Cover Design Art Credits: Joy Zhu, “Twist of Fate” (2009) Kartika Logo Design: Ben Hwang
© 2009 by Kartika Review
Kartika Review publishes literary fiction, poetry, and non-fiction that endeavor to expand and enhance the mainstream perception of Asian American creative writing. The journal also publishes book reviews, literary criticism, author interviews, and artwork, turning its focus on works relevant to the Asian Diaspora or authored by individuals of Asian descent.
KARTIKA PRESS San Francisco, California
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MISSION STATEMENT Kartika Review serves the Asian American community and those involved with Diasporic Asian-inspired literature. We scout for compelling Asian American creative writing and artwork to present to the public at large. Our editors actively solicit contributions from established virtuosos in our community in hopes their works here will inspire the next generation of virtuosos. We also showcase emerging writers and artists we foresee to be the future powerhouses of their craft. Ultimately, Kartika strives to create a literary forum that caters to and celebrates the wordsmiths of the Asian Diaspora.
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Photography by Joy Zhu
In this Issue: Akito Yoshikane, Beth Kaufka, Brenda Nakamoto, Deepak Maini, Desmond Kon. Geri Lipschultz, Jill Widner, Joseph Borja, Joy Zhu, Kenji Liu, Kimberly Law, Matthea Marquart, Molly Gaudry, Ocean Vuong, Richard Oyama, Vivek Sharma, and an interview with Peter Ho Davies.
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EDITORIAL Christine Lee Zilka
Dear Readers: It is a pleasure to read all the submissions and it is my responsibility and privilege to sort through the inbox (the fiction, at least) and decide which of the numerous stories to include in an issue of Kartika Review. But amidst the submissions there are always a few pieces that pierce my psyche; there are perfect stories, perfect words, and talented writers, but I seek the dizzying moment where I fall in love, where I can sense the writer behind the words opening their heart out and laying themselves bare for the world to witness. And in turn, I want the readers of Kartika Review to also witness that art of feeling. I had the pleasure of reading Molly Gaudry’s short short story, “The parents, they have lost their daughter,” a spare piece but not without the heft of deep feeling. And Jill Widner’s child characters find a sudden connection through dreams, a manifestation of subjugated desire, in her novel excerpt entitled “Fina’s Dream.” I’m happy to share those discoveries with you. There are also two gorgeous pieces outside of fiction in this issue: Ocean Vuong’s “Dear Vietnam…” and “The Nikkei Yellow Line” by Akito Yoshikane have me reeling with excitement as a reader and editor. Ocean Vuong’s poem, “Dear Vietnam…” and addressed as such, is a love letter that makes me also fall in love with his home and makes me homesick as well, for a place that no longer exists in present time and only exists in memory. In “The Nikkei Yellow Line,” Akito Yoshikane utilizes structure and imagery to investigate the theme of identity, boundaries, and geography to great effect. I’m so proud that his piece appears in Kartika. This issue’s interview features one of my favorite writers, Peter Ho Davies, who authored numerous award-winning stories; his multicultural, multi-ethnic identity also embodies how I experience Asian American literature today. There is no one voice, no one experience, and no one perspective or theme that singularly defines Asian American literature, and the diversity within Kartika Review’s pages attests to our many different voices. Also, I do not want to end this note without mentioning Kenji Liu, whose poem, “Poem to Myself as a Newborn” appears in this issue, and whose debut poetry chapbook, You Left Without Your Shoes will be out this coming fall from Finishing Line Press. Happy reading, Christine Lee Zilka
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TABLE OF CONTENTS ISSUE 05 ▪ SPRING/SUMMER 2009 Fiction
Brown Boys and White Girls
Desmond Kon ZC-MD
a memorial, living area
The parents, they have lost their daughter,
An Island at the End of the Mind
Signs of Spring
The Coke Story
Poem to Myself as a Newborn
A Thought, A Duty, A Tear
The Nikkei Yellow Line
Strangers In Our Mist
Peter Ho Davies
Author of The Ugliest House in the World (1997); Equal Love (2000); and The Welsh Girl (2007).
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DOG MUNCHER Beth Kaufka
We call this Girls Night Out, a name we should change because the point of the whole once-a-month ordeal is to find guys, and one of us, if it's a successful night, ends up ditching the girls completely. We dress up in clothes we'd be ashamed to wear around our parents, low on top, short on the bottom. Tiff always dresses for the most success, which means, the sluttiest. Tonight, she wears a strapless dress that dips in a deep V in front. It's held up with a little luck, perhaps some prayer, and double-sided tape. It's black, the dress I had wanted, tried on, and left crumpled on the floor of the dressing room because it made me look like a fresh-off-the-boat Asian prostitute. Too long for my body, the dress's curves hung in all the wrong places, the bottom hem coming mid-knee, the perfect length for schoolmarms in thick, nude pantyhose. Tiff's stacked in the back, as you wouldn't expect from such a white, white girl. My short Asian butt sits flat and low on my back like a half-empty, loose fitting fanny pack. Tiff's just arrived at my apartment to pick me up for the evening. She always picks me up first; it takes Vickie longer to get ready – after all, Vickie is the weather girl. The three of us, infamous news station gals. I watch Tiff's exposed long legs as she stomps snow onto the doormat. "So, what's up, my little yellow monkey?" she greets me. I make monkey calls as I always do. Our terms of endearment tend to be racial epithets, our way of deflating them. Inside jokes only we're allowed to make. I hand her a rum and coke. She clicks across my hardwoods in red cowboy boots. Mr. It's A Baby!, my Jack Russell terrier, yaps and bites at her heels until she bends down to pet him. Then, he piddles on the floor. "Damn it, Mr. It's A Baby!" Tiff says, pushing him away with her foot. "Your dog," I remind her. Tiff bought Mr. It's A Baby! a few years ago, after we graduated and each moved into our own apartments. She saw him in the window of the Pet Pen, took him home and threw him a baby shower – with invitations and gift registry – really just an excuse to have a party. During the event, she held a contest to name the dog. The wining name came from the invitation. But, just one week after the big party, she showed up at my door. "If you take him," she said, dog carrier in her one hand, and duffle bag of dog food and rubber balls in the other, "you can have him for free. But you have to promise not to turn him into chop suey." Ha. Either way, I always wanted my own dog. I met Tiff in the dorms seven years ago when she was dating Izuru, a Japanese exchange student, who I actually sort of met before I met Tiff when he tried to speak to me in Japanese in the dorm lobby. I ignored him on the way up the elevator and down the hall. I'd have probably been nicer to him if I knew he was headed to the room across from mine. When Tiff, wrapped in nothing but a towel, opened the door for him, her long blond hair wet and bound up in a single chopstick, we smiled at each other. Though she lived across the hall, I'd actually never seen her before. She kissed Izuru, which impressed me. I'd never known a white girl who dated Asian guys. But, Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 7
then again, I guess I haven't known many Asian guys in the first place – and I'm Asian, sort of. Tiff teases me when I tell people I'm Korean-American. "No, she's not," she corrects me. "She's Adopted-American." It's one of her favorite jokes, though I've never really thought it funny. But, it's true. I don't have much claim to any Koreanness. I once registered for a Tae Kwon Do class in college, but after a week, dropped it for Hip Hop Aerobics. I wipe up Mr. It's A Baby!'s pee and we're out the door to SEEN, a new club that's just opened on the Eastside of Detroit. On our way, we stop to pick up Vickie in Tiff's Jetta. Vickie also works at the news station with us. We're quite the threesome. I'm a reporter, Tiff's an editor, and Vickie's the weather girl.
Just outside SEEN, the Jetta's heater blasts while we fix our lip-gloss in the rear view mirror, fluff our hair, complement each other. You look great! No, you look great! No, you look great! We take off our coats. I exchange my snow boots for a shiny pair of high heels. Tiff passes a flask of Southern Comfort to warm us before we step outside. In unison, we snap our handbags shut, open the doors, and step out of the car into dirty snow. We walk toward the line of people waiting to get into SEEN. Wind blows our skirts tight against our legs. We try to position our faces in the wind so it doesn't ruin our hair. We're like a team, advancing side by side, working our way across the field. We wonder if anyone is watching. We wonder if we'll win. At the door, Vickie flirts with the bouncer who recognizes her as the weather girl. She shows off her telestrating skills on a pretend map, ushering in a storm with the wave of her hand. "Look out," she says. "There's a wave of high pressure blowing in from the south that'll keep temperatures hot and conditions wet." "Vickie," Tiff says, "you're such a slut!" She slaps Vickie on the ass and the sound snaps off her tight skirt. They toss their arms around each other's waists and start to bump their hips together. Then their butts. They hop and turn and bump. I walk past, trying to ignore the show, and they simultaneously slap me where I wish a real butt were. In the club, we get drinks and dance until Vickie points across the room to two white guys and one Asian guy sipping their beers at a tall round table. "Hey, check them out," she says, "Van Damme, Kevin Bacon, and Jackie Chan. Perfect. One for each of us." "Shut up," I say. I try to grab her arm, but she takes off toward them. The first guy, the big one, doesn't fit into his t-shirt, like he thinks his little brother's tshirt shows off his muscles better than one of his own. He's also wearing factoryripped jeans that flare out ever so slightly at the ankle. His goatee is crooked, leaning off to the right of his cleft chin. In the streaming lights, the gel in his hair shines like wet plastic. The second one does sort of look like Kevin Bacon, A Few Good Men-era. His blond hair scoops up and out from his long forehead for a clear view of his pinchy face. He's got on a silver and gold polka-dotted shirt, unbuttoned to his sternum. When he runs his hand through his hair, his Kanji tattoo peeks out from beneath his sleeve, including its English translation: Wisdom. Soon Vickie is grabbing Kevin KARTIKA REVIEW ▪ 8
Bacon's arm and tugging him toward the dance floor. She gives Jackie Chan a few quick pokes in the shoulder and points at me. He looks. I walk away – quickly – in the other direction. I need a drink. I squeeze in between a couple of people and try to make eye contact with the bartender and I do, but it doesn't matter. There's a rowdy bunch of frat boys banging on the bar, ordering each other shots. I wait, my view oscillating between frat boys, the bartender, and Vickie talking with our male counterparts. "Foxy lady!" One of the frat boys shouts at me over the music. He high-fives one of the passing guys. "Gross." I begin to walk away. My drink can wait. "What?" he says, "Hey, are you Japanese?" "No. Why? Are you?" "What are you then?" He rubs one finger up and down my forearm. I look down at my arm and back up at him. "I'm done with you," I say and flick his hand away as hard as I can. "Sorry for living." "I, too, am sorry you're living." He looks at me like I'm suddenly the ugliest person he's ever seen. "Dog-MuncherBitch," he says and takes off before I can shoot back a rebuttal. I'm rendered speechless. I can't even get out an easy "asshole" because I'm so impressed with the slur. Dog Muncher? Honestly, I think it's a good one. I have to admit that. It's got all the elements of a good slur: an ignorant stereotype, humor, and creative wording. My senior year in college, I dated this black guy for a while. I met him in an AfroCaribbean Literature course; a militant Black Nationalist dating an Asian chick. We got a charge out of it. I never told him my folks are white, that I'm adopted, grew up in a mostly white neighborhood. Anyway, we used to lie in bed at night, saying every single racist epithet that came to mind, laughing hysterically. Our favorites: Africoon, Rice-Rice-Baby, Porch Monkey, Ching-Chong-Chopstick, Negroid, Egg Roll Hole. We'd laugh and laugh. Sometimes, there's not much more you can do.
I get my drink and work my way through the crowd back to my friends, where it's safe. Tiff and Vickie are standing in a puff of smoke; they're sharing a Newport Light cigarette and talking with T-Shirt Man, Kevin Bacon, and Jackie Chan, the five of them laughing like old friends. When I arrive, they go quiet. Tiff nods to Vickie who nods to T-shirt Man who nods to Kevin Bacon, and then they leave me with Jackie Chan, alone and awkward. They walk off in the direction of more drinks. Jackie Chan and I stand there a few seconds, just looking at each other, like we're in shock that our friends would do such a thing. He's got on plain dark Levis and a black, cotton button-up shirt, top button undone, revealing a white t-shirt underneath. His hair is short and neat, shaved down to a quarter inch of jet-black fuzz. More of a Chow Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 9
Yun Fat than a Jackie Chan, if I have to pin him down to Hollywood. He's quite handsome. He smells like sandalwood soap. "I'm Eddie Chin." I shake his hand. "Abby Miller." And I then I imagine the interaction goes like this: He says, "It's very nice to meet you," to which I would say something like: "They're trying to set us up because we're both Asian, y'know." "I know," he says, "Lame." "White people." "Yeah, white people," he'd confirm. And then this is where things would get light. "Come here often? What's your sign?" I'd say, and we'd laugh. "You're one of the news reporters on Channel 7, right?" "You recognize me? I haven't done many stories yet. Too young." "But, you could be older, much older. Who knows with Asians? You could be, like, 87 for all they know. It's how we infiltrate." "Asian invasion." We'd say this at the same time and laugh, strangers sharing an inside joke. Already. At this moment, Chin – a complete stranger – would understand me more than my best girlfriends Tiff and Vickie. Then, I could sigh, relax. Finally. Because Chin's not going to tell me, surprised, that I speak English so well. He's not going to tell me about how my people are, how Asians are good people, that he once knew a Chinese guy who was the hardest worker he ever knew – quiet, but a damned hard worker. And Chin would know the secrets: Most Asians are lactose intolerant, and many don't need to wear deodorant. He would know I've never eaten dogs and won't blame my bad driving on my race, but my general anxiety. He wouldn't assume I'm really, really good at math – I suck at math. And he would know how it feels to be accused of being Asian. And tonight I'd be the one going home with the nice guy while Tiff and Vickie are stuck with T-Shirt Man and Footloose. I imagine I leave SEEN with Chin, get in his BMW, and talk my yellow head off. We laugh easily, but I keep wanting to cry. It's just that I'm so comfortable. I tell him my parents are white and that I'm adopted and that I only knew two other Asian people in my life, besides the family across the street who owned The Golden Dragon restaurant, and whose house always smelled like fish sauce. You could smell it all the way from the sidewalk, I tell him, and he laughs because he knows what I'm talking about. We stop at Lafayette Coney Island for some chilidogs and fries and talk about his travels to South America, his love of Rock & Rye Faygo and Vernors, about how we both love Steinbeck, and how the film rendition of Fight Club is the best book to film translation of our time, even though we hated the book. Then, we hop back in his car and drive around for a couple of hours listening to Nina Simone and talking about our families before we go back to his place where he shakes up some martinis and we talk about getting the hell out of Michigan. But my encounter with Chin doesn't happen like that.
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It all happens the way I've told it – until the part when it's my turn to introduce myself. So, really, it goes like this: He says, "I'm Eddie Chin," and I say, "Abby Miller." We shake hands, and I promptly excuse myself to the bathroom, but really to get another drink. I'm ashamed of myself. I know I should go back, try again, give this guy a chance. Perhaps give myself another chance. I know I'm skipping out on him just because he's Asian. Here's the thing. Two Asian people together = two immigrants = two dog munchers. It's like some weird rule. One Asian person alone can remain an anybody, personhood intact, racial features semi-invisible. Two or more Asians gathered in one spot and all of the sudden you become the Empire, moving in swiftly as an entire nation, all slanty eyes, flat-faces, math and pianos. Alone, I'm Abby. With Chin, I'm all of Asia and all of Asia's racial baggage. But, after all the classes in Asian-American literature, oppression theory, history of identity politics, I should know better. I do know better. I feel like a fraud.
I'm standing at the edge of the dance floor, watching Vickie get down Britney Spears style (post-Justin, pre-K-Fed) with T-shirt Man, who gropes her ass while she slinks around him as if he's a stripper pole. I watch from the bar with a fresh vodka tonic, a little embarrassed for her. Vickie sees me and waves. Then, T-shirt Man dances his way over to me. His head rocks back and forth on his thick neck, his hips sway from side to side, and his ass juts out every other beat as he walks – he's trying to dance toward me, but looks like he's trying to shake a fart out of his pants – and every once in a while, he closes his eyes to make a show of how much he's into the music. "Whatcha drinkin'?" he asks. "Water." "Really," he says. "What are you drinking?" "Water," I say. "Really." "Y'know, Chin's over there." He points, but I don't look. I expect Chin's in exactly the same place I left him. Now, the problem is, I actually want to go over and talk to Chin because he is handsome, and I feel like a jerk, but I don't want to give any of these people the satisfaction of thinking that the only two Asian people in the room belong together because they are Asian. "You should go talk to him," he says. "You're his friend. You go talk to him." "You're one of those banana girls, aren't you?" he says, meaning, yellow on the outside, white on the inside. "Not cool," I say. "Oh, sorry. A Twinkie, then?" He thinks he's pretty funny, like he's allowed to say these things to me because he probably says them to Chin, like he's an insider because his friend is Asian. He thinks if you get permission from one of us, you get permission from all of us. It's like the white kid who thinks he can say “nigger” because he hangs out with black kids, and the black kids don't mind because they are particular, specific Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 11
black kids who just happen not to mind. But when that same white kid says “nigger” to another, different and particular, specific group of black kids, he gets his sorry ass beat. As such, I want to beat T-Shirt Man's ass. "Don't worry," he says, "I'm not hitting on you. I'm into your friend, Vi . . . Valerie. Really, I just thought you and Chin might hit it off." "Why? Because we're Asian?" "Why not?" He is sweating profusely, and I imagine the drops running down his forehead to be thick and sticky with hair gel.
The air in SEEN is steamy from all the drunken, sweaty bodies pushed together, dancing like they are on MTV, like they think they're the back up dancers in a club scene for some Snoop Dog video. A draft of cool air blows in every once in a while as groups of people come and go. Tiff and Chin are talking at a booth next to the bar. Vickie is on the dance floor thinking she's the hottest thing out there because she is. Granted she is the weather girl, plus she spent all of her high school years in an east coast conservatory studying dance. Other girls can't compete with her skills. That's why I stand against the bar. Or, that's one reason I stand against the bar. The other reason is for balance. I haven't been this drunk in years. I pick up my drink, and it tastes like vanilla, which means it is not my drink. In fact, I suddenly remember I finished my last vodka tonic a few minutes ago before going to the bathroom. But this drink tastes good. I decide the vanilla drink is my new favorite drink, and I take it with me over to a round table at the edge of the dance floor where T-Shirt Man sits, watching Vickie dance. "Hey, T-Shirt Man," I say. The music is loud. "Hey!" It takes a minute for him to respond. He holds his index finger in the air, signaling to me I'll have to wait a sec because he's still watching my friend shake her ass like Shakira. "T-Shirt Man, my man," I say. I put my hand in the air; I want him to give me a highfive. "Chin's over there." He grabs my shoulders, spins me around on the vinyl seat, pointing me back toward the bar. "See him?" He raises his eyebrows as if I might score and shoos me away. I know where Chin is. That's the problem. I've known where he's been all night and for the last half of the night, I've watched him schmooze with my best friend. What the hell? Why doesn't he want to get to know me? I'm the one who'd understand him. Tiff shouldn't even be talking to him. She's seeing two other guys right now, and both of them think it's exclusive. Chin should know better than to trust a girl like that. Doesn't he see how she's dressed, like a hooker? I must talk to Chin. This has gone too far. I stride over to where they're huddled. "Excuse me," I say to Tiff. "Chin and I need to talk now." "Is everything okay?" she says, acting innocent, like a woman who doesn't have two boyfriends, but I don't change my position.
