Cover Art: "Water Dragon" by Ako Castuera ÂŠ March, 2012 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.
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Elmaz Abinader Justin Chin Peter Ho Davies Randa Jarrar Gish Jen Elaine H. Kim Maxine Hong Kingston Gus Lee Li-Young Lee Min Jin Lee Ed Lin Nami Mun Fae Myenne Ng Lac Su Bryan Thao Worra
MANAGING EDITOR Sunny Woan
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR Vinay Patel PROGRAM COORDINATOR Jennifer Banta
FICTION EDITOR Paul Lai POETRY EDITOR Kenji Liu NONFICTION EDITOR Jennifer Derilo EDITOR-AT-LARGE Christine Lee Zilka
Kartika Review is a proud member of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses.
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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TABLE OF CONTENTS Editorial
FICTION The Disappointment
The Chink Shop
For Kiyoko, Epitaph / Chikai
Fredrick D. Kakinami Cloyd
Crossing the Tumen
Interview with Catherine Chung
By: Christine Lee Zilka
Interview with Krys Lee
By: Christine Lee ZIlka
CREATIVE NON-FICTION My Heart. Open.
END NOTES Contributor Bios
EDITORIAL Paul Lai
We’re excited to launch this issue along with a redesign of the website. Poetry Editor Kenji Liu, whose other talents include graphic design and illustration, has set up a beautiful new look for Kartika Review’s online home. Please make sure to look through the new pages and let us know what you think. The first quarter of the year has been busy for Kartika Review, beginning with the publication of the 2011 Anthology, which collects Issues 9, 10, and 11 into one attractive volume. As with all our other issues, Managing Editor Sunny Woan did an expert job of laying out the anthology and weaving together the stories, poetry, non-fiction pieces, and interviews with new editorial pieces from each of the editors. Creative Non-Fiction Editor Jennifer Derilo organized a well-attended and successful release party for the anthology in San Diego on January 27th, with readings by authors Gina Barnard (#9), Talia Kolluri (#10), and Donna Miscolta (#11) as well as by advisory board member Lac Su and Jennifer herself. For the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Annual Conference in Chicago, from February 29 to March 3, Kartika Review teamed with Lantern Review: A Journal of Asian American Poetry to staff a table at the book fair under the name The Asian American Literary Collective. Editor-at-Large Christine Lee Zilka and Jennifer Derilo were on hand to talk to conference attendees and to sell hard copies of recent issues. Lantern Review’s editor, Iris Law, also created a series of Pocket Broadsides, business-card sized publications of poetry and prose by authors from our two publications. A number of Kartika Review authors, including Ann Ang, Karissa Chen, Eddie W. Malone, and Matthew Salesses, contributed writing for this fun project, and we hope you all get to see some of these Pocket Broadsides out in the world. The Kartika Review editors continue to seek opportunities to share the journal and Asian American literature with audiences in the off-line world. We are currently planning a literary showcase to take place May 24th in San Francisco. “Literasians Past, Present, and Future: 5 Writers Converge on the APIA Literary Continuum” will feature Yiyun Li, Bharati Mukherjee, Aimee Phan, Bryan Thao Worra, and Andre Yang. It will be part of the United States of Asian America Festival, an event coordinated by our sponsoring 6
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organization, the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center. Look for us there and in your local communities in the coming months. In the last few months, authors previously featured in Kartika Review have published more work in other venues. Timothy Yu (#10) released 15 Chinese Silences and Margaret Rhee (#9) released Yellow in TinFish Press’s poetry chapbook series. Matthew Salesses (#8) issued his novella The Last Repatriate (Nouvella Press, 2011), and Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith (#11) has another excerpt from his novel-in-progress forthcoming in The Asian American Literary Review #3. Christine Lee Zilka, who was also our former fiction editor, published an excerpt of her novel-in-progress in the anthology, Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience (OV Books, 2011). We are very excited for these continuing successes. At this point, allow me to diverge from the literary world into Linsanity. February 4th was a momentous day for Asian Americans as Jeremy Lin, a third-string point guard for the New York Knicks in the National Basketball Association, finally took to the court due to multiple teammate injuries and bounced his way into the national consciousness. Lin led the Knicks to win after win, bringing out droves of Asian American fans as part of the Linsanity phenomenon. Though I do not follow professional basketball, I could not help but witness the explosion of excitement about Taiwanese American Lin on my Facebook feed and on my phone via text messages from my brother and other friends. While there is much to say about Linsanity, and certainly much ink—digital and otherwise—has already been spilt about Lin’s successes on the court, what I wanted to mention is the less savory side of Lin’s rise to fame. As mainstream media outlets like Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and network television took up Lin’s story, a familiar narrative of the model minority emerged, highlighting Lin’s Harvard education and his dogged persistence despite being an undrafted and unsigned player. Though his underdog story resonates with broader cultural narratives, the more specific evocations of the model minority narrative obscure its complicity in reinforcing racist myths of biological fitness and psychological character. Also, and somewhat predictably, a few commentators trotted out derogatory stereotypes of Asian men in discussing Lin’s successes and failures, often in attempts at what they called humor. After the Knick’s first loss since Lin took to the courts, an ESPN editor wrote an ill-advised headline, “Chink in the Armor,” that willfully refused to acknowledge the negative connotations of “chink” in reference to Chinese people. The debates that stemmed from that headline are revealing in terms 7
of how resistant some people are to critical engagements with words and histories that create uneven social relationships. I offer this digression into Linsanity to mark for posterity the significance of this cultural moment for Asian Americans, but I also wanted to introduce the topic of racist slurs as with the use of the word “chink.” These terms continue to demean us, but even more frustratingly, they continue to unearth defenders who insist on the innocuousness of the terms or the well-meaning intentions of those who might inadvertently use them. How slurs work, however, is precisely through these mechanisms of disavowal and enforced amnesia about their origins in the histories of racist conflict that continue to structure our world. One of the fiction pieces in this issue makes liberal use of the word “chink,” casually thrown around by the white teenage narrator whose utter lack of awareness about his anti-Asian thinking is a stunning indictment of how individuals can ignore the histories of war, trauma, and racism in front of their very eyes and in their own families. In this story, “The Chink Shop,” Tony D’Souza offers a difficult but incredibly important opportunity to reflect on the power of narratives to shape our social worlds and the relationships we have with each other. D’Souza’s story, told from a white teenager’s point of view, complements the perspectives of the other two fiction pieces in this issue. Aruni Kashyap’s “Minnesota Nice” gives us a curious young man from India who finds it difficult to operate door locks. As an international student in the Upper Midwest state of Minnesota, this character observes cultural differences between Indians and Americans but also reveals the more idiosyncratic aspects of his interactions with white Minnesotans. In many ways, Kashyaps’s character raises the question famously posed by the narrator in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts: “Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese?” Adalena Kavanagh’s “The Disappointment” features a Korean adoptee character working for a white boss in a Japanese company in the United States. The story thoughtfully examines the absurdities of both business culture and intimate relationships. The character’s wry observations of her world reveal the humor in daily life as well as the multitude of subtle yet pervasive moments that mark Asian Americans as always different and always outsiders to American society. These racial microaggressions 8
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accumulate in ways that are coterminous with the more overt attacks of racial slurs and the structural inequalities that limit opportunities for people perceived as outsiders. The poems in this issue offer other provocative views on Asian America and on the stories and movements that underlie Asian Diasporas. Fredrick Douglas Kakinami Cloyd’s “For Kiyoko, Epitaph / Chikai” traces the contours of a mother-child relationship that is transected by the complicated histories of war in Asia and the social dynamics of a racialized modern world. At once elegiac, nostalgic, and resilient, the poem holds in tense balance the conflicting languages of militarism, natural beauty, and maternal/filial love. Jenna Kilic’s “Crossing the Tumen” is equally suffused with a kind of tension between the dark and the light aspects of our family histories. Centering on another parent-child relationship, this poem is a son’s apostrophe to a murdered father at the frozen waters of the Tumen River. As the son crosses the river, which lies along the edges of North Korea’s northeast region, separating the country from China and Russia, he reflects on the militarized border through religiously-inflected language that seeks understanding of “a world that even God could not forgive.” Hai-Dang Phan’s “Quiet Americans” rounds out the selection of poems with a father and child’s shared experience of watching Cold War American movies, where the stories of war heroes and love triangles are not what resonate with the father’s childhood. Instead, it is the fleeting views of life before war and before forced flight from home that captures his imagination. In these moments of consuming American culture in unexpected ways, the father’s past appears fleetingly and apparition-like on the screen, bringing his memories into the child’s present. The importance of passing on family stories lies at the heart of Ira Sukrungruang’s creative non-fiction piece, “My Heart. Open.” The mythic story of his father’s survival of a dog attack drives Sukrungruang’s reflections of the father and the family. The complicated relationships between the members of that family unfold in the telling of the story and in Sukrungruang’s ruminations on the dogs in his adult life, more companionable and yet as full of the potential to incite memories of home and family as the wild dog of the father’s story. All of the stories, poems, and creative non-fiction in this issue and in Kartika Review as a whole contribute to the larger work of Asian American writing to redress the limited worldviews that lead people to use terms like “chink” 9
in discussions of Asian Americans. Some of this writing is explicitly political, engaged in critiquing anti-Asian discourses; some of the writing is more subtly political, creating alternative visions of an Asian America than what a mainstream world may allow or understand. While the best Asian American writing also matters beyond this political register, it often has a special purchase on these issues and thus often resonates particularly with readers who seek this kind of engagement. Finally, this issue includes interviews with two emerging Korean American authors who are creating quite a buzz in the literary world. Editor-at-Large Christine Lee Zilka talks with Catherine Chung and Krys Lee about their debut books, both released at the beginning of this year. Chungâ€™s novel The Forgotten Country explores the transnational histories and Korean folklore that haunt the Korean American protagonist. Chung discusses how she came to write the novel and what aspects of writing are most powerful for her. Krys Leeâ€™s collection of short stories Drifting House offers deeply insightful portraits of characters struggling for a sense of home, security, and identity. Lee talks about her writing background and her experiences growing up in an immigrant household where a stark contrast between family life and life outside influenced how she saw herself and the world around her. I invite you into the pages of this issue, into the stories and perspectives the various authors create for us. Spend time with their words and share them with your family and friends! Paul Lai Fiction Editor
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THE DISAPPOINTMENT Adalena Kavanagh
It was a Japanese company, but my supervisor was a tall white guy named Gary. He showed me the front desk with the computer and complicated telephone system. The fax machine stood to the right, but the faxes came from Tokyo so the machine was quiet in the daytime. I imagined the busy beeping was like a secret happy hour we weren’t invited to. It must have been a raucous party—the first thing I did every morning was gather and collate all the papers that had fallen to the floor in the middle of the night. Gary asked me if I spoke Japanese. I told him, sorry, I’m not Japanese. He muttered “shit” under his breath, then seeing the look on my face he apologized. “Sorry. It’s not your fault. I just thought…” He gestured toward my face to indicate where his confusion came from, but then he shrugged. “Not your fault. We asked the agency to send us a girl who speaks Japanese. Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out.” I nodded my head. Of course it wasn’t my fault that I’m not Japanese. I wished I hadn’t apologized, even if it was insincere. I’m Korean, well, adopted from Korea, and I only speak English and bad French, but that wasn’t any of his business. The agency did ask if I was fluent in other languages, but I didn’t even mention my bad French. It’s not a selling point. It was just a temp job. I thought the agency would send me somewhere else the next day. Except there was a shortage of Japanese-speaking temps. I knew because Gary told me every afternoon, as if I should be grateful, “No luck. We’ll see you tomorrow.” My job consisted of sorting the faxes, running letters through the Pitney Bowes stamp machine, and accepting packages from UPS and FedEx deliverymen who attempted camaraderie after the first week. The USPS mailman never attempted any familiarity at all, unless you count that one time he grunted at me when I said, “Thank you, sir,” and saluted him. It would have been rude for him not to acknowledge that. The phone almost never rang. The few calls that came to the office were routed to Mrs. Tomine, Gary’s assistant. She was efficient in a way that 11
frightened me. She handled every task with brisk precision and a resigned expression on her face—thin tight line of a mouth with just the faint downturn of a frown and a smooth brow. I made a game of imagining her performing unlikely tasks in the nude while wearing the same expression: deboning a chicken, ironing, flipping flapjacks, etc. Gary was the only person who spoke to me directly. The Japanese workers merely nodded at me, but even the Americans—white, black, whatever—ignored me. That’s what temping was like. People regarded you with suspicion, as if your status as a temp made you inhuman somehow. When I interviewed at my agency, the rep nodded with approval at my list of skills and experience. I could type fast, and I was familiar with most business software. I was temping because I was earning my library science degree, but I eventually stopped telling my supervisors what I was studying because the women gave me sympathetic looks, like I had just announced that I was in training for spinsterhood, while the men all too often gave me a knowing look, like we both understood that underneath my cardigan lay the heaving breasts of an unrepentant slut. Which isn’t to say that Yoshino, Inc. was a bad place to work, not at first. It was much better than the office I worked at where the supervisor told another temp that if she caught him using the telephone for personal business, she’d strangle him with the cord. A sadistic supervisor keeps you motivated because you’re too scared to become bored so you have no choice but to do your job. I mostly didn’t mind Yoshino, Inc., but the office was so quiet—even the typing and ringing telephone sounded subdued. I sometimes felt restless, like I’d had too much coffee. Once or twice I caught myself laughing at something a friend had e-mailed me, and I clapped my hand over my mouth. That feeling that I couldn’t even laugh, for fear that I’d receive a stern look from Mrs. Tomine or one of the nameless drones, made me want to scream. Since Gary was the only person who spoke to me, I felt like we had some kind of understanding, even though our interactions mostly consisted of his giving me detailed instructions for even the simplest task. I told him I was studying to become a librarian, and he said I had chosen a noble profession. The graying wings at his temples softened his edges and made him almost likeable. I tried to imagine what it took to make him 12
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break character, thinking there was a more vulnerable Gary underneath his starched shirt. Surely he had laughed once in his life. Then he told me that he had a special project for me. He showed me a large room filled with company ledgers. Each ledger was for a separate year of the many separate divisions of the company. Gary wanted me to organize it all and create a simple database that my replacement would be able to add to. “I thought with your library training and all…” He trailed off, not finishing his thought. For once Gary seemed unsure of himself. He also stopped giving me updates on the search for the Japanese-speaking temp. Each day, before 5pm, he came to my desk and lay his hand on top of my computer monitor and said, “Have a good evening Miss Colby.” I murmured my own good-bye, calling him Mr. Kinkaid. He reminded me to call him Gary—an informality that was out of character.
