NYU CREATIVE WRITING PROGRAM COLLEGE OF ARTS & SCIENCE
West 10th publishes poetry, prose, and art by New York University’s undergraduate students. It is edited and produced annually by a studentrun editorial board and the NYU Creative Writing Program. The ideas expressed in West 10th do not necessarily reflect those of NYU. The NYU Creative Writing Program faculty includes Anne Carson, Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, Terrance Hayes, Yusef Komunyakaa, Joyce Carol Oates, Sharon Olds, and Zadie Smith. The program director is Deborah Landau. The Creative Writing Program has distinguished itself for more than three decades as a leading national center for the study of literature and writing. West 10th NYU Creative Writing Program Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House 58 West 10th Street New York, NY 10011 west10th.org Copyright © 2018 West 10th NYU Creative Writing Program’s Undergraduate Literary Journal ISSN: 1941-4374 Printed in the United States of America
Su Young Lee Benjamin Mok
Assistant Prose Editors
Chelsea Cheng Angelica Chong Antoripa Dey
E Yeon Chang Jae Lee Adam Young
Assistant Poetry Editors
Brittany Abou-Suleiman Natalie Breuer Simona Ivanova Natalie Whalen
Web Design/Art Editor
Matthew Rohrer Darin Strauss Joanna Yas
TABLE OF CONTENTS Editor’s Note 7 Poems by Morgan Parker, Guest Contributor 30 An Interview with Min Jin Lee 37 Contributors’ Notes 77
Poetry Henry Trinder
David Brake 12 Editors’ Award Winner
When the Kids Die
Old Friends in Fog
Prose Abbie Donoghue 16 Editors’ Award Winner Hannah Seidlitz 62 Kedar Berntson 71
Ocotillo Blood Money Mantel
Art Lixing Mida Chu
Alexandra Jade Tringali
perdu en france
Gus Relaxing in Public
Yuki Maeda Ward
Lixing Mida Chu
Where We Leave Ourselves
Yuki Maeda Ward Jason Zuowei Xiao Jason Zuowei Xiao
69 73 74
Ghost A Tibetan Yak Heavenly River
hile organizing these selections of poetry, art, and prose—the ones published here, chosen by our editors—I saw a story taking shape. A line stretching through all the pieces. This past year, a series of brutally cleansing waves had rinsed away some of the injustices which had buoyed the American arts industry for decades. From this shock rose a movement which had charged the arts with renewed political power, a power which I wanted to uphold here, in the 2017–18 issue of West 10th. The criterion for political art is not always in subject matter. All the pieces here are fiercely unique, varying in story, style, and intent— the privilege of publishing these great works in one magazine is the opportunity to choreograph a message out of creative diversity. So, as you read this issue of West 10th, you may sense a progression: a story coming together in increments, the slow spread of light over a landscape. In this issue, the poetry, artwork, and prose pieces have been arranged to form a story of a futuristic world being reborn from calamity. I like to think that the works here, though each inimitable, can collaborate and build upon each other to form a powerful narrative. Each piece can be read and admired separately, but read collectively, as a story, I find that they can create something strange and wonderful: a production. The ambitions of West 10th would not be possible without the editorial board. The enthusiasm and passion of the editors this year manifested itself as we faced one of West 10th’s most competitive issues. I am thankful for their help and inspired by their brilliance. This magazine reflects their hard work and vision. West 10th is built on the support of NYU’s Creative Writing 7
Program. Each year, issues of the magazine are passed out in creative writing classes, and this collaborative effort to share fellow students’ published works in classes is an incredible privilege. At the forefront of these endeavors is Joanna Yas, whose wisdom, encouragement, and advice make up the spirit West 10th. I cannot express how thankful I am to have her support. Matthew Rohrer and Darin Strauss, our executive editors, took the time to read and select this year’s recipients of the Editors’ Awards; their support of West 10th challenges and encourages us even more to find the very best work. Thank you, Aaron Petrovich, for designing this issue of West 10th. Each issue has left me convinced of wizardry. I am beholden to Min Jin Lee, who answered the questions of an awestruck student with clarity, wisdom, and elegance. Having read Pachinko and Free Food for Millionaires, I was thrilled to discuss the future of the novel with a writer who is at its vanguard. Lee’s philosophy on writing is invaluable to any student, writer or not. Morgan Parker, our poetry contributor, gave us three original poems, all published here—thank you. When the board learned that Morgan Parker would be this year’s contributor, we were delighted and excited to work with such a formidable poet. I would also like to thank the Lillian Vernon Writers House for hosting West 10th’s launch party. The Lillian Vernon Writers House is one of New York’s most treasured literary venues, and it is also the site of many of my most treasured college memories. Some of the most meaningful readings and classes of my college years took place here; I can point to spots in the building where a sentence has left me quiet, overwhelmed. I expect it to happen at tonight’s reading. Being here tonight to celebrate the brilliance of young writers and artists makes me happy to have been a part of West 10th, proud to have been an NYU student. For the past decade, West 10th has had the privilege of publishing extraordinary poets, artists, and writers, and this issue—our eleventh— represents another glimpse of the future. Their work appears here today, and everywhere tomorrow. Audrey Deng 8
Lixing Mida Chu, Nostalgia
In the third grade the most popular boy in school was a boy who could eat an apple, the whole apple, stems and leaves and seeds and everything, in just a few bites, and we were so impressed weâ€™d gather around him in circles and throw apples at him and heâ€™d eat them because it was the only thing he could do and we loved him even though we thought the seeds were poisonous and he might die at any minute but we loved him.
Sophia Wang, Looking Glass
When the Kids Die Winner of the Editorsâ€™ Award in Poetry
Kids started dying earlier, faster this year than the last. They died at birth, dropping still from aching mothers. They died from disease, painfully, slowly, often crying. We sent kids to war. We trained kids to kill, bought them flights to burning forests, scorched fields of poppies. Kids walked with steady feet and sang of water and girls in sundresses, but bullets came quickly. Some wars ended, so we loaded trucks with white powder, filled bags, stuffed them in pockets of kids in baggy clothes. Kids stomped and sang. Some ran, some died from the drugs they were told to spread. We started shooting. We gave guns to whoever asked. We sent bullets into crowds of singing kids, we drove trucks through parades, we poisoned water, we started more wars, we bombed homes and bakeries and playgrounds with kids swinging on red swings. We killed quickly and painlessly. Most of the kids died. But some kept singing, kept walking forward, out of the city, past clearings of flowers feeding on spilled blood. They walked with musical steps, treading softly on grass and dirt. They marveled at snakes wrapped about the trunks of trees, they danced to the sound of each otherâ€™s footsteps. They kept moving. They walked, swung from vines, floated across seas guided by shimmering fish and eels.
After years, the kids found themselves in a deserted city, the city they once left. The birds were the only remaining residents. So the kids painted old cement, cast seeds into the dust and dirt. They welcomed the birds. They carved into stone, let water trickle down into rivers for the fish. They walked softly, they sang often.
Alexandra Jade Tringali, perdu en france
Sara Miranda, Retro Butterfly
Ocotillo Winner of the Editorsâ€™ Award in Prose
lythe ducked out of the chapel-in-progress, turning to the neighborâ€™s rusting fence. Her trowel clattered down into the bucket of plaster, momentarily creating a welcomed layer of sound between her and the cacophony of clucks. The dry grass and phalange-like ocotillo branches rose higher than the source of the chaos. By the time she hoisted her upper body over the fence, the desperate avian cries had dissipated. A hen had wedged herself between the rusted fence and the coup, surrounded by feathers. Her head was now spotty with bald patches. Two roosters darted at each other on the other side of the dusty yard under a warped set of swings. Blythe knew what had occurred, knew it was what simply what chickens did, but was still horrified whenever the neighbors left the roosters to roam in their hen house. She hopped back down to her side with a crunch of spiny goatheads underfoot. When she first arrived in Duncan, she was disinterested in the dusty ground. She liked that it was dead, the simplicity of it, but that was the extent of her admiration. Every step was a crunch, a scrape, a skid. For a while she missed the spongey earth underfoot of the Pacific Northwest. She was nostalgic for the slips, slides, squishes with every step but it had been four years since she left Portland. Now she reveled in the dormant, brown foliage. Back in the chapel she held a porcelain crucifix up to the wall, contemplated placing it in a row with several others, or solitary on the opposite wall. The placement of the solitary crucifix would only further confuse. That was what she was going for. She went with solitary on the opposite wall and began mounting, blending the crucifix into the walls that grew higher with each methodical hour that she spent working.