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"Now," I say. Tiff gets up with a huff and pushes past where I stand at the edge of the table. "Chin," I say, "You're an Asian guy, right? So why don't you date Asian chicks?" I take a swig of the vanilla drink. "Are you okay?" "Answer my question, Chin." "I think you should put your drink down for a moment." "It's not my drink, Chin." I know I've stumped him. And now he's got to move on to my questions. "No more diversions, Chin. Get your own drink. Why don't you date Asian chicks?" "Are you kidding?" I bend forward and look him dead in the eye, slap my palm on the table. "Hey, DogMuncher," I say. "I'm the one asking questions here. I'm the reporter. Are you going to answer me or what, Chin?" "No, I'm not. What is this about?" "Hey, Chin. Do you care that people call you Chin, Chin? Doesn't it make you feel so Asian, Chin? Doesn't it? How does it feel to you, to be Asian, Chin?" A familiar sadness opens on his face. Our eyes meet for a second, just long enough to acknowledge an unspoken code. Then, he gets up from the booth and sits me down in it. His arms are strong and confident. He pushes his glass of water toward me, and I take a long drink. Right now, all I want is to be home in my own bed with my dog curled at my feet. "Chin, I love Misser Bitsy Baby," I slur. He gives me a strange look and says, "Take another sip." He pushes the glass of water closer to me. I push it away, afraid I'll throw up. I slump into the booth, my head too heavy to hold so high. I try to apologize to Chin, but I can't seem to peel my face from the cool surface of the table. He pats my shoulder. "Good luck, Abby," he says, and when I try to signal for him to sit down, he's already gone, disappeared into the throng on the dance floor, the anonymous bodies moving like a singular entity. They rise and fall, showered in the spectacle of red and green and yellow lights, and if I could, I would heave myself out of the booth and, too, slip into the crowd, lose myself in the pulse of the night.
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BROWN BOYS AND WHITE GIRLS Joseph Borja
Blinded by the dream of America The island boys don’t want the island girls; They want the white woman: blonde tall skinny and bitchy. Blinded by the American Dream The island boys cheat on the island girls; They go to the strip joints and the first blonde they see, they give: paychecks college funds life savings and pocket change . Blinded by the American Dream The island boys beat the island girls; They beat them bloody drunk and sober when they’re happy and sad they punch ‘em and slap ‘em and throw them to the ground; Then spit on their face and don’t feel bad about it. After all, it’s just a brown woman comparable to a dog because they can never learn to be white because they cannot learn not to be brown . The little brown boys see this and they can’t understand and when they grow up they too will be blinded and do the same and wonder why.
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SWING Kimberly Law
Walking on the wood chips that cover the playground I feel the floor take in my weight and uphold me easily. I am weaving through the structures towards the swing, which has no guards like the toddler swings. As milli-distance is lessen, my eyes grow wide and a flutter starts in my chest cavity, Like millions of butterflies looking for an escape. And in my mind, I hear the child in me say, “I have the swing to myself, I have the coolest toy on the playground to myself!” I scoot up onto the swing and I start the motion of rocking. With my legs straight out, then bent back Over and over again, my legs are out and back, out and back, out and back Until I am swinging to my fullest potential! Until I swear I could reach the sky from where I sat swinging. My legs grow tired and Slowly I start to descend, rocking gently with my legs crossed at my ankles. My feeling of elation, of reaching the sky has transformed into peace. For I have reached as far as I could then. And to myself I say, “Maybe someday I’ll reach even higher. When the world is at ease and my neighbors are not robbed of their security.” By now rocking has ceased. I scoot off the swing and the wood chips give in a little as my feet settle over them. I walk home slowly, taking into me the light breeze that has cascade over the tree. All the while enjoying my moment on the swing.
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A MEMORIAL, LIVING AREA
Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé justice looks like a four-cornered pillar, only resembles infrastructures open to viewing galleries : really in catacombs under paris, and looking at cabinets and drawers : those are built on bones, they interlock like your brick-laden floors lilting old humming sounds in waves : in waves, as if a wrecking ball bounced across these rectangular stones, pillars too : when they mount, they become graves that didn’t bother with the digging – just saying, just saying : some cataphile is watching reels, cinema in amphitheatres so stashed away, you want to open shop there, to set up tents and watch city lights through poncho hoods : do you think people kept warm in these places, anselm? see, a tripod or was that used as a prop, for flowers too? it says wood in chinese, an ankh hammered into the brick as if one widow among the millions wanted to make her mark : even in between pillars like these, ceilings seem so low : she walks steady on your rafters, never afraid to fall : but now, slither like floor soap : and other people’s fats and lye, leached too like wood ashes : and this helps one limn some truth : cave painters have that power too, that cleansing power.
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THE PARENTS, THEY HAVE LOST THEIR DAUGHTER, Molly Gaudry
who grew not under the mother's heart but in it; the daughter, she never bought this thing the mother said and said again whenever the daughter was sad; the mother, now she is the one who is sad; the father, his sadness is unimaginable; he does not want to be in this strange land holding what remains of his daughter between his hands, he does not want to be in this country of people who look like his daughter, who remind him of his daughter who shot herself in the face and doesn't look like anyone or anything he knows or understands or sees before him now; the people, these people, they way they stare at the parents like the parents don't belong; the mother has half a mind to show their family portrait to anyone who will stop and look, and see, the mother will say, don't you see, I am a mother, just like you, and he is a father, like you, or you, and she was loved, we loved her, she was our daughter; the daughter, she did not intend for the father to find her; the mother, she'd been worrying about the daughter, called the father on his cell and told him to stop by the daughter's on his way from work; the daughter had not called the father on his cell in several days, so the father did what the mother said and let himself in after knocking several minutes; the daughter, she smelled the smell of a four-day-old death; the father, he smelled her before he saw her; the mother, she smelled the daughter on the father and has not been able to sleep beside him since, not even in the hotel they are paying an arm and two legs for because it was the hotel they'd stayed in when they picked up the daughter from the orphanage and felt the happiest they'd ever felt together, happier even than when they were married three years before; now they are here, where the daughter wanted them to be, where the daughter had been born, where the daughter instructed them to scatter her ashes; the daughter, all that is left of her are her ashes, and the father, he can't bear to let her go, not like this, not like this, not so far from home; the mother, she puts her hand on the father's wrist and says, this is where she wanted to be, this is where she belongs; the father, he says nothing; he simply does his daughter's bidding in a final act of love, still thinking, not like this, not like this; this is where she wanted to be, this is where she belongs; not like this, not like this, not like this
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AN ISLAND AT THE END OF THE MIND Richard Oyama
Walking through the Hondori Arcade in Hiroshima, I had a negative epiphany, feeling abruptly gawky, misshapen, awkward, outlandishly American, a Flannery O'Connor geek at a Southern freak show. Like a salmon leaping the falls, I was swimming against the burgeoning, irrevocable tide of the lunch hour crowd's Japaneseness. Is there a connection between Hiroshima's blasted history—residents living with the unconscious knowledge, as Norman Mailer writes, that "our death itself would be unknown, unhonored, and unremarked. . .a death by deus ex machina in a gas chamber or a radioactive city"—and the edgy, almost desperate hyper-stimulation of its pleasure quarters? Robert Jay Lifton writes of the hibakusha's "psychic numbing" or closing-off—the cessation of feeling—soon after the bomb blast. If Hiroshima's legacy, then, is psychic guilt and numbness, mightn't that explain the city's Las Vegas-style nightlife, which lives in a historyless, eternal present and is designed to awaken the sleepers—or plunge them into an insensate sleep? Much late 20th-century abstract art could be seen as post-Hiroshima work. One cannot see the wreckage and shards of metal, glass, clothing, furniture and toys in the Peace Museum, and not think of Robert Rauschenberg's combines, the deformations and disfigurings of Abstract Expressionists, even Jackson Pollock's splatter effects. In the museum is displayed a shoji panel in which tracings of black rain drip down its discolored papery surface. Reports of its death may be greatly exaggerated, but it does seem that traditional Japan is slowly expiring, or drastically in retreat, from the perspective of the entertainment and shopping quarters. Donald Richie has claimed that the Japanese have "paved Paradise," destroyed the coastline and dammed the rivers, to use songwriter Joni Mitchell's phrase, that the reverence for nature is exceedingly rare now. But then, after the war's carnage and destruction, and the American Occupation’s postwar deprivations, how appealing would Buddhist scarcity seem? There is an air of controlled hysteria in Japan’s mass culture. Manga, video games, pachinko parlors, snack and hostess bars, coffeeshops—the bright red glare of evening's distractions. It blares and assaults the eyes, blurs vision and disorients the pedestrian. And dis/orient may be the proper term in a culture whose manga Anglicize the features of its Japanese characters, who are Nihonjin-banare (deJapanized) with big, roundish eyes, thin, aquiline noses and prim mouths; the hakujin (or Anglo American) must still hold a colonizer's power over the mass imagination. Like other Sansei (third-generation Japanese Americans), I cannot speak my ancestral tongue. While my parents sent me to Japanese school at the Buddhist Church on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, they never spoke Nihongo to their children, slipping into Japanese only when they wanted to discuss something intimate. Japanese was the language of secrets. Yet the sounds of the language—shi, tsu, fu—echo in my ear.
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The Japanese comprehend my tongueless plight and identify me as gaijin. Is it my broken, halting speech? Does my shambling presence unmask me? Is it in my carriage—a slouch, an edgy impatience, waiting on the streetcorner for the light to change? Does my body betray me? In the morning, I met Uncle Henry Mittwer for the first time at Tenryu-ji in Kyoto. His brusque directness, his certitude and economy of movement, his monk's tonsure and enlarged eyes, his otherworldly presence, was intimidating—and quintessentially Zen. He had a fond spot for my father, he said, because the Oyama family were among the first Americans to introduce him to the States, he said, when they were living in Los Angeles' Boyle Heights in the 1930s. He accompanied Dad on my Grandfather's fitful travelling cosmetics enterprise as they rode a wagon to towns along the California coast. "It was a 'pay-later' kind of thing," Henry said of Grandfather's willingness to take credit during the Depression. Henry speaks English with a pronounced Nihonjin accent. My father dragged him to a party, Henry said, where he met his wife Sachiko; as in Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon," however, she disputed that narrative. From internment camp, they went onto Seabrook Farms, the food processing plant in New Jersey, which hired many evacuees. They said little about Mom, except to marvel at how she cooked such sumptuous meals in the tiny, cramped kitchen of our fourthfloor apartment on Morningside Drive. As a child in my father's Japanese food shop on 124th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, I was immersed in a world of smells: plastic trays of salmon eggs, striped bass in the basement bathtub, glass jars of pickled vegetables, wood buckets of pungent miso. Poet Charles Reznikoff describes a disheveled old man who pulls off a piece of sugary baked apple, "eating with reverence food, the great comforter." More than language, food was the nourishing thread that would bind my family's history to the ancestral homeland. Feelings resided in food, the source of both pleasure—my childhood delight in mochi, the soft, chewy rice cakes served during Oshogatsu, the New Year's Festival—and humiliation when my mother chastised me for failing to remember that vinegared rice balls were called inarizushi; our family had called them "gunny sacks," because the soy bean casings gave them a utilitarian appearance. As we strolled toward a restaurant, Sachiko complained about a game leg, but Henry sailed serenely alongside the Hozu River, oblivious, contemplating flowers by the roadside. The Western-style restaurant served both Japanese and American cuisine. I had the teishoku (set menu) of unaju and cold udon. Sachiko ordered a hamburger steak—she liked the way they cooked it here, she said, without any "funny Japanese spices"—while Henry, the Zen priest, scarfed a cheese casserole. As we parted, I dispensed with the obligatory phrases. "Well, thank you for everything, Henry." "I've done nothing." "Well, I guess I'd better get going, if I want to see Ryoan-ji." "Oh, so you've seen everything here." "No, not really." Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 19
"You didn't say much." It was disquieting. He threw me off-balance—his long silences, his terse remarks—as if all of the formal patterns, structures and conventions of daily discourse to which we normally adhere had been stripped of language that obstructs us from clear sight. At a certain age, I intuited the unspoken schisms in my family’s lives. I attended regular, i.e. American school, during the week, but Japanese school only on Saturday afternoon. The bifurcation required a choice, and the choice was obvious. There was no place for “Japaneseness” in regular school, where other children ridiculed a strange-sounding name like Oyama—"Yokohama" and "yo mama" were among the riffs played on it—or a box lunch consisting of rice balls and pickled plums. In response I invented a frenetic comic persona to keep them at bay, and to deflect difference. It was an October outing in a New Jersey park. I was thirteen. A raffle was being held. Mr. Shimura, a Kibei, an American-born Nihonjin educated in Japan, grabbed folded slips of paper from a brown sack and read off the winning numbers in a heavily accented Japanglish. In black suits that engulfed them, the Issei men, stood under the elms' broad shadows. A transistor radio blared the seventh game of the 1964 World Series between the Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals. It was the end of a dynasty: Mickey Mantle, a gimpy cripple, swinging haplessly at a Bob Gibson fastball. Everything was melancholy and came from a huge distance. My nerves were strung all wrong. I felt far from the world. Japanophiles have immersed themselves in this culture; I envy their facility, resent them even. They don't encounter the psychic impediments that Sansei grappled with when we attempted to reclaim an ancestral heritage that was nearly eradicated. During World War II, for Japanese Americans to manifest any aspect of Japaneseness was to conspire with the Enemy. And after camp, the Nisei rebuilt their shattered lives, assimilated, and disappeared into a postwar, triumphalist America. In Kanazawa's Kenrokuen, a meticulously designed stroll garden of trees and stones, meandering paths and streams, is a moss-laden island shaped like a tortoise, symbolizing longevity, in Kasu-mi-ga-Ika (Misty Pond). From a distance, its shape— the tortoise's shell—could signify the arc of a whole life. I recalled Wallace Stevens' opening lines to the poem, "Of Mere Being": "The palm at the end of the mind, / Beyond the last thought..." This is an island at the mind's end: "a foreign song," an idyll, a placid dream, an unattainable image of solitude and mere being: Japan. Is it possible that despite the loss of interconnection to the natural world, despite Japan's postmodern frenzy and rapacious materialism, quietude lies still at the heart of the culture? I prefer to believe so. Kazuko Takei and Noriko Oki, relatives of my grandmother Miyo's family, greeted me in the lobby of my business hotel in Meguro. We took the subway ride to Fuchu in western Tokyo where the Oki family live close to a racetrack. At the house—two houses, actually, with my Great-aunt Chie Oki's Japanese-style home facing onto the street and Noriko's in back, kittens slouching on windowsills and on the corrugated tin roof--rain fell once we entered Chie's house. As we gazed silently at the wet garden, someone said, "We were lucky to arrive before it began."
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Outside her house is a sign, the Oki Clinic, where she continues to practice medicine at 83. Chie was the matriarch, the culture-bearer, the memory-keeper. She recollected my father’s visit for his mother Miyo's funeral in 1960. Chie is larger, more physically imposing than her two shy, inward sisters, radiating kindness and warmth. I took comfort in her compassionate presence. My grandmother Miyo was disciplined, Chie told me, devoted to her siblings. She was lovely and did not look at all like me, she observed modestly. My Aunt Lili resembled my grandmother most, Chie said, she inherited Miyo's beauty. In her eighties, Lili still possesses a sort of regal carriage. Chie never met my grandfather Katsuji, but knew his brother, a Tokyo University graduate who migrated to Korea during Japan's annexation of that country. Katsuji and another brother cut cane on a sugar plantation in Hawaii to pay his college tuition: a familial tale of sacrifice. Before we left her house, Chie asked that I pray for her dead brother. I struck the brass bell, lit two sticks of incense, prayed silently. She thanked me and told me that the Okis belonged to a Zen sect. My Methodist grandparents, then, must have converted in the States. Unbeknownst to me, the seeds of my father's midlife obsession with Zen Buddhism and my instinctive empathy for that belief system were first sown in his mother's family. The simplicity of the dialogue—this ritual language of modesty, apology and selfdeprecation—seemed almost scripted and reminded me of a Yasujiro Ozu film: the Japanese family's small, domestic dramas. And yet, in such simplicity of language, emotion was unfeigned, distilled, lacking irony. The calm of the rainy afternoon, the house's peace and content, was real. In the end, though everyone "looks like me"--the same black hair, same facial features-language confers being, as Kiowa novelist N. Scott Momaday wrote, and has proven more critical than my Japanese face. Still, my Nihonjin family rooted me in place, secured me to a bloodline, bestowed the gift of belonging. At the same time, I possessed W.E.B. Dubois’s "double consciousness" in Japan: at once, subject and object, observer and observed, insider and outsider. One of my last images of Japan was the tide of commuters swirling and eddying through Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. Two million people pass through the station daily. The top of my head seemed to be coming off. As the mass atomized, split apart, my sense of rationality and order splintered, atomized: "without human meaning, / without human feeling. . ." (Wallace Stevens). From a CD stand, the voice of Judy Collins sang the pure, sweet strains of "Amazing Grace," the English hymn composed by John Newton, a former ship captain who engaged in the slave trade and was ordained a minister in the Church of England. Its tune could derive from an early American folk melody; others speculate that it could have originated in a song the slaves sang: a hymn of enslavement and deliverance. I heard the hymn as a song of redemption, her angelic voice floating above the crowd, sung for them, and against the anonymity and unbelief of post-modernity. But who knows: it could have been a song of myself, an exilic figure, an outcast in the wilderness who sets foot on his ancestral homeland for the first time and finds himself Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 21
inspirited by an ineffable grace: "’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, / And grace will lead me home."
WORKS CITED: Lifton, Robert Jay. Death in Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967. Mailer, Norman. Advertisements for Myself. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1959. Stevens, Wallace. The Palm At The End Of The Mind. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
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SPRING RADIANCE Joy Zhu
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MOSAIC Joy Zhu
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BUDDING Joy Zhu
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FIERCE Joy Zhu
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DISPARITY POINT Joy Zhu
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IN FULL BLOOM Joy Zhu
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SHALL WE DANCE? Joy Zhu
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FINA’S DREAM Jill Widner
Sumatra, Indonesia, 1963 Mina’s mouth is stained bright red. What looks to the girl like a slick-skinned fibrous nut is lodged between her gums and cheek, packed there, so that the side of her face looks swollen. She is chewing, and her lips and her teeth and the spaces in between her teeth are coated with red-brown saliva and bits of what look like masticated bark. From time to time she reaches into her mouth, removes the partially chewed wad and spits into the dirt between her feet. Fina, the Filipino girl who lives down the road, is showing Elizabeth how to make a necklace from the purple stem of the ubi plant that grows in the dirt against a concrete wall. “What is ubi?” Elizabeth asks. “Something like potato. Indonesian potato.” Elizabeth is distracted by what Mina is doing. She knows it isn’t blood that Mina is spitting, but it looks like blood. Her eyes are distant. She has stopped talking. “What is she eating?” Elizabeth whispers. “She isn’t eating, she’s chewing. You know the short palm trees that grow along the river wall in Kampung Baru? It is betel nut, the fruit of the betel palm. Old women like it.” “Why?” Fina shrugs. Maybe it is something like medicine. “I think it makes them dream while they are awake.” “Do you remember your dreams?” Elizabeth pauses to think. “Do you?” “Yes.” Fina looks at her. “I’ve dreamed of you.” “You have?” “I saw you inside my house.” “I’ve never been to your house.” “You must have. Or else you will. That is how it is with dreams. Everything has already happened. Or else it will happen.” “How do you know that?” “I just know.” “What was I doing?” “Nothing. Just standing there. In the kitchen, I think. You looked afraid. I think you were afraid you were going to have to eat our food. Have you ever played tennis?”
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“No.” “It’s fun to go to the courts at night. Especially if the moon is out. And it will be tonight. Do you want to?”
Fina is kneeling on the kitchen floor, retying the laces of her tennis shoes when she remembers the tennis racquets. Elizabeth waits on the back step, the screen door propped open on her elbow. She smells something scorched. A rancid smell, a residue hanging in the air, a film coating all of the surfaces in the room. It is the smell that comes from the belakang when Mina cooks on the propane stove. From the other side of the room, the Indonesian cook turns around, less to look at the white girl than at the door she is holding open. She says nothing. Turns back to the dishes she is washing in the sink. Elizabeth glances through the glass louvers that are tilted open, high on the wall near the ceiling. The twilight is gone from the sky. It is dark now. From a room at the front of the house, she hears a radio. She looks around the room. Paper ornaments dangle from the ceiling. They swing in the breeze from the fan. On the wall a calendar. Shell Oil Company, Elizabeth reads. A barefoot, bare-chested white boy with white-blonde hair stares from the photograph for the month of July. His shorts are loose and long. A white feathered cockatoo with a yellow comb is balanced on his shoulder. Fina is back. She hands one of the racquets to the girl. The screen door slams behind them, and they’re walking in the dark, gravel crushing beneath the soles of their shoes. Across the street from the tennis courts, a diving board and the deck of a swimming pool are visible behind a tall wire fence. Elizabeth’s brother and his friends call it the old pool. She hears her brother’s voice in her head as they pass: No one swims in the old pool. Look at the tile. Look at the water. It smells like the swamp.