After about seven weeks at Yoshino, Inc., I walked into Gary’s office to hand him a fax. Mrs. Tomine was out for the morning, so I knocked on his door. He yelled for me to come in, but when I walked into his office, the lights were off. I stood in the doorway, uncertain how to proceed. Gary called out from under his desk. “What do you need?” I took a few steps but didn’t get too close. “I just have a fax for you to sign. Should I leave it on your desk?” He edged his head out from under the desk and squinted at me. “No. I’ll sign it.” I waited for him to roll out from underneath, but when it became clear that he wasn’t going to, I walked over, reached for a pen, and crouched down to hand him the paper. The underside of Gary’s desk was roomy and open on three sides, but it was still awkward to see him on the carpet, holding the paper up against the underside of the desk. He signed the fax with a wobbly flourish and said, “Got a doozy of a migraine, but there’s a meeting in an hour. Don’t forget the coffee.” He seemed so comfortable on the ground. It occurred to me that Mrs. Tomine must have been used to negotiating with Gary in this position. We forgive our supervisors their eccentricities until we no longer find 13
them odd. That must be one of the greatest benefits of being a boss— others must treat you as if you’re normal, even when you’re not. The meeting Gary mentioned led to my first failure. My relationship to coffee had been much less fraught before I started at Yoshino, Inc. Gary taught me how to use the French press. This was more involved than you would imagine because not only did I have to heat the water to 197.6 degrees (there was a digital thermometer attached to the electric kettle), but after I had waited the appropriate length of time to allow the coffee to “bloom” and plunged the filter, I had to make sure that the nearly full cups were arranged on the tray with the cream and packets of sweetener and carry the whole thing into the conference room without spilling a drop. Then I had to dismantle the French press filter and wash and dry each piece because Gary claimed the coffee tasted “muddy” otherwise. That day’s meeting involved some men from the Tokyo office. They came in bearing gifts, which Mrs. Tomine accepted with the appropriate etiquette. I felt grateful that she had returned from her morning appointment by then. I was busy in the kitchen preparing the coffee. Since this was a special meeting, I placed a paper doily on the orange tray. Everything was perfect—even the sugar and artificial sweeteners were arranged by color—but then I made my faux pas. When I entered the conference room, I set the tray down and handed each person his cup and saucer. Then when I arrived at the head of the table, I paused next to Mr. Tanaka, the head of the New York office, and asked if he would like milk and sugar. He thrust his head back to look at me in confusion. Gary saw the incident, and half rising from his seat he said, “That will be all, Miss Colby.” I left the room with the tray and hurried back to the kitchen to begin washing the French press. Gary came into the narrow room and grasped my elbow before pulling me to his side so he could whisper in my ear. If he had shouted at me it would have been less chilling than the curt, icy voice that hissed in my ear. “Miss Colby. Your job is very simple. You bring us coffee. You do not speak. You do not exist. You are like a ghost. Do you understand?” I swallowed and nodded my head. Gary relaxed his grip somewhat. “You have to understand. This is how Japanese do business. There is a hierarchy. While you are here you will do things in the proper manner.” Then he released my arm, and in a normal speaking voice he said, “In ten minutes come into the room—silently—and retrieve the cups.” 14
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I was nervous when I walked back inside the conference room, but I knew not to knock on the door. I silently moved around the table, starting with Mr. Tanaka and ending with Gary. I walked back out on my silent rubber soled shoes. I felt small and I stared at the closed door where the men sat, having drunk the coffee that I prepared. I wondered how much of what was expected of me at Yoshino, Inc. was indeed the Japanese business culture, and what was simply Gary’s own design. The more I thought about it—the indignity of a white man instructing me on how to be more Japanese—the angrier I became. I seethed and I made sure to give each man a cold look as they exited the room. Some seemed startled, but Gary didn’t notice. He had his head down when he walked past me to go to his own office.
I spent most of my lunch hours at the public library nearby, walking up and down the stacks, fingering the books, thinking about my hopeful future as a librarian at any one of the quirky specialty libraries semihidden amongst the commerce and bustle of the city like mushrooms at the base of a tree. Which makes what happened next more unlikely. I met a young man on my way back from the library. I was carrying a stack of books, and he was sitting on a short granite wall outside a tall office building, eating his lunch, when he stopped me. He asked me what I was reading. It was as simple as that. I shifted the books to one arm and checked my watch. I had ten minutes to spare, so I showed him my books. I had several, but when he saw Donald Barthelme’s 60 Stories he nodded his approval, took it out of my hands, and thumbed through the pages. He looked up and said, “Let’s read this one together.” After he handed the book back to me he reached into his suit and pulled out his wallet. I watched his bent head of curly brown hair as he wrote down his personal e-mail address and messaging account name. “I spend my day up there researching SEC filings and other financial bullshit. I’m bored out of my skull, so let’s cheer each other up.”
I ran my thumb against the embossed letters of his name on the card. It was Ethan Everly. I looked at him, and though his head was too large for his thin frame, his confidence made him handsome. I didn’t have a card of my own so I wrote my name and information on a napkin. He studied it and gave me a quizzical look. “Colby?” I told him it was my father’s name. “But you can call me Stephanie.” He smiled. “Sorry. I just thought maybe you were married. Didn’t expect that. Colby.” Nobody does, really, seeing my Korean face. My father has a new wife, in New Hampshire, and a son that looks just like him. My mother considers this unfortunate. She says, “The best thing about adopting you was knowing you didn’t have the Colby family’s faulty genes.” She only started saying that after the divorce. I used to wish for a different face whenever these small confusions occurred, but now I wish people had more imagination.
My communication with Ethan was playful, but innocent. We really did discuss the Barthelme book, and several others. I was tired of my solitary days and craved company. I thought we could meet for lunch, but Ethan always said he was tied to his desk. “That was an anomaly, me sitting on that wall. Meeting you was fate. It makes the days fly by.” Though I wanted to suggest that we get a drink after work, I always lost my courage. I tried not to wonder why he never suggested it himself. My last failure happened on a Wednesday— payday at my temp firm. I picked up my checks from the Graybar building on Lexington Avenue. There’s a story in 60 Stories that takes place there. It’s attached to Grand Central Station, and the architect must have had a sense of humor because there are stone rats scampering up the brass braces holding up the awning over the front doors. The stone made the rats seem regal, but it was still an uncomfortable reminder of the scurrying and conniving underneath our feet.
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I was sitting at my desk, sorting some mail, when I heard a soft ping from my computer. It was a message from Ethan. It started out benignly enough. He wanted to know what I thought of the short story in that week’s New Yorker. After I finished sorting the mail and distributed it to various inboxes, I wrote that I thought the story was competent but bland. Well, Ethan must have been in a mood because he began asking me what I was wearing. I looked down at myself. I was wearing an “oatmeal” colored sweater, but when I conjured Ethan’s handsome face from our brief meeting those weeks prior, I decided not to tell him I was wearing a frumpy sweater. I told him I was wearing a turquoise silk dress. Then I added that it had an empire waist, though in real life, with my large breasts and pear shaped body, an empire waist makes me look pregnant. But this was not real life; it was the Internet. He wrote back, “Really? To the office? Sounds sexy.” Instead of responding with text, I sent a winking smiley face. I was trying to be saucy. Then it devolved, as you can imagine. I asked him what he was wearing, and he wrote, “Black tie, to escort you to the ball.” I wrote, “But I thought you were a pirate.” “I am, but I’m wearing my brass tipped wooden leg. It’s my ‘dress’ leg.” See—we were playful, but eventually, amidst all the silliness, a humid musk descended upon our chat. We began engaging in cybersex, at work. We left the dance after many searing, longing looks across our imaginary ballroom. Once we’d finally reached one of the bedrooms on the upper floor, we were naked, and Ethan was taking me in the way I had fantasized about ever since stumbling upon a blue movie on late night cable—against the wall, my legs around his narrow waist. This was quite a feat since Ethan was supposed to have a peg leg. After our mutual climax, Ethan broke in to declare a break back to reality. “I need to go to the men’s room ASAP. BRB.” 17
Gary walked out of his office, and I quickly minimized the chat window and shuffled some papers on my desk. I hadn’t neglected my work; I’d made sure to multi-task, but my heart beat fast. “The agency called. They finally found a girl.” I smiled with my teeth, which was always how my mother knew I was lying. I didn’t enjoy working at Yoshino, Inc., but I dreaded being sent somewhere worse. “Does she start tomorrow?” Gary cleared his throat. I waited for him to answer my question. “I’m sorry, Miss Colby, but I felt it was my duty to inform your agency how you’ve spent the last two hours.” My face burned. I made a wheezing sound, but I couldn’t say anything. Gary pointed to the computer. “Didn’t you realize that we monitor all computer use?” At that moment I couldn’t even wheeze. I just thought—he’s been watching me the entire time. I didn’t know where to look. I felt caught in a trap. He leaned over the high face of my receptionist’s desk, as if he was trying to climb over so he could sit in my lap. He put his face close to mine and whispered in my ear, “I was considering asking Mr. Tanaka to keep you. I grew to like you because you take direction well, but now I know what you really are. You’re such a disappointment to me.” I pushed my chair back so I could get as far away from him as possible. He sounded so cold, but his hand on my desk trembled from barely suppressed emotions. Then Gary straightened up, and in his normal voice he said, “Your rep asked me to tell you to report to her, immediately.” I looked at the clock. It was 4:23.
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Gary handed me a yellow slip of paper. It was the time sheet he signed each week. “You’ll need to deliver this to the agency if you want to be paid for these last few days.” As easily as he thought he had possessed me, he dismissed me. I took the sheet and then turned away. Without a word, I walked back toward the coat closet and saw Mrs. Tomine at her desk. She had the slightest hint of a smile on her face, and her eyebrows were raised. I didn’t think she could do that. Still, true to form, she didn’t say a word. I left the office without a sound. No one acknowledged me. It was like I had never been there at all. I called my agency from a pay phone on the street. The receiver felt sticky in my hand, and as I waited to be connected to my rep, I looked around me at the dirty sidewalk. Everything was filthy. My rep, Kathleen, who normally sounded cheery, if busy, chewing her gum like it helped her think faster, was brusque. “You’re fired. Come pick up your check. And no, I’m not giving you a reference.”
Cybersex is a firing offense, in case you didn’t realize that. I consider myself a naïve victim of our new technology. Ethan felt bad about what happened. He considered it a cautionary tale. “That was a mistake,” he wrote. “I shouldn’t have done that.” “It wasn’t just you,” I wrote back. I was trying to let him off the hook, trying to let him know I didn’t blame him for getting fired. “Things are complicated,” he replied. “I shouldn’t have stopped you in the street.” Here’s a truth about library school—you don’t go there to meet a man. I thought I’d gotten lucky when Ethan stopped me on the street. It could have been a great story we told other couples over dinner. In my loneliness, I had overlooked the obvious. 19
I wrote, “I’m glad you stopped me.” He repeated, “Things are complicated. It was a mistake.” When I didn’t immediately respond, he added, “I’m sorry.” I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t a mistake, that I’m real, but on the Internet it’s easy to pretend that people don’t exist, that they aren’t real. I felt a flash of anger. I typed into the little message window, “You’re such a disappointment to me.” I regretted it. I wondered if those words gave Gary any satisfaction. They just made me feel pathetic. When I replayed Gary’s words in my head, my body prickled with waves of shame, and I hated him for making me feel that way. I didn’t wait for Ethan’s apology or his indignation. I didn’t want to hear what I already knew—that there was someone else, that I had only been a diversion, a virtual game of footsie, nothing more. I closed the window and turned off my computer. I applied to other agencies and was working within a week. I looked forward to graduation and finding a job in a library—somewhere people didn’t think I was the punch line to a joke. Even if I am near Grand Central Station, I avoid the Graybar Building, but I imagine those stone rats are still scurrying up the brass braces, just as they are in real life, always lurking, always hungry, always multiplying.
Adalena Kavanagh is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her story, “Oblivious,” is available in Stumble Magazine. She is online at http://adalenakavanagh.blogspot.com.
