Monday, January 21, 2019

Disclosure and the Writing Classroom: Revisiting Jill Christman by Craig N. Owens

In her recent essay “‘Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter’: Writing Sexual Trauma under Title IX,” Jill Christman, writing for Essay Daily's Advent 2018 calendar raises important questions about how professors of writing, and in particular personal essays, autobiography, and other forms of creative writing, ought to regard student writing about sexual trauma and sexual assault. Because many colleges and universities, following Obama-administration guidance from the Department of Education, designate faculty members as “mandatory reporters”—that is, as employees of the institution required, under law, to report student accounts of sexual assault to their schools’ Title IX officers—Christman asks, “[A]s essayists and teachers of writing in higher education, what’s our part in all this? What’s unique about our position as educators specifically charged with teaching adult students how to shape stories out of the stuff of real life?” If a student is using their writing as a means of working through the pain and trauma of assault, Christman worries that in following policies that require faculty to report these incidents, professors of writing may risk harming students who are not ready—and may never be ready—for their experiences to become subject to institutional and quasi-jurisprudential processes. How, then, can we encourage honest, authentic, emotional and personal risk-taking and vulnerability in student writing in a way that both honors students’ desires to work through their experiences in their own ways and at their own pace and also, at the same time, complies with university and DoE policies regarding mandatory reporting.
     Christman’s excellent essay raises a host of ethical and social-justice related concerns that arise when we treat student writing as a mode of disclosure. Here, I would like to address the question from the point of view of the philosophy of language in the hopes of offering an approach teachers of writing may adopt to address these issues—an approach informed by speech-act theory, particularly J.L. Austin’s notion of the “performative utterance.” For Austin, who laid out his theory of speech-acts in his slim volume How to Do Things with Words (1962), a performative utterance is a special class of utterance, one that does something beyond just saying something. Whereas a constative utterance constates, that is, posits a truth, usually based on observation, perception, or factual knowledge—“The mailman put this letter in our mailbox this morning,” for example, or “It’s raining,” or “World War II ended in 1945”—a performative utterance enacts, validates, or creates a fact. Pronouncements of marriage, the performance of a contract, the making of bets and promises,  and the enactment of a decree are all examples of performative utterances because they don’t just posit a truth: they make it true. Indeed, so different is the performative from the constative utterance that adjectives like true, false, accurate, and errant fail to characterize performative utterances. Instead, Austin opts for such terms as effective, ineffective, valid, invalid, and, most commonly, felicitous and infelicitous to describe performative utterances that either do or do not take effect.
     Key to the concept of performativity is that for a performative utterance to take effect, for it to be a valid, felicitous performance, it must meet a number of conditions to which everyday constative utterances don’t have to adhere, including the sincerity and intention of the speaker, the appropriateness of the context or situation, and adherence to an accepted formula or convention. Thus, the weddings that take place Shakespeare’s As You Like It or The Taming of the Shrew don’t result in the two actors’ having been married because a play is an invalid context for the performance of an actual wedding and the actors who utter the conventional formulas are not really intending to be marry: they are not sincere. Related to the question of sincerity is that of agency: Those who make performative utterances must be doing so freely, without constraint. Finally, the individuals involved in a performative utterance must be authorized to enact it: not just anyone can fire an employee or christen a ship or declare a state of emergency. When one or more of these conditions is not met, the speech-act fails: it’s infelicitous or invalid.
     I propose that we think of “disclosure,” the term often applied to what a student does when they report an assault to a member of a university’s faculty or staff, as a class of performative utterance; for it to be valid—for it to have operated as a disclosure for the purposes of Title IX—it would then need to meet some specific criteria. The three that are most germane for the writing pedagogy are context, convention and intention. Before we treat a student’s written account, produced and submitted in response to a writing prompt, as a performative utterance, a “disclosure,” we must establish that it has take place in a context that supports the effectuation of a performative utterance; that it follows the minimum conventions for disclosure; and that the student intends the utterance to be understood as a disclosure, and not something else. Unless we are certain that each of these conditions is met, we can’t treat the student’s utterance as a disclosure.