Elizabeth’s mother uses the word physique to describe the nice looking bodies of boys. Your brother has a nice physique, she says. This is the word Elizabeth thinks of watching Fina, crouched, boy-like on half bent knees behind the net. Long, strong arms and legs. Long, strong waist and back. Her long black hair and the attitude of her shoulders make the girl think of the broad, confident strokes of a magic marker across a sheet of brown construction paper. Fina has a nice physique, she thinks. “Watch,” Fina says. “Like this. Grasp the racquet here, as though you want to shake its hand.” From her crouch, in slow motion, she steps back and swings back her arm. “Unlock the door. Close the door. Turn the key. You try.”
Fina is older than Elizabeth. She might be eleven. She might be twelve. “Let’s climb on the roof,” she says. Fina leads Elizabeth behind the building, where an open concrete staircase leads to a flat roof. It is dark on the roof. “I like to sit in the dark,” Fina says. “Do you?” “I don’t know.” Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 31
“Are you afraid?” “I don’t know.” “You don’t have to be. I come here with my sister all the time. No one ever comes up here. Only us.” Fina finds a place that looks clean enough and sits down. She brushes the concrete floor with her hand and pats the ground. Elizabeth sits down beside her. Fina leans back against the concrete wall, her long bare legs stretched out in front of her. “Look,” Fina says. She points through the branches of a monkey pod tree. “I told you.” The moon is a yellow-brown disc that appears to be rising out of the river. “Can you smell the river?” Elizabeth sniffs at the air. “Have you ever noticed there is more to smell in the dark?” Elizabeth hasn’t, but recognizes now that it’s true. Fina unties her tennis shoes. “Take off your shoes. Barefoot feels better.” Elizabeth pulls off her shoes and socks. She scuffs the soles of her feet against the concrete floor. “I remembered something else about the dream.” Hours have passed. Elizabeth has forgotten the dream. “You climbed under a table. Do you like horses?” “Why?” “There was a herd of horses under the table. Really small horses. Maybe they were dogs, but I think they were horses. Their faces were long like horses. You were explaining the best way to approach a shy animal. You put out your hand. You said, You have to wait for them to come to you. Then you said, Well, usually this works. Unless they bite. Something like that.” “You dreamed that much about me?” Fina nods. Fina is watching the moon, her shoulders and head propped against the wall. Elizabeth is sitting cross-legged beside her, barefoot in a loose pair of shorts. “Lie down like me.” Elizabeth is relaxed now. “Your legs are longer than mine.” Fina moves closer until the side of her brown leg is touching the side of the white girl’s leg. “Longer by a lot.” Fina lifts her foot. Rests it on top of Elizabeth’s ankle. Elizabeth hears herself swallow. “Look at the moon,” Fina says. “Gilang-cemerlang.” Fina’s voice is soft. It sounds the way it always sounds, quiet and husky at the same time, like a boy’s voice. KARTIKA REVIEW ▪ 32
“What did you say?” “Gilang-cemerlang. The moon. It is so glittery. It is so bright.” Fina’s fingers move back and forth against the rough cotton fabric of Elizabeth’s shorts. Her fingers reach for the hem. The heel of her bare foot rubs against Elizabeth’s ankle. Elizabeth watches Fina’s toes. It’s as if they’re breathing. It’s as if they’re speaking. Or singing. The moon hangs over their heads, more yellow now than brown. Fina lifts her long black hair off the back of her neck, shakes it away from her shoulders. “Have you ever tried that before?” The white girl shakes her head no. “You have your racquet?” “Yes.” “Let’s run.”
Elizabeth awakens to rain, to the sheet wrapped over her head. She looks to the clock. Not yet four. She feels like a chrysalis inside a cocoon, not yet awake, but no longer asleep. Not yet eight, but no longer seven. She hears a ticking sound through the screen. The rain makes a ticking sound on the leaves, a slapping sound striking the mud. She closes her eyes. Tries to lie still in the darkness. It’s too hot to lie still. At first the heat is small and localized, spots of dampness behind her neck, beneath her chin. Then she feels something like a sticky form of steam mixed with the smell of her skin, a slick coat of sweat behind her knees, between her shoulder blades, at the small of her back, trickling over the bird-bone ledges of her ribs. She wipes herself dry with her pajama shirt. Pulls it over her head and kicks it with the sheet to the foot of the bed. By now the birds are calling to each other in the mangga tree. By now a breeze is drifting through the screen. By now, she has pulled her pajama shirt back over her head, and the sheet is folded neatly back under her chin. She is no longer a chrysalis inside a cocoon; she is herself again. Except that her bed is so close to the rain striking the leaves in the mangga tree that for a few moments her room is a birdhouse in the tree. At a quarter to five, she pads to the door, which is closed. Her fingers reach through the rainy darkness for the doorknob, a glass doorknob, coated like her skin with a sticky residue. She is turning the doorknob when her toes bump into a piece of paper slid under the door. She kneels to the floor, and picks up a manila envelope. She opens the door as quietly as she can, which is difficult to do because the floors are hardwood and bare, and the sound of the latch closing echoes down the long hallway. She carries the envelope to the bathroom, where again she closes the door carefully, turns on the light, and climbs onto the counter where she rests her feet in the cool white porcelain sink. She recognizes the even slope, the long slanted lines of her brother’s handwriting. “Happy Birthday, Elizabeth.” Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 33
Inside the envelope, a page torn from her brother’s sketchbook is folded in half. On the front, in pencil, he has drawn a dog lying down, its mouth open, tongue hanging out in what looks to her like a smile, one ear pricked up, the other flopped down. She unfolds the page and reads, Papaya is okay; manggas are too; I still like cantaloupe, and so do you. Guess what? We get to have one of the Kyle’s puppies! Unable to contain herself, Elizabeth bursts through the door and runs down the hall to the front of the house. “Mom!” The living room is empty. The sky through the louvers, still grey. Elizabeth looks from the chairs to the dining room table, expecting, if not exactly a tree strung with lights, at least a stack of wrapped presents. Her mother rushes into the room tying a robe around her waist. “What is it, Elizabeth?” “It’s my birthday.” “But it’s not morning.” “It is morning. Look!” she says, pressing the card her brother has made into her mother’s hands. “You need to go back to sleep, Elizabeth.” Elizabeth looks again at the dining room table. presents?”
“Aren’t there going to be any
Her mother shoos her down the hall. “Go back to your room.”
Elizabeth is fretting again. What if no one comes? What if no one wants to come to a party at the guest house in Old Camp? We haven’t met any girls your age, Elizabeth. We don’t know who they are or where they live or anything. Couldn’t you find out? Couldn’t you ask?
When her mother pushes through the swinging kitchen door, carrying a metal canister, the frosted sides dripping to the floor, Elizabeth is ready to burst into tears. “Look. It’s ice cream. The man at the ice cream shop made it especially for your birthday.” “It isn’t ice cream; it’s es krim. Es means ice. And it tastes like ice. It tastes like frozen milk.” Her mother lays the canister on its side in the freezer. “It’s good. I tasted it.” “What’s this?” Elizabeth asks, unwrapping newspaper from several bottles filled with a thick orange substance. “Marquesa? I don’t want Marquesa for my birthday.” “Elizabeth. We live in Indonesia now. You’ll get used to it. Everyone else already has.”
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By the time the guests begin to arrive, Elizabeth has forgotten her complaints. Some of the girls, to her surprise, because her mother made her print at the bottom of each of the invitations that gifts were not expected, have brought presents. She sits on the floor to open them one at a time. Sootsie Kyle, who has five sisters and owns the Belgian shepherd with the new puppies, has brought a pencil box carved of sandalwood. Amber Breen, whose mother is what Elizabeth’s mother calls obese, has brought a pack of note cards with the name Elizabeth embossed in gold cursive across the front of each one. As if to prove something, Sootsie says to Amber, “Isn’t your mother’s name Elizabeth?” Amber nods her head, but her eyes say, So? Elizabeth’s favorite gift, except for the drawing of the dog her brother made for her, are the three white porcelain horses that Sabena has brought. Sabena has an accent because her mother is South African, and her father is English. Her hair is cut like a boy’s and she is forward like a boy, and she sounds like an adult when she speaks. Elizabeth’s mother has planned games, but first she directs the girls to stand in front of the trellis of bougainvillea for a photograph. Sabena wants to know when they’ll be allowed to eat the cake. Sootsie keeps wandering back to the table where the unwrapped gifts are arranged. Elizabeth is afraid she’s going to take one of the porcelain horses.
Because it is difficult for Amber’s mother to walk, she owns a becak, a three-wheeled, bicycle-driven pedi-cab. Besides a cook, a houseboy, a babu cuci to wash and iron the clothes, and a babu anak to take care of the children, Amber’s mother employs a becak driver. When the becak driver arrives early, without Amber’s mother, Amber invites the girls to pile in for a ride. Elizabeth and Katherine are the smallest, so they agree to sit on the laps of Wanda and Nancy and Beth and Sootsie, who have squeezed in across the bench. The becak has a convertible top that rolls into a canvas roof in case of rain. The wheels on either side of the bench are like bicycle tires, but taller and wider and protected with ornately decorated aluminum fenders. The becak driver sits on a bicycle seat behind the bench, gripping the handbrakes, his feet pedaling the chain backwards while he waits for Amber to tell him that the girls are ready. Sabena doesn’t want to ride in the becak. “My parents believe it is inappropriate to have servants,” she informs Elizabeth’s mother, who accompanies her back to the front steps. Amber directs the driver in Indonesian at the end of the sidewalk and back. Elizabeth is happy. Finally she has made some American friends. Sootsie has pulled one of the red cushions out from under her bottom, and the girls break into laughter when she reminds them, holding her hands wide apart, of the size of Amber’s mother’s rear end. The wheels squeak when the driver squeezes the handbrakes, and the girls laugh louder. Mina leans the wide-toothed bamboo rake against the trunk of a tree. Watches the becak roll past. Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 35
Elizabeth turns back to the girls. Something about Sootsie commands her attention, though she isn’t sure why, because she doesn’t like her very much. This is what she is thinking beneath her laughter when she sees Fina approaching the becak on a bicycle, standing on the pedals, her sister perched in the Indonesian way on the seat behind her. Fina has cut her hair. Fina has cut her long black hair. It’s short like Elizabeth’s and Sabena’s and Sootsie’s now. Fina waves to Elizabeth. Her sister, whose hair is still long, calls out to Elizabeth. Their open mouths and bright white teeth remind Elizabeth somehow of the dog drawing her brother made for her. “Who are they?” Sootsie asks. Elizabeth doesn’t know what to say. She doesn’t know what to do. She turns to the driver. She asks him in English to take them home, though she isn’t sure he has understood. Fina has brought the bicycle to a stop. She balances for several seconds, suspended on two wheels, the long dark muscles in her calves, flinching. As though they’re breathing, Elizabeth thinks, or swallowing. Then she hops down from the pedals and rolls the bike onto the grass, her sister still perched behind her so the becak can pass. Sootsie looks over her shoulder as the becak rolls past. “Who was that?” Elizabeth squeezes her hands between her knees. “I don’t know.” Sootsie’s eyes look small in her face. “Do you know them?” Elizabeth doesn’t answer. “Do you?” “I don’t remember.” “They look like they know you.” “Sootsie?” Elizabeth asks. “What?” She is about to ask Sootsie about the puppies when she realizes she’s thinking of a horse she had seen in a dream. In the dream, the sky was the same cloudy grey as the grey, dappled horse, which was trotting toward her, riderless. Blue straps wrapped round its chest and shoulders. It looked like a circus horse. A horse for a bareback rider. She watched the horse as it approached, expecting it to run past. But it stopped at the foot of the slide to graze, glancing up the shiny ramp every once in a while, as if inviting Elizabeth to slide down and climb onto its back. Elizabeth let go of the splintery rails and slid eagerly down the slide. But when she stood up, the soles of her feet stuck fast to a pool of sludge that smelled the way the river bottom smells at low tide. The horse was struggling to work its hooves out of the deep mud. Elizabeth held fast to the straps of the harness, pulling the flailing head of the horse, trying to ignore the sound of panic rushing from its flaring nostrils, but it was difficult to lift her feet, and the horse was baring its teeth. You have to wait for them to come to you. Well, usually this works. Unless they bite. Something like that.
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“What?” Elizabeth doesn’t answer. “What, Elizabeth?” Sootsie asks. “Nothing.” “What did you want?” “Do you remember your dreams?” Sootsie looks at Elizabeth and laughs. “No. Why? Do you?”
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THE COKE STORY Vivek Sharma Tales from My Village in Himachal
I was visiting my village again. We have only one shop to name that too is about a mile away. So when a village woman, I call her Bua, Bua meaning sister of my father, when the Bua asked me if I cared for a chilled Coke, I smiled and politely said, "No, and besides, getting one would be so much trouble." "It is no trouble," she assured me, "My younger one is only eleven, but if you promise him three sips, he gets back with the bottle in six minutes. You know Bayta (son), I have a bottle everyday. The Doctor asked me to. You know Beta, I have these worms in my guts and the Doctor says, the Coke slowly, but surely kills those bloody beasts. Six months have passed, and though I feel much better, these worms are costing me a fortune." I realized, the Bua was being duped, but to break the news required tact. So, I smiled, (and Bua noticed it) and all I asked her was, "Tell me Bua, is this shopkeeper of yours a friend of the Doctor?" Like all village women, she smelt the unsaid, and stood up, slapping a hand on her forehead, "Curse those bastards. That is why that Doctor always idles about that shop. May those sons of bitches rot, may worms devour their bodies. You only tell me Bayta, what on earth is education good for, if these thieves have to use it only to rob us trusting villagers." She went into kitchen to cook me a snack, while I smiled at the Coke bottle: the new cure for worms.
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OKAZU Brenda Nakamoto
JAPANESE GOULASH The Japanese have a dish similar to goulash called okazu, which means literally side dish served with rice. I’ve not seen a written recipe anywhere like ours. It’s one Mom used to cook; she called it our poor man’s sukiyaki. Not made with thinly sliced steak or shitake mushrooms or yam noodles or bamboo root, our okazu was from cheap ingredients always on hand: hamburger, potatoes, yellow onions and whatever else one found available. Brown the hamburger in a skillet with oil. Chop onions and sauté until translucent. Cut potatoes into one-half inch chunks. Cover the fried hamburger and onions with a shallow layer of water, add potatoes and bring to a boil. Place a lid on top and simmer until potatoes are soft. At this point, additional sliced vegetables can be added: such as green beans, asparagus, green onions or eggplant from the garden. Add soy sauce, sugar and salt to taste. Boil a few minutes more. Spoon okazu with lots of broth over a bowl of hot, steamed rice. Mom and Dad loved okazu. I wouldn’t admit the same for myself, though. I ate it because it was what Mom served. I really wanted to be more American, which I was, of course, third generation Japanese American, but I wanted something more defined, something readily tangible, like having blonde hair and blue eyes and being tall and thin like my Caucasian friends, not the short, stout and dark figure that stared back at me in the mirror. I wanted American food: hamburgers, hot dogs, fried chicken and French fries that I was convinced my friends’ moms served every day. Instead, I got okazu.
There’s nothing quite like waking up in the morning to the smell of soy sauce, vinegar and sugar. Add to that the obscuring winter pea-soup tule fog of the California Central Valley, and one experiences quite a combination. The day before New Year’s, Mom started cooking at 5:00 am and wouldn’t finish until early evening. She called this making the bento for the next day. We Japanese celebrated the New Year holiday with an all day eating feast of delicacies: chicken teriaki, sushi, sashimi, tempura, mochi, koko (vinegared rice, sliced raw fish, deep fried vegetables, rice cakes and pickled white radish) and an assortment of appetizers such as boiled shrimp and octopus. In the middle of frosty winter weather, pungent odors wafted underneath my bedroom door and settled around me, odors inescapable and trapped inside. It was strong enough to wake me from unconsciousness and drive me out of my warm bed. With the smell of soy sauce and vinegar, I didn’t need an alarm clock. They were not gentle, not like the aroma of pancakes or toasted bread. In the early morning I wobbled into the kitchen where my mother was humming and hovering over pots of steaming liquids and chopping vegetables on a thick wooden cutting board. Live clams soaked in a pot of salted water. The purple head of an octopus flopped sideways over a tangled mess of legs. Fish scales peppered the insides of the porcelain sink and a deep burgundy side of raw tuna sat on a plate ready to be sliced thinly. The kitchen windows fogged and sweated with condensation on the inside, and outside was Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 39
similarly just as obscured, enveloped in fog. All I could see in the thick mist were the outlines of naked peach tree limbs and an occasional lone hawk perched on top.
I grew up. Along with my body, my taste buds adjusted to Asian foods, and I eventually accepted my fate being connected to a Japanese culture, which I couldn’t escape from, anyway. I don’t think I had appreciated all of my mother’s efforts to indoctrinate me until I realized I was about to graduate from high school and leave home forever. Slowly it dawned on me how closely linked I was to the farm, the fog, the trees, the dry valley heat and even those pungent sweet and sour smells from the kitchen. In reality, I knew barely a thing about cooking Japanese food; I had depended too much on my mother. I didn’t speak the Japanese language and couldn’t tell up from down as far as ingredients were concerned. Mom rattled off the words gobo, goma, dashi, daikon, namasu, and nappa (burdock root, sesame seeds, soup stock, Japanese white radish, vinegared seasoned raw fish, and vegetable greens) as easily as I could recite the words bubble gum, lollypop, potato chips and cola. But what would I do when I finally left home? I would be lost. I might, if lucky, be able to recognize some items in an Asian grocery store. With that realization I decided to act. During my last months of living at home while in high school I started asking Mom for recipes. I had been a county fair blue-ribbon-winning baker; I’d taken 4-H baking classes and claimed a good inch-thick stack of award ribbons for my cookies and cupcakes. I was used to getting traditional step-by-step, thoroughly written instructions; however, this new foray into documenting my mother’s recipes proved most challenging. My mom was a great cook. I think she cooked by gestalt, tossing in ingredients she’d been familiar with for decades. Repetition and memory dissolved a need to follow printed words on paper. Cooking was engrained within her: a spoonful of sugar here, a dollop of minced ginger there. At the same time, she maintained high standards. I remember her splashing liquids into some dishes—tasting, adding sugar, wine or water, tasting again—until she was satisfied it was just right. She could be her own best critic. “Tasty teriaki chicken, Masa!” my Uncle Ben would say to her at our New Year’s celebration. She might blush or laugh, then add softly, “Why thank you, but I think it’s a little karai (salty). Just a little more sugar and less soy sauce would have been better.” It was perfect, Mom, really. It must be that part of her Japanese identity to always try to deflect compliments. Mom hardly measured. When I asked her how much sugar and salt and vinegar she used for the sushi dressing for the rice, she’d answer something like this: “You add about a cup of sugar and enough vinegar so that it is not too sour.” She’d squint her eyes and pucker her lips to the side. How could I interpret that? For me, vinegar in any amount or form was always sour. I struggled with transcribing her instructions into words on paper. I dealt with this: soak two heaping scoops of dry rice submerged in water that is up to the line of your first knuckle. In a saucepan over low heat, melt some sugar into vinegar. Set aside. Cook the rice. When done, add the melted sugar and vinegar dressing and mix until rice kernels are glossy. Fan constantly the cooling rice as you mix. The vinegar will KARTIKA REVIEW ▪ 40
evaporate as the mixture cools, and you add just enough dressing to the rice until you get a slightly stronger degree of flavor for your finished sushi than you want at the end. Off and on throughout the years I experimented, trying to perfect a re-creation of my mother’s sushi recipe. Sometimes there was too much liquid and the rice was mushy; other times the rice cooked with too little water turned dry and crunchy. After adding and subtracting amounts and comparing them with other sushi recipes I had found in cookbooks, I concocted a list of ingredients and instructions that asked for oddball measurements like this: 5/8 cup rice vinegar to 2.65 cups cooked dry rice. When I thought I had finally gotten it right, much to my pleasure as well as my mother’s, I sat at the dining table with my parents, with a plateful of my not so-well-rolled morsels of cut sushi in front of us. I was hoping the basic proportions of rice and water and vinegar and sugar would be duplicated to her satisfaction. The fully seeped delicate taste, the correct texture—that’s what I really wanted. I waited. I asked, “Is it how it is supposed to be?” There is momentary silence. She and Dad are chewing. Finally, someone speaks. “Yes, this is really good, Brenda,” Mom answered. My dad nodded in agreement. My heart somersaulted. I had gotten it right! To this day, I still use Mom’s recipe. It is how I can be with her again. Sometimes I’ve cut back on the sugar or salt, thinking of being more health conscious, cutting down on sweets and those things we are told are bad for us. Mom’s recipe is sweeter than what you find in our area restaurants. But if I alter my original template, fiddle with the vinegar and sugar brine and try to dilute it in proportion to the amount of rice, my dad of all people will always comment. “Is it different this time?” he will ask. “Well…yes, I put in less sugar and vinegar...umm trying to be ….” I needn’t say more. Already I knew I had failed in his eyes.