ISSUE 12 | SPRING 2012
MINNESOTA NICE Aruni Kashyap
On his first day in America, Himjyoti didn’t mind when his new roommate took him to the bathroom, shut the door, and showed him how to lock it. “Push and turn,” he said and then pulled the knob to show that it was locked. “Now push, hold for a sec, turn, and then pull,” he said, opening the door. “Why don’t you do it now?” Mike said. Himjyoti copied him, nervous. He was terrible with doorknobs. A few years ago, when he had gone to consult a doctor with his father in India, he had locked himself in the bathroom at the doctor’s chamber. It was a little away from the main portico where the patients were sitting, drowned in the smell of Dettol antiseptic—the phenol cleansing solution used to scrub the floor and smelly feet of people who must have spent an entire day in their offices before reaching there. Trapped in the bathroom, Himjyoti had banged furiously on the door for a long time. But no one had turned up. By the time he heard his father’s voice, he had already imagined what would happen to him in that dingy bathroom after four days. He had imagined everyone leaving, his father looking for him in the streets and then filing a complaint at the police station, but never bothering to check on him in the bathroom. Finally, the doctor had to come out, leaving a patient sprawled on the examination table. In front of the bathroom, he spoke loudly, instructing Himjyoti again and again, until he walked out of the bathroom. He hugged his father and cried. He was in his eighth class then. He was too embarrassed about crying like that later. His father tried to smile, to ease the situation. He was clearly embarrassed. Yet, he wanted to protect the nervousness of his forever-nervous, oversensitive son. But Himjyoti had always been a paranoid person. Since he was scared to sleep under mosquito nets, his parents had to buy chemical repellents, to his grandmother’s dismay who believed it reduced the lifetime of a person. In his hometown in India, they lived in a safe, protected
apartment complex. It was old, with moss sprouting from its walls like green, dwarfed grass from fields just after first rain. Once, when his mother had latched the main door to go out for a walk, preferring not to wake him up because he was sleeping inside his room after school, he’d panicked so much after waking up that he ended up calling up the cops that someone had locked him in and that he was probably about to be killed. They had alerted the security agency that guarded their neighborhood. By the time his mother had returned with vegetable bags in both her hands and with droplets of sweat sparkling on her forehead, he had nearly fainted in fear. He was panicked thinking what he would do if the house was on fire suddenly. The cops rang the doorbell soon after she had arrived. People have strange phobias. People laughed at perfectly normal Himjyoti’s phobias, and he even participated. So he listened to his new American roommate, Mike, diligently. He didn’t want to get locked in the bathroom. He knew that in the U.S. people didn’t drop in unannounced to discover a locked person like the quaint Indian neighborhood he had grown up in. Before coming, his Indian friends who studied here had told him about the choking loneliness. About the lack of social comfort. Absence of the kind of friend who would go with you to Cub Foods even when he had work to finish. He didn’t know why people back home agreed to accompany each other to grocery shops, to newspaper stands, to have a cup of tea—why they adjusted so much for each other. The girls even went to the loo in groups. One or two always waited outside. But he didn’t think it was “cultural,” as his American roommate later said one day. “No, it’s not cultural, Mike,” Himjyoti had corrected him. “That’s how things are in India. We just like to be with people. It’s different if you are a recluse by nature.” On the first day, Himjyoti’s new American roommate with dark hair had actually come to pick him up from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Himjyoti’s friend Zutimala, who studied in Boston, told him that settling down in America was like digging a tunnel through the bed of the Atlantic Ocean from the Bay of Bengal with only a pick-axe. She told him she had heard of only Indians doing such favors for newly arrived 22
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Indians, not Americans. Himjyoti had told her that he had heard people in Minnesota were nicer than people on the west and the east coasts. “Good for you,” she’d said, in an unconvinced tone. “But make sure you make some Indian friends.” She laid stress on “Indian.” “They are the ones who would really take care of you, come to you when you have fever. Your American friends would just leave xoxos in your inbox, ‘get well soon’ and ‘we miss you’ on your Facebook wall, because they are scared of germs. They aren’t like us who will sit beside you when you have fever and cold. Moreover, it’s a nation afraid of germs. Go watch Contagion when it is released.” She said “your American friends” in the same tone that little children used to tease each other, singing yellowyellow-dirty-fellow. While Mike was driving Himjyoti from the airport on the first day, he told Himjyoti that he had a lot of “South Asian friends” since his girlfriend was “South Asian.” When he’d asked Mike which country she was from, what language did she speak, Mike couldn’t tell him. Cheerfully, he said how she cooked “South Asian food during weekends” and that he loved “daaaaaaaal.” The word “dal” sounded odd in Mike’s tongue, somewhat cute. It made the everyday dal so wonderful and lovely and amazing and special that he didn’t want to correct his pronunciation because he liked listening to the amusing way Mike pronounced it. Himjyoti was pleased to find that Mike’s girlfriend was from India. Her father worked in the military, so she had grown up in a major or minor city in every part of India: Delhi, Srinagar, Coimbatore, Cherapunjee, Darjeeling, Ambala, Jalandhar, Thiruvananthapuram, Chandigarh, Kolkata, Pasighat. She spoke Tamil fluently because she went to high school in Chennai. She could make momos because she studied in Darjeeling before enrolling in college and had “lots of Nepali friends.” She firmly believed that Sunil Shetty was the sexiest man in the world. Her name was Neelakshi Rai. After they had their first conversation (where she gushed about Sunil Shetty’s movies very often) on the first day, Himjyoti thanked her for making his bed, for writing the wonderful welcome note that was pasted on his room’s door in blue and red sketch pens.
A week later, Neelakshi hadn’t laughed out loud when he locked himself in the bathroom and screamed, “Neelakshi, Neelakshi!!” She tried to help. She kept saying “push, keep in for a while, and now pull” a couple of times until he turned out of the bathroom terrified, in his black briefs. Embarrassed, he went back in immediately. But he didn’t turn the highly complicated knob. He just shut the door until it stuck on the frame tightly. When he’d finally come out, dressed, drying his hair with a towel, he wasn’t annoyed because Mike had laughed at his situation. Himjyoti knew how foolish he was to have himself locked up in the bathroom. But he didn’t like when Mike asked him, laughing, whether there were such sophisticated bathrooms in India at all. “This isn’t a sophisticated bathroom! And of course there are though I don’t really know what do you mean by sophisticated bathroom because this one has all that my own has except a bathtub because none of us like bathing in tubs. I am not very comfortable with any kind of gadgets. I still don’t have a smart-phone you know and I want to get a new camera such as a DSLR, but I just don’t dare to.” Himjyoti couldn’t understand why he was so defensive. So apologetic. Since he couldn’t understand why, it annoyed him. He was further annoyed when Mike asked him, with a polite smile on his face, if people used smart-phones in India, and if computers were popular at all, with a curious expression in his eyes that showed that he was genuinely interested. Himjyoti wondered if the expression was too genuine, too polite. Neelakshi remained silent, ignoring Himjyoti’s surprised look that probably meant, “Haven’t you told him anything about India?” She was looking away, as if she wasn’t hearing the conversation at all. That night, at dinner, they talked about home. Neelakshi said how she missed cooked food, how she was bored of eating frozen items. Himjyoti added that he would soon go to Target and buy all the utensils so that he would be able to cook. Neelakshi said he should buy from Walmart because it was cheaper there. “I LOOUUUVE south Asian food,” Mike said cheerfully, loudly. Actually, too loudly, too cheerfully.
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When Himjyoti corrected him that “South Asian food” is a very vague term, Mike didn’t look pleased at all but rather asked him what was wrong with that: “Aren’t you South Asian?” Himjyoti laughed, asked him how would feel if he called him a “north American” or “northern hemispherian.” Mike said in a slightly peevish tone that it “didn’t make any sense” and “you shouldn’t mind it because Africans don’t mind being called Africans.” Himjyoti cleaned his plate slowly. Moving towards the sink, he said that he didn’t mind. He was only asking Mike to be more precise. Mike pretended he didn’t hear. Neelakshi said, “Jeez, you know Anna didn’t say hi to me today?” A strange lilt in her speech. Like a drunken man talking to unresponsive passers-by for no reason. “Jeez, how rude! Did she at least smile?” Mike asked.
Himjyoti started cooking only after a month, when he was bored of eating pizzas and frozen food, after his mother lectured him long about the benefits of healthy home-cooked meals. When his grandmother grabbed the phone to repeat the same series of orders, sprinkled with retro Assamese-proverbs, he told his grandmother that he would go over his minutes. She didn’t understand. “What do you mean?” When he explained, she barked out at him, “WHAT? DON’T YOU HAVE TIME TO TALK TO YOUR GRANDMOTHER?” “Aaita, please, we have been speaking for about an hour.” She disconnected the phone only when he promised to cook food at home and return to India as the same “healthy boy we had brought up.” Later, his mother called him again. She asked him about his friends and roommates, worried they would “exploit” him. “What do you mean, Ma?” He was peeved. “Will they make me work in the factory and take all my earnings?” 25
She said she was worried because he was too simple, because he gave up too easily. “Well,” he snapped. “I won’t be able to survive if I let people take advantage of me.” His mother didn’t cry that night, the way she had cried the night before leaving, recounting how he had lived all his life in Assam and how he was leaving right after secondary school for so far away suddenly. When he’d cooked the first time, the three of them ate together. Mike had said how much he loved South Asian food (too loudly) and Neelakshi had gasped, saying, “So good, so good.” Himjyoti wondered why Neelakshi couldn't tell him frankly that the chicken wasn’t too good. The preservative in the Great Value minced garlic had given it a different taste and smell that he hated. He ate less than usual. Mike expressed his love for South Asian food for the last time (too cheerfully) before dumping his plate on the sink. Neelakshi showed him how he could save the food in boxes and heat them up to eat later. She suggested he should cook not more than twice a week to save time.
Mike and Neelakshi had gone to their home in Owatonna because it was a long weekend of three days. When they were packing, Himjyoti noticed the red backpack, the rolled-up laundry, the spices that Neelakshi was carrying to cook Indian dishes. He teased her that she was visiting to “do bahuraani duty” and impress her would-be in-laws. When both of them laughed, Neelakshi explained to Mike that “bahuraani” meant daughterin-law. The whole house to himself, Himyoti played music in his stereo. He sat on the living room most the time, something he couldn’t do because he felt uncomfortable when Mike and Neelakshi sat there, groping each other, smooching. It made his cheeks warm and ears hot. It embarrassed him. Worried—what would his parents think if they knew about it— though there was no chance of such a thing to happen. Over the last few weeks, he felt they didn't like when he sat in the living room or the dining table, a little away from the couch where they’d sit, looking at each other’s eyes. He couldn’t decide if Neelakshi disliked it 26
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more than Mike. Neelakshi didn’t have a graduate assistantship like Mike since she was an undergradShe worked late ‘til night at a shelter home. She slept probably only three, four hours a day. He wondered how she functioned, how she managed to wake up just half an hour before Mike returned from his second job at nine in the evening so that she could take a bath, put on make-up, change into a new dress, and wait for him on that couch. Sometimes, she called him up to ask what would he like to eat. She’d keep the cheese melted for him, place the pizza in the oven so that all he had to do was to switch off the oven and pull out the gloves that she’d already taken out from the drawers and placed on the desk. When Mike was too tired, he would say, stretching the words, “Aww, can you please bring it here?” He made that request often. She always brought the food out for him. She ate very little. She also used very few dishes because it was she who washed the dishes every day—dishes that Mike rarely did but piled up on the sink one by one until all the dishes in the house were used up. He made a face when washing the dishes, holding them like fragile crystal dolls. Neelakshi teased him that he wasn’t holding a small bird in his hand, that he had to rub the steel-scrubber hard. Like a little baby, Mike would whine, “Show it to me, again, daaarrrlinggg.” After she’d start showing him how, Mike never said, “Let me try.” He waited for her to finish all the dishes. She did them, demonstrating how to wash, how he should scrub hard, not like caressing the cheeks of a little girl. Sometimes, Himjyoti felt sorry for Neelakshi, especially when he recalled the conversation he’d had with her in the second week when she’d said her life would be destroyed if Mike didn’t marry her because she’d have to return to the dust and grime of India and work in cities she didn’t want to live in once her visa expires. He didn’t ask her how her life would be destroyed if some guy refuses to marry her. But Himjyoti had just told her not to worry. He told her that Mike will surely marry her now that everything had been set up for next year: the hall, the wedding gown, the cards, the dates. And the four tubes of Fair and Lovely she had requested Himjyoti bring along once it was decided that he would be their roommate. He had contacted them through Craiglist. 27
When they returned from Owatonna, Mike didn’t greet him the way he usually did, the way Himjyoti was now accustomed to. While heating his lunch, Mike told him that he should open the sliding door that led to the patio when he cooked. He moved his hands a lot when he said that. His voice was a bit restrained. But he moved his hands a lot. A lot. At a certain moment, Himjyoti thought Mike would break into a dance while speaking. He felt Mike was trying too hard to make the conversation as casual as chatting about the security deposit they made to their landlord. Or about the bathroom knob. Later, inside the room, he heard an argument. Bits of sentences were audible—too audible. Mike was saying loudly to Neelakshi that he would have to cancel the invitation now. Neelakshi said it was his idea to send around that bleep on Craiglist. The strange lilt in her tone was sharp now, slightly peevish. Mike went out of the house in a huff, with creases on his forehead, but he returned quickly. Maybe he’d gone to Walmart because he now had a Lysol Neutra Air Sanitizing Spray in his hand, new and unpacked. He didn’t acknowledge Himjyoti having his lunch at the dining table. He went around the living room, kitchen, and dining room (where Himjyoti was eating) with a frown on his lips and sprayed. “Sorry, this is not toxic. and I made sure I didn’t spray it near you. Actually we have guests coming in about a few hours so we need to get rid of the smell.” Himjyoti said it’s all right, but he didn’t feel like finishing his meal—the chicken he’d cooked by standing near the stove for two hours so that he could go back home as the same healthy boy that his mother and grandmother had brought him up as. The daal that Mike loved so much. That he pronounced so wonderfully. He felt as if someone had sneezed on his food. After clearing his white china plate, he moved to his room slowly and stayed there all day, reading. In the evening, when he’d come out to make some tea so that he didn’t fall asleep and could read more, he saw Glamour magazine spread on the dining table. “29 things to do with a naked man” and “Get your wonder bra today!” the cover said, authoritatively. As if women should commit suicide if they didn’t get a wonder bra. In the evening, two of Mike’s friends came. 28
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From his bedroom, Himjyoti heard Mike apologizing. “We have a new roommate, an Indian, sorry about the smell.” He heard a female voice, “Oh, it’s cultural.” Mike said, “He will learn. We will also learn to adjust.” Himjyoti wondered exactly what wonder bras were. He thought about the way Mike pronounced dal on the first day, when he had driven him from the airport, telling him about the winter here. He wondered what could be the twenty-nine things a woman could do with a naked man and smiled to himself.
Aruni Kashyap is a writer and translator. His fiction has previously appeared in Pratilipi, Tehelka Magazine, The Houston Literary Review, Himal Southasian and Evergreen Review. The House With a Thousand Novels, his first novel set in India’s northeastern state of Assam, will be published by Penguin (India) in 2012. He attends the MFA program at Minnesota State University Mankato.
THE CHINK SHOP Tony D’Souza
I had big hair when I was a kid, kept a black plastic comb in the back pocket of my jeans, rocked out to Van Halen and Mötley Crüe on my Walkman until the songs would get slow and strange. For a second, I wouldn’t know what was happening. I’d notice the sidewalk elms, how they were swaying; it was like the world around me wasn’t real. Then I’d figure out the batteries had run down, which always ticked me off. Batteries were expensive and I never had any money; it meant I’d have to steal a new set from the chink shop, something I hated doing. The skinny chink who ran the place kept an eye on us. If he spotted you shoplifting, he wouldn’t call the cops; he’d leap over the counter, grab you by the collar, slam you up against the wall. You’d crap your pants that he was going to slit your throat, which everybody said he’d do. But he’d just curse in your ear, go through your pockets, take back his things. There was a Walgreens right around the corner; you knew if you got caught over there, you’d be in trouble. But stealing from the chink shop didn’t feel that way. They sold all the same stuff Walgreens did except everything was crammed into two messy aisles. If you ever needed anything, you wouldn’t even bother looking for it; you’d ask the lady and she’d point where it was. If you still couldn’t find it, she’d start barking like mad until you did. She was always sweeping and cleaning up the aisles while her husband sat on his stool behind the counter, smoking cigarettes, reading a chink newspaper with his watery eyes. They never said anything nice to anyone, and everybody hated the way they did their business. Take stamps, which even my mother, who might as well have been a nun for how she followed the rules, got ticked about. Everyone knew the price of stamps was set; all you had to do was go to the Post Office. But nobody ever wanted to wait in line at the Post Office, so they’d run into the chink shop, where they charged a nickel more. My mother would complain about it when she’d come back to the car where she’d left us kids waiting. She’d shake her head and say, “A nickel extra a stamp? And not even a thank you afterward? Where do those people think they are?”
