Jody Chan

sing into the pause: music, movements, and lineage

“Our grief—our feelings, as words or actions, images or practices—can open up cracks in the wall of the system.”

— Cindy Milstein, Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief


Teresa Teng raised me. My childhood unfurled, set to two cassette tapes on which my dad had recorded her most famous hits. She was his favourite, his only, singer.

I absorbed rudimentary Mandarin while memorizing her lyrics, at least twice daily. Once on the way to school, once on the way back. I sang along when all I understood was the texture of her words, not yet their meaning. I learned that the word for ask sounds like the one for kiss, the word for deep like the word for heart. That pronouncing love correctly requires you to open your mouth wide, baring the vulnerable interior of your throat.

Against the backdrop of that car and that soundtrack, we gossiped about distant relatives. We decided where to go for dinner. We nursed days-old fights between my father and brother, whose interactions tended towards fraught silences and angry outbursts. We wept covertly, with our faces turned to the windows. Long after Teng’s death — by asthma attack, when I was two — our sonic roster remained unchanged. MuchMusic and MTV were banned in our house.

Functionally, we lived in a world with no other music.

When Will You Come Back?
The Moon Represents My Heart
Sweet As Honey
Goodbye My Love
May We Be Together Forever
I Only Care About You

Teresa Teng’s songs are too unabashedly sentimental to whisper-croon into a familiar ear at night. I imagine it takes a special selflessness to perform such ugly vulnerability for strangers who want your art more than they want you. The sheer force of her feeling — communicated in the lyrics, if not her deceptively smooth tone of voice — is hard to hold at a distance. Her yearning both inviting and invasive to watch, making you want to use up your life seeking out the sort of monumental love whose loss could compel such open-mouthed pleading, whose potential is worth struggling for, no matter the cost.

In the 1980s, Teresa Teng’s songs were banned from China. As love songs, they strayed too far from a previous model of music as propaganda, music from which the pronoun I was mostly, conspicuously, missing. Individual romance was considered counter-revolutionary; indulgently bourgeois, and not suited for the project of nation-building. So decreed Deng Xiaoping’s government, imagining its own ability to regulate the private intimacies of its people, to forbid them from wasting their devotion on anything but the state.

And so a black market sprung up, spreading Teng’s signature melodies through a warren of cheap radios, bootlegged CDs, and nightclub playlists. Millions of lip-synching mouths mirrored the same movements at any given moment; a distributed chorus spanning the entire nation. Her fans nicknamed her Little Deng, for the family name she shared with China’s paramount leader, leading to the saying:

Old Deng rules by day, Little Deng rules by night.

I am less interested in the draw of individual leaders, more in the magnetism of the worlds they would convince us to believe in. Like the moon she sang of, a world in which the Chinese were free to be, to desire in excess, was just unreachable enough to be alluring.



Did love and reunion become a metaphor for something else? Can the song itself become a kind of home? asks a recent exhibit at New York’s Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), recounting stories of Tiananmen student protesters bursting into tears over one of Teng’s songs playing in the Square.

There are bigger things to fight for than romantic love. There are harsher endings than Teng’s at the conclusion of Goodbye My Love. After three and a half minutes’ worth of grieving the demise of a relationship, of imploring her lover to not forget her, she pleads, My love, I believe someday we will meet again, and this is the saddest part of the whole song. To end with Teng in a state of improbable hope, surrendering her agency to chance.

Why did people risk their lives and their livelihoods to cling to Teng’s music? To insist on making her melodies available to others? Why, in risking their lives for freedom, were the student protesters so moved by a simple love song? They did not share the luxury of hope.

I imagine that, had I lived in that place, at that time, and found myself in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, I might have felt confused. Rifts emerged between student groups with different political alignments; disillusioned student protesters publicly defected, complaining of a disorganized movement. I might have felt alone, as I mostly do. I might have felt afraid; I am attached to my blood in my body rather than spilled around me. On June 3, leaders in Beijing authorized the enforcement of martial law to use any means to clear impediments on their way to empty the Square; that is, to shoot to kill. That is, people like me.

I imagine the moment in which a million protesters burst into tears at the same time as a shockwave of felt solidarity. Now I know that you, too, have parted ways with someone you loved. You, too, have experienced a single goodbye as the end of an entire world. Knowing that, I cannot leave the Square in good conscience. I cannot pretend my ambitions, my doubts, my sorrows, are bigger or more vivid than yours.

If I look at you in this moment, as the tanks open fire west of the Square, and we clasp each other’s hands in terror, you might become my most important person. So I can no longer indulge the illusion that my life is less dispensable than yours, that my personal safety is worth preserving at the expensive of our collective liberation.



Places where it has been acceptable for me to make music unprofessionally within a large gathering of mostly-strangers: elementary school holiday concerts, queer dance parties, various religious services, the occasional protest.

And then there’s karaoke. My first time was in my friend’s basement, with dozens of her extended relatives, off a portable machine that offered songs in English, Mandarin, and Tagalog. My second takes place ten years later, at an upstairs bar in Chinatown. Shy at first, I demur each time the mic comes my way.

Several rounds later, no one is leading anything anymore. The mic rests unused between two couch cushions and our unamplified voices shouting along to Taylor Swift, the Dixie Chicks, and One Direction. I capture this moment internally as a resource for later, when joy eludes. I’d like to believe I can at least find belonging here, in this group of queer Asians I can sing with, offbeat and off-key, accidentally harmonizing with each other.

According to MOCA’s The Moon Represents My Heart exhibit, Ecstatic moments of karaoke performance are usually channeled through the most unreligious of common cultural denominators — the formulaic pop ballad.

Cui Jian’s “I Have Nothing” — or, as myth would have it, Teresa Teng’s “My Native Land” — served as an anthem for the Tiananmen student movement in 1989. Its lyrics have been alternately interpreted as a message to a scornful girlfriend or a metaphor for the disillusionment of a generation of youth.

