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The Only Way Out Is Through

I

Ko au te whenua, te whenua ko au.

Mauri

Mana

Never thought of my body as separate from the mauri of every living thing or every thing and body that ever existed. Non-human matter and beings encounter one another constantly. For Maaori our bodies are shaped by an awareness of non-human and human dynamics, as we are physically embedded into the whenua (land, placenta) and our bodies stretch up and down like endless poi between Ranginui and Papatuuaanuku.1

Jane Bennett refers to this matter or what we would call mauri or mana as being the ‘material’ or the ‘thingness’: ‘a cultivated, patient, sensory attentiveness to non-human forces.’ I worry for all of humanity that our relationship with the so-called ‘non-human’ is so detached from our day-to-day lives and written about in such an austere way. I felt frustrated in class recently discussing Bennett’s ‘plant-thinking’ as a kind of adaptation of Deleuzian ‘rhizomes.’

Someone please explain Deleuze to me or I will fucking kill you.

 The everyday entanglement of nature and culture.

I imagine all bodies and all entities like jellyfish or pomegranate seeds or the yellow goop inside a kina or the salty water sack covering an oyster. My brain is a physical entity and gunk and ‘it contains cells, tissue, fluid, neurons . . . blood vessels, matter white and black and grey.’2 Shooting electrons swimming under the water in giant, cold, metal pipes. Wet. Moist. Slimey. Dripping. Silicon. Multiple realities are thrown into being. They overlap, map, and diverge across time and space. Time collapses and reveals itself as both porous and arbitrary.

Aura?

Plant-thinking?

When I think of the conception of the ‘soul’, I cannot help but return to the banality of continental philosophy by mentioning Socrates’ view of the soul as trapped inside the tomb of the body, only released upon death. I wonder if a soul is like a wairua, but that seems too limited. I imagine a wairua with the power of a thousand hearts beating together simultaneously in the air, the soil, and in the living and non-living matter that encompases everything. I think of cicadas rippling through the night, of worms soaking deep into tree roots and of weeds boundlessly taking over the cathedral in Ootautahi.

Plants are not a singular organism, but a living totality, reaching up through the plastic and concrete cracks on ancient cobblestones. The ability of plants to grow via roots that sprawl together and react in a kind of utopia reminds me of the ways that hemp plants were used in Chernobyl to clean up nuclear waste. Or how older gorse plants are used for native plant regeneration in the Banks Peninsula. I think too of the watercress that grows at the front of my parents’ house. It is plentiful, but you cannot eat it. Green algae floats around the edges of the swampland as rhododendrons bloom above.

Grain hybrids
Irrigation systems
Fertilisers
Pesticides.
Global food production
‘Green Revolution’
100% pure

‘In decolonization, there is therefore the need of a complete calling in question of the colonial situation.’3

I dedicated much of my life to self-‘improvement’: To be the best of both worlds, which is impossible, because to accept whiteness is to neglect te ao Maaori. When I think of this ideology of improvement – of being the best, of being the winner, of being the most productive – I can’t help but think of how it is rooted in the abstraction of land; using English common law colonists measured land in relation to the labour of cultivation, dividing Papatuuaanuku into usages and rendering her value in the form of commodity production.4

Ko au te whenua, te whenua ko au.

Papatuuaanuku’s soil has been ravaged by irresponsible agricultural practices to produce equal amounts of waste as food. This process of extraction is marred by colonialism, not merely because this is stolen land but because it abstracts our bodies from the whenua in order to justify the settler’s presence as part of an endless plunder. This logic of abstraction – title by registration, part of the British colonial project designed to sever indigenous people from their lands – is rooted in the transformation of ‘the idea of property (in land) as a socially embedded set of relations premised on use, political hierarchies, and exchange, to a commodity vision of land that rendered it fungible in the same way as any other commodity.’

As part of the British colonial project land was confiscated based on whether it was deemed agriculturally viable – if certain indigenous people had or had not enacted an agricultural plan based around an idealised European model for production and extraction (commercial trade and marketised exchange). Marx wrote on this disruption of this free-flowing relation between nature and man: ‘Nature does not produce on the one hand owners of money or commodities, and on the other hand men possessing nothing but their own labour-power. This relation has no basis in natural history, nor does it have a social basis common to all periods of human history. It is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older formations of social production.’

The current state of the world, the seemingly irreparable damage done to our waterways, soil and vegetal life is the result of colonialism – of an insidious process of acquisition, extraction, and violence. To take and divide land based on ‘productivity’ debased the ecological protocols indigenous people had had in place to manage resources for millenia.

In Aotearoa before colonisation we had a booming trade system across the Pacific, but we managed our resources, only taking what was needed to survive. This was based around tikanaga specific to different peoples, but incurred invocations or karakia to welcome and thank our ancestors (Rangnui, Tangaroa, et cetera) for these gifts, such as fish from the sea or potatoes from the soil.

 

II

Hiding in kumara pits on the side of volcanoes, I was born with an egg inside me ready to be baked. I dream my skin is made of harakeke. Two estranged friends slowly soften my coarse flesh with oyster shells. I am in pain but they ignore my karanga and I hear their thunderous laughter rolling up towards Ranginui’s echoing sky. Sometimes their laughter is intercut with the Seinfeld theme song. They were trying to make me softer, but I refused.

My whenua is buried at our house on Smith Street in Matamata. My mother told me when my brother was born the nurses had already thrown his whenua away.

My atua waahine streams down my thigh, as I wake dripping in steaming wai. Hine-te-iwaiwa my cycle can’t keep up with your shifting of the moon.

A friend tells me it’s just as well I didn’t have a baby, because of the impending ends of the world. I never thought it was possible to become pregnant because of the amount of irresponsible sex I’ve had that never resulted in a child. So when a ‘thing’ unsuspectedly grew inside me and took over my body I was stunned. In a way that’s still difficult to make sense of, it reminded me of how the gelflings’ blood was drained from their bodies in The Dark Crystal. Carrying a child is a trauma. I had to have two injections in my ass because it was a different blood type to me. I was extremely tired, weak, and sick because my body was overcompensating, giving all my nutrients away. My first doctor objected and the next six or seven appointments were a flurry between English and Português . . . Desculpe, eu não falo Português. Favor fale lentamente. Estou tentando.

