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ISSUE 02

Blue New England Cindy Kang

Issue Two Spring 2008

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Copyright © 2008 by the Kartika Review

▫ ▫ ▫ ▪ ▫ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▫ ▪ ▫ ▫ ▫  Issue Two cover design by Jason Ng Kartika Review logo design by Ben Hwang

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Sectioned Vase Pottery by Eva Tsui, 2008

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SUBMITTING TO

Kartika Review publishes creative fiction, poetry, narrative essays, and artwork either pertaining to the Asian Diaspora or authored by writers and artists of Asian descent. We also feature book reviews and author interviews on Asian American literary fiction. Each issue seeks to compile a collection of quality literature featuring both renown voices from the Asian American community and also fresh talent never before published. Our journal releases two peer-edited issues each year. The editorial board reviews submissions on a rolling basis. To submit, manuscripts must be formatted in a file type compatible with MS Word. We further request that the manuscripts be typed double-spaced and set up with 1-inch margins. Include a cover letter addressed to the relevant editor and a resume or curriculum vitae with each submission. We accept manuscripts with the understanding that the content has not been published elsewhere. Send manuscripts and other queries to: editor@kartikareview.com For more submissions information, please see the Submissions page on Kartika’s website: http://www.kartikareview.com

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MASTHEAD

Second Editorial Board

Editor-in-Chief:

Sunny Woan

Managing Editor:

Ben Hwang

Fiction Editors:

Sarah Lin Denis Wong

Poetry Editor:

Tangie Raines

Essay Editor:

Jason Wong

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MISSION STATEMENT Kartika Review serves the Asian American community and those involved with Diasporic Asian-inspired literature. We scout for compelling Asian American creative writing and artwork to present to the public at large. Our editors actively solicit contributions from established virtuosos in our community in hopes their works here will inspire the next generation of virtuosos. We also showcase emerging writers and artists we foresee to be the future powerhouses of their craft. Ultimately, Kartika strives to create a literary forum that caters to and celebrates the wordsmiths of the Asian Diaspora.

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ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008

CONTENTS  

1  Editorial 

Denis WONG 

2  Fiction   

The Gentle Death of Carmelita Bagalayos 

9  Essay 

Slaying Monsters 

 

E. K. ENTRADA  Gemma GUILLERMO 

19  Fiction 

Search for Namable Things  Jimmy CHEN 

22  Essay 

Hidden Menu  Marko FONG 

27  Poetry 

My Features Tell A Story  Jane CHUN 

29  Fiction 

In Lumine Tuo  Thomas LEE 

40  Fiction 

Queen of the Skies  Thaila RAMANUJAM 

52  Poetry 

Their Talk Is No Talk  Kamayani SHARMÄ 

55  Poetry 

Jarring  Jessica WOAN 

56  Art 

Darren LEE 

63  Art 

Christina SONG 

68  Art 

CANDYBIRD 

74  Fiction 

Water Ghost  Lloyd LIU 

91  Essay  100  Essay 

Dislocation Nation: Russell Leongʹs Nomads  Kenneth POBO  On Being Nomadic? A Response  Russell LEONG 

103  Poetry 

Tian Qiao / Sky Bridge  Russell LEONG 

105  Interview with Don Lee, author of Yellow: Stories (2002), Country  of Origin (2004), and Wrack and Ruin (2008)   

112  Contributor Bios 

 

117  Editor Bios 

 

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Self Portrait Elle Choi, 2008

 ▫ ▫ ▫ ▪ ▫ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▫ ▪ ▫ ▫ ▫  To contact individual contributors with feedback, questions, or other comments, please e-mail editor@kartikareview.com with “Attn: [Name of Contributor]” in the subject line.

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EDITORIAL “I do think of myself as an Asian American writer, because I’m Asian American and I’m a writer.” The above quote is an excerpt from this issue’s interview with Don Lee, the author of Yellow and Wrack and Ruin. His words were simple, but what does this statement mean when applied to an Asian American literary journal? Are we an Asian American literary journal simply because we are Asian American? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the mission of Kartika Review was to explore, defy, and expand each of the possible definitions. Each piece in this second issue, then, is another step. In our fiction section, Thaila Ramanujam offers the lyrical “Queen of the Skies,” in which a mother discovers her strength on the eve of a family friend’s funeral, and both Lloyd Liu and Thomas Lee depict the strange, sublime experiences that are a part of surviving—and transcending—family relationships. In our essay section, Gemma Guillermo wrangles with the demons surrounding her childhood move from Manila to Hawaii in "Slaying Monsters." Our poetry, which includes selections from Jane Chun and Kamayani Sharma, as well as art from Darren Lee, Christine Song, and Candybird, illustrate the breadth of Asian American creativity. Throughout the formation of this issue, prose, poetry, and art melded into each other and conflicted. This is most evident in Ken Pobo’s critique of Russell Leong, which is followed immediately by Russell Leong’s response. And in a series of hellos and goodbyes, Sarah and I regret to announce that this is our last issue as the fiction editors of Kartika Review. We’re each heading in related but different directions, physically and mentally: Sarah to Colorado, in pursuit of a Masters of Fine Arts degree in Fiction, and I to Shanghai, China to teach English and to focus on writing. Though we’ll no longer be a part of Kartika Review (except as avid readers), our spirits will always lie with the efforts and vision of the Asian American literary and arts community. I hope that you enjoy our Spring 2008 issue. Thank you all for reading. - Denis Wong

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


E. K. ENTRADA

The Gentle Death of Carmelita Bagalayos

Here is how Carmelita Bagalayos knew she was dying: She heard the sad and heavy voices of her daughters. She felt her son’s fingertips against the skin of her hand, which had become as thin as paper. She no longer tasted the grit of medicine on her tongue. For the past thirty years, her senses had slowly escaped her, but they were all back now, and that was how she knew her soul was ready. Carmelita had lived almost eight decades as a willful and unyielding woman, but today she was still, more still than she’d ever been, even in her sleep. Her eyes were focused everywhere and nowhere at once—on her two grown daughters, who were crying softly into their tissues; on the flower arrangement in the corner; on the pink robe she had laid across her antique chair just a few days before she got sick for the last time; and on her son, who smiled and stroked her. He had not cried at all, and she knew he never would. He had a compassionate but strong soul, like her. “Shhh,” he whispered, though she hadn’t said a word. She had always liked her son best, although she would never admit it out loud. Thinking about it now, she felt the familiar wrench of guilt and moved her eyes away from his face and toward his fingers on her wrist, discovering for the first time that his hand was spotted and wrinkled with age and that soon enough, his senses would escape him too. She discovered also that her son wore a nickel-plated watch that she’d never seen, or noticed, before. The watch had a single dial on the side and a third-hand to count off the seconds. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


FICTION | E.K. Entrada | 3

Carmelita wondered what time it was; she couldn’t really tell. Somewhere between three and four o’clock in the afternoon, she thought, but in the haze, she couldn’t get her mind situated enough to figure it out. Her eyelids became weighted and tired, so she closed them and felt her heart murmur. Tick, tick, tick, tick. The touch of her son’s fingertips and the sounds of her daughters slowly drifted. The thick cotton of the bed sheet fell away and instead there was a tickle of grass against her ankles, the smell of water in the air, and the sound of waves lapping over one another toward the rocky shore. She was home—not home to her Heavenly Father, not yet—but home in the Philippines of her childhood, where nipa huts dotted the closest horizon and mountain cliffs and peaks dotted the furthest. A young girl stepped through the grass, looking downward between her toes, and Carmelita immediately recognized the girl’s skinny legs, pocked with mosquito bites, and her hair, tied into a knot, as being her own. She recognized, too, the small nipa hut behind the girl and the man sitting on the bamboo doormat. She and her papa were, by far, the smallest family in the village. Most of the other families had grandmothers and brothers and sisters, but Carmelita’s mother and grandmother had died of malaria years before and her father had never remarried, much to the discontent of the people in the village, especially the elders. Carmelita was called “Ming” then, because all Filipino children had nicknames and that was the one her father had given her. As she stepped through the grass, Carmelita knew that Ming was searching for an amber rock. Bernadette Rios had found one the day before and all the other children wanted one just like it. Her father called for her now, saying, “Ming, halika!” as he turned something over in his hands. Carmelita thought he might have found an amber rock for her, but when she reached him, she saw that he was holding his secondhand pocket watch, the one he had bought in Manila months before. Tita Helena, the woman who cared for her, had muttered many times to Ming that the watch was a piece of junk and he should have spent his money on something useful, like pork. “If Herminio had a wife, he would know not to throw his money away,” Tita Helena said, in their dialect. She was the village midwife, a grouchy woman who lived in a nipa hut by herself, nestled between those of her children and grandchildren. “Imagine wasting money on American junk when he can buy pork or bread so you don’t have to eat fish and rice every day.” “But I like fish and rice,” Ming replied. ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


FICTION | E.K. Entrada | 4

“You are a child. You don’t know what you like yet,” Tita Helena said. “In a few days that watch will be broken. The sun will say midnight and his pocket will say noon. You watch, Ming.” Ming watched her father pull his threadbare handkerchief from his pocket daily to wipe down the face of the watch and she smiled widely every time he put it to his ear and nodded because it still tick-tocked. Sometimes he would scoot her close to him, show her the first and second hand, and ask, “Anong oras na, Ming?” Two o’clock, she would answer. Four-fifteen. Nine-thirty. “You are smart like your mother, Ming,” her father would say, and kiss her nose. She watched him carve his initials into the watch’s nickel plate with his pocketknife. “Now everyone will know that this watch belongs to Herminio Bagalayos,” he told her. “And if it belongs to Herminio Bagalayos, then it too belongs to Ming Bagalayos.” So this was what her father held that day, as he sat on the doormat. Not an amber rock. “Sit next to your papa,” he said, and she did. “I have something very important to tell you.” She rested her chin on her knees and watched his hands turn the watch around and around. He was the darkest Filipino in the village and he told her all the time that he was pleased she looked like her mother, whose skin was pale and soft. He said dark skin could be a curse. She studied the dark skin of his fingers now, as she waited for the important news. “Tomorrow I am leaving, but I will come back. You will have to stay with Tita Helena for a while.” “But I don’t like Tita Helena.” “Tita Helena is stern, but she will take good care of you.” “Where are you going? Manila?” “No, not Manila.” He paused. “I am going to join the American soldiers.” “Why, papa?” “To help them fight the Japanese.”

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FICTION | E.K. Entrada | 5

“But there aren’t any Japanese here.” “Not yet, Ming. That’s why the Filipinos and the Americans need to fight them. To keep them from coming here.” She had heard many stories about the Japanese from the other children, and the thought of her father fighting them made her stomach knot. “How do you know you will win the fight?” Ming asked. “I have God.” “How long will you be away?” “I don’t know.” She thought of all the American and Filipino soldiers, and of Father Philippe, the priest who visited their village once a week. “What if God is too busy listening to other people’s prayers?” Ming asked. “God is never too busy.” Ming looked away and watched a group of children pick up an old fishing rope. She wondered if their fathers were leaving them to fight the Japanese, too. When she heard their laughter, she felt a lump in her throat. Even if their fathers left them, they still had mothers and brothers and sisters. She only had Tita Helena, and she didn’t really have Tita Helena at all. “Will you be gone a long time or a short time?” “I don’t know.” “But what does your mind say?” That was a question her father had taught her. When she wasn’t sure what she should do, he would ask her, in English, What does your mind say? And somehow, she figured it out. “My mind says a long time,” he replied. Ming swallowed the lump and focused on the watch instead of the children. Her father once told her that tears should only be shed on behalf of others or for God’s mercy. Use faith instead of tears, he would say.

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FICTION | E.K. Entrada | 6

“What if you forget me while you’re gone?” Ming asked. He scooted her closer to him and kissed the top of her head. For a moment she thought he was going to ask her to tell the time, but he read it for her. “It is four-nineteen,” he said. “Do you see?” She said she did. He pulled a tiny dial and both hands stopped in the middle of their ticktocking. “What happened?” she asked, afraid that it was broken. Ever since he brought the watch home, she prayed every night that it would keep time because she knew how much her father loved it and how much Tita Helena didn’t. “Is it broken?” “No. I am keeping it on four-nineteen because this is the time that I make a promise to you—the promise that I will think of you every day. My watch will stay on four-nineteen until the day I come back to you. When that day comes, we will reset the time.” He kissed the top of her head again. “Do you feel better now, Ming?” “What if, though?” “What if what?” “What if you never come back?” The lump was there again. She pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes to push the tears away. “I told you, I have God.” “What if, though?” “If something happens to me, you will know.” “How will I know?” “Do you remember the story of Saint Therese? The story Father Philippe told us?” Ming didn’t answer, so her father continued. “Saint Therese said that when she died, she would send a shower of roses from Heaven. If something happens to me, I will do the same for you, as a message that I’ve gone home to Him.”

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FICTION | E.K. Entrada | 7

Her father left the next day with the watch in his pocket and for weeks, then months, Ming waited for the shower of roses. She lived not as Tita Helena’s daughter and not as her servant, but just as what she was—a child who needed looking after. There were days when she played with friends and swam in the bay and she didn’t wonder where her father was or what he was doing, and then there were other times, especially at night, when her heart pounded and her mind raced with thoughts of her papa, wondering what he was doing. Sometimes she brought her blanket to her chin and waited in agony for the roses to come. On those nights, she pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes and concentrated instead on the sound of the mosquitoes buzzing outside. The roses never came. Instead, Tita Helena did. She came on one of those afternoons that Ming wasn’t afraid—one of those afternoons when she was just playing alone quietly in the grass. Tita Helena told the news as curtly as she told everything else. “Your father is dead,” she said. Ming stared back at her with a thousand questions, but not a single one made it across her lips. If she spoke, she would crumble. “They killed him in Bataan,” Tita Helena said. Ming expected something to happen at that moment—she wasn’t sure what—but there was nothing. Only the deeply lined face of Tita Helena, looking down at her. “What about his watch?” Ming asked. “His watch?” “The pocket watch. Did anyone find his pocket watch?” Tita Helena’s eyebrows furrowed, forcing even more lines to branch their way across her forehead. “Your father is dead, and you care only about his silly American toy?” she said. “The Japanese threw him the ditch like he was a gutted fish! And the only words you have for him are, ‘Where is his watch?’” Ming did not know what to say, so she said nothing. She thought about her father in the ditch. She imagined a Japanese soldier checking his pockets for money, and finding only a secondhand watch, stopped on four-nineteen. ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


FICTION | E.K. Entrada | 8

Tita Helena sent her away soon after that, to cousins she had never known, who lived in Cebu City. When her new relatives opened the door, they did not see the orphan of her dead mother; they saw a girl who needed looking after. Instead of warm hugs and welcomes, they said “Hello, Ming,” in weary voices, and she quickly replied that her name was Carmelita, not Ming. “We were told that your family calls you Ming,” they said, and again she pictured her father in the dirt. “My name is Carmelita,” she told them, as sternly as Tita Helena had told her about Bataan. “That’s what I should be called.” “O sige, Carmelita.” They nodded, opened the door wide, then stepped aside. When she stepped inside the house, there was an overwhelming scent of roses, and this is how Carmelita knew she had died. The earth under her feet grew invisible wings and flew away, and standing in the empty distance was Herminio Bagalayos, pulling a beaten handkerchief from his back pocket. When he saw her, he smiled and showed her the face of his watch. “Ming,” he said. He stood still, but motioned to her. “Halika, Ming. Halika.” He put his finger on the dial, and she walked.

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


GEMMA GUILLERMO

Slaying Monsters

As a child growing up in Hawaii, on the small island of Molokai, I loved flipping through family photo albums. I especially enjoyed looking at pictures taken during my parents’ honeymoon in Japan—a fairytale land that seemed exotic and magical, where clouds hugged snow-capped mountains and stone temples towered into a silver sky. Japan looked nothing like our home town of Kaunakakai, with its dirt roads, palm tree groves, and coral-strewn beaches. But there was one particular picture that mesmerized me—the one of my father crouched beside a strange, alien creature. I could say the creature resembled a medieval dragon, but that wouldn’t do it justice. It was worse—ugly and misshapen with beady eyes and the yellowed skin of a plucked chicken. It had a dragon’s snout and an ogre’s bulbous head. It bared decayed jagged teeth and dagger-like talons that hovered above my father’s neck. Dad clutched a knife over the beast’s belly, which protruded, pregnant-like. I couldn’t get enough of the story behind it, begging my mother to tell it over and over.