It wasn’t until a few years ago while reading a Japanese cookbook given to me for my birthday that I learned the sweetness of sushi varies traditionally according to the regions of Japan in which it is cooked. The preference of stronger sugar content of sushi gradually increases as one progresses south in that country. My grandparents were from Hiroshima, thus, this may have been one of the reasons my family made a sweeter version of sushi compared to those from Japanese cities to the north. Once I learned how to make the sushi rice, I still had to perfect the art of rolling it onto a flat square of nori (dried seaweed processed into thin sheets). Mom had taught me how to layer the rice on top of the nori with cooked, dried gourd strips, pickled ginger, scrambled egg, sliced carrots and shitake mushroom that had been slowly simmered in dashi. Cooking the rest of the ingredients often took hours because I used the same broth to cook the mushrooms, the dried gourd and the carrots. Mom rolled her sushi rice perfectly: little colorful bits of filling surrounded by a symmetrical layer of rice and nori. “Try to get the red, pickled ginger in the center of the roll—like a bull’s-eye,” she would coach me. My sushi always seemed to come out lopsided or skewed to one side, even with practice. We handled the most expensive ingredient, canned eel from Japan Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 41
marinated in a rich sugar and soy sauce and wrapped individually in paper, with the utmost respect. It dotted the inner sanctum of the sushi roll. Exit eel and enter carp.
FISH The canal split off from the river a half-mile to the north, at first running parallel to the banks of the Feather River before diverting farther away into a different direction of the valley. Through a line of tall cottonwoods and oaks, river beckoned, laying in her path a wide swath of green down the valley. This ribbon of water in perpetual motion in a part of the water cycle, fed by the Sierra snowpack and spring runoff, unchecked in winter fury—in flood churning boulders and white-water, swollen and frothy—and glassy in the calm of summer, swept through the banks of this river that meandered through the landscape. Manmade agricultural canals suckled water from her main tributary, draining a part of this resource and sharing it with the farmers. A sliver of its mother, the canal, was but a vessel carrying nourishment to quench the thirst of crops deep in the valley and away from a central flowing source of water. My cousins Rodney and Glen took me fishing to the canal by their house; it was my first time at the sport. This canal was about fifteen-feet wide and bordered by levees of soil rolling like little hilly ridges on each side. The greenish brown water running within these banks would irrigate crops in Butte and Sutter Counties. Along with the water came fish and plants and arthropods. Aquatic leafy vegetation floated on top, scratching the smooth surface with texture. The canal smelled dank with clams and aquatic life. We fashioned poles out of long peach tree limbs found lying in the orchard. Rodney secured fishing line with a hook and a weight to one end. We skewered small pieces of bologna to the hooks, tossed in our lines and waited. Almost immediately, my cousins were catching fish. “Jerk it!” Rodney yelled. My reactions were too slow, and by the time I pulled the line out of the water, the bologna would be gone. Rodney and Glen instructed me to watch the end of the pole, look for any movement and feel a nibble. I couldn’t feel anything except the current pulling on my line and sinker. Then I felt something, something like a knocking at a door. This time, I tugged quickly. That is what I was told to do; it would make the hook dig into the fish’s mouth. “I got one!” I had a fish struggling on my line, a small carp, dangling from my makeshift fishing pole. I pulled it out of the canal and placed it in a bucket of water already brimming with others my cousins had caught. Eventually, we took the bucket frothing with lively activity back to their house and emptied it into a big laundry tub filled with water. But when fish started going belly up heaving their gills gasping for breath, we felt sorry for them and carried them back to the canal and tossed them back in. Most of them disappeared immediately into the depths of the water, but my fish, the little carp, wouldn’t swim. It continued to float belly up. I watched the carp getting pulled in the current until it reached the weir. It lingered at the brim of the uppermost board. Swim, little fish. My eyes followed it until its silver image disappeared lifeless over the KARTIKA REVIEW ▪ 42
edge. It was then that the gravity of my situation hit me. I couldn’t return back something to the way it was before; I had taken away life from the river.
Rodney, Glen and I also swam in this canal. We yelled, “Banzai (hurrah)!” and jumped into the water with ripped denim shorts, t-shirts and tennis shoes. Shoes protected our feet from hitting broken bottles or cans that dotted the channel below the water line. There were few access points without going through thickets of blackberry brambles or poison oak lining the water’s edges. Splash! We hung on inner tubes and treaded water as the dark, green waters from the river pushed us downstream. On a typical hundred-plus degree summer day, these dips were a wonderful relief from valley heat. A bridge loomed ahead. This was where the county road crossed from one side to the other. In the summer, depending on how much water the farmers were drawing from the canal for crop irrigation, the height of the water beneath the bridge could vary between one-foot to three-feet. This time the water was pretty high, and we were looking at a breathing space of about one-foot. I had never swum under the bridge with such a narrow margin before. We looked at our approaching obstacle. The thought crossed my mind of drowning. There were reports every summer in the local newspaper of lives lost in the canals and river. People dove into the murky waters and hit things hidden beneath. Sometimes there was alcohol involved; sometimes it was just bad luck. Well, we weren’t diving off the bridge; we were going under it. And there was probably nothing hidden underneath—I hoped. A picture of abandoned tires and submerged trees flashed momentarily in my mind. “Come on, let’s do it. Are you chicken?” Rodney taunted. Yes I am. It’s too late. The bridge drew nearer, ten-feet, six-feet, three-feet, two-feet. We were passing the first cement reinforced girder that spanned the side. The water didn’t give us much breathing room. We tilted our heads in a back float position so our faces were flat with the water and we looked straight up. Darkness. From bright light to sudden absence, our eyes at first could see only blurs. Spider webs dangled from wooden planks running crosswise between the girders. Yikes, I hope there were no black widows here. I didn’t want them jumping on my face. The noise of nesting swallows deafened our ears. They chattered angrily. Some of the adults flitted above us, swooping and diving as we floated by. Nests of meticulously dabbed mud covered with feathers and feces clustered the beams. Tiny, downy heads popped up at the edges of the little clay structures, looking at us. We were under the narrow bridge for only a few seconds, and then we were propelled back in the bright sunlight when we grabbed at the handle of a cement irrigation gate and pulled ourselves out of the water. I was relieved. In a moment with my fears forgotten, I boasted, “That was fun!”
In late fall and winter, the flow in the canal slowed. No longer needed to deliver water to crops, the water district ditch tender closed the entry gates from the Feather River, and the canal, this suckling, unable to access mom’s nipple, gradually dried up. Rodney and I walked the levees, watching the green waters of the canal recede. The waterline dipped barely at first, then as the flow receded, the smooth, slick wall of mud of the exposed bank lengthened below the line of grass topping the levee above. Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 43
By mid-winter, with the water almost completely drained, there were but puddles remaining, miniature lakes, in the bottom of the canal trough. Silver fins and silver sides flashed in the foot-deep water. Fish thrashed and splashed, trying to escape the imminent death that awaited them. “Can’t we gather them in buckets and take them back to the river? We can carry them on our bikes.” I knew it would be futile, but I had to ask. Rodney shook his head. We crept down the sides of the bank towards the water. It was steep and slippery. I grabbed at clumps of Johnson grass—that sturdy razor sharp weed disdained by farmers—to slow my descent, then let go and ran my legs like crazy towards the bottom. Rodney was waiting for me, assessing the situation. He skipped rocks in the puddles and poked his fingers in mud. The empty shells of Asian clams lined the clay. Animal tracks crisscrossed in trails around the water’s edge. Probably coyote and raccoon feasted during this time. I didn’t see anything, only fish circling. I heard that people would sneak into these canals and gig trout and suckers and carp. The place gave me the creeps and there was nothing I could do. Again, I thought about the current of life that ran through here, about our river that had been like an artery pumping blood through the valley. I bundled into my jacket and climbed gingerly out of the canal. How different this was compared to summer. All the splashy, hot weather fun from a little while ago now felt like an illusion. This canal was but a husk; the caterpillars having pupated, emerged as butterflies and flown away, except some, like these fish, who were left stranded. This is how my mind has worked-- okazu, goulash, fish, sushi—all so different and yet in some ways much the same. This is my story. See how it has twisted and turned, just like that canal and river did snaking their way through the valley. Now speaking of snakes…that might come later.
MAKI SUSHI – MASA NAKAMOTO’S RECIPE Glossary of Terms Dashi is dried bonito fish stock Kampyo are dried gourd strips. They look similar to linguine and are usually sold in flat packages that are imported from Japan. Dried shitake mushrooms can be found at an Asian market in various sizes. Unagi is eel. For sushi, my mother used canned eel from Japan cooked in sugar and soy sauce. Maki sushi is a sheet of nori rolled over rice and fillings. Nori is seaweed dried and processed into squares of thin, flat sheets. Rice paddle, used to fluff rice Bamboo mat, used to roll rice and fillings together Short-grain rice is used for making sushi
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Ingredients: vinegar and sugar dressing 5/8 cup
In a small saucepan, dissolve vinegar and sugar on medium heat. When ingredients come to a boil and melt together into a clear sauce, add salt and sake. Set aside and cool. This liquid may be stored in a jar in the refrigerator for several days.
RICE Ingredients: 2 3/4 cup
dry short-grain white rice
3 ¼ cup
Rinse rice in pot until water runs clear. My mother used to wash rice in order to remove the talc powder added by the processing plant that kept the rice grains dry and separated in storage. Rice nowadays may not need washing, but I like to do it anyway. Soak rice and water for 30 minutes. For stovetop cooking, bring rice mixture to a boil, cover with a lid and lower to medium heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Turn off heat, keeping pot on the burner, and steam in residual warmth for 15 more minutes. Do not open lid. Remove cooked rice from pot and put into a bowl. Pour the cooled vinegar and sugar dressing over the rice. Fluff rice using gentle, cutting strokes that separate the rice kernels, evenly coating them in the glossy dressing solution. With a free hand or a helper, fan rice mixture. My mother said this fanning helped evaporate some of the vinegar from the rice, which is why the sushi rice has a stronger vinegar flavor when first poured into the hot rice compared to later after the rice mixture has cooled. Do not overmix or mash grains. Set aside.
SEAWEED WRAPPER FOR MAKI SUSHI 7-10 sheets
nori, toasted slightly over a warm burner
Over medium heat on a stovetop burner, wave a sheet of nori and toast it a few seconds until it changes slightly to a deeper green color.
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FILLING FOR MAKI SUSHI Ingredients: 1 package
dried shitake mushrooms
carrot, peeled and sliced into ¼” strips
unagi cut in thin strips
scrambled and fried like a pancake and cut into ½” strips
sliced pickled ginger
Soak kampyo and dried shitake mushrooms in water for several hours. Drain and set aside.
COOKING BROTH Ingredients: 6 cups
Combine together water, dashi, soy sauce and sugar in a stock pot. Add kampyo and shitake mushrooms and bring to a boil. Simmer kampyo for 15 minutes until tender, then remove from the broth. Cook remaining shitake mushrooms for a total of 30 minutes and also remove. With broth simmering, add carrot strips and cook until tender but firm, about 15 minutes In a small bowl, mix 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch with an equal amount of water. Add 2 cracked eggs and a dash of soy sauce and salt. Beat eggs until frothy. Meanwhile, heat a frying pan to medium temperature. Coat bottom of pan with a tablespoon of cooking oil. Pour in egg mixture. Fry until bottom of egg pancake is lightly browned and set, flip and cook another minute. Remove and place on cutting board. Slice into ½ inch strips.
ROLLING MAKI SUSHI Slice shitake mushrooms into ¼” thick strips. Arrange cooked mushrooms, kampyo, egg and unagi on a platter for easy accessibility. Keep bowl of rice, rice paddle and bamboo mat near you. Place one sheet of nori on top of a bamboo mat. Gently coat a 3/8” layer of rice on top of sheet of nori, leaving about an inch of nori sheet that is farthest from you sprinkled KARTIKA REVIEW ▪ 46
with just a few grains of rice. On the side nearest you and about an inch from the edge, layer a few strips of kampyo and lines of mushroom, carrot, unagi, pickled ginger and egg on top of rice and nori, and with the bamboo mat, start rolling nori, rice and fillings into a cylinder. As you roll forward and press ingredients together, fold back the bamboo mat until the nori and rice are completely enclosed. Use firm pressure from your fingers on top of the mat to tamp the ingredients together, creating a tight roll. Open mat and pat ends of roll between hands. You’re done making one maki sushi! Continue rolling the rest of the ingredients. This recipe makes about 8 rolls. Just before the meal, with a wet knife, slice rolls into 1 ¼” pieces. Arrange onto a decorative platter and enjoy.
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LETTER TO MYSELF AS A NEWBORN Kenji Liu
(Kyoto, Japan) Thirty-two years ago. 4:12 pm. A forest, river and hospital. I look him in the eyes. Between us, an engineer and a housewife. He steeps in his first tangerine afternoon, takes leave of ghosts. I sit attentively, his introductory day of migration. Document in my hands. Gold foil embossed. Baby and a bowl cut. Even newborns have papers. A bureaucrat's pen is an axe, is a wall. Like the dead, he has a country but no shoes. I try to remember what matters. What time will his feet become mine? Down the street, a war temple built with stolen trees. What is the opposite of yes when no is forbidden? When his mouth opens, words jump in, then a book, then a flag. I teach him to light a match, and search for my face in his.
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CHRISTMAS SPAM Matthea Marquart
Having grown up in another country, my Mom never quite got the hang of American holidays. She tried very hard, but there are so many details to holidays, and stress or a distraction could make some details slip right out of her mind. On Christmas morning, when my brother and I headed towards our stockings, she’d yell, “Wait! Don’t move! Santa. . . forgot your stockings so I just need to. . . go remind him. Why don’t you two wait in the other room?” Ten minutes later, we’d scamper eagerly to our stockings and find a bunch of loose M&Ms, a piece of fruit, and a few dollars. This was fine with us – for Santa, our forgiveness was for sale at a low, low price. The Christmas our parents divorced, my Mom invited my Dad over for dinner so the holidays would seem as normal as possible for us kids. Tensions were high, but surely we could all come together and behave civilly for the sake of a delicious Christmas feast. With so much on her mind, though, my Mom forgot that Christmas dinner generally involves a turkey or ham, not to mention sides like stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and gravy. For that matter, she had so much going on in her life that she hadn’t had the chance to go shopping in weeks, and she’d forgotten that stores are closed on December 25th. “Merry Christmas!” she said, bringing out a platter of fried Spam. “More chili anyone? How about peas? Has everyone had enough steamed white rice? There’s plenty of soy sauce for everyone.” The experience led to a new Marquart family tradition of ordering pre-cooked holiday meals from the grocery store. A few Christmas mornings later, when our parents were reconciling, we gathered around the tree to open presents. “Whoops, looks like I left your present upstairs,” she told me. “I’ll be right back.” Downstairs, we heard a lot of rapid, frantic-sounding footsteps going back and forth on the ceiling, and then she returned, holding an unwrapped scarf. “I got this just for you, honey,” she said, breathlessly wiping some sort of white substance – face cream? toothpaste? – off of it. “It’s very soft and warm. And what a beautiful color! You’ll love it.” My father was born and raised in the U.S., and his parents before him, and their parents before them. He had a complete grasp of American holiday traditions, but he found it exasperating to try to explain them to an adult who didn’t just accept everything he said, the way a child would. “So Christmas is about a stranger carrying a big bag sneaking into your house?” my Mom would ask, perplexed. “What does that have to do with Jesus?” My Dad gave up, and since children were the wife’s responsibility in our parents’ marriage, my brother and I got first-hand experience of what happens when an immigrant tries to learn American customs by watching TV. For years, my brother and I celebrated February 14th by trading Valentine’s Day cards with our classmates, but one year a well-placed advertisement convinced my Mom that her American children would never believe she loved us unless she gave us gifts. Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 49
“Happy Valentine’s Day!” she said, handing us wrapped presents. My brother got a stuffed teddy bear holding a heart, but I was older and single, and I got a state-of-theart bathroom scale. A weight-loss company had made my Mom believe that this was the perfect holiday for helping people become more attractive, so they wouldn’t be single the following year. From then on, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” meant “Hey Sweetie, maybe this diet book will help you get a boyfriend,” or “Surely these extra-large canisters of Ultra Slim Fast will help your love life,” or “Look, Honey! I got you a couple cases of chewing gum so you can chew gum instead of eating when you feel hungry. Maybe this will make you thin enough for a boy to actually love you.” As a result, I began to equate getting a boyfriend with starving, and I chewed so much gum that my molars flattened. With my jaw constantly aching, I decided that chewing was way too much of a hassle, and my answer was to give up both gum and solid food. “Good idea,” said my Mom, and she drove me to the health store for vitamins and protein tablets. As motivation, she bought me clothes one size too small, but even with the constant struggle to breathe, I couldn’t break my addiction to meals. Defeated, I went back to eating. At Halloween, we never managed to convince our Mom that we were supposed to dress up in scary or fantastical costumes – ghosts or cartoon characters or creatures that didn’t exist. Instead, my brother and I went as Koreans. “These traditional Korean outfits were expensive,” she’d say, “and even if it’s just once a year, you are going to wear them. Think of yourselves as cultural ambassadors.” The people who lived in our middle class Northern California suburb had never seen traditional Korean costumes, and when they opened their doors, they invariably looked puzzled. What were these two brightly colored children dressed up as, amidst the pirates, ninjas, and princesses? My brother and I could argue all we wanted that Halloween was about candy and haunted houses, not stiff, scratchy formal attire that was neither cute nor scary. It didn’t matter – we were going to wear those Korean outfits no matter what. It was so unsatisfying. Not one person ever said, “Aren’t these little Koreans just the most precious imaginary creatures you’ve ever seen?” or “Watch out! It’s two horrifyingly scary Koreans!” Birthdays also had a Korean flavor at our house. For the first 11 years of my life, our family celebrated my mother’s birthday every March 5. When I was 12, however, my Mom announced that March 5 was no longer her birthday, and going forward, she would be informing us of her day of birth as it approached each year. When my brother and I expressed our puzzlement, she explained that having been born in Korea, she only knew her actual birthday on the lunar calendar, an ancient method of tracking time based on the movement of the moon. Because the lunar calendar does not overlap perfectly with the Western calendar, her birthday was going to be a different Western calendar date each year. Compared to the Western calendar based on the sun, the lunar calendar has shorter months, shorter years, longer pregnancies, and older old people. As I child, I might have been 6 years old in American age but 8 in Korean age, and it was perfectly acceptable to tell a grownup either age when asked how old I was. This was a delight when I was 11 and claimed to be a teenager, or when I tried to convince my parents that I was old enough for a driver’s license at 14, but it lost its appeal when I turned KARTIKA REVIEW ▪ 50
28 and my Mom called to wish me a happy birthday. “Happy 30th birthday, baby,” she said, triggering a panicked adrenaline rush I was in no way prepared for. Ignoring my protests about being 28 and having 2 years to go, she persisted. “Is it strange to turn 30? Mommy feels too young to have a 30-year-old baby. Do you feel different?” If suspecting that I was about to have a heart attack counted, then yes, I felt different. When our parents got married and our mother filled out the application for US citizenship, the box for birth date had lacked a way to indicate “Month 6, Year of the Mouse,” and so our Mom had randomly selected March 5 as her new American birthday. After a decade and a half of celebrating a day practically drawn out of a hat, though, she decided to go back to celebrating her actual birthday. That meant that since the rest of us didn’t know how to use the lunar calendar, there was no way to predict when her birthday might be approaching. Her birthday had seemed random to her before, but now it seemed random to us. The lunar calendar’s shorter year meant that any day might be our Mom’s birthday – if it had been a while since her last one, her birthday could pop up at any moment. “Don’t worry,” our Dad liked to joke, “You’ll know it’s her birthday when there’s a big sale.” It did often happen that we’d be at the mall looking at bags or clothes when suddenly our Mom would say, “See this purse? Remember it. Mommy’s birthday is next week, and this is what I would like for my present.” Ever the sentimentalist, though, our Mom was just as happy to receive a good report card or well-written homework assignment for her present. Sometimes her birthday would fall right when my brother or I had taken a big test or earned an attendance award, which saved us from having to go shopping. “Wow, look at all these vocabulary words you knew how to define!” she’d exclaim, genuinely pleased. “And they’re all spelled correctly! It sure is a wonderful birthday for Mommy.” My brother and I took to investigating before admitting to any possibly gift-worthy accomplishment. “Is your birthday coming up?” we’d ask, trying to figure out if we should delay telling her about the new honor roll bumper sticker or spelling bee results. Evidently, sentimentality is either genetic or contagious. Last Christmas, for example, my sister-in-law wanted to plan an elaborate home-cooked dinner with sides made from scratch. “No!” my brother and I protested, alarmed. “It isn’t a holiday meal without canned food! Don’t destroy Christmas!” When the three of us sat down at the table, after hours of cooking and days of preparation, my brother and I agreed that our favorite dish was the jiggling cranberry sauce that his wife wouldn’t touch. With its comforting pattern of ridges that matched the sides of the can and its familiar circular slices, it was delicious. “Just like Mom would have made if she’d remembered Christmas this year,” we sighed nostalgically, reaching for extra helpings.