When I was pregnant I read about the forced sterilisation of women in Puerto Rico between 1936 and 1968. The United States government justified it by citing rising rates of poverty and unemployment. In Meehan Crist’s essay ‘Is it okay to have a child?’ she takes to task the notion of population control as a means for countering anthropomorphic climate change by intersecting it with colonial histories. Crist critiques Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, in which Haraway suggests the increase in global population expected over the twenty-first century will ‘make demands that cannot be borne without immense damage to human and nonhuman beings,’ and argues for ‘personal, intimate decisions to make flourishing and generous lives . . . without making more babies.’ It would be irresponsible to not consider the violence such a utopia would require.

I kept the ultrasound of my empty womb and thought about my friend who had to have her insides scraped out after a bad miscarriage.

The only way out is through.

 

III

My two favourite shows as a child were Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars. Both were blonde and American. The ideal. Buffy was a teenage girl navigating high school during the day, slaying vampires in the evening. Veronica Mars was a high school student during the day and a private investigator by night. Following the stars with my iPhone app, like my tuupuna did across the Pacific, I would be a sailor. Or I could be a pirate, a clown, undercover FBI, a Josephine Baker-type spy, anything you want.

One aunty I never liked used to call me and my sister patupaiarehe or parahitiki, knowing full well we didn’t speak Maaori. A relative on my mother’s side once stated that one of my dad’s uncles was a ‘rough sort of Maaori’. I never truly felt like I was white or brown; always a spy never truly engrossed in either world. Not white enough or brown enough. Always wanting to feel like I was enough.

Whenever I try and speak Maaori I always struggle to say my ‘t’s with a soft almost-‘d’ sound. You can hear my alienness even if these words on my tongue still lash out in defiance.

Now when I think about being called parahitiki I smile, thinking about my poi made with plastic bags. I’m an urban Maaori, constantly switching and hiding and being ‘adaptable.’ My skin tone fluctuates, but it’s always a point of tension and pain. When people tell me I should just go home it’s hard to explain that I’ve never felt at home anywhere except when I’m swimming in the ocean.

 

IV

We are the descendants of our strongest ancestors.

Maaori women, with the exception of slaves (male and female), were never regarded as possessions and retained their own names upon marriage so their whakapapa was never disregarded or taken from their children.5

I have so many rivers and mountains.

You are never alone because your whanau holds you, even when you are scattered across places (Lisboa, Riyadh, Ootepoti, Taamaki Makaurau) or no longer around. It’s the fact that the word in Maaori for father, matua, does not necessarily mean the singular father, but speaks instead to all Maaori men. That whaea denotes all Maaori women. In traditional Maaori society we were raised by our communities and certain work was not relegated by gender. Generations of knowledge flowed together seamlessly.

How do we now stand together again?

The only way out is through.

 

V

If we want to be truly liberated there needs to be a way in which to come together and account for the differences in our experiences and privilege.

I live in a predominantly black and brown neighbourhood in Lisboa. It is a community of people who have come from former Portuguese colonies like Goa, Macau, Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissou, and Mozambique, as well as many Romani people who aren’t allowed to enter any spaces guarded by frog statues. It’s an area that is constantly under threat since the 2008 financial crisis and the Portugese government’s subsequent austerity measures (the harshest only abandoned in 2016). This did little to slow the consequences from the boom of tourism, Airbnbs, Lime scooters, and bodies like mine, all making it increasingly expensive to live here. I would never claim to understand experiences of otherness, racism, discrimination that are not my own. I despise the identification many Maaori and other non-black bodies take with black experience and black culture. I feel numbing discomfort at the thought of not giving back to what I’m taking from.

If we want to be truly liberated there needs to be a way in which to come together and account for the differences in our experiences and privilege.

I always think about being mistaken for being Aboriginal in Australia and a girl named Kara, who would make jokes about lynching me. I feel sick to think about the layers of racism being espoused from the mouth of a nine-year-old. It was so common for these kinds of things to be said, but at nine years old I did not have the language to reply. Histories become distorted and entwined, children are taught to hate and fear and to believe that their whiteness affords them superiority.

If we want to be truly liberated there needs to be a way in which to come together and account for the differences in our experiences and privilege.

In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt – a Jewish philosopher who had fled Nazi Germany – offers her reports on Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s trial in 1961 for the New Yorker. Throughout the trial, Arendt became more and more concerned not by the idea that Eichmann was somehow a monster, but that his evil lay in his thoughtlessness, his impotence, the banality of evil he saw around him. During the trial Eichmann attempted to outline his reliance on a Kantian categorical imperative of carrying out the ‘law.’ But when he was carrying out orders related to the Final Solution it was as though he was no longer able to see reason, or right or wrong, or change anything. He was a ‘thoughtless’ actor in something he had ‘no control’ over. ‘He did his “duty” . . . he not only obeyed “orders”, he also obeyed “the law”.’

If we want to be truly liberated there needs to be a way in which to come together and account for the differences in our experiences and privilege.

We must work through this impotence or thoughtlessness if we are to imagine a future for ourselves. Without a sustained effort at a remembrance marked by nuance, we cannot learn to live with ghosts and so cannot think.6 There is much to mourn, but mourning is an action. By dwelling on loss we must appreciate how the world has and can change and how ‘we must ourselves change and renew our relationships if we are to move forward from here.’

Franco ‘bifo’ Berardi describes impotence as the ‘effect of the total potency of power when it becomes independent from human will, decision and government.’ My generation is drowning in student debt, unable to buy homes, poisoned by our atmosphere and waterways, and unable to find meaningful stable jobs. We are watching the planet slowly being depleted of all its resources. We grew up knowing the assumption of infinite growth is a farce. We will work more hours per week than our grandparents did, live shorter lives, and face a multitude of crises that could mean the end of it all. We are marred by political flabbiness, apathy, and even nihilism. We have been watching the fires burning helplessly. I feel shattered trying to simply exist within this constant precarity.

