Will the film adaptation of Loung Ung’s FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER do the heavy lifting of the memoir?

(HarperCollins)

BY NICHOLE L. REBER

Regardless of your opinion of the Hollywood celebrity, Angelina Jolie’s latest cinematic offering from the director’s chair might just be worth watching. Netflix will release her cinematic version of Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers on September 17. It is not her first time bringing a book to the silver screen but what makes this film different will hopefully be Jolie’s ability to see the historical lessons Ung’s book inspires. Even moreso, let’s hope the cinematic and/or film version inspires us to see the connections to today’s American climate.

Originally published as a memoir of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in Cambodia, the movie comes to us in the form of a biographical historical thriller. More important than the celebrity behind the camera, however, Americans don’t often hear—much less think— about the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal sweep through Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Few of us remember or even know that they are rumored to have killed up to a quarter of the nation’s population. Seventeen years ago we were reminded of the atrocities when Ung’s memoir hit bookstore shelves. It’s time to check it out again.

At the book’s beginning we learn how America’s bombing of Cambodian borders to destroy neighboring Vietnamese military bases fanned the flames of Cambodia’s civil war, already brewing for decades when the Khmer Rouge deposed the Lon Nol government, which Ung’s father worked for.

Khmer Rouge, an army of impoverished, generally uneducated Cambodians, formed a government called the Angkar, led by Pol Pot, a despot not unlike Uganda’s murderous ruler Idi Amin or China’s Mao Tse Tong. The Angkar executed, starved, and stole from the country’s citizens, forcing them into rural camps, labor camps, and military-training camps. The Angkar purged the country of technology such as radios, televisions, watches, and eight-track players. It denied other indications of social class such as jewelry, education, and money. It spread anti-American, -Vietnamese, and -Chinese propaganda throughout the camps and wrote songs deifying Pol Pot. Ung’s details about those camps in which kids and young adults were forced to see the songs will ripple your skin with goosebumps.

“‘The soldiers walked around the neighborhood, knocking on all the doors, telling people to leave. Those who refused were shot dead right on their doorsteps,’” Ung’s father tells her. Her family, a middle-class Cambodian family with seven children, was forced to leave their home, the capital city of Phnom Penh, and relocated to various types of camps. Instant death would have been imminent if any family members inadvertently revealed anything that bespoke their middle-class status (anathema to this supposedly Communist movement) and connection to the former Lon Nol government.

A reader wouldn’t be hard-pressed to find at least thread connections to the xenophobia, racism, sexism, etc. that has characterized many recent American news reports. The us-versus-them propaganda, the fault-finding in harmless characteristics, the incitement of angry and uneducated masses of the Khmer Rouge People indicate a country in crises. That’s only exacerbated when its people, encouraged to spy and tattle on others, grew suspicious of each other. The mother, for instance, has to live an all-but-mute life in the refugee camp because of her Chinese accent.
An odor of nationalism wafts from the pages of First They Killed My Father. It reminds us that racism isn’t something brought with babies into the world; it’s taught and reinforced by society. That’s why it’s possible for five-year-old Loung to find false security in believing that bad people look one way and good guys look another.

Ung writes: “Many have almond-shaped eyes, thin noses, and light skin, which suggests they might be of Chinese descent. Pure Khmer have curly black hair, flat noses, full lips, and dark chocolate skin.” (In Asian culture noses without bridges are considered inferior and, of course, the darker your skin the more maligned you’ll be.)

The new regime has no law and order and executes helter skelter. “‘The Khmer Rouge are executing people perceived to be a threat against the Angkar,” the father tells his family. “Anyone can be viewed as a threat … monks, doctors, nurses, artists, teachers, students—even people who wear glasses.” Why eyeglasses? Well, as the cliché goes, eyeglasses demonstrate intelligence. As dictators from Pol Pot to Fidel Castro know, an educated population threatens tyrannical rule.

The Khmer Rouge’s genocide came to a close when the Vietnamese, whom Cambodians were brainwashed into thinking were the enemy, entered the country and began rescuing citizens such as the five remaining Ung family members. The Youns (an ethnic slur for Vietnamese) smiled, talked to children, and sometimes patted them on the head, Loung wrote, saying they were not the “devils” she’d been taught they were. They freed their neighbors from the camps and quelled the Khmer Rouge.

It’s a curious thought to see how Jolie will handle the transition from memoir to Netflix Original movie. Until it’s September 17 release, though, you can learn more about Cambodia in the movie The Killing Fields (not to be confused with the Discovery series). To find out more about America’s connection to it, check out Noam Chomsky’s thoughts on the matter and why The Daily Beast claims both sides got Cambodia wrong.

Nichole L. Reber picked up a love for world lit by living in countries around the globe. She’s a nonfiction writer and her award-winning work has been in World Literature Today, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Lunchticket, and elsewhere. Read her stories on a Chinese cult, wearing hijab in India, and getting kidnapped in Peru at http://www.nicholelreber.com/.

From the Café at the End of The World

BY ZACHARY JENSEN

I. The Café Owner

 

I think it would be best if we kept these things to ourselves

When one is dirty, there is usually a desire to become clean – to wash away the layers and coatings of one’s actions and begin anew. The ritual of it all can be rather soothing. Necessary. The turning of the right faucet valve to let the water flow, the turning of the left faucet valve to introduce the heat, waiting patiently for a time until the water has had a moment to warm up, the placing of the tips of one hand up to the water to check that the temperature is just right, withdrawing the hand because it is not, then after another moment cautiously enveloping the hands fully into the water and letting the stream flow over them for a moment, the feeling of the water as it attempts to pass through the hands in a wild cascade of futility, grabbing the bar of soap and rubbing it briskly against the hands, followed by rinsing the hands, sometimes repeating the last two steps once or twice until satisfied, and lastly,  grabbing a towel from the shelf, drying the hands with said towel, feeling the coarseness of the worn fabric against the skin as it absorbs the water, hanging the towel on a hook to let it dry for a few more uses, finally with the knowledge that it would just be a waste, throwing it in a basket with the other towels. His hands were dirty in this moment and he needed them to feel clean.