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The chink shop was in our downtown, where there was also the Plush Pup hot dog stand, the 7-Eleven that sold gas, and the bar with the Cubs’ flag flying outside. Real downtown was all the way in on the El where the skyscrapers were and where we’d go as a family once or twice a year to walk around at the Taste of Chicago in the summer, or to see the lights changing colors in Buckingham Fountain. But growing up in Park Ridge, downtown Chicago felt as far away as the moon. Our downtown was six blocks from our house, and if you wanted anything, you had to go there. The chink shop was in the middle of everything important in our lives. The weirdest thing about the chinks was, they had this daughter named Mae. She carried the garbage out to the alley, so we’d see her now and again when we’d be smoking back there. One of the guys would shout, “Chinese! Japanese! What are these?” and pull his eyes into slits and grab his tits, and someone else would shout, “Ching Chong Chinaman sitting on a fence trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents. Hey Mae, say something in chink! Fu Manchu! Hong Kong! Kung fu!” Then we’d karate chop each other and fall around laughing. Nobody knew where Mae went to school, or how old she was, not even after what went on and happened that summer. I hadn’t even known she was pretty until Tom Lynch told us his dad had asked him if he knew her one day. They’d been down in their basement, and Tom’s dad had been drinking. When Tom had said, “Nuh uh, how come?” his dad had said, “She’s pretty. Gooks can be pretty when they’re young.” Tom’s dad—all our dads—drank a lot; they all had some kind of bar in their basements. You’d have thought basements would have been the perfect places for kids to hang out, maybe even have their own rooms when they got old enough. But no way, the basements belonged to our dads, and going down there meant spending time with them. Our dads could get on your nerves because you never knew what kind of mood they were going to be in. They could be watching the Cubs, and the Cubs could be winning for a change, and your dad would pat the cushion beside him on his couch and say, “Come and watch the game with your old man.” Then you’d get stuck sitting next to the big body of your tired old man, and he’d start asking you questions like, “You hanging around with that Lang kid?” which none of us were supposed to do. Michael Lang’s dad had been in Vietnam, and while a lot of our dads had been in Vietnam, Michael Lang’s dad had been sent down in the tunnels over there that the gooks had built to hide in. The tunnels were dark and narrow and full of snakes and rats, my mother had told me. And because 31
Michael Lang’s dad was small, he was the one who had to go in them after the gooks. “Then what would happen?” I’d asked my mother the time she’d gotten to talking about it. We’d been sitting at the kitchen table, my dad not home yet from his insurance sales calls, my sister, Allie, already in bed. The windows had been open because it had been summer; my mother had been sipping a can of Old Style, listening to her George and Gracie show on the radio. She’d puffed her Pall Mall and told me, “Then he’d have to kill them.” “Kill who?” “The enemy. The Viet Cong.” “How would he kill them?” “He’d shoot them.” “And they wouldn’t kill him back?” “He’d crawl out. Then the other men would throw grenades down there and the tunnels would collapse.” My mother knew all that because when the Langs first came and bought the house four doors down from ours, she and the other mothers went over with food to make friends with Mrs. Lang. And because Michael was my age, my mom had wanted me to be friends with him, too. But the time she’d taken me with her, I’d picked up Michael’s rubber band gun that his dad had carved for him, and even before I’d had a chance to shoot it, Michael had ripped it out of my hands and shouted, “What are you doing? Don’t you ever touch my stuff!” Then his mom had said, “Michael! Are you stupid? Why are you always so stupid?” and smacked him in the back of the head in front of us. That same kind of thing happened to everyone else who went there, so as soon as the Langs had moved in, their house was off-limits. Anyway, with our dads and our basements, it could start out all right down there. For a second you’d think it would be like when you’d been a kid on Friday nights and your old man would tell you to grab a bunch of pillows and blankets and throw them down the stairs, that you were going to have a campout. And you’d do that, I mean, my sister Allie and I 32
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used to do that with our dad all the time. We’d get excited, hurry and grab our stuff off our beds. Then there’d be a big soft pile at the bottom of the basement stairs, and our dad would say, “Come on, jump! I’m right here. You can’t get hurt.” At first, we’d only do it from the bottom steps, but little by little we made it to the top and would leap the whole flight. Our mom hated it, she’d always cross her arms up in the doorway and say, “Somebody’s going to break their necks.” My dad would always shout back at her, “You think I’d hurt my own kids?” We’d lay out the blankets, watch Friday Night Videos with him. Sometimes we’d stay down there the whole weekend in our pajamas. Anyway, when you’d get stuck in the basement with your dad, it mostly started out all right because you knew better than to go down there in the first place if they were in bad moods. Your dad would grin and say, “Come on and watch the game.” But no matter how it started, it always ended up bad. Pretty soon he’d be asking, “Who are you hanging out with? Where do you go after school?” Then he’d crack another can and the next thing you knew, it would be, “You a faggot? Why you wear your goddamn hair like that?” You wouldn’t say anything, and he’d slap you in the back of the head. When you didn’t cry, he’d say, “All right. Go do whatever it is you do. Get the hell out of here.” So for how the basements should have been with the bars and neon beer signs and dart boards and old couches, they were our dads’, and going down into them was like stepping in the lion’s den. So Tom Lynch had gotten caught in his basement by his dad one day, and his dad had said, “What? You don’t think she’s pretty?” and Tom had said, “No way,” and Tom’s dad had said “Why not? You a faggot?” and Tom had said, “She’s a gook.” Then Tom’s dad had hit him in the back of the head and said, “What do you know about it? They’re pretty when they’re young.” Then Tom had come and found us where we were smoking cigarettes at the bench in the Forest Preserve, and he’d said, “My dad says the chinks’ daughter is pretty.” We’d all looked around at each other because none of us had ever said that. Soon enough, we walked over to our downtown and went into the chink shop. Tom went up to the counter to ask if there were any condoms to distract the chink while the rest of us fanned out to take a look at Mae, who was always in the office in back when she wasn’t taking out the garbage. The office door had been open; Mae had been sitting at the desk in a yellow dress, writing in a notebook. Her hair was straight and glossy, her lips thick and full, her eyelashes long and pretty. When she noticed us, she shouted, “What are you dumb jerks looking at?” Then there was 33
yelling from the front of the shop. Pat Juris had tried to slip a pack of discount cigarettes into his pocket; the chink had spotted him; Pat had thrown the pack at him and run out, and so we all ran out and scattered as fast as we could. A few minutes later, we were behind the Pickwick Theater. Tom said, “So what do you think?” and nobody said anything because the first one who did usually got laughed at. It had been winter, dark and cold; it looked like we were smoking even though we weren’t. I shrugged and said, “Yeah, she’s kind of pretty.” I got ready for everyone to laugh, but before they could, Chip Collins said, “She is pretty,” and that was the end of it because Chip had fought Joe Salvatore behind the printing press without giving up the summer before when no one had thought anyone could fight Joe Salvatore and walk away. Then Mike Vaughn said, “Mae’s really pretty. She came over to our house one time.” Chip screwed up his face. “What did she come to your house for?” Mike looked down at his shoes. “My mom invited them over.” “Your mom invited the chinks to your house?” “Yeah.” “What’d your mom invite them to your house for?” “She said she felt bad for them.” “Why would she feel bad for them?” “They don’t have any friends.” “So they came to your house?” “Mae and her mom did.” “What did they do at your house?” “The lady can’t speak anything but chink. My mom had to talk to her through Mae.” “What’d they talk about?” “If they like it here.” 34
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Chip made a face. “If they like it here?” “Yeah.” “So do they like it here?” Mike shrugged. “The lady said yeah,” he told us. “Mae said no.”
After that for a while, I’d try to get a look at Mae every time I went into the chink shop, then I forgot all about it. All I was thinking about then was Mike Vaughn’s older sister Cathy. I knew I couldn’t let the guys know I liked someone’s sister; we’d be playing hockey at the outside rink, and I’d see Cathy figure skating across the way. She’d be wearing a white skirt, her blonde hair in a ponytail, doing one of those long spins. I wouldn’t even know I was staring until someone would check me and say, “Are you even playing, Saunders? What the heck’s wrong with you?” Anyway, one thing I’d figured out about my old man was that he hadn’t been in Vietnam and it bugged him. Every time the veterans would come marching down the street in their uniforms on the Fourth of July, there would be Tom’s dad and Chip’s dad and half of the other guys’ dads with the vets from Vietnam, and not only was my dad never with them, but he wouldn’t even come to the parade. So one of those times when I’d gotten caught in the basement with him and he’d started in about my hair, I’d said to him, “How come you didn’t go to Vietnam?” He’d gotten quiet, gulped his beer, sat back on his couch, and said, “Why? Somebody say something?” “No.” “Then why are you asking?” “Everybody else’s dad went to Vietnam.” My dad had stared at the TV. He’d said, “I was in college getting my degree so you can have the life that you do.” The thing we all knew without having to talk about it was that the dads who’d been in Vietnam were better than the dads who hadn’t been. It 35
was the parade, and the way our mothers talked when they didn’t think we were listening. Every year after the parade as we’d walk home, my mom would start talking about a couple guys she’d grown up with who had died over there. One of the guys had been named Skipper Thompson, and every time she’d talk about growing up with Skipper Thompson and how they played in the street outside their houses in the neighborhood near Wrigley where she’d grown up, she’d start to cry like she wasn’t crying. All these tears would be spilling down her face, but her voice would be like it always was. She’d say how she still couldn’t believe we’d gone over there, that she still couldn’t believe all the things we’d done there. The time I’d asked her, “What are all the things we did over there?” she’d told me, “We ruined everything over there, and every boy that we sent over there to do it.” When I’d asked, “What did we send them over there to do?” she’d looked at me like she was remembering I was there and said, “You know what? I don’t want to talk about it. They’ll teach you about it in school.” But they didn’t teach us about it in school; we had to figure it out on our own. We’d be smoking cigarettes by the bench in the Forest Preserves, nervously passing around a Playboy somebody had stolen from their dad. Then Tom would say to Chip, “Did your dad kill people over there?” and Chip would say, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure my dad did kill people over there.” Peter would say, “My dad killed people over there for sure,” and John Bennis would say, “My dad blew shit up over there in the Air Force.” Then they’d get into an argument over who killed more people over there, the Air Force or the Army, and what everyone figured out was that the guys in the Army had been better because they’d killed people face to face while the guys in the Air Force had only blown them up from the air. There were other veterans in our neighborhood, old men from World War II, guys who’d fought in Korea. You wouldn’t know who they were, and then you’d notice them in the parade in their uniforms and you’d see that the guy who ran the meat shop had been a soldier and the guy who ran the ice cream parlor had been a soldier. And Mr. Kapsalis, who’d always curse and spray us with his garden hose when he’d catch us running across his lawn, had been a soldier, and a couple of the guys who coached our Little League teams had been soldiers, too. Sometimes the coaches would make us all get down on one knee and tell us a story about the war to get us ready before a game. The stories always began, “When I was in Nam…,” and you’d stop listening because the story would
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always be about mud, and they’d end the story with, “…all right fellas, let’s keep our heads up and remember we’re a team.” Most of the time you didn’t think about who had or hadn’t been a soldier, because most of the time it didn’t matter. But the thing with Michael Lang’s dad was everybody talked about it because everybody said that having to go down in those tunnels was the reason he was crazy and why Mrs. Lang yelled so much. That Mrs. Lang yelled so much everybody in the neighborhood knew because even when she was inside her house, you could hear it on the street. Most of the time she was yelling at Michael, but the times she was yelling at Mr. Lang we all knew because Mr. Lang would burst out the front door, hop in his car, and peel away. My mother would always part the drapes in our front room to watch. She’d say out loud to herself, “Something’s going to happen. He’s going to run over someone’s kid.” We’d talk about them in the woods when we’d smoke, about Mr. and Mrs. Lang who none of our parents liked, and about Michael, who went to a special middle school for kids with problems. Chip would say, “He wore diapers until he was ten years old.” Tom would say, “My mom says Mrs. Lang’s always pissed off because Mr. Lang never talks.” And there was something else we all knew, but couldn’t ever say—the dads who’d been in Vietnam were worse than the dads who hadn’t been. Like Chip’s dad. One time when we were kids and climbing the purple maple in our front yard, Chip’s mom had called my mom and told her to tell Chip it was time to come home. My mom had come out and yelled that up into the tree, and Chip had said, “All right, Mrs. Saunders. I’m going right now.” There’d been a whole bunch of us in the tree that day; we’d started arguing about some dumb thing the way we always did: who’d win a fight between an elephant and a hippo, or a hippo and a tiger. Chip got in the middle of it, and he forgot to leave. The next thing we knew, Mr. Collins had driven his plumbing van right up onto the sidewalk. He didn’t yell; he scrambled up into the tree, grabbed Chip by the shirt, slammed him on the ground. He slapped Chip all the way across the lawn, and Chip hadn’t cried but just marched to the van like that kind of thing happened to him all the time. And we all knew Tom’s dad did stuff like that to him, and that John’s dad did stuff like that to him. What happened that summer before we started junior high was part of all of that, because what happened was Mae from the chink shop was 37
taking out the trash one afternoon and there was a car parked back there in the alley when usually there weren’t any. Somebody was sitting in that car, and that somebody was Mr. Lang. He stepped out when he saw her, made her get in with him. Then he drove them out from the city to somewhere nobody knew. We found out about it that evening because police cars pulled up at the Langs’ and everybody came out onto their porches to watch. My sister and I were with our mother and before we could ask anything, my mother said, “I knew this was going to happen. I knew I should have done something about that boy.” “What boy?” my sister asked. “Michael.” “What about him?” My mother said, “No child should have to live under that kind of abuse.” Mrs. Lang and Michael came out of their house; Mrs. Lang’s big pile of yellow hair was all messed up. She was clutching Michael, nodding at what the cops were saying. Then they went back into the house, and there were police cars on the street all night. Our phone kept ringing; my mother kept waving us away from the kitchen as she talked on it. When my dad came in, he loosened his tie, said to her, “What’s going on?” My mother set our dinner on the table. She said, “Somebody kidnapped the Chinese girl and Chris Lang made a phone call and they think it was him.” My dad glanced over at me and Allie. Then he made face at our mother and said, “What?” “Let’s all just sit down,” my mother told him. We had our dinner four doors down from what was happening, and my dad kept looking at my mother as he ate, and my mother kept watching me and Allie to make sure we ate, too. Halfway through the meal my dad said to her, “What Chinese girl?”
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“From the chink shop,” Allie butted in, and my parents shot her looks to let her know we didn’t say that. “The cigarette place?” my dad asked. “‘Famous Discount’,” my mother nodded. “They’re Chinese. They got out of Saigon. Supposedly, they have a son in school in Carbondale.” “How do you know all that?” “Jane Vaughn tried to get to know them.” “Jane Vaughn?” “She found out they were resettled in the city by a Christian group handling the boat people.” “What’re the boat people?” I’d said. My mother had looked at me. She’d said, “They came here from a refugee camp in Thailand. They had to have a new home.” “What’s a refugee camp?” Then my parents had looked at each other, and been quiet for the rest of the meal.