In 2014, during Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement protests, people would spontaneously erupt into massive renditions of pop songs in the streets. Often, the song was “Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies”, by rock band Beyond, inspired by the lead vocalist’s trip to South Africa after Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990.

Music, like mass protest, does not demand disclosure in return for connection. Only presence, only effort. Song choice is key in karaoke, the exhibit instructs. What will sustain the energy of the crowd? What will make everyone sing along? How will you “fill in” and make everyone believe?

Music cannot stop a machine gun. But a million people, resounding together, fortified by song, can barricade an incoming tank battalion or stall an army — long enough, at least, for the rest of the world to pay attention.

One of the cruelest affronts [is] the expectation that pain should be hidden away, buried, privatized—a lie manufactured so as to mask and uphold the social order that produces our many, unnecessary losses, writes Cindy Milstein in Rebellious Mourning. When we instead open ourselves to the bonds of loss and pain, we lessen what debilitates us; we reassert life and its beauty.



Teresa Teng was no hero, but she was grieved like one. Her death dressed in thousands of faceless mourners, state honours, multiple monuments. What makes one death mundane and one worth memorial?

She performed in Concerts for Democracy; she organized free shows for the army. Her refrain: The army protects us and everyone should do whatever they can. Her songs vitalized the spirit of youth resistance at Tiananmen. She sported cornrows for her 1989 Tokyo concert, in which she closed the set clad in an ornate wedding dress. My imagined subtext: my fans want to know who I’ll marry, but I have already given them everything.

When pressed during a rare English-language radio interview, Teresa Teng informs the host that she will only marry someone who accepts her career as paramount; someone who understands firsthand her language, her music, her culture.

You’re not asking for much, he jokes glibly. Someone like that must be hard to find. Not much later, thousands will gather to inter Teng in a mountainside tomb on the north coast of Taiwan. She will feature in a set of commemorative stamps, 20 years after her passing. A wax figure of Teng resides at Madame Tussauds Hong Kong. My father continues to listen to her songs every day.

Very hard to find, she agrees. I admit I would rather be loved than a hero.

Besides, a movement should have none. Learning from the Umbrella Movement, whose every lead organizer — including quick-rising, superstar-status Joshua Wong, featured on the cover of Time Magazine — was sentenced to prison or threatened with it, Hong Kong’s new protests insist themselves leaderless. Our momentum was built up by the government, activists demur, when asked why people keep coming back to the streets. It was the government’s indifference.

One activist shares that they learned how not to trust the police, not trust the government, but trust ourselves.

For weeks, my morning’s first Google search is Hong Kong protest. I try to write poems about the new resistance, but stumble on the syntax. Do I position myself in the crowd, or truthfully, on the other side of my parents’ immigration? I could surrender distance for emotional resonance; I could prioritize fact-finding at the expense of immediacy. If I landed in Hong Kong today, I’d have no friends to attend the rallies with. On my laptop screen, the masses sing and I don’t understand the words. Here in Toronto, I decide I am too busy to attend the solidarity rally. How far does my feeling go, removed as I am from my imagined homeland? What am I willing to sacrifice to be part of?

In November 2017, in preparation for an upcoming audition with Toronto’s Raging Asian Women Taiko Drummers, I spend hours watching old performance videos, hoping to absorb some of their energy through the screen. I’ve longed to be part of the group since I saw them at my first Pride, then at rallies and marches every year after, galvanizing the crowd into motion, the vibrations from their drums lodging in my sternum.

To hear these cries would intimidate any incoming army,
                                     one of the YouTube comments reads.
These movements are so beautiful it made me cry.
This band can topple a government.

Perhaps even a pop song, bourne on the hands and lips of a million protesters, can open up cracks in the wall of the system. Can pose a threat to the state, or unlock a depth of feeling that allows us to want a better world — one with no borders, no bosses, no excess or scarcity — as fiercely as Teng wants to be reunited with her lost lover. Perhaps a collective longing that strong for a different kind of existence, one incompatible with current regimes.

I’m likely to trust anyone I’ve made music with. Anyone who can listen well enough to the space between us to keep time. To sing into the pause that safeguards the present we have from the future we want. To fill the uncertainty with proof of our commitment, despite. Every time we falter and we find the beat anew, we practice how to love the coming world.

We may not know collective safety and abundance in our own lifetimes, but maybe our children’s children will. We don’t know when the song will end, but we know it will end. We don’t know the words, but we know how to sing. We know what winning feels like.


Jody Chan is a writer, drummer, organizer, and therapist based in Toronto. They are the author of haunt (Damaged Goods Press), all our futures (PANK), and sick, winner of the 2018 St. Lawrence Book Award. They can be found online at and offline in bookstores or dog parks.




Anjoli Roy

Grandpa was a skin diver: 20 Directives for a Wet-Cat Granddaughter


Grandpa knew how to sink himself. At the height of the Depression, in the Long Island Sound, he grew up eeling, clamming, fishing with a rod. He and his dad and uncle would haul in whatever was edible for the family, whatever they knew would sell to upscale restaurants in New York City. The sea provided. After he returned from the war to Southern California, where he and Grandma had met, married, and settled, he turned his body into a blade.

           Grandpa would pack up Grandma and our mom and Aunt Gigi in the rounded body of their green 1952 Chevy and head to La Jolla Cove in San Diego, Grandpa’s giant mahogany surfboard, brought home from Honolulu strapped to the roof. Mom and Aunt Gigi and Grandma would wade and splash in the thin shoreline while Grandpa would haul out that massive reddish-brown long board, the color of old blood.

            “I always thought it was at least 15 feet long,” Mom said.

            It might have been. I’ve seen the pictures. With its pointed nose, it was double the length of Grandpa and then some.

            He’d rest a jute catch bag on top. A diver’s mask and fins would dangle from his fingers, a tire iron tucked into his palm.

            Grandpa would sink himself in the dark water by the 75-million-year-old sandstone sea cliffs where it got deep fast. His breathed-up lungs stood in for a tank. When he swam, his crawl was smooth and easy. He looked like a running stitch. No splash.

