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Month: September 2020

For Sale: Spacious 2BDR, Great Views, Ornery Ghost

“Advice for the Haunted” by Rachel Swearingen

Any other couple would have thrown away the former owner’s things and moved in, but two months after buying the apartment at auction, Nick and I were still using it as a playhouse. The former owner’s name had been Natalia. We had “inherited” all of her possessions, her pantry and freezer stuffed with food. Under the couch, she had wedged bottles of cheap red wine. Nick joked that we could survive at Natalia’s forever. “It’s like our own private fallout shelter,” he said, as we peeled back her bedspread and crawled under the sheets. We didn’t concern ourselves with the circumstances of her death. We were young and in love, and the misfortunes of others had nothing to do with us.

The flat had one bedroom, an office, and a narrow kitchen that opened into a long central room. Heavy drapes shut out the city view. The furniture was outdated; the Persian rugs, threadbare and stained. The ceilings and walls had recently been spackled, leaving bone-white spots. On the buffet, next to the dining table, were stacks of postcards of paintings, many of them torn or chewed at the corners. We found a half-used bottle of anti-anxiety pills in the medicine cabinet, a glass accordion in a folded tablecloth, a baggie of foreign coins in a boot at the back of a closet. In a rickety piano bench, we discovered faded Polaroids of two girls at what looked like a family picnic.

We were still paying rent for our own apartments and rarely talked of the future. At Natalia’s, we’d spend entire weekends pretending we were the last two people on Earth. We liked to camp it up. “Zombies?” I’d say.

“Meteorite.” He’d tear off his tie. “It’s at least three miles wide.” Sunlight would be breaking through the drapes. “Do you see how dark it’s getting?”

“What will we do?” I’d say, unbuttoning my blouse.

We ransacked her cupboards, pulled out soapstone animals from Africa. We placed the rhinoceros and giraffe in compromising positions. We played like children, pillaging her closets. Then we learned from the downstairs neighbor that Natalia had been a recluse who hadn’t left the apartment in years. Something had happened to the sister who brought her supplies, and Natalia had started venturing into the hallway. One day she left the building with a suitcase and somehow plunged to her death from the L platform just two blocks away.

We continued to rearrange her furniture and tchotchkes. We still pretended we were secret agents or a strange new semi-human species that had survived the apocalypse. Entire weekends passed before we left the apartment or ate a real dinner, but we studied her photographs more closely now. We invented roles for Natalia in our games: captor, hostage, aunt.

Once or twice a week, Nick and I met at Natalia’s during my lunch break. We were soaking in Natalia’s tub. Nick handed me a mug of wine. “Don’t look at me like that,” he said. “You know you’re not going back to work.”

We thought it was a shame Natalia had had to bathe alone in such a wondrous tub. The guy beneath us had said that the morning of her death, she said hello to him in the hallway. “But she was all strange and spacey. Really happy, you know. The kind of happy people get before they jump.”

“But the suitcase,” I said to Nick. “He said she was carrying a suitcase. Why would she, if she was planning on ending it all?”

He pulled a long leg out of the water and slung it over the edge of the tub. “She should have never left,” he said. “She had everything she needed right here.”

I stood and reached for a towel. I’d been hearing noises, and what I heard then was the sound of a wrench knocking against metal inside the bathroom walls. The door creaked open and cold air rushed in. I hopped out of the tub and shut it, but as soon as I turned around, it opened again.

Nick crossed his arms over his chest and in a rich falsetto said, “Natalia, stay out. We’re naked.”

I laughed out loud, but then came a sound like steel marbles rolling across the ceiling. I think even Nick had the feeling we weren’t alone. He handed me his mug. “Hold this,” he said, and when I reached, I slipped on the tile and struck my head.

Nick got out and examined my forehead. “It’s not that bad,” he said. “Barely a scratch, but you’re going to have a goose egg.”

“Natalia did it,” I said. I was only half-kidding.

We tightened our towels and made our way to the kitchen. I took a box of crackers and a jar of peanut butter from the cupboard. “I don’t know what it is about this place that makes me so hungry,” I said.

Nick dug into the peanut butter with a spoon. “It’s that we didn’t buy this food ourselves.”

“No, it’s like it’s not real. Like there’s no world out there.”

“Precisely,” he said. He pulled me close. “Let’s never leave.”

We joked about turning the apartment into a private country, a micronation like Christiania in Denmark. We’d call it the Republic of Natalia and design our own special stamp.


The next morning, I noticed an imprint in the bedding, as if someone had been sitting there watching us. Nick was in the kitchen paging through one of Natalia’s books, and he showed it to me. “Classical mathematics,” he said.

“No wonder she didn’t have any friends.”

“I thought you liked math.” He filled one of the miniature cups from her china set with coffee and put it down in front of the extra stool at the breakfast bar. “Good morning, Nat,” he said. “How’d you sleep?”

“She’s grumpy in the morning,” he said to me. “Doesn’t like to talk.” He winked.

“I think it’s time to tell Oscar and Joelle,” I said. “About the apartment, I mean.”

Oscar and Joelle were our closest friends. They were the reason we were together. And Oscar believed in ghosts. He was a sort of amateur ghost hunter. I wanted to get his read on the place. “Let’s have them over, for dinner or something.”

“You know how Natalia feels about company,” Nick said. “Besides, they don’t have visas yet.”

“I’m going to be late,” I said.

Nick put the book aside and got up to make another pot of coffee. “We don’t start before ten in the Republic of Natalia.”

“Too bad I don’t work for the Republic. If I keep this up, we won’t be able to afford to live in the Republic anymore.” I had intended the words more lightly.

“I never asked you to put up the down payment,” he said. “It didn’t need to be that large.”

So far we had managed to mostly avoid talking about the purchase or my paying more toward the mortgage. I was in the middle of several large acquisitions at work, and any conversation about interest rates and balloon payments was likely to turn into an argument about corporate greed in the face of famine and war.

I left Nick in the kitchen and went to Natalia’s closet to look for something to wear. We almost never stayed overnight during the week. I was traveling more for due diligence, always to other cities in the Midwest or the South. I was constantly shuttling between airports and hotels, between my own apartment, Natalia’s, and my office downtown. I felt disoriented, and my excuses for leaving work were growing absurd.

Most of Natalia’s clothes were outdated. I recognized a purple dress from a photograph of a much younger Natalia in front of a fountain with a boyfriend somewhere in Europe. We had propped the photo against a lamp on her dresser, and I looked at it again as I changed into the dress. The boyfriend had a goofy grin and thick hair that stuck up in a cowlick, and Natalia threw her head back to laugh. She must have been healthy then.

I searched her underwear drawer with dread, wishing I had brought an overnight bag. All of Natalia’s undergarments were plain white cotton, many with frayed elastic. I reminded myself that Natalia was dead and wouldn’t care if I wore something of hers, but I rejoiced when I found a lacy pair of silk panties that still had a price tag. I wondered when she had bought them, and why just one pair. I put them on and for a moment I was Natalia, untouched for too long.

At Fullerton, I waited on the platform for the Red Line. I checked my email on my phone, only partially aware of a pack of unruly school kids horsing around. One of them slammed into me. I stumbled toward the tracks, and an enormous woman grabbed me and pulled me back. I thought little of this until I was standing in the compartment and the woman pointed at my phone and said, “That thing’s gonna be the death of you.”

I squirmed against the sensation of the silk against my skin. “I’m wearing the underwear of a dead lady,” I wanted to confess.

I arrived at work late for yet another meeting and made up an excuse about a mechanical problem delaying my train. It was a harmless lie, but I had told so many by then I had the uneasy feeling I would be fired.

After work that evening I went out to meet my running club. They were a rugged group that ran even when temperatures dipped below zero. I wanted to be like them. At the waterfront, I tried to keep up. Lake Michigan frothed, and gulls struggled against the wind. The man in front of me lagged too. He kept wiping his arm across his brow. He tripped and regained his balance, and then his legs buckled under him.

At first I thought he had simply slipped, but he wasn’t moving and several other runners gathered around him. “I don’t think he’s breathing,” a woman said. I stood looking on with the crowd, and then sirens sounded and before long a paramedic was pushing us back, saying, “Give us some room, folks.” The others turned back, but I jogged another mile or two. I didn’t know the man, and that’s what I told myself all along the lake. He’s just a stranger. You don’t know him. This sort of thing happens every day.