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ESSAY | Gemma Guillermo | 10

“Dad is fighting the horrible, man-eating monster,” she explained. “See Dad’s knife? He’s going to cut its belly open and pull me out!” “You mean the monster swallowed you, Mom?!!” “Yes, like I told you before, we were in a cave and it swallowed me up when your Dad wasn’t looking. He didn’t even know I was missing until he heard me screaming inside the monster’s stomach.” “And tell me again, Mom,” I begged. “Where was I?” “You, my dear, were inside my stomach.” That usually elicited a gasp from me. “But you don’t look pregnant in the other pictures.” “That’s because we didn’t know yet. You were still a teeny-tiny, baby seed growing inside my tummy.” Mom went on, recounting how they were on their honeymoon in Tokyo visiting a mountain temple. They had stopped to admire the view as Dad rested against a cave’s entrance. Mom, meanwhile, had wandered into the cave looking for a place to sit. That was when the monster suddenly appeared and swallowed her. When Dad realized she was missing, he went in and found the monster licking its lips and patting its bulging stomach. Luckily, he had brought a pocketknife and wrestled the creature, eventually cutting her free. Mom popped out like Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, whole and unharmed. Of course as I grew older, I realized that the picture was just Dad hamming it up for the camera, posed next to a marble sculpture. But to a child accustomed to hearing tales of wolves and witches gobbling innocent victims, her story seemed plausible—and terrifying. *** I was almost five, and we had been living on Molokai for over a year. I still cried each night pining for my older siblings left behind in Manila. When I’d last seen them, they were sobbing, huddled against the front gate of our house as the taxi whisked Mom, Dad and me off to the airport. Mary Grace was then eight-years-old, Armando six and Arlene five. I was closest to Ate Grace (“Ate” is Tagalog for “older sister”). I missed most having her comb my hair each evening after

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ESSAY | Gemma Guillermo | 11

my bath. I’d climb onto her lap to enjoy the soothing tingles as she combed my hair and sang songs in Tagalog. Ate Arlene and Kuya (“older brother”) Mando, who were a year apart, shared the same room, went to the same school and played more with each other than with me or Ate Grace. Mom and Dad called them “malikot” (“mischievous”) and often scolded them. Still, I missed them all terribly—not only as playmates but mostly for the comfort and protection they gave, especially whenever Mom or Dad got angry. I couldn’t understand why my parents still hadn’t sent for them as they’d promised after we left the Philippines. My parents did fulfill their promise of moving us into a spacious white house with a view of the Pacific Ocean. In Manila, my bedroom view had been an empty lot full of garbage and weeds. My new bedroom on Molokai overlooked plumeria trees with pink flowers that filled our house with their milky perfume. In Manila, we had lived in the Quezon City area, where homes were scattered among factories, family-run stores called sari-saris, and empty lots overrun by weeds. Mom worked as a doctor and Dad a professor at the University of the Philippines. When they got married, they chose to live in the home Mom had inherited from her mother after she’d died. It was two-stories, with five bedrooms and a large iron gate built around the compound. But, it was smack dab in the middle of a busy street, and the constant noise outside often woke us: horns blaring, police sirens wailing, neighbors’ roosters crowing, men pushing food-carts and yelling, “Taho!” or “Balut for sale!” 1 Mom dreamed of one day moving to a house with a grassy yard in a quiet neighborhood—an impossibility in Manila. So that was the prize dangled in front of me before we left Manila. “Don’t you want to live in a beautiful new house?” Dad had asked me. He went on, telling me about the fairytale land of America, with its wide open fields, groves of apple and orange trees, skyscrapers and amusement parks. “Plus, you get to ride a magical spaceship…an airplane!” That was enough to sway any three-year-old. Still, I asked why Ate Grace, Ate Arlene and Kuya Mando weren’t 1

Taho and Balut are Filipino street food delicacies. Taho is made of soft tofu, brown sugar and tapioca. Balut are boiled, fertilized duck eggs. ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


ESSAY | Gemma Guillermo | 12

coming with us. “Because you are the baby,” Mom said. “You need to travel with us. Ate Grace, Ate Arlene and Kuya Mando are older and need to go to school. They’ll travel together and join us later.” “But when?” I asked. “Very soon,” she promised, looking at Dad for reassurance. “As soon as we settle into our new home.” Dad remained quiet and looked away. *** Despite my collection of new dolls and shiny swing set in the backyard, I longed for playmates. Back in Manila, there was always one of my siblings to play with. On Molokai, the neighborhood kids were mostly teenagers, so I spent most of the time at home listening to Disney records and watching television. I hated my pre-school, run by a plump woman named Mrs. Otsuka, whose billowy muu-muus and wild, uncombed hair made kids cringe in terror. She used to glare at us, wielding a ping-pong paddle to keep us in line. Every kid eventually experienced the dreaded “paddle of education.” For me, it was the time I accidentally knocked over Alice Shin’s Holly Hobby thermos and spilled soup on the floor. When I refused to apologize and clean it up, Mrs. Otsuka marched me to the front of the room. All the kids kept quiet, their eyes glued to the paddle as she made me hold open both palms. With a snap of her wrist, she gave each hand a smack, the humiliating “whapping” sound more painful than my stinging palms. More than Mrs. Otsuka, I dreaded wearing one of Mom’s elaborate outfits: frilly dress, pigtails tied with matching ribbons, legs sweating in tights and feet squirming in patent Mary-Janes. Mom called me the most stylish girl in class. All the other kids, clad in shorts and slippers, looked at me like I was from another planet. For most four-year-olds, the faraway country I’d come from, the Philippines, was another planet. No one outright called me an alien monster, but their stares and whispers made me feel like I was one. I was homesick for my old home in Manila. I spent hours staring at old photographs, scribbling letters to my siblings, telling them how much I missed them. I drew pictures of Hawaii ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


ESSAY | Gemma Guillermo | 13

and our new house next to a sparkling blue sea. In all my pictures, the three stick figures—me, Mom and Dad—wore frowns and tears. *** We had ended up on Molokai by chance. “It was a blessing in disguise,” Mom concluded, using her favorite expression to explain life’s unpredictability. Their original plan had been to settle in Cornwall, New York, where Dad’s brother Leo had lined up a job interview for Dad at a health insurance company. Uncle Leo was a doctor who had moved to New York in the late sixties to complete his medical training. Many professional Filipinos in the early seventies had migrated to the Northeast, where health-care jobs were in demand. When President Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, taking control of the media, the universities and threatening future restrictions on travel, many Filipinos who had toyed with the idea of leaving for America decided to leave. Under the Marcos regime, Mom’s uncle, a senator from Ilo-Ilo Province, and Dad’s dean at the University where he’d been teaching, were imprisoned because of their anti-Marcos views. Mom and Dad realized then it was time to leave. It wasn’t until I was older that my parents revealed to me the complicated reasons behind their decision to split our family apart. During her medical training, Mom had adopted Mary Grace, Arlene and Armando while working in some of the poorest Philippine provinces. After they married, Dad never really had the chance to bond with—or legally adopt— them because I was born shortly after. As a baby, there was no distinction for me: they were my natural sisters and brother. When they chose to take only me to the States, leaving my siblings behind, I was confused. All I knew was that it made me feel bad, like I was some kind of wretched monster. When I was much older, I realized that horrible feeling inside me was guilt. But any guilt my parents felt was rationalized in practical terms. “We had to do what was best for all of us,” Dad recalled. “Marcos was a dictator…a monster! He killed many people who spoke against him! Our priority was to get out of the Philippines, move to America, and of course, send for the other kids as soon as possible.” He pointed out the difficulties

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of travelling with four children, as well as the immigration and adoption issues involved. He reasoned that Mary Grace, Arlene and Armando needed to complete their school year and would live with Mom’s brother Pabling and cousin Nelia in the Quezon City house. We left the Philippines in December of ’72 bound for New York. Earlier, Mom and Dad agreed to first make a stop-over in Hawaii. They planned to visit Zeny, a friend from Manila who had moved to Molokai a few years earlier. After a few weeks enjoying the Hawaiian weather and getting to know the Kaunakakai locals, my parents considered postponing their trip to New York. Blizzards were blowing through Cornwall on the T.V. news, while they watched me running half-naked under the yard sprinklers. Dad had attended business school in New York and Mom had visited the East Coast during a medical fellowship, so both were familiar with Northeastern winters—the bulky coats and boots, the cars buried in snow, the slick icy pavements that landed people in leg casts. Place a four-year-old into the picture, and they quickly saw the merits of staying in Hawaii for the duration of the winter. “We would’ve had to stay at Leo’s and Didi’s house until we found our own place,” Dad explained. Living with Uncle Leo, Auntie Didi and my four cousins would’ve been a tight fit. Also, since Mom and Didi never really got along, Mom was in no rush to move. So, they accepted Zeny’s offer to stay a few weeks longer in the furnished, in-law apartment behind her garage. As luck would have it, the position for administrator of Molokai General Hospital opened up that winter. Dad had been teaching a graduate course in hospital administration at the University of the Philippines before we had left. A devout Catholic and big fan of miracles, Mom said the job practically fell into Dad’s lap and urged him to apply. My parents “left it up to God”: if they offered Dad the job, then we would remain on Molokai, where they had already befriended the Filipino community. He indeed got the job, and shortly after, Mom got pregnant with my brother Jojo. Their month-long stopover on Molokai turned into a fouryear stay. ***

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At least at first, Mom seemed to enjoy playing the role of sweet, smiling housewife. She traded in her white, starched doctor’s coat and trademark high-heels for casual mini-skirts and sandals. She styled her long hair into loose pony-tails and wore less make-up. She appeared to have fun learning how to cook Filipino dishes and making friends with the other moms during Tupperware and Avon parties. She even hummed as she vacuumed and cleaned the house. But as with all initially-touted miracles and blessingsin-disguise, doubt eventually crept back as reality set in. She soon found herself stuck in rural Kaunakakai, where the only chain eatery was a dusty Dairy Queen parked alongside a gasoline station and cornfield. She was caring for two small children and still mourning the loss of her mother, who had died suddenly the year before I was born. She missed having a high-profile job as a physician and public health inspector appointed by the Philippine Board of Health. She missed Mary Grace, Arlene and Armando. Nowadays, new moms blame post-partum depression, but back then, all we knew was that after Jojo’s birth, Mom’s uncontrolled rages began. Frustration over little things like not being to buy tailored clothes at the local shops that only sold T-shirts and beach wear grew into attacks against Dad and me. “I hate this place! Damn you from bringing us here!” she screamed. She was sweeping the kitchen floor with the walis, a broom from the Philippines made from wispy tambo grass. I heard her slam the dustpan onto the floor. “There is nothing here—no department stores, no universities, no theatres, NOTHING! I had a life in Manila! I was somebody there!” “You know we both agreed that we needed to move to the States,” Dad pointed out matter-of-factly. “It was for the sake of our family. You saw what happened to your uncle. It was too dangerous to live in Manila any longer. Did you want Gemma and Jojo growing up in that kind of environment?” At the mention of my name, I’d usually duck into my bedroom and sit in the closet, shoving my stuffed animals against my ears. But it didn’t help. Mom’s voice boomed against the walls, reverberating throughout the house. I

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ESSAY | Gemma Guillermo | 16

pictured her mouth foaming, her anger seething in fiery breaths. “But not here, dammit, we were supposed to move to New York! I wanted to apply for my medical license!” “I told you—you can study for your Board exams now and after we move to the Mainland, you can open up your own practice.” My parents still were intent on following through with the original plan to move to New York after spending a few years on Molokai. “And when do you think I’ll find time to study, at night when you come home? When I’m too tired?” Mom’s daily juggling act meant cooking breakfast, prepared Jojo’s formula bottles, packing my lunch, getting me dressed for school, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, cooking dinner—all the while caring for my infant brother, Jojo. All these mundane tasks were new to Mom, who had grown up with maids, drivers and ya-yas (nannies) in Manila. “At least in New York, we would’ve had relatives to help,” she went on. “Leo would’ve introduced me to his doctor friends and I could’ve studied at the medical library. People there are more like us, educated people who speak real English, not this crazy Pidgin!” She was referring to the local slang that everyone in Hawaii spoke. Pidgin was a sing-song mish-mash of broken English, Hawaiian and Asian words that plantation workers from Asia invented after their migration to Hawaii during the early 1900’s. In my effort to fit in and erase my Tagalog accent, I copied how the other kids spoke. Soon, I was shocking my mother with phrases like, “I no like eat…I pau,” which meant “I don’t want to eat anymore…I’m done” and “Jenny no like play wit me, she wen give me da stink eye,” which meant “Jenny won’t play with me, she gave me a dirty look.” Mom refused to speak with me whenever I spoke to her in Pidgin. She pretended I was invisible until I said the same phrases in corrected, proper English. Given the “melting-pot” culture of Hawaii with its many immigrants coming together, Pidgin was a shortcut to learning English. It gave people an easy, though choppy, version of communicating with each other. It made people feel connected, as if to say, “You and I come from different countries but we speak the same way.” Mom never

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ESSAY | Gemma Guillermo | 17

understood this. illiterate.

She just thought it sounded crass and

“Oh, come on, Gemma is just a little girl learning a new language!” Dad said, trying not to raise his voice. “They teach kids proper English at school. Anyway, don’t blame me. You were the one who wanted me to apply for the hospital job.” “It was a dare, idiot! Who the hell knew they’d give it to you, someone who was here on vacation for God’s sake!” She made it sound like he had entered a contest and won by chance. In her anger, she glossed over how many rosaries and novenas she’d prayed hoping for him to get the job. At this point, Mom started crying, shifting the subject to the inevitable. “And what about our kids in Manila? I cannot forgive you for that! You are a cruel man to leave those children behind!” “Oh, no, don’t blame it all on me! You knew there was no way we could bring them with us! We can barely scrape money to support our two children here and you want to send for the three of them? No way, not now!” Dad’s hospital salary was decent, but with Mom not working and a new baby, he made a good point. I heard him get up to leave the dining room, with Mom’s sharp voice following close behind. They continued to argue in their bedroom, which was on the other side of the closet I sat in. “So what, then--Gemma and Jojo are now more important to you? You’ve forgotten that those kids need us, too?” She still felt that he had never accepted them as his children and feared that he was more focused on starting a family without them. “And what about all the danger you’re always telling us about?” she went on. I pictured the evil Marcos firing guns into crowds, stealing from the poor, burning down houses and throwing innocent people in jail. “Look, they’re fine—Pabling and Nelia are taking good care of them.” He tried to sound positive, but his voice shook, as if he too was recalling the monstrous acts we’d read about in Philippine News.

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ESSAY | Gemma Guillermo | 18

“How the hell do you know? Do you even read their letters?” “Stop nagging me, dammit! I told you already, we will send for them, but not now!” Mom was a fan of hurling things, usually books, or one of Jojo’s formula bottles. I heard them slam against the wall, wondering how far she had missed hitting Dad. She directed her rage at Dad, but her high-pitched screams rang through the house, making it seem like she was screaming at me, too. The insults began. “I must’ve been crazy to marry you! My mom had just died and I was all alone. I guess I must have been desperate.” As she often told it, her mother had died suddenly from a heart attack two months before their wedding. Mom had gone to the drugstore to pick up her mother’s heart pills. When she came home, she found my grandmother unconscious from a sudden stroke. She still blames herself today for her mother’s death. Still, despite her grief, she had managed to go through not only with the wedding and honeymoon, which was her mother’s wedding gift to them, but also--lucky for me--go through with the pregnancy. “The last thing I wanted was to get pregnant during our honeymoon!” Mom yelled. “I was still in mourning for God’s sakes! I wasn’t prepared to have a child! I’d just lost my own mother!” Dad knew better than to respond to this. Once Mom started talking about her mother, she began sobbing uncontrollably. Although I could tell he was still angry with her, he wound up swallowing it. I heard him walk over to her, embrace her and say, almost in a whisper, “I’m sorry.” Lying against the closet floor, I unburied my head from under the piles of clothes and finally sighed with relief. *** When I grew older, I stared at the monster picture and thought about the trauma Mom was undergoing when that picture was snapped: the grief over losing her mother, her unplanned pregnancy with me, her terror over raising a baby without her mother, the morning sickness she suffered, the nausea caused by what felt like a mutant growing inside her.

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ESSAY | Gemma Guillermo | 19

I stared at Dad in the picture, mostly in amazement, trying to reconcile the quiet, bookish man reading me bedtime stories, with the brave, powerful man wielding a knife aimed at the monster’s belly. Dad looked suave, 70’scool, wearing a long-sleeved shirt with suede elbow-patches, black pants and leather boots. The intent look in his eyes displayed such extreme resolve to save his new wife and unborn child. In that story, Dad was a hero. When I look at that picture now as an adult, I miss that young, fearless father in the picture. It was that father who used to take Jojo and me fishing near Kaunakakai Pier, who’d wake me at the crack of dawn to pick buckets of seaweed along the beach, and whom I once watched shoot deer while hunting with him in Ka’awa Valley. He looked and acted nothing like the father that dodged Tagalog curse words spewing from my mother’s mouth, shielding himself from objects being hurled at him, before finally cowering in defeat during my mother’s frequent tirades. I suppose I also stared at that picture so much because I recognized that monster so clearly. It was the monster dictator who took over the Philippines, forcing us to flee and splitting our family apart. It was the monster at school wielding her “paddle of education.” It was the monster I heard screaming at my father in the bedroom. Finally, it was the monster I saw everyday in the mirror as I got dressed for school. I eventually outgrew those Searscatalog outfits, lost my Tagalog accent and made friends on Molokai. But the hateful monster still lurked deep within me, filling me with guilt, haunting me everyday throughout my childhood. It was the monster that spared me but swallowed up my sisters and brothers. And I was much too young and powerless to slay it and set them free.

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


JIMMY CHEN

The Search for Namable Things

For a guy who had never touched Jennifer’s buttocks, I was rather touched by them. Her buttocks were of the tone and contour that evoked the natural response in high school boys. My science lab partner was Steve. I did his homework in exchange for not having my face rammed into the desk. When I was inspired, I wrote love poems for him to give to her. A reoccurring motif was the moon. At night, I imagined Jennifer’s face looking at me in the dark: her golden blond hair a soft nest on my pillow. Night light is my favorite kind of light. As one is not aided with a full spectrum, the tonal variants which glide the eye over the terrain of a lovely face are celebrated in quiet. At this point, Mr. Hardy asked me to point out the gallbladder of the unfortunate frog flayed open at my table. The word, or question, with which I replied was not exclusive to this class: What? Steve went on a few dates with Jennifer. Word spread that he had even had sex with her. He knew my feelings for her and expressed camaraderie by not slamming my face anymore. I’d see them hanging out by the bleachers, holding hands, walking to class together. I was incomplete without them, so I watched. I once tried to sabotage their courtship with a poem in which the narrator (Steve) cannot find his way to the cave. Along the way, he loses his sword. Jennifer, not the most gifted reader, didn’t catch the symbolism. Instead she fellated him in the parking lot of Baskin Robbins. As it turns out, the gallbladder is located underneath the liver. It produces bile, which aids in digestion. The frog’s eyes are still open, frozen in the moment it met its death. There’s this theory I heard that God invented suffering to make sure people would always need him. It’s like happiness is distracting and misery keeps people focused. All big things can be condensed, packed into small ideas. For example, the moon is the sorrow God feels for us. He doesn’t want us ever to be completely in the dark, so he put this

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FICTION | Jimmy Chen | 20

huge stone in the sky to act as a mirror during our darkest hour—only this mirror is opaque and takes some of the light for itself, a commission of sorts. God places the moon very close to us so it appears the same size as the sun. Everything in the sky is a trick. We are not that bright. Mr. Hardy was in the Korean War, where he screwed up his hip and pinky finger during two separate incidents, both which involved unplanned explosions. He ended up teaching high school biology, a graying crew cut the only mark of his time as a hero. His pinky finger was severely crooked, and for some inexplicable reason he used it to point. Chapter Seven in the textbook Human Reproduction really got him going. I remember only one thing he said in class all year, in reference to vaginal intercourse—something about the cervix taking a good beating. His eyes lit up as his said this, a vein the size of a rat’s tail popping out of his temple. I felt sorry for him; a man in a man’s world is a sad thing. Mr. Hardy hated this one girl, I can’t remember her name. All I know, all anybody knew, was that she was a vegetarian. She had a nose ring, dyed purple hair, and big leather boots. Whenever we got out the frogs to dissect, she would make comments about how wrong it was. Mr. Hardy asked her if she ate meat, and she proudly said she didn’t. He thought for a long while, his face red with fury. The next day he told her that her boots were made from animals so she should shut the fuck up. Everyone laughed and the next day she was gone. Mr. Hardy let everyone pick his or her final seating arrangement on the first day of school. There was a line of guys behind Jennifer, all geared to sit in the most optimal seats relative to her. I got the golden seat— directly across-behind. The across arrangement provided the best view of her buttocks, with occasional prospects of her face, while being behind her let one do it secretly. I suffered from hay fever those years and had a sniffing tick. During study session, I sniffed and sniffed until one fateful day when Jennifer got up and handed me a tissue. This was the only time she looked at me. Everyone laughed and the next day I was still there. When my dad isn’t at the office, he’s at home fixing things. Last year we tore up all the carpet in the house to put in wooden floors. It took us two weeks. I got accidentally caulked a few times. He makes fun of my hands, says they aren’t man’s hands, too soft. He shows me his hands, callused and full of blisters. Last time I held a nail for my dad, he hit my fingers with the hammer. Two of my fingers turned blue. “Now you are a man,” he said. ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


FICTION | Jimmy Chen | 21

I have the sweater she left in class one day. I put it in my backpack, waiting all day to take it home. It’s really soft, like her hair continuing over her body. Light blue, a calm afternoon sky. To throw it up in the air would be to lose it forever. Birds would mistake it for a soft patch of sky, catch it in their beaks and fly away. I sleep with it under my pillow. One day the sweater fairy will come and arrest me for theft and chronic masturbation. I’m driving with my dad back from Home Depot at night. We bought a new toilet. The ceramic thing glistens in the back seat, propped up with seat cushions my dad had taken from the couch. It sleeps quietly as a cradled newborn. Reflections from the traffic lights above trace the contours, sweeping over the pristine and perfectly rounded bowl. It exists inviolate, until the moment I see it. The human gaze is corrupt, it turns objects into ideals. Every time I look at Jennifer, I want what I am not. I look out the window. It’s looking right at me. What: when a blade of light comes through the curtains, it lights up all the air molecules and you realize air is thick, and each breath is a massive act. There’s a tiny car carrying a man, his son, and a toilet down a road. From inside the car, the son looks out the window. The stars fidget with each mile, stubbornly grasping onto the universe. Car takes father son and toilet to the main street, at the light by Baskin Robbins. The son sees his friend’s car parked by a stone wall under the broken lamp. A girl’s head comes into view now and then. She massages the testicles with her hand, moving them around and around. In this world, the son wants tell her, no two things are the same. “No two things are the same,” he mutters at the car window. “I hope one day you find the moon.”