The sink looked like it had seen better days. The receptacle that was meant for cleaning hands, or faces, or sometimes in a rush (and he was always in a rush) bodies, was reduced to a sorry state. There was a blue glob of what was probably toothpaste sticking in one of the rounded corners. Large soap streaks lined the area underneath the faucet. Hair was coiled and sticking out of the trap. And if one looked closely you could almost see the pearl white texture of the porcelain that has long since been permanently stained. If that wasn’t enough, lackluster pink tiles – the results of a remodel in the sixties – with grout that has shifted from a white to permanent gray surround it, leaving plenty to be desired.

Nonetheless, he needed to wash his hands. So he did.

He did so with a vigor and frustration that dwelled quite deeply in his soul. He wanted so desperately to wash away all the faults and misunderstandings that came from his ignorance as a man. His indelicate way of misunderstanding the feelings of others, coated him so completely that the layer could not be washed off in a single scrubbing. It would take multiple washes. It would take multiple attempts. But he felt that if he washed frequently enough he could, in at least a small way, become clean. He had to become clean. If he did not succeed in this then he would surely never be able to be happy with himself. And if he could not become happy with himself, how could he be happy with another?

He looked at the mirror and sighed. It was not a sigh of resignation, but something similarly rooted in the certainty of failure. He held a gaze with the face looking back at him for as long as it took to place himself in the world. Any world. Some days it took but an instance to orientate, to know exactly where one was, others far more. Today was somewhere in-between. The face was unrecognizable at first. The hollowness of the eyes was foreign to him. For as much as he stared at himself every morning, he never really paid attention to his eyes. The eyes that held marbled irises were now a dull gray with the passage of time. They were collapsing under the weight of all they have witnessed. All that was done. The cheeks, like tiny hillsides, were succumbing to the burden of supporting the orbs above and were now concave. The rest of his face did not fare well either. It had been a while since he had shaved; leaving patchy stubble that created an extra layer of gruffness. He still had all the hair on his head, though he always left it unmanaged. His nose was slightly crooked from being broken in a fight. No one really noticed this fact, but he did. It was what anchored him in the mirror each and every time. For all his unremarkable features, he still had the occasional woman look his way as they passed through town.

You can look at something every day and never really see it for what it is.

It was time to prepare the café for the day, the final ceremony to the disquiet of solitude. To loneliness whose weight leaves a light depression on any surface that is unfortunate enough to feel its touch.

When contact is at a premium it is easier to accept what is given without questioning the cost. Without question he was short on time. Whatever remained of the town would be trickling in shortly expecting coffee, breakfast, conversation, silence, or most likely spirits.  He had to begin now. He hated it when he found someone waiting outside for him to open. It wasn’t the making people wait that bothered him. It was the fact that they watched him from outside and waited impatiently for him to prepare the café that got on his nerves. On days that it happened he would get the urge to close the blinds and tell the customer to get lost – he never did, though it did make him work slower and angrier than usual.

The last time it happened – about a month ago – he entered the café to find Tómas standing outside on the porch looking in expectantly. It was an unnervingly cold morning. The kind where one could see their breath become a warm mist that almost froze in the air. Perhaps Tómas just wanted to come inside so he could get warm, but that is not how it came off. Without setting up, save for starting the coffee, he let Tómas in. He got so frustrated at the situation that he snapped at Tómas for taking too long. I don’t have all day!  He yelled with an intensity that most people have not seen before. Not here at least. After taking the order, he stomped over to the coffeemaker to pour a cup, burning himself in the process. He smashed the mug on the floor causing the porcelain to create a starburst of shrapnel that flew through the air. In the cleanup his thumb was cut open leaving what is now a scar. Knowing what was good for him, Tómas made a quick retreat. No one has shown up early since.

He knew today would be no different.

He left the bathroom in his living quarters at the back of the building then sat down on his bed for a moment. The springs in the mattress had become curved and distorted. He liked to imagine that they were attempting to embrace one another lovingly. As they desperately tried to reach a partner it became clear that the distance was far too great and any further attempt would cause them to unravel. Or snap. Instead of risking it all they opted to play it safe and give up. In the end, they would just lie down resolutely, and sleep in the same position that he did – on their side. Alone. The truth was the mattress was far older than he’d care to admit and there were no means to acquire a replacement. It was still better than sleeping on the floor.

He picked up a pair of pants from a twisted pile of clothes on the floor. For reasons he could not recall, one leg was inside out – half in, half out. Split between two worlds. The fabric felt gentle and worn in. He grabbed a random shirt that was lying upon the desk opposite the bed and put it on. They felt like what he imagined home was supposed to feel like right before you burn it to the ground – Comforting and safe, although a place one knew they couldn’t rely on for long. Like the arms of a lover you are unable to be with anymore. Because of time, or space, or love, or some other specter that causes a shift. It feels right in the moment, but you know it won’t stay that way for long.  He slipped on some shoes and made his way to the café up front.

Entering the room he gave a half-hearted glance at the floor – did he need to sweep yet?  Most objects, whose size was of the inconsequential variety, would fall right through the cracks at some point. Everything fell through the cracks at some point. It was inevitable.  He opted against it and just kicked a few things around.

It’s the absence of a thing people usually notice – not the thing itself.

The café was a continuous work in progress. When he first came upon the building, it was not the least dilapidated, but it had the most potential in his eyes. By cannibalizing things he found lying around the town he was able to construct a building that fulfilled the purposes of living and working. No matter what work was done though, a perpetual state of disrepair seemed to overtake the building. Meaning that he constantly had to fix something. A barstool, the stove, a table whose legs gave out while a customer was dining, and most recently the jukebox that he had found one day on the other side of the small still watered sea he lived adjacent to. Even though it only took a quarter of a day to walk all the way to the other side not many people went there anymore, though excursions could prove very fruitful at times.

He turned on the antique jukebox, set it to random play and walked off. Outwardly, like his life, the thing looked to be held together with little more than desperation. As much as it was meant to fall apart, to cease all function, it had a will – no a need ­– to go on. And it did go on because for all its outward ugliness, its insides were not beyond an occasional tightening of a bolt, or shifting of a gear, and off it would go.