These hours were not quite work and not quite art. At least she didn’t consider it her art anymore. She thought of her chapel project as more of a record of material culture for beings of the future. Blythe was certain that someone would someday dig her chapel out of the dust and try to make sense of the things humans worshiped, loved, cared about. Humans were bound to destroy themselves, but she was determined to leave a striking record. She had traveled throughout the Southwest, collecting old antiques and knick-knacks, crosses, plastic Buddhas, clay pots. Blythe was energized by things, perpetually in awe of stuff. Amazed at what people weren’t looking at. They were fixed on the reflective sheen of a cell phone and didn’t notice that she had taken ownership of every thing, everywhere she went. It was all hers, the material world. The crap, the jewels, the books, even the crunchy ground and the dull hills in the distance. Stuff was a portal into a world where she was almost always utterly alone. She decided to build from it a massive temple dedicated to just that. Stuff. Two years ago, she had amassed a pile as large as an industrial dumpster and finally began building. Each day she would haul out a Rubbermaid bin of material from her adjacent studio in the yard and begin breaking, shaping, creating patterns and mosaics in the walls as she built them. This day was no different. She had spent all morning before the clucking interruption arranging a recent haul of catholic relics but with guests arriving later, she wiped her hands on her pants, leaving grey streaks of plaster and headed across the yard to the hotel. An easy loan, a cheap, dilapidated property, and an urge to recreate the 1920’s boomtown grandeur lured Blythe to Duncan, Arizona. The crafted oak molding, dark patterned wallpaper, and tiled floors that had fallen into disrepair had been revived little by little over the past two years. As she wound her way up the staircase, each step gave way slightly as old steps do. She frowned as she entered the bedroom. Dust had settled on the quilt since she had changed the sheets. It had been two weeks since the last set of guests. To visit Duncan, you had to be intentional about it, and not many people were. Word was spreading, however, about the hotel, and about her. The previous guest had 17
been a writer from Phoenix who decided to take a detour on her way back from Marfa. She had written a piece on the hotel, chronicling the original southwestern art covering the walls, the peculiar inn-keeper on the run from tragedy, and her chapel. She grazed over the details of the accident, focusing instead on the gang of outdoor cats that roamed through the yard and the goat, Pepper, that had eaten her entire copy of Anna Karenina. The writer emailed a link of the story to Blythe, who noticed an obvious correlation between the published date and her overflowing voicemail box. Blythe worried about the influx of guests, that her time in the chapel would be usurped each week by cooking, cleaning, laundry. She also worried about the type of guest waiting in her voicemail box. Normally, they were far removed from the life she used to lead as a working artist in Portland. Since opening the Inn, she never had a guest who had a remote notion of who she was or why she had moved to this town of two intersections, three stop signs, and a population of 142, depending on the season. The cool desert nights, the muted sliver of civilization that was Duncan, the open spaces—Blythe savored it. A five-minute drive out of town and she could find herself completely alone. It was routine for her go for a ride, eyes set on the horizon. She drove out until the lights of her hotel were faintly glowing. She screamed until her voice became brittle and useless. She chucked glass bottles down to smack the asphalt of the two-lane highway and shatter. She loved that she could lose it, that she had the space to go crazy outside of a stranger’s gaze and beyond their earshot. But what she loved about Duncan most of all was her anonymity. She reveled in the realization that her reputation did not proceed her upon an uneasy handshake. Nothing was personal. The retirees in Cruise America campers or dusty families returning from camping in the Gila Box propped Blythe up as a mysterious Innkeeper, solitary in the desert. Assuming their imaginations were more entertaining than whatever story she would deliver, most of the time, they never asked. However, an arty magazine centerfold piece, categorizing her hotel as a “nostalgic gateway to a new American West” would not attract the 18
distant guests she enjoyed. Nevertheless, she had filled her books for the month. She needed the cash. Blythe changed the sheets, beat a cloud of dust out of the quilt on the balcony and then began to cook dinner. She knew the couple staying the weekend would be driving from at least 100 miles in some direction and would be worn out from staring at the monochromatic landscape for hours. She could control one of those variables. Blythe grabbed the stewpot suspended above the stove and began to chop and toss in the various limp, rogue vegetables that were scattered in the fridge. By the time the guests arrived, they were greeted with the smell of stew that had wound its way through every room, hung above the oak bookshelves, clung to the parlor room furniture. It was clear to Blythe that they had read the magazine article. She had a vision of what the readership looked like and they radically fulfilled it. Jane, the first woman, wore a black monosuit with minimalist, geometric jewelry. Nix was also in all black apart from a topaz bolo tie tight around her collar. “Oh my god,” Jane said, closing her eyes and breathing in deeply. “Whatever that is, I cannot wait to eat it.” “Jane,” she added, eyes still closed, jutting her hand in Blythe’s direction. “Blythe. Welcome to the Sampson Hotel.” She ushered them in and they shuffled towards the lectern where she handed them keys and a handwritten set of guidelines. It was an ever-growing list of rules and information. Where to get extra towels, not to feed the animals, keep paper away from the goat, et cetera. She rambled off the rules. After so many guests her mouth just moved on its own and her mind could wander. Her feet stepped and hands gestured through the small hotel, pointing out the bathroom, the long, cluttered kitchen, the upstairs bedrooms, and, finally, the yard. The guests looked out, eyes wide, at the chapel, the rusted teardrop trailer that now served as a small library, the cat castle she had built from the old kitchen cabinets, everything now shrouded in the pale pink haze of dusk. Blythe led them back towards the dining room for dinner. She 19
ladled the thick dark soup into their bowls and sat down at the head of the table. She sliced bread, her hands still spotted with plaster. The conversation meandered through the usual topics. Jane and Nix were creative types from Tempe on a self-declared sabbatical. They had been jumping around the Southwest for a month now, and while looking for their next destination, stumbled upon the hotel article. Then the conversation turned to Blythe. She could feel the questions coming— why she moved to Duncan, did she feel alone, did she planned to return to the city with armloads of inspired canvases in tow. Her solitary, decluttered life couldn’t be forever. “My friend from Portland has heard of you. Apparently, you are some kind of a big deal,” Jane said, reaching across the table for another piece of bread. Blythe was surprised by Jane’s immediate comfort at the table with her host, as if they shared an instant kinship by way of a hearty stew. Jane began explaining her plans for a more permanent artistic isolation and chattered on about her hopes for escaping the urban art scene of Tempe. Blythe’s mind began to wander. What would Jane and Nix converse about later, curled up after dinner in the dark? She could picture them debriefing on their hostess in hushed voices. “So, what kicked you out? How did you wind up all the way out here?” Jane said with a laugh, but her curiosity was palpable. Blythe started clearing the table, shuffling plates and spoons and napkins into a pile on her forearm as she began to explain. “Nothing really. Portland was fine . . . I just wanted to be alone.” Blythe paused, furrowing her brow, choosing her words. She studied their faces. How much did they know? What did Jane’s friend in Portland say? Did they come to see the Chapel and have a laugh at Pepper nibbling their notebooks or were their motivations elsewhere? “Away, I guess, is the better word.” She explained her current project, the chapel, emphasizing the process, deemphasizing the connection to her art career. Both women had heads cocked to one side, nodding in time to a specific rhythm that indicated their idea of what Blythe would say had already taken hold before she said anything. If 20
only Blythe could access it. If only she could peel back the skin, open the skulls and peer into what they knew. Blythe woke in a sheen of sweat. She was still wrapped in a down comforter from the middle of the night freeze. Unsticking herself, she walked to the window looking down on the yard. Jane and Nix were already outside at the rod iron table, holding mugs, cats weaving in and out of their legs. Dog-eared books were scattered on the table. Sleep had not taken away Blythe’s unease from the prior evening, and, looking down, she couldn’t shake the feeling that Jane and Nix were getting uncomfortably close to backing her into a corner. She thought back to the magazine. The ambiguous description of the accident that begged for an explanation. It was only a matter of time before they asked. Blythe turned from the window, coming to the conclusion that the only way they wouldn’t be able to do so was with food in their mouths. Pancake batter softly sizzled on the griddle. She watched the bubbles gently rise and fall. After the satisfying first flips revealing golden brown undersides, the primal clucking, the sounds of a hen in peril cut through the quiet again. Jane ran in from the yard. “Blythe!” She shouted, distraught. “The neighbor’s hen. We need you.” Blythe followed Jane back outside to the same corner of the yard where her feet crunched the day before. The roosters had once again pinned the hen down. One held her neck with his beak while the other walked on her back, mating. The hen clucked and screeched. Jane and Nix were huddled together, eyes wide, mouths covered with tense hands, frozen in place. Blythe grabbed a rake and jabbed it at the roosters over the fence. It snagged them up and off of the hen. They dodged the rake and continued to bob and weave in attempts to get back to the hen. She hid behind the rake, burrowing into the corner. Blythe turned and surveyed the yard for a makeshift shelter. She grabbed a wire cage and lowered it onto the hen. The bird was trapped, but away from the roosters. Blythe wiped her hands on her thighs, and, remembering breakfast, jogged back towards the hotel. 21
The pancakes were smoking and blackened on one side. Blythe scraped the black off the griddle and started a new batch. Jane and Nix were just starting to move from the fence. Slowly, they made their way back to the kitchen. “Blythe. We just watched an act of rape. I really don’t think we can be here anymore.” Jane’s face had not yet relaxed. Blythe flipped the pancakes, trying to summon something comforting. “Troubling. Uh—Pancakes?” Blythe held a plate out towards her. Jane looked back at Nix, her eyes searching for reinforcement. Nix stood back, leaned on the counter, and sighed. She shook her head. Jane took the plate and allowed Blythe to pile a stack of pancakes on it. They all moved slowly to the table with their pancakes “It’s just . . . that was traumatizing. That poor hen, I mean—” “Jane, we can’t anthropomorphize. Is sexual assault a thing with chickens? I really don’t know.” Nix shrugged, hands flinging out with a forkful of pancakes. Blythe kept her eyes on her plate. Jane expected her to soothe them. She knew Jane thought this was the raw, rural standard and she was an interpreter. But how to respond to barbaric chicken mating had not permeated her instincts during her years in Duncan. She cleared the table, put the syrup back in the fridge, and went to change into work clothes. Jane and Nix wandered back outside to the table, fresh coffee mugs steaming. Blythe thought about the hen, still hovering beneath the cage as she placed and leveled a ceramic disciple on the wall. One of the cats wandered into the chapel, its tail twitching back and forth. The cat hissed and darted away as she knelt to pet its long coat. Blythe wondered if she should take it personally. The morning blurred into a lazy afternoon, the couple still at the table. Nix was underlining something in On Photography and Jane rifled through Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera, reaffirming their southwest road trip as a feminist one. Jane began sketching ocotillo plants in the margins. She tried again every few pages. Jane set down the book and walked across the yard to the chapel. 22
Blythe was smoothing the edges that secured the disciple to the wall. After months of daily work, she had become desensitized to the intricate beauty that had begun to take shape. Jane, however, was not. She stepped slowly into the sanctuary, scanning the walls, eyes feasting on the colors, textures, chaos. Small pieces of statues, goblets, and symbols of all sorts formed patterns flowing and spiraling energetically towards where Blythe stood at the back. “Blythe,” she said. “This is something else. It’s unreal.” She dragged her fingertips along the textured wall, still examining the small fragments in awe. “Thanks, it’s a process.” Blythe said, not turning away from the wall. “Have you shared this with anyone back home?” Blythe’s fingers pushed harder into the crease between the wall and the disciple. She imagined Jane under the quilts she had carefully folded, face illuminated by a google search of ‘Blythe Werner.’ As it stood, any mention of her art had fallen to the second page of results. Jane would have scrolled, lingered in the stream of local news outlets detailing the police report, the media statements, the digestible story arc of Blythe fleeing town at the height of the chaos. “It really was an accident” Blythe said. “Wait, what?“ “I know you read the magazine and probably looked me up. Just . . . for the record. It was an accident.” Blythe stayed frozen facing the wall, weight leaning into the statue, waiting for a response. Neither broke the silence. Blythe crouched down to the bucket and tried to appear focused, head bowed down intently. Her hair draped over her face to hide her gaze. Through the strands she could see Jane’s out of focus figure retreating to the patio table. Jane sat down, shook her head, and flipped open her book. Blythe watched as she scribbled something in the margins of her book and slid it over to Nix. Nix shook her head. It must have been a question. Blythe let out her breathe but pulled it back in sharply as Nix grabbed the book and pen from Jane’s hands. She 23
