Monday, May 30, 2016

Will Slattery: Some Opacities on Teaching Koestenbaum

Not too long ago I completed an MFA in the writing of Creative Nonfiction, which is a very fancy, perhaps aspirational way of saying that I have spent much of the past few years dealing with The Workshop—the galvanizing subject of so many hand-wringing think-pieces, that peculiar institution constantly heralded as either the ultimate salvation or the utter perdition of American Letters. But taking up the mantle of a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction (see how silly it sounds when you break the acronym down?) entails not just surviving The Workshop but also (usually) leading or orchestrating or managing or coercing or mangling or herding undergraduate cats through The Workshop. It’s not a thing we, as a literary community, discuss very often, but a huge number of undergraduate introductory-level nonfiction creative writing courses are taught year after year by MFA students. Through some fluke, or perhaps a structural administrative failure, I was allowed to spend 4 academic terms of my MFA life leading students through the critique process while also throwing a series of model essays at them.

Of all the published work I forced on University of Arizona undergrads, the best (or at least the best for teaching) was, I think, the title essay from Wayne Koestenbaum’s My 1980s and Other Essays. It’s a hyper-literate account of Koestenbaum’s personal and artistic development in the era of Reagan, Thatcher, and cocaine. It moves in short, elliptical little chunks like these:

A stranger smooched me during a “Read My Lips” kiss-in near the Jefferson Market Public Library: festive politics. 1985? I stumbled on the ceremony. Traffic stopped.


A cute short blond guy named Mason used to brag about sex parties; I was jealous. I didn’t go to sex parties. He ended up dying of AIDS. I’m not pushing a cause-and-effect argument.


In 1985 I read Mario Mieli’s Homosexuality and Liberation. I bought, but did not read, an Italian periodical, hefty and intellectually substantial, called Sodoma: Rivista Omosessualle di Cultura. That year I turned to George Bataille for bulletins on the solar anus, for lessons on smart principled obscenity.

It’s a great essay for cracking open assumptions about mimetic and diegetic time in essays. Beginner students are often afraid to experiment with time as an artistic tool. Koestenbaum’s essay, which slinks back and forth through different points all over the 80s, makes for a great teaching tool, a way of giving permission to move associatively rather than chronologically.


Koestenbaum’s portrayal of time is, officially speaking, my reason for teaching this essay, but if I am honest I have a perverse, secretive, sub-official reason as well. The essay’s center is the HIV/AIDS crisis, and it encircles this subject by tracing out the sexual motion of a half-dozen recollected gay bodies.


Of late I also find myself enamored with Koestenbaum’s opacity. I don’t exactly mean difficulty when I say opacity, though the essay has that in spades too: he tosses out a litany’s worth of queer theorists, refuses to translate his Rimbaud epigraph, and assumes that his readers know the genre distinctions associated with the term √©criture.

When I say that I am enamored with Koestenbaum’s opacity I mean that I love his deliberate refusal to resolve neatly. Consider the essay’s ending:

When I look back at the eighties I see myself as a small boat. It is not an important, attractive, or likeable boat, but it has a prow, a sail, and a modest personality. It has no consciousness of the water it moves through. Some days it resembles Rimbaud’s inebriated vessel. Other, clearer days, it is sober and undemonstrative. There are few images or adjectives we could affix to the boat; there are virtually no ways to classify it. Its only business is staying afloat. Thus the boat is amoral. It has been manufactured in a certain style. Any style contains a history. The boat is not conscious of the history shaping its movements. The boat, passive, undramatic, at best pleasant, at worst slapdash, persistently attends to the work of flotation, which takes precedence over responsible navigation. As far as the boat is concerned, it is the only vessel on the body of water. How many times must I repeat the word boat to convince you that in the eighties I was a small boat with a minor mission and a fear of sinking? The boat did not sink.

The essay previously established a huge swathe of intimate, nearly claustrophobic details, e.g., almost everything Koestenbaum read in the 80s, a good chunk of his sexual partners, the minutiae of his wardrobe, and the most memorable meals he cooked. And underneath it all was a palpable, fearful tension. The biographical experience of the HIV crisis is hung thick with trauma. To put it bluntly: this was a time when the author and nearly everyone around him was either afraid of dying, in the process of dying, or dead.