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


MARKO FONG

Hidden Menu

In Chinese restaurants, my mother insists on trying to order in her version of Cantonese. Her items don’t appear on the English menu. In this restaurant, the menu is a dark red with a gold embossed dragon. A yellow braid holds the pages together. The English names for dishes line up with their Chinese equivalents both in script and in some Romanized form with odd accents and spellings, like American editions of Neruda poetry. On the back, there is a special Chinese menu printed in columns of pinkish red ink that she ignores. Having been born in San Francisco, my mother never learned to read Chinese. “Dow see pai gwot?” she asks. The waiter doesn’t understand her. At first he shakes his head, then twice points at the menu. “Jing fan.” Our waiter shuffles his feet, then says something in a faster, more confident Chinese which my mother either doesn’t or refuses to understand. It’s a custom. When we go to Chinese restaurants, my mother cursorily asks me what I feel like eating then more or less ignores my answer. She’ll then excitedly rattle off a series of dishes that I liked as a child. The waiter taps his pad with his seventy-five-cent Bic pen. He looks around at the mostly empty tables in the restaurant. A red egg baby banquet, once customary for boys who made it to six weeks old but now celebrated for both genders, just ended at three circular tables near us. The waiter points in their direction. At one juncture, he tries to

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ESSAY | Marko Fong | 23

make it clear that he speaks English well. My mother perseveres in her heavily American accented Chungshan as she orders off a menu that doesn’t exist in print form. When I was a child, almost all Chinese in California came from three peasant districts just beyond what they then called Canton, now Guangzhou. Cantonese was the Chinese of California, but Mao had made Mandarin the language of all of China. In China and in Taiwan, they taught Mandarin in schools, used it on television, in train stations, and airports. It’s one of the few things about which the Communists and the Nationalists agreed. Until I grew up and had a college roommate from Hong Kong, I didn’t realize that even people who speak Cantonese don’t necessarily understand my mother’s version of it. Her Cantonese has turned even more eccentric now that she is married to my stepfather, a retired Nisei farmer. For the last fifteen years, my mother has only spoken Cantonese with the dwindling number of living members of her generation of her family. “Mom, it’s fine. We can order off the menu.” The waiter has, at my mother’s insistence, moved in the direction of the kitchen to check with the cook. I watch as a Mexican busboy picks up dishes from the baby party. My mother shakes her head, “No, I know you don’t get this at home.” It’s true. I know the names for various foods, but can’t pronounce them reliably or without embarrassment. My wife’s family came from Norway. Lutefisk definitely doesn’t go with oyster sauce. Chinese restaurants in the town where we live are now mostly run by northerners or Southeast Asians. All too quickly, the waiter returns shaking his head. My mother shakes her head back and challenges his eyes with her own to let him know that she believes he didn’t really ask the cook. She then throws out names like hom gnui (salt fish cooked with ginger), sil choi, lop cheurng (a sweet, fatty Chinese sausage), dao foo (fermented bean cake). The waiter keeps shaking his head. At this point, he’s given up trying to point her to even the Chinese menu on the back of the menu. He breaks into English. “This way tastes better anyway.”

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ESSAY | Marko Fong | 24

My mother shakes her head and they seem to compromise on something as he shrugs, writes something on his pad, and heads to the kitchen before my mother can change her mind. “You want duck’s feet?” My eyes widen and I shake my head. “Mom, it’s not that big a deal.” “You used to like duck’s feet. What happened?” “When have you seen me order duck’s feet in the last twenty years?” She motions for the waiter, who visibly takes a deep breath from across the restaurant. “Jing op gek?” To my horror, he actually nods at this request and heads back to the kitchen. “I’m ordering it anyway, you don’t have to eat it if you don’t want any.” When I was a kid, I always thought of my mother as the most Americanized member of her family. We lived in the suburbs. She took me to Giants games, played in the golf club with other Americanized Chinese moms and dads, and we always spoke English at home. She openly rejected customs like arranged marriages and Confucian deference as too Chinafied. Our waiter returns with three or four dishes that don’t look remotely close to what my mother was trying to describe. She gives him another look as he serves us. He shrugs. “Not going to tip him.” “Mom, maybe they just don’t have those things.” “They do…of course they do. He just doesn’t want to go to the trouble, so I’m not going to go to the trouble of tipping him.” Some of the food looks like it was cooked hours ago possibly for the red egg party next to us. Some of it is salty and may even contain hints of MSG, the bane of Chinese restaurants old and new. My mother takes a couple bites and pushes her plate away. “You don’t have to eat it.”

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ESSAY | Marko Fong | 25

I pick up a duck leg (web side up), dip it in soy sauce, and take a bite. “See, aren’t you glad I ordered it.” She doesn’t give me time to answer as I take a second bite. When my dad was alive, his restaurant used to dispense pork bound with pineapple chunks in an orange sauce, fried wontons, and other substances dipped in a sauce made with red food coloring all through the lunch hour. The customers, mostly employees of the State of California granted just forty five minutes for lunch, liked it well enough—the help despised it. When the cooks made lunch for the crew the colors and aromas of the food came back to life. The waiters who seemed reserved and soft-spoken to their customers became talkative and laughed repeatedly as they would dine on steamed bok choy, braised tofu, and fish in black bean sauce. I once asked when my dad was particularly frustrated with his business: “Dad, why don’t you put this food on the menu?” “It’s not what my customers think of as Chinese food,” he said reflexively. “But this is Chinese food and it tastes better,” I would tell him at least once a year. “Customers don’t know that and they don’t even know when it tastes better.” “But why are we in the restaurant business?” “It’s paying for your school, for our car, the trip to New York last year. What’s wrong with that? You want to give those things back?” “Hell no.” “Well, it’s just not that simple. It never is.” Every few years, I still have dreams where my father is still alive and wandering his restaurant. He walks between the tables and chats with customers into eternity as a man who loved and appreciated good food obliged to serve his customers what they thought was Chinese food. My mother calls the waiter back and asks him to box our leftovers. Before I can object, she also orders two white cartons of chicken chow mein and one order of gai lan (like broccoli without the florettes) ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


ESSAY | Marko Fong | 26

sautéed with garlic to go. She reminds him to make sure both are fresh then turns to me and says, “Take it home, so you guys don’t have to cook for a couple days.” If you translate it back into Cantonese, she’s saying “I know your wife can’t cook this stuff.” The waiter, clearly relieved, nods his head this time and doesn’t argue back or make her feel the limits of her Chinese. When he returns, my mother, over my objections, insists on paying the bill including an overly generous tip. Our southeastern region was the last to become part of China when the Ch’in Emperor Shi’h Huang Ti defeated the six other kingdoms, standardized the writing system, the weights and measures, and built the Great Wall to keep out barbarians from the north. Ever since that time twenty four hundred years ago, the believers in one China have sought to eliminate Cantonese. In 1911, it was southeastern China that first broke with the Manchus and established a western style republic that failed. Almost all primary speakers of Cantonese live either in Hong Kong or outside China. In a few generations, it is likely to be an archaic dialect. Today, it survives as a hidden menu in a Sacramento restaurant. An old woman who barely speaks Chinese insists that the dishes on her menu must still exist while each new waiter she runs into shakes his head. “Who is this strange woman and what is this broken dialect with all the English words?” they must ask when they get back to the kitchen. Someday one of two things will happen. One, there will be no more waiters who can make sense of my mother’s ordering and no more cooks who can make the dishes. Second, my mother and her language generation will simply stop asking because they’ve died or have lost the will to eat the food they savor from childhood, which to anyone Cantonese is the same thing as dying. When that happens, the emperor Sh’ih Huang Ti, the uniter of modern China, will have finally won. Until then the hidden menu drives the old woman with the Gucci purse, my mother—the last Cantonese warrior.

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


JANE CHUN

My Features Tell A Story

Few white strands, lines under my droopy eyes, split ends that should have ended months ago. From my six pack to one cube, that’s what happens when the sun wins the race. My features tell a story. Those scars on my cheeks were dug by my brother’s claws. My upper lip beats in comparison to my bottom lip due to an incident from a fallen hose. We all have that first scar on our knee from our first bike accident. These were some of my childhood remnants. My features tell a story. Stature and lazy stomach taken after mother Black marbles hidden behind slits passed from my father, along with the rest of my face. And hands inherited by paternal grandmother who used them to feed everyone in her house but my smile reveals my mother. My features tell a story. Burnt shoulders, sunspots tanning on my cheeks, legs pumped with muscle ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


POETRY | Jane Chun | 28

perspired from weekly outdoor tracks and indoor machines. My features tell a story. Pierce-less ears, invisible tattoos, naked nails, freckles that prove no cosmetics dare conquer this earth. The only thing that touches me are garments of art that define me. My features tell a story. Despite words from my mouth and actions taken, all parts especially the face, since the face never lies reveals age which equals experience. Lifestyle reveals preference. History, my family’s story, my story, my features tell a story.

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


THOMAS LEE

In Lumine Tuo

Beatrice Horn, the emeritus literature teacher at the Upper West Side private high school Higgins Prep, was preaching to the staff in the break room about a stunning Off-Broadway remake of a play called Wit that she had seen the week before in Alphabet City. John Kim, the physics teacher at the school, had never heard of the play, as he preferred two-for-one happy hours with the science faculty to New York’s cultural offerings. John had once seen an inscrutable play about Pakistani vampires on a faculty-bonding outing led by Ms. Horn. After that painful experience, John hardly paid attention to Ms. Horn’s ramblings in the break room. She was making a point of explaining to the barely listening room that in a curious move of race-blind, ageblind casting, the director had chosen a young Asian woman as the lead, instead of the middle-aged Caucasian called for by the script. “The actress did the last nude scene so sublimely. She’s going to be a star, this Asian girl,” said Ms. Horn, who took pride in being a step ahead of published New York drama critics. “Susan Kim. Remember that name.” “Susan Kim? Nude?” John blurted. There were many Susan Kims in New York. He knew of four, other than his sister. Surely it couldn’t be his sister who was appearing naked on stage. She could not have fallen that far. That steamy September evening, he went home and Googled the play. After many searches under “Susan Kim” and several New York and ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


FICTION | Thomas Lee | 30

acting-related terms, he came upon a site for a nonprofit theater. The lead actress, whose glamour shot was captioned on the website as “a star of student theater and cinema making her professional New York stage debut,” was indeed his little sister.

John and Susan agreed over email to have brunch that Sunday at a small organic diner near Murray Hill, halfway between John’s dusty apartment share off the FDR Drive in the Upper East Side and Susan’s closet-sized studio in Tompkins Square. They had been close in their childhood. Raised by a single mother in a little two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey near the George Washington Bridge, they had shared a room until John had left for college. They had confessed crushes on schoolmates and secret sins to each other before they fell asleep when they were children. However, after their mother had died three years earlier, they saw each other so rarely that every conversation seemed to begin with awkward re-acquaintance. “I like your haircut,” John said when he saw her. Susan’s full black hair, which had flowed over her shoulders last time he saw her, was now cropped like a prep-school boy’s. She was lily white and fashionably thin as always, much like their mother in her younger days. She wore platforms that disguised her shortness, and a sundress that hugged her girlish body. Susan played with her hair and smiled. “You like it? It’s kinda seventies Mia Farrow, only black.” “Who?” “Never mind.” John noticed at least a few men’s eyes linger on his sister. During childhood, John’s friends had always teased him about his “hot sister” and wondered out loud how she could possibly be related to him. Since he was gangly and dark-skinned, John never saw much resemblance either. Over coffee, John learned that Susan was dating a photographer and paying her bills by waiting tables at a sleek bistro in Soho. She didn’t mention the new development in her acting career. When John’s omelet arrived, he said, “I hear you’re in a new play.”

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FICTION | Thomas Lee | 31

Susan looked apprehensive. “Yes, who told you?” Her acting had always been a source of disappointment to their mother. In Korea, during the time in which their mother was raised, acting was for bad girls who didn’t study. “No one told me. You’re famous now.” “We had fourteen people in the audience opening night. Someone must have told you.” “Never mind that. I heard what you’re doing. I don’t want you getting naked in front of all those people.” Susan’s eyes widened. “What? Are you kidding me? Is that why you wanted to meet?” “Yes. I couldn’t believe it when I heard it.” “I’ve already done it. And I’m gonna keep doing it until the last show. Isn’t much you can do about it,” Susan said as she threw her fork into her Greek salad. “This has to stop, Susan.” “It’s my body, John. I can do what I want.” “Why didn’t you tell me?” “Tell you? Don’t act like we’re all chummy, John. I haven’t even seen you in a year.” John was three years older than his sister. In most Korean families, that would have meant at least a bit of respect. But Susan was treating him with disdain, as if he were an inherited obligation. “You should’ve moved in with me after mom died,” John said, remembering Susan’s stubborn choice to be independent of him despite his wishes. “I never should’ve let you go off to that place.” Susan bristled. “State school. Say it, John. They’re not dirty words. We can’t all spend nine useless years in the Ivy League.” John was not insulted, though Susan meant to hurt him. He had graduated from Columbia on a full scholarship when he was nineteen and entered a Ph.D. program in astrophysics at Yale. He had not completed the program, quitting after five frustrating years to become a

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FICTION | Thomas Lee | 32

science teacher at Higgins. He loved his job, and found leaving university life as refreshing as rising from bed after a long illness. “I can’t believe what’s happened to you,” John said. “I don’t expect you to understand, John.” “You’re naked. Aren’t you embarrassed?” He raised his voice and several customers glanced over at him disapprovingly. Susan stood up, “I’m not sitting here and letting you lecture me. If you brought me here to stop me, forget it. I don’t need the free lunch.”

That night, John drank a syrupy rosé with his girlfriend Marie, a math instructor at Higgins, on the rooftop of the low-rise brick apartment building where he shared a fourth-floor apartment. John had been attracted to Marie’s doe-like brown eyes and sprightly body on the first day he started at Higgins, but he couldn’t find the courage to ask her out until months later. “It’s not that big a deal,” Marie said. The humidity had sagged her curly brown hair. “You’re her brother, not her father.” John didn’t remember his father. When he was thirteen, John had learned that his father was not a successful lawyer tragically hit by a truck a month before Susan was born, but a deadbeat gambler who had run back to Korea when money got tight. As a single mother concerned about family appearances, his mother had drilled into John’s head that he must be a respectable man, a man no one could look down on. “It’s not so much that she’s naked,” John said. “What then?” “Our mother.” “What does she have to do with this?” “Susan should at least respect her memory. She wouldn’t do this if she had an ounce of respect left for her.” “I’m sorry, John. But she’s gone. Susan can’t live in her shadow forever. I’m so sorry to say it, but I think you’re overreacting.”

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It crossed John’s mind that Marie, who was a Jewish girl from Queens, would understand his point of view better if she had grown up in a Korean family. For Koreans nudity in public was beyond taboo. It was a direct insult to your parents. Frustrated, he looked up into the dark purple of the starless Manhattan night sky. He still probably knew more about the science of the universe than all but a few dozen people in the world. He had studied black holes while at Yale, spending endless hours examining the ways starlight could bend, warp, and collapse near black holes, where the gravity was so strong that not even light particles could escape. As brilliant as his early career had been, when it had been time for him to come up with his own work instead of reiterating Einstein and Hawking, he had come up empty. He was like a jazz musician who had mastered every written piece, but couldn’t improvise. At twenty-five, after learning that his mother had no chance of recovery from cancer, he left Yale behind with no intention of returning, without even a note to his professors or fellow students. Now, when he saw stars, he couldn’t help but think of his past disappointments. He was glad to be in New York City, where he could not see anything at night but the moon.

During her last days, John’s mother had been bedridden in her tiny room, which looked out into a busy highway and smelled like a hospital. When he first saw her after coming back home from school, she had raised her white covers over her neck, hiding her ravaged limbs, which shook with weakness and desperation. She had covered her baldness with a scarf, even though only John and Susan were around to see. Her concern about her appearance had broken John’s heart. He knew she wanted her children to always remember her as pretty, the way she had been before cancer blighted her vibrant features. He did not tell his mother that he had quit his program, only saying that school could wait and he wanted to be with her. She always glowed when she talked about her physicist son, as she had been a science teacher in Korea before becoming a seamstress when she immigrated. “You’re getting close to your Ph.D.?” she asked. At this point, she barely existed physically, just a skeleton covered with essential flesh. “Very close. I just need to put the last touches on my dissertation.”

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“The laws of science are like God’s fingerprints, aren’t they? Everything is in perfect order.” John didn’t believe in God, but he nodded. He wanted his mother’s last days to be in total comfort. As a child, John had attended a small Korean Presbyterian church next to a strip mall off the Jersey Turnpike every Sunday with his family. John and Susan used to daydream for an hour in a windowless classroom while a bespectacled Korean spinster lectured to them in thickly accented English. This weekly ritual, because it was so hated and obligatory, had created a bond of resentment between the two children towards their devout mother. “I’m close, John. Close to seeing God.” His mom smiled. “Susan told me.” “The church had a collection. And there is some money in the bank, it’s not much...” John interrupted, “Don’t worry about us. We’ll be ok. I’ll make sure of it. Susan can live with me. I can get a job to provide for us.” “I know you will do your best.” “Yes. I will.” “And will you make me two promises?” “Of course.” “First, always believe in God. Nothing is more powerful than God’s light. It shines over us all.” “Yes. I will believe in God,” John said, though he doubted he could keep that promise. “Second, always protect your sister.” “Always.” At his mother’s request, he sent his sister in when he came out of the bedroom. Susan had bounced in and out of college and acting schools after turning eighteen, supporting herself by waitressing, but had spent most of the last few months at home taking care of their mother.