scribbled something back. Jane read it and returned a confused glance until her eyebrow arched and chin dropped slowly into a nod. She sipped her coffee slowly, still nodding. Blythe remained frozen on her knees beside the bucket, her fingers now covered in dried plaster. She tried to reason that Nix and Jane were just guests, that they knew just as much as anyone who was not there in the gallery on that day. What was different? A wave of heat swept through her. It settled in her cheeks, her chest, the tightness oozing down to collect in her forearms. In the chapel, Jane had touched the walls, leaving her fingerprints and miniscule scraps of skin on the sharp edges of the mosaic. Blythe was now aware of her presence, her inquisition, her judgement permeating and rotting throughout the sacred structure. The way she had returned to the table, furiously scribbling a new piece of gossip. Blythe walked away from the wall and knelt down. She mixed the hardening plaster, unsure if or when she would need it again. The hen cried out again, shattering the hot, stiff worry that had settled over Blythe in the Chapel. The roosters had thrust the cage off of the hen and were on her again. Blythe dropped the trowel back in the bucket, the motion now familiar as she again ducked out of the chapel. She grabbed her gardening gloves sitting in the dirt and put them on. The fence was easier to jump than she expected. The first rooster was surprised by Blytheâ€™s grip and tried to wiggle free. She held its body between her legs, one hand on its skull and one on its neck. She twisted her hands and with a crack, it stopped. The next rooster ran across the yard but Blythe was able to corner it and grab its body. Again, she twisted its neck with one motion until she heard a crack. Easier than she expected. She carried them back to the hotel by their legs, a bouquet of feathers dragging in the dirt. She took out her knife, slashed their throats and let the blood drip into the bucket of plaster. It was thin in comparison and splattered up onto the white sides of the bucket, then pooled into the troughs of the plaster. She walked to the kitchen and swung the chickens onto the metal counter. She studied their limp, mutilated bodies. Blood was begin24
ning to coagulate. She picked one up, fingers pressing around its neck again. She could feel the bones, so close beneath the thin sheen of skin and feathers. It had been so easy. Why had it all been so easy? She snapped its neck again, creating another break. She chuckled. She thought about how it took less effort to break that neck than crack a pair of take-out chopsticks into two. She was unsure of what to do with them now. She had never butchered a chicken. She vaguely remembered a photo from a tattered cookbook she had flipped through in an antique store. Following her instinct, she put the chickens in a pot, filled the pot with water, and set it to boil. Perhaps they would eat them, and later than that, she could use the bones in the chapel walls. Blythe let out a deep breath, trying to calm down. She threw her gardening gloves in the trash and ran her wrists under the cold faucet. She had guests and was certain they knew who she was and wanted to know more. She walked back outside. Jane was staring at her book and pretending to read, hands trembling and pages quivering. Nix raised her coffee cup in Blythe’s direction. “Can I get a refill?” she asked. Blythe returned with the steaming cup and paused before handing it back. “I know you read about it. I just want to explain myself.” Jane and Nix exchanged a look that Blythe interpreted as recognition. They were ready to hear the full story. “One of my assistants, Beth, she was using the wrong paint on the top border of the mosaic.” Blythe said. “I was yelling but she had headphones in so I went up the ladder to get her attention.” Blythe had been angry. She had been so angry. Not at Beth, but she remembered that hot rage building and burning and she couldn’t help herself. Beth’s arm was so close; it felt so natural to reach. Blythe had grabbed it, mushing the flesh around the bone and pulling it towards her in attempts to make Beth understand, but more so to release the hot, itchy anger that was crawling over her skin. “The installation was so behind and I was so frustrated I just 25
snapped.” Blythe’s hand clenched, knuckles white around Nix’s mug. She closed her eyes. Blythe remembered Beth’s wide eyes, surprised by her grasp. Blythe had let go of her arm after a moment. In hindsight, Blythe realized that she had been on the edge of a line. Everything could have been fine. She would have returned to hectic preparation for the exhibit as if nothing had occurred. She had grabbed her assistant’s arm in a compromised moment, but would later apologize. There had been a small chance that everything would change. That her tight grip would mean something more. Beth had nodded, agreed to fix her work. Blythe was down off the ladder when Beth started descending for the right color. Halfway down, her foot slipped slightly on the paint spattered step and she swayed, trying to balance. Blythe watched as her left foot swung in the air, sweeping up as if it alone could stop her upper body as it fell towards the ground. Blythe had never given much thought to the sound that a skull would make upon smacking a concrete floor. Weeks after the accident, she dropped a plant in a ceramic pot and was startled. It had made the same sound. The weight, cracking and spreading dully across the ground. “I wasn’t even on the ladder, I didn’t push her but, I just—” Her hand flew up and landed with a dull slap on her thigh. “It was my fault, I shouldn’t have—” Blythe looked at Jane and Nix who were nodding, brows furrowed in front of her. They were listening this time. “But was it?” She asked them, voice cracking. “Was it my fault?” She wanted them to answer the question, keep nodding, cry for her, tell her that they believed her. It was then that Blythe heard a distant sizzle. It had to be the water, boiling up over the edges of the pot, collecting at the burner. The bodies of her neighbors’ chickens, which she had killed with her own hands were on the stove. She was standing in the yard, seeking absolution of guilt from two strangers from Tempe who had come to relax, perhaps see her art collection, sit in the yard and do exactly what they were doing before interrupted. Drink coffee, read, and draw what she now, standing in 26
front of the table, could see were skeletal fingers. Jane’s page was covered in bones reaching across towards the spine. Had they even read the article? Blythe thought for the first time. She pointed to the house and jogged towards the birds. In the kitchen, bloody bubbles of water, fat, and feathers were gliding up and out of the pot. She drained it in the sink, the basin quickly coated in a layer of pink feathers. She started picking at the birds through the rising steam, her fingertips singeing on the hot flesh. The feathers fell out of the loosened pores without a fight. Her knife slid easily down the thin skin of their underbellies to remove the giblets. As she cut out the intestines, she thought about Jane and Nix and how they were just like the old couples in RV’s passing through. They did not care more or less about her than the dusty families. She thought about the limp necks under her palms. How good it felt to break them. Squeeze her fists, flip her wrists, and feel the thumping pulse of their struggle subside. She tossed the cleaned birds back into the pot and gathered ingredients for soup. Later, as Blythe stirred the pot, her mind replaying the day’s events, wondering if and where she, herself, had lost it, Nix stepped into the kitchen. She leaned against the doorway. “So . . . I think we are going to hit the road.” Nix said, looking down. “We’ve got to get back to Tempe but in all honesty, this just got out of hand.” Blythe walked around the counter and wiped her hands. They were stained a dark pink from handling the blood. She nodded and offered to carry down their bags. “No—no need to check us out. I already grabbed my card up front. I think it’s pretty clear but just in case—we aren’t paying for any of this.” Blythe heard an engine starting somewhere out front. “That’s my cue,” Nix said, turning to walk towards the door. “Take care,” Blythe called after her, unsure of how else to address their swift departure, or make up for her violent outburst, her monologue about Beth, her obvious desperation. 27
By evening, fat had floated to the top of the soup and begun to foam. The drained feathers had dried to the bottom of the sink. Blythe collected them in a grocery bag and brought them out to the patio along with a bowl of soup. She took a few sips, then set it down to turn towards the entryway of the chapel. She began with broad strokes, using a thick brush to establish each carpal to metacarpal to phalange. Bone by bone she slashed until two hands towered on either side of where the door would be. The plaster from the afternoon had toughened by then, the blood separated and caked at the top of the bucket. She mixed a new batch and grabbed the bag of feathers. After hours working under a spotlight, the grey morning light began to soak through the clouds. Blythe stood back. Two blue skeletal hands with fingers poised to choke around the doorway were illuminated. Knuckles of layered feathers protruded out of the wall. The fingers reached high, and curved slightly towards the door, as if their strength would swoop down at any moment. The feather knuckles rustled slightly in the breeze. Blythe looked down at her hands, now thick with plaster and small tufts of pink. She walked back inside the hotel and climbed the stairs to the bedrooms. She began pulling at the sheets to change for a new pair of guests arriving the next day. Her books were full and she needed the cash.
Veronica Liow, Gus Relaxing in Public
Poems by Morgan Parker, Guest Contributor Morgan Parker is the author of There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Tin House Books, 2017) and Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books, 2015). Her third collection of poetry, Magical Negro, will be published by Tin House in 2019. She is also working on a young adult novel and a book of nonfiction. Parker received her Bachelor’s in Anthropology and Creative Writing from Columbia University and her MFA in Poetry from NYU. Parker is the recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, winner of a 2016 Pushcart Prize, and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. She is a Sagittarius, and she lives in LA (and sometimes Brooklyn).
Where even in death, in miniature carved stone, we never escape the fucking guy on the street when Iâ€™m just walking to the gallery to meet a friend, who could be a lover in a different eclipse season, because this one is about destruction, it makes you say Stop looking at me when I ask to be a vindication, it is about a heatwave that drives out the sort of company I want to write spells for, say â€œindefiniteâ€? as if it were a word with a real concept behind it, as if it had any context, as if there were any imagination left from the fall of our stinking expanse of sweat and dahlias and wartimes and insects and escapes and sinkholes and caves and patterns and jokes and consumers and televisions and invisible numbers and scandals and every kind of boat and religions and mammies and world champions and natural disasters and spooks and illegals and casseroles and celebrity baby names and prizes and trophies and 31
wives and discounts and loans and skin and skin bleaching and civil rights and McNuggets and shipping containers and emojis and slurs and amendments and disco albums and priests and maps and security systems and galas and job titles and car mufflers and good deals and altars and defunct social networking websites and brothers and niggas and magazines and grudges and watermelons and conspiracy theories and colleges and special editions and deluxe editions and holocausts and relief workers and con artists and domestic partnerships and rubies and law firms and elegies and Uncle Toms and neighborhoods and excuses and police procedures and plastic bags and mosques and raccoons and skeletons and hate groups and negotiables and investigations and blind dates and types of cancer and ways to kill yourself and forms of identification and fetishes and Bibles and consumers and performances and wedding venues and livestock and macchiatos and epiphanies and names, when it could have been an otherwise easy day, that specific fucking guy whose eyes prick and ravage, pathetic, as he says Nubian.
Magical Negro #1: Jesus Christ
They make his eyes that color so he can seduce you. Literally every white boyfriend tender until they’re not. Y’all know that nigger was a nigger. Y’all know those whores were whores. Sometimes I go to the sink for water and I come back with a jar full of wine. Every second I breathe, I forgive.
Parkerâ€™s Mood by Charlie Parker
I am only as lonely as anybody else, I say at lunch downtown, examining my worth. It isnâ€™t summertime. At the end,
Yuki Maeda Ward, Tae
Kaylee Reynolds, Hidden Lines
An Interview with Min Jin Lee
Min Jin Lee is the author of Free Food for Millionaires (2007) and the New York Times Bestseller Pachinko (2017). Pachinko was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, a New York Times 10 Best Books of 2017, a USA Today Top 10 Books of 2017, an American Library Association Notable Book, and an American Booksellers Associationâ€™s Indie Next Great Reads. Min Jin went to Yale College where she was awarded both the Henry Wright Prize for Nonfiction and the James Ashmun Veech Prize for Fiction. She attended law school at Georgetown University and worked as a lawyer for several years in New York prior to writing full time. From 2007 to 2011, Min Jin lived in Tokyo where she researched and wrote Pachinko. She lives in New York with her family.