But Koestenbaum refrains from tying that tension up directly or cleanly for the reader, instead reworking the Rimbaud bit he opened with into a metaphor on boats that he deliberately extends until it cracks open, exposing a bevy of chewy interpretative possibilities for the reader to navigate (one might start by considering The Amorality of Particular Boats (a phrase which almost sounds like a Moby-Dick chapter that didn’t quite make it into Melville’s final draft—you know, one of those difficult, boring sections full of obscure facts about whales and knots and stuff)).


Almost every time I teach Koestenbaum to a class, a student will privately approach me a week or two later to ask if I’m queer. Usually this is because they identify as queer, and want help in writing queer things. I never quite know how to respond. My politics are queer. My theories are queer. My life (and by some Montaignean principle of textual consubstantiality, my work) isn’t quite queer, but it is really, really, really gay. But I’m always terrified that any advice I give them will shrink the possible boundaries of their work. I don’t want my experiences to over-determine the shape of their art.


Disappointingly (at least to my subversive side), I have never had a student be outraged by all the gay sex in this essay. My students generally either love the essay (for its ellipticism and its humor) or hate it (on account of its pretensions, a criticism Koestenbaum would almost certainly find fair), but none have ever expressed moral condemnation.


A lot of writing about trauma (including, often, my own) seems to ape the story of Christ and Doubting Thomas. Come, Thomas, take your hand, feel the holes in my palms and the wound in my side, and then believe. Come, Dear Reader, feel the holes in my palms and then understand. Come, Dear Reader, touch the wound in my side and be absolved. Come, Dear Reader, see where the scourge tore open my back and have your catharsis. Come, Dear Reader, enter my flesh and then we will be as one.

But Dear Reader, what if those aren't the roles for us?


To rebuff expectations, to avoid the easy slots and the clean fits, to cultivate a veiled intimacy, to require some squinting, to hope that a denial could be a gift, that a refusal could open new doors of thought—those are the moves of the opaque essay. I feel about the queer essay the same way the Supreme Court feels about obscenity: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. And the opaque essay is a queer essay, through and through.


Will Slattery helps curate things here at Essay Daily. He has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Seventy or Eighty Times a Minute: Erin Lyndal Martin Essaying the Heart

What does an essay about the heart look like? The easy answer, the easy essay to write is symmetrical. Writing it is as easy as folding a sheet of paper in half and cutting out a half-circle along the edge. This sort of essay suffices if we believe it is that paper symmetry beating peacefully, rhythmically, inside ourselves. If we believe open heart surgery is a matter of scissors and scotch tape, that we can always cut out another heart.

But an essay about the actual human heart is, by nature, asymmetrical. Some parts have more work to do than others. Some tissue is more dense. Some blood has farther to travel. In writing an essay about the human heart, just as in studying the actual human heart, there are anomalies. Elvis’ heart was twice the size of the average human heart. Or take the story of Hannah Clark: born with a weak heart, she had to have a transplant at age two. Rather than replace her heart, surgeons grafted a second heart onto her own, which they removed a decade later. Hannah said she was happy but felt empty, could feel something missing from her chest.

Writing an essay about the human heart lacks the exigence of handling the actual organ. But there’s no doubt it’s just as messy, and every prick into the allegedly familiar muscle of our own hearts is a risk.

I tried to paint mine before I dared write it. Not the metaphor, but the muscle of it. I wanted so badly to paint it, but how do I account for the color, and where does one begin? The instructional book said to start with a circle, then add the pouch that houses the cardiac muscle. There was a lump where the aorta would go, and I remembered the eleventh grade mnemonic: V is for veins that visit the heart; A is for arteries that carry blood away. The aorta is the largest artery in the human body but it is covered with skin, which is the largest organ in the human body.

I have felt so much skin with my own and if it were possible, I would have lain many times with my aorta touching another’s just to see if our heartbeats would comingle or simply syncopate.

When I was a teenager and they said my cat had a heart murmur I mistook it for a death rattle, my hands shaking as I held her crate on my lap while my mother drove us to the vet school for an ultrasound.

They had to shave part of her belly and it was so pink.

I do not like to think about my own heart.

I saw it once, on an x-ray when I had pneumonia and it terrified me how my heart looked like a ghosted fist.

I don’t know what it is I wanted from my heart, but I wanted more.