     To take these conditions one at a time, then: A writing assignment does not provide a context in which disclosure, as a class of performative utterance, can occur. This is not to say that a disclosure cannot occur in writing: it can. A note, and email, or a signed affidavit can all perform disclosures. But writing carried out in the creative or expressive writing classroom is always provisional, an exercise in something else, like a wedding rehearsal or moot court. It is assigned and completed as a demonstration of a particular mindset, of the mastery of a point of craft, or of a student’s ability to follow instructions. Often, especially for beginning writers, writing is a mode of imitation: A student borrows moves from established narratives and tries them out, practices them, rehearses them in the context of drafts for an assignment. These moves include not just organizational structure, diction, syntax, and the rest of what we sometimes think of as formal or mechanical aspects of a piece; they also include subject matter. Thus, the student enthusiastic about their recent encounters with the works of Tony Kushner, for instance, may well wish to practice writing about sexuality, and may do so very convincingly, as an exercise in craft, without ever “coming out” (another kind of performative). Moreover, because student writing is produced in response to requirements, there is no grounds for believing that what a student has written represents the exercise of their free will. It’s just as likely that they’re giving us what they think we want, in order to get a decent grade—indeed, that is the overwhelmingly more likely scenario. There is nothing in the writing that can prove otherwise.
     Second, the conventions of creative writing, in a creative writing class, take precedence over other conventions that may be enacted in the student writing. Even in a non-fiction writing class, one devoted to autobiography, memoir, or the personal essay, we expect student writers to take creative license with their subject matter. Thus, timelines may be rearranged; several individuals collapsed into one character; several incidents synthesized into one; and the mundane details of reality heightened—dare I say fictionalized—to achieve an aesthetic effect. Sometimes, that aesthetic effect may be authenticity, a strong sense of the truth and accuracy of what the writer has written. But the writer—usually conceived of as a persona in their self-presentation in writing—is already a fiction in the creative writing classroom, or at least only an attenuated version of the actual individual doing the writing. Indeed, so is the reader. So, even when an essay says something as apparently straightforward as “Reader, I want you to hear it from me first, and to believe me: That man assaulted me,” the conventions of creative writing require us to accept this as a performance not of disclosure, but rather of craft for the sake of a literary or aesthetic effect. It is as much a disclosure as a Rembrandt self-portrait: believable without necessarily being true.
     Finally, to the question of intention, perhaps the most fraught of the three conditions under discussion. It is impossible for a student to express his or her intention regarding the status of an utterance as a disclosure within the frame of a written assignment, because the authenticity and accuracy of creative writing with respect to what it says about reality is so attenuated. So, a separate, complementary utterance, taking place outside the frame of the assigned writing, would be necessary. Such an utterance could be a signed statement, an email, or a spoken affirmation. It isn’t enough for a syllabus or assignment sheet to state that the professor will presume that all details reported as fact in the submitted assignment are true: First of all, such a presumption runs contrary to the foundational conventions of creative writing; and, second, the receiver’s presumptions aren’t sufficient to validate an otherwise invalid or infelicitous performative utterance. In the absence of a separate statement of affirmation, that presumption is just that: a presumption. Likewise, if we require, as a condition of fulfilling the assignment or passing the class, such a separate affirmation, we have essentially made a second writing assignment, one that is subject to all the infelicities and ambiguities of the main assignment. Perhaps, then, we might provide a written statement for the student simply to sign: but if their signing it is a requirement, then we have eliminated from the exchange the students’ free will and agency, thus invalidating even the signature as a performative utterance.
     The only way, then, that we can treat a fact or experience reported in an assigned, required work of creative writing, even if it presents itself as non-fiction or memoir, as an authentic disclosure is if the student writer, unprompted, of their own free will, informs us, outside the frame of the assigned writing, that what it recounts are, in their view, the truth. In other words, if the student, of their own accord, discloses that the writing is in fact a disclosure. This condition precisely removes the question from the realm of creative writing altogether: for the performative we are now concerned with is a disclosure outside the context of the writing classroom—precisely the same kind of disclosure a math or chemistry professor would be required to report. In short, there are no conditions under which a piece of assigned writing, whatever the genre, in whatever class, can be treated as a disclosure when we keep in mind that a disclosure is not just any saying, but a particular class of performative utterance. While I would suggest that faculty make that fact clear in their syllabi—a brief statement saying “I will make no presumptions about the truth-value of the claims your writing makes beyond the conventions of the genre in which you are writing and the constraints of the writing classroom” would likely suffice—it might be even better for departments in which writing is a requirement of their courses to put these interpretive practices into policy. After all, as experts in our various fields, including in the modes of discourse authorized by those fields and in the interpretive practices we engage in, only we can make these determinations with respect to writing we require of our students. For required writing always imposes limitations on the writer’s agency; and, as Christman points out, “by taking away the survivor’s agency to tell her own story on her own terms, [we]’ve also taken away her chance to wrest back some of the control she lost in the assault.”