One time in the woods, I said to the guys, “My dad would have gone to Vietnam, but he had to go to college.” Pat and Tom had made faces. Pat had said, “My dad went to college.” Tom had said, “Mine did, too.” So I’d said that to my dad down in the basement, and he’d sat back on his couch, sipped his beer, run his fingers through his hair, and said, “Who keeps hassling you about this?” “Nobody’s hassling me.” “Then why do you keep bringing it up?” “Don’t know.” 39
My dad had sighed. He’d said, “Those guys went to college after they got back. The government paid for it to make up for sending them over there.” “Would you have had to kill people if you’d had to go over there?” My dad had looked at me. He’d shaken his head and said, “That’s what this is about? Your friends are saying their dads killed people? I know for a fact that their dads did not kill any people. I know for a fact that Sean Lynch spent the war on a supply ship, and I know Kevin Bennis spent the war changing tires. So if your friends are saying their dads killed people, you can tell them right from me I said their dads are liars.” “How do you know?” “You don’t think people talk? You don’t think we know what everybody else did? You know what the problem with those guys is? They lost. They all have a chip on their shoulder because they know the guys from Korea and World War II know that. If you want to know who killed people, just know all the guys in Korea and World War II killed people. Lots of people. But the fathers of your friends did not.” “Did Mr. Kapsalis kill people?” “You bet. He bombed Japan. Stay the hell away from him.” “What about Mr. Lang?” My dad had been quiet. Then he’d said, “Mr. Lang killed people. He’s the only one. He had to do things over there the rest of them can’t even imagine. That’s why they don’t talk to him. They know they’re full of shit whenever he’s around.” Then he added, “I’m surprised he hasn’t blown out his brains.” After that, I said to the guys in the woods, “Did we win or lose in Vietnam?” They all looked at each other and nobody said anything. Finally, Chip said, “My dad says we didn’t lose, that it was a more like a tie,” and Tom said, “My dad says we lost because of the hippies.”
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We stayed up all night the day Mr. Lang took Mae, listened from the top of the stairs as our parents talked about it in the basement. We heard ice cubes falling into glasses, the splash of liquor over them. My sister and I held our breaths as we sat there eavesdropping in the dark. Our father said, “Why would he have grabbed her?” Our mother said, “You know how they got over there about those women.” “You think he was having some kind of flashback?” “I think he must have been watching her and something must have snapped in him.” “Where do you think he’s taken her?” “They’ll find her body in the woods.” “And nobody saw it coming?” “I’ve been saying it since the day they moved in.” “What are the police doing?” “What can they do?” “And the Chinese people?” “Their Christians are with them.” They were quiet. My father said, “Want another one?” “I’ve had enough.” “Come on.” “All right. Just a finger.”
The liquor poured. Our father said, “They don’t live in that shop, do they?” “They put them in some tenement off Roosevelt and Racine.” Our father whistled. He said, “From one warzone to another.” Our mother said, “That’s Christian charity, isn’t it?” Later, my father said, “God, what a nag of a wife. Why couldn’t he have just killed her?” My mother said, “Imagine if it was one of ours?”
We met in the woods the next day, slipped out of our houses even though our mothers had told us stay close. Tom said, “My old man says he’d kill Mr. Lang if he could get his hands on him,” and John said, “My dad says he’ll only kill her after he’s gotten his fill of her first.” “Fill of her?” I’d said, and John had looked at me. He’d said, “Fucking her, man.” When I went home again, my mother was on the phone, smoking cigarettes at the kitchen table. She sprang up when she saw me like she was going to hit me, but she grabbed me and hugged me, and I apologized and went to my room. I listened to my Walkman on my bed. I didn’t hear the music but thought about Mae. I knew she was pretty; I knew that’s why he’d taken her. I wondered what it would be like to be pulled into a car. I wondered how I’d feel if it had been Allie. At church that Sunday, the priest said during the homily that we should all pray for Mae and her family, as well as for our war veterans. In the car afterward, my father said, “Can you believe he put that out on the table?” and my mother said, “It won’t stay there for long.” When Mr. Lang came home that night, we watched the police put handcuffs on him in the headlights of their cars. He looked small; he didn’t try to fight them. Mae’s body was found in a cornfield a couple of days later. Years afterward, my mother told me that the cornfield was 42
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near Quincy, in Southern Illinois on the Mississippi River, that Lang had kept the girl in a motel room there for one full night and one full day before he killed her. When I asked her if she knew what happened to the girl’s parents, she didn’t know. When I asked her what happened to Michael and his mother, she didn’t know that either. Anyway, after that, the chink shop was run by an Indian family, and they had a son who went to our school. When the teacher introduced him to us as Hari, none of us had ever heard a name like that. His hair was funny, his clothes smelled bad; we couldn’t understand anything he said. Our teacher told us we were going to be nice to him, and she didn’t say it like a question. At recess, Chip said, “Let’s call him Hari Dick.” So we called him Hari Dick. The chink shop we kept calling the chink shop even when we knew that wasn’t what it was called.
Tony D’Souza has contributed to The New Yorker, Playboy, Esquire, Granta, Mother Jones, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. He has published three novels with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the most recent of which, Mule (2011), was recently optioned for film by Warner Bros. He is a recipient of a Guggenheim, an NEA, an NEA Japan-Friendship Fellowship, and an O. Henry. His first novel, Whiteman (2006), received the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He grew up in Chicago and lives in St. Louis where he is a freelance journalist.
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Don't Be Alarmed I
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Don't Be Alarmed II
Blockies No. 1
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Ako Castuera lives in Los Angeles. She is an exhibiting artist and writes/draws storyboards for the animated television show, Adventure Time. Right now she wishes she were playing in the mud.
FOR KIYOKO, EPITAPH / CHIKAI Fredrick D. Kakinami Cloyd
Mama’s silent hand in mine we remember traverse history’s ten million wars. Her last breath passes through me survival’s constant fire. I
her Occupier’s baby
tremble in black yellow through tombs ancient colors falling bombs
Time after time Kiyoko becomes sword desire wounds rain.
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Fredrick Douglas Kakinami Cloyd is an independent scholar / writer / artist, who was born in Japan shortly after the US occupation of Japan officially ended. His African-American/Cherokee father was an occupation soldier in Korea and Japan while Fredrick's motherâ€”a Japanese/Chinese/Austro-Hungarian girl of the war-ruins was from an elite Japanese nationalist family. Transnational racisms and sexisms during the rise of US and Japanese global stature presents a foundation through which Fredrick weaves his stories of memory and family legacies for Black Pacific Social Justice. He received a masters degree in postcolonial/feminist-oriented social cultural anthropology and social transformation in San Francisco. He feeds his love of Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin foods, coffee, TV shows, music, movies and steam trains while being heartfully committed to expanding his manuscript and multimedia presentations entitled: Dream of the Water Children: A Black Pacific Memory Journal.
CROSSING THE TUMEN Jenna Kilic
Just over my shoulder, the border guards fight over who gets the last piece of meat as winter has its fill. Father, even though they murdered you, I want to run to them, to feed them with the little food you left for me. I am a dog, a traitor prostrating to make peace with these souls I cannot save. If not for you, I would not be here: that story you told me before passing of a man who parted a sea, saved his people. Father, I am not that man. You are all dead and that sea is frozen. Yet something more than hunger compels me. I strip my clothes, wrap them around a book you gave me. Never let them see this. Carry it as you have cared for me. I put the bundle on my head and dash across the ice, a skeleton escaping a world that even God could not forgive. The guards take aim, though do not fire. What stops them? You or He? Perhaps nothing.
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Jenna Kilic is a first-year MFA Creative Writing candidate at The Ohio State University. She received her BA in English and Theatre at The University of Florida. She is from North Fort Myers, FL and currently lives in Columbus, Ohio. Her publications can be found or are forthcoming in Damazine and Arcadia.
QUIET AMERICANS Hai-Dang Phan
We cocoon ourselves in blankets, grow attached to space heaters. The TV crackles like a fire. So my father and I watch it, eyes aglow. Unlike the nightly news, we can agree on the classic movies channel. When we last saw our protagonists, they had just escaped death by Communist bullets and taken refuge in a ditch beside the road, their abandoned car and the watchtower burning like twin signal fires. My father isn’t interested in the love triangle, political intrigue, whodunit, but seems spellbound by the pre-war aura flickering in the background: old Saigon in the rear projection of a car gliding on a strip of daylight; strangers stepping slowly, monochromatically into the street, then vanishing out of the frame; white shirts, silk ao dai, and straw hats catching the sun; light filtering down through Acacia trees into the shadows of the Rue Catinet. My father must have been seven or eight when this footage was being shot, as old as the schoolboys in the opening scene dazzled by the dragon dance. My father’s eyes run to meet some revelers streaming across the bridge, as fireworks sparkle and burn in the reflection of the river below, as snow mutes the noise of the world outside of our house. We never finish the movie. We know how it will end.
Hai-Dang Phan was born in Vietnam and raised in Wisconsin. He is an MFA student in poetry at the University of Florida and a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Asymptote, Lana Turner Journal, and NOÖ Journal.
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MY HEART. OPEN. Ira Sukrungruang
My father wanders. It is his nature. His wanderings are accidental. He is not the lone wolf type. Wanderers like that are predictable. You know they won’t stay long; you expect nothing from them. He is more like my cocker spaniels on a walk. Their attentive tails pointed like fingers, their noses hovering over the ground like veering wayward vacuums. This wandering nature is the reason he left Thailand and his first family. It is the reason he found his way to America, illegally. It is the reason he eventually left our family. One can only live so long this way. Eventually time catches up. Eventually what you left behind comes haunting back. Eventually you realize you don’t know where you are.
My father reappeared two years after the divorce, during the summer of 1995. I was back at home for summer break, working at a camera store to feed my nicotine habit and obsessive need to eat at Applebees. My mother answered the phone and then promptly dropped it on the kitchen table. “For you,” she said and walked out of the room. I knew instantly it was him. When I heard his voice, I laughed, the way my mother laughed at inappropriate moments, like funerals, the news of her father’s terminal illness, her lost dreams. This was another something we shared. With my father on the line, I laughed when I wanted so badly to say “fuck you” in a clear, crisp voice, my consonants clicking after the first word. “How have you been?” he said. “Good.” “In college?” “Yep.” “Studying hard?” 59
“Yep.” “How’s your mother?” “Good.” “I miss you,” he said. “Yeah.” “I want to know about your life.” “OK.” “Just OK?” “Yeah.” “Are you working?” “Yeah.” “Good money?” “Sure.” “I miss you.” “Good.” “I’m not working anymore.” “OK.” “My heart isn’t good.” “OK.” “Lay off.” “Yeah.” 60
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“They want to look at my heart,” he said. “Yeah.” “Open me up.” “OK.” “I won’t let them.” “Yeah.” “I don’t want to die.” “OK.” “You want to have lunch next week?” he said. No would have been the easiest answer. No, I could’ve said, because I have pushed you out of my mind, out of my life. No, because when I get drunk with friends I vilify you, curse you, say things I wouldn’t sober. No, because Mom and I did everything we could to erase all reminders of you in the house, all the clothes you didn’t take, your razor, your toothbrush, your fortune telling books, all thrown out. But no matter what we did, my father was there. He would always be there. His absence was a shadow over us all. “Sure,” I said. “You like duck. I remember how much you like duck. I know a place.” And next week came and I waited by the window for the station wagon. When it pulled up, I dashed to get into the car. Looking back at the house, I saw my mother at the window, her eye in the sliver of the curtain, and I knew she would be at that exact spot when I returned.
My dogs live by routine. They eat twice a day. Breakfast at seven and dinner at five thirty. In the hours between, they munch on Milkbones. Each day, they go through the dog door numerous times and see the 61
same yard, perhaps the same tormenting squirrel. They bark at the same neighbors, and mark the same places. Most of the day, they sleep in their favorite spots. They have become accustomed to this life, and if anything disrupts it—late dinner or the dog door closed because the lawn people are working outside—they stress. They wander restlessly from room to room. They bark at the slightest sounds. They stare unflinchingly at me, as if begging for me to make the world right again. The world wasn’t right. My father had come back, and we were sitting in a restaurant in Lemont staring at each other. He kept saying how much I’d grown, how I resembled my mother, how I needed a shave. He had taken me to an old school Chinese restaurant, where roast ducks and soy sauce chickens hung on hooks by their slender necks. Around us, people slurped giant bowls of noodle soup, shoved rice into their greasy mouths. The butcher blade thumped endlessly on meat. In large steel pots, broth boiled and bubbled. This was my favorite type of restaurant. I hated my father for knowing me well. I hated him even more for leaving us, for being unfaithful. I planned on telling him what I’d kept inside and asking him the questions I needed answered—Did you really cheat on Mom? Were we not good enough for you? Where were you for so long? But the man across from me, wearing a purple oxford I had outgrown in the sixth grade, wasn’t the same father. His shoulders slouched forward, his back bent as if he were flinching. His hands, dry and ashy, were linked in front of him. Grey colored his hair and the stubble on his face, and his eyes were pink and tired. But what saddened me most was his voice. He was a man who laughed like a hyena, a high-pitched eruption that was infectious. He was a man who talked with gusto and arrogance. This was why people were attracted to him, why my mother fell hard in 1973, why I thought he was legend. In the restaurant, however, it was his breathing that was loud and wheezy, and his voice soft and raspy. He told me about his heart again. For the first ten minutes, as we waited for our food, it was all he could talk about. My heart. My heart. My heart. His words were in an endless loop. He said he could be on disability, disability, if he allowed them to cut him open, cut him open, and examine him. He lived off severance pay, but that would end in January.