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A THOUGHT, A DUTY, A TEAR Deepak Maini
The doctor had told him in the morning, she might live for a few more days. He had looked at the doctor’s face, without saying a word. You want me to take her off the expensive medicines? Still no answer. It’s up to you. My advice is to keep her on pain killers and wean her off the expensive medicines in a day or two. If you want that…. “Sahib, give me five rupees? I haven’t eaten in two days.” “You know your grandma is dying.” She would whisper. “Tell her you have to study if she calls for you. You have to focus on your future. People die … life goes on. How many people die in this country daily? We will take care of her. Don’t let this trouble you. We don’t want her illness to distract you from your studies.” Shakti stood in front of his mother’s house in East Delhi, with two suitcases and a backpack. His face was expressionless. Globs of sweat were forming on his forehead, fueled by the baking heat. Loo, the notorious hot summer wind, was lashing against his out-of-place, American, clothes. He had pressed the doorbell once, gently, as if still not believing his presence in India, mistaking it for a dream. And before the door opened, he grabbed hold of the luggage and stood there in sage-like, divine expectation. Tina, his wife, stood to his right, her arms crossed across her chest. She was wearing clothes somewhat tighter than traditional Indian clothing. Her bosom wasn’t covered with a dupatta. He had told her how risky it was in India to wear short clothes, especially in Delhi, where short clothes were an invitation to improper behavior. But she had snubbed him. She was looking to the right, toward a beggar limping his way through the streets of East Delhi, streets that were bereft of any living soul. The beggar looked at Shakti and Tina, changed his path, and came hurrying to them, asking for any change they might have. It was a hot summer day when Shakti and Tina returned to India for good, standing side by side wiping off their sweaty foreheads; Shakti on his sleeves, Tina on her kerchief. They had not suffered this heat in a decade, living in the moderate weather of California where they had settled in their mid-twenties. They were unprepared for the heat and everything else they took for granted in California. But for people living in India, it was part of what constituted a normal unregretful life. “Food, clothes, and roof, if you have all of the three, you’re blessed,” Shakti’s father had told him when he was a kid.
Temperatures soared to one hundred and twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit and stayed there for a period of more than three months during each summer. In this heat, only people in search of a living ventured out. The rest—housewives, kids, and the elderly— preferred to stay inside among flies and ants, under creaky ceiling fans. The KARTIKA REVIEW ▪ 52
earth cracked open, without sufficient water to hold it, trees dried up, standing like carcasses. But human beings still went on, in search of food, in search of life. “How can people live with beggars? Did you look at his face? I hope he didn’t have dengue or something … I didn’t inhale when he was near us … I just wanted to kick him … right in his face,” Tina said. “Have you unpacked your bags?” “I don’t feel like it … I’m tired. What are we doing? What have you done? It’s just--why didn’t we think about it over and over again? Now what? What are we going to do? I hate this country. Just hate it.” Her hands were holding her chin. “Can we not have this discussion … please? It will be all right.” Shakti had been a successful business consultant in California, with hopes of becoming vice president one day. With his analytical skills and keen mind he could scale anything. With his MIT degree he could impress anybody. With his four-point-zero GPA he could intimidate every soul. But something always troubled him, gnawed at his heart: His life was always stricken with some ailment. First was a desire from the backdoors of his MIT days, and then was his mother’s failing health. Somewhere in between was the craving to be part of what nourished him, made him what he was. He wanted to call where he lived home. He had a group of people he managed on his last project at his job. One of them was a girl named Meredith. She had recently graduated and joined the company, for her first job, as an associate. “You’ve so much to learn,” Shakti told her several times during their after-lunch meetings. She had a tiny, square face, with prominent jawbones and a fringe. At first she was shy, not sure of what to make of what was happening between them, but with time she took to spending time with him. Shakti had never touched the legs of a girl wearing a cheerleader dress, and when he told her about it, she offered herself with a smile. He bought one dress and then another, and soon she had ten different dresses, in different styles, all cut six inches above her knees. White with diagonal stripes, plain dark-blue with red frills, emerald, sapphire, maroon, some onepiece and some two. It took him ten months of after-hour work at the Sleep Inns and Ramada Inns before he realized he hadn’t been himself all this while, that he couldn’t stand himself in the mirror, at dinner table with Tina, in bed trying to maintain his dying erection. He always blamed it on his tense work life. The news of his mother’s falling health came as a respite. It was a way to efface the stain on him, a way to reclaim his life. There was no better time to go back to India, he argued with Tina; India’s economy had been growing aggressively. It was now or never that they could do something for themselves and for the nation that brought them up to see the world the way only few people could … And the only way to avoid his marriage from failing. Soon he settled into his new job. Tina got over the initial shock of moving back to India. She had always wanted to work at The Times of India, because of her experience in journalism and through Shakti’s contacts, she landed an interview with them. With things falling in place, he went about his work, setting up his life in India, without anyone to bother him. Other than his mother, who was seventy years old and had several health issues, there wasn’t anyone whom he called family. She had lived in the same house all her life, the house where Shakti sojourned after arriving from the US, with her husband; then, without her husband, who died of cardiovascular complications. Shakti had found a new place as soon as he settled into his new job, and Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 53
his mother hadn’t complained. Neither had she complained when he left her to make a life in the US, nor when her husband died and Shakti couldn’t arrive on time to perform his father’s last rites, to touch the flame to his father’s temple before cremating him. “How about our sex life? Have you thought about it? Your mother under the same roof while we’re--” Tina had said. “Mother needs me to take care of her.” “I know. But you can take care of her without staying in the same house. Old people, anyway, like to spend time by themselves, doing whatever they do. You shouldn’t worry about her. She’ll be fine. Look at Mr. Anshuman, he doesn’t stay with his mother.” “His wife is a bitch.” “What?” Tina’s voice was always convincing; it could change in tone and pitch within seconds. She could be mad at one moment and unctuously compassionate at the next. She’d used the same verbal prowess when she met him for the first time at her friend’s party, where she couldn’t keep her hands off him, off his Greek face. She slept with him the same night.
Six months went by in India. One day, he was standing outside his office, puffing out clouds of smoke, thinking about talking to his mother’s doctor when he saw a police officer beat a child beggar, not older than seven, and take away his earnings. He had heard on the radio that begging had become a blemish in the crown of India. A crown that had been despoiled and trampled under the boots of the British until sixty years back, and under the sole of venal politicians since then. The politicians ran the country at their convenience, sometimes to this scandal, or to that massacre, here to this communal riot, there to corruption. “The country, India, the motherland, Swades. Swades, yes, this was Swades. And he was her son.” He thought. Summer had not loosed its thorny grip yet. He’d started to feel queasy. The heat waves had been beating hard against his face, his clothes clinging inexorably to his olivecolored skin, the skin that had charmed Meredith to their after-work excursions. He shouldn’t have stepped outside his office, he thought, his eyes fixed on the beating the beggar was getting from the policeman. He remembered having seen on TV that with the 2010 Commonwealth Games fast approaching the new government had taken on the difficult task of wiping out begging. Beggars were tried in special courts and sentenced to anywhere from six months to two years in prison. He remembered what he had seen yesterday, remembered a van full of beggars being hustled from the front of his office building in Nehru Place. He realized he’d seen beggars everywhere he’d been in India but had never paid any heed to them, on the street, dressed in tatters, sullied to the extent that everybody seemed to be wearing similar-looking rags, a dark variant of slate-gray, like the nub of a recently used eraser. KARTIKA REVIEW ▪ 54
He had never thought about them, had never consciously felt their presence in the country that was theirs as much as it was his. Why were they so poor, so impoverished, and so uninspired? His gaze didn’t move an inch from the beggar’s face. He continued pondering and realized that many beggars didn’t have all four limbs, many were lame like the one he had seen at New Delhi Railway Station last week when he’d gone to drop off Tina. The faces of all the lame beggars he had seen in last six months started to fill up his mind. Most of the time one leg was missing, with a dirty swab of gauze covering the stump. Thinking about poverty that had stricken India for so long, Shakti gripped his forehead with the right hand, between his thumb and his palm, and preventing himself from falling down, bent down to sit on the curb. He remembered what had happened at Rajinder Nagar Chowk the day he had taken Tina for a movie and dinner. A car had run over a family of beggars sleeping outside a closed shop. He thought of the day Tina had pushed away a beggar at the South Delhi traffic light fearing that he might snatch her gold chain. The beggar had fallen down, breaking his nose, had invited unlimited honks from agitated Delhi commuters. He thought of the day he hadn’t had any change to give to a child beggar. The beggar had trailed him all the way from his office building to the nearby Sheraton. The beggar’s nose was running, his arms were gaunt; his eyes were flared up. “We need money for our kids, for their schooling, and for their degrees from Harvard and MIT,” Tina had said. Jolted from his musings by a waft of hot summer wind, he focused his eyes on the face of the beggar again and saw tiny tears sprout up in his eyes, a whimper on his lips, and blood on his stained shirt, which was riddled with burn holes. The burly policeman, with a curly mustache, would have asked him to pay ten rupees in exchange for not arresting him. When the beggar teased him by sticking out his tongue and fluttering his fingers with the thumbs plastered to his temples, instead of doing what he was told, the policeman had no choice but to beat him. The beggar didn’t turn around once to look into Shakti’s eyes. Sobbing, wiping his snot on his threadbare half-sleeved shirt, he kept on muttering something in Hindi. He told Shakti about his mother, about her being ill, about her rotting in one corner at a public hospital, and about her imminent death. Having not been given a bed, she was rotting by the water cooler, where passersby spat and blew their noses. “Sahib, now my mom will die. That money was all I had. The babu at the hospital was saying bring two thousand. I’m not a beggar. I work at the construction site, there.” The child said in Hindi. Shakti fought hard to overcome his desire to rub the beggar’s back, ease his pain a little, but he couldn’t bring himself to touch someone as grimy as him. He stayed by his side, listening to him, scribbling something in the loose earth with a twig. Minutes passed along; the silence mounted. Shakti asked the child about his father’s whereabouts, about his job, if he too was working to gather the money. To answer Shakti’s long string of questions, the child shook his head and seemed to have not understood the question, staying quiet for a long time, but then speaking broke the monotony of silence. “My father matherchod is a drunkard. He doesn’t work, doesn’t work, just drinks Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 55
every day. And when I refuse to hand over the money I’m saving for my mother’s treatment, saala, he beats me.”
Tina was already home when he got back. Wearing a plain-white cotton saree, without any make-up and jewelry, she was pacing the living room, chewing on the back of a pencil. She didn’t say anything when Shakti dropped down on the sofa like an anchor, and sighed. His face was red from Delhi’s heat. “I talked to a beggar today.” Tina looked at him, trying to understand what he had said. “Go wash yourself. I don’t know what has gotten into you. This is not America Mr. Shakti. These homeless beggars have deadly diseases. Mr. Desai got sick with pneumonia sitting down with a homeless guy in Boston. If that can happen in Boston, anything can happen in India.” Shakti looked at her, blankly. “I don’t care if you want to have these diseases. But I don’t. If you don’t want to wash yourself first, please don’t sit on the sofa,” Tina said, and stood in front of him, staring down at him. “Why are you wearing this?” “First go wash yourself. Didn’t you hear me?” Shakti did as he was told: He scrubbed himself with a pumice stone and rubbed himself with soap several times. After spending thirty minutes in the bathroom, where he would usually have spent ten, he came into the living room and found Tina struggling with long pieces of straws. When he asked her again what she was up to, she said, “I’m trying to make a gift for all the women we’re going to meet in the coming weeks—straw hats. We’re doing a case study on women. Far too many women in India don’t study after primary school. All this dowry, bride burning, suppression, muffled cries of the abused women cooped up within four walls, all that. It might bring us fame, you just watch.” “Is that the reason you’re wearing a saree?” “Do you think I’ll go amid crying women without looking like them?” She said and added, “There is a package for you in the store room.” He had forgotten all about the package. And only when did he lift it and shook it, he understood what was inside it making the gurgling noise. It was something he had ordered after learning its significance from his friend’s parents. In India, he had learned, right before people died they were given a few drops of gangajal –water from the River Ganges— to ease their rendezvous with the messenger of death Yama and cleanse the dying’s soul of all sins and purge all illnesses, preparing it for the new life. He didn’t believe in any superstitions, but this – to help someone pass—seemed reasonable to him. Without any immediate need for it, one day, he ordered a pint of the supposedly pious water online.
The Monsoon arrived early that year. The dark-gray sky loomed overhead, pouring KARTIKA REVIEW ▪ 56
bucket after bucket of rain into the loose, burnt earth. The strong winds accompanying the rains uprooted gigantic trees. Neem, Indian Willow, Ashok, Babool, some lay on the ground, heaved up, and others hanging on overhead electric wires, causing eternal blackouts. The low-lying areas, without any water disposal system, were flooded enough for someone to operate a rowboat. Shakti’s mother suffered a heart attack for the first time then. He hadn’t expected her health to fail so fast, he hadn’t planned for it. He’d gone to see her on his customary biweekly visit. Tina had asked him to take along the papers of the family house, for his mother to sign, in case anything untoward happened in the future and she forgot to bequeath it to them. Unconscious, his mother was sprawled on the kitchen floor. Shakti, mistaking her passing out for death, didn’t move an inch from where he saw her first. His arms crisscrossed his chest. His hands dug into his arms. He was shivering. Tina went to see her in the hospital only the first time. She stood at one corner by the door, mute, lips pressed together, eyes fixed on Shakti. Later, she was always busy. Shakti never asked Tina again. He went in to see his mother regularly for the first few days, but with new projects lining up on his desk at a breakneck pace, he showed up at the hospital only when the doctor had something to say.
Shakti’s paternal grandmother, Bizi, which was her affectionate nickname, had died while he was still in school. He was in the eighth grade. She had been suffering from something they called “melting of bones.” She might have had bone cancer, but nobody knew about it, or nobody wanted to know about it. She was seventy-five years old. Shakti remembered her vividly. He often saw her in his dreams. He remembered her calling his name whenever his mother allowed him to visit her in the basement, where she spent the last two years of her life. “What did you learn at school?” “Nothing. I don’t like school.” “Don’t want to become a big man like your father? Tell me? Your father was just like you. The same eyes, the same nose. I used to walk him to school every day. I used to give him extra pocket money, behind his father’s back. He was the perfect child. You should study hard just like your father.” She used to give money to Shakti too, whenever she received her husband’s pension check, which she had been receiving since his death. But since she became bedridden she had stopped giving money to him. Shakti’s mother never handed over the pension check. Everyday Shakti’s mother would sit with her dying mother-in-law for ten minutes, half-smiling, half-grimacing, and leave her mother-in-law before she could finish the conversation. His mother would always find some reason to go upstairs, to his room, always claiming that he might be scared with nobody to talk to him.
“You know your grandma is dying.” She would whisper. “Tell her you have to study if she calls for you. You have to focus on your future. People die … life goes on. How Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 57
many people die in this country daily? We will take care of her. Don’t let this trouble you. We don’t want her illness to distract you from your studies.” Shakti’s grandmother passed away on the first day of Monsoon in 1983, the year India won the Cricket World Cup, Kapil Dev’s one hundred and seventy-five runs against Zimbabwe being the hallmark. There was no one home except Shakti, who didn’t want to go to the wedding reception his parents had gone to. Shakti heard her call out his name several times, but he was afraid of going downstairs with no one at home. He heard her labored, breathless, intermittent cries. He plugged his ears every time she called out his name, even making a hissing, buzzing, sound he made at school to drown out someone’s bullying, to block her voice from entering his ears. After an hour of not hearing anything from the basement, he decided to check on her, but again couldn’t cross the threshold to the stairs. Instead he changed into his new blue jeans and ran outside, into the bustle of the nearby market, where peddlers raised decibels to attract buyers, cars honked in unison to produce a life-threatening jangle, bare bulbs hung atop vegetable-carrying carts, stray cows poked their heads into trashcans, stray dogs ran in packs, trying to find something to chew. He wandered into the streets he had never been to, where rainwater formed puddles and mud licked the flooded streets. He saw kids playing in the dirty, gray water. Nobody took notice of him. He passed from street to street, not heeding where he was and for how long he had been out. Rambling about, he got to his favorite candy shop and dug into his pockets to find the money Bizi had given him two months back. When he reached home, walking through potholes and jumping over branches of uprooted trees, he saw a van standing outside his house with “Ambulance” written in big red letters. It was written, as one would see it reflected in a mirror. Upon reaching the front of his house, he peered inside and saw Bizi lying on the ground, swaddled in a clean white cloth, lying still, with a couple of marigolds and rosebuds on her chest and incense burning a few inches behind her head. He saw his parents whispering to each other, standing near her head.