Craig N. Owens teaches writing, critical theory, popular culture, and drama studies in the English department at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. His work on such playwrights as George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Arthur Miller has appeared as chapters and articles in numerous collections and journals; he also writes and frequently presents on popular music, film and television, including the music of Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Beyoncé; James bond films and novels; and The Big Lebowski. His opinion editorials on issues in teaching, specifically, and higher education generally have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Marsh Report, and The Des Moines Register. His full-length play Open House won Tallgrass Theatre’s 2013 Playwright’s Workshop Award. Currently, he is writing a play about a jumping cow titled Angus. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

Paul Zakrzewski: “How Do I Craft a Sophisticated Narrator in a Memoir of Childhood?"

Writing a memoir based in childhood is a tough act to pull off. In my writing workshops, even elderly students tend to lose touch with their adult selves—with the insight or humor I know they otherwise possess—all in the rush to recover sometimes long-neglected memories. And while that lack of a reflective self often occurs in the work of emerging writers, it seems especially marked in stories drawn from childhood.

So not long ago I found myself re-reading a number of favorite books and essays in an attempt to better understand what techniques could help my students. The first stop? Phillip Lopate’s masterful “Reflection & Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story. In this essay, Lopate describes the need for the memoirist to deploy a “double perspective” that allows the reader to “participate in the experience as it was lived, while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.”

In previous workshops, I’ve heard this twinned voice described as the “experiencing I” and “the reflective I.” Or, in Sue William Silverman’s excellent formulation, the “voice of innocence” and the “voice of experience.” What I like most about Lopate’s formulation is just how much emphasis he places on the need for that second, retrospective voice. It’s like the yeast in a memoir, without which the story won’t properly rise:
In any autobiographical narrative…the heart of the matter often shines through those passages where the writer analyzes the meaning of his or her experience. The quality of thinking, the depth of insight, and the willingness to wrest as much understanding as the writer is humanly capable of arriving at— these are guarantees to the reader that a particular author’s sensibility is trustworthy and simpatico.
More than the absence of a psychologically astute narrator, it’s often the limited syntax of my student’s childhood memoirs that feels tedious. Who wants to spend page after page after page with a narrator who’s limited herself to the vocabulary and tedious rhythms of a child? As Lopate himself concludes: “What is important, in writing about childhood, is to convey the psychological outlook you had as a child, not your limited verbal range.”

As wonderful as that advice is, it still begs a question: just how do you pull off the narrator who can convey the child’s narrow psychological range, but is not limited by it? What should that narrator sound like? To understand that, I ended up going to a pair of favorite memoirs whose techniques I’ve now passed along to students.

The first is Sleeping Arrangements, by Laura Shaine Cunningham, a witty and compulsively readable account of the author’s childhood in 1940s Jewish Bronx. Given that Cunningham was herself orphaned by the death of her single mother at age 10, sent to live with a pair of bachelor uncles, this book could’ve easily veered into the same maudlin or sentimental trap that can afflict student work.

Instead, Cunningham’s voice is funny, clear-sighted, gently ironic. Her narrator is a real storyteller—funny, adventurous, and remarkably free of self-pity; notable given some of the darker territory she occasionally veers into. I picked the Cunningham example for students precisely because there’s so clearly an adult intelligence shaping this narrator’s voice.

