Kartika Review 03

Page 1


August 8, 2008

In this issue: Ruchika Tomar, Kelly Luce, Kevin Wu, Dina Omar, Michelle A. Pe単aloza, Jason Koo, Rohan Mulgaonkar, Hauquan Chau, Grace Talusan, Lewis Leong, Spencer Dew, and an author interview with Yiyun Li, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, and one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists


Copyright © 2008 by the Kartika Review

▫ ▫ ▫ ▪ ▫ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▫ ▪ ▫ ▫ ▫ Issue Three cover design "The Dive" by Jeannette Leagh Photography on previous page by James Zhang Kartika Review logo design by Ben Hwang




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



Third Editorial Board


Sunny Woan

Fiction Editor:

Christine Lee Zilka

Poetry Editor:

Abby Reid

Essay Editor:

Jason Wong


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.




1 Editorial

Christine Lee ZILKA

FICTION 3 Letters to a Panther

Ruchika TOMAR

5 Cram Island

Kelly LUCE

10 The Day

Kevin WU

POETRY 13 Clogged Gutters 15 Origin

Dina OMAR Michelle A. PEÑALOZA

17 There Is No There, There 19 The Return


ESSAY 21 Confessions of a Man Impersonating John

Hauquan CHAU

27 The Myth of Filipino Magnetism


36 Light in Absolute Darkness


LITERARY REVIEW 44 Five Frames for Adrian Tomine

Spencer DEW

AUTHOR INTERVIEW 58 YIYUN LI, author of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2007) and The Vagrants (forthcoming 2009).

Interviewed by Christine Lee ZILKA

64 Contributor Bios

68 Editor Bios


▫ ▫ ▫ ▪ ▫ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▫ ▪ ▫ ▫ ▫ 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.



Issue No. 3, my first issue as fiction editor with Kartika has gone to print! I've read all the submissions, "gone through the slush pile," as editors like to say. As a fellow writer myself, I was more than aware of the work and heart that went into each manuscript-and did my best to take care with my decisions. Did my best to send out mercifully short, but kind, rejection letters to those who submitted. Did my best to let some of you know to please submit other work to us. And did my best to ask questions of Yiyun Li that you too, might like to ask. When I was in my MFA program, my writing life centered on the workshop, which involved reading other manuscripts, coming to a table, and critiquing the manuscripts. More often than not, over the years, I've learned more from reading the manuscripts of other writers than from having my own manuscript critiqued. And so I have that opportunity as an editor. I've learned. There are a ton of Asian American voices--that the Diaspora is huge. We aren't just represented by our pioneers Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan anymore but by a multitude of writers and experiences. In this issue alone, Ruchika Tomar writes about a drive up the I-5, painting a portrait of words. And Kelly Luce walks bravely and successfully into the frontier of writing characters of another race. And I love Jason Koo’s poem about equating “misery with comfort” (oh and so much more) at McDonald’s. There’s Rohan Mulgaonkar’s poem set in Bombay and Dina Omar’s poem set in Baghdad. McDonald’s, Bombay, Baghdad. Awesome. And essays, a genre we have come to know as being grounded in reality, show us the wide spectrum of the Asian American experience: Hauquan Chau talks about Asian names and Lewis Leong writes about a survivor of the Vietnam Communist regime. ISSUE THREE, SUMMER 2008

EDITORIAL | Christine Lee Zilka | 2

Then there's Yiyun Li, author of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and the imminent novel The Vagrants. She talks to us about her experience as a writer. Another thing discovered in workshop was that somehow, each week had some common thread between the pieces being workshopped--and so I see in this issue too, some commonalities. A large number of UC Irvine alum, for one; we were surprised when we started receiving the bios from writers of accepted pieces. Still despite the common threads, the voices are vast, the methodology and execution of themes different. And what's most thrilling--are the risks that people have taken. The risks are being taken now because of the pioneers like Kingston and Tan and David Wong Louie who have laid the foundation down for Asian American literature. Who are you? Who are we now, over 20 years and a writing generation later? I'd like to hear from more of you writing the Asian experience. I have great hopes and visions for Kartika Review. May Asian American Literature continue to be vast and rich and provocative. Best,




Letters to a Panther

If everything happens for a reason there are many reasons you happened. There are the us-reasons. There are the me-reasons and there are the you-reasons. There’s the California reason. California is home, different parts of it. I’ve felt like California is a marshmallow, essential, but unnecessary. California is soft. Tasty. It melts on a cedar twig under extreme heat. The times I was going to see you were the times I drove it. Those were the times I wanted to explore. Sometimes I would see you. Sometimes I would see my daddy. How apt is that? Clearing the Los Angeles line is my favorite part, and the open tar on the 405 in early morning, the cars whizzing by thirty-five miles too fast. The palm trees, so green, the sun, so hot, the people, all of us stopping for coffee and gas. The golden-brown tans and string bikinis. The breasts. The pink velour tracksuits and cellphones. Happy or something like it. Now where did I put my soul? All those polished, gleaming fingernails, tapping away. Get back into the car. The tiny strip of intermediate road is filling up with the long distance truckers. They’re looking over their shoulders trying not to squash the little people in their little cars. I always give them their berth. I want to drive the highways, not become a highway pancake. When the road changes from palm trees to little pebbly gravel, the sky opens. Go on a little further and you’ll see the tumbleweeds. Real ones, yeah. There are real things here, even in California.


FICTION | Ruchika Tomar | 4

The car climbs the Cajon overpass. Groans over it. I pray it does not overheat. You can stop where the signs say gas, everyone else does. Load up on a giant soda and some peanuts and some M&Ms and some gum and some licorice and some hats. Big, straw hats. Just one. Why not? There’s a couple getting out of an Escalade at the gas stop. She’s way too young for him. He holds her hand. They’ve probably had sex in that car. She has hips and a bottom and long dark hair and looks with eyes that say, Don’t judge me. I’m having fun. Life is one big party. Pass the blow. Get back in the car and drive, drive. Do you smell the cows? The horses? Who knew there were still cows somewhere in California, where strip malls haven’t found them yet? Where people haven’t laid down their lives in square, track homes? The I-5 splits. I take it this way, right, on to San Francisco. Go through the Grapevine; see the aqueduct with water so blue. Keep going even though the cars are tired now. Get back on real black freeway at last. More lanes, more cars. I pass Livermore, Pleasanton- yes, here, wave to Daddy, wave here from the car. Pass the exits for Danville, San Ramon, and Blackhawk. The places and lives I used to live. Through green hills, through Oakland, no, don’t take it that way, not to Berkeley. The Berkeley that smells like Nam Champa incense and books and sandwiches with alfalfa sprouts and everything that is right with the world. There’s the toll road. There’s the bridge. That’s what I take. I can barely sit still. It’s beautiful now, open, dark. It’s been a long day. Inch the car along the bridge and see water water water everywhere. There’s the sky and there’s the world. The cars, excited on their horns, leaning, skittering left and right over the dotted lines, vibrating to get there get there get there. There’s clam chowder there. It’s the Promised Land. It’s where I lost myself. It’s where I found you.



Cram Island

By now, everyone’s got a version of the story, telling tall tales of their own run-ins with Room 17, even claiming to be part of our circle that year. But when it comes down to it, no one was there that last day—no one but Nozomi. I like to think that since I knew her well, and was part of that shortlived group, my account is the most true, but really, I’m just piecing together what I know with what I imagine. Like working a jigsaw puzzle in the dark. Nozomi was a wallflower, which is probably why I liked her. To this day I tend to date women who don’t stand out, whose accomplishments are the adult equivalent of hers in high school: co-secretary of the English club, runner-up for the science fair—or was it the mile run on Sports Day? In any case, Nozomi was reasonably good at being sixteen. I’d had an on-and-off crush on her since kindergarten, but until that year, we’d never hung out much. We only got close because I was dating Miho—her best friend. It was easier that way, though I wonder had I been a little braver, gone for it with Nozomi, if things might have turned out differently. Every day after school the three of us—Miho, Nozomi, and I—would stock up on candy at Sunkus, maybe buy a vending machine beer to split among us, and ride our bikes out to the edge of town. It was there that the neon of Karaoke Live! rose up between two rice paddies. We always asked for Room 17, and it was usually available to us.


FICTION | Kelly Luce | 6

The machine in Room 17 was different, it was made somewhere else; a curled, unrecognizable script ran down the side panel, spelling out instructions, perhaps, or warnings we couldn’t read. Not that it mattered: we came to sing, and that particular machine had the best selection of songs. In fact, it seemed to have different songs every time, and was known for oddball old favorites, like Ray Sakamoto’s “Dragon Curry” or Kari Kari’s “Love Me For The Forever.” Nozomi once claimed that it had any song you wanted, if you looked through the book enough times. The karaoke system had a built-in game that scored your pitch and timing: after each song a cartoon island appeared in the distance. “Cram Island,” it was called. The idea was that you were lost at sea and swimming toward land—the better you sang, the closer you got. Sometimes the game would comment on your performance, little animated coconuts yelling “WAAA!” or “HEEE!” or, if you were doing badly, maybe caught up in conversation instead of singing, they’d shout, “BUUU!” There were a couple theories behind the name “Cram Island”: I joked that it was a horrible place full of kanji practice sheets and crabby, second-rate teachers so bad they were exiled from regular cram school. Miho was certain it was a misspelling of the English word “clam,” though we never did see any shellfish in the game. Aside from that machine, though, number 17 was like any other room in the place: yellow walls, plastic couches, the stink of fresh cigarettes and stale potpourri in the air. A low table sat piled with songbooks, mics, and remotes, and a wicker basket held tambourines and maracas, but we never used those—they were for the old ladies that came in with their masks and kerchiefs to sing enka. We liked that Live! was out of the way, that the bike path snaked between those rice paddies. It felt like we’d earned something simply by arriving. On warm nights you could hear the paddy frogs singing, and if you got a room facing east you couldn’t even open the window for all the noise. I remember walking out some nights, my voice hoarse after three or four hours of singing and laughing, and those frogs would still be humming along like an engine. The three of us would get on our bikes and pedal away from the neon into the darkness, each of us heading in different directions


FICTION | Kelly Luce | 7

toward whichever narrow alley would lead us to the next lighted place. Miho was a cynic, which made me one too; she insisted that Cram Island wasn’t even reachable, that the manufacturer had just added the feature to keep customers coming back. Nozomi, though, wasn’t so sure. One day her schoolbag fell off the couch and I spotted the black and silver strap of her bathing suit (I’d memorized that strap, of course, during our P.E. swimming unit earlier in the year.) To tease her, I asked if she was really planning to swim to Cram Island. She blushed, then joked that she didn’t need to worry about getting anywhere close when I was around. Occasionally, amid all the clanging, merry music, two voices emerged, one high and whispery, and the other comically low, like a barbershop bass, that chanted a jumble of syllables we could never make out. It was like one of those ink blot tests: what you heard depended on your state of mind. “His sky crime fell over the land,” they sang to me once, and another time, “this crying will end in her hand.” Nozomi went in on her own a lot toward the end, and even started outscoring me on “Bullet Train (to My Heart).” I didn’t think about it too much: Miho’s mom had started volunteering in the afternoons, leaving behind an empty house and Miho’s pink-ruffled bed. Nozomi didn’t mind singing alone, she said; she enjoyed it because she could repeat songs without being a bother. Later, kids at school would say that her voice had gotten stronger, that they had noticed. But I think they only noticed afterwards, you know? The way I imagine it—and I’ve spent a lot of time imagining it—she rides over on her purple bike, schoolbag in the basket, her school blazer knotted around her waist. The frogs are deafening. She does one of her tiny fist-pumps when they tell her Room 17 is available, the news ensuring she won’t have to forgo any of her favorite songs. She jogs up the stairs, tapping each step, though the incline is so shallow she could take them two or three at a time. The door with the handwritten “17” in red marker (someone had ripped the placard off and they never replaced it) is wide open. She drops her bag on the couch and punches 31121 on the remote. In fades the familiar scene: a girl walking among falling cherry blossoms. She sings through “Sakura” three or four