I didn’t want to be alone, so I called Nick and went to Natalia’s. I pulled off my wet clothes and filled the bath. The refraction of my hands underwater made them appear broken off and reattached at the wrong angle. I ran my fingers over the welt on my forehead. I had fallen or almost fallen twice in less than 24 hours, and then, directly in front of me, a man had collapsed and probably died.

I got into bed, but not before putting the soapstone animals away in Natalia’s dresser, not before turning on the bedside light and making sure my phone was within reach. I couldn’t stop seeing the man at the lake, his legs giving way. I turned my face to the pillow and tried not to think of Natalia drooling into the same feathers.

Then Nick was standing in the bedroom doorway. He held his arms out and made his eyes dull, and I said, “Yes, please. Bring on the zombies.”

He vaulted into bed and got under the covers, and I jolted at his cold hands. “You’re so warm,” he said. “God, you feel good,” and then he was kissing me, we were turning together, the covers off now, tangled around our legs. I was kneeling in the middle of the bed, the two of us reflected in the mirror above the dresser. The drawer seemed to open a little more. Nick’s arm tightened around my waist. He kissed the back of my neck.

The apartment walls were mere skin. The patched spot on the ceiling seemed to pulse. I closed my eyes to make it stop. Nick’s breath was in my ear, and when I opened my eyes Natalia was there, hovering at the end of the bed. She was a blur, then her ashen face appeared, her mouth opened as if to scream, only it was me screaming, throwing Nick off me, and wrenching the covers to my chin.

“Who’s there?” Nick said. He stared in the direction of the dresser for several minutes and then crept back into bed. We huddled together and slept.

We said nothing about what had happened until the next morning when Nick teased me about my pushing him off the bed.

“But you saw her. I know you did.”

“I didn’t see anything. I thought someone broke in. You’re the one who screamed.”

“Then why didn’t you check the apartment? Why didn’t you check the door?”

He didn’t answer, just waved me away and went into the bedroom with his laptop to work.

He had canceled our meeting with a general contractor about the apartment remodel, claiming he had a deadline. He worked for an international relief organization and spent much of his time drafting reports and making overseas calls. Earlier in the year, two of his colleagues had been killed in a bombing, another taken captive. He had stopped reading the news, and when he mentioned work at all now it was to complain it was meaningless. I couldn’t be certain, but I thought there were new cans of soup in the cupboard, that he was secretly adding to Natalia’s stash and replenishing the store of wine under the couch. I found him staring into the mirror in the hallway talking to himself and thought I caught Natalia’s name. I worried she had worked her way into him, that if we didn’t do something soon, he’d be afraid to leave the apartment too.

What we needed was the company of friends, so I called Oscar and Joelle, and we met them at a nearby restaurant. It was almost like old times, the two of them telling such good stories. They were animated, flushed with life. They had a seven-year-old named Lucy and lived west of the city, and we hadn’t seen them in months.

“We bought a condo,” I blurted. “In Lincoln Park. Can you believe it?”

Nick pinched me under the table.

“It’s about time,” Joelle said. I noticed she wasn’t drinking and suspected she was pregnant again. They had been trying for several years to have a second child, going through fertility treatments, suffering one loss after another.

“It’s not official yet,” Nick said, glancing at me. “Even if we do get it, it could be months before the whole thing’s finalized.”

“You couldn’t pay me to live in Lincoln Park,” Oscar said.

“It’s small. Two bedrooms, one is barely big enough for an office,” I said, trying to downplay how expensive it was.

“It’s not that small,” Nick said. “Whole families live with less.”

“The woman who lived there killed herself,” I said, and Nick buried his face in his hands. “It went into probate. All her stuff is still inside.”

“How’d she do it?” Oscar asked.

Nick looked up at Oscar. “Don’t even go there. It didn’t happen in the apartment. And she didn’t kill herself. She fell in front of a train. She tripped or something.”

Oscar tore off another piece of bread and seemed to ponder it before wedging it into his mouth. “If you buy it, I’m bringing my equipment.”

“I’m telling you, it’s not haunted.”

“Does this mean there might be a wedding?” Joelle asked.

“Not if Natalia has her way,” I said.

“Natalia?” Oscar said. “You mean you knew this person?”

“No,” Nick said. “Like I said, we’re just thinking about buying it.”

Nick barely spoke the rest of the evening and was silent as we walked back to the apartment. When we got inside he said, “Are you happy now?” He gestured all around. “Now Natalia’s is going to be just like everywhere else.”

“It is like everywhere else, Nick. It’s just an apartment. You didn’t have to lie to them.”

“I can’t believe I didn’t see it.”

“See what?” I asked. “Do you know how much money we’ve been wasting?”

“Yes,” he said. “It’s always about money, isn’t it?”


The next morning I flew to Des Moines for work. When I tried calling Nick, he wouldn’t answer. I returned to the apartment several days later, and the place was littered with plates of half-eaten pasta, crumpled paperwork, Natalia’s CDs and albums. The carved animals marched in a parade down the hallway. The air smelled musty. All the drapes were pulled shut.

I opened the bedroom door and found Nick in bed, buried under a pile of blankets, a pillow over his head to block the light, the curtains blowing in cold air from the open window. I could just make out his whiskery chin. The armchair from the corner of the room was next to the bed, as if someone had been watching over him. The hair on my arms stood on end.

I pulled the pillow away and Nick blinked at me. “Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” I said, crawling under the covers. “Are you OK?”

“I can’t sleep,” he said. “The lights keep going on and off.”

“They’re probably doing electrical work somewhere in the building.”

“Maybe,” he said. “But what if Oscar was right? What if she’s here?”


We called Oscar and by evening the apartment was rigged with cords and computers, with sensors and blinking red lights.

Oscar had taken photos of Nick that showed a pinkish-red orb above his head. “See that?” he said. “Ectoplasm. You’re definitely haunted, Nicky. But not as much as this place.”

He found nothing in his photos of me. “Sorry, friend,” he said, patting my arm. “Don’t take it personally. The women have always had a thing for Nick.”

Nick and I slept at my apartment that night, and when we returned the next morning Oscar led us from room to room, indicating places of high activity. He was giddy with excitement. He showed us charts of energy fluctuations on his computer. “This is from the bedroom,” he said, pointing to a jagged line of temperature shifts he found disturbingly erratic.

I wondered about cell towers, but said nothing. Then Oscar played a series of recordings of thumping and rattling and what sounded like someone opening and closing cupboards.

“We’ve heard that before,” Nick said. “It’s an old building.”

“Then what do you make of this?” Oscar played a recording of a hollow, raspy voice saying what sounded like “Are you there?” and a second one that said, “Hurry. Hurry.” Or maybe “Hurray. Hurray.”

“Tell me you engineered that,” Nick said.

I expected Oscar to laugh, but instead he looked at us gravely and said, “You started this, dudes. The lady’s confused. You’ve got to get rid of her stuff. Every last thing. Throw her a going-away party or something. You’ve got to tell her it’s time to leave.”


It snowed the Friday of Natalia’s party, the first major storm of the season. We had cleaned the apartment and made a spread of her food and drink. Nick was more energized than I had seen him in months. He talked about refinishing the floors. He talked about a lead on a new job with a better NGO. We poured bottles of Natalia’s booze into an enormous punch bowl we found in her storage space in the basement, still in its original box. “If we’re going to do this, let’s really do it,” Nick said. He filled each room with light from Natalia’s emergency candles, and he made an altar of photos and figurines on the breakfast bar. He even went out and bought flowers for her, white chrysanthemums and roses.

“That’s what I love about this guy,” Oscar said. “He wants to make even the ghosts feel special.”

He and Joelle had left Lucy with Oscar’s mother and were staying overnight. Friends we hadn’t seen in ages arrived, and we stood around drinking, catching up, looking at Natalia’s photos. Oscar told ghost stories as he led them on a tour of the apartment.

In the kitchen, Joelle caught me staring at her drink.

“Two solid embryos. I really thought it was going to happen this cycle,” she said. “Oscar wants to see a different doctor, but I think I’m done.”

I tried to hug her, but she pulled away.