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“Please don’t fight,” John thought to himself as he sat alone in the kitchen, waiting for his sister to come out of their mother’s room. After Susan had turned fourteen, she and their mother ended most conversations shouting or in tears. He hoped his sister would just listen and acquiesce for once in her life. Just a few minutes after she entered, Susan emerged, weeping. John embraced her and asked, “Did she make you promise anything?” “Yes. Two things,” she said, crying. “Believe in God?” “Yes. And be more like you.”

Three years later, John thought of his mother every time he passed by one of the Gothic stone churches interspersed throughout Manhattan. “Always believe in God,” she had said. He couldn’t fulfill that promise, as he was unable to see or feel any evidence of the divine in his life. Also, like just about everyone else he knew in New York, his day-today existence was so consumed with his career and social obligations that he did not have any desire to add the weight of religion to his life. But after his mother died, when he looked at crosses and steeples, he could hear her from somewhere in his memory rebuking him sharply, disappointed by his lack of faith. Pre-dawn on some Sunday mornings, he would be jolted out of his lumpy futon by his mother’s voice waking him for church. Though he still did not believe in God, he came to believe in ghosts. John wondered why his sister did not hear their mother too. Surely, if their mother lived in Susan’s memory at all, his sister could not shame herself in public so brazenly.

John hoped the play would be a box-office disaster, and that the handful of drama aficionados who saw it would quickly forget Susan Kim. However, there was a shimmering review in the Village Voice a week after he met her for brunch. Ms. Horn rattled on in the break room about the show getting the audience it deserved and lasting for months on end. John worried that perhaps one or two Koreans would go see it, and that Susan’s nudity would become a topic of hot gossip ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


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in the community he grew up in. John didn’t think he should care since there were no Koreans other than his sister in his life anymore, but the thought of the crass things old Korean women would say about his sister bothered him. John went down to his sister’s little dilapidated apartment complex a few days after the Village Voice review. When he announced himself in the intercom at the front door, Susan said she’d come down but refused to buzz him in. “What?” she said, cracking the heavy black front door open just enough to lean out. “What about mom?” “Mom?” “Would you do this if she were still alive?” “What the hell, John?” “Would you still do this?” “No. No, I wouldn’t!” she said. “Because she’d be so ashamed of you,” John yelled. Susan’s eyes teared up. “You have no fucking clue what you’re talking about. Go fuck yourself, John.” Susan slammed the door shut before John could react.

John was lying in bed with Marie that night. The air was so sultry that their bare bodies stuck to the sheets. Marie’s naked, milky skin clung to his, and though John normally would have preferred to lie alone in such heat, he hugged her back. “I told my mom about us,” Marie said, rolling her delicate frame to face him. “Really?” Since they had only been dating for four months, he was a little surprised. “What did she say?”

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“I told her you were a scientist studying black holes before you came to Higgins.” “Did that sound good to her?” “Yeah. She asked if you were Jewish. When I said you were Korean, she said, ‘Makes sense. They’re good at science.’” Marie laughed. “She should meet my sister. I don’t think she ever passed a science class.” “My mom’s just old-fashioned. She’s waiting for that Jewish investment banker she can brag to her friends about.” “This city has a few of those, I hear. Why don’t you please your mother?” “Maybe someday. For now, I’d rather have one who can tell me what it’s like to look through a telescope into a black hole.” Marie gazed at John with a reassuring smile.“What’s that like, to look into one?” John shook his head. “You can’t really look into a black hole. There’s no light to let you see. All the light bends into the center.” “Light bends?” “Gravity, when it’s strong like in a black hole, will bend it. If you look through a telescope at a black hole, all you’re seeing is a dark blanket. You can’t see the craziness that goes on inside.” “Kinda like you?” Marie said. John paused, a bit surprised at her bluntness. He held Marie a little tighter. “I can’t stop thinking about Susan. For my mom’s sake, I should stop her, but I can’t.” “What was the last play you saw, John?” “Something about Pakistani vampires. Before that, I don’t even remember. My sister in Our Town when she was in high school.” “Why don’t you try watching this one?” “Are you crazy? I don’t want to see my sister naked.” Having shared a room with Susan over the years, he had caught glimpses of his sister’s body. He had noticed when she had started to develop, and though he ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


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had usually left the room when she changed, his occasional curious glances had let him know what she looked like under her clothes. He shivered when he thought of looking at her with a full gaze in a public place. The play’s run continued for weeks. Despite John’s wishes, there was no freak fire or water main break to close down the theater. After week six, he accepted the inevitability of becoming known as the brother of the naked Korean spectacle. By week nine, his anger abated somewhat and curiosity started to affect him. On week twelve, he remembered his final promise to his mother. “Always protect your sister.” Though they had not been close since their mother passed away, John had always believed that Susan would find him if she needed a brother. Now, after having a door slammed in his face, he did not know if his sister even considered him family any more. If he were no longer a part of Susan’s life at all, he knew his mother’s ghost would haunt him mercilessly about his second broken promise. That week, John finally asked Marie to accompany him to see Wit on Friday. He emailed his sister two days before to let her know he would be coming, but received no response. When he came to pick Marie up for the show, John wore a jacket and tie, which made her chuckle. “Not very East Village,” she said. She was wearing a throw-on pink sweater and jeans. The theater was significantly smaller than the three-hundred-seat auditorium at Higgins. The whole place smelled like a musty closet. John’s seat in the back of the theater didn’t fold down all the way, so he had to sit at an uncomfortable angle, with his knees up near his stomach. As curtain time approached, every seat filled, so he couldn’t move. Marie offered to change seats, but John refused. In the beginning of the play, his sister walked out alone onto a stage furnished only with a twin bed. Her hair was shaved off and she was dressed in a flimsy hospital gown. John realized that the new haircut he had noticed in the diner was a wig. She looked downward and adjusted the hem of the short hospital gown self-consciously before she spoke, protecting herself against immodest exposure. Instantly, John recognized that Susan was mimicking their mother, who had always felt uncomfortably exposed in the hospital as she was prodded by white strangers.

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Not long into the first act, John understood that the play was about a cancer patient, but his attention was less on the spoken words and more on the bodily motions of his sister. Susan perfectly imitated their mother’s wild open-armed greetings, her covered giggles, her frenetic walking-style, and anxious hand-wringing.’ As cancer consumed her body, Susan fastidiously tried to maintain her dignity, though she struggled with every gesture. John was riveted by his sister’s movements. To John, she seemed to be performing a tragic dance in honor of their mother’s courage. At several points during the play, John realized that he must have become visibly emotional, because Marie would stroke his shoulder in an effort to comfort him. Over an hour later, as his sister lay trembling in bed and took what seemed to be last desperate breaths, John remembered the day their mother had died. On that cold day, seated at the worn kitchen table of their apartment, Susan had sobbed with her face down in her hands. After days of holding in his tears, John had collapsed to his knees and clutched his sister’s legs as he wept in heaving gasps into her lap. It was the last time he had cried and the last time he had held his sister in an honest embrace. He remembered how Susan had caressed his back gently. “She’s still alive somewhere,” she had said. “I know she’s still alive somewhere.” For the last act of the play, the stage went dark as Susan was in bed. A lone spotlight came down on the wood floor next to where Susan lay motionless. After a few moments of silence, she rose from her deathbed and disrobed in the shadows, where the audience could barely discern her body. When she walked into the spotlight and raised her arms in a final transcendent pose, John wasn’t ashamed. As his eyes blurred with tears and his sister’s porcelain skin merged into the white hot beam, her body didn’t seem mortal at all, but part of a divine light that shone infinitely upward through the entirety of space, unaffected by gravity.

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


THAILA RAMANUJAM

Queen of the Skies

For the third day in a row, I watch my husband pace up and down our backyard. Our cow just had a calf, and the newborn leaps with joy and runs around him in unpredictable loops. I doubt he notices her at all. He is lost in his own world. Periodically he rests underneath the drumstick tree that pretends to be an umbrella over our watering well. This is caterpillar season. Those tiny woolen balls carpet the trees by the thousands, and need to be smoked out. If one of them rubs against your skin, you will want to peel your skin off. The intense itch will remain for days. I hold my breath every time I see my husband hover around that tree, blissfully unaware of such avoidable trials. When he is in the type of mood he’s been in for the past three days, he is deaf to my warnings, and disappears into an invisible cocoon. There is no instructing a writer about the ways of this world. I know this much, having been married to one for the past twelve years. I understand now why some people become writers. To simultaneously live in their own world and in ours too. “How about some coffee?” I call out to him. He stares at me, unsure what the answer is. “I’ll bring it to you,” I say, deciding for him. He has a very weak and delicate constitution. He would gladly admit to this.

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“A feather could touch me at an awkward angle and I’m prostrate for a couple of days,” he says. My husband is always laughing at himself. I want to tell him that if tenderness were the measure of one’s strength, he would be King Kong. But I can never tell him that. You never state the obvious to my husband. You just marinate these thoughts in your heart so they grow more delectable with time. I think these thoughts when I cook his meals. He’s barely eaten or slept since the cable arrived three days ago, announcing that his best friend and soul mate, the famous children’s book writer Unni, had passed away in his sleep. He was only forty-five years old. Today is his memorial service, and my husband will be rendering his tribute. “Even a stray dog gets a better send-off than a writer these days,” said my husband last night, as he stayed up working on his talk. My husband writes beautifully, I am told. Someone once told me that it was worth dying just to have my husband write a tribute for them. I wish I could see the beauty of it. I would be willing to die too. But I’d better not, because no one will take care of my husband. And he needs someone to take care if him so he can continue with his work. Only I wish I understood everything he writes. When his work is finished, he leaves the manuscripts on the top of his desk. I touch the pages gently, rubbing my hands over the words, trying to outline them with my fingers. It feels magical, but I don’t know why. I do try to read the words, and each is like a rare pearl, I know. But somehow when he strings them together, they don’t make a meaningful strand for me. He must understand how helpless I feel. But he is too sensitive to insult me by trying to explain it to me. “Keep reading,” he says, with a kind nod of his head, as though some day I’ll learn to suddenly see the surface of the moon with my naked eye.

Unni arrived at our doorstep with a three-day beard growth. This was when I first met him, many years ago. If my husband hadn’t intervened, I would have thought he was a beggar seeking alms. “Don’t be such a fool,” my husband rebuked me, grinding his teeth so hard that I thought they would fall out of his mouth.

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“Sorry,” I said, meekly putting away the sack of rice I had prepared for the beggar. From what my husband had said, and how he had put him on a pedestal, I expected the man to be somehow extraordinary. “You expected him to come to our house on a celestial ship or what? He is a writer, Malathi. God doesn’t intervene in his business.” I understood that my husband was very excited to finally meet him. That the man had come looking for him in his own house. So I didn’t want to stand there explaining my foolish reaction. Instead I said, “Bring him in when you’re ready. I’ll serve the best meal I can.” It was a rainy day and Unni was drenched. My husband offered a change of clothes, but he sat in the front porch for a long while, dripping wet and singing to himself. My husband left him alone. Unni’s eyes were closed half the time, and his hands made funny gestures as though he was carving something out of air. I watched him through the window in my kitchen as I grated coconut. I seemed to understand why birds sang when it rained. That visit lasted three days. My husband and Unni moved through the house, lingering in each location for some unspecified amount of time. Then they sailed away as a pair to another location, talking incessantly. I would hear my husband howl with laughter and if I peeked in, I would see Unni pretending to be a Kathakali dancer, his hands extended like the wings of an eagle, and making tremulous moves with his fingers. Even though he wasn’t wearing a face mask he had the expression of someone who did. I have never before seen anyone do something like that. I would walk away before the men caught me observing them. During those days they didn’t want to waste their precious time eating or doing whatever else non-writers did when they got together. They never slept and I could hear the boom of their voices carry over across the hallway from the room where I slept alone. They talked and talked as though the earth would stop turning if they stopped talking. And when the rest of the world collapsed into a deep slumber, they went out on long walks. And when Unni finally left after three days, my husband acted like he had loaned him a vital part of his body, and did not know how to carry on in its absence. They would meet sporadically after that. Unni would show up. Sometimes he stayed for days and sometimes he left right away. One day, I was getting sick for no reason at all and rushed to the garden and hid behind the well. I stooped over, retched, and threw up. When I ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


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stood up, Unni was sitting on the screen cover of our well as though he were a saint in deep penance. I was shocked, partly because I have never seen anything but birds perch on the wrought iron screen before. There was a gaping hole on that cover. If you slipped, you'd discover your mistake only after it was too late. But this possibility did not seem to bother Unni. He sat motionless. I was sorry that he had caught me in the midst of such an unfortunate event. No one looks graceful vomiting. I thrust my saree palu against my mouth and started to run. “Don’t mind this,” he said, his eyes still closed. “My wife does this once a year. I know all about this.” I ignored him and continued to run towards the house. “Congratulations. It’ll be a baby girl and she’ll be the queen of the night.” I turned around just for a moment, as that thought had not occurred to me. I remember catching a quick glimpse of that night because it looked like someone had poured molten silver all around the edges. The sky was beaming with so many million stars. “She would have to be the queen of all this,” I thought, as my legs carried me away as fast as it could. I never told my husband about this incident, but we named our beautiful daughter Rani.

Rani, now eleven and looking more like a disgruntled employee than a commanding queen, sits on the laundry stone, brushing her teeth. I am drawing water from the well for her highness to bathe. A plate of idlis sits on the parapet wall waiting for her. A crow sits next to her and cricks his head around, eyeing what could easily be turned into his meal. “Crows these days think they are human, ever since we started acting like one of them.” I remember my husband telling me this. He always made me look at things differently. I only think to chase those annoying things away. But now after he told me that, I imagine the faces of people I don’t like when I chase them around.

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“No, don’t chase him,” Rani says, looking at me with contempt. “I like the bird.” I wonder if she likes him for the crow he is or the human he wants to be. Rani usually makes her choice of breakfast by studying the many fruit trees in our backyard. Sapota, mango, guava, banana, pomegranate. She then climbs a tree and picks her own fruit of choice. But today she shakes her head every time I phrase a question. “No idlis, no fruits, don’t chase the bird, won’t take a bath” as though she were an epileptic. I have been studying her closely for the past three days to see how Uncle Unni’s death has affected her. Her face is as expressive as the Vivekanada rock after sunset. She makes an ugly face at my husband as he walks past, unaware of our presence. Her expression carries a deep resentment that I had never seen my child express. “What for, that face?” I ask, too shocked to say anything else. I am glad my husband did not see her betray him in this fashion. He would be crushed if he saw his Rani with that awful face aimed at him. Yesterday, when I complained about her, my husband told me that she was only a baby who doesn’t understand the permanence of death. I look at my daughter’s face, and my heart starts to quiver, and it strikes me suddenly that I am capable of smacking her. “Want to go the memorial service with your Appa, you ingrate?” I ask her. “He expects you to share a word or two at the meeting with his friends about your experience with Uncle Unni. Are you going to do that or are you going to just sit here making ugly faces?” She walks away without saying anything. “Where you trotting off, your highness?” I scream after her. “What for all this?” my husband says. “Just a child, she is. She’ll go when I go.” I see his face and how his eyes have soaked up all the sorrows of the world, like a blotting paper. And now he doesn’t have a friend to share it with. His princess could at least show him some mercy. I walk to Rani’s room after bringing coffee to my husband. Rani is sitting on her swing, painting her nails.

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“One nice word, one nice face. Does it cost you much, crazy girl?” I open the curtains and look outside. The sky is turning charcoal. I turn around just in time to catch the cheeky girl make another blatant face at me. A thick layer of baby talc is caked on her face and her lips have some kumkum smeared on them, making them look like hibiscus buds. She is a coquettish cat complete with whiskers. “Again, you do that ugly face?” I grab her two braids. “No respect for the man. Or for me.” I tug at her braids, maybe it was a little harder than I intended, but the blood-curdling scream was something else. Her eyes spit out fire and hatred and she seems to say, “I know you.” “Close your eyes shut before they burn themselves into cinders,” I say, and walk away after slamming the door shut. She really did not have to be so inconsiderate.

When Rani was a baby, my husband would not even come close to her for fear she would shatter if he touched her delicate body. But Unni walked into the back room unannounced one day, picked up the baby, and walked away. He spent the rest of the afternoon holding her as he strolled through the orchard inspecting the trees, chatting with the butterflies. “Now you have serious competition,” I told my husband, who couldn’t wait for his friend to abandon his child-rearing responsibilities and spend time with him. “No wonder he captures a child’s world so completely. He is the one who creates that world for them,” my husband said. “Me? I live in mortal fear that a child will see through me and expose me.” “How come we never meet Unni’s family?” I asked. My husband said something vague. I don’t remember what. We never met his family. As Rani grew up, Unni always came deep into the house and insisted on spending some time with both Rani and me, entertaining us in our

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natural habitat—the kitchen, the storeroom, and the pooja room. He told us stories about his many children. He kept adding a new name to his brood every so often. He usually sat on the grinding stone and husked the coconuts for me with his bare hands. He insisted on tasting the dish I was making, even before it was finished. My husband has never been one to enter my world at all. I was always shocked that a strange man would take such liberties, but I knew better than to question the decisions that writers make. Besides we loved his family through him. He might say when he settled down to talk about his family. “Sita, my oldest? Two pre-molars gone. You can drive a bullock cart through the gap.” Or “Mina called the train that goes through our town, a giant caterpillar. Imagine the size of the cocoon it would make!” Rani would squat on the ground beside him, her hands wrapped around her scabby, dirty knees, two mountain peaks and a little face shining like a rising sun. And if you observed the play of expressions on her face, you would think she was watching spectacular fireworks during Divali. When Unni was gone for prolonged periods, Rani and I talked about his family until the next visit, when he returned to update his stories. Rani knew what his oldest daughter Sita would do or say when confronted with any given problem. “Manu would never have pushed his brother inside the river,” Rani would say on a stormy night, when we talked about Unni’s family. “How did the baby boy get lost then?” I would ask. “I bet it was the mad man next door who locked him up in his cow shed. Remember? The one with a long beard?” Rani would say with the authority given to her by Uncle Unni, who had made these people come alive for her. One day I caught Rani hugging a drawing book. She hesitated to show it to me. I was insistent. The cover had many dried leaves pasted on it. The title read, “Uncle Unni’s family.” Rani had a page dedicated for every member of that family. Each member was an article: a saw, a wrench, a screw, a spanner.

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“Is this a garden tool box or a human family?” I teased. Rani pouted. “Does Uncle Unni know his loved ones are digging and drilling tools now?” “He says he even likes the expressions on their faces,” Rani said in a What-would-you-know-about-such-things, Amma, tone of voice. “He says, how perfect! But little screwdriver is growing older now. So I’ll make him a shovel or something.” I flipped through the pages, wondering how my daughter could come up with this idea. Where did she learn how to add such realistic facial expressions and features to these imagined characters? How is she able to make you fall in love with common household objects and teach you to accept them with their fine needle points and sharp jagged edges, as though they grew inside your womb? Who would ever think to covet a chainsaw? “Wait a minute. How come Uncle Unni’s page is empty? What is he going to be?” Rani did not say anything. “Let me think, maybe….” I said. Rani covered her ears and screamed. She stood up to leave. “I know what you’re thinking. Don’t want me to bias you,” I said. “I’ll be under the rain tree, playing,” Rani said, running away. I looked at Rani’s picture book again. Unni’s children. Seven of them. How I feel like we have known them all my life, like we had seen them every day and as though they grew older right alongside Rani.