FICTION | Kelly Luce | 8

times, first cross-legged, then while standing up straight to push the air out smoother. After warming up, getting her scores up over 90, she really lets it rip, boogying on the plastic couch and going through all the classics. Sometimes a waitress passes in the hall without seeming to notice. The waitresses in that place were experts at not noticing. She can tell that her voice has grown stronger from all the after-school workouts, and she finds that she’s able to hit notes a step or two higher and lower than usual. She sings both parts of the “Ryozenji” duet; she nails the harmony on “Sounds of Silence,” a song our English teacher had taught us. She’s never sung better; she’s in the zone. On the screen, which is taller than she is, cartoon dolphins splash and mermaids play in the surf. Cram Island draws closer. When it happens, she’s singing “Sakura” for the seventh time and as she hits the final note, her voice clicks into a new, secure place in her throat. She rides the pitch out to its full crescendo, her eyes shut in concentration, her shoulders back and abdominals tight. Then she opens her eyes, and there it is. The words, “Welcome to Cram Island,” scroll slowly across the screen. A simple, five-note melody plays. “It is high time for you come,” whispers the high voice, echoed by the barbershop bass. In unison they chant, “We want you, only you. Don’t get lost now. We’ve been waiting so, so very long…you…only you..." Palm trees shimmy; there’s a light breeze on Cram Island. A coconut wobbles down a sandy slope toward azure water, where smiling fish burst from the surface. Nozomi steps toward the screen, her expression a mix of pride and contentment. Maybe she’s brought her bathing suit that day, even worn it under her school uniform. I’d like to think so. Live! closed down right around graduation. The building sat dark during the summer, and kids went there to drink and try to scare themselves. It was still there when I left for college, but by the time I returned home for the semester break at New Year, it’d been turned into a swanky fitness club, the rice paddies paved into parking lots. For a long time, I thought about where all those frogs went.


FICTION | Kelly Luce | 9

You might think that Nozomi’s disappearance would’ve brought Miho and me closer, but it didn’t. In fact, after the day Nozomi disappeared, nothing romantic ever happened between us again. It was an unspoken and mutual extrication. By senior year, after the talk had subsided, we each had a new group of friends and shared nothing more than the occasional passing nod in the halls. It still haunts me, of course. It’s as if some subtle change took place that day that only I perceived. Like wearing this great thick sweater, and having someone point out a hole in it. If only she’d left a note, or some sign for us that she wanted it this way. But all we know for sure about that day is what they found during closing rounds: an empty room, a persistent melody straight out of a dying music box, and—so they say—a little water on the floor. Welcome to Cram Island! They couldn’t figure out how to get the machine off that final screen, so they just unplugged it. I heard when they plugged it back in it wouldn’t turn on. I have a feeling they didn’t call up the manufacturer for repairs. That’s it, really. There isn’t what you’d call an “ending” to the story. I guess I still have hope that she’ll turn up: I’ll run into her on the subway, or it’ll be her voice on the line when I call to order take-out. Sometimes I even think about trying to hunt down that old karaoke machine—to what end, I don’t know. I’m sure it’s long gone, though, like so many things. Like those frogs and their babies and their babies’ babies, generations of frogs, those relentless singers.



The Day

A fly buzzes. It has never been this hungry. It dreams of long hot days in the desert, with water and the putrid smell of meat. It wants to shower, to fly through cool rain, sinking deeper and deeper. It doesn’t know much, but it is profoundly interested in mud, in the darkness of a beginning. It thinks it began in mud, and would like to return to it. The mud would comfort it, like its mother, which it never knew. It is tired. I walk outside in the rain, in the storm. I don’t see the fly. The sound of its rapidly-beating wings does not reach me. I walk in the garden, oblivious. I dream of the faint beauty of spring, of wild, unquenchable winds and growling thunder. Delicate flowers, and the overt madness of the storm. Somehow, these two things have been on my mind since the beginning, and I was never there. At the beginning, I mean. I was never never, and somehow in it I was ever. I remember right after the beginning, when it was all chaos and light, plentitude and warmth. The feel of a mother’s hand and a father’s shoulder. A voice so full of strength that it is impossible to lose. So I slept. My wife, the theoretician, who thinks about things as if they were all possible, or thinking as if it is impossible to think, or know. She looks at me from inside the house and her look says to come in. But I cannot. I am an inconsequential thing of surprise. I cannot move. I am silent like an infant. My startled eyes mean that something is missing. Perhaps a child, or a pet. We have in our marriage


FICTION | Kevin Wu | 11

a very large hole, and it is not shrinking, it is still continuing. She says don’t think about it that much. She is my guiding light, yet lately she has seen distant, and hidden. Her well-worn face is a sign. My heart is no longer beating only for her. My thoughts occasionally reminds me of other distant places, of deserts and mountains. Of insurmountable heights, large, infinite mountains, lands, unscalable depths. Pieces of a star. And none of this is of any use in a home of wood, of brick and paint and dust and fire. I think I would like to become the ant that marches around in the living room. I think that one has a speck of hope hooped around its shoulders. Its legs are straining, but it is not tired yet. It is at the end of an end of an utter end. The shape that it assumes. The color. The shell. I have hidden many times in the course of an hour, but I was always found. I was never deep in the current of the wind, but I have always known what is there. It is similar to the sound of silent trees, in the forest. There is an echo of the quiet of dark hair faces, a part of the pale lips of the whole. The crumbling of bricks and plaster is not the only thing which takes hold of one’s self, out there. I have been out past dusk, out there, and it is not welcoming, or understandable. It is like the accumulation of steps, and then being overwhelmed, finally, and on the other side, the other side, is nothing knowable, and though it is profound, it is not warm, or sweet, nor does it have a shape, or color. Or even that. The horror of it is not apparent, but it is real to me. I am like an animal which does not even understand something so simple as your eyes, or the taste of your words. A smile can kill me, as much as the touch of a hand. The night seems endless to me. It must be unreal to the fly. It flies and flies and flies, and in its flight there is an urgent need to eat and rest and move. There is a need to lay eggs, and a need to watch out for danger. It doesn’t know that much, but it is interested in the darkness of a beginning. We are both interested in mud, in the ground, it wants to say, though it cannot say it. It buzzes and in all of its minute heart is a budding desire to feel, even to love. And it goes on buzzing. And the music it makes is loud, but dying. And it burns with the mud of desire, of effort. It doesn’t want that


FICTION | Kevin Wu | 12

much at all. It is not very complicated, or human. I am the more human of the two, and I am losing, and slowly declining. At first I didn’t see the fly because my heart is without it, and yet it wants to be like me, it wants to remain, and be real. But now the fly lands on my shoulder, and I, being larger, being human, and having no more to attend to, or imagine, I can see the fly, can see how minute it is, how real it is, and that is the only thing I have with me; it, the glances between us, how we tasted, the last remnants of the trees and the garden, and the struggling night. Trying to assert itself again, without fail. Trying again, with all its power. I wonder if it will spread on forever.



Clogged Gutters

Yusif Imran thinks people who drive planes into buildings should get real jobs. Yusif has olive skin; his wife Nead likes to place her arm next to his cheek; compare the shades of brown; slide her lips across his thick eyebrows; pinch his red cheeks. Pieces of Yusif’s olive flesh are strewn into the Baghdad sidewalk the same one his Daughter Zanib colors on with chalk. She sketches pretty fireworks that explode Her mom says steal birds drop them from the sky Mom braids her hair every night before bed; she has pink cotton pajamas; Zanib does not drink a lot of milk-Since the 1980’s No Iraqi does; So Zanib’s bones are kinna weak Her bones are now charred into the Baghdad Street Nead, Zanib’s mom, Yusif’s wife has long dark black Arabian hair; He likes to twist the black strands


POETRY | Dina Omar | 14

around his finger. Yusif kisses her neck bone before she sleeps she rubs chamomile oil behind her ears because he likes it Yusif must miss her long dark black Arabian hair leaves a stank in the Baghdad air for days when it burns-Its cleaned up by a guy named Steve with a broom and a hose You and I and Uncial pay for Yusif’s flesh Zanib’s bones Nead’s hair Steve swipes and pours it into the badly filtered Baghdad gutters we’ve clogged.




at first it was a game then an annoyance then a threat and then a postmodern dilemma “Where?” they want to know Well. I am from a god that spewed fire and pelted me with curtains of rain from a land where people found salvation in underwater caves and hope in two person canoes from a people who built churches with honey and egg whites from a family that hunted golden treasure, baked pan de sal, prayed, and buried son after son after son


POETRY | Michelle Pe単aloza | 16

from the loins of a man who cradled words and laid them in symmetrical boxes from the womb of a woman who laughed and slid on bridges at the first sight of snow from the tongues of playboys, evangelical preachers, and poets from the sweat of pig farms and rice fields from the tears of twelve pairs of eyes, dropping once every year from the blood of four continents mingled and mixed in one



There Is No There, There

It’s a day you feel like dying, and you stop at a McDonald’s on the long drive home for what could be your last meal. You sit sandwiched between two minivans full of sleeping children in the parking lot, carefully unpeeling a paper napkin on your lap and thinking of the trips your family used to take, how your parents let you and your sisters sleep in the car while they stopped to get food, warm bags of it that would wake you. And when you woke to the smell of fries and the crinkling of paper, everyone eating their selections in silence, it didn’t occur to you how fortunate you were to have parents like this, how that mournful munching could be missed. Suddenly the selfishness of children seems the greatest crime against humanity, and you want to call your parents to thank them but know you won’t, your internal irony


POETRY | Jason Koo | 18

already kicking in, mocking your situation, how obviously you’re feeling sorry for yourself, listening to this sad slate of love songs and tending quietly to the Quarter Pounder on your lap. Can one cry over a Quarter Pounder with no cheese? You straighten up and look indifferent as first one mom then the other comes back to her children bearing bulging white bags, passes out the fries and little cheeseburgers, then sits for a while watching them in the rearview mirror, occasionally picking at a fry to let them know she’s eating, too. How miserable you were on those car rides. How inexplicable. What state must you be in now to equate that misery with comfort, to see gardens in those minivans already filling with grease, to feel home in the weight of this burger in your hand? It’s a trick of advertising, you know, and yet the care and continuity of corporations on this day seems curiously all you have, you who are so unreachable, who wants only for those minivans to leave you to the bottom of your bag strewn with fries, the crooked brown fence edging the parking lot, the sound of your chewing over these songs, these familiar repetitions.



The Return

Narrow market streets in Bombay and the spices still burn like acid, fine red ginger powder or turmeric sprinkled so thick it's ground chalk between your teeth, and the tip of your tongue feels like someone took an ice pick and went to work with it. Even now cobbled alleyways are a porridge of hot baked tar, sweat, and sewage linked by wooden crates, half-rotted interiors brimming over with browned apples and pears—the spotted orphan children of commerce—swarmed by listless flies, lounging after a surfeit of sweet. Sun-glazed merchants recline in the shade of sidewalks, bickering in Hindi tones about the latest three-hour drama or film star, before the tenor lowers to a murmur and the scheming begins: how to snare oncoming tourists in hanging linens or shafts of light that pierce through the awnings, plots of pious poachers diamond hunting in dust-drawn Africa.


POETRY | Rohan Mulgaonkar | 20

As the day recedes into the dreamy hours of twilight, cafés crowd with oil-black faces smoking hookah and sipping Turkish coffee as though the word 'languor' were malediction; gossip hums softly like a generator on low power, while the mournful trills of a flute echo through empty stalls, the dying dirge of day. To me, the coarse mélange of fruit and dirt and smoke will forever be as the taste of street-sold paan— jelled tobacco and thyme rolled in peppermint leaves— a bittersweet remembrance of things past, of shouts and songs that go on as if nothing ever happens in the world, a time capsule buried in my memory, my own

untouched, timeless treasure.