           “Did he have a wetsuit?” I asked Mom.

           “No,” she said emphatically. “Just thin trunks, sweetheart.”

           I forgot to ask about weight belts.

           “Did he ever try to teach you or Gigi?”

           “I’m sure he would if I’d asked him.” She paused. “His swimming. To this day, I think about it. . . . He had those long arms and he’d just move. He could go forever. I wish I was like that.”

           With the exceptions of Grandpa and Grandma, we are a family of wet cats, preferring to float around or doggie paddle or skim the surface. Even in our most practiced water times, we maintain a look of the near-drowned.

           Later, when Grandpa wasn’t diving much, or when the seasons turned and it was too cold for it, he would take the family to Point Loma on a negative tide. He’d wait for the water to get low low. Then he’d wade out into that icy water, sometimes chest deep, and poke around the rocks, hoping against moray eels.

           The reason for all of his hunts in the Pacific’s silty silver water was the camouflaged and striated, dull shell of a low mollusk with a red hue.





Abalone have been celebrated and consumed throughout the world perhaps since the beginning of time. Long before Grandpa came to California, the Kumeyaay [Koom-yai]—who are indigenous to the area now called La Jolla Cove—ate them too, turning their remains into abalone shell fish hooks. Who could resist such delicious gastropods?

           Abalone shells might be prized for their pretty insides—coveted sunset pinks and aquamarine blues—but young abalone shells are incredibly weak. Octopus prey on juvenile abalone, as do crabs, lobsters, starfish, and snails. It is said that abalone in shallow water risk being smashed by storm-tossed rocks.

           Ninety percent of abalone deaths occur in this juvenile phase. Though it’s difficult to imagine, this rate is typical for survivorship of marine organisms that produce millions of larvae in the water column.            

           It’s probably a good thing, then, that shells of abalone that succeed at reaching adulthood are exceptionally strong. Adult abalone often live up to between 35 and 54 years. Their shells are their protectors: they are made up of microscopic tiles of calcium carbonate, the same compound that makes marble and limestone. Those tiles interlock as tiny bricks. A clingy protein binds them together. It is said that when an adult abalone is struck, the tiles slide apart to prevent shattering. The protein stretches, absorbing the blow.





Our grandpa wasn’t a violent man, but he grew up eating from the sea. He knew how to club the head of a fish on the hull of his aluminum skiff. He knew how to hook what was biting.

            Grandpa’s father, named Albert, was a German Irish American fisherman from Queens. Grandpa’s mother, named Elizabeth, was a German immigrant who came to New York from Romania. Her father pulled her out of school once she finished the sixth grade to work in a dress-shield factory. A precursor to chemical antiperspirants, dress shields involved pieces of rubber sewn into cotton fabric and worn in underarms to protect women from sweating through their dresses.

           “That was when you only had one dress, and it couldn’t be washed,” Mom said.

           In that dress-shield factory, while cutting a cardboard box they used for mailing, Great Grandma Elizabeth lost the tip of her pointer finger on her left hand. Her dad, bent on returning to the old country a rich man, kept the twelve dollars the factory man gave Elizabeth and refused her the surgery to repair her digit.

           Five or six years later, when Elizabeth’s father had amassed enough money, Elizabeth eloped with Albert when she was just 18 years old to avoid having to return to Europe with her father. Seven-and-a-half months later, she gave birth to an eight-pound “preemie” who would become our grandpa.

            Albert was a drinker, and he was violent. Grandpa protected his mom. He likely absorbed blows.

            When Grandpa graduated high school the valedictorian of his class back in Long Island, a recruiter from Brown came to the house and said he was looking for quality, top-notch students who would benefit from college but didn’t have the money to attend. This recruiter wanted to offer Grandpa admission and a full ride. Grandpa’s mom turned the man away.

            Albert had wanted to pull Grandpa out of school when he finished the sixth grade, but Elizabeth had insisted he stay in school. She knew she couldn’t fend off Albert any longer. They needed Grandpa to work. They needed the money. Already in his senior year, Grandpa was hauling in catches from the Sound with his dad and uncle. He was working the night shift at what was then called the local “insane hospital” too. The family couldn’t make it if he went away to school.

            It wasn’t until Mom was born and old enough for Grandpa’s mom to tell her about it that Grandpa learned how he’d been admitted, how he could have gone to school for free.

            “I was so excited to tell him,” Mom said, “because my mom was college educated and it was clear to me Dad had always felt like he hadn’t been good enough.”

            “How did he react?” I asked.

            “Very muted,” she said. “I just wanted him to know. He was good as anybody and better than a whole lot more.”

            Grandpa went on to work at the telephone company. Grandpa, who might have had a job like its own harvest.

            “I’m so proud of you girls,” he told each of my sisters and me before we flew from our hometown nests in Pasadena to university in San Diego, Atlanta, and—for me—New York.





Abalone don’t move very far during their lives. Juveniles graze on rocks for algae. As they grow, they rely more on drift.





Though he was born and raised in New York, Grandpa didn’t stay there. World War II brought him to the West Coast where he was stationed as a marine and, on one fortuitous day, he stood on the side of the road with his buddy hoping for a ride to some place to spend his day off.

A woman pulled over and said, “Here. Hold this duck.” She handed a duckling to him.

            She was a navy nurse en route to see her family in San Diego, the duckling one of her nurse friends had gotten as a present for Easter. She was probably taking the duck to her older sister Virginia, who had a small family farm.

            As she started to drive, she explained, the duck wasn’t staying put in her lap. She was grateful to have some company to help her.

            “Going to the local bar?” she asked. “I don’t think they’re open, seeing as how it’s Sunday.”

            Grandpa said he didn’t drink. He and his buddy were a couple of guys from New York. What was there to do around these parts?

            In this moment in the story, I imagine Grandpa worrying that the little duck might poop on his trousers. I imagine the duck settling its little yellow body in the warmth of Grandpa’s broad and gentled fisherman’s hands.