“The heart is a most incredible pump,” says the children’s book I got at the thrift store. On the facing page is a picture of a torso, and the heart looks like neon cursive.

In 1929, a German surgeon examined his own heart by threading a catheter into an arm vein and plunging it into his heart. This was considered science, not a suicide attempt or madness. What I wonder is if he was surprised by what he found there, merely a pumping muscle?

It was nearly 40 years later that the first heart transplant was performed.

Laura Jo’s baby brother was born with encephalitis and died as a toddler. His heart was given to a young boy who grew up to be a marathon runner. So I’m not the only runner in my family after all, Laura Jo said.

My father had open heart surgery. Consider that phrase. It is all you need to know.

Every day, the heart generates enough energy to drive a truck twenty miles. Which means that in a lifetime, your heart could take you to the moon and back. Literally.

I have not figured out how to harness the energy of my own heart.

Broken Heart Syndrome is a real diagnosis. I learned about it from Ana, how the heart can physically stun from grief, how the syndrome is also called takotsubo after the shapes of octopus traps that a broken heart resembles.

It reminds me of hearts in fetuses. First their hearts are simply tubes like fish hearts, and then their hearts grow to look like frog hearts. The next stage is snake hearts or turtle hearts, and then their hearts become human at last.

The heart and the fist grow at the same rate, so you can estimate the size of your heart by the size of your fist.

I have tiny hands.

I thought this would only be a problem when I played piano and struggled to reach intervals of an octave, but does it mean my heart is small too? Perhaps I am an anomaly: small fist, large heart.

It would be a beautiful corporeal metaphor. A lover, not a fighter.

If my hands grew, there would be no word for that. If my heart grew, it would not be magic. It would just be dilated cardiomyopathy (common in large dog breeds and golden hamsters) and then I would need a heart transplant.

I wonder if I could get a baboon heart like Christian Slater in that movie. On October 26, 1984, Dr. Leonard Bailey put a baboon heart in the chest of infant Stephanie “Baby Fae” Beauclair, who lived for three weeks after the procedure. When asked why he didn’t choose an animal more closely related to humans, Dr. Bailey responded that he didn’t believe in evolution.

I believe in evolution.

As of 1999, scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts were growing heart tissue in a bioreactor which was developed by NASA. The point of the bioreactor is to make cells “think” they are in a body. The bioreactor is kept on a space shuttle (presumably on land), so when the scientists want to check on the heart tissue, they get on the space shuttle. The first photo that appears with the article I read about this is of a barn engulfed by kudzu. Kudzu. Which looks nothing like a heart. There is a paragraph in the article that explains the kudzu. It says the scientists are working to get cells to take on a certain shape, just like the kudzu grew to the shape of the barn.

Jeremy was born with a hole in his heart. He told me this one night when he was already drunk and was mixing screwdrivers for us. “I was born with a hole in my heart,” he said, and picked up a heart-shaped pillow. He never explained the connection.

Then later that night, with more drink in him, he said, “I was born with a hole in my heart,” and picked up the pillow again.

How long was it after that that Jeremy died of a pulmonary embolism? One year? Two? I can’t think of time in relative terms. I know there was a magnolia tree planted in his honor, but nobody has told me what happened to the heart-shaped pillow.

The heart-shaped pillow was easy. I want to write an essay about it, one in which I describe its plaid and its ribbon, one in which I stick to the easy details of an easy artifact. Or I will buy plaid fabric instead of writing an essay, and I will make a heart-shaped pillow just like Jeremy’s, and I will forget it had anything to do with his own heart.

Forget that it had anything to do with the fact that one’s own heart can be not enough.

There is no symmetry here. Elvis and his engorged heart lived ten years longer than Jeremy. Neither of them got a second heart grafted onto their own to be stronger, only to get strong enough to give it back. To be happy but know something’s missing.


Erin Lyndal Martin is a creative writer, music journalist, and artist. Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Lemon Hound, PANK, So to Speak, and Passages North.

