revelation of what her task is) by deflecting the focus away from her and towards Alex, her transgender cousin, and Alex’s “Bleeding” (the initial onset of witch powers via literal bleeding), even though Alex obviously does not want to be the center of conversation nor want to share. This kind of microaggression pits a hyper-focus on the stories of trans and gender-expansive individuals, using their personal stories as ways to avoid uncomfortable or unwanted conversation without the consent of the individual themselves.

Another scene shortly after involves Voya assuming the genders of three people she sees on a stage, blatantly labeling them as boys or girls. Yet, in the very next sentence, she wonders if the emcee will reveal their pronouns so that she can “adjust” her language. The irony in this is that she’s already assumed these characters’ genders and yet still half-heartedly attempts allyship by hoping to use the correct pronouns. These moments of flawed allyship, moments that don’t directly affect the plot trajectory of the novel, could have been easily avoided.

Additionally, the novel’s language surrounding Asian food perpetuates Asian culture and food as foreign. This is most explicit when the book doesn’t find the need to explain the origins of certain foods like pelau, but the need to do so with Asian dishes like adobo.

The pacing of the novel was also affected by arbitrarily thrown-in details that seemed unrelated to the plot. Not only does the book explicitly tell the reader the characters’ feelings rather than showing them, it also tosses around details about race and gender that serve no point in the story other than to mention it. The mentions of these identities seemed to be diversity fodder—a way to check off and ascertain marginalized identities in the novel. This does a real disservice to the profoundness of these identities by not giving these characters more substance than just a name and identity label.

All of this builds into the book’s problematic themes, two of which this review will briefly discuss. The first is the idea that painful experiences build character, which can be completely true—unless this involves watching a child relative drown in a freezing lake and lose two toes for the sake of “building adversity.” Or, forcefully (without deliberation or consent) taking away any chance a beloved cousin has at being able to fulfill her dreams because the characters know she has the strength to create a new future. This is supposedly the novel’s promised “strong family focus—instead, it screams of a family that very aggravatingly refuses to communicate—a damaging family trait that causes and perpetuates about 80 percent of the plot points in the story.

The second theme regards the intent vs impact discussion throughout the book. The story somehow focuses on intent being most important. Voya, at the end of the novel, says, “We decide who we are, not the magic we practice. And I need to trust myself enough to know, however I choose to use my power, it’ll be for the right reasons.” So this leads the reader to the problematic conclusion that . . . it’s okay to kidnap and kill people in rituals? Or, it’s okay to use magic to chain a person to a house? Or, it’s okay to brush off the fact that a family needlessly participates in a murder ritual because of the family’s poor communication? The answer to all these questions is yes, because it’s for the family’s sake and safety. And while the end of the book tries to focus on how “being [pure] or [unpure] doesn’t preclude you from being morally right or wrong otherwise,” it also entirely contradicts that point by very clearly painting specific characters as morally wrong and others as morally right – for example, the book condemns those who commit murder for science but doesn’t for those who commit murder to save the family’s magic. This could just be a great build-up for an extremely satisfying redemption arc in the confirmed sequel—but as it stands, the book paints Voya and her family more as antagonists.

With all that said, Blood Like Magic does have its upsides. The magic and worldbuilding are extremely compelling, particularly the ways that magic and technology coexist in this advanced society. The author also chooses not to front-load readers with worldbuilding information and slowly reveals new gadgets, new inventions, and changes in this world one by one in an extremely captivating way. And the magic/technology theme isn’t without nuance. Sambury skillfully incorporates examinations of class and socioeconomic status into her novel, highlighting the ways in which advancements might further certain inequities. Interwoven into this is an analysis of immigration and international adoption, shining a light on the multiple perspectives involved in such policies.

The flaws in Blood Like Magic don’t outweigh the positives, but we can look forward to Sambury’s future work. Sambury isn’t afraid to explore topics that other authors often sideline, and while there may be fumbles at these attempts, these attempts also leave the reader with great anticipation of the growth that we will see in her sequel and subsequent novels.

The Depressed Person Leaves the Zoom Call

I remember one time sitting across a table from a woman telling me a story about how her dog ate a roof tile. My job requires me to listen patiently, even to stories I’d rather not, and so I sat there, making my best effort to look concerned and not interrupt.

I feel as though clarification is in order: I am not a monster, and anyone who knows me will readily confirm that I love dogs. Give me your spaniels, your greyhounds, and your pugs and I will cuddle and fawn over them to the point of ridiculousness.