My husband has to leave shortly for the memorial service. I go inside my daughter’s room to see if she has changed her attitude. Rani is lying underneath the bed. A blanket lies stretched across the floor and she is covering her face with the other end. “Okay, you ghost person. That’s enough. Show me your face.” I try to unwrap the blanket and expose her face. I hear her whimpering as

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though her sobs are trying to run away from her and she needed to tie them down.

“Rani, what happened today? You are upset,” I say. “We all are. Unni was family, more than family; your father would give up his life for him.” The sobbing gets louder. “Okay, why don’t I do this? I will read from one of Unni’s books? Which one? ‘The Animal Symphony? Grandma’s Elephant Brigade?’ You pick one, baby. I will read your favorite book. This way we’ll feel like he is talking to us.” “I hate him,” she said. “Whom?” “My father.” “What did he do to you?” My hands start to tug at the tassels on her blanket. “Look how you make me upset. What did appa do except share his friend with you?” “I hate the friend too.” “Unni? Why?” I am thinking it is natural for kids to hate someone when they die. It makes the loss so much more bearable. I wish I could hate Unni too. I wish I could cry out. But I have to keep up the facade for my husband. It wouldn’t do any good to light a match next to dynamite. “Why make that ugly, ugly face at your appa? You know he hurts easy. Don’t you?” Rani starts to disentangle the sheet wrapping her head. “What would you say if this is what I look like to you suddenly?” she says. The sheet is completely off her face and her eyes look accusingly at me. I look at that precious face in utter horror. Rani has black kajal tarnishing her dreamy eyes. Several tarry lines crisscross her face randomly, from chin to forehead. A gory blackened head floats in front

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of me against the backdrop of a smoky sky outside. From the middle of that canvas, a pair of scarlet eye stares out at me. “What you do that for?” I pull her face towards me and start to rub off the kajal with the palu of my saree. “Crazy girl.” “See what I mean? See?” Rani says. “No one likes it if you wear a different face every day. See you hate it, don’t you? Now you know how I feel.” “What you saying?” Why is my daughter talking in riddles like her dad? “You understand nothing, amma,” she says, and dives inside her blanket again. “I’m stupid. So, you tell me.” I don’t know what else to say to get her to talk. Rani starts to sob in earnest again. There is no hope. I walk to the window and look outside. Black clouds are starting to descend towards the earth. The sky fractures unevenly and a distant thunder claps its hands. I see Rani’s green picture book lying on the ground. I pick it up and flick through the pages. I catch a new drawing on Unni’s page. “Oh,” I say, “You draw Unni now, I see.” I can tell from the lumbering footsteps on the wooden stairs that my husband is coming up. I look at the picture of Unni my daughter has drawn. “What is it?” I ask. “Tell your amma, baby. A cucumber? A thimble?” I stare at the picture except I don’t know how exactly to hold the book. “If you ask me, baby,” I say. A chuckle escapes me inadvertently. “It actually could be a boy’s soosoo.” Rani looks up and what her eyes say sears into every bone in my body. A lizard chirps from behind the tube light and that sound punctures my eardrums.

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“No,” I scream, cupping my ears with both hands. Rani’s book slips out of my hands, glides down my saree and rests on my toes. I kick it away as though it were a rotting rodent. I grab Rani’s shoulders and shake her body vigorously. “Tell me you’re making this up. Tell me nothing happened with Unni.” I keep on shaking her. Rani’s head bobs back and forth like a Tanjore doll. “I’ll kill you, kill you.” I shriek. The pitch of my voice is so high that it sounds like a bird caught in a trap. I hear my husband’s wheezing breath. I let go of her body. The ground underneath me shakes from the reverberation of the traffic outside, but my legs don’t stop shivering until long after the lorry is gone. “Rani, baby,” I whisper. How can I ask my baby to tell me more than I care to understand already? How can she confirm something that I cannot ever bear to face? “Rani, my sweet child,” I say, just under my breath. My husband knocks on the door. “What for this commotion now? Is Rani ready or not?”

I stand by the window staring out at the rain, but I am not sure for how long. I see Rani’s father walk down the street by himself to the bus station. He is on his way to the memorial service. Rani is still on the floor. I lock my daughter inside the house and run out the door into the pouring rain. I have memories of the side streets and alleyways that would lead me to the memorial hall. When I walk into the hall, it feels like enemy territory. I have never been in the midst of so many men before. Some look puzzled to see me and some look away quickly, as if they had stared at the blazing sun for too long. Most don't dare look up at all. My husband is standing on the podium next to a garlanded photograph of Unni. There is a steadily burning lamp next to it. My husband is lost in his speech. Endearing words spread out like fragrance. I can sense the impact it has on the audience. An occasional outburst or a sob cuts through the rapt attention. If my husband sees me standing in the far corner, he doesn’t show it. As I had suspected, my husband is ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


FICTION | Thaila Ramanujam | 51

giving his friend a send-off befitting royalty. When he steps down, the audience bursts out in loud sobs. I find myself walking to the podium. By the time I turn around to face the crowd, the crying stops and a deafening silence befalls the auditorium. But I look up at what seems to me like the intense stare of about hundred cobra eyes poised at me for the final strike. An occasional cough from the audience reminds me that I am out of line. But I start to speak without knowing what I will say next. I have never addressed a crowd. Someone adjusts the microphone, and my voice echoes back to me. For my daughter’s sake, I want to hear what that voice has to say. I only have a few words, I say. My voice shakes uncontrollably and emotions seem to clog my throat. I tell myself it doesn’t matter what I say now, all I need to do is draw one brush stroke of a doubt, create one dissonant note. I clear my throat, I speak softly, and I say that I am not a poet. I say when some people die, they live on because of a legacy they leave, by how they chose to live their lives. But when some people die, they die once and for all, for the same reason. I stop talking. It feels done. I step away from the podium and leave a sea of vacant faces in front of me. When I leave, the Memorial Hall is still wrapped in silence. And I run home thinking that the rain is clapping on the rooftop for my Rani.

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


KAMAYANI SHARMÄ

Their Talk Is No Talk

If I could place my ear in just the right direction and use it as a butterfly net to gulp down all the murmurs and rumours, I would know. Oral insects held aloft by thin, quiet tinsel cobwebs of sin. They flutter past, becoming noisier as they near my eager ears. And they are my magic minions for they glide into the whirls and spools of my ears and scratch on the flesh – with ticklish tiny fingers – all that they’ve heard in the air between two breaths and a pair of lips. fairies and spies and bugs…all one. They etch out the hearts of those they hear onto my pink, soft flesh. and I know the voice; I know the speaker. So intimately and disdainfully. and jealously. Like an extinct love affair. Communication between my messengers and myself – winged critters and grown child – is like a dream – thoughtless and vivid. Those who are the targets of my espionage remain aloof, from themselves and from each other. ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


POETRY | Kamayani Sharma | 53

Their talk is no talk. I, who am a stranger, know them deeper than they comprehend their selves. In buses, with the window to one side to escape the abyss on the other. In cafes, sipping noisily and slowly, To involve attention in the mug. On a stroll, waiting for gaps in soliloquies to begin another, only to despise the moment created for it, which has passed. Their talk is no talk. The world has grown old and conversation has been exiled to oblivion. No longer the acme of civilisation‌ Rhetoric to sense the universe with. Periscope, almanac, compass. The instruments of the human race lost. As are we now. Unsure in this jungle and stumbling through alien forests. Ah. But they are not alien. They are the same. The landscape remains. It is we who have become intruders into our own pasts and truths. We are no longer the same race. Lost within our silences and grunts. Like animals. We have returned to beasts. They fear our forms‌ But they recognise our fears. For they are theirs too. And so we return to them, ashamed and sheepish, affecting power. But when they bark, we bark. Our howls of pain are the same. Yelps of ecstasy ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


POETRY | Kamayani Sharma | 54

exact. Their talk is no talk. Nor is ours. My winged friends tell me. They are mute. Hence they are true.

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


JESSICA WOAN

Jarring

Okay, I will meet you tomorrow so you can cast my figure. But, the white, glassy marble people that I grew up adoring have luxurious, wavy locks, a nasal bridge to hold spectacles, and no epicanthic folds to peer beyond. Will the replica of my figure live up to the ideals we still hold of yore, or will the face be too unfitting for this sacred medium?

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


DARREN LEE

ARTIST STATEMENT As a New York City native I've seen a lot of out of the ordinary things. Being the firm believer that everything happens for a reason and that there has to be a deeper meaning to seemingly random stuff is exciting and fun as I piece together a connection. That's how I approach my work and would like others to view my work, whether it be in printmaking or currently on the Internet. Interactivity on the web brings another layer to my process where puzzles are to be solved both from the clicking on a button to the use of the imagination. My next project involves karaoke with news feeds for a spectacular installation bringing together my love of seemingly entertaining randomness and the mundane. Look out for it in the Spring 2009. View my work at http://community.mfaca.sva.edu/~darren

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ART | Darren Lee | 57

Earl Grey

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ART | Darren Lee | 58

Super Friends

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ART | Darren Lee | 59

We're All Ears

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ART | Darren Lee | 60

You're Late

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ART | Darren Lee | 61

Dogface

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ART | Darren Lee | 62

Facewash

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


CHRISTINA HUI JUNG SONG

ARTIST STATEMENT Through life’s struggles and times of gloominess, I use art and different art media to help cope with the harder times of life. I feel aged and weathered through the hard times that life has brought me. Through this body of work I have discovered that I care a lot about my family and a lot about the quality of life. Through the fun times there has to be down times. I felt as though I was trying to paint funny things while everything at home was crashing down. Even though it may be rough sometimes, life is what you make of it. Just like painting, drawing, or any art form. Through the expressions of my characters and the colors they are happy and yet glum at the same time. The monsters are weathered in the eyes and some even show age spots and certain features that set them apart from a clean baby monster. It is markings and characteristics that life creates imprints on you everyday. The color palates are generally cooler but are bright which also gives it a sad but happy tone. I have always thought that it was important to show the world that I was happy even in hard times and I really hope that my art is expressed in those ways. Its not always easy to fake it, but its easier to express my means through painting rather than speaking out in feelings

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ART | Christine Song | 64

Cholos

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ART | Christine Song |

65

Encaustic Monster

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ART | Christine Song | 66

Family Portrait

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ART | Christine Song |

67

More $$$ More Probs

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


CANDYBIRD

ARTIST STATEMENT I am a twenty-five-year-old illustrator. I live in the South of France. I like drawing sensual and beautiful women. My women represent an ideal, a sort of perfection of the femininity for me: a mixture between a childish side and a femme fatale side. They seem fragile with their very pale complexions and pink cheeks, but they are also at a glance mysterious and cold. They have tattoos, often a small diamond, replacing jewels. Really they all hide a secret.

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ART | Candybird | 69

Le Br창me du Cerf

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ART | Candybird | 70

Mal

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ART | Candybird | 71

My Fawn is Sad

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ART | Candybird | 72

My Pink Pet

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ART | Candybird | 73

Pink Night

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


LLOYD LIU

Water Ghost

Han was heading to the outskirts of Orlando. This time he was to play the role of a salesman instead of a son. He had rented a forest green four-door sedan with bubble headlights and smooth contours, and the history of his childhood, abridged and cropped in his mind, came dribbling loose from its tight bolts and steel walls. He clenched his steering wheel as he turned off the interstate and drove up a winding road settled into a small hill. His black hair was cut short. His skin, thanks to Chicago’s cloudy and otherwise dreary fall and winter months, was paler than he liked. His mother, of Taiwanese and Southern Chinese descent, had given him the gift of a crisp brown tan. Han supposed Jeremiah’s whiteness had cursed him and taken away brown as his default color. Han felt pasty and doughy. Jeremiah’s house on 43 Warren Road was ranch style and, from the looks of it, better manicured than Han remembered. Perhaps bachelorhood gave him nothing better to do than fix forgettable odds and ends. Han threaded a stream of air between his lips and, with a slow roll of his hands, pulled into the driveway. Han rang the doorbell, failing to recognize the chime. The address matched but, on closer inspection, nothing else seemed to. There was a fresh coat of paint, and the windows were streak-less. The yard, at its very fringes, was perfectly demarked from its neighbors. Han rang the doorbell again with his thumb. ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


FICTION | Lloyd Liu | 75

No answer. He pivoted on his heel and walked down the front walkway lined with small bushes and the occasional blooming flower. He tucked his hands into his brown slacks and headed for the sedan. Jeremiah’s absence was for the better anyway. Who shows up after twenty silent years, decked out in a suit, ready to cut to business? Han didn’t know who he was kidding, who he even thought he was. When he had first heard the assignment, he didn’t want it. The suture contract with Orlando General wasn’t the only job he could’ve taken. There were other hospitals: Northwestern, Mass General. Instead, there he was, two days early for the meeting, looking to garner support from a particular surgeon, one that wasn’t home. Han’s killer instinct was what had driven him here, despite the inevitable confrontation with Jeremiah. He wanted to close this deal. A big contract would put him in the running for sales rep of the year and get him a nice bonus. He’d also receive a gaudy but nonetheless well-respected paperweight at the head of his desk in the office he never had time to be at anyway. Yes, Han wanted to sink his jaws into the throat of this deal. He slid into the sedan and began to slowly back out of the driveway. The engine hummed, then purred, as he pressed harder on the gas. Han righted the car and centered himself. He peered at the ranch-style house, how it sat couched in the hill. Behind it, a huge lake gleamed in the sunlight. Its waves shined. With his toes, Han tapped the gas. The sedan rolled forward. A smacking sound popped Han out of his seat. He turned his head and caught flesh pressed against the passenger side window. A torrent of sweat, a wrinkled forehead, eyes, and a mouth pressed heavily against the glass. “Jesus!” Han cried as he crushed the gas pedal, sending him screeching down the street, a wake of burnt rubber behind him. His heart crashed against his chest, tried its best to tear itself from the web of arteries and veins. After peeling away for a few seconds, Han braked abruptly short of the stop sign. On the passenger side window, the imprints of Jeremiah’s sweat lines remained. Han tinkered with the idea of sending ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


FICTION | Lloyd Liu | 76

his fist in a straight shot through the glass, to know a figment of what it was to be crazy. Jeremiah was a silhouette behind him, still in Han’s rearview mirror. His figure appeared to struggle just to stand. Han set the car in reverse and slowly made his way back down the street, the sedan’s fat ass going first. He pulled up to Jeremiah who was drenched, wearing a gray T-shirt and khaki shorts. Their eyes locked first. Han rolled down the window. “Jeremiah?” “Son?” Han gripped the leather around the steering wheel. Han always rented cars with leather interiors. Leather helped a little in taking the edge off. Han chewed on the inside of his mouth. The motor rumbled. “Hey,” he said. “Hi,” Jeremiah replied. Father and son searched each other’s faces for the blemishes, fine craters, moles, and slight scars of age. Han looked for any kind of lasting damage. “I wasn’t expecting you for another fifteen minutes so I went for a run,” Jeremiah said, clenching and unclenching his jaw. He propped his elbow on the roof of the car, using it as a crutch. Jeremiah was venous, dark, and leathery. His eyes sunk deeply into their sockets. His lips were thin and dry. With every breath, his chest stretched like a dried out rag. “Right,” Han replied. He straightened the collar of his suit with his free hand. “Yeah. I’m sorry about that. Got spooked.” “That’s okay.” Han thought through a series of sales pitches he could’ve recited for Jeremiah. He’d been trained to handle highpressure, high-stakes situations. Sweat formed in the

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


FICTION | Lloyd Liu | 77

webbing between his fingers. The corner of Jeremiah’s mouth pulled back into a smile. “Park on the street and we’ll walk to the lake,” he said. “We can take my boat out.” “You have a boat?” “Yes, now go ahead and park,” Jeremiah replied. Han pulled his car to the side of the road with his wheels hugging the curb. When he got out, Jeremiah was gone. Beside the house was an open dirt path he remembered as a child but thought had become overgrown and impassable a long time ago. Han jogged down the trail, criss-crossed with a few large roots and some small rocks broken off from larger stones. When he cleared the path, Han came into view of a dock he had never seen before. There was Jeremiah’s boat, a little pontoon sitting on two thick banana floats on each end. Han scratched his throat. He felt stifled, congested. He undid the top button around his neck. That wasn’t enough. He continued down the line, popping button after button, letting more and more wind blow across him. All the raw heat was making him itchy. As Jeremiah always said, one had to be thick-skinned. Jeremiah stood on the boat and tidied things up, working on odds and ends Han had no knowledge of. Jeremiah appeared better on the boat, not nearly as exasperated or dehydrated as he was before. He paced around steadily, ably. Compared to Han’s dusty memories of him Jeremiah was lighter, younger. “Why the hell are you wearing a suit anyway?” Jeremiah shouted. Han stepped backwards into a patch of moist dirt. When he stepped forward, his heel lifted with a sucking sound and splattered bits of mud all over his black loafers. He didn’t like to do as Jeremiah said, but this time his words meshed well with some serious undercurrent, a ribbon of energy tickling his marrow. He removed his suit jacket and laid it over a tree ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


FICTION | Lloyd Liu | 78

branch. Then he pulled off his shoes and dress socks. Finally, he removed his white button-down and his undershirt and hung them both over another branch. The earth was damp, squelching between his toes. With a deliberate pace, he moved toward the dock, feeling out the distance by the pads of his feet. Changing gradients of light flushed through the canopy formed by the beachside trees. Waves slapped lazily at half-buried, hollow tree trunks. The dock was firm and there were only a few uneven spaces between its spruce boards. Han rolled up the cuffs of his slacks and stepped on board Jeremiah’s ship. Jeremiah was ready to set sail. “So what makes your suture better than the one I’m using now?” Jeremiah asked as he untied the pontoon from dock. The ship was blunt and square. When Han was a kid, Jeremiah had always talked about getting a boat. He always made it seem like he wanted a pointed, sleek vessel. Instead, he had this dinky, clumsy platform with twin engines that seemed far too small to propel the ship’s wide hull. Along the side, written in black, bold cursive, was the word “Prestige.” “The suture’s initial strength is comparable to nylon and gut,” Han began. “The coated suture is the fastest absorbing synthetic suture on the market and elicits a significantly lower tissue reaction than chromic gut tissue.” Jeremiah started the engines. “Wonderful. But I’ll have to see it first.” “Of course,” Han said. His eyes became slits as he scrutinized Jeremiah from the top down. He had to narrow his eyes, reduce the amount of light exposure to be positive no illusions were being played. Jeremiah’s calves were well-built, corded, and sturdy. His upper body seemed as fit as ever, thick and full. Maybe it was his choice of baggy sweats that had made him look scrawnier than he actually was. Now, with him wearing only khaki shorts, the image was clear. Over a decade, Jeremiah had made himself into everything Han was not. His shoulder blades were split wide, his shoulders broad. He was built like an oak. Han watched him under cover of wayward glances and took a seat on the aft side. ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


FICTION | Lloyd Liu | 79

Han’s legs dangled off the back of the pontoon as it slowly pulled away from shore. Sunlight sprinkled through the foliage, peppering his bare shoulders, back, and face. The pontoon’s twin engines gained thrust as Jeremiah piloted toward the lake’s heart. The boat unzipped the lake’s surface with parting white crests, shifting the water’s face beneath Han’s feet. He watched the ripples as his hands gripped the rails. He wiggled his two big toes and traced them against the water’s grain. The wind picked up and chilled the sweat wicking off his back. Jeremiah’s house—the house of Han’s childhood—shrank, but in the clear day wasn’t in danger of disappearing. It sat couched in the hillside, bordered by a small patch of orange trees and an elaborate, triple-deck birdhouse complete with a fountain. Han lifted his head and rotated his pasty freckled forearms beneath the full exposure of the sun as the boat cleared out from the overhanging trees leaning precariously from shore. Enough time in the Florida sun would undo the atrophy of cloudy, dark, cold Chicago. Jeremiah piloted the pontoon with his chest puffed out. Han bowed his head and returned his attention to the growing wake. Jeremiah was the kind of person who’d act like the commander of an armada even if he was in a canoe. He had always had a way of injecting an inflated and false sense of pride in anything, everything. Jeremiah looked back. “How do you like selling sutures?” “It gets me by.” Han forced his voice against the wind. In the chaos that had followed his mother’s divorce from Jeremiah, Han had taught her a few expressions she couldn’t have learned from her English classes in Taiwan. “It gets me by” was a phrase of the week, sometimes the month. Han scrunched up his nose. Jeremiah kicked the boat to full speed. The eye of the lake turned on a switch in Han’s brain. They were approaching the center. “I always thought it strange how you never inherited your mother’s fear of water,” Jeremiah said.