Confessions of A Man Impersonating John

Q: How do Chinese parents name their children? A: They throw pots and pans from the top of the stairs and listen to the sound as they fall. Ching! Chong!

At times, I wish my pregnant mother did indeed make that trip up the stairs, tossed a pair of T-Fal frying pans and named me Ching or Chong. At least phonetically, most people would have less trouble in saying those names. I don't know what sort of objects my mother chucked down those steps that fateful day but it probably was not anything commonplace or normal as pots or pans. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I hate my name. It’s more of a lifelong nuisance really, a badge of my ethnic past, a Chinese growing up in Vietnam until I was six when we moved to Canada. In high school, I always envied the students who hailed from Hong Kong with distinctly English names like Cecilia, Patrick, or Timothy. In my naïveté, there was a certain disparity I couldn't comprehend, a paradigm where I thought Asian faces should have incomprehensible spelling, unutterable tones, with English letters that should never be put next to each other in the Western world. Who puts an ‘x’ in their name? How about a ‘qu’ combination in the middle somewhere? Also, how about adding an ‘yn’ as in Huynh in my mother’s maiden name? If you checked yes to


ESSAY | Hauquan Chau | 22

any of the above, then there’s a strong indication that ‘you’re not from around here are you stranger?’, as the sheriff would say to Clint Eastwood in one of his westerns. And like the Cowboy Eastwood in a new town, you know there was going to be trouble. Of course it could, in the end, make you stronger; or finally make you scuttle away in the darkest recesses of society looking for the bright coveted world of Adam, Bob and Chris, green with envy of their phonetic simplicity. I remember each of my elementary school teachers now with mostly fond memories. But the start of each new class always brought anxiety as the teacher would go through the class list, full of enthusiasm and pep every new academic year, with a great big smile for the empty-headed children. "Carol, Ian, Stewart, Anthony, Tanya...," she would read, and then she—that is Mrs. Watts, Mrs. Sears, Mrs. Patterson, Mrs. Phillips— would stop, scrunch their eyes as if they just turned near-sighted, bring the piece of paper closer to their faces to make sure they’re seeing it correctly and perhaps think how God allowed such a combination of letters to appear on a nice pristine sheet of paper, logically listed alphabetically by last names. And then after taking a deep breath, she (most of my elementary school teachers being female, except for Mr. Brown in Grade six. What a lucky man, named after a colour!). And then she would say it, my name, or rather destroy it to the very last diphthong, trying to get her tongue around the letter combinations from Hell. "Did I say it right?" She would ask. I would give a slight shake of my head, trying not to stand out and I would whisper it as loud as I could. Then she would say it again, making the first syllable of my name sound more like a bird of prey. “Yeah, that’s fine,” I would reply but of course it wasn't. All this time, the other students are eyeing me like I just landed on the playground in a spaceship. The exchange was only a few seconds but I thought it was as if time had just stopped. If that wasn't enough to boost my insecurity about my own identity, she further adds: "How do you want to be called? Do you have a


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nickname?" Just call me by my name, please. No, no nicknames. (It was only later that I adopted the nickname of Hulkster among my friends, after the famous blond wrestler, not the green monster. I was often the smallest kid in class so irony was indeed thriving despite our so-called innocence.) For most of the students, my name was just too alien to understand. It just didn't fit into their mental constructs of the world. They knew I had a physical form (albeit limited in size) and that I spoke their language. “How do I fit him into my mental construct?” they would ask themselves. Of course, it would take the Canadian kids to find someone who had a similar-sounding name in the world of hockey. A Swede called Hakan Loob, one of the great Calgary Flames players. Of course, it’s Hakan. I remember cherishing his hockey card for most of my third grade, looking into his boyish eyes and curly short hair, trying to find a glimpse of me in him. Finally, I was a real person with a real name. Years later, I learned to jerk my arms up high in the air, before the teacher had the chance to mispronounce my name. The signs were always there, those scrunched-up eyes, that awkward pause and because my name was often at the top of the list, I just wanted to quickly get the whole ordeal over with. Unlike pimples and baby fat that often get left behind in childhood, the anxieties of my name followed me into adulthood, always lingering in the back of mind until the moment I would have to utter it to a person who would ask for it. And then it was inevitable that he or she would not catch it the first time, apologize for it, and then I would have to say it again, slowly draw it out like one would pull out teeth. One time at a Wal-Mart, the check-out lady eyed the name on my credit card and asked me how to say it. She's got the same smile as the happy face she's got on her name tag. "Brenda," it said. Oh God, you lucky woman with that beautiful name, why make me drag my monster of a name out and destroy the precious relationship we have as seller and buyer? Just scan my $9.99 t-shirt and let me go. She was waiting and there were other customers impatiently standing behind me. So I told her. What a great name, she


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replied. And then she tried it herself, like test driving a car that she's about to purchase. The first corner and my name goes spinning out of control, self-imploding into the air between us. Like the sound of steel scrapping the surface of the road. I smiled back the way Brenda smiled, like the smiley face attached to her uniform and told her that she sounded just like my mother. She paused and then suddenly threw her head back and gave one big belch of a laugh. When she recovered and proceeded to ask me what my name meant, I grabbed my t-shirt and ran like the wind. A person can only stand so much. Strangely enough, it was only after my trip to Mexico that I tried to adopt the English name of 'John'. Like English speakers, Spanish speakers had the same problems with hearing and pronouncing my name. "Juan?" they would ask. As it is my fate in life to say my name twice to everyone I meet, I would repeat and again they would completely ignore the first bit and then try to reconfigure the last syllable into something familiar. "Juan?" Just like being transformed into a Swede, named Hakan, I was now Juan, which actually sounded a lot sexier once the choppy 'K' sound of the 'Qu' was dropped. It didn't take much of a jump of the imagination to adopt John when I was back in Canada. So to everyone I met for the first time, I was just simply John. In fact, it wasn't so simple after all. My colleagues and friends suddenly thought I was deaf when I never responded to their calls for my attention. "John? Hello John? Earth calling to John." On the outside to everyone around me, I was John but it took some time to internalize that it was me that they were talking to. In the end, John never stuck. I didn't feel like a John at all and faking it just made it worst. Did they really know that I am not John? That underneath that average-Joe exterior lurked a beast that had brought many a tongue to bay. Imagine the embarrassment of trying to explain to everyone in fact you are not who everyone thinks you are. I think I began with: “It all started in Guadalajara Mexico


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when…” and ended with: changed, has it?”

“…and so really nothing has

Those around me would probably have gotten my attention much more quickly if they had called out "Hulkster", a name that somehow I felt was part of me indeed. I remember one time how glued I was to the television when the biography of Hulk Hogan was aired. A man who indeed was my adopted persona (minus the bulk, minus the talent, minus the blond frond, double the attitude, I would often share to the bemusement of my listeners.) My name was always the extra baggage I wanted to leave behind on the conveyor belt but wherever I traveled, it followed me, ready to cause more havoc in my life. In Australia, there's a chain of coffee shops that actually requires you to tell the server your name. He or she then types it in on the computer for the singular purpose of embarrassing people like me with an 'exotic' name. If that wasn't enough, they would actually make an announcement to the whole cafe that my drink was ready for consumption. From the clerk, the 'aaas..." and the 'ums..' of buying time to decipher my name and the clearing of the throat was often the cues for me to pounce out of my seat to retrieve my drink before the clerk had the chance of splattering my name across the innocent ears of the other coffee drinkers. From then on, I just assumed a different alias every time I bought a coffee, just going through the alphabet: Adam, Brian, Chris, Dan... I don't remember if I ever got to Zack. I think halfway, I started to get bored and became calling myself biblical names (Jedidiah, Lazarus, Malachi) which for some reason didn’t get as much reaction as my true name. It sounds easy enough but trying to look someone in the eye and saying someone else's name with a steady voice and taking it as yours, without stuttering or giggling under your breath takes much conscientious effort, like trying to fool a lie detector test and the prize is a hot steaming cup of coffee without the extra public humiliation on the side. In my bitter times, it was so much easier to feel sorry for myself, attached to name like a chain around my neck, hating the world and believing it was filled with mostly


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ignorance and stupidity. All because of a name, a word that identifies you to the whole world and in a way shapes the person you become, for better or worse. Do the Adams and Chrises of this world suffer from identity problems as well but in the reverse? With thousands of people sharing that same name, is there a drive to become different, to find something unique within themselves, to stand out among their similarly-named peers? Is it as embarrassing as wearing exactly the same Hawaiian floral shirt as the stranger walking by you on the street when you meet someone that has the same name as yours? Kris with a 'K'? Jon, without the 'h'? Jane with a ‘y’ as in Jayne? Are these playful attempts to change the spelling of these names a cry for attention? When my own children were born, I decided to stow away the pots and pans and decided with my Japanese spouse to opt for 'Yuto' and 'Masa', short and neat without the confusing spelling bits. Their names are common here in Japan, not as common as John in the Occident, but common enough so that you can probably find a 'Yuto' or a 'Masa' on a class list or two. I don't know if their names will ever serve them well but the conscientious attempt to find names that was suitable for the English-speaking world was always the main motivation. I guess you could say I relinquished to societal pressures, trying to conform to what is acceptable by giving my sons names stripped down to its minimum. You could call me a conformist, even a chicken, but please, please, don't call me John.



The Myth of Filipino Magnetism

As a child, I believed that Filipinos were like magnets, attracting other Filipinos to them when they were far from home. I am full of anecdotal evidence: In front of St. Peter's in Rome, my aunt Rose, who lives in San Francisco, walked by my parents' best friends from Massachusetts. Although they had only met once before, they recognized each other and snapped a photo for proof. I was flipping through a family photo album and found a photo of my mother on a couch at a wedding with other Filipino women. When I looked closer at the women's faces I recognized Corazon Aquino. It was when she was still a housewife, a few years before her husband, Ninoy Aquino, was assassinated and she became President of the Philippines. Recently, I was at an anniversary party in Montreal for a friend of a friend and happened to sit on a couch next to a South Asian woman whose daughter was best friends with a Filipino girl from Boston. She said the girl had recently lost her mother. I said, "You're talking about Ruby." The woman looked surprised, but I wasn't shocked at all. These coincidences were a part of my life. I believed that Filipinos spread all over the world, away from family and friends and their language and food, were rewarded every now and then with a bit of comfort in finding each other. Or maybe the phenomenon is the same as when you buy a car. It seems everyone on the road is driving the same car you are when in fact you're just noticing what was always there.