“This party must seem a little ridiculous right now,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “But we could use a little ridiculousness.”

Most of our guests were like Oscar and Joelle, exhausted parents unused to staying out late. We stood around sipping from plastic cups. Then more people arrived, and the mood grew lively. We celebrated until midnight, when Oscar positioned himself behind the makeshift altar. He waved Natalia’s rhinoceros in the air and whistled loudly. Then Nick yelled, “Listen up, everyone. Let’s at least give this a shot.” Someone handed Nick a shot of whiskey, and he knocked it back and said, “Seriously, guys. Gather round.”

Oscar asked Nick and me to remove the hallway mirror, and then he encouraged everyone to hold something of Natalia’s. Someone placed a hand on the coffee table. Someone else, on the small oil painting Natalia must have gotten from a street vendor in Paris before she became ill. Joelle wrapped her hand around a floor lamp. A friend of Oscar’s grabbed the photo of Natalia before the fountain.

“I ask you,” Oscar said. His voice caught as he glanced at Joelle. “To silently help our friend Natalia let go of this world.”

One of Nick and Oscar’s old college pals said, “Oscar, you should have been a priest,” and there was laughter, and then the room quieted again.

“It’s time, Natalia. We’re going to close the gateway now.”

We held the mirror up facing the room. Oscar moved a candle closer and someone said, “Look,” and everyone gasped, and I knew they had glimpsed her reflection.

Oscar held up his hand. “Be calm, everyone. Don’t frighten her,” and just then the floor lamp turned on and Joelle screamed and jumped back, and one of Oscar’s friends yelled, “This is so staged.”

“Natalia,” Oscar said. “Stay with us. We’re here to help you.” He nodded at Nick and me to follow him to the sink. We carried the mirror like a coffin and rested it over the basin. Everyone crowded into the kitchen, and no one said a word. Nick filled his cupped hands with water and let it run over the surface.

“Tell her you’re letting her go,” Oscar said. “Tell her to cross over.”

Nick looked up at everyone. “Wow,” he said. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” His voice came out soft at first and then louder as he said, “Natalia, can you hear me? There are a lot of people here for you.”

Oscar nodded at him to continue. “Come on, Nicky. Tell her.”

Nick said a few more words. He seemed flustered, and then resigned as he said, “I want you to look for the light and go into it. Don’t be frightened.” He stepped aside, and Oscar wrapped the mirror in a towel and set it next to the door to be gotten rid of with everything else.

“That’s it,” Oscar said. “Portal’s closed. She’s gone. I think.”

Then he burned sage, and people coughed, and some went out to the balcony, and others to the bedroom to find their coats and leave.

Nick and I pressed pots and pans into people’s arms. “Everything that’s left is getting donated or thrown out. You want something, take it,” we said.

We propped open the front door, said goodnight to those who were leaving, coerced them into taking extra dishes and trinkets. Furniture was hoisted and bumped down the stairs. The rugs, the postcards, the menagerie of animals, it was as if Natalia herself was being scattered throughout the city.

The downstairs neighbor came up to ask us to turn down the music, and we tried to give him a stack of old CDs. “No way,” Oscar said, snatching them back. “Too close to home.” The last of our guests left. A few lingered to talk in the stairwell. Then the apartment grew still. We had made up the bed for Oscar and Joelle, and Joelle stumbled to the bedroom to sleep. Oscar sat down on the floor, his equipment all around him. He had his digital recorder running again, attempting to pick up any lingering voices from the beyond. Nick and I bundled up and went to the roof to look out at the city. “It will be better now,” I said, and he said, “It’s weird, isn’t it? To think of this as ours?”

When I woke that morning on the pullout couch, Oscar, Joelle, and Nick were already awake and in the kitchen eating doughnuts from the bakery down the street. Joelle handed me a cup of coffee in a paper cup. Oscar stood at the counter, playing part of a recording from the night before. “That,” he said. “You didn’t hear that? Listen again.”

“I hear static, Oscar,” Nick said, biting into a doughnut. “Just static.”

Outside, rain turned to sideways sleet. We had scheduled a Salvation Army pickup for the next morning and had much to do. We threw the trash from the party down the garbage shoot. We set to work on the kitchen, emptying and cleaning the shelves and pantry, boxing the extra food. In the bedroom, we dismantled the bed and finished bagging the clothes.

“The mirror,” I said, pointing to the one over the dresser. “We forgot this one.”

Oscar looked alarmed. “Not to worry,” he said. “We’ll put it outside.”

We lifted the dresser out the door and down the stairs to the curb. The sky had cleared. People hurried past on their way to the L and were momentarily reflected in the mirror. We said goodbye to Oscar and Joelle as we made our way back. I was sorry to see them go, even sorrier once we were back in the near-empty apartment. Without the rugs in the living room and hallway, every footstep on the wood floor echoed. The windows rattled. If anyone had looked up into our apartment just then, they would have seen us standing in a vacant room, lovers perhaps, on the verge of moving in or out. We were suddenly tired, and we went to the bedroom. We had yet to remove the curtains there, and Nick closed them. We spread blankets on the floor, kicked off our shoes and lay down. I tucked my head into Nick’s shoulder, and we listened to the wind, to a helicopter whirring above the building on its way to the hospital.

“It’s almost like she was never here,” Nick said.

“Yes,” I said, but it wasn’t true.

We talked about the bright new things we would buy, the renovations we’d make. “I can’t wait to tear out those soffits,” I said. Nick shut his eyes, but I could tell he wasn’t sleeping. I stared at the spackled spot on the ceiling, at the dull walls, and tried to imagine the room in a shade of yellow or blue. Tomorrow we’d go grocery shopping. We would only stock as much as we needed to get through a week or two, never more. We wouldn’t hoard like Natalia had. We would throw parties and go out with our friends and never prepare for unknowable disasters. It would become an incantation, a theme song for the coming years. To never be like Natalia. To take the train downtown each morning. To never be afraid.

The post For Sale: Spacious 2BDR, Great Views, Ornery Ghost appeared first on Electric Literature.

There’s a Better Way to Write Queer Romance

All relationships exist on a continuum, especially those between queer women. In Emily Hashimoto’s debut novel, A World Between, a chance encounter in a college dorm elevator sends Eleanor Suzuki and Leena Shah on a thirteen-year ride as girlfriends, roommates, best friends, crushes, exes, dating app matches, and more.

A World Between is a romance between two queer women of color, told from both of their perspectives, that spans their formative years. Eleanor and Leena spend days walking around their cities, sharing moments of their lives, having sex, eating dinner, and hanging out with partners and friends. Queer narratives too often still feel mired in idyllic ideas of relationships and healing, and too often feature extremely happy endings or extremely unhappy ones without much nuance. But what sets this book apart isn’t just the romance itself, but how it ends. Their relationship, with many comings and leavings, is crucial but in some ways a decoy for the ways they learn about themselves.

Emily Hashimoto and I covered writing a queer feminist romance, who gets to tell queer stories, the many ways queer love—and self-love—rendered across time and space can look, and how it’s never too late to figure out who you want to be.


Carolyn Yates: A World Between begins with an epigraph from Adrienne Rich: “The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.” What drew you to open with this? 

Emily Hashimoto: I was a women’s and gender studies major in college and spent a lot of time with Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde and so many other feminists. I think the book comes from a lot of places, but one is directly from my women’s studies education—perhaps strangely, for a book of its kind. I was thinking about her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality,” where she talks about the lesbian continuum and how women can exist on different parts of it during the course of their life, and that it’s about the intimacy between women. I wanted to pay homage to that. So for me, there’s this mostly fun book about two women over the course of thirteen years, and it has this theoretical feminist underpinning. 

CY: The idea of the continuum comes across at various points, and that fuller landscape of possibility just felt so true and yet is so rarely seen. I’m curious about how you balanced what you’ve mentioned was a desire to write a fun queer romance during a personal rough patch in your relationship with this completely non-idyllic and very real rendition that spans this whole range.

EH: It really started from a place of wanting to go to a simple time. What ends up on the page is not that simple, but for me, in my mid-30s and thinking about college and how different things felt—and speaking now, and then, as a middle-class person of privilege—college was simple. I think it’s not that for everyone, but it certainly was for me. For me, I was foolish and obsessive about crushes and wrote diaries full of so much emotion, and wanting that time of something simple before the definition set in. 