WEST 10TH: First of all, congratulations on all the accolades your book, Pachinko, has received, just in the last few weeks—making the lists of New York Times, USA Today—it’s really great. Really encouraging. LEE: It’s kind of crazy and I feel really grateful. Totally unexpected, in such a positive way. You can’t take it too seriously, you have to be grateful and can’t take it too seriously because otherwise you become a jerk. WEST 10TH: So then—how have you found ways to stay grounded? LEE: Well, it’s funny because I just got rejected from several things. (Laughs). Like I just got rejected from four different things. I’m not going to name names, but I just got rejected from two different—no four different things, two different fellowships, I had a job interview that went totally south, and then I applied to something else and they didn’t reply to me, and I thought, well ok . . . and my big problem and it’s kind of a curious situation, is—you’re writing for a creative writing audience, and I don’t have an MFA. So, I’ve had to take all these really inexpensive classes with wonderful, wonderful, famous, famous writers in New York City for like a hundred bucks, a hundred fifty dollars, and I ended up studying, and having, maybe having twenty classes easily, but I don’t have a formal degree because I didn’t have the money for it. I couldn’t really travel because I’m married and I have a son, and my husband has health insurance. But now that I’m trying to think about teaching, I can’t get jobs because I don’t have what you call a terminal degree. A lot of the times it’s institutional, not personal, so despite my accomplishments or whatever they are—it’s very easy to stay humble because I’m still not good enough. WEST 10TH: I highly doubt that! LEE: Well, it’s funny, because they ask for requirements, and I don’t have an MFA degree, I don’t have a Ph.D. and I went to law school, so it’s not that I’m an uneducated person, it’s just I don’t have an 38
An Interview with Min Jin Lee
MFA. And I think people who have studied it, I think, they have every reason to get those jobs, but to answer your question—how do you stay grounded, it’s just sort of the reality of the choices I made. So, I’m curious to see how the next generation of writers are going to fare. They are all going to be MFAs, or not. If you don’t get one and you want to teach, it does affect your employment prospects. WEST 10TH: A lot of research went into writing Pachinko, and I was wondering, since this is a work of historical fiction, and you’ve written both fiction and nonfiction, where would you figure historical fiction within nonfiction? You could’ve easily written a nonfiction book with the same material. Would you consider historical fiction as a type of nonfiction? LEE: No, no, absolutely not. I think historical fiction is a category of fiction. It is rooted in history, but it cannot replace historical nonfiction. It cannot. It does not have the same purpose. I think it definitely adds a kind of empathy and it should be accurate in terms of historical fact and my book is very accurate. However, however—it didn’t happen in the way nonfiction should work. So I do take the task of nonfiction writers, who are fictional, as not fair. In the same way, I am not in any way encroaching upon fact-sealed, and I wouldn’t presume that people should take this book as a book of nonfiction. That said, this book is taught in nonfiction contexts by history classes, because very often now, history teachers are using literature in addition to academic literature. And they can agree or disagree with what I’ve done in terms of interpretation because in many ways, I am much more balanced about the Japanese point of view as well as the Korean point of view. Like, something you see in academic work is a focus primarily on one group. WEST 10TH: In other interviews, you’ve talked about how this is the first novel about Korean-Japanese in English, and I was wondering if you could speak to the importance of this being a novel rather than a historical, documentary-type work. 39
LEE: There are many wonderful academic books about the KoreanJapanese people right now. And if you look at the back of my book, you’ll see that I have listed the important scholars who have worked for their entire lives, in this field. And they need to get a lot of attention. However, they have written academic scholarship, which is a different kind of writing from what I do, which is traditional, 19th-century social realist kind of narration. So, we’re taking this material and presenting it in different ways, but this is the first novel written in English about the Korean-Japanese in the world, so that was something I was very mindful of. I didn’t think it would have a big audience, because I was writing about this very micro community, and I think the scholarship, the excellent scholarship of academics, that’s listed in the back of the book, should get attention if people are more interested in the subject. WEST 10TH: It becomes a different story when it’s written as a novel. LEE: It’s very, very different. They don’t have the same liberties that I can take in the same way. I don’t have their level of experience and training to be an anthropologist or a historian or a sociologist. I think it’s a very different kind of labor, different rules and protocol. And for me, I had different rules and different protocol, and I think very often, sometimes what happens with fiction, is that people kind of think there’s no craft. Actually, there’s a lot of rules with fiction that you do have to learn, and if you learn really well, if you get a good sense of the tools, it can make you do things that you can’t do without knowing, understanding tone, or point of view, or style, or scene. And within the subjects I’ve just mentioned, which are parts of fiction, there are different subsets of rules, and all those need to be learned, so I do think that sometimes people think that making art is something you are bound to do, but it took me decades of training to try to figure out how it’s done, especially because I don’t have a formal MFA. But these rules do exist.
An Interview with Min Jin Lee
WEST 10TH: So you’ve written two very expansive novels, both of which are richly peopled, richly plotted. And I was wondering—the New York Times described Pachinko as “resisting summary,” saying its shifting locus makes the story more than it was. So I was wondering, for a story with so many plots, did you have a summary in mind? How much did you plan ahead? LEE: I had lots and lots and lots of outlines. I’m actually very organized. So, I have lots of outlines, I have lots of charts. I have lots of index cards. My first book, I did not use this software—my second book, I used this software called Scrivener. And I used about 2% of it. Like, I don’t think I used all the different things. It’s kind of an organizational software that a lot of academics and a lot of journalists use. It was very helpful, because I was writing about almost a hundred years, I mean, I know that dramatically it’s only about eighty years, but I was really studying a hundred plus years. So in order for me to keep track of what happened, I would sometimes use Scrivener. I also have piles and piles of notes. The only thing that I will say that is really important that may help a young writer, is that I don’t get that attached to my outline. The maps that I generate? They’re not polished. They’re not perfect. So I’ll generate many sketches, many maps, many doodles, and I don’t put that much attachment to it so I let things go, and I’ll go, “oh, that’s wrong—let’s start again.” And I think there has to be a kind of amusement and a sense of—just kind of joy in making the stuff because it takes such a long time. I know people who’ve written books very quickly and they had some success, but I also know people who regretted having taken such a short time with books and I have to say that I wish I had written my books faster. However, I do not regret anything I’ve ever written and published. That’s really important to me. Every book review, every article and every essay I’ve ever written, I have no regrets about what ended up going to the reader. And that does take time. So in order for you to find pleasure in that revision process, and the drafting, it’s very important that you have joy in what you do. Because I think decent and good writing that’s worthy of your 41
time and attention requires an enormous amount of effort. More effort than will ever be compensated. (Laughs). WEST 10TH: That’s really encouraging to hear—because it’s so easy to be so self-critical of your work, to wish that the editing process never stops. There needs to be an endpoint, somewhere. LEE: There’s absolutely an endpoint. And I think the bridge between your idea and the vision is quite long. It’s a very long bridge. And you’re building that bridge with craft and tools and with effort and with love, but there has to be joy in the process of the daily-ness of what you do, of building that bridge, of building that vision. I think it’s really important that you have to be your best friend in that process. And you can’t be too discouraging, because life is going to be discouraging—like, I began the conversation with you talking about the fact I was rejected from things, in the context of receiving a great deal of praise and kindness in the world. And those things are coexisting. It’s never binary. And that’s something I really try to encourage young writers when I meet them, is that it’s not just acceptances and rejections, there’s a whole world in between. And that’s the stuff I think artists need to focus on. WEST 10TH: Going back to your outlines—so you aren’t very attached to these outlines, so I was wondering if, while writing Free Food for Millionaires or Pachinko, were there any plot lines that surprised you or dramatically changed the course of the book? LEE: Yeah, the plot didn’t even exist until 2008. WEST 10TH: Oh really? LEE: Yup. (Laughs). I started the book in 1996, I got the idea in 1989. Like, I didn’t know Noa and Moses were brothers until, like, 2010.