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I was always on the lookout for others like me, but growing up in a suburb of Boston, I didn't see myself reflected very often, especially on TV. The first time I saw a Filipino on TV was the 1980 Miss Universe pageant. I was eight years old and my father had summoned all of us with a "Hurry, everyone, come quick!" We were already in bed but we threw off our sheets, wide-awake, and followed his voice to the family room. We'd never heard this urgency and alarm in his voice before. My father had been drawn to pull the knob on the TV that night although it wasn't his habit to watch before bed. At that time, early in his career as an eye surgeon, he was always reading a medical journal. But something told him to turn on the TV (Was it the Filipino magnet?) just as Miss Philippines sashayed across the screen in a shimmering turquoise evening gown, the bottom flared out like a mermaid's tail. After the commercial break, Miss Philippines would be interviewed by Bob Barker. My father stood in the kitchen, his finger impatiently dialing the rotary phone, calling relatives in Los Angeles and Chicago, urging them, "Turn on the TV!" My mother quieted everyone. "She's about to speak." Miss Philippines selected a note card from a brass bowl and answered host Bob Barker's questions. Not only was she was beautiful and elegant; she reminded me that there were other beautiful and elegant Filipinos in this world. During the crowing, well past our bedtimes, we waited for the news. Would we witness the crowning of a Filipina Miss Universe? To me, it didn't matter if she won. I just wanted to look at her. When Miss Philippines appeared on the screen, I touched my finger to the screen, alive with static, and said, "There she is. Look." That year, Miss Philippines was crowned third runner up, but she placed above fourth runner up Miss Sweden, a tall blond and blue-eyed woman whose image defined traditional Western beauty. The next day at school, I struggled to stay awake, but I felt proud. A teacher asked me, "Did you see Miss Philippines on TV? Your family is from


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there, right?" Miss Philippines in her mermaid dress meant that someday it might be possible for me, as a Filipina, to be beautiful and dignified someday. Even today, if a Filipino (or a half or quarter Filipino) shows up on American Idol or becomes the lead singer of a popular rock band, I'll get text messages and emails from multiple sources telling me, "Look, a Filipino!" I used to be a person who thought, dreamt, sang, and spoke in Tagalog, a Filipino language. My parents, who spoke both English and Tagalog, thought their children would become confused by the two languages when we moved to the US and insisted on an "English only" policy. The Tagalog part of me was lost and forgotten. Where is that Filipino part of me? Will I ever meet her again? When I hear Tagalog, even though I don't know the meaning of the sounds, I stop whatever I'm doing. I want to run to the speaker and throw my arms around them, even if that person is a stranger. Several Tagalog words stay with me: underarm (kilikili), fart (utot), love (mahal), dead (patay), and a respectable collection of curses. I'm grateful that my parents built their life in the US, but I'm also aware that the move was traumatic. I gained so much by becoming an American and have had so many opportunities, but there's also a lot I've lost in the exchange. When my parents moved us from the Philippines to the US in 1975, I was three years old. I was known by another name, Bubut, which means "little flower bud," and the sound of that name, the hearty, roundness of it said aloud, described perfectly my tubby toddler body. Compared to my older sister who hated to eat, I was another species with my ankle rolls and ham hock thighs. Despite my heft, older cousins loved to lift me into their arms and carry me through the houses and the courtyard in the compound. During meals, cooked by the servants and eaten communally, my titas, aunts, grabbed me as I walked by their table, pressing their noses into my doughy cheek and sighing, "Good enough to eat."


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Our home was the Gamalinda clan's compound in the Philippines. A tall brick wall surrounded the compound of five houses and small apartment building. To enter the compound, the driver tooted his horn quickly three times (which was distinct from the way the neighbor's driver honked) and one of our servants would run out to open the gate. The main reason we left the Philippines was so my father could accept a medical internship in the US. Even today, about half of Filipino medical school graduates seek opportunities outside of the Philippines. We went from living in a family compound with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and servants to an apartment building in a lower income neighborhood in Boston. At that time, Ferdinand Marcos was still in power and Imelda, his wife, was amassing her famous shoe collection. Although many of my relatives lived a comfortable life in the Philippines, they couldn't afford a plane ticket to the US nor obtain visas. More than 30 years later, this fact is still true. On my mother's side alone, I have over three dozen first cousins, eight married sets of aunts and uncles, and a vast kinship network of godparents and distant blood relations. When we left this world behind, suddenly, my only relatives were my immediate family. After a few years in the US, the cousins, aunties, and others of the family compound were barely a memory. I was only reminded of their existence on the rare occasion when we would meet other Filipinos in the US. Instead of the usual questions Americans asked about careers and vacation spots, Filipinos asked us to list our surnames: my father's, my mother's, my grandparents, even great grandparents. The Philippines is a densely populated nation consisting of many regions, languages, and islands. Yet, it seemed every Filipino we encountered knew someone we were related to back home. They would say: "Talusan? I know a Dr. Talusan on a TV show." (My uncle Tony.) "Your mother is a Gamalinda? My high school teacher was a Mrs. Gamalinda." (My grandmother.) "Are you related to the Talusan who is a San Rafael municipal councilor?" (My uncle Guidet.)


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It seemed all Filipinos, once away from home, knew each other. For example, in his first month in America, my father was alone. He didn't send for his wife and daughters until he had settled into an apartment. One day, he decided to go to the Sears Tower on his day off. At that time, the Sears Tower was only two years old and the record holder for the world's tallest building. My father didn't want to waste his money in a coin-operated telescope and brought his camera, which he had bought used from my mother's brother. My uncle's last name, Gamalinda, was engraved on the body of the camera. Searching through the lens, he tried to find the hospital where he worked, his apartment, and the nursing school dormitory where Richard Speck had murdered eight nurses, including some Filipinas, almost a decade earlier. When my father moved the camera away from his face and squinted, thinking, I am in America now, a Chinese man standing near him shouted, "Gamalinda!" "How do you know this name?" my father asked. "My friend Cesar is a Gamalinda. He has been looking for you," the man said in Tagalog. Cesar had received a letter stating that his cousin, Emil Gamalinda, was moving to America. The letter asked, "Could Cesar help him?" But the letter didn't say when or to which of the 50 states Emil was moving. "Emil is my wife's brother. He sold me this camera. His visa hasn't come through yet," my father said. The man scratched his friend's phone number on a scrap of paper and my father was eating pancit, fried pork lumpia, and steamed white rice at Cesar Gamalinda's by the next weekend. My father played trucks with Cesar's young son, and wondered what his daughters were doing half a world away. My father didn't stay long in Chicago, accepting an ophthalmology fellowship in Boston and raising his children there. I visited Chicago 30 years later to visit my friend Joanne, who is married to a Filipino American photographer (whose parents went to the same medical school as my


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parents). Stuck to Joanne's refrigerator was a magnet advertising a dentist named Dr. Gamalinda. I called my mother, "Do we know any Gamalinda's in Chicago?" The dentist was Cesar's son, all grown up. More support for the theory of Filipino magnetism: I met my boyfriend Alonso a decade ago when we were both graduate students in Irvine, California. Both of us were far from home: Boston, for me, and Louisville, for him. Alonso was the first person I'd ever met from Kentucky. As we searched for something in common those first few moments of meeting each other, Alonso told me was that his best friend Chris was Filipino American. "Filipinos in Kentucky?" I asked. Alonso explained that there was a small, but thriving Filipino immigrant community working mostly in healthcare. A year later, on a trip to Louisville, I met Chris, Alonso's best friend, and Chris's parents. Of course, they asked for my surnames. I mumbled the names, doubting they would recognize them. I found out that my grandmother was Dr. Crame's high school teacher. Dr. Crame's father, also a doctor, had been the family physician for the Gamalinda clan. My mother's best friend from elementary through high school, Christine, was Dr. Crame's sister. Dr. Crame knew more about my family than I did. As a boy, Dr. Crame was friends with my uncle Otto, but when Dr. Crame immigrated to the US, he lost touch. He was sad when I told him that Otto, my uncle, had had a stroke when he was 33 and hasn't spoken a word since. Because I grew up far from my country of origin, the Philippines only existed as an unformed idea, as a dream I couldn't quite remember, or in stories of "back home" told by my parents. I never read about the US colonization of the Philippines until I was a junior in college. Americans always assumed I was Chinese or Japanese. Until the People Power Revolution of 1986, when I was 14, and the jokes about Imelda Marcos' shoes began, no one had anything to say about the Philippines. It was if it


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didn't exist. And if the Philippines didn't exist, then I didn't exist. When someone else besides my immediate family referred to the Philippines as if it was a real place, I didn't feel so invisible or alien. I didn't feel as though that rich, full life in the Gamalinda compound was only a dream. As the only "Oriental" in the entire school, I was made fun of in the schoolyard, and children often ran up to me, pulling at the corners of their eyes, taunting, "Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!" I responded, my face burning, "I'm not Chinese or Japanese. I'm Filipino. I came from the Philippines." "Never heard of it," they would say, but then would also alter their taunts slightly. I heard, "Gook. Jap," and every now and then someone would throw in, "Spic." I was in first grade the first time I experienced racial taunts and these continued throughout my school days. It didn't happen often, but when it did I'd feel overwhelmed, as if a giant wave had crashed over my head, making it impossible to breathe. I felt utterly alone and unable to speak. With the exception of gatherings by the Filipino community in Boston, I hardly ever met another Filipino. There was one other Filipino family in the town I grew up in and although he went to a different elementary school than me, other children would whisper that we were arranged to be married. Until I left for college, outside of my family, I knew only three other Asian Americans, all girls, all Korean adoptees. I had met only one African American boy, but no Native Americans and no Latinos. I am always aware of how many people of color are around in an office boardroom, a classroom, a hair salon, literary reading, or dinner party. Often, I'm the only one. Counting is automatic. In Boston, unless I'm at a family gathering or at a meeting somehow related to people of color, I can count quickly. It matters. If I'm the only Asian face in the room, everyone will turn to look at me for comment if the subject is the Olympics in China or the proper pronunciation for Vietnamese chicken noodle soup arises. At an open mic


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literary reading where I'm the timekeeper, a white woman reads from a short story, fiction of course, about a husband running off with a "slant-eyed skinny Asian bitch," and I feel all eyes strike me, to watch my reaction. The first time I returned "home" in 19 years, I was struck by how many Filipinos there were in the Manila airport. I started by counting the Filipino pilots and flight attendants, but soon lost count amidst all the customs officials, baggage handlers, passengers, and taxi drivers. On the road from the airport to the hotel, there were Filipinos living in shacks on the side of the road. I met Filipino hotel employees, waitresses, store clerks, and security standing guard outside the entrances to malls and banks with their automatic weapons. When I opened the newspaper, the bylines were Filipino names. The news stories, even those on the front page, featured Filipinos. The newspaper advertisements, TV commercials, and billboards showcased Filipinos faces that looked like my relatives. Whole bookstores were full of writings by Filipinos authors I had never heard of in my American education. Here was a whole world populated by Filipinos, where Filipinos voices mattered. If their voices mattered, maybe mine did too. Recently, my friend, the writer Noel Alumit, shared a YouTube link showing Miss Philippines in the 1980 Miss Universe pageant. I replayed these screen moments that had meant so much to me. But that's when I also learned that the Miss Philippines 1980, Rosario "Chat" Salayan, died of cancer a year ago at age 46. Associative clicking, which I can't retrace now, on YouTube rewards me with this find: Psychic surgery in the Philippines. Recently, I had a double mastectomy and reconstruction of my breasts. Recovery took weeks. Perhaps I should have opted for psychic surgery. It requires no anesthesia, no incision, and apparently the healing is instant. Calm and awake, the patient lies on a table and the psychic surgeon manipulates and massages their skin with bare hands. The hands dip into the skin, reach inside, and remove bloody bits of organs and entrails. In 1984, Comedian Andy Kaufman traveled to the Philippines and was treated


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by a psychic surgeon. A few months after he claimed the psychic surgeon removed the tumors, Kaufman died from complications due to advanced lung cancer. Of course, psychic surgery doesn't cure cancer, but I understand the fantasy that someone could literally reach into you and take away your pain. Many years ago, a friend invited me to visit a healer with her. The healer grabbed at invisible bugs flying around the outline of my body and made a zapping sound. For a few hours afterwards, I felt lighter, as if the healer had cleansed the dangerous, despairing parts of me that soap couldn't touch. When I watched the clips on psychic surgery, I remembered that I had first learned about psychic surgery from the 1980's hit show, "Real People," with co-hosts Skip Stephenson and Sarah Purcell. This was second time I'd ever seen the Filipinos on TV. When the psychic surgery segment on Real People came on, I remember calling for my family to gather around the TV. "Psychic surgery is a quack," said my father, a board certified eye surgeon. "That man is taking money from the desperate and poor. Everyone knows that's chicken blood and pig intestines." I wasn't shocked by the way the psychic surgeon rubbed the patient's skin with his fingers inspiring dark blood to flow out. I wasn't amazed by the intestines the surgeon drew from the body, like a magician pulling endless silk scarves from his fist. The psychic surgeon discarded the bits of flesh into a glass bowl filled with water. Ribbons of red blood cut sharp lines in the water, and then clouded it up. We watched as the blood was washed from patient's skin. Despite their disbelief, my family members still said, "Wow," when they saw how smooth and clean the skin was after all that blood. It was as if nothing had happened. But it wasn't the surgery that had impressed me. Instead, I pointed to the TV and said, "Look, Filipinos."