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


FICTION | Lloyd Liu | 80

“What do you mean?” Han asked, lifting his head. “Well I always told her to keep her childhood myths to herself, all those stories of ghosts. After all, you’re an American boy and an American boy can hardly survive in an American world looking over his shoulder. It’s just impractical.” At the center of the lake, where everything seemed equidistantly alien, the water lost the rusty red tinge it had near the shallower edges. The pontoon slapped lightly along in the mild crests and troughs. Jeremiah knitted his brows together while he stared out over the distance. “And that’s why,” Jeremiah said, his hand sweeping across the bow. “That’s why your mother was so apprehensive about buying a house by the lake. Ghosts.” He reached into his pocket for two cigars and offered one to Han. “Smoke?” he asked. “No thanks.” Jeremiah lit up. “I’ve got all Lyn’s stories locked away in my head. There’s one about a school girl hanging herself in a garden.” “I’ll pass on that one.” “I would too.” Jeremiah puffed and left silky trails etched in the air. “I take it she’s never told you these things.” “She has.” “I see,” Jeremiah said, ashing his cigar casually with a few light taps. They scattered and floated as crumbs into Han’s face. “The stories are part of you. I know they were part of me at some point.” The smoke played off Jeremiah’s frame, licking his eyes. It emanated, gave him an aura. “It’s funny how different you are from me,” he said. “Funny? How?”

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FICTION | Lloyd Liu | 81

“You don’t seem like a girl-chaser like I was.” Jeremiah carefully grabbed two fishing poles mounted on the sides. “I was laid by the time I was sixteen…to an older girl no less. When’d you first get laid? Have you been laid?” He handed Han the shorter of the two rods. “Yes. I was twelve,” Han replied wryly. “She was twentythree, all out in the world by her lonesome and I had just finished learning how to write in cursive. We made love like chipmunks.” Han made himself laugh on the inside. He hadn’t been laid until he was twenty-something. Jeremiah hitched a weight and a reflective metal tongue to the end of the line, a dangler. He cast. The spool whirred and whizzed till the weight settled with a plop far off the starboard side. “Really? It must’ve been like probing a mine with a pencil.” Jeremiah jostled his line up and down. The boat was steadily drifting away from the middle. “I don’t know about you, but I’m well endowed.” “Vicious lies. Don’t think I haven’t seen your thing before.” Jeremiah turned to Han and pointed an accusing finger at his crotch. “You’re not extraordinarily gifted in that regard. I saw that little sprout as soon as you came out of your mother.” The boat bobbed, feeling out young premature ebbs. Han lowered his head. He glowered. “So Han, here’s a question for you.” “Yeah?” Han replied, grudgingly. “Why are you down here?” “I didn’t want to spend my life passing you like a kidney stone.” “You should try forgetting,” Jeremiah said as he paced along the edge of the boat. The big pads of his feet scuffled back and forth. Jeremiah had Han acutely pegged. Jeremiah rolled his thick bare shoulders. His neck ruffled. He was a bear, standing resolute on his platform. In the interim, Han found only wisps of words passing across his lips. Half-syllables

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FICTION | Lloyd Liu | 82

hung from the roof of his mouth. They were only form, no substance. “You’re wondering, ‘Would he do it again if he could take it back?’” Jeremiah arched over and scratched the small of his back. A thin film of sweat glistened between his shoulder blades. Looking over the water, he narrowed his eyes and sighed. Wetness tapered off the bridge of his nose. Han’s lunch tray was a mound of disarray. A Twinkie wrapper sat at the bottom of an empty bowl with a few crushed peas at the bottom. An empty carton of chocolate milk lay on its side, its straw bent at the elbow. Han swirled these little shreds of trash with the stains and made a colorful gumbo. His mother sat beside him. She forked her way through her meal in punctuated stabs, eating only in the side of her mouth, her right cheek sticking out. Jeremiah sat on the other side. With his broad shoulders armored in a starchy white coat, he was an imposing figure to the nine-year-old Han. He seemed barely able to fit into it and, to Han’s knowledge, seemed too burly to be a doctor. On the other hand, his mom fit her nurse uniform quite well. She was slender, curvy, and composed. “Isn’t it sad learning is always after the fact?” Lyn asked. “That’s a stupid observation,” Jeremiah replied, ripping off a chunk from a roll with his teeth. “Why?” Lyn’s hands were placed at the table’s edge. “It’s outside your control. Why care about something completely out of your influence?” Jeremiah had a way of making everything feel cold. “I can still be sad about it.” “Sure, but it’s about as useful as being sad about gravity or the sky.” Jeremiah shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe I’m sad about those things too.” A quiet wind passed between them. ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


FICTION | Lloyd Liu | 83

Jeremiah laughed. “It’s a pity you’ve got a painfully romantic understanding of the world.” Han took his straw and twirled it in the mess he’d made. He slumped his head into his hand, resting his cheek in his palm. “You cheated on me,” Lyn whispered fiercely, spat the words at him. She leaned forward to keep Han from overhearing. “You embarrassed me.” But Han had pretty good ears. Han secreted a fist against his gut, held it tightly against his hip. It dug into him like a dull thorn. He tore into himself with his knuckles as he turned his wrists back and forth. “Yes,” Jeremiah said with a firm certitude. The response had oomph to it, as did Han’s fist as it drilled into Jeremiah’s temple. The timing was perfect. Han’s punch had the mechanics and rotation of a textbook golf swing. As Jeremiah was turning his head, Han struck him flat in the cheek with a wet smack. His father stumbled backwards on his heels for a moment. Then he went over, his ankles the last thing in sight. “Okay!” Jeremiah shouted from overboard, panting as he treaded water. “Okay! I deserved that one. I deserved it.” He paddled with both his arms while he tried to shake off the water from his eyes. Han’s hand flared up like a torch. The dullness began to subside as the shock of impact shivered through his bones. “You’re a pretty convincing salesman I guess,” Jeremiah said as he grasped the side railing. Han knelt at the edge and extended his hand. “Twenty years. We haven’t spoken in twenty years. You come down here trying to get me to support a contract proposal. I show you my boat, my little pride and joy,” his father said. His voice dipped a bit as if it was one of the few things he could regard with dignity anymore. “Hell of a salesman you are.” He swatted away Han’s arm. Han’s chest heaved. “Listen, Jeremiah…” The words felt like gravel in his throat. He choked them back. As he sat there, frozen on his knees, he could feel his lungs rise and deflate with the crests and troughs of the lake. He was in sync for a few moments. Han ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


FICTION | Lloyd Liu | 84

shut his eyes, staring only at the back of his eyelids burned red by sunlight. He trembled and for a few moments unlearned the onion-like layers of emotional security he had collected since childhood. They wafted off him like solar flares, and at his core, he stood exposed. “I’m wet. My face feels like it’s on fire. I’d appreciate it if you’d just say whatever it is you got to say,” Jeremiah said, forcing Han back to earth. “I’ve been holding on to a lot of things,” he admitted grudgingly. “No kidding,” Jeremiah said as he pulled himself back on board with a slight groan. “Next time I stop by your place remind me to bring my baggage with me too.” “Hey, don’t come back at me with talk like that.” Han took a firm step forward. “You left your fair share of baggage on my shoulders.” Jeremiah’s backhand was swift and brutal, landing across Han’s lower jaw. Face-first, Han hit the deck. He panted hard, grinding his teeth together and gnashing. Rolling onto his side, he managed to pull himself to one knee though the lake spun and laughed around him. With a crack, another backhand landed between his ear and his jaw-line. Jeremiah shouted, “Who the hell do you think you are? Coming down here with all this rage?” Han swung himself onto his heels and drove his arm home into Jeremiah’s belly. His thighs and calves screamed as he threw himself against Jeremiah’s torso. Han measured embarrassment in bruises. He was going to show Jeremiah the debt. He groped blindly at Jeremiah’s naked upper torso, hoping to find a good chunk of flesh to grab him and slam him against the deck by. Their mouths were muffled as their arms blundered across and into one another, interlocking but twisted. “Fuck you!” Han shouted. He knocked Jeremiah down, halfpinning him.

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FICTION | Lloyd Liu | 85

Jeremiah, patient but inflamed, maneuvered his feet against Han’s pelvis. In one swift horse kick, he sent his son vaulting through the air. Han sailed wide-eyed, shocked by the latent energies in his old man. When he landed flat on his back, he couldn’t utter a breath. Deflated and flapping like a tired flag, his lungs had been pounded into submission. The wind blew through him and cold clustered around his flesh like platelets to a wound. “Are we even?” Han asked, panting. His arms were limp and spread out. “Not yet, kiddo.” With his thick corded fingers Jeremiah pulled Han up by his throat. His full white teeth shone in Han’s eyes. His massive hulking skull shed sweat and water. His grip was taut, secure, stretched, and steady. Han’s vision began to blur. Jeremiah’s eyes welled up. “You have no killer instinct.” Han’s throat tightened, and his vision began to double and triple. He saw rips in everything. The fabric of the air and the water seemed to be tearing apart. Splitting open, the world was full of open wounds and lasting sores. Jeremiah’s hand tightened but something didn’t seem right. Jeremiah’s hand quivered and, for a blink, became a translucent blue. Han found himself plunged headfirst, submerged. The motion had been a blur, too quick to observe and too extreme to register. A pressure pinched him in the back of the neck. Jeremiah had him in a full nelson. They were sinking. Tangled together, they sank fast. They drifted through an increasing absence of light. Han kicked, clenched, and pulled. He twisted at the waist and thrashed his head from side to side but Jeremiah’s grip was solid. Han’s bubbles left him, flying from his nostrils and sailing from between his lips. He convulsed from hips to arms and his body threw spasms. Jeremiah had Han’s entire body locked up. They sank in a straight line, swift as heavy, dense matter. The sun flittered away. At the bottom of the lake, deep in the center, there existed a vacuum. Han wasn’t sure he wasn’t already belly-up. His glazed eyes registered a bright blue luminescence as he and Jeremiah plummeted toward the lake floor. When their ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


FICTION | Lloyd Liu | 86

bodies hit the bottom, a nebulous cloud of dirt kicked up and obscured everything. Han’s vision dissolved. He hadn’t known pitch dark in a long time. “The water ghost is a vengeance ghost,” Han’s mother explained. They were walking alongside Lake Michigan on a warm afternoon. His mom was slim in her youth and early married life, but then had filled out a little more, especially after the divorce. She kept wearing her pants higher and higher. Her waistline went far above the hips, splitting the belly in half horizontally. Han wondered if his mother would find someone else before her pants enveloped her entire upper torso. Suddenly conscious of his surroundings, he racked his mind to ascertain a time or place. The situation was familiar. He had been eighteen at the time. “It’s an old story grandma used to tell us to keep us from going off toward the rocky shore near our home,” Lyn went on. “Some believed it more than others, but everyone thought it was true.” They moved to the right side to make room for bikers passing on their left. Han recognized he was reliving a memory, one of many along Lakeshore Drive where he consoled Lyn by listening to her myths. That was not good enough. He moved to break from the walk, but his legs were set in their motions. He tried to pry his lips open, but found them comfortably closed. His mind was present, but his body was unresponsive. “A girl who had her heart broken by her great love drowned herself in the ocean, out by the cliffs our parents told us to stay away from,” Lyn explained, flickering her grey eyes over Lake Michigan. Her pace slowed and she crossed her arms, making her appear even more stout and immobile. Han’s body slowed too and stood beside her. Ahead of them, a few high-school kids played basketball on one of the many granite courts periodically dotting the path. “She was so bitter her spirit came to inhabit the cliffs, and she became a vengeance ghost.” Lyn lowered her head, her shoulder-length hair swayed. “Grandma told all of us that if we swam there, the ghost would drag us down to the bottom and drown us. But she would never stop. She could never stop ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


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because what she wanted she could never have.” Lyn’s round, brown face scrunched together. “The water ghost could never understand. That’s what I thought the problem was,” she said. Han’s head filled with a kind of thought-steam. Ideas bubbled to the forefront of his brain and his temples felt heavy. An old gem was being unearthed. Sediment was being brushed clear. He wanted to reach out to his mother and tell her things would be all right, but aside from being unable to do this, realized that was a naïve and pointless thought. They were each mired. This was the moment though. This was a moment of immense quietude. Lyn avoided talking about it. She sucked in a breath full of the sometimes-toxic and sometimes-tender Chicago air and resumed walking. Han’s body lagged behind. His head moved to watch his mom pace off on her own with her hands held behind her. They’d only read about it, but Han couldn’t remember what it was. All he could cobble together was a whisper about what Jeremiah had done to himself. In Han’s absence, Jeremiah lost himself. He said goodbye. The waves swelled. Their foamy white crests frothed against the rocks. Han’s body resumed walking, far behind Lyn but still within eyesight, though a small shade of a figure. Han’s mind awakened like an ancient machine. Rusty pistons began gyrating, throwing off old webs and dust, quickly feeding power to other parts that had been forgotten but could never atrophy. Gears clicked, chains moved, and steam piped into everything. Han and Lyn had changed their phone numbers and moved around so many times since the divorce that even mutual friends had no clue where to call them. As had been understood by Han’s intellectual half, Jeremiah was dead. He thought of Jeremiah being disbursed in bytes and bits. The realization though, the truth of his life, hit him like a slow, imperceptible poison creeping through his nerves, quietly trickling into thoughts both conscious and peripheral. The digital death, the intellectual death, was first.

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FICTION | Lloyd Liu | 88

“Ignore me for twenty years.” Jeremiah’s voiced knifed into Han’s brain. “You ripped my heart out.” Han opened his eyes. Dirt crusted around his eyes. The canopy of the pontoon greeted him. He rolled to his side. His eyes shrank into small beads as he attempted to orient himself. He could see the dock and the edge of the lake rising. Jeremiah sighed, his frame sinking. “But I can understand, to a degree. I wronged her I guess. It started with a doctor trying to get a poor nurse her green card. Maybe I was playing behind the eight ball.” Han’s throat was sore. He felt like he had vomited the entire contents of his torso. He pressed the pads of his fingers deep into his ribs to make sure he still had his organs. “Maybe,” Jeremiah said as they approached shore. “When you’re older, you’ll, at the very least, understand why I’m the way I am.” The face of the lake burned under a speckled veil of the lit asses of fireflies. “After all,” he said in his thin boom of a voice, “you’re me.” Han’s fingers froze, as did his eyes. “You don’t know much about women, and you don’t know much about what it is to be in love or to be a couple,” Jeremiah said. “Is that right?” He cut the motor to half speed and the pontoon slowed to a putting trot. “No,” Han conceded. “I don’t.” Jeremiah’s tactics seemed didactic and twisted, his methods too obscured to discern. Han noted the familiar cloudiness. “I was hungry,” he admitted. “Hungry then and there. I sort of threw away what was meaningful to me. Once I lost it I knew it. Loneliness festered in me like a bad ulcer.” Jeremiah pushed out a breath. Han took it to be a long sigh. He didn’t know Jeremiah was capable of such a thing. “Am I sorry for how crummy these past twenty years have been? Yeah, I’m sorry for that.” “I wasn’t asking for an apology.” ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


FICTION | Lloyd Liu | 89

“Well now you have one.” The engines shut down and the boat eased over to the dock, riding on inertia’s last push. “Sorry for tangling you up.” The pontoon drifted into dock as Jeremiah readied the ropes. He tied thick knots to two posts and secured Prestige. Han stood up, looking over the lake before stepping onto dock and walking onto shore. The soles of his feet pressed against the mud’s familiar cool. Jeremiah’s apology rattled in his head, an apology that now tinkered with his mind, tickled his brain. The words had spidery fingers. They crept along the back of his head. Han turned around to see Jeremiah still on the boat, standing on the deck, watching him. “Are you coming back?” Han asked as he headed for his clothing draped over the branches. His jaw clenched. “Yeah, give me a second.” The sun sank steadily behind him; Han thought he saw Jeremiah smile but wasn’t sure. Han backpedaled toward the path’s entrance and gathered his things. He picked up the shirt he had hung from the lower branches, the socks he had rolled up, the loafers he had set in the mud. He collected all his belongings and cradled them in his arms as Jeremiah shut down the engines and left the boat in dock. Together they went up the path, Han with Jeremiah in tow. “I’ll let you in on a secret,” Jeremiah said as they hiked. “One of the most disappointing realizations is finding out there’s no audience to your life. It’s one of the sadder truths.” He seemed to mutter inaudibly to himself for a few seconds. “After you and Lyn, I realized with no one watching there was little reason to keep going.” Han wanted to be angry. He wanted to say something, scream something, but the negative energy only further stifled him. He thought at length about Jeremiah’s words as they walked in silence, rustling through stray branches. When they neared the exit, Han spoke with a grave and level tone, “Jeremiah, you need ghosts—an audience.” “Yeah,” Jeremiah said in his low grumbling voice. “I used to believe secrets were seeds. I think I might’ve been wrong.” He ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


FICTION | Lloyd Liu | 90

chuckled to himself even as he wheezed faintly. “There’s a piece of advice, Han. If you’re holding something inside and you’re waiting for some kind of payoff, well, you’re mistaken.” Han paused mid-step with his foot just hovering over a gnarly tree root tangled in the dirt. Without looking Jeremiah in the eye, Han acknowledged him by nodding his head. “Don’t worry, pops. I’m not like you.” Han pushed forward, smiling. “Well, not like that at least.” He emerged from the path with his head ducked and turned around, holding his breath, now ready to explain what kind of damage they had done to each other. His nostrils flared. The path was there. Jeremiah was not.