An Interview with Min Jin Lee
WEST 10TH: Interesting! LEE: I know! The entire book was supposed to be about Solomon. WEST 10TH: Really? LEE: Yup! (Laughs). WEST 10TH: May I ask what changed? Or, rather, what caused this whole new plot, this book, rather, to emerge? LEE: I interviewed people. I interview a great deal. I do a lot of journalistic research in order to write my book. And that’s why I feel like— when you read something in my work and you look at a paragraph and you think, “oh, that sounds really true,” very often it is true because I have talked to somebody or I have researched something and it comes from reality. I write from reality. You’re not going to see ghosts in my book. It’s all realistic fiction. I’m trying to be a socially—I’m doing a 19th century social realist kind of narration which means I need to know things that happened. So in that sense, even when I’m writing contemporary novels, like Free Food for Millionaires, they are rooted in fact. That said, it is done with the dramatic license of being a fiction writer and they are written in an American-English style of sentence. So that’s my task. My next book will exactly be in that vein, because I am interested in writing a narration with modern sentences. My subjects will change, my characters will change, but in terms of the kind of writer I want to be, that’s the kind of writer I really want to be. WEST 10TH: Could you explain that a bit more—the kind of writer you want to be? LEE: I want to be a social realist novelist. If you look at the 19th century works of British and American writers, you are going to see that kind of book. I want to write like Houellebecq and Tolstoy and some 43
Dickens and Edith Wharton and George Eliot. George Eliot, is like to me, a totem of aspiration. So those are the kinds of writers I really want to be—in terms of their vision and scope. Do I want their sentences? No way. I do not want to write a sentence like Zola. However, I think Zola’s expansive view of the world is really interesting. WEST 10TH: What books did you read while writing Pachinko? LEE: I mean, a lot of contemporary fiction as well as old stuff. I don’t read a lot when I’m writing. I can’t read them all the time. There are a lot of modern writers who I admire enormously, like I love Junot Diaz. I also read the old stuff over and over again, so I read George Eliot, I read Flaubert. Let’s see. I think Kate Christensen is great. I think Meg Wolitzer is great. I think. Who else is great? I also do a lot of book reviews, so I’ve been asked to do a lot of book reviews, so I often read books that I ordinarily would not have chosen, because they’re brand new, but very often reviewers will ask me to do things that are academic as well as very serious fiction and I’m very glad to do it because I learn a lot from it. So sometimes I think what you like is important, but as a writer, you have to read very promiscuously. (Laughs). I think you need to read literally, promiscuously, and generously. And I think you have to try really hard to see the good in work, rather than where it doesn’t work and if it doesn’t work, you have to ask yourself “How do I not do that?” Does that make sense? WEST 10TH: Is it like how some writers have to read while they write and some writers can’t read at all while they write? LEE: Yeah, everyone is different. I try to train myself to think of it—I try to take the people out of the equation. And I just try to read. WEST 10TH: The people? LEE: Like the personalities of it. That’s not easy. That’s definitely not 44
An Interview with Min Jin Lee
easy. It’s taken me a lot of training. But I’m forty-nine years old. I’ve seen a lot more than when I was nineteen. I remember when I was nineteen, I was different. When I was nineteen, I wasn’t thinking I was going to be a writer. Like, that wasn’t part of the equation. Also, I read a lot of nonfiction, like a ton of nonfiction. WEST 10TH: What kind of nonfiction did you read? LEE: History, sociology, I loved biography. I just read a really knock-out biography by Eric Wagner. It’s called A Chief Engineer. And that was the biography of the man who built the Brooklyn Bridge. I liked the way she told the story. I just finished Bill Goldstein’s book, The World Broke in Two. And that was really great. Also Will Schwalbe’s book, The End of Your Life Book Club which is a memoir, so I read that. So these are some of the writers that I know personally, and it’s such a relief when their books are excellent. Like, (laughs) “I loved that, what a relief.” WEST 10TH: Speaking to your research experience, you also lived in Tokyo for four years, to do research for Pachinko. LEE: I also lived there because my husband got a job there and I was going with my family. I lived there from 2007 to 2011, and when I was there, I decided to return to Pachinko, which was a—I didn’t call it Pachinko back then. I had an entire manuscript between 1996 to 2003, and that book was called Motherland, and excerpt of it was published in 2002 in the Missouri Review. And I had thought that I would write a book about the Korean Japanese, and I thought the focus would primarily be on my character Solomon, who appears at the very end of Pachinko and he’s sort of a minor character. But when I went to Japan and I met all these Korean-Japanese people, I realized it had to be a historical novel, which is very, very daunting, because I wanted it to be accurate, and that required another level of research that I didn’t anticipate. And I ended up throwing out the entire manuscript for that first book, and I started all over again. 45
WEST 10TH: That’s incredible. LEE: The only chapter that I kept was the one that was published in The Missouri Review. And that was changed, it was changed, but it appears in Pachinko. But like—I kept that. (Laughs). One story I kept and the rest of it I threw away and I started all over again because Sunja didn’t exist. Noa didn’t exist. All these characters that primarily infuse the book and carry the book in terms of the spine did not exist until I moved to Japan. WEST 10TH: Given that you yourself lived in Tokyo for four years—a country with a lot of fraught history—I was wondering whether you found it difficult to feel objective or separated from your own identity as a Korean woman living in Japan. How did you find that experience? Was it difficult to remain, to an extent, objective? LEE: Oh, I don’t believe in objectivity. I think it’s nonsense. I think the amount of pressure there is to be objective is stupid because we might as well accept the fact that we try to be objective, we try to be fair, but we can’t help but be subjective and interested in our own personal interests. Should we submit to our biological commands to be self-interested? Absolutely not, because then you would have a society based on chaos. However, I think it’s there, I think it’s there and I think it’s something we should be mindful of. Even as a journalist you can see bias. All the time. Like, I do journalism, and I am constantly thinking—“Oh, wow—I want to be fair.” And I really believe in it and I want to be accurate, but I could tell when I like somebody and I don’t like somebody. I can. I mean, I’m not going to lie to you. You know what I mean? So it’s something I am aware of and try really hard to override any impulses that would be unfair. It’s hard not to be prejudiced against people. Like when I hear about someone doing something really horrible to someone else, my heart immediately goes out to the victim, but it’s interesting. I’ve met enough victims where I go, “Oh, that person who did do that thing is terrible.” But some46
An Interview with Min Jin Lee
times, sometimes, the victims aren’t very likeable. And wow—that’s complicated. (Laughs). And that’s part of my job, I think, as a social realist novelist. To understand that. WEST 10TH: A lot of this is about empathy and humanity, and in Pachinko, you write, “Living every day in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.” This quote is deeply relevant to our current and historical political landscape, what with policies and bans, historical segregation. What do you think the social realist novel can do to move us towards a better, more empathetical society? LEE: I think that my job is to try to generate radical empathy. Not a little empathy. Radical empathy. So my tiny bit of a contribution in the political landscape is to make people realize that those who mainstream culture and majority believe are inhuman, are in fact, human. And I believe the only way we are going to do that, for me, in terms of what I can do, is create art that creates all these Aristotelian ideas of recognition, reversals, catharsis. I can give you the Greek terms (laughs). But if I can do that, I think the reader can feel something in a way that they couldn’t feel before, so one of my primary confusions as an American citizen, is to look at the history of Asian Americans and the history of Asians around the world and how they are seen by the West. And the West really believes, persistently, that Asians are invisible, that they are mechanic, that they are, in many ways intolerable and threatening. So all those things are constantly in operation when you think about the Asian or the Asian American. My resistance is to create art about Asians and Asian Americans who are human. And that may seem like a small thing, but in order to make a person that I make up human—there is a conceit, a friction. I am doing this with a very strong intention. I’m not just writing down stories. I do have a purpose. I want you to realize that an ethnic Korean person is really a person. And that may seem like a really crazy thing, but there are so many countervailing and opposing messages in our media today that says that Asians are not human. 47
WEST 10TH: It’s true. In the media, minorities in America are always shown in contrast to, not existing as. Which is why, when I read Free Food for Millionaires, your depiction of Asians in America existing as Asians and not Asians in comparison to a white majority—was super encouraging. LEE: I hope so. I hope so, because Audrey, what really amazes me, I haven’t met you, I’m talking to you on the phone, you are a disembodied voice, but I know, without having met you, because I’ve met so many other Asian American women and because I am an Asian American woman—that we’re complicated. We are complicated, we are complex, and we have many different wishes and emotions and feelings. All those things are in operation, in our bodies. What really amazes me is that that truth is not represented sufficiently in the world. So I am a political writer. I am a very, very political person. And yet, in my work, my politics does not come out in terms of “I am right, you are wrong.” I just want the reader to consider, including, by the way, that I am not just writing necessarily just for white people or black people or Latino people who don’t know Asian Americans. What really kills me is when Asian Americans believe this about themselves, that they are not human. And I’ve seen that a lot. I’ve seen a lot of Asians and Asian Americans who believe that they are garbage, that they are somehow, that their lives aren’t more complete, more total or comprehensive in terms of the complexity of humanity. To me, that’s really the crime, too. WEST 10TH: Your next book, the third in a trilogy, will also be about Koreans. Could you speak about this trilogy, when you decided to make it into a trilogy, and why? LEE: It will be about Koreans around the world. It will mostly be set in America. So it’s about the role of education for Koreans around the world. So it is a trilogy because I’m writing a diaspora trilogy called “The Koreans.” So for Free Food for Millionaires it was Koreans in 48
An Interview with Min Jin Lee
America. Pachinko is about the Koreans in Japan, and it’s very important that we know about the Koreans in Japan because you can’t really understand the history of the peninsula of Korea without understanding its connection with Japan and its colonial history. You couldn’t really understand Irish history without understanding British history. And then my third book will be called American Hagwon, and hagwon is a study center or a cram school that is usually set in South Korea. And it’s for students for many ages, who go after school for specialization and training for certain subjects or for all subjects, primarily for tests to gain entry to schools or colleges. So these hagwons are also cropping up all over the world, wherever Koreans are. So I’m writing a book about these hagwons. I’m writing a book, and it’s fiction, about the parents and the tutors and the students who go to these hagwons, about what does education mean for Koreans. WEST 10TH: So I have a question about the first lines in your books. The first line in Pachinko is, “History has failed us, but no matter.” This was a really beautiful first line. I was wondering when did you come up with this line? Or how? LEE: It’s my thesis statement. WEST 10TH: Ah! LEE: So my first book, the thesis statement, for Free Food, was, “Competence can be a curse.” Competence can be a curse. And what I was trying to say in Free Food, was individual choices are very difficult to make when you are a competent person. And it’s pretty much a statement about most people, which is you can be competent, but is that enough? Like how do you choose what to do with your life? So that’s what gives the critique on class, on aspiration, on money, all the things that are going to feature in there. That book is really about how do you get money and how do you spend your money? Like I wanted to write about money as well as how immigrants decide their futures. 49