            The woman looked at Grandpa squarely, remembering her brief stay in Honolulu, where she’d been working as a nurse in a maternity ward just months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Everyone had been so nice to her there, when she’d been the out-of-towner.

            “Have you ever picked an orange?” she asked, with what might have been a glint in her eye.

            And so she took the two men home to her family’s house for dinner. At the end of the night, she gave Grandpa her number.

            This woman is my grandma. She used to love to tell this story.





Mature abalone have an easier time surviving than their younger counterparts, but they are not without predators. Cabezon fish, whose name means stubborn or big-headed in Spanish, can dislodge them and swallow them whole. Bat rays can crush mature abalone with their jaws. The sea otter is the deadliest abalone predator, capable of consuming all available abalone for miles.

            With the explosion of British desire for otter pelts in the 1700 and 1800s, the otter population plummeted off coastal California, which in turn led to anemone—another favorite prey of otters—reproducing unchecked. These anemone decimated the kelp forests around which abalone fed and made their homes. Abalone feed on giant kelp, bull kelp, feather boa kelp, and elk kelp. With the kelp suffering, abalone suffered too.

            Meanwhile, in the 1850s through the mid-1900s Chinese and Japanese immigrants arriving to the US started hunting abalone. White Americans like my grandpa developed an increasingly ravenous taste for them too.

            During World War II, American soldiers were shipped abalone in cans. On the California coast, abalone sandwiches were a common menu item.

            Today, with otters on the protected list, and even with abalone on the hunting restriction list, abalone remain at odds with rebounding marine animal and human predators alike.





In basic training on the East Coast, Grandpa was a tail gunner, which means he was supposed to be the person who sat, rear-facing, firing guns at planes that were firing guns at him in the sky. The story goes that he would puke each time the plane dove, so he never saw action. At his station in the South Pacific, they moved him into communications, where he kept track of pilots and facilitated connections between different posts.

            “This is for the best, of course,” Mom said. “The life expectancy of a tail gunner was a few hours in combat.”

            While he was away at war, Grandma waited for Grandpa in California. They were newlyweds, two shells just joined and already torn apart when he got called away. Grandma drove him to where he had to report for duty. She followed his bus as far as she could, weeping at the wheel.

            Some sixty years later, in December 2003, when Grandpa died, Grandma consoled the rest of us by telling us this story: “Here I was, having just found the man the Lord had made just for me, and he was already leaving. I just couldn’t—” she mimed crying hard. “That’s why I’m not crying now,” she said. “I got a whole lifetime with your grandfather when he came home. I’ve cried all my tears for him already.”





Abalone are a type of gastropod, which are rare among animals due to their success in all three major habitats: ocean, fresh water, and land.





How is it that a boy raised in Long Island learned to skin dive so well? None of us thought to ask Grandpa when he was alive. Maybe he learned when he was stationed in the Solomon Islands. Maybe it was when he took leave in Honolulu. Maybe he learned in San Diego.

            Grandpa, who taught you to skin dive? Who taught you to gather these single-shelled animals with gentle hands before they sensed danger, before they suctioned down on rocks so tight no prying could release them? Who taught you to stick them on the skin of your thighs so you could gather more than one during a single breath?

            “We’d always laugh because he looked so ridiculous,” Mom said, conjuring a memory of him walking out of the water, covered in shells. “He’d be lumpy with all those abalone stuck to him under his shorts, so we’d laugh. But of course we ate the abalone, and we loved it.”





To my knowledge, I only met our Grandpa’s mother, Elizabeth, once. I was little—maybe three or four—and I don’t remember if she baulked at the brownness of her half-Indian great-grandkids or our dad, her brown grandson-in-law. I don’t remember if I noticed the shortened pointer finger on her left hand. I only remember two things: 1) she sat on a cushioned recliner, knitting or crocheting something, and smiled at me nicely when I came over for her to get a better look, and 2) when Grandpa cut me a bite of an abalone steak he’d made—it was sweet and a little rigid, something with a pleasurable resistance that I sank my crooked incisors into—and I said yum and I want more of that, she’d laughed and laughed, perhaps because we are an eating family





Some gastropods are edible, like conch, conical limpets, predatory heavy pointed spiral whelks, and of course abalone. As marine gastropod mollusks, abalone are marine snails. The spiral common to snails is flattened in the abalone shell.

            Several different kinds of gastropods may also be used in the preparation of escargot.





When I asked Mom for the story about the time she got caught eating snails in the backyard, she said, “I’d tear up the house right behind Mom when she tried to clean up, so she would put me outside in the yard. This one time, when she went to let me back in, she found me with snails smeared all over my face. She said I just gouged them out with my fingers.”

“Did you get spanked?” I asked.

            “No! She scolded me, I’m sure, but there’s no point pounding on a baby that’s that small. They don’t understand it.”

             To snail is “to move, act, or go slowly or lazily.” In this lesson, a child caught eating snails might snail in her understanding.





Conch and abalone, with their tough meat, are often tenderized before human consumption.

            Abalone’s bodies are encased in a mantle, a word that conjures loose cloaks or shawls draped across shy shoulders.

            The foot of an abalone contains tentacles that extend beyond the shell wall of the living animal. These tentacles appear frilly or scalloped, like the hem of a dress.

            The secretion from the mantle is what gives the inside of the abalone’s famed shell its colors.

            Today, abalone shells have found themselves turned into buttons, inlaid in furniture and musical instruments, and jewelry. Manipulating abalone shells takes some skill, though, and some risk. Breathing in dust can trigger allergic skin reactions and asthma attacks when the shells are broken down and released into the air.





“Inside, those abalone shells are just gorgeous,” Mom said. “Dad would get the big ones that were legal size, which had to be over five inches, and the insides of the shells are just exquisitely beautiful. It just killed him. He had to figure out something to do with them.

            “Finally when the epoxy glue came out,” Mom continued, “Dad discovered he could preserve the pretty color of the shells. We all loved how pretty they were. He wanted a way to save that beauty.”