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


KENNETH POBO

Dislocation Nation: Russell Leong's Nomads

Russell Leong is a poet of many migrations. The term “immigrant” applies to his family’s journey from Asia to America, but that is only one kind of immigration. Movement is at the heart of Leong’s works—from the fierce Los Angeles highways to the quiet of a Buddhist temple, he seeks the still place in the midst of turmoil. He dedicates his poetry book, The Country of Dreams and Dust, to “nomads,” and the epigraph for the first section of poems is taken from an anonymous immigrant who had faced Angel Island Immigrant Station, a “traveler in wind and dust.” The immigrant may adopt a new address, but that does not mean that the past is forgotten. Nomadic experiences often impact the nomad’s journey and contribute to a deeper awareness of identity. Leong’s work is marked by the presence of Buddha, the still point in traffic jams, love affairs, hate crimes, and lonely nights. Buddha is also related to the Asian immigrant’s pre-American life. In America, Buddhist temples exist, dwarfed by the icons and meeting places of Christianity. The speaker in the first poem in The Country of Dreams and Dust addresses Buddha who says: “I did not find you, Gautama / Until I passed my fortysecond year./ May the Word that gleams/ In the center be yours.” Buddha’s “Word” is at the heart of all experience, yet in the mayhem of American life that Word is difficult to hear.

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ESSAY | Ken Pobo | 92

In his stories in Phoenix Eyes, Leong’s characters are often in motion—leaving one culture and adopting another, at home in neither. Some want to get free of attachments, free from death and rebirth, yet the harder they struggle, sometimes the more caught they become. Finding an identity as a nomad, a wanderer in the physical and the spiritual realms, is a challenge. As Mr. Hao says to Tom in the story “Where Do People Live Who Never Die?,” “Identities are always more complex than they appear.” They are complex—and changing. Identities given at birth may not satisfy and for some, particularly gays and lesbians, discovering and redefining the self is a lifetime’s work. Especially in his stories, gay characters have to face the complexity of their identities, as Alec says in “Samsara, “ “as we pulled harder, we discovered the ropes that bound us.” One’s own identity is interconnected with others, particularly other gay people. In his forward to the anthology On A Bed of Rice: An Asian American Erotic Feast, Leong says this of eroticism: “For me, eroticism is the fruit born of the delicate tension between the repression and the expression of sexual desire.” An erotic life, then, is also nomadic. Repression and expression, two seemingly opposing states, are linked. Buddhism teaches that escape from desire is necessary to attain Enlightenment, and Leong’s characters can relish desire or withdraw from it. Sexuality does not exist apart from other elements of identity—including class, gender, and ethnicity. It’s impossible to pluck out one part of the self without other parts sticking to it. Perhaps, then, to escape from desire would be escaping from these other defining features of the self. Such an escape would be temporary. The speakers in Leong’s poems and characters in his stories are not able to compartmentalize their identities. And who they are is not stagnant—the self swirls, speeds up, slows down, and swirls again. Leong claims an identity as a gay man which is woven into his identity as an Asian American who was born in 1950 and grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown. In his preface to the 1994 “Dimensions of Desire” issue of the magazine he edits, Amerasia Journal, he says, “I think my experiences were typical for an Asian American: at most, I was a voyeur on the edges of sexuality.” One part of the ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


ESSAY | Ken Pobo | 93

puzzle isn’t larger than another; all parts are necessary to make a whole. The self is more fluid, not fixed and dead. In “Eclipse,” section seven from “The Country of Dreams and Dust,” the speaker says that “Every part/ Has day and night/ By turns.” The self stays in flux even if parts of the self, such as sexual orientation and race, are more fixed. Desire in another can “desire or diminish him.” The cycle of birth and rebirth continues, enacted not just when we die but also as we live. One more turn awaits. In his story “Eclipse,” Leta, the transgendered, pre-op Afro-Asian American, says that “Sexuality is like an eclipse. Shadow over light. Moon over the sun. Interconnected electrons.” She speaks in simile, not biology. Sexuality is a union, brief, like an eclipse, yet it can make our interconnectedness more clear. In his poem “Aerogrammes,” the speaker remembers a trip he took to Guangdong, China, in 1984. It was hard to find his relatives; among the native Chinese, he was the outsider, unfamiliar with the daily life of this culture in which he still had family. Back in America, he is the outsider looking in. Hoping to get a gift of cigarettes for relatives in China, he ends up buying two cartons of Chinese cigarettes and two of American, suggesting the split of his own heritage. As he tries to find his father’s old home, he goes “Forward and backward” and is, almost incredibly, recognized by the relatives. After receiving the first aerogramme, he remembers how his relatives wanted to know his marital status as well as that of his brothers—the central piece of elicited information. By the third aerogramme, the speaker claims to have split vision: a Chinese self and an American self. The fourth aerogramme confronts him with his Chinese relatives’ desire to see him again. They would like to help him meet a woman so he can start a family and do not consider the possibility that doing so does not interest him. Homosexuality doesn’t fit in with the plans. In the fifth aerogramme, the speaker decides—briefly—that he can cut himself off from his Chinese heritage. He describes family bonds as a “fallen branch.” The family tree cannot hold

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ESSAY | Ken Pobo | 94

together, so it is better to swear it off, be free of it. If only it were that simple! Having made that decision, the poem ends with him waiting for the next aerogramme. He cannot be as they want him to be—married—but he cannot take the fallen branch and toss it in the trash either. The past will not be done with. Leong connects race with sexuality in his own experience, claiming that “As an Asian American I have found my sexuality entangled with race. Race and racism are intertwined with desire-and images of desire. He was born two years before Asians in America were naturalized. Many states did not allow Asians to marry whites. Moreover, generations of Asians who had come to America in the late nineteenth century could not bring spouses because of the exclusion laws. To survive in the new culture demanded a strong work ethic; the traditional heterosexual family model fit in with that ethic. Asian Americans who didn’t fit the model were often suspect, strange, both in their own culture and in the culture in which they were living. A paradox surfaces. On the one hand, American culture eroticizes the Asian as mysterious and exotic. On the other hand, the Asian American man is essentially a gelding, the sexless Hop Sing or Charly Chan, unthreatening and neutered, or a generation later, kung fu fighters. Asian American woman are represented as passive, more like dolls than people, turned into white male fantasy. In the foreword to Asian American Sexualities, he says that “some Asian Americans themselves view same-sex sexuality as a sign of western decadence.” Images of Asian Americans in films, including pornography, are usually created for white males. Their desire is paramount—it’s where the money is. For Leong, the liberation politics of the sixties and seventies offered alternate ways for both Asian American men and women to think of sexual and racial identity. He learned in 1968 that “there was no chance of individual liberation without societal liberation.” A reality of growing up Asian American is suggested in his poem “A Ride to the Ocean” where a man says: “Get back alla you gooks/ To where you came from.” The “gook” is perceived as a threat, a something rather than a someone, to be dominated and vanquished. In the title poem of The Country ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


ESSAY | Ken Pobo | 95

of Dreams and Dust, the speaker’s observations are woven in with quotes from the Reverend I.E. Condit’s English and Chinese Reader (1882), a book for missionaries who were attempting to convert Asian Americans to Christianity and to make them speak English. The speaker compares the migrants to mosquitoes—numerous and annoying to the rest of the culture. The America that some of them thought would be “the soft breast of a green island” becomes the country of dreams and dust. The missionaries, empowered by the state and the approval of the culture, do not fully see them as people. “Souls fall to missionaries/ who charm their way inland.” Like a city being overtaken by an invading army, the souls fall. The missionaries believe they are raising these souls, making them more fully human—in other words, like them. The Asian American kids grow up learning how to forget. Memories of Asia have to be suppressed, Christ supplanting Buddha, English supplanting Chinese. In one horrific scene, a Presbyterian minister in Chinatown sexually abuses the young Asian American boys. And “No one hears the fear.” Inevitably, in this silence, terrible events become inevitable, including the story of Vincent Chin who was thought to be Japanese and brutally assaulted. He’s remembered in the “Ideographs” section, a casualty of white supremacy. Dana Takagi says in her essay “Maiden Voyage,” “many of us experience the worlds of Asian American and gay America as separate places—emotionally, physically, intellectually.” Both are identities but neither fully defines the other. What are the connecting rooms between these separate places? The AIDS epidemic, rather than evoking compassion for those who suffer and die, creates more silence, both in the Asian American community and outside of it. In Asian families, Your family rents a They feed They feed Rice, fish, vegetables.

you just small room you you

disappear. for you. lunch. dinner.

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ESSAY | Ken Pobo | 96

Disappearing--another way of saying that one never existed, that one is an embarrassment. The family may not abandon but it cannot face the reality. Leong’s story “Phoenix Eyes” reexamines this same idea and includes the same kind of lines and images shown in “Aloes.” The narrator claims that in Asian families “[t]hey simply do not call AIDS by its proper name: any other name would do—cancer, tuberculosis, leukemia. Better handle it for yourself, keep it within the family. Out of earshot.” AIDS often brings up images of nonmarital sexuality and drugs, someone whose behavior has made them seem less than fully human. Such a response from the family mirrors much of the society at large where someone who has AIDS is still often considered an outcast, someone who gets cordoned off from others and forgotten. In his story “Daughters,” women often become outcasts because of gender. Haishan’s father, an angry, controlling man, favors her brothers over her. She is little more than an object to him, essentially the way he views his wife. His sons get the best food while Haishan and her mother eat leftovers. To pay off her father’s debt, Haishan is forced into prostitution. From childhood on, her own feelings are disregarded—her mother tries to stand up for her daughter, but the father’s power is complete. He beats his wife and sees his daughter as financial salvation no matter what the cost to her. In Auntie’s house, a place of prostitution, Haishan is raped and trapped. Returning home isn’t an option. She has been turned into an object and comes to this conclusion: “a person was imprisoned by the greed of men, or the greed of women. What was the difference?” For Haishan there is no way out from this prison. When she reunites briefly with her mother, she sees that both she and her mother are whores—her mother services one man while she services many. Both women, then, have identities which are bent to the will of males. What power she gets is when she learns what men need and how to satisfy that need—but it is a temporary power, one which will not rescue her. When she finds one client who she feels listens to her (except for her mother no one has ever listened to her—she’s ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


ESSAY | Ken Pobo | 97

irrelevant) she hopes that he can change her life, but he’s a liar and a user too, and she is left obliterated again in “America… a country of dreams and dust.” Her dreams can never be more than dust. As the wife of one of the houses of prostitution where Haishan works says of her (Asian) prostitutes: “You beauties are helping to save the Asian family. Men can live peacefully at home because here they can take care of their needs.” The women aren’t women— they’re “beauties,” creatures defined by male desire. The implication is that straight men aren’t satisfied in their marital lives. What they have bores them and they want a living doll, a blank pair of eyes, a sexual toy. Somehow, this will make the men better family men, but Haishan’s father beat his wife and her lover lies and uses her. In his preface to On a Bed of Rice, Leong examines the ways in which Asian-Americans are objectified, props for American sexual desire. He says, “Racist myths and assumptions about smaller stature, smaller penises, smaller eyes—and less sexual and erotic drive—have stymied the development and acceptance of Asian American men as full erotic beings.” While the males in “Daughters” are scary and can be vicious, the larger society defines them as small and insignificant. Only in their own homes or among themselves can they feel any sense of power—not good news for the women in their lives. In the poem “Enter the Dragon 2000,” Leong’s speaker imagines ruining a Chinese New Year’s celebration. He claims at the beginning that “Bruce Lee/ Left us a long time ago/ Kicking the air into architecture/ art and essence.” He becomes a fierce destroyer of phony images of Chinese Americans which are no more Chinese than a suburban Chinese fast-food restaurant. He relishes his devastation of the celebration, and before the police come, he’s “naked/ Pudgy 50-year-old bowlegged Chinaman/ … Naked. Essence. Original Architecture.” He enters the New Year, not by way of the stereotypes, but naked, freed through his active refusal to be a grinning Hop Sing. The speaker may be “Pudgy,” hardly a Bruce Lee, but he will enter the New Year closer to his own Essence. He knows he will pay a price for his rebellion—be held for observation (an ironic comment since

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ESSAY | Ken Pobo | 98

whites have been observing him all his life yet never seeing him), be sued for damages, even have his car impounded. Yet the poem ends with no apology: “This is the world without the Dragon/ This is the world without Bruce Lee.” Finding the “original architecture” in any life is often a painful struggle. As a gay man, as a gay Asian American man, so many layers of dust have settled on his skin that it is difficult to wipe it all off. In section 8, “Monsoon,” in “The Country of Dreams and Dust,” the first four lines are: “God made the body/ of dust. The/ Soul is made of/ The breath of God.” In section 11, “Clay,” the speaker find “I curse my blood, clear before/now spotted by the dust of death." In such a world, his hope is in a spiritual awakening. The last poem in The Country of Dreams and Dust, “Unfolding Flowers, Matchless Flames,” suggests a vital new awareness for the nomads to whom the book is dedicated. The blood and cruelty of American culture remain, but the poem ends with the speaker meditating on the words of the Sifu, a Buddhist monk, who says in section six, “Each day, dust gathers/ upon us; each day,/ we forget his [the Buddha’s] face.” The peace, the balance that the speaker connects with in the Temple, can sustain him as he moves back into the world of freeways and carnage. America, then, can never be home for these nomads. Too much bloody dust covers them. They must keep moving to find a place beyond the stereotypes, beyond the fixed images. On-ramps, malls, and a history written by oppressors cannot lead these nomads to a safe space. The journey to re-see the Buddha’s face is not a sentimental affirmation of religion but a journey toward survival and sanity. In section four, the Sifu says “Americans bombed Baghdad,/ now burn their own cities./ Always what we do returns to us—unfolding flowers, matchless flames.” He speaks through simile and suggests that trying to be American, to shed one’s self in the hopes of being accepted when acceptance is marked by violence, can only end up in pain. The nomad is doomed to be a wanderer in a land which has no place for him or her. Such a land is dust. A country of dreams…and dust.

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ESSAY | Ken Pobo | 99

References: Kudaka, Geraldine, ed. On a Bed of Rice. New York: Anchor, 1995. Leong, Russell, ed. “To Our Readers.” Amerasia Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1994, p. vi. Leong, Russell, ed. Asian American Sexualities. Routledge, 1996.

New York:

Leong, Russell. The Country of Dreams and Dust. Albuquerque: West End Press, 1993. Leong, Russell. “Enter the Dragon 2000.” http://poetry.about.com/library/weekly/aa020800a.htm. Oct. 12, 2003. Leong, Russell. Phoenix Eyes. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 2000.

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


RUSSELL LEONG

On Being Nomadic? A Response

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ESSAY | Russell Leong | 101

To end as a nomad or migrant forever is a life-sentence without parole. So I’m wary. I don’t want to be an expatriate or a stranger to myself, or a groundless prisoner condemned to wander the earth. On the other hand this snapshot of me, taken by Sebastian Vang in Hong Kong during the SARS pandemic a few years ago, is more to the point. During the pandemic, we who lived in Hong Kong fled to the mountains, to the sea, to the forests. We avoided theaters, subways, and large groups. Fresh air, clean hands, and nature were good for you, the Health Ministry stated, on television and in the newspaper. Outside of the city proper, you could take off your white face-masks, and breathe. Even the dim-sum teahouses made a point of placing clean dishes on large burners in the dining rooms so you could feel, if not know for certain, that heat would destroy the germs. The pandemic lasted from March until May, when the summer heat began to burn off the remnants of this mysterious virus that had gripped Hong Kong, Taipei, and Beijing. This middle-aged man, in his early 50s, wears a loose white cotton shirt over his brown skin. Is he behind a window staring out to the sea, or does he stand in front of the broken glass, gazing? It is a window, nonetheless, that is boarded up, locking opaque memories behind it. Always in his eyes is the sea that surrounds the small fishing village popular with tourists in its heyday in the 70s and 80s. You can smell the salt of the sea on the cement wall, on the rusted corrosion of the window frame, and maybe salt on the man’s skin from sweat and desire. From this salt, sweat, and desire the man can imagine that he is but an evolved species of fish, no more and no less. Desire to walk on land twisted ancient fins until they made their tentative walk onto the lowland mud. Hiatus. Even the migratory poet must stop. Reassess his or her Path. Position. Direction. Live with—not emptiness—but more with a ting dwun—a pause between a set of movements, as in the Chen tai chi that he practices. (So perhaps Ken Pobo is right in his observations: after all, my writing is obvious and I use simple words. I respond not intellectually but intuitively through a recent poem, “Tian Qiao”: a bridge, Taipei, an aborted Tsai Ming Liang film

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ESSAY | Russell Leong | 102

moment, a cheap compass. The reader can decide for herself how the poem interlinks, or not, with the essay’s themes: migration, identity, sexuality, age, nomadism.) No, he has not changed much, but the words are rearranged slightly, shoved, jostled, jiggled around, abused a bit, amused, with a touch of the demon, dementia, respite after a fever or some exercise, maybe. It is now 2008? Salt, SARS, sex, spirit, and history burn in equidistant small fires dotting the shore outside this fishing village. Fast forward. The brown man in the white shirt, older now, walks under the barbed wire, past the abandoned stone buttress that once held British artillery, during colonial times. He can taste gunpowder in his mouth, the fine gray grain on his teeth. He spits into the sea, clears tongue. He remembers, only a few days ago, when the policemen stopped him on the beach. Two, in fact. He was exercising in a shorts and T-shirt, but had forgotten his Hong Kong Identification card. He protested in Cantonese, switched to putong hua, and explained this and that. Finally he switched to English and the police let him go. Later, on the news, he found that he had been mistaken for a diasporic Vietnamese—one of several—who had landed that morning on the beach and had began robbing people at dawn. In Hong Kong, he’d been stopped by the police many times: mistaking him for a Korean tourist, a mainlander Chinese without a residency card, and now, even a Vietnamese. In the U.S., mistaken for a waiter, a hardware store clerk, an office messenger boy. You can’t escape race, place, or class. Like rain, dirt, or wind on your body. Only these elements remain. “But where are you?” he asks. First in Cantonese. Then putong hua. Then in English. He runs out of the languages he knows.

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RUSSELL LEONG

Tian Qiao / Sky Bridge -- Taipei & Los Angeles

Here I am standing at the edge of the dark lashes under your eyes in that zone that misses radar altogether. Jagged fragrance, jagged finger once-upon-a-time jagged Chinese lover, cook, masseur good at massages, at pouring the right amount of cold-pressed olive oil between your thighs kneading your body and at once needing it obsessively. Pointing at a world that now scans me ironically crystal and shadow compete for alignment or enlightenment-here, a spot of dust, there, a bit of glass a line of light intersects a shadow slowly. Here I am standing at the bottom of the sky bridge back to back with you in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Manila, L.A. On the verge of a tropical sweat of a relationship that is no longer a familiar relation all points of the cheap compass I bought in Taipei magnetize my longing and your leaving opposing directions as you walk away.