So, how does the writer of the childhood memoir open the “aperture” of the narrator in a way that permits both the child and adult perspectives into the frame? Cunningham does this by limiting the visual scope of what her narrator conveys. She describes her 10-year-old self’s physical world; we get to see things from her height, so to speak. But—and this is the crucial achievement—it is filtered through her current-day, mature perspective:
AnaMor Towers did not stand alone. The entire neighborhood was a cross section of ersatz bygone cultures. In the park, marble mermaids lounged, with rust running down their navels. Public buildings were supported by semi-nude figures, wearing New Deal chitons. Many of the apartment buildings were modern Towers of Babel, mixing details from Ancient Rome, Syria, Greece.
Here is the child’s limited field of vision, the attention to the kind of object that would interest the child—mermaids, blocky apartment buildings—but described by an amused, historically-minded adult.

A similar technique shows up in another favorite of mine, George Orwell’s “Such, such were the joys.” It’s impossible to forget the litany of humiliations that young George suffers at the hands of school administrators and older boys. But what makes this essay such a masterpiece is the easy, clearly-sighted way that Orwell traces those torments to the larger problem of class consciousness. (It’s easy to picture the petty tyrants of Orwell’s childhood growing into the Big Brother of later years). Orwell accomplishes all of this by focusing on the child’s visual perceptions but not his limited understanding:
…One afternoon, as we were filing out from tea, Mrs Wilkes the Headmaster's wife, was sitting at the head of one of the tables, chatting with a lady of whom I knew nothing, except that she was on an afternoon's visit to the school. She was an intimidating, masculine-looking person wearing a riding-habit, or something that I took to be a riding-habit. I was just leaving the room when Mrs Wilkes called me back, as though to introduce me to the visitor.
The focus on a strange and possibly frightening adult wearing a riding habit is the child’s. But the description (“intimidating, masculine looking”) – not to mention the emphasis on the child’s possibly mistaken perception (“or something I took to be a riding-habit”) is that of the mature author.

In fact, that close attention to the mistaken apprehensions of childhood is a second technique that both Cunningham and Orwell use to create the sophisticated narrator of the childhood memoir. In Cunningham’s case, she injects the adult’s greater sense of consciousness into her narrator in sections of the book that deal with matters far beyond the child’s limited ability to comprehend–an early encounter with a pedophile, for example or her mother’s impending death. Yet she also uses it to great humorous effect in Sleeping Arrangements:
I have heard the family legend that Barb is a worthless “gold digger” who “hooked” Norm when Norm was a lonesome sailor…stationed in her southern city, so far from his own real home. What a gold digger would have seen in this near-retarded mechanic was questionable, but I accept on faith a cousin’s pronouncement that Barb “grabbed the brass ring.” Barb wears large brass hoops through her ears, which lends the legend credence.
Cunningham has carefully selected details that wink to the reader even as the child misunderstands or doesn’t comprehend exactly what she’s saying—as in the repetition of words the eight-year-old knows are probably bad (“gold-digger,” “hooked”) but doesn’t understand. In fact, much of the book’s humor derives not only from the pluckiness of young Laura, but her limited capacity to understand what’s happening and being said.

In my workshops, I’ve taken to distributing these quotations by Lopate, Cunningham, and Orwell, along with a writing assignment I’ll conclude with below.

Writing Assignment

1. Spend a moment centering yourself…and think of moments from when you were a child between, say, the ages of 6 to 10, and were confronted with something clearly beyond your years. It could be your first glimpse of an alcoholic uncle, or the first time you heard your parent’s fighting about something you didn’t quite understand; or maybe the first time you witnessed something violent you couldn’t process. It doesn’t have to be a sad or disturbing memory – maybe something funny, like witnessing an older teen’s first awkward attempts at dressing or acting grown-up. Just make it something outside the scope of an 6 or 8 or 10-year-old’s apprehension.

2. Now, free write for 10 minutes about one of these moments – don’t worry at this moment about the double consciousness or anything; just write.

3. Review what you’ve written. Look for those sentences or paragraphs in your work when your narrator is perceiving something she or he clearly doesn’t understand. Whose perspective have you conveyed them from? If it’s the child’s perspective, think about what it is that the child-character doesn’t understand. Ask: what would I explain to that younger self? If it looks like you’ve attempted to write from a more adult perspective, see if you’ve maintained that distance consistently throughout. Or is the voice a bit wobbly? – i.e. Are there places where you seem to be writing from your current, adult perspective and others where it seems like something a young child would say?