On his way to Ashok hospital, having parked his car across the street, he walked through puddles as big as his feet, filled with muddy water; he felt someone pull at the hem of his pants. He stood there, trying to wriggle free his pants, not thinking about who this child was. Just like many other beggars, this child was lame. The right half-leg, more of a stump, was covered with a shiny blackened, sooty paste. The child’s face was smeared with black spots, his hair, with a central cowlick, standing straight up, was clumped into knots, dry and dirty, tied into dreadlocks. Writhing himself free of the beggar, Shakti went into the hospital. He walked through the front hallway reeking of antiseptics, blood, and a freshly mopped floor. He walked along a general ward, where at least fifty gurneys were lined up within a few feet of one another, each with a human being either swaddled in gauze, or riddled with IV needles, or some form of medical implement working to restore the human life, a little at a time. KARTIKA REVIEW ▪ 58
He walked past nurse’s stations, other general and twin-bed wards, and wards for the rich, and finally arrived at the end of the long hallway where his mother was lying, in the intensive care unit. Though the thought of finding his mother dead when he opened the second of the double-door entrance to the ICU had flashed through his mind, it had vanished as soon as he smelt the stench of disintegrating human lives. He opened the first door and looked at the nurse behind the counter. The nurse asked for his details and motioned to the right where a few aquamarine ICU-gowns were hanging from a row of spikes. He waited to enter the main entrance. Time raced on, but he waited outside. He waited just as he had waited to return to India to care of her. He couldn’t spend any more time than required to catch a glimpse of her. He couldn’t stand the look of tubes swarming her body, as if like a spider’s web, with her being the fly stuck in it. Her eyes were closed, her fists were clenched. She was waiting, reluctantly. She didn’t want to leave, not just yet. Outside, the child spotted him again, and started shouting, looking toward him. This time he remembered. He was the same child he had talked to outside his office. He walked to the child and bent down on his knees. The child appeared to have undergone a change. He wasn’t the same child who had cried before. He didn’t look like someone who would ever cry. His face had no expression. He was lame now. He was sitting under a wind-blasted tree. “Sahib, give me five rupees? I haven’t eaten in two days.” “How is your mother?” “Give me two rupees?” Shakti inched a little closer; his eyes fixed on the child’s smudged face, on his little blue eyes. He placed his hand on the child’s dirty head, ruffled his hair. “God will bless you. Give me two … one rupee. Give me.” Shakti had never given any alms. Never in his life had he felt the compassion to give out his hard-earned money to someone, be it a beggar or homeless person. Today he thrust his hands into his pockets, without taking his eyes off the child, and slid out a hundred-rupee note. He didn’t know what overcame him, but if he had more cash in his credit-card-laden wallet, he would have happily emptied it in this child’s cheapsteel bowl.
Shakti walked up the stoop of his rented East Delhi house, the picture of his mother still fresh in his head. The doctor had told him in the morning, she might live for a few more days. He had looked at the doctor’s face, without saying a word. You want me to take her off the expensive medicines? Still no answer. It’s up to you. My advice is to keep her on pain killers and wean her off the expensive medicines in a day or two. If you want that…. At home, Tina was waiting for him. She was sitting on the couch, her shoulders flopping forward, and her head bent to the right. She was leafing through Lifestyle magazine. Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 59
She raised her face to Shakti’s light footsteps. “Why you look so sad?” “Nothing.” “Listen, I want to tell you something. Have to understand where I’m coming from. Don’t assume anything,” Tina said, got up, and walked right to him, to stand next to him. And when he wasn’t expecting it, hugged him. “Promise me you won’t get mad.” He looked at her, about to say something, but decided against it, and waited for her to speak. “I’m pregnant.” Tina had talked about taking his mother off the expensive medicines before. He hadn’t responded to her either. “I don’t think I’m ready to have a child. You know, it will change our lives. I mean … we didn’t plan for it in the first place. So why hurry? You know what I mean? I haven’t achieved much in my life yet and to have a child at this point … Shakti, are you listening to me? I want you to come with me to the gynecologist. I’ve talked to her about an abortion.” Tina had gone to the kitchen. Shakti was left alone. There was a tickling in his head, his mother’s whispers from the night of bizi’s death in his ears. He switched on the TV where a big scandal was unfolding on news channels. Some government employed surgeons were jostled out of Ashok Hospital, where his mother was held captive by IV needles and measuring devices, by a caboodle of police officers, journalists, and medical staff. There was pandemonium. People were being carried away by a wave of commotion; the flurry shown on the tube seemed to be happening in a world where earth was shaking violently. “It’s a selfless act to mother a child; the nine-month period when you hold the baby in your womb and nourish it with your own life; day after day it grows into the human form, from a sea-horse to a baby; you feel the pressure of life stretching in your womb, pulling your skin apart; you buy new clothes to nestle the universe of a new life in you; you endure the weight of it; you sacrifice; you waddle like a duck, with hands on your back, supporting your frame, stopping you from falling down; then your water breaks and you go into labor and experience the divine force of nature –the reason the human race exists is to beget. The only reason.” Shakti had heard his mother tell her neighbors at a tea party. It was a few weeks after Bizi’s death. These surgeons at Ashok Hospital were arrested for performing deliberate imputative surgery on beggars, especially on children, Shakti heard. They were apprehended for misusing their medical licenses. The price of amputating one limb was set at ten thousand rupees. A mad crowd besieged the doctors. And perhaps one in the crowd was the child beggar Shakti knew. “These doctors amputate beggars so that beggars can generate more sympathy and make more money. How can these doctors, whom we see as purveyors of life, put them in the same spot as God, despicably murder the public trust? More on this, after the break.” KARTIKA REVIEW ▪ 60
“Why should we slow down our lives with a child? We have so much left to live and experience. Look at me …. Will you come with me?” Suddenly, the phone in a secluded corner in the living room rang urgently. It started raining. The power went off. And in the sea of darkness, Shakti moved about in slow mincing steps. Heavy-sounding steps accentuated in the absence of the electrical hissing, propelled by the buzzing of the mosquitoes, inched toward the monophonic sound. The click. Then the lift. “Hello?” The eternal question lingered, hung in the air in the passing seconds, about making the right choices. As life comes to an end a weight is lifted off the heart, a wound is healed, and blame is wiped. Questions started forming in his head, and with it a voice, a din, took birth. Whether a single flip, a single cut of the surgeon’s scalpel can liberate a life, regardless of where it is, at the starting of the karma or the end of it? The thought loomed in the heart of this man. With that a throb, a gentle racing of the heart: what can he do and what can’t he? A single tear trickled down to mourn a life, a mother, a child, a son, a beggar, a thought, a duty.
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THE NIKKEI YELLOW LINE Akito Yoshikane
Yellow Line (Yel-low line) n.
1. The non-stop Chicago Transit Authority line running from Dempster to Howard street; also known as the Skokie Swift. The same railroad tracks Kenji, Aki, Ken and I, used to walk along after Japanese school on Saturdays when the trains weren’t running. We jumped on the same rails our parents took to work before transferring to the Red line into the city, one track to the other, curving our feet to the steel, switching back and forth, akin to how we went from American school during the week to Japanese school on the weekends. Our sack lunches became bento, “good morning” became “ohayo,” and black hair and slanted brown eyes went from none to one and all. But culture was never like trains that followed a set path. Walking along those tracks we forgot about the tests we failed at Japanese school or the classes we were kicked out of that day for talking to each other too much. Or the way we ignored our mothers’ pleas to do our homework the night before. How, despite our disregard, they still wrote the hiragana next to the kanji in our textbooks on Friday nights so when the teacher called on us to read the next day in class we wouldn’t stutter on every other word, that way the other classmates from Japan wouldn’t laugh at us. On those tracks we tried to push each other off the rails. We swung our arms like propellers for balance, shifting our weight, pleading with the wind. Other times we tried to hang on by clinging to each others shirts like something we couldn’t see was pushing us, as if falling onto to gravel would be our deaths. If one of us fell, we would all fall like dominoes.
2. The shape and color of chalk my white middle school teacher used to tally the number of minutes our class served for detention. His problem: misbehavior. His solution: put the black kids in one corner, the white kids in another. I was the only Asian in the class. “Where should I go?” I asked. The teacher pondered for a moment, but not long enough. He pulled a chair next to the white kids. “Have a seat,” he said. I stared at the empty chair. “Why’s he going to sit over there?” said a black classmate. The teacher drew a fifth yellow tally mark, pressing the chalk on the blackboard until a piece cracked off. The white kids were without any tallies and sat quietly. I stood silent, confused, with skin neither pale nor brown. I think back to how these were the same white kids who pulled their eyes to the side, ridiculed the beauty of having two tongues. And I look over at my black classmates and remember how the contrived handshake and a “sorry I called you that” mediated by the social worker after the fights never settled the pain or anger. Now, there I sat, sandwiched between privilege and oppression. They look nothing like me, but I imagine the loneliness of sitting alone, never being able to say “we” like the black or white kids. I grabbed the seat. The stares from the white and black kids were the only things that united them while my own vision was narrow, like riding in the subway where the flicker of the train lights KARTIKA REVIEW ▪ 62
whizzing through dark tunnels are all I see, trapped inside a train I never wanted to ride, how the end doors in a train are just connections to another compartment and never an escape. “Sit down,” said the teacher.
3. The color and line of the racetracks we stood between on the day of the annual Undoukai, the school race. It was our grade’s turn to run the 50-yard-dash in sets of six. Parents were in the stands cheering. The teacher pulled the trigger. In the mad dash we stepped over each other’s paths in our haste. Some of us would collide and fall. Our skin scraped against the hard asphalt. We heard the screams and chants from the crowd, but none of us ever looked back. We were too focused on hitting the ribbon when we crossed the finish line on the circular track. Kenji and I always huffed and pushed until our lungs gave in. He always placed first while I was second. The slower ones, like Ken and Aki cared less, accepting defeat and trotting to the finish. The teachers’ sat us down according to how we placed. Six rows of reward and disappointment pointed towards the crowds while they pinned the numbers on our shirts - the glee of the winner, the despair of last place, and all the melancholy in between.
4. The color of the line on the CTA platform that we are supposed to be standing behind as the train approaches. As I wait for the train I stand on the yellow line. I peer over and look down at the tracks now electrified by the third rail. It runs on weekends now. I’m much taller and heavier than I was back then, unsure if those fragile tracks could still hold the weight of our bodies and futures. I wonder if it is still the same piece of railroad we used to walk along, if it still bears the initials I wrote on the inside of the track with a sharpie. I am interrupted by the automated voice message over the intercom. The train is delayed. Sometimes I see the tourists with their subway maps folded out trying to figure out which color line to take. But it looks so simple to me. They remind me a bit of my parents here in this strange land, where transferring was more like an ocean’s leap than just a couple street stops. And I see how much harder it was for them, how home now is something they can never return to, and I wonder what it’s like for them to ride a train that always has the same start and end. The voice says the train is approaching and reminds us to stand behind the yellow line. The CTA line’s are referred to by color now - purple, pink, red, green, blue, orange, brown, yellow - Technicolor intersecting in this segregated city. I remember when I became colored. They call ours the Yellow Line now, but my friends and family still call it the Skokie Swift. The train arrives. The doors open and I step over the line. I choose to stand, because despite the journey from everything that happened before DuBois to the “Post-racial” society, it is still only an eight minute ride. I look outside the windows and the speed of the train makes everything a blur. My neighborhood, my past, the now. We sway. We go faster and I hear the hum of the train car shaking on the tracks; they sound brittle to me, almost as if we are on the brink of losing balance and veering off course, like the way we used to walk along the tracks on the so called Yellow Line.
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DEAR VIETNAM… Ocean Vuong
My dear Vietnam, when I left you I could not speak. A child could only watch as waves melted from your burning shores my face, an apparition. On that day in that hut you quietly soaked my mother’s blood. In your palms I breathed the world. You must remember. Vietnam, I can only tell you through the courage allowed by ink, paper, the infinite depths of whiteness. My heart spills at the spout. I write beneath banners whose stars have lost their stitches, falling in pearls of fire on the roofs along your spine. If tears could wash the blood within your roots I would weep each night I curl into cotton and forget. How thin you sleep, your fruit poisoned with Orange, your rivers blistered with the skulls who lost their dreams. I did not think of you, as I sucked on lollipops and drooled at Happy Meals. But did you know I always saw your eyes inside these filthy mirrors? Forgive me; I have only traced the path given. These eyes have learned to melt when brushed with the simplicity of pleasure. As I filter through folds of memory, hording your valleys, your forests, your people into this skull’s dusty chamber, KARTIKA REVIEW ▪ 64
there is too much left to be said and no language to pronounce our answers. You and I, two shadows reaching for the soles of feet. I bury these hands into dirt, feeling for your whispers. Cradled in my palms: a morsel of earth that could be you. Here is a planet intact through sinews of withered roots and I am the one to crumble.
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STRANGERS IN OUR MIDST Geri Lipschultz
Grandma I tell people only what I want them to know. Why should they know my business? My daughter-in-law sees me sitting here. She sits down on the rocking chair and asks me am I okay. "Sure," I tell her. "Why not?" "It's late. I thought you'd be sleeping already." "It's hot," I say. "Just try to relax," she says. "The attic fan is on." "Okay." She says I look like I’m thinking. I just smile. She tells me my grandson, Billy, studied the Asian culture in his university. He learned that the Chinese don't express their feeling. "Is that true?" she asks. "My mother never kissed me. My father never kissed me. No one told me they loved me. The last time I ever saw my father, I was eight years old. Not like here, kissy, kissy." Rachel - she has a sense of humor. She gets a gleam in her round eye, says, "Grampa must have had some kissy-kissy! You have five sons!" But Grampa and I, we don't have that kind of love. "Grampa, he saved my life, Rachel," I say to her. "I know," she says. "Is that what you are thinking about?" "Not especially." "Don't you think you ought to take off your hat, Mom?" "You know where I can catch the subway?" "Tomorrow, Stuart will drive you back to the city. I'll tuck you in." "No, thank you." Rachel yawns, her hand with a jade bracelet covering her mouth. She reaches over and takes my hat from my head. Then she stretch-stretches her body and places my hat on the far end of the couch. She gets up, looks around, turns off the light, says, "Good night, Mom. Please try to sleep." "Okay," I say. Soon as she gets up from the rocking chair, a man comes and sits down. He watches me. I try to close my eyes, but then he climbs on top of me. "Get off," I say. I sit up again. I reach for my hat, and then I pull myself up. Everything is dark, except now there are two men. I pick up my bag, and I watch my step. I tell these men to leave but they don't. They just look away. So, I will go, then. I tell the KARTIKA REVIEW ▪ 66
dog to shoosh, but he barks. The only one that knows something is happening is the dog. But who believes a dog? He barks no matter what. He sees what I see, and more. I go out the damn door. I take my tiny steps. No railing, so I’d better watch. That dog barks still. Nobody notices. They think it’s a squirrel. Or a bunny. They don't think Grandma. Now, outdoors. Dark. Usually I'm afraid, but no more being afraid for me. Somebody tries anything; old lady has got her gun. I practice saying, "I got gun. I got gun." Even I believe it. "I got gun." I say it low, scary-like, "I got gun." It's Aurora's toy, but I cover it in cotton, so it looks real. Only use if necessary. I have got food. Aurora gave it to me. She must think I am a pig. Another thing I have, too. My secret. I have got it deep in, sewed up. I have never liked to travel. One trip to America. Almost sixty years ago. I sat in the park. Waited for Grampa to come home from his job. Just wait, all night. I was not afraid then, either. Imagine if I sat in the park now? My son Stuart, his wife is nice enough, but she's no daughter. Grampa always said, too bad we have no daughter. But I don’t need anyone to take care of me. I got my nursing degree. I got medals for service. I worked for the Veteran's hospital. Thirtyfive years. I retired – then it just happens Grampa gets sick. For two years I took care of him. I lost twenty-five pounds. Now I have just gained three pounds. My daughterin-law, she's a good cook. She learned from Grampa. Still, she's no daughter. I'm smart. No one fools Grandma. I know what they plan for me. I saw what happened in the hospital, what they did to the old people. My sons, they have got my deed. I have asked for it, and I can’t find it. It means they have got it. It’s not right, that I worked thirty-five years as a nurse, and they don't want me to live in my house. Now, the villains come to my house. So, Stuart takes me here, to Jersey. I'm gonna take it back from those imps. I got my bag, and my Aurora gun. Otherwise they will throw me in the hospital again. I ask what is it come to that they experiment on the staff, now? They took off my panties. For what? I know I'm fine. They put the needle in me, and my arm is still black and blue. They let me soil myself, and then they took away my nightclothes where I had put my wallet. But no one tricks Grandma. I got up and went through the basket of nightclothes. I found my wallet with two hundred dollar bills. A night worker, he slugged me, put me back in my bed. That's why my arm is bruised. I had a million tests. Every one of them came out negative. They think I'm crazy, but it turns out to be the drugs. They could have killed me. Aurora's brother, Billy, he laughs at me. He says, "Grandma, there's no one there." I say, "That is what you think." And now, I have got this gun. Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 67
It is dark, and I am tired, but no sleep.
Aurora I hear her now. She told me not to tell, but still I am knocking on my parents’ bedroom. They do not answer. I am sure my grandmother is not in her bed. I hear the dogs. Both of them. Even Hansel, the old stinker. Barking. My grandmother told me that she wanted to leave. I thought she was joking. She told me not to tell anyone, not even my mama. "Mama gets VERY angry," said Grandma. "Do NOT tell. It is our secret." But now I don’t know what to do. I sneaked out of bed because I heard her, and now she’s not on the couch. I keep knocking, but they don’t even hear the dogs. I know she's out there. I'm afraid she will get hurt. I go upstairs and tell Billy. He's my brother, so he'll help me. "Aurie," he says, his breath full of monkey gas. "Aurie, what's the matter? Why are you crying? Aurie, you're going to wet my bed. Mom will think I peed in my pants." But even that doesn't make me stop. Not even for a second. I'm in that state where I think I'm running out of breath. Billy lunges out of bed and stands me up. Then he carries me close to his chest and rubs my back. Before I know it, I've told him everything I promised not to tell. Billy's screaming now. We're at the back door. It's so dark out you can't see anything. He's calling, "Grandma, Grandma." Finally, he turns on the light, and we see her sitting there, on the deck. She doesn't look up. "She's not even turning her head," Billy says. "Go get Daddy." "He's sleeping," I, who have already tried and failed to do this, say. "Tell him that Grandma's on the loose, again." Daddy hears me now. He puts me in bed with Mama, and we cuddle, close as can be, our spit and shadows all mixed up, and I'm falling asleep in her warm shadow.
Grandma I've got five sons, but Stuart, he's the best. He is always good, never gives me any trouble. This guy, he looks like Stuart, but Stuart doesn't live here. He is in Jersey. "Mother," he says, this man. He calls me Mother, just like Stuart. "Come inside." "I don't know you," I say. "I am not going in your house. I will find my own house." "This is your house, Mother," says this man. "I know. So why you do want to go in my house?” "It's my house, too." "Go home," I say. "Leave me alone or I call the cops." I am not afraid. I hold onto my pocket book where I have hidden Aurora’s gun, but it's not necessary. Not yet. My
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eyes trick me. That’s what they say. He looks like my son. But I think I know my own house, thank you. I say it to the man who looks like my best son. "Of course you do," he says. I see that he is walking close to me. "I am not afraid of you," I say. "Mother," he says again, and then he grabs me. I know he wants my money, but I am no match for this man. I just hold still, no fight. I wait for an opportunity to take out Aurora’s gun. "I gonna have to get help," he says, this man. He leaves, but I prepare for when he comes back. Where did I put Aurora’s gun? Ayi, I try to get off the floor of this house. That dog, he pushed me down. I yell for Stuart. He will come. He's good. A doctor. He works hard. His wife is lazy. American, that's why. Kids lazy, too. Billy, he watches video all day. Aurora is like Grandma. We are born in the year of the Serpent. Strong. Lucky. Nobody knows what we think.