The book is taught in universities and when I talk to college kids, often they make their decisions based on practicality, and I understand that, but I wanted to have them think beyond practical concerns, but also what you want to do with your time and how you want to live your life. The second book, Pachinko, in terms of the trilogy, the thesis is, “History has failed us, but no matter,” I wanted to talk about what it is to be a person who is not recorded in history, but who history has failed. And pretty much 99.9% of the world, history has failed us. We don’t make the decisions, for the most part, around the world. Of all the things that impact us. And I’m arguing not that it’s irrelevant that history is affecting us, but we have to be defiant. That even when history has failed us, we have to persist, we have to adapt, we have to be resilient. And that is really the lesson I wanted to share, because that was the lesson I was taught before I interviewed the Koreans in Japan. WEST 10TH: If you hadn’t included this opening line, the books would’ve just started right into the story. The mood would be different. So the function of this opening line, this thesis statement—I read it almost like a battle cry. LEE: Sure! (Laughs). But it’s not a shrug. It can be shrug, it can be a battle cry, it can be anything. But I sort of would like for people to realize that you’re connected to history. Very often, people don’t feel connected to history because it sounds like it’s much bigger than we are. Like, I’m not a member of Congress, what does that have to do with me? Right? And that’s really the way most people operate in the world, like how does a tax form relate to me? How does the healthcare law affect me? How does banning abortion affect me? Maybe I’m not pregnant, so it doesn’t matter. So all these things are constantly in operation and it does affect us, and we need to know unconsciously how much it affects us. And it does affect our decisions. So all I’m trying to say is what is going on. I’m not saying anything terribly radical. I’m actually just encapsulating the experience of most people in the world, which is history does fail us. But what are you going to do? 50
An Interview with Min Jin Lee
WEST 10TH: Following the publication of Free Food, did you experience getting labelled as a Korean-American writer, or did you feel any responsibility placed upon you by the public to write about Koreans? Do you think this is a fair responsibility? LEE: I don’t know what people call me. (Laughs). You know? I think, when you’re writing, people are going to say a lot of things that’s nonsense. Whatever they want to say, and you can’t really control it. I think it’s almost like when you’re a kid and you’re on the playground, some kids are going to like you, other kids aren’t going to like you? If you focus on that, you’re never really going to be who you are. And I think some people who are people of color are going to write about, let’s say, white people. And that’s fine. That’s fine. Of course. Do what you have to do. Do what you want to do. Because being a writer is so hard, and you know what? I’m going to tell you something really harsh: most of us are not going to get attention for the work we create. Like, whatever accolades that I’m getting right now, as well as the rejections I’m getting, it’s from a tiny, tiny population. There are YouTubes of artists right now who can get a billion views, and I’ve never heard of them. (Laughs). You know what I mean? We’re out there, we’re generating and making things. To get so focused on the market, it’s very unhelpful, and as a matter of fact, it’s very discouraging, because the market in many ways, is a little stupid. So it’s very important to focus on what is it that I want to make, and to manage my expectations, because some people are going to want what I make, and some people are going to mischaracterize it and mislabel it, and some people are going to say, “This thing changed my life.” But no matter what, it’s still you, at that desk, who has to make the thing. Like after our interview is over, you’re going to sit with all this transcription and look at it and say, “Ok, well what is it that I want to make? What is it that I want to share?” And who’s going to look at it? I have no idea. It could be two people. It could be twenty, it could be a hundred, I’m not exactly sure. Does that make sense? But it doesn’t matter because you and I are having this conversation and that really happened. 51
WEST 10TH: It reminds me of the reasons Dave Chappelle gave when he quit “Chappelle’s Show.” Like, if you get it, that’s great—and if you don’t, so what? It’s not for you. And he quit because so many people started to think they got it, when they didn’t. So you don’t worry if some things are lost to readers. LEE: Right. What I really try to do more than anything is I want to encourage people to make things. And I hope to God what they want to make is a good thing, not a bad thing. When I see people making bad things or things that are harmful to others, I really question that, because there are many forces at work right now making bad things. There are. There are guns, there are technologies that harm people. And I kind of think, “Wow, you have all this genius, and that’s what you’re going to make?” So I think it’s very important that people who have a higher purpose that wish to make good things for the world go out there and fight and make things, even if it has the tiniest bit of effect, versus a massive effect. Let’s say the thing you make doesn’t go viral. That’s ok. (Laughs). Maybe that’s not what we’re supposed to do. Maybe we’re supposed to affect a couple people. And that’s better than making something destructive. WEST 10TH: Have you tried writing fiction in the first person? LEE: Sure. Actually, “Axis of Happiness” is a first-person story and you can find it on the Narrative Magazine website. I know how to do it. (Laughs). I know how to do it well, it’s not something I’m interested in as a novel-length right now, I think that’s what I want to do, but I know how to do it. I think if you are a fiction writer you should learn how to do all those things. You should learn how to—you should have a big toolkit. Go get a big toolkit. WEST 10TH: And point-of-view is— LEE: Point-of-view is one of the most important decisions a writer makes. 52
An Interview with Min Jin Lee
WEST 10TH: What do you gain by writing Pachinko and Free Food in the third person that you cannot necessarily access in the first person? LEE: I write not only third person, I write third person omniscient, which means I gain the perspective of every one of my characters. And that means I get a very big canvas, I have lots and lots of stability that I can use. However, in order to learn how to write the third-person omniscient, that took an incredible amount of time. The third-person limited is really the first person in disguise. You’re still limited. If you did third-person limited and told a story, that person always has to be in the room. I’m not that interested in that, in terms of a novellike work. When it’s done very, very well, that’s great, but it’s still a first-person story. WEST 10TH: I was wondering if you write in Korean, at all? LEE: No. I can understand a little bit, I can speak a tiny bit, but it’s not my strength. And it’s not what I do. WEST 10TH: I was curious, because there are some stories that bilingual writers are more able to write in one language over the other. Or some stories that exist in certain languages that don’t exist in another. LEE: I think it’s an advantage. I think many people think of it as a limitation in terms of having multiple languages in a home, and I think it can be an advantage. That said, a lot of writers—whenever you learn a foreign language, anything—you have an ability to see in that culture’s point of view and that is a real gift. That said, it can also feel like a limitation. Maybe you think you don’t have a nimbleness with the majority language or the language I want to write. I thought Jhumpa Lahiri’s interest in Italian was fascinating to me because I thought, “Oh, she’s chosen a language to master, and write a book”—that’s incredible. Do I want to do that? I don’t think so. My Korean is pretty 53
weak and I don’t think it’s a language I want to take on to write fiction or nonfiction. However, I think it’s a beautiful language, I love it. WEST 10TH: What I found striking about your writing career was how you began. What was it like to make the decision from being a lawyer to pursuing writing, full time? LEE: I had a liver disease for decades. And I don’t have it anymore, but that liver disease gave me a kind of clarity about what I want to do with my time, if I were to get very ill, very young in my life. And I thought that when I was an attorney—I’m actually a very good attorney because I’m very neurotic—and you have to be in order to be a good lawyer, you have to be very attentive, you have to be very focused on details. So I decided to quit being an attorney when I was twenty-five, and part of it was really I thought I could die in my twenties, in my thirties. I’m very well right now, I had a very serious treatment and I’m cured, but I think the clarity of life and death made me realize I wanted to do this. I didn’t realize it would be this difficult. I had no idea how difficult it was. In fact, everyone who told me that being a writer would be difficult. They were correct. WEST 10TH: In between writing both books, did you ever find yourself—and this is a rather atrocious term—in a writer’s block? LEE: No. I don’t have that. WEST 10TH: No writer’s block? Ever? LEE: No. Well, that’s just not who I am. That’s not who I am. I don’t have those kinds of issues. I have other issues. I have lots of issues, but not that. I think part of that is because—I think writer’s block is when you can’t write, or when you think what you’re writing isn’t good enough. Now, remember what I said earlier in the conversation, to try to be your best friend. I’m very encouraging in my voice to myself. I 54
An Interview with Min Jin Lee
am. I don’t tell myself “oh, you’re amazing” or “that’s perfect.” But I do know the topics that I write about, the people that I write about, are important to me. So in the service of those works, I feel very encouraged to persist. That’s all. Feel that the things you write about are important, or that it has value. Maybe that’s the courage to keep people going. I think that if I think about my personal grandiosity, that would immediately think “I don’t want to do this, that’s stupid.” But I like my topics. I like the things I want to make. I think I have to keep going. I want to keep going, I like, and I feel encouraged, sufficiently, by the response to Pachinko as well as other things, to keep going. And I have no idea, I can’t predict the outcome of the work, but I would like to finish them. I’m very good at finishing things. Starting, finishing, and working. As for the outcome, that’s probably the bane of the artist’s existence, to focus on that. WEST 10TH: It boils down to caring about what you write about. LEE: Yes! If you care a lot about your theme, you care a lot about the questions you have in your mind, it’s like, why did you decide you would want to interview me? Whatever it is, it’s going to help you finish the interview. You don’t have to answer the question. Let’s say you have an assignment for school. Why did you take that class? Why did you choose that subject and why did you choose that thesis in the paper in the assignment you have to write? That’s what is going to connect you. You have to be connected to your purpose and to your question. Even though the outcome cannot be guaranteed. Like, I’ve written amazing things on condition for major magazines that have folded. (Laughs). And you’re like, “Oh, I gave my heart and soul to that thing,” and later on, you realize it wasn’t meant to be there and finds a home somewhere else. If you do it for the right reason, it isn’t because you’re going to get published or something. I remember a beautiful essay for Gourmet Magazine and Gourmet Magazine literally folded right after I submitted the article. And all my life, I was like, I would love to write for Gourmet Magazine, and that would be 55
incredible because I love their essays about culture and food. And then they folded. It wasn’t my fault, but it happened. And the essay found a home elsewhere. But if you focus on the fact, “Oh I have to get published by Gourmet Magazine for this essay,” I would have been devastated. Woe is me, I’m going to despair because life didn’t work out the way it was promised to me. Even contractually, I had a contract with Gourmet, and yet it didn’t work out that way. You know, I think we’re living in an era of great creativity, but we’re also living in a time of great disruption. WEST 10TH: I didn’t catch that, sorry—distraction? LEE: Distraction and disruption. Your generation, more than any other, has more distraction and disruption. And I am holding your generation in my heart. And I hope and pray that you guys will make it, but it’s really difficult. It’s almost like you have to tie yourself to a mast. Like Odysseus. Because the sirens are calling. WEST 10TH: That’s a beautiful and terrible image. LEE: And the sirens want to have you. And they want to destroy you. WEST 10TH: (Laughs.) LEE: But, remember this, before you get discouraged: Odysseus goes home. He goes home, and he defeats the suitors. You can tie yourself to the mast sometimes, you have to know that the sirens want to destroy you, but you will go home. WEST 10TH: You will go home. LEE: You will go home.
Julia Bricnet, Clock
Lixing Mida Chu, Waterfall
In preschool, Mrs. Giozzi thought I should be in the class for English Language Learners because I didn’t talk very often. At home, my father was putting his fist through a wall. Why don’t you try using your mouths, mom and dad? Try it in the morning to decide who’s bringing me and Ken to school. Try it in the bedroom. Maybe then I’d love you enough to ask you to get me the milk from the top shelf of the fridge so that Ken wouldn’t have to climb just to spill everything. The same way he did with his first love, at her window, with two completed notebooks. The same way it took me five years to kiss Lydia Gigante on the lips and then everywhere else. When Ken was five and I was three and the kitchen floor was a pool of white, I wanted you both to get on your hands and knees and stick out your tongues so we could be like a family of cats enjoying our milk together.