4. Using one of the two voices above – the Cunningham or the Orwell –rewrite your piece.

For the Cunningham voice: remember to focus on what the child-character can actually see or perceive. But I want you to try your best to use your funny, witty adult self to actually describe the moment.

For the Orwell (use if your subject matter or your attitude toward it is more sober, serious, etc): Focus on the incident and describe the child’s feelings or understands, but be sure to use your current day language to do so. Feel free to pull back into a strong reflective voice that might begin: “When I consider this today…” If you can pull off dry British humor, all the better (“Night after night I prayed, with a fervor never previously attained in my prayers, 'Please God, do not let me wet my bed”).


Paul Zakrzewski is the editor of Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge (Perennial) and his writing has appeared in in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Brevity, and more. A graduate of Cornell University, he received his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from VCFA. If you’d like a copy of the “Crafting the Narrator of the Childhood Memoir” assignment, please email him. More info at

Monday, January 7, 2019

Julie Moon: Finding Mothers

When I was a child in the ocean for the first time, I screamed that I was dying, in the third person. 상리 죽는다, I repeated, sobbing to everyone on Busan’s Haeundae beach. My grandfather was carrying me in his arms, we stood barely off the shore where my grandmother was. To my four-year-old self in the water, I was not merely in danger but already dying. What were my beloved adults doing to me, freeing me to this vast and dark liquid? My grandmother, to soothe me, lathered saltwater over my infant arms, my squishy, short legs. When she had encouraged my grandfather to sit me down in the water, I lost control. It was beyond yelling, she relates to me now, over the phone. The water of Haeundae that summer had been neither green nor blue, but a thick, opaque gray. I felt it had gaped at me.

 …I was driving. I had the impression… of being at the sea, in the middle of the day. The beach was empty, the water calm, but on a pole a few meters from shore a red flag was waving. When I was a child, my mother had frightened me, saying, Leda, you must never go swimming if you see a red flag: it means the sea is rough and you might drown. 

A few years later, my grandmother flew across the Pacific to visit my family during what we had thought would be a temporary move to the United States. I had always been close to my maternal grandmother: she seemed to me a second mom, rougher than her meek daughter. But it was during this visit that I started to her roughness as having to do with a larger force than personality. One afternoon, she was giving my sister and me a bath, the three of crowded the small bathtub of my family’s modest apartment. We had soaked in steaming hot water, and were taking turns getting the dead skin scrubbed off our backs by Halmu. My sister and I, nine and seven years old, were mindless of how this fifty-something year old woman might be sweating from the steam and effort of bending over two children. We exacerbated the chaos by splashing each other in quick succession, I don’t  remember whether we were fighting, or playing. In the chaos, I accidentally pulled the see-through curtain off of its rings, and the plastic sheet crumpled onto Halmu’s brown back. That was when she started screaming. She called us gashina, a word in Korean dialect that can be used as an insult to young girls, couldn’t we see she was tired. Why didn’t we just scrub ourselves. We ought to shut up, did we want to get hit. I had heard her pitch her voice in arguments with my father, but it had never been directed at us. I can still remember my ears ringing. We quieted right away after that, I remember the sudden desire to be obedient, to help flip the switch of the drain when she said that’s enough, get out, I wondered if this bad feeling that had seeped into the air would evaporate along with the steam when we finally opened the bathroom door.

That fear had endured through the years, and even now, although the water was a sheet of translucent paper stretching to the horizon, I didn’t dare go in: I was anxious. I said to myself, go on, swim: they must have forgotten the flag, and meanwhile I stayed on the shore, cautiously testing the water with the tip of my toe. Only at intervals my mother appeared at the top of the dunes and shouted to me as if I were still a child: Leda, what are you doing, don’t you see the red flag? 

Reading Leda, the narrator in Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, I couldn’t help but hear Halmu alongside her. The novella takes place during Leda’s summer vacation alone on the Ionian coast. There, Leda is overwhelmed by memories of her difficult Neopolitan mother, as well her own experiences as an ambivalent mother of two daughters (they had eventually left her in Italy to live with their father in Canada). Leda’s memories are triggered by a beautiful young woman she meets on the beach. Every day, Leda observes Nina play with her toddler daughter and her beloved doll. To Leda, Nina seems to be a perfect mother: content, serene, and devoted enough to spend hours talking to her daughter and her doll in the pleasing cadence of the Neapolitan dialect that I love, the tender language of playfulness and sweet nothings.