What I learned is that it’s never too late to keep hacking away at who you want to be and who you don’t want to be.

What I learned is that it’s never too late to keep hacking away at who you want to be and who you don’t want to be. But it’s that time, maybe before your first serious job, when you’re learning so much and when you’re still so much in formation, and I was really interested in starting there.

CY: Eleanor and Leena have such different ideas about self-knowledge, especially as they come more into themselves, and at one point as Eleanor talks about already knowing her job is not right for her, Leena thinks, “a year wasn’t enough time to accurately calculate feelings.” Leena tends to weigh all the options and outcomes and risks, and Eleanor is more decisive and also more impulsive. What role does this tension play in the periods of their relationship and in the times when they’re apart?

EH: Some of the magic of writing this and of spending basically five years with these two, the thing that I managed to carve out is that it felt really real. How they plan, how they don’t plan, how they make decisions, or don’t. Something I wanted is that ability to see people and how they change through a decade plus.

They start where they start, exactly as you painted it. But in the end, they grow out of themselves and into other people. I was interested in watching them pass each other in those ways. It’s not explicit, but I’d like to believe that they sort of rub off on each other a little bit, and both come to some sort of good middle ground, somewhere in between.

CY: The perspective switches between Eleanor and Leena across their relationships through time and space. What moved you to take that alternating approach?

EH: It wasn’t always that way. When I originally started sketching it out, I was going to go through one of them or the other. I knew I didn’t just want to gallop through time. Originally when I would talk about this book—and it certainly departed—I would call it quote, lesbian, whatever, nostalgia, unquote. I was interested in picking up with people after a few intervals. 

I formalized the structure more because eventually we find ourselves at Leena’s sister’s wedding. And I felt the measure of discomfort at writing from the perspective of Leena at her sister’s wedding, because while there’s so much research that I’ve done and I am very lucky to have a lot of really close relationships in my life with Indian American women, it’s a different experience to be that outsider, I think, because I have been that. So that’s when the structure started to really take shape.

CY: To talk about a different type of switching, the sex scenes feel really embodied in a way that still doesn’t really come up very much in queer literature. What was important for you to show?

EH: I appreciate the word “embodied,” I think that’s just sort of a real 3D feeling of it, because I think sometimes it’s very soft, and metaphoric about lushness, and then it’ll just cut away. Or worse, the cut away even happens before there’s a lushness metaphor. I wanted to stay on them a little bit, and I think my women’s studies background was creeping in, thinking about who tells stories about women together having sex. I take very seriously being a queer woman creating scenes between queer women. 

I take very seriously being a queer woman creating scenes between queer women.

In my mind I was thinking, what feels really real? Early on, when Leena wants to be intimate but has her period and doesn’t know how to say it, I wanted it to feel real. I wanted it to feel sexy, I wanted it to feel like a conversation between the two of them. The whole book is them walking around, talking to each other, and I think in many ways the sex scenes mirror that.

CY: You’ve mentioned that “this is the book that little Emily would have wanted to read as a young woman, and I wrote it for her.” Tell me more about that.

EH: I’ve been thinking a lot about what other books are out there in this space, and I haven’t found that many in this kind of middle territory where it’s not soapy but not so serious or dealing with issues of huge gravity, while there are still serious topics.

The other piece is I haven’t seen many biracial characters, and to be able to represent that experience of intersectionality—feeling like you’re in a few places at once, not always feeling like there’s a perfect fit, a perfect home—was something I wanted to read and see, and see out there. 

Another piece of it is thinking about Eleanor and Leena’s community and who the characters are beyond them. What I’m used to in my own life is folks with different backgrounds of race, ethnicity, economics, folks who are trans, folks who are not trans, queer, not queer. I haven’t seen that a ton, and it was definitely wanting to show that, and that comfort, without tokenizing. 

Little Emily would have been intrigued by this and would have had a lot of questions after. That’s who I had in mind. I want so many people to enjoy this book, but someone who hasn’t seen themselves represented? I’m interested in that.

CY: One of the most incredible moments for me was the ending. Were you conscious of this ending as you were writing, and what can you tell me about it?

EH: I didn’t write what happens after, but it has a choose-your-own-adventure ending. People approach it from what they know, what they want, what they hope for, what they are nervous about. People come in with what they have. 

People approach it from what they know, what they want, what they hope for, what they are nervous about. People come in with what they have.

I certainly wrote many versions. There was a very draft-y draft where there was running through the airport, so this is a little different than that. I wanted to end with something that felt really fair to where they were in the moment. I think if I kept writing—and in some ways I think it’ll always feel unfinished—I don’t know. I’m happy where it ends. It felt good to put them where I put them because it’s sort of a feminist love story, and in that way they’re both happy and they both really love themselves in the moment where we leave them, and that feels pretty satisfying. It feels like a good place to leave them. And what happens after that? I have some thoughts, but I don’t know. 

CY: That’s beautiful. I’m like, wow, how much damage did I bring to this interview that that’s how I read it when other people read it a different way? 

EH: I don’t even think it’s that. I think it’s more, what do you expect of them? How have you read them? I think yours is a fair reading. Really objectively, not as their creator, I don’t know that they should be together, but I think they should be in each other’s lives. There’s history between them, there’s love between them, and I just want them to be happy, whatever that might be.

The post There’s a Better Way to Write Queer Romance appeared first on Electric Literature.

Slobber and Drool

We never had any time. I paced the island cabin in the Pacific Northwest where we’d been overwintering, denning up like wolves. We’d left everything – LA bungalow, wilting jobs. Here our water came from a well and our power from the sun, though the January sky was a concrete pancake and we had to ration our generator gas daily to make up for the lack of light. Me, L., our kid, what would happen to us? We were weeks away from living with my parents.

‘I got an interview,’ I said to L., through the semi-darkness. We brushed by each other at the propane stove. The cube steak was gristly, how did you cook this stuff?

‘Bingo,’ she said.

Suddenly I was Arthur, freely pulling swords from the stone. I bent back into the cast iron pan. Our lives were ballooning forward, this shining, yawning, kismet-like chance — Excalibur!

Over the bad satellite phone connection, our astrologer friend had handed me this exact Pendragonic visualization. ‘Help,’ I’d said, calling her even before I told L. the news. I was terrified.

‘The task will feel easy, fated, like Arthur’s, almost effortless!’ my astrologer friend said – ‘or else it won’t.’

Voraciously I’d glommed onto the role play, repeating the image on loop as I wadded a waterproof bag with chosen clothes.

In my most utopic imagining, my back was a slab of muscle (even though Arthur sprang Excalibur with his pinky) and the next morning, as the chartered boat ripped away from the beach and my small waving unit (who stood there miming a cheering motion for my benefit and thus – bolstering me and my chance of success – the benefit of everyone involved) I again and again swept my arms overhead to grip the sword handle. I was him, King Arthur, you could also call me Wart. At forty-one I was already dented, a mostly lost cause, but finally the heaviness between my shoulder blades was on its way to being earned and as gelid water slushed crossways in front of us – a hero’s journey – this gave me hope.

 

*

 

Twice a month I poked a small syringe of testosterone cypionate at a 45-degree angle into my belly fat, each time on the flip side of my torso. T was thick and needed a draw needle. I was always in a rush, jamming in the point after rapidly priming it. I clunked away the bubbles in the syringe nose and released. It was 40 mgs, mini-stings, basically nothing. A male mosquito might have more. It didn’t make me angry or different in any way I could tell except I was mildly, milkily horny for most of each month and what sleep I did have was drenched in something small and barely familiar, but sex-like, such that I hated waking up.

I was preoccupied with a single fear: that I’d smell different or I already smelled different, and I tried to keep my body from rubbing things, leaving any kind of residue or moldy funk. Often I crept to bed late and kept myself firmly rolled in a foot-wide lane of sheeting throughout the night. In the mornings I’d jump out first thing to help our waking kid and relight the cashed fire. Then while they cuddled, I checked my pits and boxers for something telltale or off. I desperately wanted some kind of animal intimacy and to be invited back towards innernesses L. kept sealed from me – places I used to feel at home in, but now could barely—

The gap kept expanding. I sweated to reach my hand across the outspreading bed. Night gnawing = endless. Wasn’t there some math about approaching zero, but never getting there, never touching?