Our bodies are exhausted. Our planet is exhausted. I feel lost trying to figure out what to do besides disappear. I want to hide. The end of the world seems plural, but this also means that there is potential for multiple beginnings. Berardi advocates for solidarity and a rejection of subjectivism. Because friendship transforms – it enunciates change – and because the future is unwritten and does not contain a linear development – there is still possibility. We have the opportunity to come together – to share and recentre our relationships to the mauri of the world. To avoid catastrophe.

If we want to be truly liberated there needs to be a way in which to come together and account for the differences in our experiences and privilege.

I return to Franz Fanon’s descriptions to try and feel hope for a future based around collectivity:

Individualism is the first to disappear. The native intellectual had learnt from his masters that the individual ought to express himself fully. The colonialist bourgeoisie had hammered into the native’s mind the idea of a society of individuals where each person shuts himself up in his own subjectivity, and whose only wealth is individual thought. Now the native who has the opportunity to return to the people during the struggle for freedom will discover the falseness of this theory. The very forms of organization of the struggle will suggest to him a different vocabulary.

If we want to be truly liberated there needs to be a way in which to come together and account for the differences in our experiences and privilege.

 

VI

Every day I am learning to understand my own history and culture by comparing it to others. Every day I am able to contribute something from my own heritage because it’s marked in my bones. If I stand tall enough with my back straight and with my head strong, leaning up into the warmth of Tamanuiteraa, my tuupuna will stand with me just as tall, keeping me upright when I want to crumble into defeat. I hold them in my body and I continue to carry them forward. I feel fear – the same loving fear for future generations that they must have felt for me.7 I know I must be resilient no matter the difficulty. My body being here is proof of their strength, even if I don’t feel very strong right now.

The sly smile ur lips make when you say the first
Tina!
before screaming
Huia e! Taaiki e!

When we introduce ourselves as Maaori we mention a river/sea, mountain, or long-deceased relative, as well as an entire tribe. All beings and objects contain a mauri or mana and are thereby interconnected. It’s not a ‘thingness’ or ‘plant-thinking’; it’s a constant awareness and relationship to the non-human – a relation that respects and manaaki all non-human entities. It’s impossible to explain how vastly our bodies relate to the world – they encompass soil, air, water, corpses, and even worms. Our bodies are the rhizomes, they are dynamic and beat softly in time with the rhythms of this world, because they are connected.

The only way out is through.

 

 


Please note that this essay uses Te Reo spelling and dialect from Waikato/Tainui.

1 Te Kawehau Hoskins and Alison Jones, ‘Non Human Others and Kaupapa Maori Research,’ Critical Conversations in Kaupapa Maori. Huia Publishers: Wellington, 2017, 56.

2  Andreas Malm, The Progress of this Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World. Verso: London, 2020, 49.

3  Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press: New York, 1968, 37.

4  Brenna Bhandar, Colonial lives of property: Law, Land and Racial Regimes of Ownership. Duke University Press: Durham, NC, 2018, 74.

5  Rangimarie Mihomiho Rose Pere, ‘To us the dreamers are important’ in Mana Wahine Reader A Collection of Writings 1987–1998, Volume 1, ed. Leonie Pihama, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Naomi Simmonds, Joeliee Seed-Pihama, and Kirsten Gabel. Te Kotahi Research Institute, 2019, 7.

6  Donna Haraway,Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press: Durham, NC, 2016, 142.

7  Günther Anders, ‘Thesis for an Atomic Age,’ The Massachusetts Review 3, no. 3, March 1962, 498.

 

Photograph © Kirk K 

 

 

This essay by Hana Pera Aoake is forthcoming in A Bathful of Kawakawa and Hot Water, available from Compound Press.

The post The Only Way Out Is Through appeared first on Granta.

Where Is Hong Kong Literature When We Need It Most?

One of my most vivid childhood memories took place in an English bookshop in Causeway Bay, a short minibus ride from my family home in Hong Kong. I was a voracious reader growing up, eyes constantly trained on any printed text available, even during dinnertime and when brushing my teeth. Intent on nourishing this interest, my mother took me to the children’s library at City Hall often, a floor above the marriage registry. And around once a month we would go to the bookshop, where I could take a book or two home.

I remember standing between the general fiction and the young adult aisles during one of these visits, my eyes scanning each of the titles and the names of their authors. I must have been less than ten years old. “Mom, why aren’t there any books written by Hong Kong people here?” I asked. “Why are all these books about other people in other places?”

“Maybe you’ll grow up and write them one day,” my mother said encouragingly. “Stories about Hong Kong people, by a Hong Kong person.”

It was more natural to me to imagine being on a different continent than to write about my immediate surroundings.

Yet when I ended up writing my first English book as a child, it was about an Australian girl who wanted a treehouse—a frivolity almost nonexistent in the concrete jungle I grew up in. It was more natural to me to imagine being on a different continent than to write about my immediate surroundings.

Twenty years later, that bookshop has long been shuttered, but the dearth of Hong Kong literature in English endures. I matured through a high school English curriculum consisting of tales that, though empowering for young girls, were based in faraway lands and eras: Little Women and Jane Eyre, plenty of Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath. On the rare occasion that the authors and protagonists resembled me at all—as in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior—their stories were so specific to the postwar Chinese American experience that I strained to see their relevance in my personal story, a love for mahjong aside.

Granted, English writing produced outside of the Western sphere has only achieved mainstream popularity over the past decade or two, when one could start finding a rush of names instead of a token representative narrative. I watched as South Asian authors started gaining ground in the noughts (Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Mohsin Hamid, Suketu Mehta), then a surge of literature from Latin America past and present. Finally, for the past couple of years, Chinese writers have entered the spotlight, epitomized by the hype surrounding Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. But Hong Kong, with a population double L.A.’s and a millions-strong diaspora, is yet to produce stories of its own that enter the global consciousness.