I remember the dialect on my mother’s lips when she lost that gentle cadence and yelled at us, poisoned by her unhappiness: I can’t take you anymore. I can’t take anymore. Commands, shouts, insults, life stretching into her words, as when a frayed nerve is just touched, and the pain scrapes away all self-control. Once, twice, three times she threatened us, her daughters, that she would leave, you’ll wake up in the morning and won’t find me here. And every morning I woke trembling with fear. 

Growing up with Halmu, I saw her roughness repeatedly. Not long after that bathtub scene, she scratched my sister’s hand hard enough to leave fingernail marks. She cursed feverishly under her breath when one of my friends ate an elaborate pajeon she had made for me and my sister. One weekend in the fifth grade, when she figured out that I had lied to her about which friend I was having a sleepover with, Halmu hit my calves with sticks she’d retrieved from the woods behind our apartment complex. In the year I attended elementary school in Korea, I had been hit like that by my teacher on my open palms, we were warned about our calves, for the severest mistakes. Halmu threatened, as she usually did when she was angry, to pack our bags, to take us back to Korea. By then my family knew I was much more at home in the U.S. Why should I sacrifice myself for you, you don’t know how to be thankful, do you think I am an idiot, just because I am mute here, never are you going to a friend’s house again-- never.

Leda becomes irritated as she watches Nina and her daughter play with the doll. Now they gave her words in turn, now together, superimposing the adult’s fake-child voice and the child’s fake-adult voice. They imagined it was the same, single voice coming from the same throat of a thing in reality mute. But evidently I couldn’t enter into their illusion, I felt a growing repulsion for that double voice. Of course, there I was, at a distance, what did it matter to me, I could follow the game or ignore it, it was only a pastime. But no, I felt an unease as if faced with a thing done badly, as if a part of me were insisting, absurdly, that they should make up their minds, give the doll a stable, constant voice, either that of the mother or that of the daughter, and stop pretending that they were the same.

This past May, when my grandparents picked me up from my parents’ apartment in Busan to bring me to their house in the countryside, I brought a stuffed animal I’d had since I was six years old. Halmu had known my pink lamb as long as I did-- my mother had bought it for me and my sister at Macy’s our first year in the U.S.; Halmu had inserted more cotton to plump up my sister’s threadbare lamb a few years ago. As I sat in the front seat beside my grandfather, Halmu sat in the back, cradling my lamb in her lap. Halmu started speaking in a baby voice to imitate my lamb, a high-pitched, airy voice she used over the years for this play. My sister and I had made baby voices a tradition in our family. But Halmu did it best. She brought my lamb to life, animating her with gestures only she had the imagination to invent. She folded the lamb’s soft body and moved her white cotton hooves to make her dance in mid-air. Soon the car filled with our happiness. As we drove away from my parents’ apartment and towards my grandparents’ house in the countryside, stopping by a beach grandfather, increasingly forgetful, had forgotten he had already taken us to before, I felt free. I was happy, as usual, to hear Halmu’s full-bellied laughter-- it infected me, as it always did.

When, one day, Nina’s daughter loses her doll on the beach, Nina begins a frantic search. Alone in her apartment, Leda realizes she had somehow taken the mangy-looking thing: the doll, half-blond and half bald, is in her bag. The novella circles around Leda’s inability to return the doll. Instead of confessing to Nina and her daughter immediately, Leda pretends not to know where it went. She wades deeper into her memories: how she had once punished one of her daughters by hurling her doll over the railing of their balcony. How during her daughters’ adolescence, she had flirted with their boyfriends out of fear for their possible unhappiness. How, when her daughters were toddlers, Leda abandoned them for three years, leaving them under their father’s care so she could focus on her work as an academic. The children stared at me. I felt their gazes longing to tame me, but more brilliant was the brightness of the life outside them, new colors, new bodies, new intelligence, a language to possess finally as if it were my true language, and nothing, nothing that seemed to me reconcilable with that domestic space from which they stared at me in expectation. Ah, to make them  invisible, to no longer hear the demands of their flesh as commands more pressing, more powerful than those which came from mine.