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“My heart,” he said. “Cut open,” he said. When he paused, his eyes drifting off, I told him he should do it. I told him some money was better than no money. I told him he could know for sure what was wrong. “I know already,” he said. “How?” “Something is not right.” “No one is going to give you money on a hunch.” “If they open me, I will die. This for sure.” He had sought the advice of Buddha, praying for eight hours, and then he consulted his fortune telling grids. He even went to see a palm reader who said there was a block in his heart line. Everything pointed to his demise if he allowed them to open his chest. I didn’t know what else to say, so when the food came, I ate. My father hardly touched his crispy-skinned pork, fat glistening. Instead, he watched me, smiling. When I was done, he asked if I wanted more. Yes, I told him quickly, surprised at my response. I ordered wonton soup with egg noodles. I ordered crispy spring rolls. The self, at times, can be fractured. It was one of the few lines I retained from my psychology class. This was another: The mind has the capacity for storing conflicting ideas. We love and hate, sometimes concurrently. I had spent so much energy hating my father for the last two years that I didn’t realize how much I missed him. With a mouthful of noodles, I began to cry. I despised that I was crying. Tears dripped into broth. I did not stop eating. I shoveled noodles into my mouth. I crunched on the spring rolls. I did not look up. I felt my father’s stare, and I knew he didn’t know how to comfort me, his eighteen-year-old son who dwarfed him in size; he never did. That fact, 63
however, was a comfort in itself. In the rapid changes in our lives, this remained constant. I wiped my mouth and face. “You remember,” he said, “my story about the crazy dog?” I nodded. “You remember,” he said, “how you wanted me to tell you those stories?’ I nodded. “That dog,” he said, “bit hard.” He bent down to roll up his slacks. “You see?” I nodded, but didn’t look. I knew they were there, those missing chunks of him. “You always wanted that story,” he said. I looked down at my empty bowl. “That crazy dog took pieces of me.”
Imagine this wild boy in this wild land of snakes and piranhas and wild dogs. Imagine this wild boy whose knees are scraped and dirty, whose hands are as dusty as the roads. This boy, this wild boy, spends his time in the heat, swims in brown rivers, eats stolen fruit from neighboring trees. His energy is that of the monkeys that swing from branch to branch, a state of constant movement. You could see the boy dangling from the tallest trees. You could see him as the class clown, the one who is unafraid of the teacher’s ruler, unafraid of anything, even fire ants, whose bite leaves tiny red dots, burning pin pricks. This wild boy sleeps outside, without netting, because the mosquitoes dislike the taste of his blood. He sleeps outside because, at times, he sleepwalks and wanders to dark open places. Inside, he breaks things. Bumps into walls. Wakes his mother. Angers his older sister. Outside, there is less danger. Imagine this wild boy one night sleepwalking. He is barefoot, always 64
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barefoot, and the sharp rocks do not wake him. He walks with purpose. He walks as if someone awake. Imagine this wild boy who steps on a dog. Imagine how suddenly he is awake. In one sleeping moment, he is dreaming of running faster than any boy in the universe, dreaming of being a streak, a blur, and then the next, waking to a dog clamped on his leg, and seeing blood spilling out, dark, a river of ink, and the sudden pain that shoots throughout the body. Imagine the scream. Imagine the swift kick the boy delivers to the dog. Imagine the sound of the dog scampering away. Imagine the wild boy on the dusty road, as dusty as his hands.
What my father never disclosed in the telling of his story is what happened to the boy afterwards. There were scars, of course, but who was it that cleaned his wounds? Who was it that told him how strong and brave he was to endure a vicious bite? What my father never disclosed in the telling of his story is what happened with the dog. Younger, I didnâ€™t care. It was the boy I was amazed by. The boy who was far from being me. Living a Tom Sawyer life. Unafraid of anything. Now, it is the dog I feel for most. It is the dog I worry over. It is the dog I want rescued from the sleepwalking boy. What my father never disclosed is whether this story is true. I never questioned him, amazed at his ability to tell a story, the ebb and flow of his voice, how he strung along tension. Plus, why would he lie? As a child, I swallowed everything my father said. I thought for so long that he was the example of an ideal man. I molded myself into that image, that exterior that is pumped with confidence and pride. This was all he allowed me to see. Underneath that was so much I didnâ€™t know. One thing is for sure: I know my father likes to spin tales until they become his mythology. The next several weeks, he would pick me up and we would head to the same restaurant. The cooks knew who we were and always treated us to larger servings. The waitress knew us, too, knew I took my cola with no ice, knew I always started with duck and rice, knew my father always 65
ordered the crispy pig and sometimes stewed chicken feet, knew there was a possibility I would order another bowl of soup. Once she asked if we were father and son, and for a second I heard my father’s old laugh and voice. “Yes,” he said, loud enough for the entire restaurant to hear. “My son.” Each week, he came with a gift—always Fila T-shirts—and I started wearing them everywhere I went. After the first week, I never thought of these visits as an inconvenience, as I did everything else that took me away from my friends and my moments to smoke. In fact, I saw my father more in our few hours together than my mother, who was constantly there. Always, when I returned home, she would be waiting at the front window. She asked the same questions. “Have good time?” “Yep.” “He asking for money?” “Nope.” “He give you money?” “Nope.” “He give you another shirt?” “Yep?” “Funny man.” One day, I found one of my father’s T-shirts turned pink. My mother did my laundry and put them back in my drawers, and here was this pink Tshirt with an American flag on it and a tennis ball. Other items turned pink, also, some socks, a dress shirt I wore to work, but the T-shirt was what sent me into a fury. I don’t remember exactly what I said. I might have shaken the T-shirt in a clenched fist. I might have called my mother stupid or careless. I might 66
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have accused her of doing this on purpose. I might have yelled like a mad man. I might have cussed in English and in Thai. Such outbursts, usually, would have enraged my mother. She would have matched my ferocity, her voice shaking the floors. But I remember how eerily calm she was. She looked at me and said, “I am sorry.” Well before the divorce, before any of this began, I remember being woken up by my father’s booming voice like thunder in the night. I was, perhaps ten or eleven, and I opened my bedroom door to see my father holding himself up over the bathroom sink, the door wide open, and my mother sitting on the lid of the toilet. Both his arms were on either side of the sink and they were pulsating. He shook, unaware I was watching him. His eyes remained on the drain. “Where is the fuckin’ toothpaste,” he said in Thai. “I come home and there is no fuckin’ toothpaste.” He grabbed his brush and whipped it against the sink. “I want toothpaste.” His voice was so loud, so deep, I did not recognize it at all. In my entire life, I had never seen my father in this state. I couldn’t move. My mother rushed to close the bathroom door. I heard her say, “Mah bah.” Rabid dog. I don’t remember much more of that night, only that the next day we got into a car and drove to a mansion in Glencoe to see this special doctor. My father was close friends with the owner of the house; he told the man’s fortune weekly, instructing him to open more Thai restaurants in Chicago and invest money in gas stations. That weekend, the man housed this special doctor from Thailand who didn’t look like a doctor, but an overweight construction worker. He was about sixty, his skin the color of a recently oiled baseball mitt. The adults went into one room, and I played Nintendo in another. When the owner’s seven-year-old daughter came rushing in to tell me my father was crying, I darted down the hall to see my father’s back shivering, hunched over, a deep muffled moan coming from his mouth. The doctor above him spoke a tongue I didn’t understand. The other adults in the room prayed, their eyes snapped shut, except my mother who did not remove her gaze from my father. Her hands were in front of her, but her lips did not move. Then suddenly, my father stilled. The prayers stopped. My mother made a move towards him, but caught herself. My father straightened. All I saw was the back of him, his pink dress shirt that was untucked from his brown slacks. I wanted to run to him, to see for myself his tear-streaked 67
face, to ask him what was wrong. The doctor asked how my father felt. His hands were on top of my father’s shoulders, as if ready to push him down if needed. I heard a deep breath. Then: “Better. Back to normal.” I didn’t know what that meant. I still don’t. When I watched the Exorcist a couple of years later at a friend’s house, I remembered that night. When my mother railed against my father during their arguments, screaming at the top of her lungs, calling him Mah bah, accusing him of humping another woman like a dog, I remembered that night again. Not because my father met my mother’s anger with his own, but because he remained still and calm—like my mother apologizing for the pink shirt. And I wondered what part of him was chased away in that mansion in Glencoe. Maybe nothing. Maybe the truth was he had already let go, like my mother had the day I went at her for destroying my T-shirt, and the only person still holding on, still hoping, was me.
Mid-August and in a week I was returning to college. My father, before our next visit, had requested I bring pictures of myself. Baby pictures, pictures from high school, anything. When he picked me up, we didn’t go to our usual restaurant, but only a block down to the McDonalds. I laughed. Told him I could’ve walked. He told me he had something to tell me. “I’m going back to Thailand,” he said. I didn’t answer him. I scanned the McDonalds, hoping no one I knew was here. “It’s too much to live here.” I understood what he meant. Understood that soon he would have no income. He made a little by telling fortunes, but not enough to live in a city like Chicago.
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“What are your plans?” I said. He told me a string of things: real estate agent, golf pro, opening up a spa. Living in America had taught him how to survive. In Thailand, he’d be rich. “When are you leaving?” “Two weeks.” I nodded. “When you come to Thailand, you stay with me. I will have a big house.” I nodded. “I will call you when I get there.” I placed the bag of pictures in front of him. I had sorted through a few albums and selected about twenty pictures. My mother couldn’t part with some of them, which made narrowing down difficult. What I had chosen was an eclectic mix: ones of me, ones of us, ones with my mother. He went through them, smiling, remembering. He laughed at a few. He asked where some were taken. When he bumped to photos of my mother, he paused. “Will she forgive me?” I shrugged. “Probably not.” He looked at me. I knew what he wanted to say. Will you forgive me? “Do you want a fish filet?” he said. I smiled and rose out of the seat. “No thanks.” “Here,” he said and threw me another T-shirt. “Present.” “Thanks.” I swung the shirt over my shoulder and gave a quick wave before leaving. How long he would sit there I did not know. I imagined him ordering a fish filet and fries. I imagined him sipping his cola. I imagined him going through the pictures again. I imagined him 69
wondering about all the decisions in his life and what had led him here, to this moment, and whether it was worth it. But I don’t think he did. We should never dwell on the past, Buddha said, never dream of the future; our minds should be fixed on the present moment. I wonder if Buddha got most of his teachings from a dog.
Imagine this wild dog. Imagine this wild dog watching a sleepwalking boy. The dog’s ears perk up. He is hoping the boy heads another direction. It does not. During the day, this dog will scamper away from children, especially boys who like to tie things on him, who like to hit him with a stick. This is night, however, and boys are supposed to sleep. What this dog doesn’t know is this boy is sleeping. What this dog doesn’t know is this boy is only following a dream. The dog emits a low warning growl. The boy does not hear. The dog barks once. The boy does not hear. The dog does not want it to come to a bite. The dog only wants quiet. The dog only wants to rest his eyes before the hot sun rises again. He sees the sleepwalking boy’s foot. He sees that its destination is his head. What is a wild dog to do?
In the Hidden Life of Dogs, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas calculated that her Siberian Husky Misha, an escape artist, roamed a home territory of 130 square miles. Misha navigated Cambridge streets and traffic with ease. Along the way he made friends and enemies. Despite his adventures, he always came back, always knew where home was. I’m not sure my father knows where home is. I’m not sure he is looking for home. He has travelled great miles, and the miles he put behind are behind him. He is never one to look back. At times, I admire this inner calling that sends him in so many directions at once. At times, I want to still him. I want tell him that he will regret what he leaves behind. Part of me knows he does. Part of me recognizes that he hurts when he leaves. Part of me understands that he must go.
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On walks with my dogs, it is easy to right the ship. I allow them to sniff and follow whatever entices them. I stop often, let them enjoy what their noses tell them, stories by smell, the past unraveling through the nasal passages. With an easy tug and a call of their names, they always come back. They are always by my side when I turn towards home.
Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoir Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy. His essays have appeared in Post Road, Shambhala Sun, Crab Orchard Review, and other literary journals. He teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida, and edits the magazine Sweet: A Literary Confection. To know more about him, visit: www.sukrungruang.com.
Interview by: Christine Lee Zilka
There aren’t many books that can make me cry. Crying is piercing of the soul, a sign that an arrow has cleanly into the target, and a feat that requires so much coordination on the part of the writer: the technical merits of a writer’s craft, the writer’s unwavering theory, and finally sincerity and deep truth. All these parts must be choreographed—and choreograph, Catherine Chung does, providing readers deep connection to Forgotten Country. And why else do we read but to experience this deep connection? Penguin/Riverhead released Forgotten Country on March 1, 2012 to a bevy of praise—not only among critics, but also by writers who quickly proclaimed it their favorite novel of the year. I am sure more praise is yet to come. I’m excited about Chung’s Forgotten Country—and I’ve been waiting to read her debut novel ever since I read her piece in Guernica1, which incidentally is an excerpt from the novel that became Forgotten Country. Catherine Chung is simultaneously sharp and charming (as is her writing) and I am happy to share an interview about Forgotten Country and her writing life with you. Catherine Chung was born in Evanston, Illinois, and grew up in New York, New Jersey, and Michigan. She studied mathematics at the University of Chicago and received her MFA from Cornell. She is one of Granta’s New Voices, and lives in New York. 1
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ON WRITING: CHRISTINE LEE ZILKA: Where do you write? Do you have a writing routine? CATHERINE CHUNG: I don't really have a routine--how it goes can vary wildly from week to week, though there are stretches of time when I am incredibly regular about where and when and how I write. It just depends on where I am in the process. Basically I take it as it comes and when I’m really in it I’ll write wherever I am: in my room, at a desk or on the couch, in hotels, on buses, on stoops and in cafes. Sometimes, when I can’t wait, I’ll text a line or word or idea to myself walking down the street. CZ: Love that! Can you give us an example of a line or idea that you've texted yourself that showed up in FC? CC: Oh! Well my texts to myself are very short and wouldn't make sense to anyone else--but once I texted "leaf shaking" after watching one sunlit leaf shake on a tree whose leaves were otherwise completely still. And that made it into a scene between Janie and her father. It's probably something no one else would notice, but it was such a beautiful moment--that one leaf doing its own thing, all green and lit up--that I had to get it in. CZ: You have had great success with your fiction—short stories and your novel. Are there any short stories (or novel edits) that haven’t found a home, and if so, what have you done with them/plan on doing with them? CC: Thanks, Christine! I've spent most of the last few years working on my novel, so I haven't written very many short stories. The ones I have finished in the last few years have all gone off and found homes for themselves, but there are a couple I'm still working on along with a children's book and a couple essays. I'll send them out when I think they're ready, and hope they find someone to give them a home!