Light in Absolute Darkness

The tall buildings of the engineering department cast shadows on the University of California, Irvine Interfaith Center. It is located in the middle of a cluster of impromptu bungalows, which, without close examination, can be easily overlooked by passersby. The only things that announce what is inside the bungalow are the faded pale blue letters that read, “UCI Interfaith Center.” There is a worn, wooden walkway that directs its parishioners to welcoming double doors. Inside the Interfaith Center are stacks of mismatched chairs varying in hues of grey, green, and brown in a single room the size of four-car garage. There are holes in the ceiling revealing the wiring underneath of the web of microphones that the choir uses every Sunday. Though the building shows signs of wear from the elements, Father John Francis Toan servers as a pillar for the building and its parishioners. It is 10 o’clock on a sunny Sunday morning. The choir comes to life as Father John Francis Toan makes his way to his alter at the center of the room, dressed in a pure white robe. Behind him is an imposing three-foot tall crucifix. He greets the congregation with a warm smile and begins his sermon. Everyone is attentive except for the babies and young children of a few families who entertain themselves by flipping innocently through the pages of their parents’ Bible and seek companionship with the other children. The choir sings and lulls one baby to sleep in his mother’s arms. Everyone knows the song, “Lamb of God,” the choir is


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singing. Everyone sings autonomously on cue, as if they had rehearsed many late nights for a televised production. As the sermon winds down, Father Francis asks everyone to stay afterward to “enjoy the company.” He lets everyone know that there are doughnuts in the kitchen to his left and to help themselves. With a smile, he tells the same joke he does every Sunday; “Have some of our doughnuts. I blessed them this morning so they have no calories!” The congregation breaks up but most stay behind to chat with their friends and many have a taste of the blessed doughnuts. Father Francis makes his rounds, thanking people for attending mass and checking in to see how they are doing. He smiles warmly, with his seemingly permanent jolly disposition. His demeanor seems out of place for someone who has lost his brother, sister, and both parents to the Communist regime in Vietnam. In 1975 after the fall of Saigon, the Communists took over Vietnam, stripping away the rights and freedoms of the rich, the religious, and whoever got in their way. Before he knew what was going on, Francis, who was 23 years old at the time, found himself taken away to what the Communists called “labor camps” in the “free economy zone.” Unbeknownst to Francis at the time, it would be the last time he would see his mother and father. His father, a member of the South Vietnamese military, was a target for the Communists immediately after the fall of Saigon. He was sent to a “labor camp” soon after Francis and would stay there for 11 years until his death. People were loaded onto trucks and busses, hauled off to remote villages in the middle of the jungle. No one knew where they were and most would never find out where they were. The Communists promised families that they would return their sons after a few weeks but a few weeks turned into a few months and a few months turned into several years. Francis went almost four years without contact with his family. The labor that Francis had to do in the alleged “labor camps” constituted hard labor usually left for convicts. The government wanted to modernize and wanted to create an


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aqueduct system. Father Francis says, “It’s like those people cleaning up trash along the freeway today.” Though the labor may have been similar, the difference lies in the fact that Francis had no choice. The government took anyone who was associated with the Southern Vietnamese government or would not relinquish his or her faith in God. Francis, after reflecting on his experiences at the “labor camps” has decided to call them “concentration camps,” refusing to call them by its Communist euphemism. “We had to wake up very early in the morning and we only had one bowl of rice to eat,” says Father Francis. His days were spent knee deep in water in ditches he dug himself with a make shift shovel that resembled a tube tied to a bamboo stick. Though the work was tough, the men in the “labor camps” were paid 200 đồng a month, It was not enough to cover the expenses for necessities like clothing and food. “It was only enough for one week. We were only allowed nine kilograms of rice per house per year. In actuality, we got three kilograms. We were lucky to have one kilogram of meat a week. It would be all fat and bones. We could only afford potatoes and bread but they did not keep. After one week, they would be rotten potatoes and moldy bread. You have to be clever,” says Father Francis. By “clever”, Father Francis meant buying contraband from the black market. People across Vietnam did not have enough to eat during the communist regime and resorted to smuggling food pass Communist patrols by bribing them. Since food was so scarce, inflation hit Vietnam in full force, making it exponentially more difficult to obtain anything to eat. Realizing that he and his family would never have enough food to eat and could not practice their Catholic faith openly and without fear, Father Francis and his family decided to escape to America. Though his parents were still trapped in a labor camp, Francis and his brother and sister decided to split up and regroup with each other on a boat to Thailand’s refugee camp. By splitting up, Francis and his siblings had a better chance of escaping. If one was caught, the others could still make it to the United States. On December 28th, 1979, Father Francis made his way to the coast disguised as a farmer with fake identification


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papers. Separated from his brother and sister, Father Francis made his way through the dense, green jungles, following others with the same goal of meeting a boat at the coast. Unbeknownst to Father Francis, he was 300 kilometers from Vietnam’s largest city, Saigon. To this day, Father Francis and many other southern Vietnamese refuse to call the city by the name Ho Chi Minh City because of the animosity toward the Communists for taking away their family, friends, and lives. After many hours, Father Francis found himself standing on the shore, reunited with his brother and his sister. Francis was told that the boat waiting for them was “big.” To his surprise, the boat was 30 feet long and about 8 feet wide. How could the 120 people standing on the shore fit on a boat that small? Unfazed by the improbability of fitting 120 people on to such a small boat, everyone hurried on. Below deck were the sleeping quarters though not much sleep was actually achieved. Everyone stood shoulder to shoulder. There was no room to move or to adjust. The air was humid and suffocating. “The boat was almost sinking because there were so many people,” said Francis. Days passed and a storm battered the tiny boat, which was surrounded by an endless horizon on all sides. “We had to throw out two thirds of our drinking water to keep the boat floating,” says Father Francis. Something approached the boat. At first it was a small dot on the horizon. As it approached, it became apparent that it was not another boat but a ship. “It was four to five times bigger than our boat,” said Father Francis. As the ship slowly crept toward Father Francis’s boat, the heads of the ship’s crew suddenly appear. Thai pirates! They boarded Francis’s boat and towed it in its wake, unbalancing the smaller vessel. The pirates looted what they could and took twenty people hostage. With everything valuable taken off the boat, the pirates released the boat. The people on the boat, including Francis, were relieved that the pirates had spared their lives. As the Thai pirate ship pulled away, it doubled back, heading for the tiny


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boat, head on and at full force. The Thai pirates had rammed their ship into the boat with a deafening crack. The boat sank. One hundred people struggled for their lives in the water, like ants caught in the rain. Many did not know how to swim and drowned. Francis knew how to swim. Others in the water instinctively latched on to him. He began to drown under the weight of everyone holding desperately on to him and their lives. Out of the dark abyss, a hand grabbed Father Francis and pulled him onto the deck of the Thai ship. It was a Chinese man, a member of the Thai pirate crew. Barely conscious, Father Francis faintly recognized the Cantonese he spoke. He heard the Chinaman arguing with his crew. He wanted to rescue the people in the water who are still alive. “He was the only good man on that ship,” said Francis. Overcome with exhaustion and shock, Francis lost consciousness. When Francis regained consciousness, he found himself on a sandy beach. The pirates had thrown the survivors off the ship onto an uninhabited island. On the island were rocks and caves. The rocks and caves had instructions on how to survive, permanently chiseled in their sides by the island’s previous guests. On the sandy beach, Francis counted the number of survivors. There were 18 left of the 120. He realized the faces of his brother and sister were not among the 18 survivors. Overcome with grief and shock, Francis was unable to cry. “My mind was scattered. I couldn’t even cry at the time. I was so scared. I was scared and uncertain about my own future. I wanted to drown myself in the water so I would not be tortured but it was more important for me to let my parents know I was alive. It was more important to be a witness,” recalled Francis. Though the survivors were alone, they were not alone for long. Other pirate ships often visited the island in search of prisoners and women. Women were often captured and raped. Father Francis told stories of twelve-year-old girls getting raped before his eyes. Some women hid in bushes to avoid being captured. The Thai pirates were wise to this and set the bushes on fire. Some women suffered severe burns and even died to avoid being captured and raped.


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After the other pirates had their way with the survivors, they left them to die a second time. There was no food on the island and more importantly, no water. To survive, the remaining people had to boil and drink their own urine for hydration and hunted rats to sustain themselves. A week passed. A ship appeared on the horizon. It belonged to the United Nations. The deserted island is known as the KRA Island where Thai pirates left many other Vietnamese refugees there to die. The UN knew about the KRA and would routinely check the island for survivors. The UN ship was too large to get close enough to the shore to pick up the survivors. A rope was thrown to the survivors who have to pull themselves onto the boat. Some survivors were swallowed by the sea, too exhausted and malnourished to hold on for their lives. “I don’t know how I survived,” says Francis but he did survive. The UN ship took him to the Songkhla refugee camp in Thailand. Francis estimates that there must have been close to 20,000 people in the camp. In 1980, Father Francis would be sponsored to go to the United States, landing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Though he suffered immense hardship, Father Francis’ faith in God was stronger than ever. He decided he wanted to spread the word and the grace of God. He moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to study theology, and graduated in 1993 from The Weston Jesuit School of Theology. He continued his endeavor to become a priest in California, teaching French at Loyola High School. In 1997, Father France officially earned his title as a priest in the Jesuit order. “It was very humbling and I was so happy,” says Father Francis reflecting on his promotion. Father Francis always wanted to teach and spread the word of God and was happy to accept an invitation to teach at the University of California at Irvine as the local pastor. “It’s not just a job,” says Father Francis. To him, it is a way to prove to God that he has given his life to His Holiness. Father Francis is more than just a priest. He is a shoulder for students to cry on. Students come to him for


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advice or just for his company. His smile, warm hugs, and the glint in his eye all tell you that he lovees not only God, but also the students at UCI. They are his children. They are the reason he keeps doing what he’s doing. “I love the opportunity to encounter people. It is a privilege to listen to people and have them confide in me. I love the journey with people and see their growth and to be compassionate,” says Father Francis. The UCI Interfaith Center is where students can find Father Francis everyday. He gives a daily mass and is available to hear confessions. Students who are stressed out, need a shoulder to cry on, or just need someone to talk to can find Father Francis in his office. He is always there for them. Father Francis is also the head of several faith groups including the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and is responsible for setting up those groups and events. “I don’t have a secretary. I do everything myself. I set up the tables and everything,” says Father Francis. Evan Grossman, an alumnus of Loyola High School and current UCI student, remembers Father Francis. “You could tell he always had a huge heart. It was always crazy to see students line up to do confession with him [when] other priests were available. And he is just as caring as always. He still keeps in touch with a lot of students from high school,” says Grossman. Anne Nguyen, a second year psychology major at UCI and member of the Interfaith Choir recalls, “The first time I met [Father Francis], I started to realize how much I missed home. Him being able to speak Vietnamese with me made me think of speaking [Vietnamese] with my parents. He was always welcoming with all the students that came to visit.” It is, Sunday, June 8th, 2008. The sun warm rays beat down on the UCI Interfaith Center. It is the last mass of the school year. Though it is the Sunday before finals begin, students and their families show up to hear Father Francis one last time before the academic year comes to a close. The choir sings louder and more energetically than the previous Sunday. The congregation stands together. Fingers become intertwined as everyone holds hands and pray. Father Francis gives prayer to a student’s grandmother who passed


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away that very morning. Salty tears run down a few cheeks. As the final mass of the year winds down, a line forms to take the blood and body of Christ. Though this particular mass brought tears, it also brought with it hope for better days ahead. There is a potluck for anyone who wants to stay and enjoy each other’s company. The blessed doughnuts make their weekly appearance in their pink boxes. Surrounded by good company, everyone leaves mass at the UCI Interfaith Center with a full stomach, high spirits, and their souls warmed by the undying spirit of Father Francis and God Himself.