Not this time, though. Listening to a woman’s account of a story of her newly acquired dog— a puppy, to make things even worse and to make me look like even more of an asshole—choking on a piece of tile, I felt as if her words were washing over me, leaving me intact, unbothered.

In other words, I was numb.

Before you ask, the puppy was fine.

But now, with the typical self-centeredness of our age, let me get back to my point. Which is me.

I was going through some personal stuff myself back then. Many months and multiple therapy sessions later, I realized that I had, in fact, been depressed, although if you’d asked me back then, I would have shrugged, brushing it aside with some sardonic punchline, and then changed the subject altogether. I have never been a big fan of the “It’s okay not to be okay” pastel-themed mantra that Instagram shoves down our throats, to the point where it makes me feel a bit resentful. Deep down inside, I have always felt that it actually isn’t okay not to be okay; after all, isn’t that what the whole point of not being okay actually is?

Anyway, what I did not, back then, want to identify as depression registered instead as numbness. I was numb when this nice, worried woman told me about her dog ordeal. I was numb watching a massacre unravel on one of the Netflix shows I mindlessly binged, though I admit puppy-suffering numbness does make me feel slightly more ashamed looking back. I wasn’t just willfully ignorant of what was going on in the world. The gravest toll that my depression took on me is that it made me feel numb to the suffering of others. Depression and empathy don’t go hand in hand.

I look back at that period now, when I ponder whether or not it would be appropriate to read “The Depressed Person” by David Foster Wallace (DFW) with my students. The young people who attend my book club are so brilliant—sensitive and aware in ways that it seems only Gen-Z, in its best version, can be. The age gap between us doesn’t seem so big, except that it is—identifying as the youngest of Millennials, I already feel tired and somewhat washed-up. While it seems like their open approach to depression and mental health makes them feel at once more vulnerable and in touch with the world within and without, all mine did was render me numb.

(Maybe, in my heart of hearts, I am a boomer.)

So, there is this dilemma whether we should even read this short story in which depression is approached ironically. For most social media inhabitants, irony seems now increasingly problematic, perhaps at times hardly palatable. Irony requires us to diminish our suffering and distance ourselves from it, and sometimes it takes a while to unpack and absorb. All of these requirements condemn it to failure in the scrolling system, the quicksand of easily offensible.

The main character of DFW’s story acquires this tunnel vision of depression that prevents her from regarding the pain of others as anything else than a segue into her own doom and gloom. The author covers this pity party with a mercilessness indicative of something much more profound: the kind of hate one usually reserves only for oneself. In fact, Wallace himself famously struggled with depression, which led to his suicide in 2008. And so, we arrive at the crux of the dilemma: if you’re the one dealing with something, is it okay to make fun of it? The question is not apparent or readily available; after all, self-ridicule has had a tough time recently as well. In times when righteous indignation abounds and apology videos are legion, irony is in short supply—but whether rightly so is a different question. It may leave you wondering whether we actually lose something in this tedious process of rectification.

Reading this (admittedly hilarious) piece today, I can see how parts of it have not aged well. Putting aside the question of irony for just a moment, consider the phone! Nowadays we are more likely to associate depression or anxiety with dreading any conversations that involve listening to another person’s voice and having to respond to it in real-time. Perhaps the harrowing sound of the “empty apian drone of the dial tone” that left the protagonist feeling such a sudden blow of loneliness could now be replaced with that feeling you get after a Zoom meeting when, suddenly, after excruciatingly prolonged goodbyes and due amount of over-earnest waving, faces disappear from your screen one by one, and then there is just you, staring at your own pixelated features, face muscles gently relieving from all the smiling, as once again you register the emptiness of your apartment—or is it just me?

I recently came across a New Yorker cartoon of a raggedy young woman, sitting in sweatpants in front of her laptop, which is resting against her PC screen, which is right next to her tablet, which is right above the phone she squeezes in her hand while listening to her therapist impart kernels of wisdom: “I recommend less screen time,” albeit with a few caveats of common sense: “Except, of course, for our therapy sessions, school, work, staying connected with loved ones, dating, telehealth, yoga instruction, and searching for vaccine appointments.” A page I follow reposted it with a single “Ouch!” as a caption.

“Ouch!” indeed.

As in: Ouch, I guess I am spending fifteen hours a day in front of my laptop these days, and I guess it’s not going to change any time soon, and it’s not like I have a choice to do anything about it at this point.

But also: Ouch, that person looks familiar. I feel like I have already seen her somewhere; she looks at me with the same air of fatigue after the Zoom parties are over and everybody else has left the call.