            Eventually, Grandpa took to pouring the epoxy into moulds—like for gelatin, but higher quality. Pouring them into wooden moulds was the way he had the most success. So, it was in this way, after breaking down the shells, that Grandpa would inlay pieces like mosaics into a coffee table where Grandma would play solitaire long after he was gone. He made pieces to hang on the wall.

            I have one of Grandpa’s pieces in the shape of what might be a maple leaf. In this mould, Pacific abalone is inlaid in the symbol of a New York tree. The underwater luster of the shell pieces preserve in epoxy two places he loved so much.

            I look up at this piece today and wonder how it is that I never thought, when he was alive, of Grandpa as an artist.





The abalone’s dish-like shell is characterized by a single row of open respiratory pores. These holes become filled in, one by one, as the animal grows. The last few holes remain open as waste outlets.





I also have two of Grandpa’s unbroken shells that have traveled with me from Los Angeles to New York to Honolulu to New York again and finally back to Honolulu, where I live today. They hang amid the steamy water of our bathroom on the ground floor of the house we rent in the back of oftentimes rainy and muggy Pālolo Valley. I like the look of them, like two satellite dishes, transmitting messages from here to the spirit realm, wherever that might be, wherever Grandma and Grandpa now are.

            When my partner hammered a single nail in wall to hang each shell beside the toilet, we did not know that we were using what was the animal’s waste outlet to hang the shells above our, ahem, waste outlet.





Abalone take a long time to grow. They might take twelve years to reach seven inches, growing about an inch per year for the first few years and then much slower after that. Once a red abalone reaches eight inches, it might take another thirteen years to grow another inch.

            The largest red abalone in the world was gathered in 1993 in Humbolt County and measured 12.3 inches.

            If my math is right, that means that that abalone was upwards of sixty-four years old, which means it could have first started growing in 1929, at the start of the Great Depression, when ninety percent of the other young abalone in the water column around that destined-to-be-record-setting abalone perished, and our young grandpa was just twelve years old, likely in the sixth grade, and his father, Albert, was trying to pull him out of school.





The abalone shells I have are seven and seven-and-a-half inches, respectively. They might have taken a dozen years, each, to get this big. They might have taken more.

            Today, La Jolla Cove is an ecological reserve. No fishing is allowed. Neither is the collecting of invertebrates or seashells. Some kind of idyllic afterlife might feature Grandpa still ghost-diving for abalone there along with the many divers before him. Living humans are forbidden from the fold.





Western science considers abalone primitive animals, even though their hearts rest on their left side, like yours or mine. Blood flows through their arteries, sinuses, and veins.

           Abalone shells have a small, slightly elevated spire and two to three whorls. The last whorl, also known as the body whorl, is called an auriform, which means “shaped like a human ear,” giving rise to the common name for abalone, “ear shell.” Abalone also belong to the genus haliotis, which means “sea ear,” which begs the question, of course, what are abalone listening for?

           Grandpa grew up fishing from a sound. Fishing in sound. Fishing for sound. Who was speaking? Who was listening for whom?

            In Les W. Field’s Abalone Stories: Collaborative Explorations of Sovereignty and Identity in Native California, a Pomo elder named Florence tells a story about how abalone was the first creature to live in the ocean. This first abalone was neither male nor female but could nevertheless produce offspring. This abalone is said to still be living today. The death of that first abalone would mean all other abalone had died. This, Florence said, “would be like the end of the world.”





Grandpa stopped diving when he ruptured his eardrum. He knew something was wrong when he tasted seawater even though his mouth was closed. What was going on? He couldn’t tell which way was up, and he was down deep. He had to follow his bubbles to find the surface.

            I imagine Grandpa calm, despite this potential drowning.

            “Was he in a lot of pain when he came out of the water?” I asked.

            “I’m sure he was, but he didn’t let on,” Mom said.

            The ear, nose, and throat doctor couldn’t see Grandpa’s eardrum because of all the abnormal bone growths he found in Grandpa’s ear. These calcifications, found on the ears of surfers who frequent very cold water, had to be removed.

“This was not my dad’s favorite surgery,” Mom said.          





You could say I grew up without a sea ear, or, rather, the ability to dive. A childhood of ear infections with tubes and surgeries required me to swim with my head above water and with big wax plugs in my ears so I would not flood my brain with chlorine or ocean or even bath water. In my adulthood, long after the tubes exited my body and their remaining holes closed shut, the habit of keeping my head above water has proven hard to break.

            I’ve devoted years to fighting my wet-cat nature, but I don’t think I’ll ever be good at diving below the surface.I never touched the blood-colored surfboard. I’ve not held a living abalone that I remember, though I swear I can feel it there, suctioned on my palm. I stand here among odd facts and secondhand stories cobbled together with no workman’s grace. This page stops ankle deep in biting water.





Today, living in Honolulu, I move, perhaps, amid Grandpa’s memories of these same waters where he may or may not have learned to skin dive, and where Grandma learned the importance of caring for one another, including those who were far away from home.

            Once, I paddled out on my long board to a break I had foolishly entered even though I was not familiar with it. I dove too late under a wave that was about to crash on me and had to ditch my nine-footer—small for you, Grandpa. I felt the crashing wave race forward with my board in the whitewash as I was dragged behind it like a doll. I cringed, hoping that we were not heading for collision with the exposed rock I’d paddled out past.

            As I braced my human body for impact, sunk as I was in that fast-moving water, I listened for you, Grandpa. I, your youngest granddaughter, who you used to call your fishing buddy, did not know how to turn myself into a blade. But I thought about your underwater grace and how smoothly all of the stories say you moved. I watched the surface above me and remembered not to fight.

            This momentary presence of mind, with my mouth full of ocean water, did not turn me into you, Grandpa. But, it may be the closest I’ll come.

Reference List

Branch, John. “Prized but Perilous Catch.” 25 July 2014. New York Times, Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Invertebrates of Interest: Abalone.” 2019, Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.

Field, Les W. Abalone Stories: Collaborative Explorations of Sovereignty and Identity in Native California. Duke UP, 2008.