Pim-orn Supavarasuwat, Museum People
Clayton Fejes, Where We Leave Ourselves
y father said to me once that he learned long, long ago, when he was very young, that he was never going to get what he needed from his parents. He told me he created a mask and a fantasy world: the former for the peace of mind of others and the latter for his own. He told me this as we drove up the West Side Highway after an unpleasant family lunch, after I asked him what it was like growing up rich. It was not that I was ungrateful for the financial comfort we enjoyed, or ignorant of my own relative privilege, but his upbringing, one of wealth unfathomable, one in which his family’s tennis courts edged too near to the town reservoir to build an adjacent pool of the size they desired so they bought more real estate, so rich that by the time he made it to college he’d been kicked out of five private schools and two preparatory post-graduate programs without refund whose tuitions cost more than how much he’s taken out in loans for me, so rich that their Park Avenue apartment was worth just shy of $10 million, was an experience otherworldly. That day they had paid for our meal without glancing at the bill. It was hot, the kind of hot you can taste—sweat, blistering street garbage, exhaust. Even taxis and apartment buildings perspired; a thick layer of congealed smog and condensation coated every surface south of Houston where I worked an unpaid internship with a literary magazine. I left after my morning shift soliciting contact info for New York’s most sought-after literati to address on my boss’s gala invitations. In CVS as I waited in line to purchase a pack of hair ties to pull back the curls which stuck to my face the cashier summoned the manager over the intercom. A woman yelled unintelligibly when her card 62
was declined for the fourth time. Her wiry mane formed a sort of halo about her forehead where beads of sweat swelled and dripped. On the counter before her was a marked down six-pack of Lay’s chips and a Diet Pepsi. Despite the fan buzzing directly above us, Manhattan heat slunk in through the automatic doors and settled into every corner of the pharmacy. The manager stumbled from the backroom, slathering Chapstick on his lips as he approached the register. His nametag read “Jamil.” He looked no older than twenty-five. Jamil smoothed out his greasy mustache and pocketed the tube of lip balm, putting on a smile and asking his valued customer how he could be of assistance. On Fifth I stopped in a Dos Toros to change. Huddled around carnitas platos at corner booths and tiny round tables the diners ranged from lunching businessmen to Lincoln Center matinee attendees. Families tried to control children who dropped broken chips and wads of guacamole onto the linoleum. I sidestepped ogling tech start-up programmers to the bathroom. The single stall reeked of urine, paprika, and Clorox. Loath to let my Fjällräven backpack touch the floor, which boasted a thin layer of inscrutable grime, I hung a strap around the doorknob. I unlaced my sneakers and slipped them off, securing each foot atop its shoe to elude the bacterial cesspool below. I followed a similar precautionary process with every successive article of clothing, stuffing my jeans and work shirt into my bag before examining myself in the mirror above the sink. Below my sharp collarbones and the ornate gold chain that hung around my neck, my breasts sat high on my chest. Light pink nipples hardened against freezing gusts from the AC vent above. Under the fluorescent bulbs my flesh assumed a translucent pallor. Veins spread across my sternum, over my shoulders, and onto my upper arms. Nude in a public restroom—humbling. I flexed my stomach and turned, admiring the cavity hunger carved between my ribs. Voices of restaurant patrons filtered through the walls. Once I took note of the tumult, I could pay mind to nothing else; sounds of forks scraping plates and teeth mashing taco shells and straws sucking ice cubes dry of the last drops of soda commanded every airwave 63
in the tiny room. Cacophony settled into identifiable conversations, snippets of which I caught with an addled ear . . . was going to pick up my wife from . . . yeah, I would probably fuck her too, but don’t tell my girlfriend . . . and after the show we can grab drinks at . . . the rice here is better than . . . dude, your boss doesn’t let you do anything . . . eat your greens, honey . . . The chatter sidled so near, I doubted for a moment the opacity of the sliding door and pulled the shift dress from my bag. Opalescent sequins, the shades silver, gold, and champagne, lined the high halter. I ran my hand along the bodice, smoothing out wrinkles that had etched their way into the fabric, silk and chiffon, in transit; carelessly I had left the designer garment crumpled beneath my laptop, hefty Michael Kors wallet, and Manolo Blahnik slingbacks. I coated my lashes in mascara and smudged my mother’s plum lacquer onto my lips before a disgruntled man banged on the door, “I’ve been waiting ten minutes!” he groused. As I strode back through the restaurant I noticed heads turn to inspect my metamorphosis. A frumpy pupa had entered the bathroom and emerged a monarch. Crossing the street a man working construction told me I had nice tits. A wave of nausea reached across my chest and I hastened, pretending to hail a taxi with its lights off. As I hurried away blisters burst where my strappy heels polished the flesh below my ankles. The shoes were a gift from an ex boyfriend’s mother. She’d worn them once, to some philanthropy event at the Met, and since she’d been photographed in them she could not dare sport them in public again. Ivory with a rose print and crystal buckle, fit for an Upper East Side archduchess. They scarcely fit me, my feet a few half sizes too small, but I suffered them with pride. Pride and discomfort. I ached to remove them as I approached the upscale bistro. The exterior of the converted speakeasy boasted gold railings and a balcony adorned with rows of ornamental jockey figurines. Cast iron gates contained a kempt garden, tall grasses and greenery anomalous in industrial midtown. I wondered whether they were there to insulate the 64
diners or exclude the passersby. I wasn’t sure there was a difference. My father and brother stood side by side in the foyer, hiding awestruck glances behind aviators as they devoured the gaudy interior. Their sport jackets and derby shoes camouflaged them among the other 21 Club patrons. Billionaires slurping oysters and dry gin accepted them as two of their own; courtly hosts offered them wine; I looked on, amused. My father’s sisters, Jane and Anne, arrived minutes later. Jane, the eldest sibling, resembled a witch without stage makeup, the wicked Wizard of Oz sort. Even as a child her nose grew crooked and bulbous, with sharp edges and a mole above her left nostril. Her coarse black hair could not be brushed nor plaited. Harsh features, but never a striking beauty, she was, as I projected internalized anti-Semitism, the Jewess I never hoped to be. Anne shared these traits, but to a lesser extent. Neither woman was particularly attractive, nor were they affable. At holidays my brother and I selected seats at the far end of the mahogany dinner table, suspicious of their hideousness catching, and keen to avoid their conversation. Jane, an adolescent psychologist and practicing Buddhist, never seemed to lack an hourlong anecdote about her latest trip to India, during which she had again met with the Dalai Llama and cleansed herself of egoism. Her Pekingese purebreds both had traditional Buddhist names, Jangchub and Boddhicitta. Boddhicitta, named after the Sanskrit term for the pursuit of absolute enlightenment, was blind in both eyes. Despite Jane’s outstanding unpleasantness, my father fostered a far more hostile relationship with Anne. Neither the baby nor the firstborn, Anne struggled to win my grandparents’ reticent affection. A manic-depressive narcissist who as a child planted tacks along the stairs for my father to step on, she adopted a yappy Dachshund and came around only for gift-giving holidays, though her own presents dependably disappointed the recipient. The ugly discount socks or wallets she picked up at novelty shops Christmas morning tossed into plastic grocery bags she knotted off did not quite meet the standard for close kin. I do not think she had many friends. 65
The five of us were seated with my grandparents, whose sixtieth anniversary was our pretext for assemblage. After my grandfather sent the wine back having complained twice about its temperature a new waiter delivered everyone’s drinks—Riesling for each of us except my grandmother who slurped a neat martini. My grandfather slipped a note from his breast pocket. He struck his knife against his glass. The crystal screeched under the blade. We quieted, listening to the lung cancer ravage his chest as he cleared his throat. On the paper he had typed a speech, an ode to his beloved, Doris, the woman whom he is so grateful to wake up with each morning, the most beautiful woman he’s ever laid eyes on. A very bleak institution it must be, that the only prevailing marriage at the table was theirs. 1957 saw Sputnik, the Suez Canal crisis, Viet Cong terrorism in Saigon, and a Seidlitz wedding. In the eighties when my grandfather, aptly known by friends and associates as “Dick,” pulled seven figures at Morgan Stanley, he slept with every woman in midtown. In the nineties he cornered his daughterin-law’s sister at a holiday party and thrust his tongue through her protesting lips. When I was thirteen he told me he could tell I was growing up, that the dress I was wearing complimented my figure very nicely, very nicely he said. Listening to his romantic drivel now heaved bile through my throat. The waiter delivered menus to our table in the “Bar Room,” an expansive dining space with low ceilings from which dangled glorified collectibles: model automobiles of every type, pro football helmets, toys donated by John Kennedy, Salvatore Ferragamo, Walt Disney. Paintings by famous artists whose names I cannot remember decorated maroon walls and mahogany furnishings. A banker’s man cave wet dream. “This room is an eyesore,” Anne spat against my ear. “You look well, did you lose weight?” said my grandmother. “Hannah, sweetheart, when I die do you want this watch?” said my grandfather, thrusting his Rolexed wrist across the table. “Your internship,” began my father. “Anne, did you dye your hair?” Jane said, noting the absence of her sister’s characteristic gray streak. 66
“What’ll it be for the lady?” the waiter asked. I glanced at the menu in my lap. The gilded font spun across the page. Thick cursive letters shouted jumbled offerings. Clayton’s Jumbo Lump Crabmeat with traditional mustard sauce. Octopus Carpaccio with citrus, Kalamata olives. Duck Pâté with tarragon mustard, crispy baguette. The Wedge with blue cheese, hardboiled egg, bacon, fried tomatoes. Beef Cheek and Foie Gras Terrine with fermented corn, Pecorino, truffle oil. Boiled Lamb Bolognese with picholine olives, crushed red pepper, cold cream. Creamy Chicken Hash with mornay sauce, Bloomsdale spinach, Gruyère crust. Veal Tongue with golden ossetra caviar, crème fraîche, “I’m sorry,” I replied, “I don’t eat meat. Is there any way the chef could prepare a house salad?” He stared at me for a moment. Sweat moistened my upper lip. “Make it for her. It won’t kill you,” my grandmother slurred, now drunk off her second martini. Blood bubbled against my cheeks. He scribbled onto his note pad and retired to the kitchen. He placed before us plates teeming with animal parts, internal organs, slaughter by-products, smothered in chunky creams and torrid sauces. Something gelatinous oozed from a hunk of steak tartare. Grandma asked grandpa for a bite of his burger and it crumbled in his hands as her mouth closed around it, chunks of cooked beef littering the white tablecloth. Oil drenched the greens in my bowl. I had hardly lifted my fork when the waiter returned. “How was everything?” he asked. “Well,” Jane squawked, “my truffle mac and cheese could have been, more . . . truffley.” “I apologize, madam, but I was sure you requested fewer mushrooms in your dish.” “Uh-huh, yes, and considering the esteem of this establishment I assumed you would compensate with more truffle oil instead. I didn’t come here to order Kraft.” “It is a side dish, ma’am. If we were to prepare it as you’re describing it would be far more expensive than an à la carte side. Nearly one hundred dollars, certainly. And it’s not. It’s a side dish.” 67
The flesh on my face again grew hot. Despite the fraught exchange, Jane insisted on ordering dessert. Baked Alaska. (Meyer lemon semifreddo, Cointreau.) It was delivered atop a porcelain platter with a silver spoon. She stabbed the tiny utensil through the meringue, lifting a dollop to her mouth, which, once agape, revealed that residual cheese from her entrée coated the back of her tongue, where she dumped the sweet, singed egg whites. “Mmm.” Her eyelids fluttered. She sucked the spoon dry before swallowing. Then, she gagged. Her brow furrowed and she reached her fingers past her lips, pressing into the depths, coughing wildly, and extracted a long, blond hair. “Excuse me,” I gasped, and thrust my chair from the table. Sprinting through the ostentatious main hall past aristocrats and those paintings I did not recognize and the asshole server and Bill Clinton’s RC aircraft I felt saliva line my throat and did not wait a moment to lock the bathroom door after entering. I knelt before the toilet in prayer, sprays of vomit splashing water against my face.