Other fears: wading partway into twilight puberty, taking myself seriously, being seen. I kept the single-use vials hidden in a beat-up cardboard box on a shelf behind my T-shirts. Ostensibly this was because the accompanying syringes were dangerous to three-year-olds, but more likely I craved some kind of cover, preferably a long low endless cave. Ever since childhood I’d hoped to crawl back into this or that corner and fix myself, then emerge somehow impenetrable, whole.

 

*

 

‘Bye!’ I yelled over the blasting duel-marine engines. Then stared across the gray strait. Bald eagles, humongous, shitty, regal, doodled each other dramatically over the green frothy fir tops. This is how it finally starts, I said. I hadn’t been alone in months and months. Feet, knees, chest – I had them. I saw a band of light spasm across the water and looked for an effulgent, rising sword. Soon the boat was packed with businessmen, engineers and project managers in overly-tidy Realtree caps with arms full of plans for the outer islands and how they might develop them. I was also busy! and from the farthest bench seat I remembered where I was headed and shouted into my phone memos and scraps of ideas that might collect into something meaningful, like a job talk, making sure I was heard.

An hour later I was in a barber’s chair in a rural strip mall. From under my smock I stared across the U-shaped parking lot: the Laundr-o-Park was packed, the ubiquitous teriyaki takeout bright against rows of mud-splatted rape trucks. I was copiously bleeding everywhere but into the silicone sheath of my trademarked Diva cup. Years in, I was still bad at Diva cup. Or did I have more blood now, somehow? My pores were getting thicker (also my eyelashes, my genitals), facts I was mostly ambivalent to or confused by, despite all the aiding and abetting I was doing. My strongest, most prevailing sense was that my brain should ignore whatever my hands (metaphorical or literal) were manufacturing, especially with regard to my body and its parts.

In the urinal I shoveled as much blood as I could over to the sink. My legs felt wave-sawn, as if I was trying to hold the floor together with my feet. I was coming from outside to inside. The wind was still whapping, my face was forever red, the tightly-synthetic atmosphere drummed. These slick, beige walls, cocooned from the barbers’ chairs and the parking lot and surrounding potato and grain fields = possibly, at least since birth, the most inside I’d ever been. I breathed in. Tried to condense. Condensing was hard. Everything was foggy, my new glasses prescription was badly off, I often tripped or tried to climb over cat-sized shapes on the January-sodden bracken-deranged paths, cats that dematerialized when I looked back for them. Plus I was constantly drunk from androgen-producing herbs suspended in something akin to Everclear, which I gulped three times a day as instructed by an herbologist I’d entrusted with my monthly finances but never met. He lived in a dusty oaky CA mountain town and his name was Joshua. Believe you bro!

I checked the fade in the mirror as I tried to scrub the bathroom of my leftover bio goop. Fade line passable, at least last-minute interview worthy. My barber was def. gay, which haircut-wise could have been ideal but hadn’t panned out. Evidently not a born-to-fade gay. ‘Gay’ was hilarious though. We (‘gays’) all knew it. In LA we used to go to a lesbian feminist haunted house called Killjoy’s Kastle. Lesbians were the funniest. Didn’t they have someone reaching out of a stall door, also with a Diva cup!, full of thick dripping cornstarch-y blood? Someone with a plaintive voice demanding: ‘WHOOOOO can help me with this?’ F-ing fall out of your chair funny, or your pants, or your life. I splashed some water. Mirrors were also a problem. My face, not the glass, was blurry. I had no idea what I really looked like besides lumpy, fuzzy, profuse. My lip hair draped out over my lips. Trimming it meant committing to ‘mustache’. Not the virile teenage Outsiders kind that everyone wanted either. But tomorrow I had to present myself, offer, among other things, a paper finally proving what everything in my life had been prepping for, building towards, forever. ‘Hey, thanks for . . .’ I said, trying to force a few trial words out, but someone was pounding their body into the urinal’s hollow-core door.

Once, as we sat eating soup together, a writer I loved had said that just the feeling of his breath touching the microphone-weave made him cry. He was the most tender writer I knew and he wrote about drinking and drugging almost exclusively and nothing else. What was more tender than disappearing?

More muffled door scraping.

I exited by way of ushering the guy in with my body, offering him the nugatory bathroom.

‘What’s nugatory mean?’ he said.

SMALL, (insignificant, worthless).’ I often used my body this way, to get closer to things. ‘There’s been a murder in here,’ I said, slushing some of the bloody paper towels over towards the trash with my foot. ‘Possibly.’

 

*

 

Pre-security, at the nugatory commuter airport, I forwent liquor for cold tea. What could I possibly say to them, the even now amassing committee, that was worth saying? I searched my life for anything extreme. I might talk about the Arctic, though what about it? I was no longer sure. The only thing I remembered about the place was the non-hyperbolic feeling that my head was going to whirl off.

I texted L., who had already won and escaped jobs just like this. I had to check in, I was still a parent despite all this freedom.

There’s a problem, I tapped. I’m writing the same fucking story, all the time, same story, it never changes.

Try the thing about overwintering? she tapped back. We were a team.

Or was it: Alone in a leather chair eating a club sandwich. Sounds tough

?

I was having a hard time interpreting texts. I could feel the text under the text – pale, lethal, struggling to breathe and be recognized. I could hold it – that was the problem.

Overwintering’s not a thing, I texted back.

But of course it was. Overwintering was the only thing. Sticking yourself somewhere for months, in the dark. In the Arctic, trappers’ cabins the size of refrigerator boxes dotted the ice and rock. I opened my toilet bag and from it poured a slug of herbs into my iced tea. They tasted weedy, like they’d been dredged from some over-ethanoled backwoods pump. Plus huge nasty raccoon piss. Gassy, greasy, sploogy. The herbs made me really go for it. Made me feel like I was Mad Max driving a motorcycle for the first time with the accelerator cemented to my tongue and also with half my brain already shorn off, drooling.

Our kid called me ‘papi’, which I loved. It was a substitution but not. A marker of difference, right out in the open. Something anyone could feel okay using, even if to us it meant all kinds of semi-subcultural things. Rubbings we invented or turned up. But now, even we (degreed, invested in undoing paradigms) had become confused by it. By subbing ‘papi’ in for ‘daddy’ and ‘father bear, cat, etc. etc.’ every single time it came up in a book or conversation, didn’t it take on the same patriarchal dadcore valence?

I was too sensitive. This was a known quantity in all my relationships. All of my girlfriends, partners, wives told me to ‘stay on my own side’, as if that was a possible maneuver, something I had chosen not to do but had access to, like email correspondence, like getting this job with health insurance. I wanted to stay on my own side. Wanted to erase the presensing, uncomfortable ability I had to mold myself to others’ perceived needs, or when I saw someone reacting, to favorably overcorrect. Maybe the T would help, I often thought, at least before starting it. Not because I’d be less female, but just because I’d be less ‘me’.

I boarded the plane last and slumped into the aisle seat, nodding and slobbery from the sediment at the bottom of my herbs. Had that been me in the security line, chugging the sludgy many-dose bottle so no gloved hand could snatch it? The Arthurian power was still in me somewhere. I had less than twelve hours to produce. I ripped open my laptop, my hands felt clumsy, this was another effect of T, I’d read. Your finger pads might change.

OVERWINTERING:

I pounded out.

I’d recently noticed the keys on my dad’s laptop were completely worn off from the acids in his fingers and the velocity at which he struck them. He’d replaced them with huge neon-yellow letters so that the whole keyboard was shouting at him. Ear hair, elongating nose. Would that happen to me?

But after OVERWINTERING I couldn’t get anything going. I knew writing should be completely unrestrained, more than was otherwise possible. Like anything, a story was a body.

In the talk, I wanted to explain two basic things about being in Svalbard, on the island of Spitzbergen, very near the North Pole, two things besides what mattered most: that L. was pregnant and I was very far away.