FISHTECH. “Facts about Abalone.” N.d., Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.

“Kumeyaay History.” 18 Sept. 2019, Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.

Neumann, Anna. “An In-Depth Look at Abalone: Part I.” 23 Dec. 2014, Reef Check, Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.

——. “An In-Depth Look at Abalone: Part II–A Brief History on Abalone Fisheries and Regulations.” 26 Feb. 2015, Reef Check, Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.

OB Rag. “Remember When There Was Plenty of Abalone Along the San Diego Coast? Why Did They Disappear? Here’s One Project That’s Trying to Bring Them Back.” 19 July 2018, Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.

“Snail.” Merrium-Webster. N.d., Accessed 24 Jan. 2020.


Anjoli Roy is a creative writer and high school English teacher in Honolulu. A VONA fellow and a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee, she earned a BA in individualized study from NYU and an MA and PhD in English from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Her book-length manuscript has been a finalist for the 2040 Books James Alan McPherson Award and the Autumn House Nonfiction Contest and was shortlisted for C&R Book’s 2019 Awards for CNF/Memoir. Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Asian American Literary Review, Creative Nonfiction, Entropy, Hippocampus, Longreads, and others.




Tasha Raella

Unruly Gravity

 “In a groundbreaking article, ‘Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display,’ Johanna Drucker offers a definition of the term data (here in the context of a discussion of the digital humanities) as capta, a French word that is the third-person, past historical singular of the term for both ‘capture” and ‘sense.’”

—from “Mad Data: Between Symptom and Experience,” American Quarterly

2019. I’m on a swing. My father is yelling, “Pump, pump!” but that’s the last thing I want to do, because my heart is racing and I keep swinging higher and higher, no matter how still my legs and eyes are. I can see pieces of plastic, like two sides of a box, and plants. There are plants everywhere.


I’m totally blind and I don’t know what a plant looks like and my father is dead. I’m at my sister’s engagement party and I’m not on a swing, I’m sitting at a Greek restaurant in a garden somewhere in Florida and if I can just force my feet to stay on the ground, maybe no one will have noticed that I took too big of a hit off my sister’s fiancé’s vape pen and that it’s just caught up with me and maybe gravity will start behaving like it normally does and maybe I’ll be able to breathe again and maybe I’ll stop interpreting my body’s own movements as sensory data, which I’ve read is a symptom of schizophrenia. Jason, my sister’s fiancé’s brother, is getting loud. Lines of conversation snake over and to the left and behind me, like scaffolding.

I can feel people’s eyeballs pulsating. I lean over, tell my mother that I just saw a ceramic flower pot. She asks me how I knew; the pot is to my left, but actually there are pots like that all around us. I say that I tuned into its frequency. My eyes are only building more momentum. I’m running on a treadmill that I can’t stop. The world is too fast. I can see but I can’t breathe.

“Under this hypothesis, I usually tune out the visual signal, as it has been proven to be unreliable. However, marijuana causes alterations in the precision weighting of the visual error signal, so that it becomes more salient. I make better use of the visual error signal, which leads to updated predictions that match the error signal.”

—from “Observing My Cannabinoid-induced Visual experiences from a Predictive Processing Perspective,” an unpublished paper by Tasha Raella

2009. I have trouble telling this story in the present tense. The first time I learned to see, or rather, realized that I was seeing, I’m at my family friends’ lake house. It’s dusk, and I’m smoking a joint on the deck with Jack and Kevin. They’re old camp friends of my dad’s, and they’ve known me since I was a kid. Kevin checks the time on his phone, and I’m startled by the brightness.

“I wonder if it’s the pot,” Kevin says, almost to himself. Jack blows the possibility off, laughs his jaded Jack laugh. But Kevin remains curious. He downloads a strobe light app. The light jumps toward me. It keeps changing: pursuing and retreating, shrinking and thickening and sharpening. First, it’s a spooling thread, then a rope, then a gauzy curtain, then a block of wood, then the glint of a knife.

“Those are colors,” he says. “You’re seeing color, Tash.”

I learn that black is big and white is sharp. Kevin starts to teach me to put names to sizes, his Israeli accent deepening, his voice becoming more and more animated. Without his customary cynicism, he sounds like a small boy, or like someone who would narrate an audiobook about British schoolchildren. Our usual banter is replaced by awed silences. Then Jack sings out, “Who’s ready for tequila?” and all is forgotten.

“In 1909, the biologist Jakob von Uexküll introduced the concept of the umwelt. He wanted a word to express a simple (but often overlooked) observation: different animals in the same ecosystem pick up on different environmental signals. In the blind and deaf world of the tick, the important signals are temperature and the odor of butyric acid. For the black ghost knifefish, it’s electrical fields. For the echolocating bat, it’s air-compression waves. The small subset of the world that an animal is able to detect is its umwelt. The bigger reality, whatever that might mean, is called the umgebung.”

—from “The Umwelt” by David Eagleman

2014. A month before I leave for grad school, I try hash oil for the first time, and the effects linger into the next day. We take a friend’s young daughter to the aquarium. I don’t panic when my mom believes that I saw the jellyfish, but I skirt it, taste the metal of it. The jellies are like those orange gummy candies people hand out at bar mitzvahs. We leave the aquarium and sit down for lunch at one of those overpriced cafes on Newbury Street. I borrow my mother’s sunglasses so I can stop replaying their glide projected onto my lips and upper teeth.

Each person’s belief has a different taste or texture, and some are more sustaining or less pleasant than others. My mother’s is like cane sugar, the kind they put in Mexican Coke. Kevin’s used to taste like honey. Dr. Ashtari’s feels like the corduroy pants I refuse to wear. It burrows under my fingernails, soft but not soft. My whole body tenses with the chill.

2012. We’re in the kitchen, doing that awkward Jack-and-Karen ritual where we stand around for hours while Karen and my mom make guacamole and charred broccoli. I start walking towards what I think is a chair, but that thought is based on a slippery, opalescent knowledge, the kind that’s only found in dreams, so I distrust it.