There are so many stories about this fishing-village-turned-metropolis that are deserving of an audience outside its immediate borders, stories that help the world understand the economic, social, and political miracle that is Hong Kong. There is the brilliant work produced by the prolific sibling duo Ni Kuang and Yi Shu, forebears of the homegrown science fiction and romance genres, and Xi Xi, whose name resembles a little girl jumping from one hopscotch square to another, among many others. But I have never seen the English translations of their work available anywhere, either in my hometown or abroad.


Hong Kong certainly does not lack representation in the global imagination. It is a perennial favorite among expats and tourists, with its English fluency, abundance of mountains and beaches, accommodating nightlife, and breathtaking efficiency. From the 1968 The Thunders song “She’s in Hong Kong” to the 2015 film Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, the city has long held fascination as a commercialized Shangri-la where East meets West, where Victorian architecture stands alongside dai pai dong stalls, and where organized crime gangs can ostensibly be observed from afar while basking in the safety of colonial-era laws. This sexy, highly fetishizable image is represented by the figures Hong Kong is most known for: kung fu stars Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, stylish film director Wong Kar-wai.

The Wikipedia section for ‘Hong Kong literature in English’ lists not a single writer who was born and brought up in the city.

The problem with these portrayals is that they represent, at best, an outsider’s view of the city, however positive. The truth is, Hong Kong can be interpreted as two parallel spheres: one populated by locals, and another by the foreigners, who peruse our bars and pursue careers without ever having to speak the language. Our literary chroniclers tend to hail from the latter. The current Wikipedia section for “Hong Kong literature in English” lists not a single writer who was born and brought up in the city. While we can take pride in the volume of foreign interest in our hometown, whose tales certainly merit their own value, the lack of our own stories makes no sense. Is there only an appetite for imported viewpoints of Hong Kong, even in our own people? When can we start telling our own stories to the world?

Educator Emily Style famously posited that literature serves as both “windows and mirrors” to young readers: windows that offer them a perspective on the world and its multitudes, and mirrors that reflect themselves, building and affirming their identities in the process. A balanced curriculum of both windows and mirrors allows us to develop a healthy understanding of the self’s relation to the world. For English readers in Hong Kong, however, there are only windows, no mirrors. When we lose sense of what we look like, how are we able to show our true selves?


This question became all the more pertinent over the last year, when widespread protests wracked Hong Kong, turning our sleek malls and underground stations into battlegrounds of tear gas and Molotov cocktails. The milieu of both foreign and mainland Chinese media descended upon the city, quick to populate international headlines with political analysis and hot takes, painting the protesters as victimized martyrs, or spoiled brats ungrateful for the motherland’s contributions, or simply political pawns in the midst of the trade war. And because Hong Kong has always been a porous space where media from elsewhere is revered and quickly amplified, the lack of our own stories has made us highly susceptible to being understood as these simplistic tropes—both to the global audience, and to ourselves.

To use a parallel: When the Black Lives Matter protests erupted, the public turned quickly to the canon of BIPOC writing to understand the history and lived experiences of racism that persist to the present day. The patient work of writers such as James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Jesmyn Ward, to name but a few, finally paid off in educating and activating the public. But in Hong Kong, people held on to translated soundbites from foreign commentators and lukewarm political statements for ideological deliverance, reproducing them endlessly via social media memes.

The characterization of Hong Kong in the global imagination has once again been written by observers on the sidelines, not ourselves.

But we are yet to hear about the unique experiences of growing up in Hong Kong that are central to the ethos of the movement. How does it feel to need an immigration document in order to travel anywhere outside the one-hour radius that spans our city? To be told you’re part of a country, and yet somehow not; to speak, read, and write differently from the rest of said country? To learn the national anthem of one country, yet have your legal protection be underwritten by the institutions of another? To be told you’re special, and to have that status enshrined in law and in name, then have your privileges gradually drawn away? These are questions that are all pertinent to the Hong Kong identity and that speak to the core of the ongoing crisis. Yet mainstream coverage has centered predominantly on the angst and bitter defiance against the Chinese government, a narrative arc supported by cherry-picked quotes. After all, everyone loves a David and Goliath story, especially when it turns on the world’s burgeoning superpower, and the people cast as Davids rarely object to being glorified. And so the characterization of Hong Kong in the global imagination has once again been written by observers on the sidelines, not ourselves.


Perhaps this predicament is unsurprising. Writing is far from a popular profession in Hong Kong’s cutthroat, capitalist society; if you have a talent for English language and expression, you are shuffled into a career in law. For all of my mother’s comments that day in the bookshop, when I seriously informed her that I wanted to become a writer when I grew up, her initial reaction was, “Writing does not make money. It can be your night job, maybe, but it cannot be your profession.” This is reflected in students’ subject choices for the DSE, Hong Kong’s standardized high school exam: in 2019, only just over 3% of candidates chose to study either Chinese or English literature. When there isn’t much writing coming from Hong Kong to begin with, the chances of it capturing the attention of English-language publishers are low.

Meanwhile, along with Taiwan and Singapore, Hong Kong is easily sidelined to make way for the wider “China” narrative. With the protests, we are only able to win a supporting role as a righteous figure standing firm against a feared power; there is little room for more diversity and complexity. And of course, one can argue that with the gradual erosion of the freedom of speech in Hong Kong, locals have become more afraid to tell their stories than ever before, preferring to stick to the relative security of online forums and private messaging.

When all you read about is stories about people from elsewhere, it is easy to wish to be elsewhere.

The lack of Hong Kong representation in the English medium, and the Western aspirations it fosters, is self-reinforcing from a young age. When all you read about is stories about people from elsewhere, it is easy to wish to be elsewhere, particularly when one’s lived reality seems bleak and decidedly unrosy. The Hong Kong population has always been transient: one-sixth of local residents departed before the 1997 Handover, and another outgoing wave is expected in light of the city’s recent political turmoil. It is hard not to wonder whether the lack of local representation in the media has accelerated Hong Kong people’s wishes to leave.