ON FORGOTTEN COUNTRY: CZ: How did you come to start writing Forgotten Country? CC: I started working on Forgotten Country at Cornell, when I was an MFA student there. I was writing stories that felt more like chapters, circling the same characters/ideas/themes and so at some point I took notice, and started thinking of them as part of the same longer thing. CZ: I so admired the ways in which you interweave folklore throughout your novel. So many people of a certain generation in Korea are loathe to talk about their war experience. Do you think this is one purpose folklore serves? Is this a way of offering up safe places for people to think about tragedy? If so, what painful things does Forgotten Country address in fiction form? CC: It’s funny, because I don’t usually think of folklore as safe at all! Folk tales delighted me as a child, but they terrified me as well. There are wolves out there, and dark woods, and parents are constantly abandoning their children. Those stories confront death and betrayal, the loss of parents, lifelong punishments and suffering—and they are some of our first introduction to these topics. And if you think about it, growing up, you don’t actually talk about fairy tales or folk tales, or how they work or what they teach you: you just listen to them over and over and internalize them. I feel like folk tales come from a terrifying and darkly colorful place, and warn you about what’s possible—both the tragic and the exhilarating—and our only safety from them comes from the illusion of distance. They seem to take place so far away and long ago. I think one of the things that Forgotten Country tries to address is how actually, that distance is false. We are in those woods. Children can throw a baby out a window, and his brother will run down the stairs and think he might be able to catch him in time. A daughter might sacrifice everything—only to find that perhaps the sacrifice didn’t work. And someone might, in trying to fulfill someone’s wishes, lose them forever.
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CZ: Did you do research? How did you do research? At what point did/do you feel there is adequate research to write? CC: Yes, I did research! I took a class on Korean history at Cornell, I read history books and memoirs and books of poetry, I watched documentaries, and I looked things up online. I researched pretty much the whole time I was writing the book, rather than accumulating a store of it and then beginning. CZ: Which was the most difficult scene to write in Forgotten Country, and why? CC: I think the scene in which Janie leaves for Chicago to work on her dissertation was the hardest to write. I didn’t want her to go, and I didn’t know what would happen when I wrote it—if she would really end up going, and if she did whether she would come back in time, or if she would regret it. There is so much internal conflict when she makes that decision, so many reasons for and against, and none of them clear, and Janie herself so terrified—that it was difficult as a writer not to be pulled into and lost in that turmoil. And then it was hard to resist simplifying her emotions and that decision, or making it easier for her so that it would be easier for me.
On CRAFT and FORGOTTEN COUNTRY: CZ: Forgotten Country is the first book to make me cry in a long time. This is not to say it’s a sad story, or a sentimental one—and I laud you for hitting such a perfect balance. How do you hold sentimentality at bay in your writing? CC: Thanks, Christine! I try not to think too much about sentimentality one way or another. I feel like it’s just important to try to write true, and that it’s better not to be too defensive in terms of avoiding one thing or another. CZ: You have lived in myriad places such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Michigan, and New York City and some of them have found their way into your stories. How do you pick setting? How did you come to choose Michigan and Korea in Forgotten Country? 75
CC: Michigan was just easy, I guess—I lived there the longest and I was already doing so much research on Korea that I didn’t feel like I needed to put the family anywhere else. That said, Michigan also lent itself to being a particularly good setting for this family—because where they live is not particularly diverse, and because of the specific racial tensions that existed there during the time the story takes place. As for Korea, I just wanted the family to get to go back—to confront the real place as well as the almost-mythical land it had become in their minds.
ON IDENTITY: CZ: You majored in math and also have an MFA in creative writing. In an interview with Granta (http://www.granta.com/NewWriting/New-Voices-Announcing-Catherine-Chung), you described the relationship between these two disciplines as “The two interests come from the same source…which is an obsession with language and its capacity to explore things larger than ourselves. I discovered mathematics as an undergraduate, and fell in love with how beautiful it was: it can be so precise and elegant – and asks all sorts of big questions.” In your growth, did math come before your writing, or writing before mathematics? Does your math background inform your fiction at all? If so, how? What are the big mathematics questions that have made the leap into your fiction? CC: I was always a writer first, and I approached math from that perspective—I was never a native speaker. But math is so big and beautiful that I found it incredibly compelling, even in translation. I love questions about infinity (and the infinitesimal), complexity, what can be known and what can be said and what can be proven and how they are not actually the same thing—I feel like I try to deal with all of these ideas to some extent in my fiction.
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ON READING: CZ: What are you reading nowadays? CC: What about who? Some recent and all-time favorites: Julie Otsuka, Mary Oliver, Roberto Bolaño, Alexander Chee, Aleksandar Hemon, Chang-rae Lee, Krys Lee, Matthew Salesses, Li-Young Lee, Justin Torres, and James Baldwin...
FINAL WORDS OF ADVICE: CZ: What advice do you have for emerging Asian American writers? For writers in general? CC: I don’t know that I’m in any position to give advice, but to emerging Asian American writers, I guess I would just say hello, and welcome, and so nice to see you here! I wish the best for all of us, and am honored and excited to be part of our community (as well as the larger community of artists and writers we are part of). And the advice I’ve been trying very hard to take myself lately— is enjoy this time, whatever it is. It is precious. Take from it what you can. And remember that your life is bigger than this moment, and bigger than your writing. (And from my mom: always take care of your health!)
Interview by: Christine Lee Zilka Photo credit: Matt Douma
I first met Krys Lee at Napa Valley Writers Workshop eight years ago— she was a poet who had begun writing stories. Even then, she was pushing her own boundaries, and one of few poets leaping straight into fiction. Her stories reflected the lush language of a poet and the expansiveness of a world traveler, a hint of what was to come in her debut story collection Drifting House. In years since, I rendezvoused with Krys Lee while she was either coming from Seoul, South Korea, where she has now lived for over thirteen years, or somewhere in the world, or on her way somewhere else in the world, much like a drifting house. Her anecdotes were global, with settings throughout Asia and America and Europe; it is this peripatetic existence that pervades her novel, and brings up questions about identity and home and safety to which Asian Americans with our dual identity also crave answers. The characters in Drifting House experience the fracture between self and sanctuary; in various stories such as escape in the titular story or via immigration in others, the characters yearn for a home that no longer exists. Krys Lee’s travels and consequent exploration of who we become and who we are when we are caught in the interstitial spaces, is a prescient investigation of the direction in which our world is headed; in the end, we’ll claim nowhere and everywhere as ours. In our interview with Krys Lee, we discussed her story collection, Drifting House, as well as her drifting house.
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Krys Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, raised in California and Washington, and studied in the United State and England. She was a finalist for Best New American Voices, received a special mention in the 2012 Pushcart Prize XXXVI, and her voice has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, Granta (New Voices), California Quarterly, Asia Weekly, the Guardian, the New Statesman, and Conde Naste Traveller, UK. She lives in Seoul with intervals in San Francisco.
ON WRITING AND DRIFTING HOUSE CHRISTINE LEE ZILKA: The most impressive aspect of your work is how the stories are each only about 20 pages long, but have the breadth and depth of a novel. This is a relatively rare use of the short story form, especially in contemporary literature (where most short stories present "a slice of life"). Why do you or what inspires you to present traditionally novel-esque narratives in the short story form? KRYS LEE: Frankly, it’s because I’m probably more of a natural novel writer than a short story writer. The stories I wanted to tell sprawled across the landscape of the page, and I was always told by other students in my low-residency MFA program, this would be great if you cut two or three of the storylines and stuck to the one. But the stories needed to feel like life for me, and in life, there’s isn’t ever just one thing happening, and the world around you influences and affects your individual moments of being. Perhaps that’s what gives my stories, as you put it, the breadth of a novel. The compression in the stories is what keeps them feeling like stories, and I owe that to poetry. CZ: There is a quiet quality to your tone and style, a controlled calm, and yet some of the stories are filled with gothic elements, borderline horror. This duality is apparent throughout your work; there doesn’t seem to be many “safe places” in the worlds you create. You have said in past interviews (http://www.thethoughtfox.co.uk/?p=5023) that you have “always had a sustained interest in the house as an image”—what does this say about houses for you? And if a house is a home, what does that say about your thoughts on home?
KL: The house is an image of terror and safety for me. I grew up in a very unsafe emotional and physical place; the return home was filled with fear because I never knew what to expect. When I saw my first enormous spider structure by Louise Bourgeois, I instantly recognized as my own that sense of living under an enormous, threatening shadow. The house is also an image of safety, longing and love for me as all my life, I’ve instinctually sought a stable ballast in what seemed to me a world fraught with danger. CZ: A theme of transience appears in many if not all the stories. That theme manifests itself as either an overlapping of the sentient world and ghost world in the title story Drifting House or the quick fluctuations of temperaments and fates in The Salaryman (i.e., the wife kisses the husband one minute, then nags him the next; sibling affection, then pushing and shoving; overarching life changes in the main character, the salaryman), or the back and forth between North Korea, South Korea, and Korean Diasporas. Is the theme of transience a reflection of your lifestyle, your identity politics, or your personal philosophies? What aspect of you, the writer compels this theme of transience? KL: I once told a friend that I felt myself fluid inside, and that if I were to be cut open I imagined a swirling change rather than constancy. It’s how I experience the world moment to moment shifting around me, whether it be feelings moving in a conversation, the surprising turns of a day, or a life, or the abrupt changes that occur when you leave one country for another. Perhaps it began even earlier, as I went to school by day and returned home to a troubled, unpredictable household. Death, and the knowledge of it, also casts transience on our entire lives, but it doesn’t mean I’m pessimistic. That transience is also what makes this fragile life, and our fragile moments of happiness, valuable before the final disruption occurs. CZ: A few of the stories raise the dual identity issue that Asian Americans are familiar with, i.e.., Yuri/Grace in A Temporary Marriage or Myeongseok Lee/Mark Lee in At the Edge of the World. Do you have a personal story to share on your experience of the dual identity?
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KL: As I mentioned, the dual identity I experienced was fairly extreme. It wasn’t just a different language and culture inside the house and out as I was growing up; it was an experience of safety, warmth, and stability outside the house, and inside was a relentless mystery, a dark, frightening place of danger where I was constantly reminded of how powerless I was. My parents’ struggles as immigrants and their personal wounds that created the most dramatic dualities that defined my childhood, and ultimately, who I am as a person. Mark/Myeongseok’s duality, for me, is not just about two different cultures, but about a phantom history that he doesn’t quite know and understand versus his present reality. The same applies to Yuri/Grace. Only as a returnee to South Korea who has lived there now for half my life did I understand what the deeper dualities to being an immigrant meant. CZ: Korean words are italicized in your stories and there is a modicum of translation occurring (e.g., the line “Still she assumed he called his wife jip-saram, literally house person” in A Temporary Marriage and “’Sarang haeyo,’ his father said again to an invisible person. I love you,” in At The Edge of the World” and “’You’re no baekin from America with white skin’” in The Pastor’s Son and “The next morning, while she cleared the breakfast table, a bell rang through the daecheong, the main hall” in A Small Sorrow). There is a growing awareness of and rebellion against such translation, exemplified in Junot Diaz’s Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which resists translation, and Randa Jarrar, who said in a recent interview, “Don’t italicize Arabic words on your pages— treat them like any other words. Don’t explain or translate your culture to anyone: remember that you’re writing for your people, too.” Were you conscious of your translation? Why do you do so? Who is your audience as a writer? KL: I wasn’t conscious of most of my translations, perhaps because I tend to repeat myself so much as a person. And I use many expressions that are never translated and whose meanings come from context, though there were a few translations that my editors had requested. I didn’t have a problem complying. I write primarily to communicate my characters’ experiences, whether the audience be Koreans, Asian Americans, or Irish, so I’m not interested in ‘not explaining or translating’ if that means shutting some people 81
out. I care about my characters and I want them to be understood, whether that means translating a few words here and there to make the meaning clear. I had to contextualize some history in the story, for example, or I would have left most readers outside of Koreans puzzled, such as the term ‘goose father’ that even most Korean Americans wouldn’t understand deeply, if they recognized the term at all. Again, as a writer I’m most interested in telling a story that the reader experiences fully, so I’m willing to do what it takes for that to happen. I respect writers’ decisions not to translate, but my decisions arise from what a particular sentence or scene requires to communicate. CZ: You were a poet (and perhaps still are) before you became a fiction writer. In what way does your poetry inform your fiction, your language? And what led you to fiction? Is there something that can be said through fiction that can’t be said through poetry, or vice versa? KL: Poetry is the foundation for my fiction. It taught me to care about every word on the page, to love the rhythms of a sentence, and to compress. I dislike waste in fiction, which is a consequence of being rooted in poetry. “The right words in the right order” is one way to define poetry, and I don’t see why we can’t apply the same scrutiny to fiction. I still dabble in poetry and hope someday to return to the form. The same can be said for drama. There are so many plays I love, such as the works of Eugene O’Neill, David Henry Hwang, or Tennessee Williams. Their plays are a form of dramatized poetry. Ironically, all the poems I wrote were narrative poems, though I wanted to write more meditative ones. When I felt as if the stories I wanted to tell weren’t fitting in a poem, I turned to fiction. Perhaps a better poet would have written an epic poem or a long cycle of poems, but my narratives found their more natural home in fiction. CZ: You are currently writing a novel—in what way/s do you think a novel is different from a short story? KL: The novel is a wonderfully big, baggy monster. I’m enjoying its capaciousness as it allows me to more fully explore the world and live with my characters for much longer. Each 82
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chapter still retains a distinct shape in the novel but because the demands of a short story’s repeated beginnings and ending are so difficult, the novel’s a relief. As a more experienced fiction writer once told me, in a novel you only have to get in and get out once. In a story collection, you have to write a beginning and ending eight to eleven times, which puts immense pressure on the writer. There are infinite ways in which the forms operate differently, and I enjoy reading and writing the short story and the novel for those reasons. Again, poetry and drama are two other genres that foster a different kind of experiment with language and narrative telling.
ON IDENTITY CZ: You grew up in the U.S., but you have lived in Seoul, South Korea for most of your adult life. What do you not get in Korea that you could get in the US for your writing? And what do you get in the US that you cannot get in the Korea for your writing? KL: I don’t know what I can and can’t get from each in my writing, and am actually not particularly interested in getting ‘anything’ in the world for my writing. I experience and engage with the world first as a human being, just as I love to travel but have never deliberately used it in my work. If something shows up in my fiction because it needs to, great. But it’s an organic process. I write because the world troubles and enthralls me, which sometimes moves me to write about it, so what I do know is what I can and can’t get from each country in my life. I’ve lived overseas for over half my life now in England and South Korea, and over time you recognize yourself as a person who doesn’t quite belong anywhere but has the privilege of a larger perspective. It’s a common phenomenon in expats. With such shifting geographies, the world in terms of culture, ways of being and thinking, even its core values, start to become very literally, relative. Inhabiting a different way of thinking and living is a pretty violent shift, and I’m usually disoriented when I return to America or go back to Korea. My sister says that the first two weeks I visit her in the U.S., I always feel a bit of a stranger to her, somehow very Korean, and over the next few weeks, that impression fades as I adjust. When you live your entire life only in one country, by default your sense of the 83
world is going to be more stable. It’s not a bad thing, just different. CZ: You work with North Korean refugee organizations, and are active in helping North Korean refugees. With Kim Jong-il’s recent death and the ascension of his successor and son, Kim Jong-un, what’s been the reaction in Seoul? In the North Korean refugee community? KL: At first there was apprehension because no one knew what to expect. South Koreans, however, know for the most part that whatever happens, they won’t be able to leave the country so they watch, wait, and continue with their lives while expressing occasional worry. The more politically aware and well-read individuals worried more, and the defector community was skeptical of Kim Jong-un having any true power because of his age. Things have calmed down now as the elite in North Korea have officially backed Kim Jong-un, but again, in North Korea’s case no one knows the truth.