The first was something the trip leader had told me. She was enigmatic, always in a huge parka or else swimming naked, i.e. enclosed. ‘I needed to be lost,’ she’d said. ‘So I told him to blindfold me and take me somewhere on a snowmobile, then dump me off.’ Following these instructions, she said, he left her in an unmarked trapper’s cabin for two weeks, or maybe a month, before his need to retrieve her overpowered him. He’d done exactly what she’d wanted, but they never recovered from it, sexually or otherwise. ‘We had to break up,’ she said.

The second was an even more vapory story about a baby born into a barren, snow-pasted fjord hundreds of miles from the nearest clinic, whose mother couldn’t make milk. The parents found a seal, the trip leader said. And when the ice disappeared with the spring melt, the baby weighed more than a three-year-old.

Now I wanted to go back there. This was, among other things, what the ‘talk’ was about.

I also knew that I needed my family to come. Three months in the darkest place on earth seemed urgent. Our main problem was sleep. Now that we were finally getting some, it wasn’t rejuvenating us.

Even just last night L. had punched me in the throat while dreaming. You punched me in the throat! I said, bragging, wanting her to apologize. It had almost felt good, and in this morning’s cold-padded air I tried to show her the bruise.

‘There’s nothing,’ she said.

But there was something! Fresh neck wrinkles, I’d just discovered them. Time was screaming, soon the tangy wild roses would be out we’d never have a second to look at them, our kid would be gone, I’d be an old maybe-man, we had to take it seriously.

‘Plus how about compassion?’ she yell-whispered, trying not to wake him, our kid. ‘It was MY nightmare, you never even asked me how I was.’

My laptop screen blinked, still morbidly empty of meaning. My body was pulsing and woozy. Gross, how could I possibly be turned on now? But whenever the feeling showed up, I was relieved. The plane wobbled as it descended through the stratocumulus layer. No job talk meant no magic bullet to save us, no tidily-creased benefits package, no ego fuel, no proof I was okay and somehow legible, i.e. could continue being.

What, anyway, was reasonable? One summer I made all my money pulling the single digestive vein out of shrimp after millionth shrimp, de-heading them alive with a pop of my thumb.

‘I dreamed,’ L. said, another mostly sleepless night, ‘that nothing should enter you.’ Which was in itself an opening back towards her.

‘Yeah,’ I said, lunging for it. She was right, I didn’t want anything to enter me. Except, wasn’t I begging for entrances all the time? Maybe it didn’t matter anymore and I was ready to accept the universe’s pupae, the soft, spasmodic love I was always saying I was desperate for, i.e. if nothing came in – breath, serum, sophomoric libido, sex, everything that was fluent and charged up with meaning – how could I ever change?

We’d fought about all of this but it didn’t mean anything, it was just a fight about fear.

‘WHOOOOO can help me with this?’ I said loudly to the flight attendant, trying to hand him my laptop screen.

I was always sure someone could do a better job of my life than I could. I turned towards my seatmate in 26D, who must have worked for VSCO or Tinder. We were landing in the ‘Bro’ Area after all.

‘Remember King Arthur?’ I said. I did a quick, gestural sword pull.

‘Uh,’ he said.

Something in him = annoyingly squirmy. I did it again, lingering for effect as I drew the blade, no small feat in economy. Lancelot had been in love with Arthur, had it for him hard, the squishy weight of something dick-like, the pulling it out metaphor, hadn’t I cried into, become gay into that book? I could also pull it out!

‘Uh, so I think that’s He-Man?’ he said, wriggling more. ‘You know, “I have the power”?’

Landings always made me tear up, it was the air pressure. I turned away, toeing a cracker out of the aisle with gusto.

 

*

 

That first late October in the Arctic, when I’d disembarked the runway airstairs, most of the world was below me, almost gone. It was morning, but the sun’s face was missing and the sky was obsidian-lite. As we crossed the tarmac I saw a lone goose in the nearby tundra. See, something was living, thriving.

I texted L.: made it! Instantly the text landed in LA. Satellite-globs make connectivity lighting-quick at the poles.

Then came a series of endless nights or endless days. My phone and computer barely worked due to the cold. The darker it got, the less I slept, the more unaccountably amped I became.

‘But how did S. know when to come get you?’ I asked the trip leader, an artist, after she told me her story. We were with the group in the settlement’s sole and unclosing bar. For the first time in my life drinking beer was unnecessary, the buzz was already so high. ‘Like, how did he know you were alive, let alone done being lost?’ I was jealous of the dynamic, recognized it.

S. was at the next table over, body huge and capable. His name meant something like ‘mug’. Of course he was aware of her entirely.

‘But I wasn’t done,’ she said.

Across the road, above the Svalbardbutikken Co-op and rows of now-dogless husky chains, sheets of tinfoil sealed an apartment’s windows against any past or coming light. Soon a group of us would leave the bar, find the apartment’s owner, force him to surrender his last bottles of wine, claw down the foil . . .

I’m at the top of the world! I said to myself, laughing or howling inside. I was, without knowing it yet, also there to evacuate something. To take out the ‘I’. I had to stamp myself down. How else could we survive?

I was walking over very loose gravel.

‘WTF, we have a kid coming?’ L. could have said. When I tried to tell her about all the weird hour-by-hour yo-yos in polar darkness, how dawn never came, though continuously drinking we stayed up past nine a.m. – were still awake – watching for it.

 

*

 

I wanted I gone but couldn’t stop talking about myself. But it’s so gooey! Recessed, hidden, stuck. If I opened up my throat, could anyone (dedicated, head-lamped) ever get to it? The Arctic was falling apart, leaving its own exposed, sloppy trail. It made me think of Lygia Clark’s Baba Antropofágica with all that spit and all that saliva-soaked thread, Lygia who said: ‘I dreamt that I opened my mouth and took out a substance incessantly. . .’

The next day in the big conference room on the California coast they would ask me about her quote, how one minute I translated the work as: ‘Cannibalistic Slobber’, and another time: ‘Cannibalistic Drool’.

‘Don’t you care?’ they said.

What was the difference between those two self-slicking words? The quality, the momentum of the wanting? How bad you needed it, far you’d bend?

‘I’m trying to stretch language to fit my body,’ I tried to say, or meant to.

And if there’s no cave dark enough?

But that was tomorrow and now I was still on the generous ocean-view balcony with my laptop, my thighs half-frozen, half-thawed. Below me, hoarse, possibly restorative pinniped sounds bonked chorally. What was seal milk (besides thick, creamy, exponential), what did seals do. I needed to slow myself down or I’d be non-interviewable by morning. Behind me the big, loose, quiet bed. If only I could show the bed to L., if only we could lie there next to each other. Everything was possible about our life except we weren’t healed yet, which meant when we were done overwintering, we might, like late ice, break up.

To combat fear,’ our therapist said, ‘the brain stem needs small sentences, no personal pronouns.’

I stared at the bruise-blue Pacific – impassive, rapidly swelling without remorse.

It is night, it is safe,’ the therapist intoned over Skype, audibly demonstrating. She meant we should use it for our kid, but he slept fine. It was us, our problem.

Behind me, the salt-grimed sliding door: ‘It is night, it is safe. Sleep is here, sleep can come.’

 

Jess Arndt’s short story collection Large Animals is available now from Cipher Press.

Image © Ingrid Siegel

The post Slobber and Drool appeared first on Granta.

Rax King Is Not Going to Let You Blow Smoke Up Her Ass

In our series “Can Writing Be Taught?” we partner with Catapult to ask their course instructors all our burning questions about the process of teaching writing. This month we’re talking to Rax King, who’s teaching a six-week nonfiction workshop on the personal essay. (Rax’s excellent Electric Literature essays on teen romance novels and Meatloaf should convince you she knows what she’s talking about!) We asked her the same ten questions we always ask, and she favored us with some gems about when to take a break from your writing, when to send in the Catholics, and when to eat an entire loaf of bread.


What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?

I took the excellent Tony Tulathimutte’s CRIT workshop, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Tony is a hardass Virgo and will not let you get away with any of your shit, writing-wise, and also he gave me a sick coffee table once. But the most eye-opening thing he did for me was point out that when I don’t know what to make a character do, I always have them smile. Like, I was devoting hundreds of words of fluff to people’s smiles, and I had no idea! Stuff like this is the best use of a writing class or workshop for adults who know basically what they’re doing, I think. Of course, there are lots of useful lessons about craft and writing practices that teachers can impart, but students will get the most use out of a good teacher’s experienced close reading of their work.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?