Monday, May 23, 2016

T Clutch Fleischmann: A Ninja Turtle Theory of a Trans Essay

When I was a kid I had a lot of Ninja Turtles, that Ninja Turtle sewer playset, and my sister in her room across the hall had Barbies. I would go across the hall and get the Barbies and they would play with the Ninja Turtles. They rarely went on action adventures but instead I scripted elaborate emotional and social dynamics that they then had to navigate, often shot through with vaguely romantic or sexual tensions. Turtles and Barbies pining for Turtles and Barbies. The playset wasn’t very large so they were always kind of crowded together anyway, and the inside of it was too small for a Barbie so they were always on the street above. I think of this as the first instance of writing in my life.

Barbies are significantly taller than Ninja Turtles, and the Ninja Turtles were pretty much all guys and the Barbies were pretty much all girls. In Brooklyn a year ago I was standing on a street with some friends and there was a sewer beneath us. I was with the guy I love, who has some Ninja Turtle tattoos and sometimes puts on a Ninja Turtle costume to go get groceries and run errands and that sort of thing, just because he does stuff like that. All the guys were short and all the girls were tall and we had an elaborate emotional and social dynamic, often shot through with romantic and sexual tensions. I remembered that I imagined this a long time ago, in my first instance of writing. Time felt very unstable in a way that gave me pleasure.

From what is available to us in our immediate surroundings we can begin to imagine. Imagination can then become the movement between those immediate surroundings and a future immediacy that could not have been reached without departing into fancy. Was I playing with (writing) the Turtles and Barbies in this way because it was the most available outlet for me to imagine a trans sociality and romantic community, not yet having those ideas or words but still having the forms for them within me? Did the repetitive act of writing these Turtles and Barbies, almost by coincidence, open up a space of familiarity and tenderness through which I could then enter the real space twenty-five years later, trans people I love standing above a sewer? What I want to focus on, regardless, is that the imagination touches each of these moments and complicates them both.


I’m rebranding this blog series away from the queer essay and into the trans essay. In part this is because I stopped identifying as queer some time ago and so curating a queer series feels a bit awkward. In part this is because the way I understand queer no longer feels useful or accurate to my own trans body, sexuality, and imagination, which is a commentary on my self and not on the word or the identity or being of queerness, which I still love. I like a thing if it takes me somewhere.

I want to have the conversation about trans essays for simple and selfish reasons, that I think about being trans a lot and I think about essays a lot and I want to better think of those two things together. This is not a simple overlap, however, placing trans on top of essay or essay on top of trans. I think of Joy Ladin’s ideas about poetry—she says “Trans poetics aren’t a matter of poetic content. Poems that describe or refer to trans experience may not utilize trans poetics—and poems that are not about the trans experience may.” I think of what makes the essay interesting to me as an art form, which is time, desire, longing, repetition, honesty, embodiment, the self, and the world outside of the self. I think of what is important to me about being trans, which is time, desire, longing, repetition, honesty, embodiment, the self, and the world outside of the self. I don’t think the sameness of those lists is a coincidence.


A lot of people have asked me recently for suggestions of trans writers. This is great, I want to give them suggestions, I want more people to read us. Please keep asking me. What I don’t understand is why everyone isn’t already reading a giant pile of trans writers. The trans writers are my favorites and there are so many of us. If I only read trans writers for the rest of my life I wouldn’t get through everyone I wanted to. Trans writers are doing so much for essays even if most people in essay world are willfully ignoring that fact.


I’m still trying to talk about that thing with my Ninja Turtles. We have the self, we have the world around us, and we have our imagination. The world around us tells us many things about itself or about us that are not true. This is the case for all people, and also these lies might take very specific and even deadly forms for trans people. The truths in the world are often concealed or not quite truths yet. The imagination is the thing that moves us into those truths, by which I mean the imagination is one of the most powerful forms of truth. This is the motion of the essay. It is also the motion of my body.


Jamie Berrout’s Incomplete Short Stories and Essays. Sandy Stone’s performance lectures. Chase Joynt and Mike Hoolboom’s You Only Live Twice. The play between all the kinds of writing Trish Salah does. Oli Rodriguez and the Papi Project. Mirha-Soleil Ross and Xanthra MacKay’s Gender Troublemakers. I still don’t understand why Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw isn’t considered a seminal text when we talk about genre and hybridity in nonfiction. Everything manuel arturo abreu is doing in different forms. Everything Mich√° Cardenas is doing in different forms. Some of niv Acosta’s dance. Some of Wu Tsang’s videos. Torrey Peters is writing for trans girls and her writing changed beautifully for that. Ralph Werner’s 1918 Autobiography of an Androgyne is a memoir and it is radically disruptive and weird. The way Qwo-Li Driskill writes history. Old Vaginal Davis zines. Ryka Aoki’s Seasonal Velocities. The games and texts of Merritt Kopas. I read Kazim Ali’s Wind Instrument in a car and then read it again. Chloe Dzubilo’s work. Susan Stryker talking to Frankenstein.