There are many, many stories about this one-of-a-kind city that deserve to be told, beyond our political demands and Instagrammable urbanity. Stories that cannot be easily reduced to dramatic character tropes and loud headlines; stories written by people who have lived its ruthless optimism and messy reality, not just fascinated bystanders. A clear example I can think of is the McMug and McDull comics, created by Alice Mak and Brian Tse, about two anthropomorphic piglets struggling to grow up as they make sense of Hong Kong. A kindergarten storybook series turned sharp social critique, its language is simple yet laugh-out-loud punny, its culinary references mouth-watering, and its cruelly gentrifying backdrop recognizable to any visitor to the city. Its tone of voice is emblematic of our people: bitterly resigned to our capitalistic destiny, yet steeped in a let’s-get-on-with-it attitude. Such stories exist, and I’d like to believe there are people who’d like to read them.

The power of literature is in its ability to enable deep identification and empathy with one another’s experiences. If Hong Kong’s stories were made more accessible to a worldwide audience, perhaps we can start to be seen as full-bodied people with our own needs and foibles, not simply passive puppets under the specter of whichever political power is in charge. At a time when our city is under the global spotlight more than ever, the need to tell our own stories has never been more pressing.

The post Where Is Hong Kong Literature When We Need It Most? appeared first on Electric Literature.

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 545

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a cleaning poem.

For today’s prompt, write a cleaning poem. Take out the trash, wash some dishes, or hire someone to do it for you. This week’s prompt asks you to get clean with your poetry. Of course, there are many interpretations of the words clean and cleaning, so this poem doesn’t need to be a chore.

I hope everyone returns next week for another prompt and in November for our 13th annual November Poem-A-Day Chapbook Challenge.

Remember: These prompts are springboards to creativity. Use them to expand your possibilities, not limit them.

Note on commenting: If you wish to comment on the site, go to Disqus to create a free new account, verify your account on this site below (one-time thing), and then comment away. It’s free, easy, and the comments (for the most part) don’t require manual approval like on the old site.

*****

Poem your days away with Robert Lee Brewer’s Smash Poetry Journal. This fun poetic guide is loaded with 125 poetry prompts, space to place your poems, and plenty of fun poetic asides.

IndieBound | Amazon

(Writer’s Digest uses affiliate links)

*****

Here’s my attempt at a Cleaning Poem:

“Permanent Mess”

Everyone knows there is no way
to clean a mess permanently.
Whether you start in March or May,
everyone knows there is no way
to keep clean what you cleaned today.
New messes are made constantly,
so that one knows the only way
is cleaning messes permanently.

How to Find a Literary Agent: A Comprehensive Guide for Aspiring Authors

You’ve finished that debut manuscript — the one that will help your career as an author take off. 

But how do you convince a literary agent to represent you?

As a senior vice president and senior literary agent at P.S. Literary Agency, I’ve had the opportunity to help launch the career of dozens of authors both domestically and abroad. My clients’ books have gone on to become bestsellers, award winners, critically acclaimed, national book club picks and some are published in over 20 languages.

This guide provides step-by-step instructions on how to find a literary agent to represent your work. 

Why you need a literary agent

If you want to be traditionally published with representation (someone who can manage the business side of your writing career), you need a literary agent. 

Agents work on commission — traditionally, 15% — based on selling your finished novel to a publisher, negotiating the agreement, and working hands-on as a project manager to help the process go smoothly. Literary agents also sell other rights on writers’ behalf like audio, film/tv, translation, and merchandising and that commission rate varies agency to agency. 

If you want to self-publish, publish with a small or regional press, or you’re not sure you’re ready to take this on in a professional capacity then you may not be ready for an agent. Also, if your fiction manuscript is not complete you are not ready. 

What does working with a literary agent look like?

Your literary agent will likely have you sign an agent agreement (very few work on a handshake and I wouldn’t recommend that). 

Some agencies have you sign one per book and some agencies will set theirs up to work with you for the long term. This means if the agent sells your book they will be the “agent on record” and all monies will flow through the agency and to you (less the commission). 

At our agency, we sign the client up for the long term. This means that you’re easily able to get out of the agreement if it’s no longer a fit (but if we’ve sold a book for you we remain “on record”) however we’re planning on working together over the course of your long career and many books. I prefer this method because if I’m going to invest time in developing a writer’s career I want to be involved in the brand building and long-term outlook, not just a one-off project. I always think of it as a multi-year, multi-project business relationship. It also keeps the writer feeling secure in knowing that they have a champion for the long haul.

Your literary agent serves as your business representative to help take care of the financial and administrative matters so you can focus on your craft.

How to know when it’s time to find a literary agent

When your manuscript is complete, polished, reviewed by a beta reader or critiqued by a writing partner, you are ready to pitch it to a literary agent. 

We call this “querying.” 

What you need in your submission package varies from agent to agent and agency to agency, but generally it’s the following:

  • Query letter to submit via email
  • Synopsis (I suggest you prepare both a one-page and a three-page option)
  • Polished manuscript in 12 point, Times New Roman font, double spaced (I suggest two files: one that has three chapters—we call this a “partial”—and one that has the full thing—we call this a “full”)

If you have these things ready you can start building your submission list.

How to find a literary agent

We call this process “querying agents” or “the submission process.” 

Finding agents is easy to do in the age of the internet, but finding good ones can be more of a challenge (anyone can call themselves an agent, but only those who have a strong track record are doing it well).

Here are some online, print and in-person resources to find agents of quality:

Formatting your query letter

Think of your query letter like a cover letter for a job. Not too personal, not too stiff, but showing the right amount of self-awareness and industry awareness. 

Here are my query letter (i.e. pitch to agent via email) recommended guidelines:

  • Paragraph One – Introduction: Include the title and category of your work (i.e. fiction or nonfiction and topic), an estimated word count, comparative titles and a brief, general introduction.
  • Paragraph Two – Brief overview: This should read similar to back-cover copy.
  • Paragraph Three – Creator’s bio: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background (awards and affiliations, etc.). Include your website and social media handles.

Once you’ve written your query letter follow these steps.