The selecting arm of the machine struggled for a moment, regained its bearings, then selected a 45, picked up the 45, placed it through the center spindle onto the platter, began to slowly spin, raised the needle arm, placed the needle onto the spinning black disc, and finally began to let the music fill the spaces in the room. The crackling from the speakers became the overlay for all that was struggling to live. Not quite perfect, but good enough.

Before unlocking the doors, there was one last thing he had to do. He pulled out a dusty bottle of scotch (the one that was not watered down) from under the counter, saved for the especially difficult days – though they have all been especially difficult for quite a while now. With a glass in hand he poured two fingers of the golden liquid in a cascade that caused tiny bubbles to rise to the top. He waited for the seas to settle before taking it all in one large gulp. In ceremony. The burn of the scotch as it slowly went down was a reminder that he was alive. That he could feel something. Time to open the doors. Time to face the day.

Zachary Jensen is a writer, journalist, and educator from Los Angeles, CA. He currently teaches English at Cal State University Northridge. His work has recently appeared in LA Record, Cultural Weekly, Entropy, and Palometa. He is the Managing Editor of Angel City Review and the Editor of the Animals chapbook series at Business Bear Press.

Assignments

BY MARION RUYBALID

A woman who I’ve always known as mother taught me how to wear a sari when I was ten. The purpose of my lesson was only partly for a connection with Bangladesh, my birthplace. Who knows when the excuse to learn such an involved task might have occurred if it wasn’t for a school project. My assignment was to research a famous person and dress the part. I’d picked Mother Teresa because she was from India and that was close to Bangladesh.

My white British mother took yards of white fabric and died a blue stripe on one side. When the cloth was ready, I stood in the middle of our living room wearing a tight fitting white tee shirt and underwear with a piece of white rope tied around my waist.

“Here’s where you tuck the corner of the cloth in,” my mother said. She pointed to the rope above my right hip.

I began to tuck clothing into the rope from right hip, to left, behind my body, and back around to the front of my right hip.

“You have to do that again.”

The process was already feeling tiresome and the cloth, though fairly thin woven cotton, had a lot of weight to it due to the amount fabric it was going to take to make me look modest.

“Okay, now make three pleats and tuck that into the front in the middle of your waist.”

I had no idea how uncomfortable a sari would be. Once I had what felt like a massive sailor’s knot against my stomach, I wrapped the rest of the cloth around the left side of my body and brought it around over my left shoulder.  It seemed impossible to imagine having to go through this process on a daily basis.

At ten years old, wearing a sari felt like a fun game. I was adopted into a British family who moved to a small town in New Jersey. I didn’t have much of a reason to think about what it might symbolically mean to wear so much fabric. It seemed elegant, and I felt like a slightly different version of myself.

When I entered graduate school at age thirty-three to complete my MFA in creative writing, I wanted to learn about memoirs and more importantly, my goal was to find a memoir written by a Bangladeshi author. I honestly didn’t even know if I’d find something in English, but I tracked down the title of a book called Meybela, My Bengali Girlhood, by Taslima Nasrin.

In Nasrin’s memoir, two different stories unfold, one is the story of Bangladesh’s fight for independence and the other is a little girl longing for women’s freedom.

Bangladesh gained its independence from India for the first time in 1971. Through a poetic voice, distant from the narrator’s emotions, the reader is educated about the historical climate of the country at the time. The atmosphere of daily life is blanketed with the constant feelings of unrest. However, despite many fears about the state of Bangladesh, there is hope for a future that will be better.

The narrator is a little girl during a formative time in Bangladesh’s history. Freedom for the country was supposed to mean promises of new practices in life, but as Bangladesh became free, change barely took place in a nation where women suffer from constant abuse. Her mother continues to eat scraps for dinner and isn’t respected. The narrator is raped by at least three different men, two of whom are uncles. Fathers want smart daughters and mothers want good religious wives for future mates. The desire to dream about a new life for the narrator is stifled in a culture that has no intention of changing.

The song “Joy Bangla! Bangla joy!” is chanted in the streets when the nation is finally free, but for the nation’s women, these words should have meant more. Women do not become free to fall in love and take jobs. Instead, their suffering becomes awkwardly intertwined with the nation’s freedom to show how even hopeful change may not result in transformation for everyone.

My own childhood didn’t include watching my nation be birthed. However, the circumstances of my actual adoption were at one time threatened. I was born in 1982 and there was talk about closing the doors to adoption. My dad, being a climber, planned routes over the Himalayan Mountains to get me out of the country if my British passport didn’t arrive. Nothing as extreme ever did take place because the paperwork to finalize my adoption did go through, but a few years later this would not have been the case. With my adoption, I was also freed from a culture that I still wanted to understand.

Years after my parents had moved away from Dhaka when I was nineteen years old, I went back for a visit. I was faced with the task of putting on a sari again. Yards of delicately patterned pink cloth surrounded a woman, who on the outside blended in with the women around me. People whispered about my perfect American accent and the way I walked so freely. They knew something was different about me even if I tried my best to fit in. Despite the sari, I knew what it was like to unravel the cloth and simply put on a pair of jeans and a tee shirt. True Bangladeshi culture for me would only be experienced through other people’s words.

Marion Ruybalid lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and seven children. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from UCR Palm Desert. Her work has also appeared in The Manifest-Station.

 

Seeking Gravity’s Center

BY JENNIFER AUDETTE

Carla’s office at Salon Beyond is a dark alcove of damp towels and a drain perpetually clogged with hair. After seven years of looking down, she’s learned the geography of foreheads. Her fingers know the topography of scalps. From her lather-worn hangnails she sucks dots of blood. Eight stylists rent chairs in the narrow space upfront by the windows. They almost never share their tips.

“You’ve been here a long time,” clients notice.

She’s saving to finish up cosmetology school, pay for her state license, rent her own chair.

“You must really love it,” the women say.

Truth: she doesn’t know what else to do.

The men who come in–and there are quite a few–she is sure, come to be touched. Moaners and sighers and silent smilers. She learns to curve her body just so, to avoid their open eyes, their flushed cheeks aching toward her breast as she leans to adjust the hot water. “This better?” she asks.

Truth: they are the ones who leave her tips.

Some nights Carla dreams of hairs looped and twisted around her fingers. She pulls at them and flails her hands to flick them away. They wrap tighter, grow thicker. Blood pounds beneath her fingernails.