Billy It's not that she's heavy. In fact she's goddamn light. But it creeps me out to pick her up, even when I'm just helping my father. So far, she hasn't resisted, just somehow, her passivity itself feels like a kind of resistance, makes it something I just don't want to do. As if I could refuse my father. God knows how long she'll stay on the couch. They oughtta leash her up. That's what mom says. Mom's funny about this, but Dad's not. He says, "Wonder if she'd be so funny if it were her mother." And she says, "If it were my mother, she wouldn't be in our house." And he says, "Your mother had an easy life." So it goes. I wonder if they'll get a divorce over this. They should have gotten divorced years ago. I would have divorced both of them. I mean I love them and all, but they don't go together. If I were to write a book, this is how it would begin. "My parents decided to get a legal separation the summer after my freshman year of college, when my grandmother came to stay with us." Great. Just great. I'm trying to back to sleep, but I'm having trouble, so I go downstairs real quietly because I don't want to wake her up. I taught myself how to walk like this when I was younger than Aurie, when I used to sneak past my parents' room when they were asleep or galloping. I call it galloping because that's what I thought they were doing when I was little. My parents are animals--that's why they don't get divorced so easily, I figure. Anyway, I was always stealing cookies that my other grandmother would bring when she visited. She passed away seven years ago when Aurie was just a toddler. All Aurie remembers of her is what we tell her, endless varieties of things Mom is forever planting in her brain. I'd love to have one of those cookies now. But no one can duplicate them because she made them without a recipe, just a feel. I'm an exact kind of guy, and I can't bear it when things aren't precisely the way I expect them to be, the way I've been led to expect them, that is, and in that way I'm like the Teng side of the family. My hidden temper I've also inherited from them. Otherwise, I'm all Goldsmith. I even look like her, my mother. But not Aurie. Aurie came straight from China, by way of the Jews. Anyway, here I am, settling for a piece of goddamn fruit, a nectarine that someone put into the refrigerator before it ripened. I'm chomping into its icy interior, still looking for something better, when I feel a sudden Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 69
tap on my bare back. I'm jumping out of my skin, startled, and a scream escapes from my throat. "What? Grandma?" "What this?" she says. "The refrigerator, Grandma," I say stupidly. "Are you hungry." I look past those eyes which are caves. She is carrying her two little bags, one on her shoulder, stooped down so that she's about at my chest. She is looking plaintively at me. She has on that white beret with the topknot. I take a quick gander at the clock. It's three A.M. "I am going home now," she says. "Can you please tell me where I can find the subway?" I take another bite and swallow, and then I lead her back to the couch, which is covered in bedding. I twist on a lamp and point to the clock on the mantle, which clearly tells its time, Roman numerals and all. "See how late it is, Grandma," I say. "The subways are not running now. Now you go to sleep. Tomorrow you can go back to Queens. Daddy will drive you. There are no subways in New Jersey, Grandma." "Oh," she says. She stands at the foot of the couch with that vacant look, her whole body the letter C. "Time to go to sleep, Grandma," I say, exasperated. "Okay," she says but has not made any effort to lie down or even drop her bags. "Want me to help you?" "No, that's okay," she says. "Why aren't you lying down?" "Shhh," she says, her finger in front of her mouth. "Don't worry," I say. "Aurie and Daddy are fast asleep. They sleep soundly. Nothing wakes them." She nods, and then whispers, "Somebody is in the bed." "There's no one in the bed, Grandma." "You don't see a man there?" "Where?" I am looking all around the house. "There," she says, pointing at the pillow on the couch which has been her bed for the better part of the summer. "It's a pillow," I say and make some mad attempt to stamp out the hallucination with the palm of my hand, the same inane thing I've seen my father do. "See? It's nothing." I've never been so convincing. Somehow I get her to put her bags down, remove her hat and lie down. I pile three blankets on top of her, even as she tells me to stop. I figure three blankets probably weigh more than she does. They might hold her down until morning. Almost as good as a leash, I'm thinking, sadist that I am. I give her a kiss good night, planting a little one on her smooth, cool cheeks, which have, I'm sorry to say, a wretched smell. KARTIKA REVIEW ▪ 70
"Goodnight, Grandma." "Too hot," she cries, but I pretend not to hear. I turn off all the lights but the one in the hallway, which leads to our one bathroom. As I march up the stairs, I pray to all the eastern and western gods that my grandmother will not have to pee.
Grandma I see them, but I don't say anything. My daughter-in-law, she told me to pretend they're not here. But how would she feel, to sleep with a strange man on top of her? I don't dare close my eyes with that villain in the rocking chair. Why does he keep staring at me? Five people looking in the window. But the dogs do not bark. Where is he now? Oh, there he is, snoring on floor. The other dog is upstairs with Billy. He only barks if other one does. Whoever thought Grandma would live with dogs in the house? Well, it's not my house. I tell Stuart I feel like a chicken without a house when I am here. Stuart says his house is my house. My house in Queens is lucky. It just happens that I'm alone now. It has been three years, almost. Can you believe it? How can I sleep with so many blankets. I reach inside to make sure my wallet is in my pocket, then reach back out to pull off one layer. Hard to move my leg. It feels like I'm crushing to death. Slowly, I kick- kick covers off, and sit up. It's cooler that way. I wonder what time is it. Still a little dark out. I get up slowly, little by little, and step by step to the bathroom. Knock- knock- knock, then go in and do my business. I turn the handle but the door jams. Grandma, pull! I pull- pull- pull. Then push-push-push. Try again, pull- pull- pull - then push- push -- OH. Big sound, like a tree falling, crunch of bones. They're mine. I fall. If I cry, they will take me to the hospital. So no sound comes out from me. Oh, it hurts. But I am fine. I move fingers. I move toes. Fine. Hear steps. Uh-oh. Someone is going to find me. Lucky, I got my wallet right here. All my identification. Lucky, just Aurora. "I am fine, Aurora. Pick me up." She tries, but then she falls. She cries. "You hurt?" I ask. But she just cries more. Then Rachel stands like a tower over us. My daughter-in-law is quite tall. "What happened?" she wants to know. I smile. "I am fine." Aurora climbs into her arms, whimpering. She is okay, too, says her mom. She tells Aurora to go into the bedroom, and she asks me if it is okay to pick me up. She tells me she remembers I am a nurse, so I know how bad it is to move a patient with broken bones. She walks me slowly to my bed. "Want me to wake Stuart?" she asks. "No, he asks too many questions. If he were here, I would still be on the floor." "Mom," she says. "Why are Aurora's toys in your bag?"
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"Probably she was playing," I say. I look at her hands going through my things. "What do you think you are doing?" "I should probably do your laundry," she says, "before Stuart takes you back." "I don't need you to do anything." "What's this - food?" I don't say anything. "How long has this been here?" "Aurora," I say. "We are going on a picnic." "Oh, really?" She speaks with a sarcastic tone. Then she takes the food in her hand but leaves the toy gun and says, "Please, mom, get some sleep, will you?" "I am wishing the same thing," I say quietly, but she is out of the room, already.
Aurora Daddy smells. He makes funny sounds in his sleep. Percussion, Mama says. Sometimes I go back to my own bed when she gets out of bed first. They only let me sleep with them when I get upset, now. It used to be that my bed was in their room. Then Billy moved up to the attic. And then he went to college. This summer he's back upstairs, and I'm mostly in my own room, except when I get upset. Even then, sometimes, I'm in my own room, which used to be a boy's room, until they painted it pink with purple and white trim, all prettied up for me. I'm not shamed to say that I'm a girly kind of girl, the kind of girl who likes ballet and dolls, but I am crazy about baseball, and tennis, and cowgirls. Oh, and my violin. I love my violin, but basically, I like to pretend. Right now I'm lying in my own bed thinking about sleeping. I'm holding onto my doll and asking for the fairies to stay in my dreams, even though it's early morning and they probably have things to do. There's a pale yellow light behind my lace curtains, and if I weren't so tired, I'd just get up and turn on the light and close my door and play school. I'm pretty tired, though. I can't really hear what Mama is saying to Grandma, but whatever it is, I hope she stays in that bed for a while. "Hi Mom," I say, because suddenly there she is right next to me in my bed. "Are you okay, Aurora?" "Yes," I say, and I grab her. "Stay!" "I'll stay for just a while," she says. And we snuggle into my best peace.
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Stuart Stuart E. Teng. The E stands for a famous emperor who saved the world from darkness and floods, the latter by digging ditches. My brothers were emperors, too. They saved the world, too, from monsters and famine and disease. In one version of a story we are not permitted to tell even our own wives, both my father and mother were orphans. That's why they imposed world-saving destinies upon their babies. By the way, Teng is a creation, a name worth thousands, what those in the know call a paper-name. They don't remember their real last names, and their adopted names were stashed for the name Teng, which means "hurt," but it saved their lives. My mother survives, because the Chinese woman learns quickly that her only hope is in outliving the superior females, whereas the Chinese male has to make the best of it while he's young and adored. As for my mother, she persists, but she's unraveling, and her skein of yarn seems endless. Haldol, Risperdol, Zoloft, Selexa - the poetry of her litany. My father became an unsung hero in America, an inventor he was. And now he's beastly dead, as they said about Stephen Dedalus's mother. I can relate to Stephen. In fact, I wanted to name my first born son Stephen, but I acquiesced, and he became William, after the patriarch in my wife's family. "I don't want an artsy-poet for a son," she said. "I want a man, a solid man." "Why did you marry me, then," I asked. It was not the time to ask such a question. She was erupting. "You were sexy, Stuart," she screamed, and out popped William. It's a question I always ask her. Again and again. But now I have the better sense to keep it to myself. When I ask, the only one hearing it is my artsy-poet self. I do not resemble the stereotypical Chinese male, which greatly disappointed my math and science teachers. I'm a useless dreamer. In my mind, I provide the answer, "And you are still sexy. Yes, my love. Yes. Sexy is all you need be for me." Ah, she's back again, my wife. I was in the middle of this terrible dream, one in a series. I call them my divorce-dreams. In them, we are getting a divorce, but we never seem to split. The truth is someone else's dream. How many men would die to have a wife who keeps them around for sex. That's what she says - that's the real part. So, now she's back. I am thinking hot thoughts, which is all I have to do with my wife, because no matter what, no matter what we have been through, childbirth and the subsequent sewing up of her vagina two times, the fights, the accusations, the horrible names she's coined for each member of my illustrious family - no matter about any of this, I love my wife. No matter what time of day or night it is, I can imagine myself into being, so to speak. This is what I do when Aurora is not in the room, which is the only time Rachel locks the door. When Rachel locks the door, all hell can break loose in this house. But when she locks the door, it's serious. It means she wants to talk to me, or she wants something else that's even more important than talking. My wife is an iconoclast in every way. I don't need to be a participant in any discussion to know this. All I need to do is listen - to my brothers, my friends - you name it. How many women in this world prefer sex to talk? Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 73
"Make your choice," my wife says, after she locks the door, examining us both for our readiness. Then she kisses me, and we are both one horse instead of two, and we are racing to the sky, and now we are turning into fire itself, but we are both closed eyes, soft breaths. One big muscle, then we are water, floating, sinking, and diving. I am not the first to open my eyes. I am self-conscious about the thick mud that I share with every other Asian man on this planet. It would be hard to find something poetic to say about the color of my eyes, although she has told me that stars shine in night skies. Hers, however, are the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the teal green seas of the Riviera. I swim into that double-ocean of her soul, and still, I feel warm, supported. Ah, a rock. She speaks. "I will not be one of two women manning a house." "But my mother can barely run her body," I protest. "You must take pity on her." "How long is this to persist?" she says rhetorically. How can we possibly know? All tests reveal she is perfectly healthy. "We don't know." "Could be my entire life," she says. "I want a divorce." Do not let it be thought that we are physically parted. We are preparing for yet another flight. Like athletes, like warrior-lovers, we are moving, wrestling, breathing. Underneath the blanket of our skins, we are gods, creating and destroying the world. No divorce, please, I would like to beg. Instead, I say, "I understand."
Grandma I lie here on their couch, listen to sounds a house makes. My house in Queens, it's a lucky house. You don't hear a peep, just when the heat comes on. But now summer, no heat, except the natural one. Sounds make circles in my ears, make me see things, even when my eyes are closed. I reach down, feel where I sewed my money - still there. Then I open my eyes, see the people scurrying away. They think I don't catch them. Nobody can hide from me. Look at that dog like a rug all spread out on the floor. He's panting. It's hot. I am panting, too. Everybody in house is panting. The sound I hear. Big sound. Not the sound I make, ever. Except what Stuart and his brothers say about my nightmares. That I sound like a man. A man comes out of my voice. I feel scared. That sound makes me uncomfortable. I get up, take a walk, and knock on the door. "Excuse me," I say. Still I hear panting. Sounds like somebody being killed. "HELP!" Nothing, just panting. "HELP!" I say, again. "HELP, HELP, HELP, HELP, HELP." But nobody hears me. I know what to do. I go to the telephone. I call the police. It's the same everywhere. Nine. One. One. "Emergency," they say.
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"HELP," I say. "What's the matter," they say. "Somebody being killed here," I yell. "Please come fast." They ask for address. "Jersey," I say. "Where Jersey," they say. "It's next to Queens," I say. "First the Triborough, then over the George Washington Bridge. That's all I know." "We need more than that," they say. "You are no help," I say, and then I put the phone down. I still hear panting. I go back to the couch, and I sit down. I take time to think. Then I go back to the bedroom door. Knock, knock. No answer. This time, I try the door handle, but the door is locked. Somebody is taking a long time killing them. I pick up the phone, call the police again. This time, they say they're coming. They'll be here soon. Promise. This happened before in Queens. I remember one time, a hundred people in my house. I don't have enough beds in my house for them. I couldn’t get them to leave. "Don't have enough beds," I say. "Get out!" But they stayed, even though I said, "What you think I am running here, a boarding-house?" They looked at me but didn’t move. The little girl, she is not a problem. She likes to sleep on the couch. But the rest. How can I sleep with them in my house? So I called the police, and they came. It's hot, but I put on my little robe for when the police come. Why are they not here yet? Maybe they are not coming. I find the switch to the big lamp now, put lights on. The dog looks at me. It's quiet in here now. I go to the bedroom door. I hold my breath. Knock- knock. "What is it?" That is Rachel's voice. "Mother? You okay?" says Stuart. "Sure," I say. "What about you?" "Please get some sleep, Mom," says my daughter in law. "What?" I say. "You are not dead? I thought someone is in there with you." Suddenly the dogs bark. Big knock on door. They are here. "Please open the door," I say. "Stuart, what the hell is going on," says Rachel. Stuart, he opens the door. He is wearing just underwear. The dog is going crazy, barking, jumping up and down. "Stop," I tell the dog. "It is all right now." He doesn't listen, though. He keeps on barking and jumping, his little paw scratching the wood door, probably making a big scratch-mark. Stuart goes to the door. He goes outside, closes the door behind him. The dog is barking like crazy. Even the old dog Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 75
comes down, and he barks, too. Whole family up. I see a police car outside with red lights going round and round. Sirens. "Wow," says Billy. "What did you do, Grandma?" "I called the police," I say hush- hush. "You called the police?" he repeats after me. "Yes," I say. "Why?" he says. "Scared," I say. "Too many people in the house." "You called the police?" Little Aurora, her eyes open up wide." Her voice like a frog. She says, "Uh-oh, Grandma. Somebody gonna put a leash on you." "Who says that?" I ask her. "Grandma," says Billy. He walks me to the couch, and I sit down. "You shouldn't have called the police. You should have awakened mom and dad." "I try," I say. "But ---never mind." Big sound of Stuart coming back through the door. He slams the door. His face is red. He is faht-hee. Looks straight at me, the one who gained sixty pounds with him in my belly and carried him so much I get curvature of the spine, and now he has this big house in Jersey and sends his big boy to a fancy college. I watch that sweet face of my best boy get all twist-up ugly. He is angry like a kid. Like Grampa, sometimes. Unreasonable. He stands over me look like he is gonna hit me. Is this what we come to America for? I ask it to Grampa. The kids are quiet. Nobody says a word. Stuart looks around. I wonder what he is looking for. Maybe he is gonna throw a chair at me. Where is Aurora's gun? Oh, in my bag. I reach down and grab. I remember because I practiced it. I look at the man who resembles my son Stuart, and I say, "I got gun." Scary-like: "I got gun."
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PETER HO DAVIES Interview by Christine Lee Zilka
I’ve always admired Peter Ho Davies work—he is one of the best writers out there; his work is so very quiet and thoughtful, but in a way that I find myself reflecting on his characters and words weeks after having finished his stories. In person he is the humble gentleman, agreeing to an interview with Kartika Review, ever so approachable and supportive of us (We were ecstatic when he said yes!). Many of his students agree, exclaiming, “He is such a DARLING!” when I mention him, adding that he is the utmost conscientious teacher. Peter Ho Davies is a writer whose work contains voices and settings so varied that it becomes nearly impossible to pigeonhole the creator of worlds situated in San Francisco Chinatown, Malaysia, Wales, and New England for starters. In fact, I didn’t know for years that he was of Asian ancestry—his writing is just as he advises new writers: to simply write and “let others worry about classifying us.” At Kartika, we aim to publish works that do just that—work by and/or about Asian America that illustrates the complexity of what it means to be Asian American. And we’re proud to share our interview with Peter Ho Davies and his thoughts on writing to you, dear readers. Peter Ho Davies was born to Welsh and Chinese parents. He has degrees in Physics from Manchester University and English at Cambridge University, and earned an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. His first published collection of short stories was The Ugliest House in the World (1998), which won the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. His second collection, Equal Love, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, was published in 2000. His first novel, The Welsh Girl (2007), set in a Welsh village during World War II, was longlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize. Peter Ho Davies teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. He is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. In 2003, he was named by Granta magazine as one of twenty “Best of Young British Novelists” and in 2008 he was a recipient of the PEN/Malamud award for short fiction.
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ON INSPIRATION CHRISTINE LEE ZILKA: You have a degree, as I understand it, in physics and the history and philosophy of science. What determined you to become a writer? And in what ways do your seemingly unrelated undergraduate studies in science inform your writing? PETER HO DAVIES: Oddly enough, fiction in a sense, lead me to physics since it was probably my love of science fiction in my teens (both as a reader and a writer of my own bad knock-offs of my favorites) that inspired my interest in science. What turned me away from it and (back) to writing was partly an understanding of the limits of my talents for science (I was mostly good at the math, less able to handle the conceptual under-pinnings of the subject, though that's somewhat in the nature of modern physics) and partly the discovery of what writing could really mean to me. I'd stopped writing my bad imitative SF the summer I went to college to write a story - a pretty autobiographical one - about my family's experience of my grandmother's descent into Alzheimer’s, and in doing so I'd discovered an (albeit crude and probably mawkish) emotional power in my work I'd never explored before. As to how science informs my writing, there are a number of ways. Probably I bring something of a problem-solving mind-set to the process - to revision especially. Certain concepts from my physics training have also been helpful in my writing. The idea of wave-particle duality, the notion that we might need two apparently mutually exclusive concepts to understand individual phenomena like light or matter, probably informs my sense of character, or at least of the characters I'm interested in who often seem to be two (or more) contradictory things at once. ZILKA: You have said that you do not have a particular writing discipline…is there anything you do find necessary to write? DAVIES: There are plenty of things I like to have when I'm writing - a big desk or table to spread out on, a window to look out of (both antidotes to a feeling of being trapped at the desk sometimes, I suspect) - but I'm not sure they're necessary (my first desk in grad school was a plank resting on empty boxes of copier paper, for instance). Time, I suppose, is the obvious necessity, and while it's a truism to say so, I guess I'd qualify the idea of "time to write" by adding that what I mean by that is an excess of time, time to write badly, to fail, to goof around. Time, even, to be bored. And certainly time to read, which for me is often a meditative process during which my mind will turn over ideas about my own work. There's such a pressure on us now to be productive in all aspects of life - multi-tasking etc., etc. - that this kind of time can seem in short supply, which is bad news for writers (and also readers, books being a slow pleasure compared to movies, or TV, or video games).