  1. Personalize each letter based on their guidelines. This can simply include addressing the agent by their full professional name and not “Dear Agent”
  2. Query in large batches to create an opportunity for success (something like 15-20 is a manageable number); ideally you want more than one offer so you can make the best choice for yourself.
  3. Start with your top choices, but remember that agents doing this for 10-20+ years have full lists and less room for new authors so you might want to research junior agents at those agencies too
  4. Keep color-coded or super organized spreadsheets with submission requests and replies
  5. Avoid agents that ask for exclusive submissions for query letters because it can take 3-6 months to hear back from them and that is an extremely slow process for you, the author.
  6. Wait. And wait. There will be lots of time where you won’t hear anything but that doesn’t mean anything. It takes time for an agent to read their slush pile (i.e. where the query letters go) and to get to material. Silence doesn’t necessarily mean a no (unless their guidelines say so). Response rates vary from agency to agency but most agents will respond to queries anywhere from 4 weeks to 6 months. This range is based on a variety of factors: how many queries the agent gets (often it’s 1,000+ a month), how full their list is, what time of year it is, how busy their business is, and whether they’re looking for that particular genre right now.
  7. Only follow up if a) you have an offer of representation and need to let everyone know; or b) you have followed the guidelines on their website and they said to check back then. Tip: If you do need to follow up with an agent always base it off their website’s suggestions. Agents always want to hear if you have an offer so please let them know if someone else offered representation no matter how long they’ve had your query. However, if your ideal scenario comes true, you get an offer from your dream agent and you know you aren’t going to entertain any others you can firmly close the door with the others.

10 query intros you can use

  1. “You’ve mentioned on your blog/Twitter an interest in XX and so BOOK TITLE HERE might be of special interest to you.”
  2. “After reading (and loving) CLIENT BOOK TITLE HERE, I am submitting BOOK TITLE HERE for your review.”
  3. “I noticed on Manuscript Wishlist you are looking for XX and XX so I’m submitting BOOK TITLE HERE.”
  4. “I am seeking representation for my novel, BOOK TITLE HERE, a work of XX complete at XX-words. For readers of XX and CLIENT BOOK TITLE HERE.”
  5. “I enjoyed your interview with XX and am eager to present to you my query for BOOK TITLE HERE.”
  6. “As per your request on #MSWL, I am hoping you’ll be interested in my book, BOOK TITLE HERE, an …”
  7. “I am excited to offer, for your consideration, BOOK TITLE HERE, one that is HOOK, like your #MSWL requests.”
  8. “I am contacting you about my novel BOOK TITLE HERE because of your wishlist mention of XX and XX.”
  9. .“I noticed your #MSWL tweet requesting XX and I thought my novel BOOK TITLE HERE could be just what you’re looking for.”
  10. “I am seeking representation for my GENRE novel BOOK TITLE HERE complete at XX-words. It is similar in theme to CLIENT BOOK TITLE HERE.”

Working with your literary agent

As an agent I am always thinking: “Am I the right person to help you make a living from your writing?” 

It’s a unique relationship that is partly business (the publishing industry is a multi-billion dollar industry internationally) and partly personal (working directly with emotionally intelligent creators is a highly-personal thing). We don’t know how our working styles will meld, but when we decide to work together (it’s a mutual decision that you should feel really positive about) we go in with honesty and the best hopes: that we sell your book to the right buyer.

Authors can come to agents for lots of different forms of advice and we don’t always have the answers. We are not all accountants, lawyers and/or MBA graduates. Most of us are English or Comparative Literature graduates, some with a Master’s Degree. Each agent has a different skill set and when you talk to an agent for the first time you want to get to know what they excel at. What you want is an agent that fits your needs, sees your goals as attainable and has a proven track record to succeed in what you’re trying to do with your career. Personally, I have an Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master’s degree in Publishing Studies.

What does the agent/author relationship include?

  • Honest editorial feedback (if the agent considers themselves an “editorial agent” and this is something you should ask about if you’re interested in having an agent that edits)
  • Career advice
  • Pitch mutually agreed upon projects (we always talk about each project individually)
  • Timely communication
  • Contract negotiation
  • Pitch sub rights (If retained, we pitch TV/film, translation, and audio separately)
  • Royalty statement vetting
  • Timely payments
  • Best interests in mind
  • Business partnership

What does the agent/author relationship not include? Here are a few things you shouldn’t expect from your literary agent:

  • 24/7 contact; publishing rarely has five alarm emergencies
  •  Editorial advice not guaranteed with all agents
  • Micromanaging, either way
  • Agents loving everything their clients write
  • Agents selling everything you write
  • Agents ‘fixing’ your work or helping you finish

What a literary agent looks for in an author

We’re all looking for words that we connect with, that speak to us, and that we think can speak to a larger audience. 

Here are a few specifics that tip me towards something I know I’ll like:

  • Evidence we are dealing with a “career writer”; this is my career and I want to work with writers who take this seriously
  • The query letter and/or first pages suggest a writer can carry off a novel
  • Confidence a writer can handle emotion, pace, and backstory effectively
  • A writer who can develop a plot that doesn’t have implausible points, gaping holes or coincidences
  • Books that connect with people on an emotional level; I want to feel something big (joy, frustration, anger, thrills etc.)
  • Memorable characters that live on long after the book is over
  • High stakes that make the book seem larger than life

It’s a lot to look for in one query letter and one manuscript, but I’m always searching for this.

How to actually sign with a literary agent

Agents will get on the phone with you and it’s often called “The Call” in industry circles.

It’s your opportunity to interview each other and you should take full advantage.

Be prepared to answer these questions from your potential literary agent:

  • What are you working on next?
  • How long does it take you to write a draft?
  • Who are some of your favorite authors?
  • What kind of support are you looking for?
  • What has been your path to publishing? Agented before? What did/didn’t you like about that partnership? Published before? What did/didn’t you like about that experience?
  • How do you workshop your work? Critique group? How many drafts did you complete before the one I saw?
  • Where do your ideas come from?
  • What is your day job? And what does your writing schedule look like?
  • What are some of your career goals and expectations?
  • How many other agents are looking at the manuscript?
  • Do my editorial notes match your vision for the book?
  • How do you feel about social media and marketing yourself?