She wakes. On her phone she searches for videos of men doing things in high-def slow-mo: skateboarding, skiing, boxing, big-wave surfing. She learns the lingo to find their captured pain: wipeout, fail, knockout, bail, bite, eat, slam. She watches ankles falter, wrists bend terrible angles. A punch lands. Spit flies. Eyes roll. A body skips like a rock down the face of a wave. There’s beauty in the way men twist and turn, the way they seek gravity’s center before they sense it’s hopeless. Carla waits until they realize. She taps pause. She holds them in the blink of awful knowing. She hits play. In slow motion, she watches them fall.

Jennifer Audette lives in Vermont. Her short fiction has appeared in The Front Porch Journal, Tin House’s Open Bar, Stoneboat, Crack the Spine, and Fiction Fix. Her review of Ben Lerner’s 2014 novel 10:04 is at Fiction Writers Review. Contact her at jennifer1million@gmail.com

 

Clicking on the Moon

BY INDERJEET MANI

Our front balcony faces the Gulf of Thailand, and on evenings when the moon is full or nearly so, we love to watch it rising over the sea, its luminous presence marked by those great basaltic plains once mistaken for seas. The moon is naturally the subject of countless iPhone pictures that I share on social media. In a network driven by mutual admiration, getting those likes from friends and acquaintances is now essential to the rituals of picture taking.

My memories of the moonlight I snapped a few nights ago are tied not only to the appearance of the moon, but also to what was going on when I took that picture. As it happens, my wife and I were enjoying a penne with spinach sauce. I remarked on the moon, and as we watched it, we held hands briefly. The moon that night also brought to mind memories of a much earlier time when my father and I would stand together observing those more distant moons.

Moon-Pic

When I look at my moon picture now, I recall the feeling of the wash of moonlight over air and water, and the presence of my wife beside me. For dozens of other moon pictures, unlike birthday or work-related ones, I have no recollections of the occasion of my taking them. While writing this essay helps preserve my personal memories, it’s possible that my clicking at the scenery around me might be diminishing or even erasing them.

In a recent psychological experiment, people touring a museum who were asked to photograph certain exhibits had trouble remembering them, whereas the exhibits that they didn’t photograph were surprisingly easier to remember. Another set of experiments has revealed the extent to which people rely on machines to relieve themselves of the burden of memory. Humans are willing to forget information if they believe it is available online, remembering where it can be found rather than the information itself. It’s sad enough to find memories of friends and distant places dimmed by age, without having to deal with technology ruining them further.

Not so long ago, the link between photographs and memories was celebrated simply and effectively. We sat around the fireside with our families, thumbing through those vintage photo albums with their wrinkled plastic sheets, remarking on a stooped grandfather’s piercing eyes, or admiring those glimpses of a daughter playing in the tub with her faded rubber ducky. Today, our kids, now grown up, show little interest in those family albums, offering only a brief nod and maybe an “uh-huh” while snap-chatting their friends about something far more interesting. The nostalgic world of physical photo albums is now an attic curiosity, like those fraying wedding saris and locks of forgotten hair. What the world offers us instead is the vast ocean of online repositories where we drop our little snapshots, hoping that our memories won’t face death by a thousand clicks.

All is not lost, however, in that sea. When I uploaded my moon shots that night to the Cloud, the system knew not only when and where they were taken, based on information available on my phone, but also the fact that the moon was involved, along with moonlight and the sea. My wife, leaning in on one of the shots, was accurately identified.  Realizing that some of my moon photos were taken in quick succession, Google Photos stitched them together into an animation, which I duly shared on Facebook. I also shared various digitally enhanced versions, including one that resembled an oil color. And I got those likes.

The systems we are tethered to are in possession of numerous potentially memory-jogging bits of information. The weather on the eve of the moon shot was lovely, reflected partly by the temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, and wind velocity. Earlier that day, my calendar had thoughtfully reminded me that it was the birthday of an 87-year-old aunt in India. The powers that be must also realize by now that when I take my moon shots, my wife and I are often seated together at dinner, sometimes in the company of friends, on a balcony at a considerable height above the sea. My wife’s emotional state might also be inferred from her facial expressions. My mood would be easy to discover from my tweets (some of which are already entirely predictable).

In the near future, systems will be able to assemble such information and generate verbal summaries of our photos, explaining what was happening at the time. These summaries will include rich descriptions of image content. Today, photo captioning algorithms can provide not only tags, but can also describe entities and scenes (which is especially helpful to the visually impaired). These descriptions are generated using natural language processing from information found in pre-existing image captions as well as from online textual content related to objects and scenes found in the photograph. Taken together, these smarts may help resurrect, from their synaptic slumber, personal memories associated with a picture.

While technology may help our personal memories, they are not as cool, for sharing, as pictures. Even though a digital photo today is the result of a complex computational reinvention of the scene, it is still understood as a view of reality, and as such, on an equal footing with experience. After all, no matter how much it may be staged or edited, a photo must resemble the scene from which it was mechanically generated. In the language of semiotics, photographs are signs that are inherently iconic and indexical. Those characteristics, in turn, allow us to conveniently forget that a moon shot is entirely different from the moon that we view through our native visual system. As Susan Sontag observed forty years ago in On Photography, “Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.”

Future technological innovations may continue to warp our definition of what is real and personal. We are already reeling from the disruptive impact of social network algorithms and search tools deciding on which collective events we should focus on.  When fully programmable cameras become commercially viable, algorithms worn on our face and body will decide when and where and how to take photographs, choosing and framing those experiences for us. From the buzzing confusion of images, shots with features that are popular across users, or that fit with a machine’s deep fantasies, will likely be preferred. And once virtual reality truly takes hold in online gaming and entertainment, almost all of the visual experiences we savor will have been selected by machines that capture and render them based on their own perspectives. By then, we will be used to living mind-bogglingly virtual lives.

In his 1922 essay Photography and the New God, the photographer Paul Strand wrote about the need to humanize the machine, “lest it in turn dehumanize us.” Nearly a century later, the direction we’re heading as a species seems to involve ceding key cognitive functions over to intelligent mechanical appendages whom we attend to more than each other. Some of our most treasured moments are now bits of electronic information, ghostly images desperately craving for attention. But unlike us, they have a chance to persist way into the future.