Yuki Maeda Ward, Ghost
When we first drank wine together, we did so in the silence of each other. In brisk winter dusk, bodiless versions of you and I danced outside in pools of rosewater and winter constellation. Inside, we sat together, refusing to let the skin over our skulls touch. We held all of the oxygen in the room. “I’m gonna lose it when Paul dies,” I whispered to the blackbird sitting next to me, trying to shake the snow from her wings. “We are all floating,” she replied.
hen Mom left Dad, Dad had to go at it alone on Thanksgiving. We tried to cheer him up by going around and saying things like we’re thankful family is always family, but when it was his turn, he excused himself and poured another drink. The next day, he made us go out to the garage to look at his brand-new bike. He told us he took up long-distance cycling and plans to start training for a big race from Seattle to San Francisco. And beaming he hopped on his bike and was gone for four hours. Dad built a mantel above the fireplace; Jake was the first to notice. We asked Dad about it, and he said the fireplace was looking a bit sparse, so he was going to start decorating it. The first thing to go up was an old picture of Mom sunbathing. On Christmas Eve, Dad got a little crazy and swapped the tree out for a menorah. He said we needed find our roots again, but he’s not Jewish to begin with—Mom is. He put the menorah on the mantel above the fireplace. For New Year’s, Dad spent all day building a miniature replica of the ball that drops in Times Square, and we all gathered around it and counted down from ten while he lowered the ball with a string he slung over a tree. The ball went up on the mantel, too. Dad had never been the creative type, but he said the mantel was the one way he felt he could express himself. Whenever we were kids and bored on a Sunday afternoon, he would tell us to go outside and document the flora and fauna, or else pick up dog turds in the backyard. Mom would tell us to get out the colored construction paper and make some collages. 71
When Mom died in the car accident at the end of February, Dad stopped using the fireplace so he would have more room for his stuff. The lion’s share of Dad’s new beginnings sat on and below the mantel, or else falling off the sides or leaned up against the fireplace. In between the menorah and New Year’s ball was Dad’s crushed bike helmet, hanging off the corner of a large portrait of Mom he drew in an art class at the local community college. There were lights that suggested a heart-shape above one of Mom’s old combs, incense, a three-hundred-page draft of his memoir, and letters addressed to Mom pleading redemption and admitting guilt—which were tucked behind the portrait out of view. On Mom’s birthday, Dad made a cake, gathered us around the fireplace, and we all sang her Happy Birthday. On the one year anniversary of the crash, Dad took everything down, cleaned the portrait and the crushed helmet and the menorah and everything else, then put the whole mess into carefully labeled boxes and sold the house to a young couple who thought the mantel would be a cute place to hang Christmas stockings.
Jason Zuowei Xiao, A Tibetan Yak
Jason Zuowei Xiao, Heavenly River
Summer, and I wake thirsty. In China the doctor runs eyes down my chapped lips and says, 孩子，你上火了, and it’s true, I am an inside-out new fire just learning to walk, elemental imbalance aching for revolution. From the pharmacist my mother brings bitter medicinal tea in the shape of apology, tells me it is time to relearn iron, and I wall in the city of my blood. In weekly bites I feed on her palmfuls of bitter, mold my throat tubelike, and think (in China we say 吃苦, eating bitterness, to try to describe suffering) So this is the way we yellow girls learn to swallow pain. Can’t (so this is the way we yellow girls taste, the world on the edges of our teeth) see anything if we keep it inside. (some appointments I forget the way of pinching my tongue) This bitterness carves for me a throat-path of hard swallow. In America a boy touches my palm without asking, says goddamn your hands are hot and I re-imagine my throat into loose shrubbery, think of gaping bonfires and acid holes and a sentence that goes on and on. Instead I thumb my fist, swallow hard, and think this you could build a country on.
Old Friends in Fog
when it rains in Boston, the streets curl forth memory like small deaths conversations end in Chinatown and air thickens with premonition the streets drink it all brew the smell after rain I do not smoke but every time we meet I am smoking do not misunderstand me: loving him was furnishing an empty room with one hundred empty glasses but there is a code inscribed into loving someone you cannot love, like language embedded in the lines of palms my tongue swells with broken smoke signals I probe them for purpose: to be sad in August again, or to have known it all alongâ€” alternatively, a rain-splattered day where I say the right things, sealed up in glass 76
Contributorsâ€™ Notes KEDAR BERNTSON is a junior in the Film and Television program, minoring in English and Creative Writing. DAVID BRAKE is a junior at New York University, studying English and Creative Writing. He writes both poetry and fiction. David originally comes from Denver, Colorado. JULIA BRICNET is an artist who is passionate about film photography both as a medium and a dying art. She mostly works with 35mm cameras and Polaroid Land Cameras. Julia is in her second year at NYU, majoring in Media, Culture, and Communications at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. MARCO CHAN wonders what it would be like if he only consumed dairy for an entire day. Heâ€™s lactose intolerant. Sometimes, he writes poetry. LIXING MIDA CHU is a senior Philosophy major at NYU, minoring in Psychology and Linguistics. Mida is also an accomplished filmmaker, with films screening at the Cannes Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Festival, and the National Film Festival for Talented Youth. His current research focuses on narrative perception. BAILEY COHEN is an Ecuadorian-American freshman at NYU studying Journalism, English, and Creative Writing. He has poems forthcoming in the Spring 2018 issues of Projector Magazine, Spires Literary Magazine, and more. He also runs the blog Coffee Table which features weekly close readings of contemporary poetry with an emphasis on upcoming authors. ABBIE DONOGHUE is a recent graduate of New York University with a degree in Comparative Literature. The country she comes from is called the Midwest. These days, Abbie can be found with a book or on a bike in New York City.
CLAYTON FEJES is a junior at Gallatin concentrating on Image Culture through poetry and photography. The photo in this issue is taken from a series that he put together while studying in Germany, in which the photographic and sculptural mediums of stillness collide in the “dead” sites of cemeteries around Berlin. EVA GU is a Chinese-American undergraduate student at NYU, and an alumna of the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop. She is a San Francisco Bay Area native. Her work has been published in the Eunoia Review and the Kenyon Anthology. When she is not stressing about writing, she spends most of her time missing her cat at home or exploring the muted metropolis of New York City. HELENA KEOWN (huhLEEnuh KOWen) is a queer poet based in New York. She works in advocacy and community organizing, and will be graduating from NYU in May 2018. VERONICA LIOW is a Gallatin sophomore concentrating in the ethical concerns of how photography impacts society through a cultural and political lens. She is from the Bay Area in California and thus a strong advocate for the term, “hella.” More than (almost) anything, she loves pugs. She likes to drink green tea almost everywhere, anytime. When she’s not out curating her Instagram feed (@officialramen), she is in the basement of Third North Residence Hall, working as the Assistant Managing Editor for the Washington Square News. Ultimately, she hopes to be able to expose and document socioeconomic issues through photography. SARA MIRANDA is a visual artist and writer from Chicago, Illinois. She loves everything art, especially photography. Sara would like to thank all the members of the editorial board for selecting her photo, Retro Butterfly, to be in this year’s West 10th. KAYLEE REYNOLDS is an emerging multidisciplinary artist and creative enthusiast who seeks to bridge her interests in art, entrepreneurship, and innovative content creation. With a passion for the arts, Kaylee strives to dispel the underappreciation for the field, and hopes to contribute to educating members of society about its cultural and philosophical values. 78
Born and raised on the island of Jamaica, she is a current undergraduate student at New York University, pursuing a major in Studio Art and a minor in Business of Entertainment, Media and Technology. See her work at kayleereynolds.com. HANNAH SEIDLITZ is a double Libra, which according to her pseudoscientist friends means she’s diplomatic and indecisive. She thinks this is probably true. At Gallatin, she studies semiotics and the application of Aristotelian rhetoric to mediums of contemporary storytelling. In Brooklyn, she lives with her two roommates and spends her “free time” (when she isn’t writing, complaining, or commuting) doing whatever it is that young people in metropolitan areas do to forestall quarter-life crises. She’s written for several publications including PEN America, and currently works at Pigeon Pages literary journal. Hannah hopes to continue pursuing creative nonfiction professionally post-graduation. PIM-ORN SUPAVARASUWAT is a sophomore student double-majoring in English and Global Liberal Studies. She enjoys drinking tea and eating stale cake at museum cafés and has since amassed a large collection of photographs of people looking at paintings. HENRY TRINDER really likes Kafka, but likes avocados even more. ALEXANDRA JADE TRINGALI is a junior majoring in Food Studies and minoring in Creative Writing. She’s been obsessed with all things food since she was a child, and, with camera in hand, is determined to capture not only cuisine itself, but the behaviors, cultures, and traditions that surround it. She currently works as a freelance food photographer, and plans to go to culinary school after graduation. OLGA USH is a fashion photographer originally from Moscow, Russia. Currently, she lives in New York City and studies Photography and Imaging at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Olga shoots both digital and film, working mostly with Canon 5D and Mamiya RZ. Olga’s main interest is to combine fashion photography genre with fine art. She puts models in surreal scenes, sometimes from fairy tales, folklore, and myths. Olga’s works have been printed and published in numerous magazines, such as 79
Vogue, The Atlas, and Ellements. Her work has been exhibited in New York’s Chashma Gallery, at Miami Art Basel, and at Vermont’s LOVE gallery. SOPHIA WANG is studying Applied Psychology and Global Public Health. She also has a minor in Web Programming and Applications. In her own time, she creates digital art pieces, takes photographs, eats hotpot, and hangs out at cat shelters (a lot). She is interested in how research can inform better decisions in user experience design. YUKI MAEDA WARD is a photographer-filmmaker from Boulder, Colorado. She attended Santa Fe University of Art & Design until the announcement of their impending closure and was accepted into Tisch a week before the Summer semester began. Yuki is exploring film and photography with both digital and analog cameras. The photos herein are from a series shot on her father’s Nikon F2. Yuki looks forward to the endless opportunities being an artist in a big city will bring. Growing up in China, California, and Chicago, JASON ZUOWEI XIAO developed his interest in traveling and capturing the beauty of places that resonate with him, from the plateaus of Tibet to the flooding waters of Yellowstone and the golden bays of Southern California. Despite being a sophomore in Economics, photography is his passion for life, so much so that it surlyey will drive him insane one day.
This issue of West 10th features an interview with author Min Jin Lee, three new poems by Morgan Parker, as well as poetry, art, and prose f...
Published on May 8, 2018
This issue of West 10th features an interview with author Min Jin Lee, three new poems by Morgan Parker, as well as poetry, art, and prose f...