Ask your potential literary agent these questions:

  • What is your definition of representation? Is it for one book, or the author’s career?
  • If you and the agent agree to work together, what will happen next? What is the expected process? (I go into detail about this in the next section.)
  • Does the agent use a formal author-agent agreement or a hand-shake agreement?
  • What happens if either the agent or the client wants to terminate the partnership?
  • If the agent/client relationship is terminated, what is the policy for any unsold rights in the works the agent has represented?
  • How long has the agent been an agent? How long have they been in publishing, and what other positions have they held? How long has the agency been in business?
  • What are the last few titles the agent has sold? (This should be easily found on the internet, but it’s nice to hear from them in case they don’t update Publisher’s Marketplace or another industry source.)
  • Does the agent belong to any professional or industry organizations? Is the agent listed on Publisher’s Marketplace?
  • Does the agent handle film rights, foreign rights, audio rights? Is there a specialist at their agency who handles these rights?
  • Does the agent prefer phone or email, or are they okay with both?
  • What are the agent and agency’s business hours?
  • Does the agent let you know where and when they submit your work? Does the agent forward rejection letters to the client?
  • What happens when the agent is on vacation?
  • Does the agent consult with the client on all offers from publishers? Does the agent make any decisions on behalf of the client?
  • What is the agent’s percentage?
  • Does the author receive payments directly from the publisher, or do payments go through the agent first?
  • How long after the agent receives advances and royalties will they send them to you?
  • Does the agent charge for mailing? Copies? Any other fees?
  • What publishers does the agent think would be appropriate for your book?
  • How close is your book to being ready for submission? Will there be a lot of editing and rewriting first?
  • Does the agent help with career planning?
  • How does the agent feel about authors switching genres?
  • Will the agent edit and help you revise your work?
  • What if the agent doesn’t like your next book?

You landed a literary agent! What now?

Once you sign an agent agreement, the heavy workload begins — again. We usually do a round or two (or three!) of editing with you to polish up the manuscript. We want to make sure that it’s ready to share with our editorial contacts because it’s about our reputation too. 

Once we have the submission draft ready to go the agents puts together their submission list of editors. We pitch those editors and it goes out into the world again. Agents will focus on the larger publishers first and then work their way down to smaller ones (depending on the project, but this is usually the case). 

Then the next waiting phase begins. Will someone buy it? We hope so!

The bottom line

Finding the right agent is one of the most important things you can do for your writing career. 

It doesn’t have to be the first one that says yes, or the last one to read it, but the agent that you feel will best represent what you are doing with this book and your career. 

Remember that it’s a competitive process but there are things you can do to stand out: follow guidelines (actively choosing not to follow guidelines does not get anyone’s attention; there are no gold stars for breaking the rules to look “special”), keep your word count appropriate for your genre, a great title, a strong hook, picking the right agent for your genre/book, sending in an error-free submission, etc.

Agents are looking for the best of the best. But it’s also only one opinion. When I pass on a project I often think it wasn’t right for me but that doesn’t mean someone else won’t feel differently.  Agents are looking for projects that can stand out in a wave of entertainment options. Agents are looking for books that they know they can sell. 

My relationships with my clients are all really special ones. I love seeing their dreams come true and coaching them through the tough times as well. Having an objective expert on your writing team is crucial to succeeding in this industry and I hope everyone finds the best fit for their personal style.

Photo via fizkes / Shutterstock 

The post How to Find a Literary Agent: A Comprehensive Guide for Aspiring Authors appeared first on The Write Life.

Safety Is Not Other People

Asylum

The dependence of hunger gives
way to a sharpened eye, a test subject
unsure if it’s in the control or the experiment
group. Sugar or water or the choice to leave
before someone else’s decision: paint me
a reverie like a radio dial or a waiting room’s
splintering pique for your name. I want you
to take my time. When a succulent is
overwatered, it melts from the bottom up,
irretrievable from a surplus, watching itself
drown on land. I snake a string of pearls
around the pot to give it something of the sea
to welcome it while wasting; a terminal
lucidity in its shrinking. And you take my time kindly by
the spoonful, certain to slip the knife
from my teeth, and how I love you harder for it.

When you’re not looking, I lick the counters:
Stray coffee grounds, mistaken yogurt dabs, cracker dust,
anything to keep the taste of you in my mouth even while
you’re here. We’re here. For now,
we draw a bath to forget that
RBG is dead, and what was scalding, we let turn cold
to know we’re still warm inside. What endurance
do we need to carve from ourselves next?

I’d carry your child if you’d have me, provided I still can
or ever could in these days of petroleum skin on the lake
shivering beneath wildfire smoke and Baldwin
rightfully back in vogue. Would one be a fortune? Salt!
Salt for the going, for the polish of the pearls.
Where next the dishes and chairs are placed matters
as much as the light and the will to eat.

Some Things That Are Not Love Happen Out of Love

and those are the things for which we must conjure
an alternate route in order to survive; acknowledgement is due, but without 
a whole body, the needs to be born, it is missing bone

-mass, about 10%, in the right hip joint. Surprisingly, the spine
looks okay. Usually, that’s where girls like you lose the most.
[Osteopenically speaking: sure. I can believe that.] I knew I was

walking into a room I hadn’t before, and I thought his parents
would be home, meaning safety, meaning answers
to the three-day absence of the one person my mind could

not unknot from. I hunkered Rocinante’s fat ass in place
alone affront the house, the poor van’s dyspeptic engine pinging
itself cool: maybe their car was in the alley. He wouldn’t

suggest you start taking salt tablets, because right now
you need to raise your blood pressure, and the salt
will do that. And more water. Water, not coffee. The ceiling fan

wasn’t moving, but its light was on; the porcelain heads
to the pull chains, for once, were still, two baby teeth dangling
from a robin’s egg gum. He said he was suicidal, that’s why

he’d needed to not talk to me, not see me, or be near seeing me
for three days. Consoled that it wasn’t my fault, I said that’s okay
and he took my hand and if you’d just raise your left arm and