And it sucks to be her. It sucks to be The Depressed Person (TDP).

Which brings me to the point that I would surely bring up at my book club meeting should I choose to discuss the text, which is: who do we identify with while reading this story? Who do we root for? DFW’s merciless sarcasm (in a perhaps too obviously self-loathing way) invites us to distance ourselves from TDP’s never-ending landline pity parties. So maybe we sympathize with TSF (The Sick Friend) or TST (The Suicidal Therapist), both of them quietly, tactfully, offering their attention to the pathetically clingy person in need. The friend whose not-so-vibrant and not-quite-active life is being, as we can imagine, marked by the rhythm of chemotherapy sessions. The tacitly suicidal therapist whose death Karen (because, honestly, can we just call TDP Karen at this point? You can fight me on it, but I know you won’t) manages, somehow—at the same time, both amazingly and unsurprisingly—to appropriate, turning the woman’s deliberate overdose into this grand discourtesy on her part.

I know how it feels to numbly listen to stories you’d rather not, while at the same time quietly processing something much graver. And I certainly know how it feels to feel suicidal. And to be perfectly honest with you on some deep, personal level, I do feel like The Depressed Person at times. (Sometimes. Sometimes not. But these zoom-filled days increasingly so.) Does this mean that I should not laugh at her?

We live in times of numbness and often-professed empathy. Even though I have experienced my fair share of numbness, I remain a die-hard fan of empathy; perhaps not the often-professed kind, but the quiet kind, the kind that makes you stay on the phone or look at your screen, taking in your friends’ stories of woe, even when you feel really, really tired after spending fifteen hours in front of your laptop, because they need you right there, right now.

And yet, at the same time, I also consider myself a die-hard fan of irony. The way it helps us to let go of things. The way it puts those things into perspective. Are these two qualities mutually exclusive? It may seem like it, especially judging by our all-or-nothing social media attitudes. But maybe it doesn’t have to be this way. Perhaps we could be tender to ourselves and to each other and allow irony to enter our discourse once again—not the scathing sarcasm, but the gentle irony, a smirk, a sigh, a sign letting you know that maybe, just maybe, even the grave things don’t need to be taken seriously all the time.

I feel like I have yet to find out, and the best way to do that is by bouncing these inconclusive ideas off those brilliant people who attend the book club (the therapeutic quality of which is, by the way, invaluable). Because, after all, this is what studying the classics is supposed to be about— holding them up to scrutiny to see which parts of their work have not aged well and which parts can still afford us some insight, the kind of which has lately been overlooked. We can empathize with them and/or ironize about them—and there is no better way than doing it together; ideally not over the phone, but at least for now a Zoom call will do.

Bookmarks, Pulp Fiction, Paved Roads & Lovecraft Country

Not having a hometown bookstore growing up, I always pull the car over to hit the local independent bookstores when traveling as an adult. I turn a deaf ear to the repeated question of travel companions asking, “Aren’t all bookstores the same?” Whether the city is big or small, I’ve found that bookstores capture the identity of a place and diverse books on their shelves have the power to open worlds. Browsing the shelves of a local bookstore may reveal the close-mindedness of residential views in a town and whether a reader needs to travel to other cities to find their book nook. Once working as a bookseller in Chicago, I even saw a young woman from out of town moved to tears in our bookstore, struck by a sense of belonging caused by seeing her own identities and experiences reflected in books before her. So, to answer my travel companions of the past: No, not all bookstores are the same, and that is a wonderful thing.

One of my favorite bookstores is Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (now Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room). This bookstore is not only the oldest LGBTQ bookstore in the United States but is named after the James Baldwin novel of the same name. Both the store and the novel place identity at the forefront of their mission, as Baldwin’s novel was about a man finding himself in Paris, mirroring Baldwin’s own journey of self-discovery as a gay black man. When Baldwin came back to an America caught in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, his words would help many find their own sense of identity, a legacy they still carry, continuing to influence the idea of self-exploration in modern media. The HBO Max show Lovecraft Country is a great example of this legacy as it uses a James Baldwin speech in Episode One to not only illustrate the racism that the characters experience but to emphasize the central theme of identity in the show. And so I’ve found myself looking at how Lovecraft Country drives through its antiquated pulp novel inspiration and onto new highways, uplifting diverse voices within speculative fiction and developing into Afrofuturism.