Five Frames for Adrian Tomine

1. Sublimation “I think I just analyze everything too much,” says Scotty, the diminutive, young, and uncomfortably innocent protagonist of “Bomb Scare,” collected in Adrian Tomine’s third book of stories, the 2003 Summer Blonde.[1] His is a condition shared by many of Tomine’s characters, an impulse to overanalyze in reaction to an increasingly confusing world. Relentless theorizing, fantasy, and willed denial are all defensive tactics employed by these characters, actions ultimately ineffective in covering a deeper, aching lack, a sense of constant loss and dread at the idea of continued change. Scotty, for example, wishes he could stop the world from changing altogether, just "freeze" reality “four or five years ago.” “It wouldn’t be like hitting ‘pause’ on the VCR,” he says, “I mean, everything would still be moving around… It’s just like… Everything stays basically the same. No aging, no dying, no big changes.” Scotty has specific reasons for such a dream – shifting social dynamics at school, belated onset of adolescence, his mother’s newly active dating life, etc. – but, as is typical of a Tomine character, Scotty’s analysis remains blind to key causes and concerns, opting instead for quick refuge in sublimation. As other players in other stories warp their impulses such that they kick over coffee tables instead of facing up to their own self-hatred or make crank phone calls instead of addressing severe anxiety, so Scotty, imagining a world magically free of


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change, is acting in denial of the problem. His fantasizing is already a defeated stance. For all their monologues and theorizing, Tomine’s characters remain trapped in patterns they can’t name, suffering through feelings they don’t have the determination to honestly face. They give up, slouch on, read their scripts and suffer through their uneasy, constricted lives. They talk, occasionally or obsessively, about radical alternatives, but even as they imagine time’s stopping, it just speeds by, all around them, leaving them feeling ever more impotent and alone. Adrian Tomine has written three books of stories (32 Stories, Sleepwalk and Other Stories, and Summer Blonde), a collection of miscellany (Scrapbook, Uncollected Work: 19902004) and one novel (Shortcomings), all emerging from his long-running, irregularly published comic book, Optic Nerve. While his work has been lavishly praised – including comparison, in the New York Times, to the writing of Philip Roth – sustained critical treatments have yet to be written.[2] I want to attempt, here, to offer some avenues into certain major themes of Tomine’s work, to suggest some lines for approaching this important literary oeuvre.

2. Erasure “I left that night, on my own again. The future was a blank page.”[3] The final scene of Shortcomings plays out in one page, across eight panels. In the first, Ben Tanaka, the protagonist, plagued by “weird self-hatred issues” and “relentless negativity,” sits alone in a cab, looking slightly shell-shocked, dazed.[4] He’s leaving behind his ex-girlfriend and his only platonic friend, flying back to the west coast to his old life and a new, irrevocably altered existence. We know this from the narrative, but Tomine here gives us only silent images, relying on his skill as a draftsman to convey the subtlest of emotions, to frame familiar objects and actions in a poignant, even painful light. Ben passes through airport security, his jacket receding, via conveyor belt, into the x-ray


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machine. The lower two-third section of the page is composed of six nearly identical panels, all of Ben, his chin in his hand, looking out the window of the plane. In these pictures, the world erases into void. First the airport, with its service machines and waiting planes, disappears, then the skyline of New York City fades away, until, finally, even the clouds are passed, and in the final panel Ben, his expression identical to that five panels back, stares through the window at a pure whiteness, the whiteness of a blank page. While, in his earliest work, Tomine celebrated the myth of the fresh start, the ideal of freedom as something that could be bought with a one way ticket – “thrilling uncertainty,” as the narrator of the four-panel story “Train I Ride,” phrases it – mature Tomine is nothing is not ambiguous, forcing his readers to adopt the analytical approach of so many of his characters, to think through multiple and contradictory implications and emotions associated with an idea.[5] Even the old, worn idea of starting over acquires a tragic tinge in Tomine’s hands. Moving on, in Tomine’s world, can’t occur without loss, recognized or not. In “Sad Job,” for instance, the main character works at an auction house, makes his living by sorting through boxes of diaries and photographs, helping “strangers cart away their purchases and watches unwanted memories fade into obscurity.”[6] Such traces, like the patches on a wall from which pictures, taped in place for decades, have finally been removed, are of major concern for Tomine. Everything bears behind it a wake; everything, if adequately considered, can be a vehicle for nostalgic reflection, even regret. With such a setup, it’s no wonder that characters who are far from happy with their lives are nonetheless deeply reluctant about the idea of change, the act of leaving the familiar behind, no matter how unpleasant that familiar reality is. In one iconic final panel, from “Smoke,” Tomine’s silent image gives harsh commentary on this situation as smoke snakes up from a mailbox wherein a well-deserved break-up letter has been, in desperation, set aflame. The girl who wrote the letter – and who them immediately regretted mailing it – is an example of a Tomine template. She is cute, trendy, and imprisoned in a broken, even abusive relationship because she’s likewise trapped in a deeper


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dissatisfaction with herself. Tomine character sometimes consider the fact that “people stay together out of habit… or indifference,” but the truth is usually that what keeps people together in these stories is terror – freedom equals fear for these folks.[7] Several panels before the end of “Smoke,” gleeful that she’d successfully managed to destroy the letter, the girl runs to her boyfriend’s building and buzzes his apartment. “Can’t you ever call before stopping by?” he asks through the speaker. Her hunched form slouches away, and the view cuts to that final scene, a blunt, angled view of the smoldering mailbox lingering, darkly framed, menacing.[8] Tomine is a master of the economy of negative space, his visual style relying frequently on partial views and silent passages wherein the images themselves require such decoding that they slow the pace of a story’s progression, enforcing a certain rhythm to the reading. In several cases, too, the parting image of a story, the final shot, is, literally, no image – a blank, black panel. Such panels may signify silence, denial, unconsciousness or even death, but there is never a clear, complete meaning. The final frame of “Dine and Dash,” for instance, wherein an old man’s beaten body is dragged to the middle of the highway and abandoned by a waiter, resonates as much with the blind rage and willed denial on behalf of the waiter as it does with the situation of the other, more immediately doomed, man. “Pathetic old shit,” the waiter says, channeling all of his own anxieties about his place in the world: “Who’s gonna miss you, anyway?”[9] The final panel thus offers, after the viciousness and rapidity of the assault, a brief respite – a respite, moreover, from the wider, judgmental world. In “Six Day Cold,” the blank panel is even more of an interpretive challenge, a fulcrum for the story from which the course of the characters could go several distinct ways. “Six Day Cold” starts with a man vomiting in the street. This sick man, Paul, is met by a friend, Ellen, who insists on helping him out and who, it is revealed via flashbacks, is actually his ex-girlfriend. In and out of fever dreams, Paul replays scenes in which he and Ellen fight over the idea of “working” at their relationship. “I think you want out but you’re scared to say it, so you’re gonna make me do it,” says Ellen at one point, in a conflict that escalates to the silent descent of her toothbrush,


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dropped into a trashcan.[10] The story weaves in and out of the present, with Paul, sapped of strength, standing in the hallway, staring at Ellen as she prepares to sleep. “It’s just strange… You sleeping out here,” he says. The story segues to scenes of his dreams – a forest, a snowstorm, a radio that doesn’t work. Sweating, he is swallowed up, whole, by the flurry, enveloped in white, erased. Then he wakes, in blackness, alone.[11] Tomine continues the story with consummate attention to moments of innocent banality – confessions of crushes, the early explorations of desire – and with a skill that infuses domestic actions with emotional tension, suspense. Paul watches a pot of soup begin to boil as dawn smears itself against the kitchen windows. His shoulders are angled as if he is bearing a great weight, and his eyes stare off at an incline, into an inscrutable future. This is followed by a square of darkness, a final piece of space and time, a panel of narrative that, precisely by conveying no new narrative information, pushes the story to a new level, deeper, more engaging, a panel that, in its blankness, draws us, as readers, into the situation, making Paul’s moment, his indecision, his suffering, also very much our own.

3. Fantasy “His sister, who was a few years older, was walking around in a white bikini with her hair dripping wet. I filed the image away in my mind for later.”[12] Tomine has repeatedly said that it was his encounter with the work of Japanese manga innovator Yoshihiro Tatsumi which helped open his eyes to the possibilities of the comic book form to tell “realistic, ‘slice of life’-type” stories.[13] Tatsumi’s “compact, elliptical short stories… were simultaneously satisfying and open-ended. The stories’ focus alternated between stretches of mundane daily life and moments of surprising violence and sexuality, and both extremes were equally refreshing and unsettling to me,” Tomine writes in an introduction to one of the Tatsumi volumes he has edited. [14] Tatsumi’s stories tap a reservoir of grit and horror, offering accounts of odd jobs, urban detritus,


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and assorted perversions and animalistic behaviors – there’s high rise voyeurism, call girls, abortions, canine fetishists, pet scorpions, etc. In these stories, sexual impulses lead to pornography, rape, and, in rapid escalation, murder, suicide, even the occasional captive kept in a pit. Tatsumi presents desire as either crushing, due to the object of desire’s ultimate unobtainability, or, in a few, more optimistic, inverse cases, as healthy in its expression of basic humanity. One particularly disquieting and masterful short story, for example, presents the life of a projectionist, a man hired to screen stag films for groups of men. This life has deadened his desires, reduced sex to a plastic, public act, so it is an epiphany, for the projectionist, when he encounters, scrawled on a public bathroom wall, a rough pictograph of a vagina, an image so raw, so powerful, that he immediately returns home and fucks his girlfriend. One reason this story is so gripping is because of its self-reflective engagement; it stands as an assessment of its own medium. Tatsumi wrestles with the risks and possible failure of artistic enterprise, remaining nonetheless hopeful that art can work, can viscerally grip and inspire. Both the dynamic of dehumanization – of further alienation and distance through the unreal – and the dynamic of a rehumanization – an awakening, through representation, of true emotions and visceral responses – are recognized. These dual concerns recur throughout Tomine’s work, too, which frequently deals with discomfort at the pretensions of art or the error of overconfidence in its functionality while, at the same time, recognizing the power of representation qua representation, even if the most reliable and direct category of example of representation-as-functional is pornography – mimesis par excellence. With pornography, it is the blunt force of the image which Tomine appreciates, as well as the gaping disconnect between image and reality. The fact that the longing, the desire, can be or become for the image itself, qua image, and no longer for any real thing in the world represented by the image, fascinates Tomine and tortures his characters. Likewise, the enshrinement of a subject within image – the act of being represented – infuses an otherwise undesirable subject with a new aura and allure. Take the case of Ben Tanaka, from Shortcomings. Back when he was with his Japanese-American girlfriend, he found her boring,


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getting his titillation, instead, from a collection of blonde-onblonde DVDs. But once the girlfriend becomes an exgirlfriend, and once he finds out she has posed for a series of sensual retail fashion shots, the situation changes. Ben masturbates to a postcard reproduction of these images, simultaneously crushed, enraged, and overcome with longing. He stares at his old familiar sheets behind the blissful face of his ex-girlfriend, the photographer’s camera offering a point-of-view shot from her new lover’s perspective. Indeed, this switch of perspectives is key to the arousal: Ben wants what he does not, cannot have. In the recognition of this dissatisfaction is a temporary satiation, a fleeting release from a pain that continues to linger. In Tomine’s work, the encounter with porn is conveyed with typical subtly and slant: the “click click” of the keyboard followed by the “fft” of a tissue being pulled from its box, to site a scene in “Summer Blonde,” one panel of which shows a section of a computer screen and an angled slice of image upon it, a woman on her hands and knees on a bed, her eyes looking back, over what, by implication of the angles, would be her raised ass. In another panel we see the eyes of the man at the computer, bleary, bagged, his whole body awkwardly arranged in an ill-fitting short-sleeve shirt and thin tie. Even the blinds over the window convey a sense of shame, tightly angled shut. On the screen, the cursor is ready to scroll the image down. “Fft.”[15] The link between desire and dissatisfaction is addressed by porn both in its accessibility and infinite replaceability. Porn is something you can hold in your hands, yet, simultaneously, it has the potential of remaining everfresh. In two ways, then, it is superior to real sex for many of Tomine’s characters, who find actual sex either insurmountably difficult to achieve or impossible to maintain excitement over. In “Summer Blonde,” the creepy loner Neil, who works for a local free paper, arranging “the classifieds and the hooker ads,” obsesses over a girl he’ll never have and, in the meantime, turns to voyeurism, stalking, and porn.[16] Yet in that tale, the character who is getting the most tail, Carlo, is turned off by repetition in sex, the lack of variety: “For me, ten times is pretty much the limit. After that... I’d just as soon jerk off. I’m serious. Actually, it’s more