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POETRY | Russell Leong | 104

A thousand cars a minute pass under the concrete sky bridge mute steel bodies threaten to metabolize me I climb the first steps anyway. Two monks in ochre cloth stand on either side of the bridge one monk has a bowl, and so does the other one is real and the other is fake or both are real or both are fake I genuflect to the first, and when I reach the other side nod to the other I drop one coin in each bowl adding a clink or two to my claustrophobic karma. Jagged fragrance, jagged finger point at the world that denies me but another feeling arises from nowhere even more subtle than smell, or sex, or perfume chromatic eyes of yellow, red, and blue flags mark a zone that ignore radar altogether. I've crossed the sky bridge, loved and left paid homage to monks real and unreal dodged loose cars, tight women, soft men and seductive shadows left all familiar relations to the familiarNow I am in a line of sight barely touching the jagged edge of the Heart Heart as body Heart as sutra Heart that roams freely as empty as some sound bouncing around in a brass bowl.

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


INTERVIEW WITH

DON LEE Author of Yellow: Stories (W. W. Norton 2002); Country of Origin (W. W. Norton 2004); and Wrack and Ruin (W. W. Norton 2008)

Kartika Review chats with Don Lee, author of the novel Country of Origin, and the short story collection Yellow. His new novel, Wrack and Ruin, is out now. Don Lee has won the American Book Award, the Edger Award for Best First Novel, the Sue Kaufman Price, and the Members Choice Award from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. His short fiction has received an O. Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize.

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Interview with Don Lee | 106

Was the experience of writing this novel different from the experience of writing your first novel, Country of Origin? This one felt a lot easier, although it took about the same amount of time—several months thinking about it, a year writing the first draft, and six months or so revising, two years total. But I felt freer, looser, more confident, this time around. With Country of Origin, I'd never attempted a novel before and didn't know if I could do it. With Wrack and Ruin, the mystique had been lifted. Do you find yourself returning to central themes in your writing? Was that the case in setting your novel in Rosarita Bay? I have a theory, which is that all writers tend to rework the same story, a single story, over and over again. I wouldn't venture to say what mine is, but certainly themes recur in my work. The reason I returned to Rosarita Bay, however, was more of a practical decision. Country of Origin was a dark, heavy book, and I wanted to do something lighter, more fun. Also, I'd had to do voluminous amounts of research for the first novel, and I wanted to avoid that. So I figured I could go back to Rosarita Bay. I'd made up that town, I knew that town, I wouldn't have to do much research. The impetus was when I was on tour in San Francisco for Country of Origin, and on an off day I drove down to Half Moon Bay, on which Rosarita Bay is based. I hadn't been there in a few years, and it struck me how much the town was changing. This formerly rustic place, with some of the most stringent anti-zoning laws in the country, was being gentrified. How much of your writing is pre-planned and how much is revealed to you as your story develops? I start with jotting broad ideas in a sketchbook, then, when I start thinking of scenes or pieces of dialogue, move to index cards, which I shuffle around, and then I begin putting together an outline. But as I'm actually writing, I usually don't know exactly what's going to happen beyond the next few scenes. Things come up unexpectedly and surprise me, which is one of the joys of the process. ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


Interview with Don Lee | 107

Do you think of yourself as an Asian American writer, and even if you don't, do you find yourself labeled as such? I do think of myself as an Asian American writer, because I'm Asian American and I'm a writer, and oftentimes I write about being Asian American. I'm certainly labeled as such— which doesn't necessarily bother me, although I know that the label probably limits my audience as a writer. Many Asian Americans criticized Yellow for being "not yellow enough," so to speak. What do you make of the irony that non-Asians lauded the book more than Asians did and why do you think that happened? To tell you the truth, I wasn't aware that Yellow has been regarded overall by Asian Americans in a negative manner, and it distresses and upsets me to hear that. What do I make of it, other than wanting to cry and quit writing and crawl in a hole? I don't know how to interpret the criticism, because I'm not familiar with the specifics of it. But maybe this is illustrative: I was doing a reading from Yellow once at a college outside of Boston, and the audience was comprised mostly of freshmen. I got some odd questions from the students, the strangest being from an Asian American woman, asking how I justified having such negative characterizations of Asian Americans in my stories. This baffled me at first. After some probing, I figured out the student's main point of contention was that my characters were neurotic, irrational, riddled with all sorts of foibles and flaws—not the greatest (or model) representation of Asian Americans. But of course this was a complete misapprehension of what fiction is or supposed to do. Fiction is not meant to be propaganda. It's not a sociopolitical manifesto. Where would the drama and relevance be in short stories and novels if they were populated solely by people who behave perfectly?

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


Interview with Don Lee | 108

Your book Yellow is already a part of the required reading list on many university course syllabi. Truthfully, did you ever anticipate or foresee your stories taken out of the literary arts realm and into the academic and teaching realms? No, I didn't anticipate it, but I don't think its adoption is quite that extensive. Occasionally I hear from teachers and students using the book in classes, and I'm grateful that it's being studied, for both English/creative writing classes and Asian American Studies courses. However, I was shocked to find out a couple of years ago that there are only about twenty-five Asian American Studies programs in the country. That seems like such a paltry number. I realize, too, that the book's themes are sometimes taken out of context and manipulated to fit the thesis of a particular course. That's okay. I understand the necessity of academic appropriation. This is more of a structural question. Country of Origin is such a meticulously plotted story, both in its use of multiple narratives and its detective/mystery aspects. What made you decide to leap forward many years at the conclusion of the novel? That's an old Alice Munro trick I've always liked. She'll sometimes leap forward thirty years in the last paragraph of a short story. For Country of Origin, there was a practical reason for setting it in 1980. I last lived in Tokyo in 1978, and I wanted to keep the time period close to my personal experience. I slid it forward a little to 1980 because it happened to be a watershed year in politics. But in the end I wanted to link the novel with the present time, and I wanted to know what happened to these characters over the course of their lives. That's interesting, the thought of wanting to know what happens to your characters over the course of their lives. Do your characters linger with you even after you've finished writing a novel or does the process of writing a new novel require you to let them go? In general, I do let go of them, but I have a pretentious postmodern habit of referring to characters or places from ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


Interview with Don Lee | 109

earlier work in new novels or stories. It's just a way of entertaining myself, seeing if I can fit these things in-sometimes transferring whole paragraphs, verbatim--and seeing if anyone will notice. Hardly anyone does. In regards to your audience, do you keep your readers in mind when you're writing? Norton was excited by the idea of a "literary thriller" for my first novel, but I really haven't felt any pressure from them to deliver a particular type of book. They see what it is, then decide how they might be able to sell it. I think my first obligation is to myself--trying to write something that pleases me, that I'm proud of, that shows that I'm growing as a writer. Can you run me through a typical day? Do you write everyday with a set goal or do you fit writing in where you can? When I was working at Ploughshares, I generally wrote on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, all day. For Country of Origin, I was very regimented and would force myself to write two pages a day, so that I'd have a first draft within one year. For Wrack and Ruin, I was less disciplined. Sometimes I'd write a paragraph, others days four pages, but the first draft ended up taking the same amount of time, a year. Now that I'm teaching full-time, my writing has to be confined to the holiday break and summer. I used to write by longhand on yellow legal pads, but halfway through Wrack and Ruin, I switched to composing on a laptop (while listening to my iPod), and I've learned to write anywhere, anytime, during whatever snippets of time I can find. Moving away from this frame of mind where I have to reserve a huge block of uninterrupted time and have a specific place to write has made me much more productive. In your creative writing workshops, does the percentage of Asian students in the class proportionately reflect the percentage of Asian students at the university? If not, how does it diverge and what's your rationale for that?

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Interview with Don Lee | 110

At Macalester, 7.7% of the students are Asian American, and 72% are white. Last semester, out of 31 students in my two classes, I think I had 4 Asian Americans. This semester, out of 19 students, I have none. But that averages out to 8%, so that's right on target for the proportion of Asian Americans at the school. It's a very small school—1,900 students total. Among Asian students aspiring to become fiction writers, how much of their racial identity to these students tend to incorporate in their manuscripts, if at all? The few Asian American students I've had hardly ever wrote about identity. Their characters usually weren't race-specific. I don't know if this was because they were hesitant to broach the subject, or they didn't think of identity as an urgent subject for fiction. My sense is that it's the latter, and I believe that reflects a movement among Asian American writers in general. Yet, at the same time, there hasn't been a decrease in the number of Asian American writers' and artists' groups, a community I find very encouraging and enlivening. I've always been a big admirer of the Asian American Writers Workshop in New York, and here in the Twin Cities, I've had the pleasure of getting to know writers like David Mura, Sun Yung Shin, Ed Bok Lee, and several others. There's solace and comfort in being with brothers and sisters. Changrae Lee's book Aloft garnered quite a bit of criticism from the Asian American community for portraying non-Asian main characters. This seems like the most absurd critique, and yet it's often given out to any writer who attempts to write about characters who are not of the same racial heritage as the writer him or herself. What are your thoughts on this? I thought having that novel narrated by a sixty-year-old white guy was brave, brave, brave, and I credit Chang-rae with starting a mini-revolution. I think he knew he'd be hit with a lot of flak for doing that, but he did all Asian American writers a huge service. Because of that book, all of us feel freer to slip away from writing about identity and ethnicity, moving on to whatever captures our fancy. ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


Interview with Don Lee | 111

And finally, in your experience as an editor at Ploughshares, and as an author, what are the chances for a literary fiction writer these days? Does it seem any better or worse than it used to be? No, sadly I think the chances for literary fiction writers are worse. There's been a palpable downturn in the book business. Young writers have always gotten the biggest advances and most attention with their first books, because they have no previous sales history, and that still holds true, but I don't think it happens as frequently as it used to. The authors who have more trouble these days are midlist writers trying to sell subsequent books. So I feel fortunate to still be publishing.

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


CONTRIBUTOR BIOS

Fiction Contributors E. K. ENTRADA is currently working on her master's degree in English at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA. A freelance writer, she was a newspaper feature writer for eight years and currently works in public relations. Her fiction has appeared in Story Philippines and Asians in America magazine. JIMMY CHEN has been published in McSweeney's, Hyphen, Fourteen Hills, Anemone Sidecar, Juked, Pindeldyboz, and numerous other journals. He currently lives in San Francisco. THOMAS LEE is an attorney and freelance writer living in Foster City, California. He was born in South Korea and immigrated with his family to Northern New Jersey when he was three. He earned his B.A. in History, Summa Cum Laude, from Columbia University, and earned a J.D. from Yale Law School. He writes short stories of various themes; his work has been published in American Literary Review, AIM Magazine, Brink Lit, Lullwater Review, Nassau Review, Reed Magazine, and Short Fiction World. He was a Top 25 Finalist in the Glimmer Train Family Matters Competition in January 2008. THAILA RAMANUJAM has or will be published in Nimrod Literary Magazine, Readers and Cantaraville. Her short stories have won several contests by Glimmer Train. Her articles have been translated and published in Tamil Literary Magazines in Canada and India. She is graduating with an MFA in Creative Writing at Bennington Writing Seminars in June 2008 and is currently working on a novel. A Rheumatologist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA, she considers her two teenage girls to be her biggest accomplishment yet.

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Contributor Bios | 113

LLOYD LIU received his B.A. in Economics and a B.A. in English with a Creative Writing Concentration from Boston College in May of 2007. He is currently a J.D. candidate at the University of Richmond School of Law. Mr. Liu resides in Virginia. His fiction has appeared in Stylus and is the recipient of the Cardinal Cushing Award for best fiction at Boston College as well as the McCarthy Award for best prose. He is at work on a collection of short stories titled Water Ghost, which explores the Asian-American identity.

Poetry Contributors JANE CHUN works for the U.S. Department of State in the Bureau of International Information Programs in Washington, D.C. She has also previously interned at the Pentagon with the U.S. Department of Defense. Ms. Chun graduated with a B.A. in journalism from George Mason University. KAMAYANI SHARMA was born in the United Arab Emirates to Indian parents and grew up in the Himalayas and the Middle East. She has published a book of verse called A Wild Moment (2005) and has been accepted in Fulcrum: The Annual Journal for Poetry and Aesthetics. She currently resides in Bahrain. JESSICA WOAN studies medicine at the University of California at San Francisco and moonlights as a ballet dancer. Ms. Woan graduated from Berkeley with majors in Integrative Biology, Dance and Performance Studies, and Music. She also works as a yoga instructor.

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


Contributor Bios | 114

Essay Contributors GEMMA GUILLERMO was born in the Philippines and raised in Hawaii. She received both her B.A. in English and her M.D. from Cornell University, and is a past recipient of the Williams Carlos Williams Prize for medical students. Her poetry has appeared in Praxis, JAMA, the Journal of Medical Humanities, and Hawai'i Review. Her memoir essay "Learning to Carve Pineapple" will be appearing in the forthcoming issue of American Literary Review. Guillermo works as a physician and is currently at work on a memoir series about growing up in Hawaii. MARKO FONG watches an unhealthy amount of reality television. His current ambition is to look as much as possible like a large-stuffed version of Stuart Little. His wife does not approve of his recent lifestyle decisions and occasionally threatens to commit him. Until then, he buys things on E-bay and blogs at http://www.chancelucky.blogspot.com. He lives in Sebastopol, California and has promised to complete his novel about the last American Chinatown before he finishes his transformation into an oversized stuffed rodent in red high-top sneakers with a passing familiarity with Strunk and White. His mother has internet access, but she mostly only does searches for diet plans and deals on Amazon. KENNETH POBO is the author of Ordering: A Season in My Garden, a collection of poetry on the politics of academics, the meaningless hustle of the urban scene, and the scurrying of a time-enslaved society, and Cicadas in the Apple Tree, winner of Palanquin Press's Annual Poetry Chapbook Competition. His works have appeared in Colorado Review, Nimrod, Mudfish, Orbis, Grain, University of Windsor Review, Indiana Review, The Cider Press Review, and elsewhere. Ken Pobo teaches English at Widener University in Chester, PA.

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Contributor Bios | 115

RUSSELL LEONG is a writer and professor of English at UCLA and an editor of the Amerasia Journal, a scholarly publication of Asian American studies. His literary work includes: The Country of Dreams and Dust (poems) winner of the PEN Josephine Miles Award in Literature, and Phoenix Eyes and other Stories, winner of the 2001 American Book Award. Professor Leong's work was selected by the Los Angeles Times as one of the best books of fiction of 2000. His poems, short stories, and essays have been translated in Shanghai, Nanjing, Taipei, Hong Kong, and Rome. He was featured as one of 50 U.S. poets on the PBS series, "The United States of Poetry."

Art Contributors CANDYBIRD is an illustrator and graphic designer currently residing in Languedoc-Roussillon, or southern France. Her artwork focuses primarily on the female figure. Her work has been showcased in various art exhibitions across Europe and magazines based in Spain, Italy, and the United States, among others. To view her online portfolio, see http://candybird.free.fr. DARREN LEE continues his studies in Computer Art where he is in the process of obtaining an MFA from the School of Visual Arts. While not focusing on his thesis and other fine art projects, he works as a designer in the Brand Optimization Strategy (BOS) group for the Ad Agency Publicis. JASON NG currently works for the full metal corporation represented by its rising star the magic of conformity. He graduated from SVA with a graphic design degree and wanders the street captivated by odd textures of concrete sidewalks and worn decay of commercial signs. Can be found strung out on caffeine, complaining about leading and kerning issues still takes time to find the next adventure as he walks the earth.

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Contributor Bios | 116

CHRISTINA SONG is a B.F.A. candidate at the University of Boulder, concentrating in Painting and Drawing. To visit her online portfolio, see http://web.mac.com/christinasong. CINDY KANG has over ten years of experience in graphic design and illustration. She earned her B.F.A. in Graphic Design from the University of Tennessee, graduating with honors. She has lived the majority of her life in the New England region of the States and served as the art director and graphic studio manager for various companies in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Ms. Kang currently lives in Springfield, Massachusetts with her husband and three cats. EVA TSUI is a college senior at the University of Pennsylvania where she majors in International Relations and minors in American Public Policy. She has been an avid activist at her campus for Asian American interests and is a leader of several student organizations. ELLE CHOI considers herself a professional student. She has ventured back to her parents home in NJ, like the prodigal "son" and wonders where her next adventures will lead her. She has driven across country three times from NY to CA. Her studies have ranged from mathematics, product design, graphic design, computer science, theater arts and finally, graduating with a BA in Liberal Studies. While she quietly admits that Liberal Studies was the only major that would accept all her multifarious credits thus allowing her to graduate sooner than later, she continues to express her love for art through photos, paintings and poetry. Elle Choi, like a brave nomad, continues on her search towards finding her calling in life and helping others along the way.

ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


EDITOR BIOS Editor-in-Chief SUNNY WOAN graduated with a J.D. and a certificate in Public Interest and Social Justice Law, emphasis in Critical Race Theory. Ms. Woan has been or will be published in the Santa Clara Law Review, Cal. Western Law Review, Washington & Lee's Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice, and Temple University’s Journal of Science, Technology, and Environmental Law. Fiction Editors SARAH LIN obtained her degree in Creative Writing with an emphasis in Fiction from Binghamton University. She currently works as a copywriter in the advertising department of Tor Books, a publisher of genre fiction. On the side, she proofreads, copyedits, writes back cover copy for novels in assorted genres, and details her eat-ventures at www.saltysavorysweet.blogspot.com. DENIS WONG has worked in the editorial departments of various publishing companies, including Bedford, Freeman & Worth, Random House, and Tor Books. He has also been, at one time or another, the Small Press Book Buyer at Baker & Taylor, and a Production Manager for Watson-Guptill Publications. Mr. Wong has edited short story collections, non-fiction, genre fiction, and literary fiction. Poetry Editor TANGIE RAINES is a J.D. candidate who worked as a museum curator and editor for an underground arts magazine prior to entering law school. Her art has been featured at exhibits in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She is also an award-winning poet who wrote and published poetry for over 7 years. ISSUE TWO, SPRING 2008


Essays Editors JASON WONG is a Social Studies concentrator at Harvard University, and working on graduating college with a teaching credential in the humanities. Mr. Wong is a contributing writer for both the Harvard Political Review and The Harvard Crimson. He publishes a blog, mostly for posterity, at jjwongsf.blogspot.com. Managing Editor BEN HWANG is currently employed with a Fortune 500 corporation and is also involved in the financial software startup, Firelace. When not working on corporate strategy, this entrepreneur is heavily involved in local community efforts including co-founding and running the ConvergeSouth conference. He contributes to a number of online publications as well as writes in his personal blog, LUX.ET.UMBRA, at http://life.firelace.com

ISSUE ONE, WINTER 2007



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