“Where were you going?” Kevin asks.

I look down, abashed. “I thought there was a chair there.”

“Well, is there? Go and see.”

I still hesitate. I was able to describe the triangular fireplace two minutes ago, and I’m loath to be wrenched away from that rightness.

“Go on,” Kevin prods.

I take five steps forward, find the chair. I want to lick the belief off his fingers.

2014. My roommate Sarah and I are lying by the river. I’m supposedly writing an essay about unschooling, but her brother’s hash oil is so potent that I can’t do much of anything. I feel like I’m on a slant, even though the ground is flat.

“You’re seeing the railing,” Sarah tells me. “Look to your left. Can you see the water?”

I can’t, but I think I can see a fence, which is just as fascinating to starving retinas.

Other things I see that week:

* The cups of ice cream in Whole Foods, stacked on top of each other like castles.
* My other roommate’s hair.
* The couch.
* A stack of plates.
* Everyone’s hands.

2015. Sarah and I are shopping for lipstick.

“What red do I want, Tasha?” she asks. I expect her belief to have a taste, but it’s bland, like water. At grad school I’ve reinvented myself as the Blind Girl Who Sees, and Sarah’s never met the version of me who doesn’t understand what red is. She knows me as someone who makes startling eye contact sometimes, and unnervingly canny comments about the paintings we’re looking at in our Art and Understanding class, so it’s not surprising she’s treating me like a real girl. The two reds she is considering have different weights, different viscosities.

“The scarlet,” I tell her. “It suits your complexion.”

“A brain-imaging study of 12 people who had been blind from birth, and 14 sighted people, published recently in Nature Communications, shows that while for sighted people, sensory and abstract concepts like ‘red’ and ‘justice’ are represented in different brain regions, for blind people, they’re represented in the same ‘abstract concept’ region.”

—from “Making Sense of How the Blind ‘See’ Color,” the Harvard Gazette

2016. I’m at a barbecue at my mom’s house. My eyes are too far away from the rest of my body. I’m sitting in a chair, but they are all the way at the edge of the deck, and I’m stuck, imagining what it would be like to step off that drop, jolting myself over and over and over again. My mom’s friend is asking me a question, but I have no idea what it is. Something about where to get good Thai food in Brookline? When she repeats it, I make my voice extra loud, extra lucid, but the light someone has just turned on starts yanking my hips in the opposite direction. I can’t generate enough force to resist.

Then, Kevin The Psychiatrist is there; Kevin The Friend is absent. “Your jaw is tense,” he says. He takes me inside to wash my hands, tells me to splash warm water on my face.

“Does weed give you panic attacks?” he asks later.

“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “I can make them stop.”

“Or you could stop smoking.” His disapproval has the same chalky consistency as my father’s.

“I’d miss the colors too much,” I manage to get out. I can tell that my lips are still tinged with blue. “They have twelve-step programs for that,” he says. “There’s no glory in anxiety.”

“Lead researcher Dr. Manzar Ashtari said: ‘What we saw should cause alarm because the type of damage in cannabis smokers’ brains was exactly the same as in those with schizophrenia and in exactly the same place in the brain.’”

—from “Brain Imaging – Cannabis and Schizophrenia Look Similar,”  The Daily Schizophrenia News Blog

2017. It’s the Fourth of July and I’m sitting on a blanket with a college friend. The fireworks are like burning sponges, or paintings with no peripheries, or French castles set ablaze by a particularly heinous enemy. I mourn their stability when they wink out, and my friend mourns with me: my burning sponges usually line up with hers. At work the next day, I hold onto the memory until it shrivels, lies limp in my arms. My tutees, with their endless demands, their baggy sentences and rumpled paragraphs, are always there to help me forget, if I want to let them.

From: Joseph Carroll <[address redacted]>
Sent: May 15, 2015
To: Tasha Raella <[address redacted]>


Unfortunately, biofeedback is not my area of expertise.

As for Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis, I don’t think the eye movements are interfering with the eyes’ interaction with visual stimuli, there is a more serious underlying degeneration of cells that prevent light absorption. Cannabis is known to increase cortisol and reduce visuomotor integration, so noticing differences in your eye movements or perception is not too surprising.


Joseph Carroll
Professor of Ophthalmology
the Medical College of Wisconsin

2014. Two weeks after that day by the river, I learn that if I can shift all my weight into my eyes, I can climb the walls with them. My concentration slackens. I do the wrong reading for one of my classes and raise my hand to say something irrelevant. I sleep late and get up late and when I show up at my internship at a middle school with my freshly gelled hair, it looks wet, unfinished.

I meet my mom for coffee.

“I want to talk to you about something,” she says, handing me my Rooibos latte. “When I have friends over, I know you like to smoke pot and see and that, but it’s not the right time and place, if you know what I mean. Do it when it’s just us, rather.”

“Why?” I ask.

When it’s just us, there’s too little motion and too much predictability. My face turns to sandpaper. I’m remembering last night at Jack and Karen’s. My mom shows Karen a picture of the view from her balcony in Provincetown, and I catch a glimpse of it. I have twelve questions about what I see (what do all the prickly lines mean and why do I feel like I am sliding and what gives the picture so much depth) but I tamp down my exuberance and ask just one. I learn that the prickly lines were edges.

“It hijacks the conversation,” she says. “It’s fine to do when we’re at home, but just not socially.”

2015. It’s Julian’s birthday and all the people in my grad program who smoke are shoved into someone’s bedroom. I pass my pen around. The floor tilts, suddenly. I’m on one of those centrifuge rides that spins so fast you get stuck to the wall. There is something glass in front of me and I can’t pay attention to anything else, even though someone is talking about the professor I have a tiny girl-crush on. I keep projecting my eye movements to my feet, sliding up and down that glass.