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like after five times I start to get bored, and after ten I start to get... I don’t know... disgusted... It’s just so great when you get a new one for the first time.”[17] This philosophy (or pathology) is shared by another character in the same volume: “Every girlfriend’s attractiveness fades with time... you know, the ‘newness’ wears off eventually, and when that happens, the relationship’s over, at least in my mind.”[18] Porn solves this problem, preventing a freeze on desire. At the same time, porn also offers a manifestation of nostalgia, a means, via representation, of freezing time. Hillary Chan, for instance, in “Hawaiian Getaway” gets off by sneaking out of her bedroom and taping the sounds of her roommate having sex with his girlfriend, a literal recording of a moment that will remain always lost, from which she will always be excluded but in which she can now, using it as pornography, participate. Hillary and her roommate had fucked once – before the “newness” of the activity faded for him – and, masturbating with her headphones on, she is indulging in a nostalgia that is both pang and salve, a presence of pleasure yet a simultaneous awareness of loss. In Tomine’s conception, pornography is always an absence, a lack, and thus his characters swarm toward it, drawn to that which feels easy and familiar, blind to the fact that it heightens their misery. There is Martin, in “Alter Ego,” who, chasing a memory of a high school crush, makes out with his old obsession’s sister, who is currently in high school herself. Not only does he destroy several relationships along the way, coming across as senselessly selfish, he’s left suffering far more profoundly than when he began, forcing himself to suspend disbelief in the face of a pathetic and nauseating fiction: “Martin tried to imagine it was Samantha he was kissing, but Jenna’s teeth clipped against his, and her tongue tasted like the onion rings and coffee milkshake she’d had for lunch.”[19] Likewise, the girlfriend in “Long Distance” realizes the brokenness of her relationship when she caves to her boyfriend Gregg’s demands to “talk dirty” over the phone. Relentlessly pressuring her, Gregg Fed-Exes an envelope of suggestions, “four hand-written pages of stupid, ridiculous things I would never say normally.” The girl begins to read, her eyes weary, lined. She recites the script, patently false, and he, on the other end, “falls silent.”[20] With pornography, orgasms may


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come, but the satisfaction they bring is only on that level, fleeting and physical. Such orgasms leave the world depleted and more sordid in their wake, erasing something of preexisting reality, if only a sense of potential, an illusion of purity, innocence, or authentic connection between individuals. Tomine’s stories also occasionally indulge in a fantasy of lashing out, of violent manifestations of rage, and this, too, turns sour, in brutal fashion. Even when, as in “Fourth of July,” it is the protagonist, driven senseless by the radical changes wrecking his life, who inflicts this violence, it is always terrifying, an uncontrollable force. In “Pink Frosting,” for instance, a man leaving a bakery is almost hit by a car, but his reaction – narrated in an over-analytical, impotent, internal monologue – is to take satisfaction in the fact that his “anger is justified.” He throws a bottle at the car, shattering the taillight, and calls the driver a “faggot,” a response hardly related to the incident itself, but vented from some deeper source. “It’s the rare chance where I feel perfectly entitled to react,” he thinks, “… And I’m excited by this.” Of course, he’s immediately knocked down, beaten, humiliated. He’s struck dumb and submissive by “pain and disbelief,” suffering the standard wages of violence in Tomine’s world, reinforcing the dominant opinion among his characters, that the best path is that of silence, avoidance, even invisibility.[21]

4. Invisibility “Martin spent his high school and college years trying his best to be invisible.”[22] An artist invested in exploring the dynamics of voyeurism, Tomine presents a worldview defined by anxiety at the idea that everyone else is always looking at and scrutinizing the individual. Crowds are oppressive. In the early one-page comic “Noise Filter,” a fragile-looking man lives in the city, works a cubicle job, and is awash in the urban populace. He, however, has a strategy, a means of dealing with the intrusion of the crowd into his private


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existence. He wears a walkman, though, as he explains, “I don’t even like music. In fact, I’ve never even put batteries in the thing. I just wear it so I don’t have to talk to people.”[23] His headphones become a means of protecting his own autonomy, erasing the world around him to some degree, allowing him, at least, to ignore those people who try to speak to him. A similar trope occurs in “Supermarket,” the story of a girl who works at a grocery and who regularly helps Mr. Lewis, a blind man, when he comes in to buy food. “Generally, I don’t like calling on people for assistance too much. Except with something like this… This would be difficult.” There is an initial sympathy for Mr. Lewis, naturally enough, but Tomine builds, slowly and subtly, a situation of excruciating discomfort. “I’m sure any of the employees here could help me out, but I always come when I know you’re working,” Mr. Lewis says. “It doesn’t bother you that I hold your arm like this, does it?”[24] Again, it is in the not-said that Tomine coveys the bulk of his information: the sinking of Mr. Lewis’s face when he finds out the girl is a vegan, the girl’s eyes warily glancing at his hand as he touches her shoulder, promising to “pay you back for all your trouble.”[25] The story ends later, away from the supermarket, as she is walking down the street with a boy and sees Mr. Lewis approaching. She signals for silence, whispering “I’ll explain in a second,” her words the only image in the story’s final, black, panel.

5. Cringe “The tension was unbearable… I wanted to crawl under my seat and hide. It was like being held hostage by some grade school bully….”[26] Unhappy, unpleasant, selfish, neurotic, annoying, even pathetic people – these are the denizens of Tomine’s world. Yet his work relies on an identification between reader and character, one accomplished via empathy and, in particular, the visceral jolt and tug of the cringe. The gutdeep tingle of shame as we pass silently by the blind man, the apprehensive pause as we watch the gob of spit drop down a


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ream of paper in the Kopy Shak’s storeroom, the shared embarrassment of avoiding eye contact or responsibility for action as punks in the back of the bus make fart noises and douche jokes – these squirmy, wince-inducing scenes are Tomine’s province, structurally essential to the larger stories he tells, the deeper effect such stories have on the reader. As in his presentation of hyper-analytical Scotty, resolutely lacking in self awareness, Tomine refuses to insert ironic distance between the character and the reader. We do not watch these people from far away, smirking at their fallibility; rather, we share their vulnerabilities, the stumblings. Even Shortcoming’s Ben Tanaka, who is pretty much a jackass, becomes, inevitably, loveable. There is a bravery in this level of earnestness, in handling melodrama as unadorned and organically human, and the payoff is emotional realism of a rare degree. One area where cringes are frequently inflicted in via the problem of communication, which, for Tomine, means both the inability of people to truly connect and express their feelings to each other and, even worse, the sense that miscommunication is also always judged by the world-ascrowd – the world of anonymous, opinionated others. The character in “Stammer,” for instance, carries on a lengthy and hyper-articulate interior monologue, practicing, as it were, the perfect speech with which to introduce himself to an attractive stranger. Meanwhile, she’s standing there in front of him, waiting for him to speak, and he’s utterly unable to utter the words, finally mumbling a weak “I was just wondering if you had the time.”[27] He has struck out, and his opinion of himself is thus reinforced by the opinion of the woman, who icily dismisses him, and a more general sense of the opinion of the world. A parallel with, if not the influence of, Tatsumi can be seen, too, in this attitude. His work, consumed with crowd scenes wherein the individual is never able to quite disappear, is never anonymous but is always, painfully, alone, reiterates a basic stance, that “the most people flock together, the more alienated they become.”[28] In Tomine’s work, one doesn’t merely fail on one’s own, one always also suffers for this failure either in the public eye or in some paranoid perception of the public eye. A character might say things like, “I’m not very good at being alone,” but really, in this worldview, being “alone” is


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impossible. Tomine’s characters live always surrounded by others, and thus they can be lonely, longing, uncomfortable, anxious, or, perhaps, happy, but these states occur only in relation to others.[29] As in Tatsumi’s crowded cityscapes, “alone” is not an option. But “together” often feels impossible. Tomine’s lovelorn, heartbroken singles can’t quite get a break; they’re not just bad at meeting new people, they’re bad at keeping up what they already have. Take Mark and Carrie, from the title story of Sleepwalk, standing in the night street, bold shadows cut into the scene by the glare of the streetlight and illuminated storefronts. Mark thanks Carrie for dinner, noting that “I probably would’ve gotten pretty lonely today if you hadn’t called.” “Well, happy birthday, Mark,” she says, and they hug, maybe for a little too long, as Mark, eyes closed, tries to maneuver in for a kiss: “Hey… What do you think you’re doing?” “Sorry… I… I miss you.” “I miss you too. You mean a lot to me, but…” “Then why aren’t we together? Why are we living these lonely, separate lives?” “I’m happier now that I’ve been in a long time, Mark. I called you today because I want to stay friends, but now… I don’t think you’re ready… I don’t want to get into this again. I guess I shouldn’t have called. I’m sorry.” “Let me call you tomorrow. We need to talk.” “No. I don’t want to get into this again. I guess I shouldn’t have called. I’m sorry.” “Carrie, I’m still in lo—” “Don’t say it.”[30] The scene is worth prolonged quotation because it is such a prolonged scene – painfully so, but in the most effective sense. We, as readers, become increasingly desperate to look away, to escape, but the awkward and ugly horror keeps playing out. In the story, things continue to get worse for Mark, but the pitch-perfect realism of this scene, both in terms of wording and pacing, content and its framing into art, insures that the moment will linger on for readers as if it were one of their own excruciating memories, the kind


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that you can never completely will away into forgetting, the sort you can never totally erase.

Books discussed in this essay: Adrian Tomine, 32 Stories: The Complete Optic Nerve MiniComics. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 1997. Tomine, Sleepwalk and Other Stories. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 1998. Tomine, Summer Blonde. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2003. Tomine, Scrapbook. Montreal, Drawn & Quarterly, 2005. Tomine, Shortcomings. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2007. Yoshihiro Tatsumi, The Push Man and Other Stories, edited with an introduction by Adrian Tomine. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2005. Tomine, Abandon the Old in Tokyo: Stories, edited by Adrian Tomine. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2006.


Tomine, Summer Blonde, 199. Jim Windolf, “Asian Confusion: A Review of Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings,” The New York Times, November 11, 2007. [3] Tomine, 32 Stories, 51. [4] Tomine, Shortcomings, 103. [5] Tomine, 32 Stories, 45. [6] Tomine, 32 Stories, 68. [7] Tomine, 32 Stories, 82. [8] Tomine, 32 Stories, 73. [9] Tomine, 32 Stories, 94-5. [10] Tomine, Sleepwalk, 81. [11] Tomine, Sleepwalk, 89. [12] Tomine, Sleepwalk, 93. [2]


LITERARY REVIEW | Spencer Dew | 57 [13]

Tomine, Scrapbook, 199. Tomine, “Introduction” to Yoshihiro Tatsumi, The Push Man and Other Stories, edited by Adrian Tomine, (Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly Publications), 5. [15] Tomine, Summer Blonde, 38. [16] Tomine, Summer Blonde, 36. [17] Tomine, Summer Blonde, 46. [18] Tomine, Summer Blonde, 82. [19] Tomine, Summer Blonde, 29. [20] Tomine, Sleepwalk, 23-4. [21] Tomine, Sleepwalk, 50-51. [22] Tomine, Summer Blonde, 11. [23] Tomine, 32 Stories, 27. [24] Tomine, Sleepwalk, 58-9. [25] Tomine, Sleepwalk, 60. [26] Tomine, Sleepwalk, 63. [27] Tomine, 32 Stories, 77. [28] Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Abandon the Old in Tokyo: Stories, edited by Adrian Tomine (Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2006), 87. [29] Tomine, Shortcomings, 71. [30] Tomine, Sleepwalk, 13-14. [14]



Conversation with Yiyun Li Yiyun Li’s debut story short story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, catapulted her from a quiet, emerging writer from the University of Iowa’s MFA program into a quiet, award-winning writer. These days she is also a professor—having taught at Mills College and now at UC Davis. She and her story collection, which debuted in 2006, won numerous awards—the inaugural Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and the California Book Award for first fiction. Additionally, she was short listed for the Orange Award for new writers and for the Kiriyama Prize. Despite her busy schedule, Yiyun Li quickly agreed to an interview with Kartika Review and in a show of great


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generosity, shared her thoughts on writing. Having known Yiyun previously, it was a challenge to come up with questions that I had not yet asked her, and would still be illuminating to a wider audience. In an exchange of emails, she gathered up gracious answers—to our questions on the craft of writing, her writing process, and her upcoming novel titled The Vagrants.