Just as we get that eerie feeling watching archival footage of Tolstoy or Tagore, anthropologists and historians of the future may wonder as they interpret our personal photos.  It behooves us to try and provide an honest and human-centered telling, mediated by technology, of what they were originally about. After all, it was we who were present, like our ancestors before us, observing the moon on an enchanting evening.

Inderjeet Mani is a writer and specialist in AI and computational linguistics. His books include The Imagined Moment, and his work has also been published in 3:AM Magazine, Aeon, Apple Valley Review, Areo Magazine, Babel Magazine, Drunken Boat, Eclectica, New World Writing, Nimrod, Short Fiction Journal, Slow Trains, Storgy, Unsung Stories, Word Riot, and other venues. On Twitter, he is @InderjeetMani, and his website is http://tinyurl.com/inderjeetmani

My Brilliant Blackout

BY MARCIA BUTLER

Forty years ago, I was an aspiring twenty-two-year-old oboist, recently released from four years of music conservatory, eking out a living as a waitress at an Upper West Side restaurant in New York City. For some reason, the manager had promoted me to bartender on Sundays. He knew I played music and perhaps this was his attempt to push me onto some sort of stage or in this case, a bar. But I wasn’t quite ready for the spot light. While I mixed martinis with the most inept pour imaginable, customers stared at me all day long. Arms flailed, beckoning to me like insane snakes, with a need to satisfy an endless urge for an afternoon buzz. But mostly it was those hot lights, crowning my head with a heat only Edison bulbs could produce.

Steven walked into the bar the Sunday before the blackout. I’d not seen him since our time at the Tanglewood Music Festival, a few years before. After downing several mimosas, he began a wistful reminiscence about our heady summer of yore and our current unrealized professional dreams. Eventually, throwing me a hangdog look, he confessed that he was playing piano for a show around the corner at the Promenade Theatre starring the actor Dick Shawn. This work was not up to what he aspired to, being a classical pianist and all. Yet, I detected a sliver of bravado in his tone.

Just as I was beginning to hate him, Steven offered me a free ticket to the show. I feigned ignorance. “Who the hell is Dick Shawn?”

“He’s an actor.”

“Never heard of him.”

“He was in the movie called It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World.”

I played dumb. “Huh?”

Steven rolled his eyes. “Look. I can get you in. Do you wanna go or not?”

“Yeah, sure.”

That Wednesday evening, I entered the theatre to find the stage floor covered with enormous heaps of crumpled newspaper. As the 8pm hour came and went, I began to wonder, where was “The Second Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World”? Suddenly, Dick Shawn popped up from underneath the newspapers, scaring the devil out of everyone. He’d been hiding under front-page headlines the whole time. Shortly into the second act, 9:36pm to be exact, the theatre went black. Within a few seconds an emergency spot came on, aimed toward Dick who’d continued with a stream of consciousness soliloquy. I assumed this was all part of the show, but five minutes into Dick’s Hamlet moment, an usher ran into the hall and yelled, “Blackout! Everybody out of the theatre!”

When 200 plus people run inside a theatre, all headed toward an ever-diminishing door opening, it goes badly. I held back as a few bodies hit the ground, stepped over – not exactly trampled, but close. When I finally breached Broadway and a blast of almost 100-degree heat, the surreal quality of the night pushed into my dilated pupils. Traffic had stopped dead and headlight beams gave off the only available shaft of light down the swing of Broadway, at knee level. And the noise: Cars braying. People screaming or crying, while standing, walking, running, pointing, shrugging. Sirens at a distance, perhaps approaching, but nowhere near.

A roar of humanity swallowed me yet I sensed an internal calm. I’d just stumbled into an environment that reflected the way I saw myself: invisible. I was more than 50 blocks away from my apartment in Chelsea and considered how to get home. A bus, though a long trip for sure, seemed plausible. I crossed the street to the southbound side of Broadway and idled at a bus stop, along with other hopeful riders. But then I looked back across the street in front of the Promenade and noticed a northbound bus, jammed beyond capacity.

I began the long walk downtown.  Looters scampered about, pushed through the crowds and broke glass storefronts with handy trashcans. Somewhere between Lincoln Center and The Coliseum I felt a rough hand, like a claw, at the back of my neck as my gold chain was ripped off. I stopped suddenly, and, with a blind sense of the theft, slipped my fingers to my throat to feel the fresh absence of metal, not quite believing I’d lost this thin, sweet treasure.

Down past Madison Square Garden the crowds began to thin out. As I neared my apartment, it occurred to me that I didn’t have any candles at home. On an impulse I stepped into a Spanish restaurant. Through the window, I’d noticed votive candles glowing on tabletops, the kind in bulbous burgundy vases wrapped in white plastic mesh.

Suddenly I was in a foreign country. Couples pressed close and I smelled something I couldn’t identify at the time: the musk of love. With no jukebox to play Spanish love songs, men and women made their own music with a throb of murmured confidences. They seemed to take advantage of a night whose air hung heavy and with no place to go but into another’s arms.

There was my mark. I sidled past the bar crowd and made my way to the empty table. With my back to the vase, and glancing up to the ceiling, I reached behind to grab it. Then a man stepped in front of me, blocking all nonchalant momentum. He smiled. I froze – maybe caught – I wasn’t certain. He gestured like a bull fighter whipping a red cape, inviting me to join him at the bar. I assumed he was in charge, maybe the manager, so I gave in and perched on a stool. As he settled in beside me, the candles lined up across the bar surface gave his face a sinister, Vincent Price sneer.

This was lighting in which I could be myself; vaguely seen but not known, present yet without pressure for performance. My eyes adjusted to the man who’d taken my hand and began to caress each of my fingers.  His beard looked at least two days old, with sweat gliding around each and every hair on his chin. I liked his eyes; maybe medium blue, or light brown, hard to tell. He stood thin and tall in the torso. Somewhere at the V slice of his half-unbuttoned shirt, some spare, wiry chest hairs appeared. And his arms, poking out of pushed-up shirtsleeves, showed plump veins worthy of an injection. I slunk down into my seat, forgot about being a third-rate thief or even an aspiring oboist and began to love the heavy darkness of the room.