ON INSPIRATION & READING CZ: What inspires you? KL: So many things inspire me. Good, humble people who care about and help others is very high on that list. Survivors. Writers devoted to language and story and strive to write a better book each time. Beautiful friendships and relatively happy families. Books in which the language and themes fully embody and make felt the human experience. The paintings of Anselm Kiefer and Hieronymus Bosch. Medieval art. The poetry of W.B. Yeats, W.S. Merwin, and John Ashberry. Desert landscapes, the natives of Ecuador, swimming alongside sea turtles, surprises. Falling in love. Seoul, where I live. CZ: What are you reading these days? KL: I'm reading the Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry and just began Monique Troung's The Book of Salt, which I'll probably alternate with a friend's manuscript. I like to 84
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mix poetry and fiction, and often, the classics and contemporary work. I usually read a lot of non-fiction, especially books on visual art and philosophy, but don't have as much reading time as I'd like these days. CZ: Do you do any translations of Korean literature? If so, what do you think are the most important Korean works that an English reader should read? KL: I read Korean literature in the original language, and only occasionally read a translation to compare it with the original text or because I have to read something for a pressing deadline. One of the main reasons I studied Korean so intensively was to read in the original language. The literature in translation has improved a lot, but the grammar of English and Korean, by default, force translators to create a new sentence. There’s so much rhythm and sound that gets lost in translation, no matter how skilled he or she is, which is unfortunate. Some of the most important modern works that should be read are the fiction and poetry of the 70s and 80s. The English translations done were mainly early ones, and in my opinion, pretty terrible on the whole. Much better translators are working on contemporary works, but the ouevre leans toward more trendy, popular literary fiction, although there are many works amongst them that I enjoy. Many great writers today are not being translated because their use of the vernacular—again, their particular music—is incredibly difficult to attempt. Would you prefer to translate a William Faulkner sentence or a simpler sentence into a foreign language? I thought so. I do have a soft spot for novelists Hwang Sok-yong and Kim Young-ha. The poetry coming out of South Korea today is, in my opinion, more dynamic than the fiction. The poetry of Kim Hyesoon in particular is very exciting, and much of her work has been skillfully translated by Don Mee Choi, a Korean-American poet living in the U.S..
IN CLOSING CZ: What advice do you have for Asian American writers? For emerging writers in general? KL: For Asian American writers, and for all writers in general, try not to listen to the noise of politics. Don’t think about what the publishing world wants to read: no one knows, really. It’s a mystery. Write what you need to write, what feels true and necessary, and write something that delights and moves you. Write something that you’d be proud of showing the writers you most respect. If the urgency and the intense personal connection isn’t there, it isn’t your material. Try not to worry about representation. If you write with the buzz of politics and questions of representation in your head, you’ll lose the individual—your character—in the process. Inevitably the life you’ve lived will influence the kinds of characters you are drawn to, and someone will wonder or claim that you are representing a race. Ignore them. Being politically correct is the death of good writing. Be brutally honest, brutally comic, but stay away from being careful. If you’re careful approaching the page, you’re already editing yourself before you have the good raw material. And especially, pay attention to language! Some fiction writers get so caught up in the plot that they don’t realize that fiction is also the story of language moving on the page. We watch words evolve and dance in a particular way, and that’s what gives a book its energy and beauty. Charles D’Ambrosio once said that fiction is all about rhythm, the music of the sentence, and this is what teaches you the next sentence and the way the plot should move. I agree. For emerging writers in particular, don’t give up. No matter how busy you are, carve out regular chunks of time a week to write. It doesn’t have to be a long stretch of time, but commit to that allotted hour. You may feel unconfident, but most writers feel insecure about their work. At Napa Valley Writers Conference, Chang-rae Lee once said that he never once wrote a novel that he believed he would be able to finish. Finally, a few questions to ask yourself are, Why do I write?, and, Does writing matter enough to me to make some sacrifices?
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FICTION Adalena Kavanagh is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her story, “Oblivious,” is available in Stumble Magazine. She is online at http://adalenakavanagh.blogspot.com. Aruni Kashyap is a writer and translator. His fiction has previously appeared in Pratilipi, Tehelka Magazine, The Houston Literary Review, Himal Southasian and Evergreen Review. The House With a Thousand Novels, his first novel set in India’s northeastern state of Assam, will be published by Penguin (India) in 2012. He attends the MFA program at Minnesota State University Mankato. Tony D’Souza has contributed to The New Yorker, Playboy, Esquire, Granta, Mother Jones, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. He has published three novels with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the most recent of which, Mule (2011), was recently optioned for film by Warner Bros. He is a recipient of a Guggenheim, an NEA, an NEA Japan-Friendship Fellowship, and an O. Henry. His first novel, Whiteman (2006), received the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He grew up in Chicago and lives in St. Louis where he is a freelance journalist.
POETRY Fredrick Douglas Kakinami Cloyd is an independent scholar/writer/artist, who was born in Japan shortly after the US occupation of Japan officially ended. His African-American/Cherokee father was an occupation soldier in Korea and Japan while Fredrick's motherâ€”a Japanese/Chinese/Austro-Hungarian girl of the war-ruins was from an elite Japanese nationalist family. Transnational racisms and sexisms during the rise of US and Japanese global stature presents a foundation through which Fredrick weaves his stories of memory and family legacies for Black Pacific Social Justice. He received a masters degree in postcolonial/feminist-oriented social cultural anthropology and social transformation in San Francisco. He feeds his love of Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin foods, coffee, TV shows, music, movies and steam trains while being heartfully committed to expanding his manuscript and multimedia presentations entitled: Dream of the Water Children: A Black Pacific Memory Journal.
NON-FICTION Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoir Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy. His essays have appeared in Post Road, Shambhala Sun, Crab Orchard Review, and other literary journals. He teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida, and edits the magazine Sweet: A Literary Confection. To know more about him, visit: www.sukrungruang.com.
ART Ako Castuera lives in Los Angeles. She is an exhibiting artist and writes/draws storyboards for the animated television show, Adventure Time. Right now she wishes she were playing in the mud.
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EDITOR BIOS Managing Editor, Sunny Woan Sunny Woan likes to dote on cats. She has a difficult time maintaining thermal homeostasis. Her creative works have appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Blue Earth Review, Houston Literary Review, and SoMa Literary Review, among others; and legal research in Washington & Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice Law; Temple Journal of Science, Technology and Environmental Law, Cal. Western Law Review, Santa Clara Law Review and have been anthologized in casebooks. By day, Sunny works as general counsel for a global investments firm. By night (and by way of weekends and holidays), she is a designer of briefcases, power handbags and accessories under the label Taryn Zhang. Fiction Editor, Paul Lai Paul Lai hopes one day to live in a library. He is pursuing an MLIS degree at St. Catherine University. Previously, he has studied and taught at Yale University, UC Berkeley, UNC Chapel Hill, Duke University, and the University of St. Thomas. He has co-edited scholarly journal issues about Asian American fiction and alternative contact between peoples in the Americas. He frequently presents essays on Asian American literature at academic conferences where he has the opportunity to meet other scholars and writers. His publications include reviews of books about Asian American literature as well as academic essays on notable Asian North American writers. He is on the executive committees of the Circle of Asian American Literary Studies and the Modern Language Association's Asian American Literature Division. Paul lives with his partner and their crazy dog Giles in Minnesota, and he is working on a collection of horror short stories, all featuring dogs. Poetry Editor, Kenji Liu Kenji Liu is a 1.5 generation Japanese-born Taiwanese American expatriate of New Jersey suburbia. His writing arises from his work as an activist, educator and cultural worker. Kenjiâ€™s poetry chapbook You Left Without Your Shoes was published by Finishing Line Press (2009), available on Amazon.com. His writing has appeared in Tea Party Magazine and the 2009 Intergenerational Writerâ€™s Workshop online anthology Flick of My Tongue. Kenji was awarded a writing residency at Blue Mountain Center and was a presenting literary artist at APAture 2009, a multidisciplinary Asian Pacific American art festival. He is currently working on a multi-genre full-length collection of poetry, prose and visual art. He is a freelance graphic designer and also holds an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Social Transformation from California Institute of Integral Studies. When not writing, Kenji paints, boulders, chases sunshine and hangs out with puppies. His biggest writing pet peeve is when people don't know the difference between its and it's. 89
Nonfiction Editor, Jennifer Derilo Jennifer Derilo received her MFA (creative nonfiction emphasis) from Mills College, where she was its first Jacob K. Javits scholar. She teaches creative writing and English at Southwestern College. While she blogs for the mAss Kickers Foundation, a cancer advocacy and support group, she enjoys reading (and writing) about people and things unseen. She often has nightmares about zombies. And abandoned predicate parts. Editor-At-Large, Christine Lee Zilka Christine Lee Zilka has appeared or is forthcoming in journals and anthologies such as ZYZZYVA, Verbsap, Yomimono, and Men Undressed: Women Authors Write About Male Sexual Experience. An adjunct instructor at a local college, she received an Ardella Mills Fiction Prize from Mills College in 2005, placed as a finalist in Poets and Writers Magazineâ€™s Writers Exchange Contest in 2007, and received an honorable mention in Glimmer Trainâ€™s Fiction Open in 2009. Christine earned her undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley and her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. In addition to writing short stories, she has a novel in progress and writes at the Writers Room in New York City.
ADVISORY BOARD Elmaz Abinader Justin Chin Peter Ho Davies Jessica Hagedorn Randa Jarrar Gish Jen Elaine H. Kim Maxine Hong Kingston
Gus Lee Li-Young Lee Min Jin Lee Ed Lin Nami Mun Fae Myenne Ng Lac Su Bryan Thao Worra
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SUBMISSION GUIDELINES 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. Submit online with the submishmashâ„˘ submissions manager:
http://kartikareview.submishmash.com/Submit Fiction | Attn: Paul Lai 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 7,500 words. Poetry | Attn: Kenji Liu Narrative, prose, or lyrical poetry, free verse, eastern or western poetic forms, or works meant as spoken word are all welcome as poetry. We give due consideration to all submissions, but we strongly prefer works under 2,500 words. Nonfiction | Attn: Jennifer Derilo For creative nonfiction, we are particularly interested in works (memoir, reportage, letters, essay, etc.) that touch on themes including--but not limited to--identity, memory, family, culture, history, trauma, dislocation. Alternative formats and subject matter are nonetheless welcome. We give due consideration to all submissions, but we strongly prefer works under 7,500 words.
For more information, please visit http://www.kartikareview.com/submit.html.
THE 500 PROJECT Does Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) literature matter? The 500 Project seeks to profile 10 APIA individuals from each of the 50 States who answer YES. On February 3, 2011, incidentally the Lunar New Year, the editors of Kartika Review, a national Asian Pacific Islander American literary arts journal, got together with award-winning poet Bryan Thao Worra and took on the 500 Project. However, the concept started well before February 3rd, by Thao Worra, the first Lao American to hold an NEA Fellowship in Literature. Over the last 15 years, he has worked with Asian/Pacific Islander American writers from across the country to revitalize our literary and artistic traditions, in particular that of Lao and Southeast Asian American writers. A key part of that journey has been connecting emerging enclaves of writers with more established APIA artists across the United States. One recurring conversation the writer activists have is the question of the modern audience for Asian American literature. We are in a time when there is a vocal demand for diverse voices, and yet APIA writers are hard-pressed to find the same passionate, sustaining demand that mainstream writers or genre fiction enjoy. That presents a contradiction, one we writer activists cannot ignore, and one that we should respond to loudly, proudly, from every storied corner of Earth. In Thao Worra's home state of Minnesota, there are over 60 ethnic communities tracing their heritage to Asia or the Pacific Islands. These communities thrive across the United States, coast to coast. For each of these communities, writers must ask: Can't we find, among all of those thousands, 10 individuals who are passionate about Asian American literature, writer activists who will express without equivocation that Asian American literature matters? For each of the 50 states, there must be at least 10 Asian / Pacific Islander Americans that answer yes. And thus Thao Worra, joined by Kartika Review seek out those 500. Why should it be so hard to identify them and build a vibrant, amazing network of readers and writers? How can a canon of contemporary Asian American literature be built if we cannot even find these 500? And so our quest begins.
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THE 500 PROJECT TO SUBMIT YOUR PROFILE TO THE 500 PROJECT, E-MAIL US AT firstname.lastname@example.org In the subject line of your e-mail, include the state you reside in followed by your full name. For example: Minnesota - Bryan Thao Worra Please be sure to attach a full color photograph of yourself to the e-mail. In either the inline body of the e-mail or as a Microsoft Word attachment (.doc or .docx), include the following information about yourself: Full Name Date of Birth Ethnicity Residence (City, State) Occupation Professional Affiliations (optional) Then answer the following questions: Does APIA literature matter to you? Why does APIA literature matter to you? Cite the last 3 works of APIA literature you read. Who are your favorite APIA writers or poets and why? In your own words, you are: In your own words, APIA literature is:
500 PROJECT SUBMISSION DEADLINE: DECEMBER 31, 2012
For more information, please visit http://www.kartikareview.com/500project/ PLEASE HELP US GET THE WORD OUT!
Kartika Review is a national Asian American literary arts journal that publishes fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, author interviews, and art/photography. The journal launched in 2007 and as of 2011, is fiscally sponsored as a 501(c)(3) by the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center in San Francisco.
OUR NAMESAKE In Vajrayana (or Tibetan) Buddhist tradition, the kartika, a crescent-shaped knife, symbolizes the cutting away of ignorance and superficiality, with the hopes that it will lead to enlightenment. The kartika is kept close during deep meditation or prayer. It serves mainly as a metaphorical reminder of our self-determined life missions and never is it actually wielded in the offensive against others. We took on this namesake because the kartika best represents this journalâ€™s vision.
CONTACT Kartika Review API Cultural Center 934 Brannan Street San Francisco, CA 94103
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ISSUE 12 | SPRING 2012
ISSUE 12 | SPRING 2012
Published on Mar 16, 2012
Cover Art: "Water Dragon" by Ako Castuera © March, 2012 by Kartika Review 2 PROGRAM COORDINATOR Jennifer Banta MANAGING EDITOR Sunny Woan EX...