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ON SHORT STORIES AND NOVELS ZILKA: How do you transition between stories and novel writing? Do you find you can work on them in parallel, or like Murakami, can you only write them exclusive of each other? DAVIES: Since it took me seven years to write my first novel, after two collections of stories, the short answer to your question would be "badly." I did work on a couple of stories during the course of the novel, only short-shorts though, which felt like blessed and brief escapes from the longer work. I'm working on longer stories again now before starting my next novel, but I'm not sure I can easily combine the two since even my stories can take months if not years. Still, I have had luck combining the revision of older work, with the composition of first drafts - the former often gives me hope for the latter - so perhaps that'll also apply to work on novels and stories in future. ZILKA: What are some differences between writing short stories and a novel? DAVIES: The simplest, for me at least, is that I can work on the former in short and often discontinuous bursts, hashing out a first draft in a few days, and then often putting it aside (frequently in despair or disgust) for weeks or longer. In the case of a novel I find I need to work on it daily, though "work" might be interpreted loosely. On days when I had only 30 minutes or so I still found it profitable to 'touch' the book, reread a little of what I'd already written, sometimes choosing the pages at random, just to keep the whole in my mind/memory. There are, of course, many differences in the way we, as readers, respond to stories and novels that also effect the way I think about them as I write. One example I cite is of a review of well-known novel which described it - sincerely - as basically the best thing since sliced bread, and yet concluded "but it falls apart at the end." It stuck with me because it seemed true of several novels I'd read (and admired), and yet could never be said of a story (which often live or die by the success of their endings). I suppose the observation about novels ending poorly makes sense if you think that a fundamental novelistic skill (shared by everyone from Austen to Grisham) is to keep us reading on. Perhaps, given that skill, it's not surprising that novelists aren't always so good at stopping us reading, whereas storywriters somehow need to be expert at it. ZILKA: How do you find the ending of a short story? You say you started The Welsh Girl without knowing its ending—but with stories, do you write with an ending in mind? Or perhaps, does the ending magically appear? DAVIES: In a sense I'd say that we write the whole story to find the ending, though it rarely appears as easily as "magically" might suggest. If only! My own practice usually involves having some idea of where the story is going, but this isn't much more than a hypothesis, to be revised or rejected as the story evolves (though often it's hard to let go of these imagined destinations). The trick for me is frequently at the close to listen my hardest to the characters. I - theoretically at least - know them best by the end of the story and that seems a place where they should declare themselves, sometimes in Spring/Summer 2009 ▪ 79
ways that surprise me. ZILKA: How do you begin writing a novel? How did The Welsh Girl begin? DAVIES: The first chapter of The Welsh Girl, though not the prologue, was the first thing I wrote. It takes place in a pub and introduces the title character in the context of her community - the local Welsh, the British soldiers stationed in the area, and even various refugees from the Blitz - and while I wasn't fully conscious of it at the time I was probably trying to fill the pages with more characters than I would typically put into a story from the start.
ON THE WELSH GIRL ZILKA: You say, in a previous interview, you finished your novel without the safety net of knowing exactly how it would end because uncertainty is always an important experience for you during composition, and especially over the large expanse of a novel. When did you know how it would end? DAVIES: I had a hypothesis of how it would end, or rather what it was building to - the encounter between my lovers, Esther, the Welsh girl of the title, and Karsten, the German POW - but rather like D-Day which opens the book that was really only the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning. How their liaison evolved took a lot of time to work out, and involved writing at least one wrong ending (an early MS was 200 pages longer than the final version, for instance). When I was finishing, it actually felt as if I had several endings to discover, Esther's, Karsten's, Rotheram's (and the latter provided an important point of view from which to approach the ends of the other two figures). Rotheram's final section, which ties up his story and the other two, was the last added to the book. ZILKA: Who is your favorite character in The Welsh Girl? I find myself torn between Karsten and Rotheram, and wished I could follow them into their future lives; I was so in love with them as characters. DAVIES: It's hard to pick favorites, but Rotheram is perhaps the closest to me - not that I share his German-Jewish heritage, but that I feel his divided loyalties and uncertain sense of identity most personally. ZILKA: What happened to Karsten?! I so want to know. If you could envision his life beyond The Welsh Girl, how do you see his continued life? Or of course—I should precede this question with, “Do you think of your characters again once you finish a story or novel?” DAVIES: I have once or twice tried to write 'sequels' of sorts to stories but without much success, which I'd like to hope says something about the initial stories, that they're somehow complete unto themselves (but might equally speak to the failures of my imagination). Still, I don't often think of the characters once I'm done. In Karsten's case I feel I have a pretty clear idea of his fate - a common fate for German POWs KARTIKA REVIEW ▪ 80
returned to areas of Soviet control - and it's not a good one. Of course, along the way in writing the novel I did think of other futures - one in which Karsten stays in Wales lead up to a scene in the early 1980s when sheep farming in the area was threatened by radioactive contamination from Chernobyl, another in which a group of POWs meet again as old men in Germany at the wedding of one of their daughters... The Welsh Girl, I guess, comes from my thinking less of characters from earlier work, than about a recurring location - one that exists, of course, but also one I'd touched on in an early novella, called "A Union." The fictional village in that story set in 1900 is a basis for Esther's village in 1944.
ON HISTORICAL FICTION ZILKA: One of the things I love about your stories is how they are not limited to one place/time. With regards to how the stories are not limited to a place/time, I admire your ability to play in different historical periods. Do you feel a temptation to muss up history’s hair? How do you know when to stop/start? Is there a particular historical period that you are fonder of than others, as a writer? … From where do you find inspiration? DAVIES: I generally enjoy the freedom of stories, that ability story by story to work in very different settings (time and place) and styles. My interest in historical short fiction came from that pleasure in variation, but I must confess I'm not a serious student of history. I was first attracted to remote pockets of history, little know events that often had a quasi-mythic quality (I've an early piece about the encounter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with a Welsh community in Patagonia, say), and I have also occasionally ducked strict historical accuracy via style (there are magical realist touches in my novella "A Union" which create some breathing space between fiction and history). Those were playful flirtations with historical fiction, you might say, and I'm still interested in them (in a new story I'm toying with the genre of alternate history). The Welsh Girl, however, was a more serious effort at historical fiction - more serious because the events of WW2 are of course better known and closer to us in time, but also because there are serious moral and ethical issues associated with the fictionalization of the holocaust and Nazi figures. The novel in those regards feels very different to my other historical work, and, while I can't claim my research on it to be comprehensive (new books about WW2 appear every week), it was much more thorough than for my historical short fiction. As to periods I'm fonder of, most of my work in this vein falls between the late nineteenth century and the middle of twentieth, and I confess to a hesitation in setting anything much earlier than that. Those periods that I've written of just seem more imaginable to me, perhaps because I have faith that the people of those eras might resemble us psychologically (I tend to build my faith in these fictions from the characters on up). The further back one goes the less certain I am of that.
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ZILKA: Vyvyanne Loh said, at this year’s (2009) AWP conference, “All history is fiction.” What do you think of that, especially with regards to how you approach your own historical fiction? DAVIES: I'd probably say that "Much history is fiction," and indeed perhaps the most exciting parts - the parts where we try to understand why factual events occurred. Still much of history, of course, is also fact, the most inconvenient part, as many historical novelists would confess!
IDENTITY AND WRITING ZILKA: Regarding identity—it seems every single one of your interviews touches upon your heritage—whether as being Chinese, Malaysian, Welsh, British, American, or “Sino-Celtic” (your mother being Chinese, having grown up in Malaysia, your father being Welsh, and your growing up in Britain and now living in the U.S.) on the basis of citizenship, residence, ancestry, or language. It’s hard to pigeonhole you, and I hesitate to do so, even as we’re interviewing you for an Asian American literary magazine (my approach being that “Asian American literature” is defined as works highlighting Asians or written by an Asian American, so diverse is our populace these days). I myself did NOT realize you were Asian having totally disregarding “Ho” and focusing on the content of your work. And Yiyun Li at a Winter 2009 New York Asia Society meeting said, “We can't judge based on ethnicity, please, but on our literary influences,” citing Russian literature’s influence on Ha Jin and seeing him more as a Russian writer, and William Trevor’s influence on her writing. She continued to say that the ultimate compliment was one paid James McPherson who being African American and having an Irish surname was told by his reader, “I thought you were Jewish.” While reading The Welsh Girl, I was very aware of one of the themes of the book, how the characters find allegiance to a country difficult (Esther), how characters could speak more than one language (Karsten, Rotheram), how characters are products of mixed marriages (Rotheram being half German and half Jewish), and how some characters so exiled have no country to call their own (Rotheram), thus changing their relationship to others and nationalities. I could not help but think of your unique position. Do you feel your unique position and multiple access points to identity liberate you as a writer? Many writers are afraid to write characters outside of their own race, but oftentimes this implies a strict allegiance/identification to one race. If this liberates you, how so? If it does not liberate you, how so? DAVIES: Probably first I should downplay my uniqueness. While my background is unusual, and I have at times "felt" unique (at times as a curse, at others as a blessing), one of the pleasures of publishing my work, giving readings etc has been meeting and hearing from many others who find themselves in similar situations - not necessarily folks with Welsh and Chinese heritage but many people with equally (if such things KARTIKA REVIEW ▪ 82
can be compared!) odd combinations of ancestry (I just met the wonderful writer Mary Yukari Waters, for instance, who comes from Irish and Japanese stock). And indeed I hope and trust the frequency with which I meet such people is an indication that there are more of us than in the past, and that we're more comfortable identifying ourselves as such. To get back to your question, though, whether my identity liberates or limits me as a writer, I'd probably have to say that I've felt both ways. I've certainly at times envied writers who seemed to have more claim to a literary tradition. When I lived in Atlanta for a spell, for example, I felt something of that envy towards Southern writers, who had such a rich heritage to serve as a guide of sorts (which is not to say they simply followed in the footsteps of their precursors; a tradition also grants something to argue with, struggle against). By comparison, I've felt a lack of such a natural or given tradition, but over time that very limitation has suggested means of over-coming it. I find myself free to pick traditions that I feel an allegiance to, indeed to pick many such traditions. And that has probably played a part in encouraging me to write across lines of ethnic identity and gender and time. That said I'd have to confess that while I've written from the point of view of African American characters, or Jewish ones, it was initially just as hard, if not harder, for me to write Asian characters or Welsh ones (I know those identities better, at first glance, but my anxieties about owning them initially were complicated by my partial sense of my own Chineseness, my own Welshness).
ON READING ZILKA: You have expressed love for works like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which has its theme of East and West, the rational and the romantic) and Vonnegut--but these works are, at least to me, different in style from your writing. What do you get from these works that do/don't translate into your own work? DAVIES: Those are both early influences - Vonnegut from my teens and Pirsig's book from college - but they are significant. Vonnegut taught me, at a craft level, about the paragraph, the quantum of work each one needs to do (typically in his case the work is comic, individual paragraphs serving as jokes). More broadly, his humanistic outlook certainly shaped me as a person (and thus one trusts as a writer, too). Pirsig's book remains a touchstone in its synthesis of thought and feeling. I have struggled myself at times with the issue of where my writing comes from - the head or the heart - but Pirsig's work, and that of others (Philip Roth, say), breaks down the dichotomy. Their work is so passionately intellectual, so thoughtfully emotional. ZILKA: What are you reading these days? DAVIES: Italo Calvino's "Cosmicomics" for a class on short story collections I'm teaching. My copy is twenty years old, and I don't think I've read it since I was an undergrad, though I recall it fondly, and it's proving to be a thrilling revelation, even better than I recall, which I guess is what we'd all hope for our work.
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ADVICE AND CURRENT WORK ZILKA: What words of advice do you have for Asian American writers? DAVIES: To think of themselves as writers, period. Let others worry about classifying us. ZILKA: Can you give us an example of what you’re working on next? DAVIES: I wanted to return to stories after the long slog of the novel, and so am about half or two-thirds of the way into a new collection. At the same time I'm preparing work on a new novel, which I hope to turn to in earnest in the next few months.
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CONTRIBUTOR NOTES Issue 05 ▪ Spring/Summer 2009
FICTION Molly Gaudry runs Willows Wept Press, edits Willows Wept Review, co-edits Twelve Stories, and is an associate editor for Keyhole Magazine. Find her online at http://mollygaudry.blogspot.com. Beth Kaufka is an assistant professor in University Studies at North Carolina A&T State University. Her work has appeared in The Portland Review, Mid-American Review, Poets & Writers, Colorado Review, Panini, 971 Menu, Reflective Practice, and 13th Moon (story forthcoming). She is a 2007 winner of the AWP Intro Journals Award for fiction and lives in Greensboro, NC with her husband and two amazing daughters. Deepak Maini was born in Agra, India (6.2 miles from the Taj Mahal) and before coming to the US (8,094 miles from Agra) he sojourned in Germany. He is a mechanical engineer by education and is currently working as a business consultant in Atlanta, Georgia. He writes short stories and plays cricket and tennis. This is his first publication. Jill Widner “Fina’s Dream” is an excerpt from Jill Widner’s novel in progress, The Smell of Sulphur, which fictionalizes her experience growing up in Indonesia in the 1960s, the daughter of a petroleum engineer. Other excerpts have appeared in North American Review, Hobart, and Kyoto Journal. A longer excerpt was one of two equal runners-up in the 2009 Willesden Herald international short story competition and appeared in New Short Stories 3, an anthology published by pretend genius press in the UK. She has new work forthcoming in Asia Literary Review (Hong Kong) and Bamboo Ridge: The Hawai’i Writers Quarterly. She was the recipient of a 2007 Artist Trust/Washington State Arts Commission fellowship, a 2009 Artist Trust grant for artist projects, has been awarded residencies at Yaddo and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Geri Lipschultz (Wong) is presently finishing up her first year as a Ph.D. candidate in Fiction at Ohio University. She has published work in the New York Times, College English, Black Warrior Review, Kalliope, and others. Her one-woman show was produced in NYC by Woodie King, Jr. She received her MFA from Iowa. She is honored to have this second story placed in Kartika Review; both stories were inspired by her husband’s family stories.
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POETRY Joseph Borja is a 26-year-old Chamoru from the island of Guam. He has lived there all his life. Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé has edited more than 10 books and co-produced 3 audio books, several pro bono for non-profit organizations. His work in lifestyle and developmental journalism took him to Australia, Cambodia, France, Hong Kong and Spain, and saw him writing numerous stories, including features on Madonna, Björk and Morgan Freeman. Trained in book publishing at Stanford, with an M.T.S. in World Religions from Harvard and M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Notre Dame, Desmond is the recipient of the Singapore Internationale Grant, awarded to launch at the First Prague International Poetry Festival the anthology For the Love of God. His poetry and prose have appeared in more than 30 literary journals including AGNI, Confrontation, Faultline, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, New Orleans Review, Seneca Review, Sonora Review and Versal. Through his Potter Poetics Collection, Desmond has also designed and sculpted ceramic pieces to commemorate Albert Camus' 50th Anniversary, Jack Kerouac's 40th Anniversary, the Dalai Lama’s 50th Year of Exile, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ 120th Anniversary, Thomas Merton’s 40th Anniversary, Edgar Allan Poe’s Bicentennial, Marguerite Porete's 700th Anniversary, Swami Abhishiktananda’s Birth Centennial, Cave Canem’s 10 Years of Service to African American Poets, Grolier Poetry Bookshop’s 80 Years of Service as the Oldest Continuous Poetry Bookstore in the US, and Poet Lore’s 120th Anniversary as the Oldest Continuously Published Poetry Journal in the U.S. These works are housed in museums and private collections in India, the Netherlands, the U.K. and the U.S. Kimberly Law was born in America to Mien parents and is a current undergraduate student at UC Davis, completing her Bachelor’s degree. She has been writing poetry since the third grade and her poems have been published in her middle and high school’s literary magazine. Ms. Law plans to attend graduate school after her undergraduate years and earn her doctorate degree. The Kartika Review is Ms. Law’s first official publication. Kenji Liu is a 1.5 generation Japanese-born Taiwanese American expatriate of New Jersey suburbia. Arising from his work as an activist, educator and cultural worker, his writing explores culture, migration, memory, mourning and joy. Kenji’s poetry chapbook You Left Without Your Shoes is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. The cover features his own illustration. His writing is in the online anthology Flick of My Tongue (Intersection for the Arts/Kearny Street Workshop), Tea Party Magazine and other publications, and he has self-published a CD of spoken word poetry, Postcolonial Broadsides. He is currently working on a multi-genre full-length collection of poetry, prose and visual art. Vivek Sharma's first book of verse, The Saga of a Crumpled Piece of Paper will be published by Writers Workshop, Calcutta in 2009. His work is published or forthcoming in The Cortland Review, Bateau, Atlanta Review, Poetry, etc. He writes columns and verses for Divya Himachal (Hindi newspaper in India) and his research is KARTIKA REVIEW ▪ 86
published in science journals. Vivek grew up in Himachal Pradesh, a state in the Himalayas, India, and moved to United States to pursue graduate studies in 2001. Vivek is a Pushcart nominated poet, and is currently a post-doctoral research associate in Mechanical Engineering at M.I.T. Ocean Vuong was born in 1988 in Saigon, Viet Nam and he currently resides in N.Y.C. as a Creative Writing student at Brooklyn College. His work has appeared in the North Central Review, the Barnwood Press Review, the Connecticut River Review, Convergence, Ganymede, WordRiot, and Poetalk, among others. He is also a writer/editor for the Vietnam Literature project in the aspiration to promote and support the works of Vietnamese authors.
NON-FICTION Matthea Marquart is a director of training and instructional design, specializing in education and nonprofit organizations. She writes articles for training industry publications and has a blog on the New York Nonprofit Press website, at http://tinyurl.com/nynpblog. Her humorous stories have been published in 10x10x10, Altar Magazine, Defenestration, Poor Mojo's Almanac, and Wheelhouse Magazine. Brenda Nakamoto lives in Davis, California. working as a secretary at a local university. She has written a memoir to be published in 2010 about growing up as a third generation Japanese American peach farmer’s daughter in a small town in northern California. She has published in local area literary journals and has won first prize in category 2 in the 2008 GENEii Family History Writing contest sponsored by the Southern California Genealogy Society for an essay about her grandfather’s ship voyage from Japan to California. She is currently working on a collection of essays and poems about the Japanese American internment during WW II and is interviewing those connected with that time period and event. Learning about this experience and writing about it has set her on the path of a journey to visit the camps. Richard Oyama was born in New York City. He has a Bachelor's degree in English from The City College of New York, and a Master's degree in English: Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. The Country They Know (Neuma Books 2005) is his first volume of poetry. Oyama's poems, short stories and essays have appeared in Premonitions, an anthology of poetry by Asians in North America, Nuyorasian Anthology, Dissident Song, Breaking Silence, Ayumi, and other literary magazines and small presses. He currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is working on his first novel. Akito Yoshikane grew up in the Chicagoland area and is a freelance writer in New York City.
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COVER ART & PHOTOGRAPHY Joy Zhu received her B.S. in Business Management with a concentration in Marketing from Binghamton University in May of 2003. She has worked in Media/Advertising since graduation, and has recently changed career paths to work for Marketing in the specialty foods industry. She has a passion for fine arts and surrounds herself with everything and anything creative. Photography is one of her many passions. As an amateur photographer constantly trying to improve, she takes the camera everywhere in hopes to capture the beauty and essence of life around her.
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The editorial board reviews submissions on a rolling basis. Thus, we accept submissions by electronic mail year-round. Please do not send previously published work. We accept simultaneous submissions, but ask that you notify the respective editor immediately when your submission has been accepted elsewhere. For more information, please visit http://www.kartikareview.com/submit.html.
FICTION Attn: Christine Lee Zilka | firstname.lastname@example.org Short stories, experimental or interpretive works of fiction, flash fiction and microfiction pieces fall under our category of fiction. We give due consideration to all submissions, but we strongly prefer works under 8,000 words.
POETRY Attn: Sunny Woan | email@example.com Narrative, prose, or lyrical poetry, free verse, eastern or western poetic forms, or works meant as spoken word are all welcome as poetry. Please do not send more than 5 pieces at a time.
NON-FICTION Attn: Jason Wong | firstname.lastname@example.org For creative non-fiction, we are particularly interested in short memoirs and personal pieces on how identification as an Asian American has shaped the writer’s unique life experiences. Alternative formats and subject matter are nonetheless welcome. We give due consideration to all submissions, but we strongly prefer works under 8,000 words.
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