Books from our past inspire Season One of Lovecraft Country, both the shared fantasies found on wire spinner racks and those that explore the unknown. The series—based on the Matt Ruff novel of the same name—features a cast of black characters and deals with forbidden magic, white supremacy, and stories both pulped and personal. The show draws inspiration from the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and Jules Verne and sets itself in 1950s America, where Jim Crow laws segregated much of the country. It is in this setting that Lovecraft Country draws its most important inspiration from another book: The Green Book, an annual guidebook for black motorists by Victor Hugo Green, published from 1936 to 1966. In the show, the characters travel across the country on a mission to publish their version of the book, researching safe establishments for black travelers. The map of any black motorist traveling through “sundown towns” in Jim Crow America could read “Here Be Monsters,” as depicted in the show’s first episode, “Sundown.” A sundown town was a segregated municipality that did not allow for any non-white residents; if your business in town was not done come sundown, your safety was not guaranteed. Lovecraft Country captures the anxiety incited by these laws, showing us the characters in peril, driving to reach the county border before sunset without speeding as the racist sheriff—looking for any excuse to pull them over—follows closely behind them. The purpose of The Green Book was to find a safe haven from this monster of racism in America. Just as the content of the fiction books that Lovecraft Country is pulling from as source material is not just their use of monsters, magic, and mayhem, but to show that by blending the fantastical with the factual, we forge a roadmap from mindsets of the past. A better identity for the genre has now unfolded, with modern work opening up into diverse narratives, like those found in Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism is about collecting the images of African diaspora culture to rocket them forward into a high tech, science fiction setting (as seen in the blockbuster success of Black Panther), as opposed to carrying on the traditional space colonization path from the pulp magazine days of science fiction and fantasy in the 1950s. Spoiler Alert: In talking about how Lovecraft Country links to Afrofuturism within this essay, you find some surprises from Season One spoilt, for anyone who hasn’t first watched the show.

The most overt fantastical inspiration for Lovecraft Country is contained within the show’s title, which links it to the writing of H.P. Lovecraft (1890–1937). Lovecraft’s work brings to the show the ideas of warlocks, elder gods, and unnamable horrors but also racial influences beyond The Green Book, as it is through the use of Lovecraft’s work that a direct examination of racism comes into play. It is here that I would mention that H.P. Lovecraft was an amateur journalist and self-published The Conservative, which touted his personal anti-immigration and pro-segregation views. Even with his problematic politics, Lovecraft saw power in books (they are a source of magic in his works), and the theme of identity is central to his writing. The key difference between Lovecraft Country and H.P. Lovecraft being that loss of identity is the notion behind Lovecraftian Horror. When “man” confronts a cosmic terror that he cannot understand, he is inevitably driven to the brink of madness; Lovecraft’s work is about man not being able to be at the center of his own universe.

We see the differences in the theme of identity between this pulp inspiration and the television show best when comparing Episode Five, “Strange Case,”to Lovecraft’s story “The Thing on the Doorstep” (1937). In “Strange Case,” the character of Ruby, played by Wunmi Mosaku, wakes up as a white woman after sleeping with a white man, who turns out to be a sorcerer. This episode examines white supremacy and racism in one of its most systemic forms as Ruby uses her new body to get the job she’d always wanted at the downtown department store. Ruby not only gets the job she has repeatedly been turned down for because she was black, but in this new body, she even becomes a manager. In “The Thing on the Doorstep,” the story’s execution is more about Edward Pickman Derby, a male student of the dark arts, being rendered powerless as his wife switches minds with him because “a man’s mind is superior” for certain rituals. Witnessing magic and seeing how small they really are in the universe drives Edward mad in the end; Edward came to magic for the power but can’t deal with the changes that come with it. But Ruby comes into her own through her experience: she faces something bigger than herself—in this case, magic—and to not be limited by the society around her, she uses it. Ruby’s story eventually shows us that she doesn’t need the false self to be at her most powerful. Ruby’s true power comes in learning how to stand firmly in her own form, whereas Edward cannot stand powerfully in his own form alone, and it is up to others to use that form where he is unable. What Lovecraft Country shows us is the power of personal growth and coming to know oneself, regardless of the bigotry of others. The show grows beyond its source material through its characters finding inner strength and growth when facing the cosmic unknown. In juxtaposition, Lovecraft’s writing remains centered on a fear of the growing unknown, haunted by his politics and evident in his treatment of identity.