This is some of what has moved my thinking into imagination lately, when thinking about all of these things.


Over in literary nonfiction MFA world we tend to only look at a few things, or in a few small directions. It’s making us boring. It’s making us miss a lot of what is happening. We still need our imaginations.


Essays move from one question not to an answer but to a new question. I forget who said that to me first but it is a thing I repeat quite often. My embodiment and lived experiences do not provide me with answers, but deeper and more complex ways to think questions.

I am not interested, not really, in trying to figure out what a trans essay is, no more than I am interested in figuring out what an essay is or what trans is. If we try to define what those things are we are doing ourselves a disservice. We cannot hurt the trans essay, but we can limit our own thinking in such a way that we prevent ourselves from experiencing what the trans essay might do, which is both everything and anything. We can limit this thinking by stopping it at genre, at identity, at truth, or we can expand that thinking by allowing genre, identity, and truth to play their mischievous roles alongside all the rest of it, the words and the pages and the stages and the bodies and the other people who have read those books and the books we haven’t read yet. The trans essay isn’t about figuring out the relationship between my Ninja Turtles and this guy I love, the trans essay is the pleasure of the movement from plastic to body, which is a sort of time-travelling stumble of a dance. Stumbling on.


Mainstream publishing has largely limited itself to memoirs by trans people. This is assumedly born out of an interest in the titillation of looking at trans people’s lives and saying, Oh, isn’t that so unique. I used to have no interest whatsoever in memoir and now I understand it as radical, important, capable of changing both the way I think about writing and the way I think in general.

I used to be very tired of all the asterisks in all the essays. Right now they are helping me move my body.

I used to try to figure out what writing did instead of trying to figure out ways for writing to do.


How do we move from here? There isn’t much of an established theory, nor really authorities, in trans essays. We should preserve that. We should talk to as many people as we can. We should talk about being trans and writing and trans writing and we should talk about everything but those things too. We should move, but not toward anything we know. We should maybe not even know how we are moving when we do, just that within us is an impulse to move.

I want to hear from trans writers who are interested in this. I hope you will email me and say hello. I want to get some toys from across the hall and then find ourselves, as if by magic, one day standing atop a sewer together.

T Clutch Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty and the curator of Body Forms: Queerness and the Essay. They really do hope you will email them: tee.fleischmann [at] gmail.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Critical Read: Natalie Axton on Repositioning Arts Writing

In the spring of 2012 I took a hard look at my so-called writing career. I’d been trying to make it as a freelancer for the past two years and ever since a famous book editor in New York sat me down a a cafe, looked at me sagely over coffee and told me I was a writer.

From 2010 to 2012 I dutifully wrote. And wrote and wrote and wrote. Most of what I produced was crap. What I learned from all that writing is that I like journalism. I also learned that I am committed to one of the field’s least lucrative forms: arts writing. I grew up in a ballet studio. I was on a professional stage by the age of 13—working with dancers, musicians, set designers, costumers, stage managers. Would that I had grown up a Brazilian bikini model! How many more opportunities would I have for getting published if I felt passionately about the gender wars or . . . food. Alas, these were not my journey, as my book editor friend would say. And I’m fine with that.

Still, as a writer I’m always trying to “make it better.” And so, on the two year anniversary of the fateful coffee meeting I thought about the big picture: Why is writing about the arts so hard to place in general interest magazines? Is criticism the best format for arts writing? Can writing about the performing, fine and literary arts sustain a digital publication? And in today’s media landscape, where there is a premium on “storytelling,” why are the arts excluded?

I had an idea: why not create an online home for highly readable guides to works of art? Pair an expert writer with an artwork, take advantage of the innovations of digital publishing, write in a way that privileges narrative. In theory we could provide a service. Anyone interested in say, Giselle or Agnes Martin, could read about the work before venturing to the museum or theater. Over time we could create a library that might serve as an alternate world history. (One of the consequences of the marginalization of the arts in American society: there are tenured New York City history professors working today who cannot name the constituent organizations at Lincoln Center. You don’t need to be cultured to be an intellectual, but come on.)