I decided to spend one summer in college doing research for a professor at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul. I was living with Halmu in her six-story apartment, working on my laptop on the rooftop while she watered the flowers and vegetables she grew there. Before I met with the Women’s Studies professor for the first time, I asked Halmu to join me in exploring Ewha’s campus. Halmu, fashionable as ever, dressed in a silk pink top with her large pearl earrings: I knew she would have studied at Ewha, the country’s first university, had she been born into a more fortunate family in postwar Korea. After exploring the glass maze of the student center, and the lecture halls inside Gothic buildings, we settled at a cafe overlooking the school gates. I started to show Halmu the academic articles I had been reading on my laptop. Seeing her across from me, waiting as I struggled to paraphrase into my limited Korean vocabulary, smiling in her best lipstick, eyes sparkling with an eagerness to learn, I was hit by a mixture of emotions. I didn’t want her to take the bus back alone as she would when it was time for me to meet my professor at Starbucks, I tried to call her a taxi. But when I met the professor, dressed in an all-black outfit that reminded me of my college in New York, and listened to her talk about her research about contemporary feminist discourse in Korea, I felt confused. I tried to push that sadness I felt with Halmu-- waiting Halmu, hungry to learn, Halmu who should have gone to high school and college-- away.

During my last winter in college, I went to Brisbane, Australia, to visit my aunt and her ten-year-old daughter. I’d been traumatized by the abortion I’d decided to undergo that fall, and was looking forward to swimming in the sea. Halmu would be there with me. She had contributed to my suffering by saying I wasted my life raising you when she learned of my pregnancy, because she didn’t like my boyfriend-- she had been convinced he would hurt me in the end, she was reminded of things I never saw. For a few days, we all went to the Gold Coast. In my aunt’s elegant, sapphire blue swimsuit, I held Renee’s hand down the utterly soft gray sand of the beach. I remember the squeaking of the sand particles as they sank beneath our soles. I remember feeling, for the first time, like an adult woman.

As Renee and I sprinted to the aqua currents, Halmu sat on the shore, she wanted to look over our valuables. Eventually we heard the lifeguard announcing through the distance: a certain breed of jellyfish had appeared, and though they resembled the benign kind, they were fatally dangerous, we were to be careful at all costs. Still, Renee and I wanted to venture a tiny bit further. The water was shallow for a while, and I had become over the years a confident swimmer, swimming almost daily at the college pool.

Watching us wade deeper into the sea-- watching Renee try to kick and make strokes with her small body-- Halmu started to scream at us not to go so far, to say closer to shore. Beneath the white sun, her aged body cast a deep shadow on the shore. Her wide-brimmed hat darkened her scrunched up face; from where I stood in the water, she seemed cloaked in darkness. I had never seen Halmu’s face so blackened by emotion (she was so energetic, I rarely thought of her as aged.) I felt the old humiliation at being tied in public with a woman whose fits I had no neat explanation for, but also disturbed in a new way, and thus afraid. I could not recognize the darkness that now shrouding her face-- it was too frantic to be called rage, and too restless to be called fear. I thought Halmu might collapse from so much screaming. Why is Halmu so upset? Renee asked, looking up at me. I told her I didn’t know. Shortly after Halmu’s screaming began-- she glared at me, until we returned-- Renee and I both got bitten by the benign kind of jellyfish. The lifeguard was cheerful and mellow, I don’t remember what the probability of getting bitten by the dangerous kind had been. I felt relieved when Halmu decided to stay in the hotel room after that. When, while Renee was playing Marco Polo with other children at the pool, I thought I lost her for a moment, I panicked. A child, yes, is a vortex of anxieties. I willed myself not to unravel as I knew Halmu would have. After I found her I told Renee in my sternest voice: don’t leave my sight because I am responsible for you. As I waited for understanding to flicker in her eyes I thought to myself: this is who I am.


Julie Moon is a South Korean writer pursuing an MFA in Nonfiction and Literary Translation at Columbia. A former Iowa Arts Fellow, she is the recipient of the Missouri Review Miller Audio Prize in Poetry. She lives in Brooklyn.