ZILKA: What determined you to become a writer? LI: That is an interesting question. I am always a very nosy person and a huge fan of gossiping, and that may contribute to my becoming a storyteller. I like to eavesdrop too, and I think by nature I am very shy so to satisfy my curiosity it seems easier to make up a story than to find out the real story by talking to people, which is a different skill. ZILKA: Do you draw your characters from life? How do you start a story? LI: I think I draw more of the situations from life than from characters. People are fascinating and mysterious and in real life they don't give a writer answers or explanations, but their situations are always there. I start a story by looking a situation that fascinates me, and oftentimes they come from newspapers. For instance, I read in the news about a few retired women establishing a private investigation firm to battle extramarital affairs in China, which is to me a fascinating situation, so I made up a story about six old women and their quests in maintaining traditional society. Of course like every story I write they ended up not getting what they wanted. I think most of my stories (and my upcoming novel) take some situations from real life, but the characters-I have to make them up. ZILKA: Will you ever write in first person? LI: Apparently this question comes from someone who knows that I don't write in first person--well in fact I do think I


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wrote one story in first person, and a couple stories with first person plural--that communal voice I've always been fond of. I don't feel I am a natural first-person narrator, though I would like to try. I was reading John Banville's The Book of Evidence, a very good and disturbing book in first person, and I was so inspired that I began to compose in my head in first person. Maybe I will try it in my next novel. ZILKA: Would you consider yourself a "language writer" and what are your thoughts on that term, "language writer"? LI: I was a language writer in Chinese. I was a horrible writer in my mother tongue but I could spend all my energy making my language saturated with beautiful images and metaphors. No, I don't think for my career I am a language writer, or want to be one. I do hope to improve my language, but for me characters and stories are the most important elements for fiction, and they are my priorities. ZILKA: When you write, what audience do you have in mind? Is it Chinese? Chinese American? Asian American? Is it America? LI: I don't have audience in my mind when I write. I think about readers' reactions--but I think I did not come up with this--I probably stole this from a William Trevor interview, where he said something similar (in a more beautiful way). So I don't think about Chinese or Chinese American or Asian American or American. I think about how a reader possibly reacts to my story, say, compared to a Trevor story, or an Isaac Babel story, or a J. M. Coetzee book. ZILKA: What was it like to transition from writing short stories to a novel? And screen writing--regarding the stories you adapted to the big screen? LI: I wrote a novel (a horrible one, which I was able to salvage and make into a story) before I ever wrote a story, so I think I experienced the transition from writing a novel to writing stories and then back to novel. I don't think it was a hard transition except a novel requires so much more time and consistency and memory--I realized in the middle of


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writing my novel some of my minor characters changed names and jobs. I think with a novel the hardest part is revision. It is much easier to revise a story--to me a rough draft of a story oftentimes has all the things (or more than all the things) it needs and the revision has to do with putting them into the right place, while revising a novel sometimes is just to start from the very beginning again, and again. Screen writing--I only wrote one screenplay--but it taught me hugely about storytelling. I was very self-conscious when I wrote the first draft of the script for A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, and it was a mess. Then I looked at it again and realized that there was little difference between writing a script and writing a story. They are both about telling a good story in a very limited space. ZILKA: Do you think that someday, as you spend more of your life in the U.S., you'll write about the Asian American experience? Do you prefer to write stories set in China or the United States? Will you continue to write stories set in China? LI: I don't know. I really don't know how to answer these questions. At this moment I am writing stories set in China, but I can't speak for the future. ZILKA: How do you navigate the foreign with a readership that probably, largely is not familiar with China? LI: Perhaps I don't think about this problem as often as I should have. I don't think about it much. If I look at the books I love--for instance, J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace, or Chimamanda Adichie's Half of A Yellow Sun, of any of William Trevor's novels set in Ireland--they are oftentimes about places of which I knew little of. Still I love them for what the authors have done to me as a reader. I think if I could achieve what these authors have achieved, it does not matter that if my readers are not familiar with China. ZILKA: Is working in English becoming more natural to you? Would you ever write a story in Chinese?


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LI: Yes writing in English is much more natural to me (even though I still struggle with the language). I don't think I would ever write a story in Chinese. I don't think that idea appeals to me. ZILKA: You haven't had your work translated in China-why? LI: I don't think I like that idea so I said no to a possible publisher. There are plenty of great books that should be translated and introduce to Chinese audience (for instance, Colm Toibin and William Trevor will be published in China this year), and I don't think I should take a spot before many of the great writers are translated. Also, direct translation would not work in my case--had I written the stories in Chinese I would have used more of the cultural and historical references that now I can't use for my readers. ZILKA: Some people call you "anti-Chinese?" What is your reaction to that? LI: When I first encountered these sentiments I was not happy. But now I don't think they bothers me anymore. When you don't make your own people into heros people think you are airing dirty laundry. It happens to African American writers, to Indian writers, Bangladesh writers, or any writers that are not white male Americans, I imagine. But I am not interested in making characters into heroes. That is not why I write. ZILKA: Are you ever surprised when you travel around by what readers make of your writings, by how they connect with your writing? LI: I don't think I am surprised by how readers react. For every writer there are a few of his best readers--his dream readers, who understand every word he writes, and then there are readers who could misread and misinterpret-benignly or not so benignly, but those are extremes. Most readers fall into the middle somewhere, as the different shades of gray between the black and white. I think as a fiction writer one should be able to imagine these things.


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ZILKA: What recent books have excited you? LI: Molly Keane's Good Behavior, which I really enjoyed, and after finishing it I sent it immediately to a friend. The book was published in 1981 so it could hardly be called a recent book; Molly Keane is my recent discovery, though. And John Banville's The Book of Evidence and John McGahern's Amongst the Women. None of the books were recently published, though. ZILKA: Do you have any particular words of encouragement for emerging Asian American writers? LI: Ambition and patience are both very important for an emerging writer. ZILKA: Can you give us a hint on what you're working on next? LI: I just finished a novel, The Vagrants, which is coming out in February 2009, so now I am returning to stories (I do really love writing stories). And possibly starting a new novel some time.



Fiction Contributors RUCHIKA TOMAR earned her BA in English Literature from the University of California, Irvine. She is currently an MFA candidate at Columbia University in the city of New York. She is at work on her first novel. KELLY LUCE will be an artist in residence at Devil's Tower National Monument this fall. She is currently working on a novel, as well as a collection of stories, set in Japan; other stories in the collection appear in the Tampa Review (2008 Danahy Fiction Prize Winner), The Gettysburg Review, Nimrod, and Kyoto Journal. Check out her blog, Crazy Pete's Blotter, at www.thecrazypetesblotter.blogspot.com. Like a good little writer, she lives in a cottage in the woods.

KEVIN WU is a 27-year-old writer who lives in Carmichael, California. He finished his collection of stories, The Monkey Orchestra and Stories, and now live in tranquility planning his first novel. Wu is originally from Guangzhou, China, and spent the first nine years of his life speaking Chinese and doing Chinese things. Chinese schools and Chinese words, Chinese friends and relatives. In 2006, Wu completed his MFA at Brown University in Fiction and since then has been living a minimal existence, becoming vegetarian and drinking only a bit of water. He has been doing very little and thinking of nothing, perhaps in correlation with what monks do. Wu thought this way, he would understand something different about the US and the general world.


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Poetry Contributors DINA OMAR is a Palestinian-American woman attending UC Berkeley, majoring in Middle Eastern Studies and Anthropology. She's an up and coming poet having published poems in The Pacific Review Literary Journal, the Berkeley Poetry Review and the International Global Report. She speaks on various issues from the Palestinian right to selfdetermination to the growing dichotomy between the Arab and American worlds. For the past two years Dina has both been a student and a teacher in June Jordan's Poetry for the People Program. Poetry, photography, debating, filming documentaries and art in general have become Dina's platform to help educate people about women's issues, Muslims, Arabs, Iraq and most of all, the Palestinian plight. Currently Dina is submitting her first book to be reviewed for publication titled Sabbar. MICHELLE PEĂ‘ALOZA grew up in Nashville, Tennessee and stuck around to earn her BA in English Literature and Secondary Education from Vanderbilt University. She is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Oregon in Eugene, where she also works as an undergraduate professor of poetry and English. JASON KOO has published his poetry in The Yale Review, North American Review, Verse, Another Chicago Magazine, Bellingham Review, Green Mountains Review, Gulf Coast, Cimarron Review, on Verse Daily, and elsewhere. His reviews and interviews have appeared in Gulf Coast, Center and The Missouri Review, where he served as Poetry Editor. Koo currently serves as Poetry Editor for the new literary journal, Low Rent. He is a visiting assistant professor of English at Davidson College. ROHAN MULGAONKAR holds an MA in English from Stanford University and a BA magna cum laude from Boston College. He is currently teaching English as a Fulbright Scholar in the remote, travel-restricted area of Tembagapura, West Papua, Indonesia.


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Essay Contributors HAUQUAN CHAU has recently returned to Canada after ten years of living in Japan. His other published work can be found at Eclectica, Verbsap, Flashquake, Glimpse Abroad and ThingsAsian. One of his articles, “Teaching the F-Word� was recently published in The Best of Creative Nonfiction, Vol. 2. He is currently working on a memoir about his experiences in Japan. GRACE TALUSAN earned an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of California, Irvine. She has published essays and short stories in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Tufts Magazine, Colorlines Magazine, The Del Sol Review and other literary journals and anthologies, including Going Home to A Landscape: Writings by Filipinos. Talusan was awarded a Massachusetts State Artist Grant in Fiction Writing. Currently, she teaches writing at Grub Street, Inc. and Tufts University. LEWIS LEONG is an alumnus of the School of the Arts in San Francisco and is currently working toward a BA in Literary Journalism at UC Irvine and possibly a minor in computer science. He hopes to become a technology journalist after his studies and live in San Francisco, the city in which he grew up and handed over his heart to. He is a selfprofessed geek who spends most of the day permanently tethered to the Internet and loves running three operating systems simultaneously.


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Literary Review SPENCER DEW is the author of Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), a collection of short stories. A PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, Dew is a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books and a fiction editor for Chicago Review. Visit his author website at www.spencerdew.com.

Cover Design Artist JEANNETTE LEAGH has an affinity for the obscure, awkward and kind of naughty, and hopes her design work reflects as much. She also has a weakness for kebabs and lying about.


EDITOR BIOS Editor-in-Chief SUNNY WOAN graduated with a JD 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 Editor CHRISTINE LEE ZILKA is a Korean American writer. She earned her MFA from Mills Colllege where she was awarded an Ardella Mills prize, and her BA in English from UC Berkeley. Her stories and essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Verbsap and elsewhere. She was awarded a Hedgebrook writing residency and was selected as a finalist in Poets and Writers Magazine’s WEX contest for the state of California. She currently has a novel and a collection of short stories in progress. Poetry Editor ABBY REID earned her BA in Journalism from Penn State. Ms. Reid currently resides in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

Essays Editor 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.