Critical Read is designed to solve the problems facing arts writing. That criticism—not opinion!—has disappeared from mainstream daily/weekly American publications. That arts practitioners have become disciplinary specialists. That a pool of very talented writers in this country has no opportunity to write long.

Our stories are all features and they are curated around periods, ideas and styles. Our first three stories look at art created in the 1980s. One of those works is a ballet called In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. It was made by the choreographer William Forsythe in 1987 at the Paris Opera Ballet. The ballet is vigorous, athletic and it radically redefined the look of contemporary ballet. It’s not overstating to say In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated is the most important ballet of the second half of the twentieth century. And yet, until now no one has written about its creation.

Our writer, Zachary Whittenburg has written the first history of this ballet. Zac has written about dance for over a decade. He is a critic and dance historian based in Chicago and he and is a regular contributor to Dance Magazine. He’s of a generation that came of age with the work of William Forsythe, not George Balanchine.

For his story, Sudden Grace, Zac spoke with the people who know the ballet best. People who worked with Forsythe and continue to set the ballet on companies around the world. He tells the story of how the ballet was made. What decisions, artistic and otherwise, contributed to its form.

What Zac also does is show readers how to “read” a ballet. When you go to a dance performance these days, you have to be prepared for anything. There’s no telling what will happen on stage. It could be a tights and tutus number. It could be a theatrical piece employing dancers. Or it could be an athletic number that seems to have more in common with Cirque du Soleil than ballet.

Zac explains that In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated was designed as a very formal exercise in theme and variations. Two of its dancers are locked in a kind of competition. Its dance vocabulary extends the classical shapes of the dancers—and the original dancers are Paris Opera Ballet, ballet’s echt-classical technicians—in a way that increases their range without distorting their shapes. Reading this sheds light on so many contemporary ballets and dance works.

Critical Read is an experiment in repositioning arts writing. Some of our features will be personal narratives. Later this year we’ll have a story about a composer’s attraction to the toy piano and another about a writer’s confinement with a reclusive American poet. We’re open to other ideas. Please check out our site and get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.


Natalie Axton is a writer, editor and now publisher living in New York state. She loves watching people do crazy things on stage. Contact her at Natalie at criticalread dot org.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Ira Sukrungruang: The Soap Box

Ira Sukrungruang and Joy Castro are the guest editors for Brevity Magazine's upcoming special issue on Race/Racism/Racialization. Brevity is looking for flash essays (750 words or fewer) that explore the lived experience of race, racialization, and racism, show the reader a new way to look at the familiar, or give voice to under-represented experiences. This issue, which includes new work by the anchor authors Roxane Gay and Claudia Rankine is accepting submissions through May 31st.. For submission guidelines, please visit Brevity's submission page.

The Soap Box

It is two days after the Michael Brown verdict, a day before Thanksgiving. On the first day I sat on the couch and did not move. I became the couch. I became a thing on a couch. I became the thing on the couch that began to dissolve into the couch.

Today, I busy myself with cleaning. My partner and her two girls are on vacation, and I stayed behind to tend to the dogs and cats and bird and guinea pig. I sit and pick grass seeds out of Keita, the Chihuahua/pom mix, this five-pound wonder who moans and groans like a creaky old man. I feed the guinea pig the detritus from my leftover salad. I feed the cats, though I do not clean their litter boxes. There are lines I do not cross, after all.

And then the purge.

I gather months and months of my partner’s crochet magazines, unread and packaged in plastic, and toss them in the recycler. I stuff pens and pencils and hair bands and tiny rubber bands for braces and shove them into a box of miscellaneous things. The house is filled with expired coupons, which I dispose of. I vacuum and rearrange furniture. I shelve books with the ferocity of a mad librarian. Where I see clutter, I attack. Where I see the white of paper, I crumple it into a fist. It is all I could do from inflicting my own violence that is revving in me.  

Violence. It is all I can think of.