Lovecraft Country also sees inspiration in the work of Jules Verne (1828–1905). Jules Verne, along with writers like H.G. Wells, established what we know today as the genre of science fiction in the late 1800s. The Verne novel that inspires the characters to dig deeper into identity in Lovecraft Country is Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864). Journey to the Center of the Earth is the story of a professor and his nephew coming across ancient runic instructions that tell of a pathway to our planet’s core. The journey takes them across Europe, down a volcano, and into a pocket prehistoric world lost to time. We see Journey to the Center of the Earth as inspiration in the show not only with the uncle/nephew mentorship between George and Atticus Freeman, played by Courtney B. Vance and Jonathan Majors, but in the deciphering of runes, this time of a magical origin. And just as in Verne’s book, the characters spend time researching, logging hours in the library, and learning by “reading a damn book” as stated by Atticus’s father, Montrose Freeman, played by Michael Kenneth Williams. In Episode Four, “A History of Violence,” we see the characters taking that research and exploring underground tunnels beneath a museum that is full of deathtraps. When the characters go underground, they are free from the confines of the racism living above them and we see them in full adventure hero form. The inspiration of Verne’s work is not something for the characters to overcome, as with Lovecraft’s work, but for them to embrace.

Verne didn’t see himself as a science fiction or speculative fiction writer, but as a “probable” fiction writer. His work would go on to give future generations inspiration and hope for future discoveries and adventures. For example, his 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon told the story of an inventor that shot a projectile off from Florida, not unlike the first manned Apollo rocket launched in 1968. Through Verne, we identify with the wonder of our world becoming smaller, travel becoming quicker, and a celebration of scientific achievements that unite us all. Probable fiction is a precursor to the hope and change we look towards in the future, such as what can be found in the diverse works of Afrofuturism.

Season one of Lovecraft Country uses dime magazine time travel stories of the 1950s to best illustrate characters finding their identity and in doing so, takes the show beyond its pulp inspirations into the empowerment of Afrofuturism. The theories and practices behind Afrofuturism become the secret weapon for the Freeman family in Lovecraft Country. The main character of Atticus Freeman goes from reading and dreaming of pulp heroes in the show’s opening to becoming the mysterious stranger memorialized in family stories, and through time travel, rescuing younger versions of his father and uncle during the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. Episode Seven, “I Am”, takes the concept of travel and identity one giant leap forward. In it, the character of Hippolyta, played by Aunjanue Ellis, time travels to become whomever she wants to be in history, with her first stop being 1920s Paris to meet Josephine Baker. She travels to many time periods and lives many personas, but eventually learns to live as herself, gaining the courage to confront the obstacles of her own time: only after traveling through time and coming into her own can she tell her husband, George Freeman, how he has always seen her as a wife and not an equal partner. Hippolyta faces vast cosmic uncertainty but is never driven to fear by the unknown—in fact, she finds her identity and name through it. The final image of the series Lovecraft Country is symbolic of this Afrofuturisistic triumph over adversity, crafted with the future technology from Hippolyta’s time travels, standing victoriously over pinned and defeated Lovecraftian wizardry.

For an onramp to read more Afrofuturism and build your library of diverse voices in the speculative fiction genre, I would say How Long ‘til Black Future Month by N. K. Jemisin is as good a place on the map to start as any. I also mention N.K. Jemisin because of how her record-breaking, three-time Hugo Award-winning Broken Earth series represents a time in the Hugo Award voting when a right-wing group called “Sad Puppies” was campaigning against diversity in the genre. The argument Sad Puppies gave for their campaign was that older guard writers who had “put their dues in” were being sidestepped by newer writers. Some of the writers they mentioned as examples more deserving of a Hugo were writers who tended to write more in the vein of classic pulp fiction writers, a genre historically represented by white men. I will make my point on the whole matter by quoting James Baldwin from a letter to his nephew, “My Dungeon Shook:”

“ . . . the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame . . . Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of own reality.”

James Baldwin traveled and lived in Paris for a time to find himself before coming back to the United States and inspiring the Civil Rights Movement with his writing. Like Verne’s work in probable fiction and Baldwin’s work in identity-centered narratives, Afrofuturism is a beacon and a road sign letting individual readers know that there is room for everyone when they arrive home from their travels the long way around and that it is possible to envision a better future. Lovecraft Country shows us throughout the season how there is power in owning our personal journeys and finding hope in books, especially those that embolden us to pave new roads for ourselves and those after us. Books that move the reader forward can inspire those who put the first footprint on the moon or a foot forward when marching for civil rights. And, as we’ve seen, they can even provide a pathway toward self-discovery. Just as a bookstore can be a chain catering to consistency or an independently designed warm welcome, allowing any and all travelers to find a place on the shelves. Come inside with me and cast away the unknown, or—to borrow from Lovecraft Country’s Montrose Freeman—“Read a damn book.”