We leave all these narrative stones unturned, because we’re still stuck on the story we thought we were telling about ourselves.

I took a real weird writing workshop when I was in high school. I was the youngest student in the room by a country mile. The teacher was this pipe-smoking Robert Frost devotee who wore a lot of tweed—it was like he’d Googled “retired poet outfit.” And I’ll never forget that his big piece of advice for us, this advice that he teased us with week after week but never actually revealed until the last session, was “send in the Catholics.” As in, if a piece of writing isn’t working as is, make it a Gothic-type story about Catholicism instead. It was the worst thing I ever heard in my life, and to this day, anytime I’ve hit a wall with a piece of writing, I hear that smug mutherfucker in my head saying “send in the Catholics.” I hope that guy’s having a bad day, if I’m honest.

What is the lesson or piece of writing advice you return to most as an instructor?

If you’re stuck, don’t keep hammering away at whatever section is stumping you. Go do something else for half an hour and then look at the piece holistically. Grant yourself entry from another angle. I’ve never had any luck pushing through writer’s block with sheer brute force, but by focusing my effort elsewhere in the piece, I can usually open it up for myself that way. I think this is especially useful advice to my fellow personal essayists, because we fixate on the memoiristic precision of what we write—we struggle with structural or narrative overhauls. We pick and pick at the sentence level and leave all these narrative stones unturned, because we’re still stuck on the story we initially thought we were telling about ourselves.

Does everyone “have a novel in them”?

I’ll put it this way: I’ve written a novel myself, and I in no way “had a novel in me.”

Would you ever encourage a student to give up writing? Under what circumstances?

To give it up outright, probably not. To come back to it some other time, yes, absolutely. If your manuscript has stopped being a labor of love and is just unceasing thankless drudgery, put the damn thing down before you hurt yourself. And if all writing has started to feel that way, again, put the damn thing down before you hurt yourself.

What’s more valuable in a workshop, praise or criticism?

It does nothing for me to tell me my story sucks shit if you’re not going to help me fix it.

They’re equally valuable! It is, to me, of exactly equal value to know when some aspect of my manuscript is working and to know when it isn’t. What isn’t valuable is nonspecific praise or criticism—it does nothing for me to tell me my story sucks shit if you’re not going to help me fix it, and it does nothing for me to tell me it’s perfect when we both know I hate myself far too much to let you blow smoke up my ass.

Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not?

Absolutely not. For many reasons, but practically speaking: you’re going to hate everything you publish five years after it’s published anyway. So you might as well write stuff you’re proud of, not stuff that you think is going to make some slush reader cream their jeans.

In one or two sentences, what’s your opinion of these writing maxims?

  • Kill your darlings: As advice, this has some value, but I always get stuck on the fact that it sounds so goddamn good to say out loud! “Kill your darlings” is the “cellar door” of tired writing advice.
  • Show don’t tell: If I never hear this shit again, it’ll be too soon. What does it even mean?! You want I should draw you a little picture so you don’t have to read my book? Is that it? A little diagram?
  • Write what you know: I’d amend this to: write ideas and perspectives that you’re confident you understand. Don’t talk out of your ass. Know when to cede the microphone.
  • Character is plot: I never heard this one before! It sounds silly as hell, though.

What’s the best hobby for writers?

I don’t know how to even begin to answer this, so I’m going to make something up. Embroidery. All writers should do embroidery.

What’s the best workshop snack?

An entire loaf of bread, consumed over the course of the workshop with butter. And I won’t share.

The post Rax King Is Not Going to Let You Blow Smoke Up Her Ass appeared first on Electric Literature.

Why Fiction Like Brussels Sprouts Feeds Your Soul

YA author Hanna C. Howard shares why she feels fiction is a bit like Brussels sprouts, especially when sautéed with olive oil, salt, and pepper: good for your health and soul.

Every now and again I meet someone who, upon learning that I love to read and write fantasy, says something like, “I don’t really read fiction. It seems like an indulgence when there are so many other books to read.” By ‘other,’ they mean nonfiction: business books, or self-help, or history, or some other overtly productive genre.

(Hanna C. Howard: Keep Submitting, Writing, Working, Trying.)

The words are always offered ruefully, as if the person is vaguely sorry for them and wants me to know they mean no offense. But they invariably stir the embers of my storytelling passion into a flame, because I think people (adults, especially) very often miss the boat when it comes to fiction. 

I can’t suppress the suspicion that these folks might be imagining made-up stories to be something like daytime television soap operas: high on nonsense and low on value. But the truth is that most fictional novels are just as edifying and educational as your average nonfiction tome; they just wear it differently. 

*****

You’ll learn everything you need to know for writing young adult fiction, including what readers look for, the importance of plot, theme, and setting, how to craft entertaining dialogue, and much more. Plus, gain insight into the submission process and what it takes to succeed in publishing. You’ll come away from this eight-week workshop with the skills and know-how to craft a successful young fiction novel!

Click to continue.

*****

Fiction Like a Brussels Sprout

They are like Brussels sprouts sautéed with olive oil, salt, and pepper: perhaps not as healthy as raw or boiled sprouts, but the point of eating them that way is to enjoy the experience, not to get healthy. And yet, you may get healthy along the way regardless. (By the way, if you’ve never eaten Brussels sprouts prepared this way, do yourself a favor and whip some up tonight.)

Here’s an illustration of what I mean: If you’re feeling down and are looking for hope, you might head to your local bookstore and check out the Psychology section. You might come away, like I did years ago, with an anxiety workbook that asks you to assess various symptoms and feelings, and then gives you exercises to work through them. This can be very beneficial, of course, and sometimes necessary, but in the short term it may not leave you feeling much better. 

(Blessed Are the Legend-Makers: 11 J.R.R. Tolkien Quotes for Writers.)

But let’s say you go to the fantasy section of the bookstore and take home a copy of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Say you binge read your way through Frodo and Sam’s journey to destroy the One Ring, and you arrive at the end of book three, when Sam himself is beset by heavy despair. And you read this:

Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West, the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. (Tolkien, The Return of the King.)

What happens when you encounter something like this, experience something like this through the lens of another character in another place and another time, is multi-layered, complex, and beautiful. You might be comforted by the conviction that you are not the first person to have felt the weight of your own sadness and hopelessness to the extent that you now feel it. 

You might suddenly understand something new about the heaviness you feel. You might discover a reason to hope that you didn’t have before. You might find that the beauty of the narrative actually brings you joy. You might find your burden becoming slightly less difficult to carry.

Escaping Into the Magic of Fiction

All this in the space of a few sentences, simply because you are engrossed in something that is not your own life, your own sadness, your own pain, your own fear. You are giving yourself a safe escape out of yourself, into someone else. 

And to me, this is the incalculable and alchemical magic of fiction: that it can teach us and inspire us and change us in ways that overt instruction sometimes cannot, because it gifts us with experiences we could never have on our own and lets us be the ones to make sense out of them. It isn’t like arithmetic, where one plus one always equals two; it’s like a painting or a symphony, which seems to arrive at a different solution for every individual, depending on their need.

(Empathy vs. Sympathy vs. Apathy.)

I think this, too, is the reason that entertaining fiction can tackle harder issues in ways that promote healing and empathy. The point of a story like that is not to leave you with a greater understanding of this or that issue; the point is to satisfy you with a rollicking good tale, well told. 

But truly good stories have within them myriad perspectives, ideas, and experiences that speak to the challenge of being human, and they invite you to encounter them safely, through the eyes of someone else. Fiction does not aim to teach, it aims to entertain. Which is perhaps what makes it such a superb teacher.

Plain vegetables have their place, but sometimes what you need is a good cooked meal that feeds your soul as well as your body. Sometimes what you need are human experiences, roasted with fragrant seasoning and served over a bed of romance and high adventure—from which you may come away fuller, healthier, and more satisfied than you would on a diet of raw facts.

*****

Feed your soul with Hanna C. Howard’s novel, Ignite the Soul

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Hari Kunzru Explains How Cop Shows Contribute to State Brutality

When Hari Kunzru finished writing Red Pill in early 2020, he had no idea that the summer leading up to its release would see the uprisings that followed Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd and other instances of police brutality against Black people, widespread calls to defund the police, or broader conversations about the history and present-day role of policing in American society.