lay your head on top it, I can get a better angle on your heart.
[Must it be a jab, sir? Surely, the echo is viable without a jab.] I just
wanted to help, let him know the child I was loved the child I saw

in him: a fellow loner, befuddled with these extra parts to cover,
and a number of hick histories to dissuade. Go team weirdo!
A resolute shift in his lean, new kind of press, one I wasn’t

sure I wanted not Within fifteen feet, the instinctual reaction is to not
move or scream when confronted with this person undoing
above inside me the fan light boiling my sight barium green lit copper blue

bird with a two-egg nest stenciled on the wall three fan tines because
a scream would give away the throat to four pillows to the couch
five fingers to a hand where’s mine need to just find home six animal yes

and when his face reached my mouth, I kissed it with all I that I was
to keep him from lowering back down. It was the one prayer
I could manage to summon, and it gave life back to one dead:

of course, I made a practice of this worship: it was for love! Of course, 
I’ve carved my form with something mistaken for vanity I’m sent girls all the time 
with this problem. But you’re already perfectly thin. Why do you

want to be thin? because vain is where this started. It has the subtlety
of a sledgehammer, my statement of control, and I’m working
on reframing repentance. I was a kid, and I did what I could to help.

The post Safety Is Not Other People appeared first on Electric Literature.

Nancy Stohlman: Creativity in a Flash

Author Nancy Stohlman discusses why flash fiction is changing the way we tell stories and the shifting landscape of creativity in 2020.

Nancy Stohlman is the author of four books of flash fiction including Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities (a finalist for a 2019 Colorado Book Award), The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories (2014), and The Monster Opera (2013). She is the creator of The Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series and FlashNano in November. Her work has been anthologized in the W.W. Norton New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, Macmillan’s The Practice of Fiction, and The Best Small Fictions 2019. Her craft book, Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction, is forthcoming from Ad Hoc Fiction in 2020. She teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado Boulder.

When she is not writing flash fiction, she straps on stilettos and becomes the lead singer of the lounge metal jazz trio Kinky Mink. She dreams of one day becoming a pirate.

In this post, Nancy Stohlman discusses why flash fiction is changing the way we tell stories, the shifting landscape of creativity in 2020, and much more!

(3 Things You Need to Know to Write Great Flash Fiction)

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Whether you are a writing novice looking to cut your teeth or a published professional, the short story is a unique and challenging medium that offers you amazing opportunities.

Click to continue.

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Name: Nancy Stohlman
Literary agent: Becky LeJeune, Bond Literary Agency
Book title: Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction
Publisher: Ad Hoc Fiction
Release date: October 15, 2020
Genre: The craft of writing
Previous titles by the author: Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities (finalist for a 2019 Colorado Book Award); The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories; The Monster Opera; Searching for Suzi: a flash novel; Fast Forward: The Mix Tape

Elevator pitch for the book: Flash fiction is changing the way we tell stories. Carving away the excess, eliminating all but the most essential, flash fiction is putting the story through a literary dehydrator, leaving the meat without the fat. In Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction, veteran writer, publisher and teacher Nancy Stohlman takes us on a flash fiction journey: from creating, sculpting, re-visioning and collecting, to best practices for writers in any genre.

Amazon

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What prompted you to write this book?

The seeds for Going Short were planted as early as 2009 when students and fellow writers were asking for book recommendations on the craft of flash fiction … and I didn’t have any. Most teachers I knew at the time (including myself) were using anthologies of flash fiction in their workshops and classrooms instead. But flash fiction requires specific skills, so there was a real need for books that addressed the particular nuances and challenges of the small form.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? 

I started writing the book in 2012, so it took me nearly seven years to complete! One of the reasons it took so long was because I was becoming a better writer and teacher throughout the process. Each year my understanding of the form deepened. And I could continue to write this book for another seven years! Every day, I learn something new, both as a writer and as a teacher. And every day, the form continues to invent itself. It’s quite exciting.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

The book was originally scheduled to come out in June 2020, so there was that little worldwide surprise called COVID-19! But I’m glad we pushed the release date, because now, more than ever, writers and readers are rethinking their creativity. The whole world is rethinking creativity. So this book feels like it couldn’t be more perfectly timed. I’m also really grateful that this book is coming out with Ad Hoc Fiction because they have the same love of flash fiction, the same mission to help spread the flash fiction gospel. I feel lucky that we’re both on the front lines of a new genre—that is an opportunity that doesn’t come around in every lifetime.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

The biggest surprise was how difficult it was! I thought it would be “easy”—after all, I’m a professor, a workshop leader, and a long-time writer and advocate of the form. But it turned out to be the hardest book I’ve ever written. I couldn’t approach it the same way I approach fiction. When I write fiction, I tune out my audience; I try to forget about readers and publication. But this book was for my readers, so I had their faces and voices and words with me, in my mind, every step of the way. The process was much slower, and the longer I worked on it the more important it became to get it right. I’ll be honest: I quit many times. But I never really gave up. In the end, it has been one of my most rewarding books.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I hope fellow flash writers and lovers see it as a writing companion, a trusted friend they can return to over and over. I also hope the newly flash-curious writer will get a better understanding of this amazing form, and this book helps bridge the gap of misunderstanding. And, ultimately, I hope everyone falls in love with the form as deeply and passionately as I have.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

My very best piece of advice is to write by hand, every day. I’ve been doing this for 25 years—there is a different sort of creativity that happens when you write by hand. The brain relaxes, and that’s when great ideas come in through the side door. And write every day, if only for 15 minutes, because this keeps you limber and in good shape for when those good ideas do arrive. It’s like a long-distance relationship—if you only talk on the weekends, there is a lot of catching up to do. But if you touch your work every day, even if you have nothing important to say, even if you only have 15 minutes, the relationship stays alive and relevant, rather than becoming estranged.

I know writers who think these two things are a waste of time, but I guarantee the 15 minutes you spend writing by hand every day will save you double or more that amount of time spent staring at your blank computer screen.