“Sorry, I have to sit down,” I say. My classmate Ava walks me to the living room, hands me some too-sweet juice. Her belief is alcoholic. There’s a pillow on the couch. The pattern seems infinite (it’s flowers, I can somehow see the fucking flowers). There’s such a thing as too much certainty. My teeth are all in the wrong places, and the room doesn’t have any edges.

“What else do you see?” Ava is an art teacher, and she asks the question like we’re at a museum looking at some unreasonably abstract painting.

“Nothing now,” I say contritely. “It’s all right,” she says. “What you have—it’s like a staticky radio signal.”

“Sinha showed me a video in which a teenage boy, blind since birth because of opaque cataracts, sees for the first time. The boy sits still and blinks silently, the room around him reflecting in his eyes as a kind of proof of their new transparency. Sinha believes these first moments for the newly sighted are blurry, incoherent, and saturated by brightness—like walking into daylight with dilated pupils—and swirls of colors that do not make sense as shapes or faces or any kind of object.”

—from “What People Cured of Blindness See,” The New Yorker

2015. It’s late April and Sarah says I can use her semi-porch for my quasi-date. Eiton is at MIT and is working on a project that allows you to listen to the sound trees make through bone-conduction headphones. We eat pad thai and French fries dipped in coconut curry sauce and we talk about what it means to be present. We agree that David Eagleman is a bit of an ass, and the idea of being able to feel Dow Jones scores as vibrations through a vest is gimmicky and capitalistic and a little douchey, but the concept of an umwelt is pretty cool, or at least the word is fun to say. We smoke some Blue Dream and I have one of those moments where I’m transported back to that theatre exercise where you move your arms and your partner mirrors you. Really what I’m doing is making eye contact with Eiton. But I’ve forgotten that it’s not summer yet and that recently weed has started making me cold. I can’t stop shivering, even after we go inside and Eiton piles all the blankets in our apartment on top of me, even after I try to engage in normal conversation for ten minutes, even after he says he hopes I feel better, even after he leaves and my roommate comes home and everyone goes to bed.

From: Bronstein, Adolfo, Ph.D. <[address redacted]>
Sent: December 15, 2015
To: Tasha Raella <[address redacted]>

Dear Tasha, thanks for a nice comprehensive email. A detailed discussion would take a lot of time but let me say a few things. Over the years I have seen a handful of patients whose tremor or nystagmus improves under alcohol or marihuana, so I fully believe your story. However it would be nice to see at some stage your subjective and objective data set side by side. Generally speaking a good vestibular therapist should be able to help you to increase vestibular cues and Dr. Merfeld might help on this too. Finally and this is not just a legal disclaimer but plain medical advice, make sure you don’t overdo the dope or get hooked. Discuss this with some campus counsellor?

Sorry I cannot spend more time right now and I hope these few comments help.

Best wishes,

Adolfo Bronstein
Professor of neuro-otology and consulting neurologist
University College London

2015. Dr. Ashtari can only talk at night, so our phone conversations are always hushed and brief. During the days, I collect my visuals like dead mice.

“You need an amplifier,” she muses once, “something to boost the signal from the retina.”

The next night I tell her about the pink fairy lights I saw in Sarah’s room (the pinkness is real, and it smells like Toys “R” Us).

“Be careful with the marijuana,” she says. “I’ve researched this. I don’t know how strong the stuff you’re using is but it can be pretty abrasive. It can lay down pathways but it can also erase them.”

(Like the time my mom ripped up the carpet in my childhood bedroom to replace it and for a while, there was just the bare cement.) That night I have a panic attack because my eyes spend too long playing in the grid of the heating vent, and then skating up the white, white walls. I don’t tell Dr. Ashtari this. She’s not interested in panic attacks, or flickering radio signals, or ambivalence.

2013. I can’t eat eggs Benedict without making a mess and I can’t make a mess today because Meg and I both have our laptops out. We’re workshopping poems at our favorite brunch place, Misery Loves Company. I’m proud of the imagery in my latest poem, but Meg seems less than enthused.

“I’m noticing something,” she says. “Do you know how many of your lines start with ‘he told me’ or ‘Kevin told me’ or something like that? It’s like, you’re writing is always being strained through a filter.”

This must be payback for the comments I wrote on her latest poem, the one about her “winter boyfriend.” They hit too close to the mark. She must have seen me flinch because then she reaches across the table and pats my arm.

“How sightist or whatever of me,” she says. “I forgot that the rules are different for you.”

2012. Jack and Karen’s again. My mom is cutting open something round.

“What is that?” I ask Kevin. Jack is putting his son to bed and Karen and my mom are cooking, so for the moment, I have his full attention.

“What do you think it is?”

“It looks like a stemless goblet.”

“Interesting,” he says.

“Actually, it was an Asian pear, but here, check this out.” He hands me a potato and a glass, shows me how both have the same contours.

“I thought the Asian pear was a glass, but cutting up a glass would make no sense!” I say. My laugh fizzes, as contagious as a child’s. I pick up the potato and dance across the kitchen.

“Drucker is not suggesting that data be abandoned as a scholarly term, but she does ask how humanists might begin to conceive of data as being ‘constituted relationally, between observer and observed phenomena.’ Drucker makes an important point about data in terms of their inextricability from associational interpretation and additionally highlights the intra- and extra-relational nature of data.”

 —from “Mad Data: Between Symptom and Experience,” American Quarterly

2019. After dinner at the Greek restaurant, we’re walking back to the hotel. We’re in a parking structure, on a narrow strip that’s just meant for cars. An urban jungle, my stepdad calls it. My cheeks still feel as if they’ve been slapped, and there’s too much tension between my arches. When we emerge onto the street, which is lined with high rise apartment buildings, my eyes keep shooting upward, throwing me farther off balance. My ridiculous wedge sandals aren’t helping. The quality of the air here reminds me of Vegas. I have no language to explain why. I mistake a neon sign for sunlight.

Tasha Raella’s work has previously appeared in Wordgathering, Breath and Shadow, and the anthology Barriers and Belonging. She has been totally blind since birth and holds Master’s degrees in social work and education. She is an academic coach at a college in Boston.