In the kitchen, lines of ants crawl all over the counters, invading every crack of our Florida home. Autumn has brought an onslaught of them. I do not know where they are coming from or where they are going. Nor do I care. I simply terminate. I smack them flat into the kitchen countertops, black constellations on a white Formica sky, grunting with sadistic pleasure. “Take that, motherfuckers.” This rage scares me. This rage takes over my Buddhist being. It is the rage of the uncontrollable, the inconsolable. A fury enacted on the weak, the powerless. But I can’t stop. The Pennysaver is my weapon. A coupon for tailored dresses gapes at me, a cartoon drawing of a woman in a Patty Duke day dress, her fingers raised in high society elegance. How utterly impervious she is to the troubles of the world. How clueless. Her cluelessness lights the wick of my rage. Thwap. Such a satisfying sound the Pennysaver makes. Thwap. Thwap, thwap, thwap. I know I have sealed my fate in the next life, that what my Thai mother told me would come true. I will be reincarnated as an ant, small and helpless, forever fearing a giant world come crashing down.

I avoid speaking about race. I don’t like to. But I feel it. I’ve been feeling it for most of my life because of what I’ve experienced, what is happening in the country and the world. When one raises his voice about racism a soap box gets created, and suddenly, no matter how logical, rational, or intelligent, no matter what sense one makes, no matter what is uttered, it will fall on deaf ears. The soap box makes it so. The soap box means someone is standing above you dictating what our world should be like, what our culture should be like, what our people should be like. And then, “our” gets lost, and we become an, I, divided by difference. 

So I remain silent. I am not the only one. Silence has slithered into our lives. It is a silence that eats at us. This silence circulates through the pores of our skin. A beating happens; we swallow it. A murder; we swallow it. Another and another and another. The news, social media, is endless with violence, racial and otherwise. Years go by. Decades. Centuries. We swallow it until we are bloated. Nothing is as filling as hate. Hate is like the overly processed cake snacks we devour by the dozens. Hate, we binge on it. Week after week, month after month, year after year. And one day we wake up and all that we’ve swallowed, all that we’ve squashed down, begins to tighten the muscles in our face, begins to tighten our shoulders and neck. Our voice is tight, too, like the expressionless line of our lips. And then, a crack forms. And then it doesn’t take long. Hate will seethe out. And this hate will want nothing more than to hurt, to maim, to sever. We will think, in terms of race and hate, we haven’t come far from the riots that raged Harlem those many decades ago, those riots that made James Baldwin contemplate whether the relationship between whites and blacks in our country was like gangrene or amputation, whether it was better to deteriorate away slowly or be completely severed, whether as the speaker in Tim Seibles’ satirical poem “Welcome Home” was right to ship whites onto a planet of their own. And though the poem is a satire, we realize our hate has reached satirical proportions, that our country is one big satire. Satire is the world we live in.

Here we are.


That goddamn soap box.

Please plug your ears.

What do I have to say about anything anyways?

Me in this ivory tower of academia.

Me, who is neither black nor white, but yellow.

Like the fat of chicken,

like a dandelion in full bloom,

like the jaundice this country suffers from.

Let’s not kid ourselves. It was not about Michael Brown. It was not about Ferguson or Birmingham or Harlem. It was not about Emmitt Till or Rodney King or Vincent Chin or Kuanchang Kao, who police officers shot because they feared his martial arts moves. It is not about the history we carry within us, a history, no matter how much we want to deny, is part of the genetic make-up of our being. We carry all these histories, heavy and burdened. It is this body of history we share, which joins—never separates—us. Here, in my palms, are all of the social and political unjust enacted on our planet. Here, under my fingernail, is the debris from centuries of war. Here, on the tip of each hair follicle, are the names of the deceased, slayed because race or gender or sexual orientation. Here, inside the cavity of my ear, are tears shed. Here, in my heart, is our heart, beating.

            Let’s not kid ourselves: it’s not about the body either. Though it is the body that pays. It is the body that gets buried. It is the body that gets beaten. It is the body that occupies space. That speaks of our existence and right to be in this world. That is tired, so, so tired.

We are tired, but fear sleep.