Circumstances have made the fictional police drama Blue Lives that he includes in the novel, and his narrator’s concerns about the cultural power wielded by its alt-right showrunner, all the more prescient.

In the second of my two-part interview with Kunzru (you can read the first part here), we discuss cultural myth-making around state violence, whether TV audiences want police to break the rules, how to effective push back if they do, and the ways in which American policing is and is not unique in the world. 


Preety Sidhu: In the wake of the uprisings against police brutality and systemic racism, there’s been renewed criticism of the role of TV procedurals in shaping public perceptions of policing. Your fictional show Blue Lives takes it even farther, showing more extreme brutality than is the norm on American TV. Your narrator becomes convinced that the man behind it has tremendous power to shape the future. How potent do you think this type of cultural myth-making around state violence is?

Hari Kunzru: I think it is quite potent. One thing I wasn’t expecting to feel so very topical was the stuff about Blue Lives. We’ve been living through the most sustained, and actually broadly supported, civil rights movement since the 1960s. I think the vast majority of Americans want to see some sort of change. And it has been interesting to me that there has finally been a focus on the portrayal of law enforcement in television. 

In the olden days it was very simple, the copaganda. The noble policeman, the terrible criminal. But we’ve got something very interestingly cynical that has happened. It’s been happening since the 70s. You might point to the Dirty Harry movies and remember Clint Eastwood as a sort of maverick cop in 70s San Francisco. He basically opened the lid on the idea that actually what people want is for the police to break the rules. They want the police to go beyond what they’re allowed to do in order to take revenge or keep us safe. The “us” being a very interestingly defined character. Who is the “us” who is being kept safe and who is the “them” that we are being kept safe from, is the big question in all of these obviously. Culturally, there’s the enduring interest in the lawman who breaks the rules, who goes beyond what’s acceptable and makes himself a kind of terrifying executioner figure. This is where I use this slightly obscure 18th-century character, the Comte de Maistre, who was an ardent opponent of the French Revolution and believed very much in state power. I think he’s very weirdly relevant to this moment.

Who is the ‘us’ who is being kept safe and who is the ‘them’ that we are being kept safe from?

I mean look at 24. I think for Brown people in America, the success of 24 has been a very weird and troubling thing, amidst its glorification of torture, its contempt for procedure, and its presentation of any kind of oversight as being something that just hampers the movement of justice. So all those kinds of things are in the mix. 

There’s also just the straightforward thing about cable TV, you can do more and show more stuff on cable TV. I mean Game of Thrones would look very different had it had to abide by broadcast rules. So there is this edging towards an increasingly graphic portrayal of violence, and particularly torture. And there’s this interest in good characters who represent the law doing bad things, and their suffering from doing bad things. This is the interesting twist on it all, the shows are often very interested in the moral cost to the person who’s committing this violence, because they’re doing it for the “us.” 

Yeah, I took this further. And I imagine, what does it actually say? What is the cynicism at the heart of this, about the possibility of having justice without torture and without the use of vigilante violence? And it’s coming really right to the fore. We’re speaking to the events in Kenosha. We see a 17-year-old boy who was apparently very infatuated with the police, and had been trained in some way by his local police force, some sort of course. Then he takes it upon himself to illegally acquire a weapon of war and insert himself into a very tense situation in another town and then—it seems very predictable that that kind of thing would happen. I don’t have particular sympathy for him, but I can understand how those events transpired. I think this culture of Blue Lives Matter, he’s part of that.

PS: I was absolutely thinking of 24 as I read this, because I had watched that when I was around undergrad age, about 15 years ago, and I was a big fan at the time and I did not think very critically about it. If I pull up an episode now, I’m sure that my response would be pretty different. At the time it was quite seductive to see what he’d do for the greater good.

Cop shows provide a kind of a supplement or substitute for a sense of closure or justice that real life doesn’t give us.

HK: People wanted to have the rebalancing that they felt was not being given them by real life. One of the ideological things these shows do is that they provide a kind of a supplement or substitute for a sense of closure or justice that real life doesn’t give us. Plot always is about the reduction of life’s complexity to a kind of simple structure and, if you plug in this deep desire for justice that people have—you know, off you go.

PS: Given that these narratives are so compelling, do you think that there are effective ways to push back, in a narrative sense or culturally?

HK: The way to push back is to seize control of the means of production. It’s for other people to be allowed to tell stories, for other people to be elbowing their way into the writers’ room, into the director’s chair. It’s great that we’re very, very belatedly seeing a recognition on the cable shows that Black stories are commercial. We have Watchmen and Lovecraft Country. These kinds of shows are turning up, and they’re wildly popular, and they are entertaining, and they center very, very different stories and perspectives than before. I think things are very different from what they were five years ago, in terms of the media landscape. When I look back to the kind of crumbs that we used to be satisfied with—when I was coming up and then in the 90s, we were just super excited if we saw a Brown face or a Black face on the screen.

PS: How do you think the contemporary American attitudes and media messaging about policing that inspired Blue Lives compares to other cultures and time periods you’re familiar with? Is there anything unique in the way that some parts of American society valorize the police these days?

HK: I mean, in every society there is a sort of standard right-wing law-and-order position. The idea of policing by consent, which is supposed to be the foundation of modern civilian policing, is less fictional in some places than it is in others. I think that the two unique American factors which make the situation much more volatile and much more urgent are—one is guns. I mean, just purely and simply police procedures. When the police go to do traffic stop here, they are trained to deal with the possibility that there will be a gun in this situation. Where it just wouldn’t occur to a British cop in a traffic stop that that might be a possibility. It would be a once in a lifetime—I mean many, many British cops will never encounter a person with a gun. Many British cops will never carry a gun. And because there’s so many guns in American life, all situations are potentially situations of armed violence. We’ve all watched endless depressing and sometimes very scary videos of these police stops where people are brutalized and the police are clearly in a sort of trance of tension. It’s very often because they’re extremely afraid and they’ve also been trained to think of themselves as a sort of militarized force. 

One phrase that keeps coming to mind is “bringing the war back home,” which was associated with the left in the Vietnam era. It was the idea that they would try and make the Vietnam War visible to ordinary Americans as a way of stopping the war. What’s happened since Iraq and Afghanistan, 20 years of these conflicts, is that we’ve got a huge pipeline of veterans and military equipment. The militarization of the police is an important part of this, using people who have a military mindset, who are equipped as soldiers and who treat the streets of the city they’re supposed to be policing as a battle zone. So in a very direct sense, the war has come back home and what we’re seeing right now is partly to do with that. 

But if you look further back, I think the second factor that is uniquely American has to do with the history of American police forces as slave patrols. Also, weirdly sort of revenue generating operations, if you look at Ferguson. Part of the roots of the Ferguson uprising, it was that the police gave a lot of quality of life tickets to a mostly Black town. The police, as they do in so many places, didn’t live in Ferguson. They live in white cities neighboring Ferguson. They use jaywalking, broken tail lights, incorrectly stored vehicles on your property. All these things are used to extract revenue from the residents and the police are acting as predators because they’re the only revenue generating operation that Ferguson really had. The city government wasn’t going to run unless they managed to extract a lot of money from people that way. 

Of course, we’ve got thousands of different police departments in the U.S. and they have different histories, but to broadly generalize, there’s never been a sense that these police departments grew organically out of the communities they’re policing. There’ve been many attempts in recent years to make them fit better in that way, but the notion of who’s getting protected and who they’re getting protected from is highly racialized, has this particular history, and is only really being interrogated now. I mean the call to defund and abolish police departments seems, I would imagine, almost incomprehensible to a lot of people in other countries. And of course to many white people in America, who imagine that this would mean anarchy. But it makes sense in this history of abolitionist tradition, which is a counter tradition to the tradition which comes out of slavery. So there’s such a particular history of police in the U.S. and it is not a happy one.

PS: Possibly because police appear so embattled here, they may get valorized, as a response from the people who feel they are being protected or they fall in the “us.”

HK: There’s a Blue Lives Matter protest for every Black Lives Matter protest. You can see the history in the fact that those two groups coalesce around the issue of policing.

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