Six apricot sours, four blows of coke and many tongue-filled kisses later, I succumbed to my own personal blackout, sensing pleasure through his salty mouth and experienced hands. His desire for me felt pure and badly needed – all in the comfort of the shadows. Then, I felt the brush of his breath at my ear as he whispered to me in an incomprehensible dialect that I could only guess as encouragement: “Take it. Take that candle. It’s yours – my gift to you. Run, my little tiger, and light yourself up.”

The part about getting home eludes me, just that I woke naked in bed, alone. Damp sheets stung my abraded cheek – collateral damage from the man’s rough beard – his face now a pawn of memory. Morning was about to breach, yet the lit wick still threw red into the corners of the room. My oboe lay on the desk, mostly invisible. But its silver keys sparkled in the candle light. I turned on my side, looked out the window and waited for the sun to take over and render the candle impotent. Finally, light saturated the space and I could clearly see my oboe, just where I’d left it the day before. And I thought of one thing. Not Steven and his phony gig or Dick Shawn and all the news that’s fit to print. Not even the drunks on a Sunday afternoon. I thought only of my Spaniard – the perfect stranger who, on July 13, 1977, encouraged me to unfurl the coil of uncertainty wrapped around my mind and to forget about what I wasn’t. I began to dream about what I now knew I’d eventually become: a musician. My blackout was woozy, wet and smelly. And utterly hopeful.

Marcia Butler is the debut author of the nationally acclaimed memoir, The Skin Above My Knee. She was a professional oboist for twenty-five years until her retirement in 2008. During her musical career, she performed as a principal oboist and soloist on the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestras – including pianist Andre Watts, and composer and pianist Keith Jarrett. Marcia was a 2015 recipient of a Writer-in-Residence through Aspen Words and the Catto Shaw Foundation. She lives in New York City.

Against Metaphor

BY LORA MASLENITSYNA

It’s Tuesday, 12:27AM. The palm trees bend over backward to let the wind sweep past their stalks. There is an ocean of rain seeping in from under the front door. Outside my window, a tree topples over onto its side. The wind weaves through its naked roots. While the wind howls and the rain pounds at my door, I crave the steam that emanates off a warm bowl. The fluidity of vapor, sweet as breath and just as quick to dart away, glazes over my intentions. The clouds’ furrowed brow hangs low enough for me to cover its face with my palms. I am a few sharp words and a stretched lapel away from condensation. I take in a shallow breath.

I’ve been in bed since 10:30PM, hoping that if I gave myself a wider window of opportunity to fall asleep, I’d be on my way to a slightly less bruised expectation of morning. Nevertheless, I’m still wide awake. Here in my dorm room in Tokyo, sleeplessness clings to me like a stray dog that followed me home off the street. I never asked for it, but for whatever reason, it took a liking to me. Now, it won’t leave my side. Whenever I try to fall asleep, it nudges its cold nose under the covers with me. I might as well feed it while it’s here. I throw off my blanket and pull on a pair of leggings and a sweatshirt. I head out to clear my head at the only place that’s still open in my residential nook of Shinjuku: the sento, or the bath house.

The sento glows with the kind of heat only a well-cared for home emanates. A television hung over a small table hums the NHK network. The sound of running water babbles through two noren-covered entrances. Before I enter the bath, I undress and head to the showers to wash myself. I pass an elderly woman on her way back to the changing rooms. She smiles and strides past me, wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around her head. So good, so far, I think to myself. At least the other women are still smiling, so I haven’t muddled the customary practices.

Unlike restaurants in Tokyo, where old men have turned adjacent counter seats to face me and watch me eat, all the other women in the sento are enjoying their own experience. The middle-aged woman to the left of me scrubs under her arms. Meanwhile, another girl I think I recognize from the university pushes her back up against the jets. I take care to properly clean my body, then step into the steaming water. While I settle in against the bar jutting out from the center of the pool, a woman painted with red imprints from apparently full elastic-supported clothing leans against the jets behind me. Her left hand holds on to the bar just centimeters away from my cheek. It stays there for the entire time I spend in the bath. I’ll take this proximity over an old man’s sustained stare any day.

I admit that I feel more comfortable sharing the bath with all of the other women, rather than bathing by myself. Taking a bath on my own never felt quite as satisfying as the physical relationship I share in the sento. This, of course, is not a new concept in Japan. Here, “skinship” (skin + kinship) is as much of a health benefit as the water of the baths, itself. In the United States, where I grew up, this idea attaches itself almost exclusively to the relationship between a mother and her newborn child. What about the relationship between myself and my own body? Haven’t I fought through enough beauty standards and patriarchal preferences? My existence is pluralistic. It’s time I respect myself by confronting my progressions.

In the bath, I look at the body of the woman next to me. Then, I look at mine. The same red elastic marks span across my chest. Her skin wrinkles in the same places that mine folds. Not a single woman in this place has perfectly groomed hair or a belly as flat as a board. Perhaps in a society where the distinctions between sex and gender could be less rigid, bodies would move comfortably and without unnecessary embarrassments. Since that is not the society we live in today, my choices limit to a space that makes concessions to appearances. Books and films and so the people I intertwine with tell me that my self separates from the shell of my body. Before I “blossomed into a young woman,” my naïve flesh longed to disengage. I discarded my body as a home. Placed into metaphor and kept at a distance from my self, my body metamorphoses. I call my body a “temple” or sometimes, a “dump,” compartmentalizing my flesh and mind. My self has no immediate reality. I do not ground into my own body. I’m sick and tired of binaries that restrict me. I want to clearly assess my form and movements.

I think about another phrase I hear and repeat just as often: “You are more than just a body.” In an effort to throw off objectification, I separate from my body. Where I step away from sexual objectification, I cast my body away entirely. I tell myself I am more, that the self is its own environment. This more elevates itself above my body. I objectify my own ecology. If I continue to treat my body like a shell, my self can never really be tangible. I will continue to let others act as sieves for my memory. I will hold my empathetic potential and emotional intelligence at a distance.

This storm reminds me that I am wild and undisciplined (like everyone else). I bark when I can speak. The mottled sounds fling out from underneath my nails and pores. I lunge when I can stand still. But, my wildness is not a weakness. It is content within the form of my body. This form guides me. Without my body, I could have no self. The storm is also a form, but I deceive myself with romance and drama by not centering myself within its context. To live in metaphor is to deceive myself. My body is not rain, nor wind. It is muscle and sweat. My stomach is not a tumultuous whirlpool of fear or anticipation. It is acid and tissue. My palms are not curtains. They are sinew and flesh. I align my back against the plane of honesty.

In the morning, I call my mama. She advises me to actively level myself during this storm. The drama of the wind and rain is almost too romantic to resist, but it is a deceiving setting. Mama warns me against seeking out any sweeping emotional declarations, tonight. She tells me that honesty rests at 2pm on a Thursday, mulling under a thin veil of sweat and the taste of coffee in the corners of lips.

So, I turn my face to the window and listen to the wind and rain. They are exactly what they appear to be. They are not the currents of romance and drama come to sweep me away. It would be wrong for me to project a larger symbolic meaning onto their being. If I can focus on hearing my own breath and feeling the curve of my spine, then I can hear the honesty that permeates this setting. I lay on my back with my palms against the floor. I never fall too deeply asleep. The small of my back gently planes in parallel to the carpet.

Lora Maslenitsyna studies Humanities at Soka University of America. Her writing has been published by Litro Magazine and The Commonline Journal, as well as other zines. Her translations have been featured by ODALISQUE Magazine.

INAUGURAL SPEECH ERASURE

BY JERROD SCHWARZ

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Jerrod Schwarz is an MFA graduate of the University of Tampa. He is also the managing poetry editor of Driftwood Press. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Cultured Vultures, HOOT, The Fem, and many others. His first small collection titled The Crop was published by Rinky Dink Press in 2016.

From the Cover of the Village Voice’s Queer Issue

by Isabella David

 

It was the summer of 2008 when I posed for the cover of The Village Voice’s Queer Issue. Gay marriage would not be legalized in the state of New York for another three years. Not even a decade ago, but it was a different time. Even though gay marriage wasn’t legal, I felt that living in a big city exempted me from worrying about narrow-minded provincialism.

I didn’t realize provincialism is a state of mind not an actual state of the union.

I thought I didn’t need to compute how the law or how some small-minded people still felt about gay marriage when I agreed to pose for the cover. What I computed was the honor it would be to pose for an iconic paper like the Voice—a paper I hoped one day to write for, although that’s fast becoming more of a pipe dream due to budget cuts than the idea of a chubby, pasty theater actress like myself modeling.

Not least of all, I computed how talented the crew for the shoot was: Virginia Bradley regularly styles for Vogue. Nikola Tamindzic, our photographer, had been recently profiled in The New York Times. I happily agreed to his concept, involving me and the beautiful Julia Standefer, clasping each other in an almost passionate embrace.

What I didn’t compute was any negative consequences that shoot might mean for my career, not least of which was the effect the heat would have on me. It was my very first official modeling gig. Julia was an old pro and radiated coolness, her makeup pearlescent throughout the shoot.

Me on the other hand?

At one point, I literally collapsed from the 95 degree heat. It didn’t help that the statuesque Julia was so much taller, I had to wear 5 inch heels under a long, black wool John Galliano gown in order for my lips to parallel her lips. She stood barefoot in the photographer’s living room. A mattress stood on end, providing our backdrop.

I could sense her discomfort, and we had to stop periodically to let her exhale and relax. The concept was cinematic in scope, different from a regular modeling shoot. It was part of why I’d been selected. At that point, I’d been a crazy New York city theater actress for two years. I didn’t see anything too wildly difficult in holding a lovely Julia close to me, pretending passion.  I’d played drug addicts, housewives, victims of abuse, even murderers. I’d played a lot of parts that weren’t me, and what with the glamorous gown I had on, apart from the heat, I was having a lot of fun playing this one.

However, when we took individual shots, I found it challenging to look into the camera without flinching.  Julia on the other hand sent the crew into ohs and ahs of admiration when she posed. She simply stood there, yet there was so much more to it: she radiated confidence, ease, glamor, beauty, innocence. It was a lesson to me: there was an art to modeling. The evening ended with shots on the street in another Galliano get-up. When I didn’t have to look at the camera, I was happily lost in the character I’d created. When asked to look into the lens, I resembled a deer in headlights. All in all, it was a very satisfying night: I learned a lot and made several new friends.

A month later the cover came out. I probably broke several laws, emptying one of those ubiquitous, red Village bins that pepper New York. The image Nikola crafted showed all of the character-building with none of the painful 5 hours of labor that had gone into creating it. (At one point we had to break, so the hair stylist could run to the bodega for orange juice. I’d fainted from the combination of the heat and the sheer heaviness of that wool gown.) I was blown away by the artistry of illusion and by the team effort that went into one picture. To say I am proud of that image is to understate it.

Naturally, it took pride of place in my burgeoning “book”—model speak for the book of 9×12  pictures models used to carry around with them before iPads started taking over.

I don’t have to tell you that I’m not a lesbian, because my sexual orientation shouldn’t matter in the context of character-acting, but it did. I fell in love with my husband all over again when I found out he’d experienced 15 minutes of fame in the ‘90s, working as a peer counselor who went around to high schools talking about gay rights. Later when he was interviewed for the “straight athletes” chapter in Jocks: True Stories of America’s Gay Athletes by Dan Woog, Woog marveled that my husband never once prefaced a comment with “not that I’m gay.” The excuse is an apology. And what is there to apologize for? What does a person’s sexual orientation matter or say about their worth as a human being? Nothing. Nothing whatsoever.

And when it’s a matter of art, shouldn’t it matter even less? Obviously, this is still not the case, as many people objected to Matt Bomer being cast as Christian Grey. Why, because a BDSM-obsessed billionaire turned Prince Charming is a realistic concept to begin with? It’s about the character you’re playing.

Personally, I thought The Voice cover was beautiful, powerful, and expressed sapphic love in a sweet, respectful and unusually non-exploitative fashion. I didn’t realize yet my concept of the New York modeling world was tinted with the lens of the New York theater scene. I didn’t see myself as a commodity, branding herself with a carefully crafted image, but as an artist trying to learn and experience as much as she could. I didn’t realize clients would see the image as provocative, and I still wonder why they did, when so many modeling shots feature half-naked bodies or heavily pouting expressions. Julia and I were fully clothed in couture, gazing at each other, not even quite kissing.

In fact, when one bridal designer reached the picture in my book, her reaction could be described as nothing less than apoplectic. Her eyes widened with almost comic horror, bulging out of her head, and then she shut my book with a snap, practically shoving it into my stomach and asked me to leave the casting.

I remember as I stumbled out of the hotel room, I saw all around me long, white gowns lovingly laid out on the beds and couches of the suite. I remember thinking they were the mirror opposite of the long black gown I wore in that shot she’d found so offensive. And I remember wondering why was heterosexual love sanctified and homosexual love treated as less than worthy?

It made me see marriage as a sort of benediction of hypocrisy. I won’t say I made a Dax Shepherd/ Kristin Bell/ Angelina Jolie/ Brad Pitt level promise never to marry until gay marriage was legal, but I did feel as if I’d seen the curtain pulled back on the other side of the 40 billion dollar wedding industry in a time when gay marriage was universally illegal, and what I saw was a lot less pretty and sweet than that cover that had so offended.

Needless to say I did not get that job. I’m sad to admit I thought about removing the picture from my portfolio, but ultimately, I decided I didn’t want to work with people who viewed art or sexuality through a distorted lens of their own neuroses.

When I married my husband four years later, I chose a white dress, but it was short and plain and only cost a couple hundred dollars. I could wear it again and again and planned to. Best of all, we got married at city hall.

There were plenty of gay couples in attendance that day, waiting in line with us. I thought back to that hot night in the Lower East Side when I stood for five hours in a black wool gown, and I thought of how I had unwittingly been standing for more than a modeling shot. I had stood up for the world I want to live in, where sexual orientation is just a choice and doesn’t define a person.

Best of all, I’m glad to see times are changing, how differently that picture is already viewed. In fact, even the conservative wedding industry is showing signs of change: this season’s Say Yes to the Dress included several episodes with same-sex brides, shopping together.

Sometimes I can’t believe how much has changed from the bad old days when my husband had his life threatened for daring to speak up for gay rights to only eight years ago when I lost work for posing for the Queer Issue to now when in a lot of mainstream media orientation is viewed more like a couture touch for a character: something to put on or take off, depending on the sweet soul’s choice of the individual person.

There’s still a long way to go as has been shown by the recent ridiculous bathroom controversy, as ridiculous as finding an image of two women hugging offensive, not to mention any individual who agrees with Donald Trump. Still, I think the strides that have been made in less than a decade are inspiring.

 

 

 

Isabella David is an actor and author of The Voices of Women, shortlisted for the 2015 International Venture Award. She’s also an editor at Easy Street—a books and culture off-shoot of The Lascaux Review. Other work has appeared in Tampa Review, 100 Word Story, Adbusters, Hello Giggles, and elsewhere. When not working on her first novel, she mothers a menagerie of animals and children, who are all almost (as in not at all) potty-trained.

IDENTITY

BY JAMIE LOWENSTEIN

 

Artist’s Statement: 

Changing the format of a poem from visual (reading) to visual (video) and auditory (spoken word) stretched my imagination and forced me to rely on intuition, friends, and my theatre training. My poetry writing tends to start with a small idea or phrase, and then goes onwards with no clear direction in mind, mixing metaphors, and ending eventually when there is not much steam left to go on. In my everyday life, I tend to have more direction with the same result- stopping when I run out of steam. In this case, I had already completed this step because the poem, which acted as the foundation, was already written. The small idea, identity and identifiers/labels, had coal thrown on its fire, and the steam powered it on for 5 pages. I finished the poem, reflected on its exploration of how one identity for an entire person is minimizing because people are inherently intersectional–“i am at the intersection of all my identities”–and set the poem to rest. So, how did I find a way to further explore a piece that I felt was finished?

In a class I’m currently taking, we spend a lot of time discussing media as a form of performance, and how this type of performance, in a Warholian way, either is or is not a reflection of our truth. So, my first idea was to film myself looking in the mirror in order to turn a private moment of performance public. Publicizing intimacy normalizes it, and allows an audience to feel personally understood. Next I thought of writing my identity labels on my body. Originally I wanted them to circle my neck like a noose, and then up onto my face like a tool of asphyxiation. However, I ultimately decided against that idea because of simple practicality and the worry of breaking out even more–maybe “vain” should have been a title in that list. In any case, I now had a new idea to further my work: the inability to change how others perceive you visually i.e. based on skin color, acne, etc.

With this idea in mind, I mapped out what the camera would be showing the audience for each beat of the poem, bringing out images in the poem more clearly and concretely. Once I had planned each beat, I knew I could not do this project myself. I am not a drawing artist, and I couldn’t pan around my own body. I reached out to 2 friends of mine who do have these talents, and they were extremely helpful, doing their best to help me achieve my vision. The process mirrored my theatre work, meaning that it was collaborative. I gave Ray a lot of liberty to draw the pictures however she wanted, which ended up with a beautiful result going down my spine. The filming went a similar way. Jen apologized for her shaky hands and not getting the timing exactly right, but I assured her that all small flaws could be embraced because the poem is not about being perfect, but rather about falling apart at the seams. The video both adds to this idea, but also contrasts it: showing me free of labels in the end, no longer dictated by the text of the poem. The last shot is very similar to the first because the text mirrors itself, but at the end the “i” words do not make me blink because I am controlling my own identity and what you see of me when.

The audio experience of the poem–my harsh assonance and stabbing pronunciations, contrasted with the Chopin piece–are used to further the contrast of the visual with the text. My voice reflects the uncontrollable spiral of self-doubt and the overwhelming power of others’ impressions. However, self-doubt is often internal. The most seemingly stable, happy person can be torn apart internally. And that is the function of the song- to reflect the external performance of someone struggling to come to terms with their identities’ intersections.

 

Jamie Lowenstein is a poet and actor based in New York City currently at Pace University in its International Performance Ensemble. He’s interested in diverse stories, especially within the queer community.