            Let’s not kid ourselves: it’s not about a gun. Though, I pulled the trigger of a loaded one a few months ago, in the swampy part of Georgia, guided by a well-trained professional. I shot at a target stapled to a tree, felt the recoil, the power that kicked back through my finger to my hands to my body and then to my brain. I was/am eternally in fear of guns, flinching when a toy one is pointed at me, flinching when someone makes a gun with fingers. This is not about a gun. Though guns have filtered illegally into the poorest neighborhoods in the country. Guns have found their way into the hands of the young who do not actually know what power they hold in their hands. A police officer goes into Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, the crumbling extensions of cities, with full knowledge someone has a gun. They have a gun. But it isn’t about that.    

Let’s not kid ourselves.



Because. A conjunction. A word meant to signify cause and effect. The simplest of sentences to rationalize action. The baby cried because he was hungry. The dog barked because he wanted to be let in. The professor hit his head against a wall because his students still do not understand what a comma splice is. The police officer pulled the trigger because of Michael Brown, because he was black, because of Ferguson, because of racial tension, because of slavery, because of gun control, because, because, because, because….

            Because, a word of blame. Because, a word in search of responsibility. Because, a word.

Fill in the blank: We have a race problem because _____________________.

Thanksgiving afternoon, I can’t still myself. That afternoon, seconds bleed, thick and viscous. In a few hours, I will zoom across the bay to have Thanksgiving with friends and forget the ugly business of race, an impossibility. But now I can’t stop my knee from bouncing up and down. I can’t stop from chewing my cheeks until they bleed. I can’t stop snapping my fingers. The gym at the Y is empty save for one other gentleman. The man is black. He is a regular at the gym, like I am. He usually wears bandanas; today, dark blue. He’s all muscle, with a handle bar mustache. Every time we see each other we nod, say hello, ask what body part we plan on working on today. “Do it up,” he’d say and high-five me, but this time he looks through me, and I keep my head down.

            The TV in the gym broadcast the news. The anchor, this man who looks like his toupee is about to tip off his head, talks of the “turbulence” in Ferguson after the grand jury’s verdict. The screen flashes footage of the protestors, angry faces and tear-streaked disbelief. The anchor’s voice carries a singsong cadence, as if he is reading a Shel Silverstein poem instead of reporting on the country on the brink of implosion. (But haven’t we imploded before? Are we not in constant state of implosion?)

The man, in between bench press sets, watches the television, too. His face is wet with perspiration. His mouth a tight line. He clenches and unclenches his fists, the way a boxer does before a fight. When he goes back to lifting, he grunts. He then adds more plates to the bar. More and more and more. At his max, his arms tremble, thick branches holding on in heavy gusts. I think I will have to save him from all the weight that may come crashing down on his chest.  But he powers through, releases the bar back onto its resting place with a clatter of metal. He jolts back up. His body heaves in heavy breaths.   

Without missing a beat the newscaster transitions from Ferguson to the next most important news of the day: secret shopping strategies on Black Friday.

It is easy to make metaphor out of this. This black man under all this weight will continue to lift, will continue to go above and beyond what he is capable of. Will continue to rise above. He puts on more weight. I watch him. His fingers grip and re-grip the bar. His legs bounce with adrenaline. He takes three deep breaths and lifts the bar up, his arms trembling before the descent towards his chest.

Here is where metaphor fails. Metaphor makes the possible impossible. But what makes the impossible possible? What metaphors do we possess to change thought and minds, and language and action? What can words really do? What can voice? What can a poem, an essay, a story? Where is the poet with power, crafting a metaphor of hope, a metaphor of change.

“Let the combination of morality and inhumanity begin,” writes the poet Amiri Baraka. And so it has. We are here. We are deep in it. We are so deep we can no longer see light.   

The man shakes, his face reddening, his teeth gritted in exertion. This is our country. These are our citizens. Gritted teeth. Frustrations like plumes of smoke. We have not begun to burn. We have been burning. And I believe this man at the Y will not be able to do it this time. I believe he will fail. I believe that one can only hold so much.


I want to see.

I want to bear witness.

You see, I believe in the impossible.

I believe under the greatest of calamities we are capable.


Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoirs Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, the short story collection The Melting Season, and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night. He is the coeditor of two anthologies on the topic of obesity: What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. He is the recipient of the 2015 American Book Award, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, an Arts and Letters Fellowship, and the Emerging Writer Fellowship. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Post RoadThe Sun, and Creative Nonfiction. He is one of the founding editors of Sweet: A Literary Confection, and teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida..