after htmlFlowers // grant jonathon
violated future-lost revileds
dripping prophets of abled demise
carriers of glib disease
whoring our bodies to medicine while we
gutter roll the streets on our backs
begging violence from an emptied moon
that loves us through her fever
a buried ocean
that has forgotten how to sing her emptied wife through
birthing bloody fecal prayers
your funerals after endless apocalyptic hemorrhaging
the beetles and maggots consuming what you called you after
funerals have gone out of style and we all
rot in the remnants of streets
gutted and fetid
fish caught and sliced and
when oil slicks slip from our sclera
vicious snapping commodities devoid of capitalist gain
commodifying our snarling survival until we take you into
our writhing underbelly into
our oozing cunts into
our hovels built of bone and gristle
intestine colon viscera festering under the sink piled into
all you hoard putrefying
all you press distant creeping close—
pink insulation sticky with nineteen thirty-nine consensual homicides in your attic
drywall peeling parting from grey sludge hidden between
your world and what you
have graciously granted us
overstay our unwelcome beneath your heavy feet
plastic doll heads filled with molding toothpaste
corvid skulls unearthed still gripped in tangling milkweed roots
algae growing 'round the edges of your eyes nostrils aorta vertebral foramen
well , come
into this unsprung mattress
, empty handed con man ,
if your answer sates our shrivelled cripple gut—
what offal bring you
, to please our whoring hearts ?
q is a white queercrip dykefag artist, sex worker, and death doula, primarily living, working, creating, and dying on the land of the Ts’elxwéyeqw tribe of the Stó:lō nation. A formerly-homeless high school-dropout, its workshops and writing are grown from joy and spite found in Mad queer disabled and ill community.
You were looking for different
words to say good team player. I
suggested you use more verbs. I
suggested you say you over saw the team. I suggested you
call me. Together, we practiced
for the part of the interview
where they ask if you have any
questions. I have a question. My
question is, what team do we play
for. My question is, what did you
do, did you manage or over see, my question is, what did you
oversee, my question is why do we keep
using the same words and how would
a wolf talk and what would it say.
THE WOLF EMAILED ME ITS RÉSUMÉ
works well with others magna
no, summa no, magna cum laude
feels at home in competitive
fast-paced work environments no,
thrives in highly-structured, close-knit
work environments should i say
team, community or should i
say environment should i say
highly specialized harder than
bone the one who went in first when
it heard the herd-lost calf call out
certificate program master
of business administration
highly motivated who went
in second when it smelled the coat
dyed red words per minute
experience with excel and
java executed special
projects stumbled home the morning
after wearing someone else’s
clothes went in first and never
once fell behind not ever
THE ANIMALS IN THE ROOM
You drank too much. The animals came into the room. They saw your path to the exit blocked. Their herd-sense calculated one or two escape routes, attuned tick-bitten ears on your behalf to the exact moment when you could have spoken up, turned an art appraiser’s eye to silence, threw themselves into the painting on the wall, the deer with hard black eyes with one bright painful spot of blue in them. They came into the room. Your terror wanted them to watch what happened and your terror saw the blue spot and your terror got a lichen-eating audience to your bullseye focus on that blue-stained motel deerseye, your terror drank too much, your eyes summoned them, they saw your story shrink into a fist.
THE WOLF MAKES AN APPOINTMENT AT THE O.B-G.Y.N.
I just had some quick questions. I was just calling for a routine checkup. My first question is whatare you saying. My next question is what do you mean by contraindication. What do you mean by sexual preference. What exactly are you offering me and can I avoid eye contact and can I say no thank you and
Look, is this one of those things where the story’s author finds itself complicit because I was just asking questions I was not following orders I was just writing things down and I didn’t ask for any of this. It’s not my fault if the cattle don’t keep track of their numbers, it’s not up to me whose clothes I’m wearing and if fawns go missing. What I am asking is,
Look, it was just body language. It doesn’t mean anything. I’m just saying I was hungry, it was just a hotel room I paid for. I was only baring my teeth for show.
THE WOLF RETURNS YOUR CALL
It has a question.
It wants to know what
you mean when you say
Seem. For example,
when they say that You don’t seem like yourself,
it does not know what
Seeming is, so it
can’t tell. You tell it
this is a question
This is a question,
this is not a pet.
This is a question,
a wild animal.
Do not touch the bars.
Keep your hands to your
self. Come home wearing
someone else’s clothes.
Don’t be mistaken.
What do they mean by
Do not feed. Do you
understand what that
means. Do you find it
confusing for some
reason, when it licks
your face and asks you
questions. What happened,
it asks. You’re crying.
What does crying mean.
Meghan Kemp-Gee was born in Vancouver BC and writes poetry, comics, and scripts in Los Angeles. She won the Poetry Society of America 2014 Lyric Poetry Award. Her work has also appeared in Copper Nickel, Helen: A Literary Magazine, The Rush, Switchback, and Skyd Magazine. She teaches written inquiry and composition at Chapman University.
Here is my brain. It is writing this. For you. In Times New Roman. To make us both feel. Better. We feel even. Here is my brain. Here is my brain on drugs. No eggs this time. Only the good ones. The doctor ones. Perfectly legal. I feel fine. Perfectly regal. I don’t feel pain. The earth is. Rotating on its axis and so. Is this room. And so are you. We are. Fine. Welcome to my book.
Here is the world. We are in this together. The body pulls. In towards itself and towards all of us. That is all we need. Am I doing this right. Where was I again.
Here is the body. Of water. That you were looking for. Take a drink. Kiss the mirror. It will last longer. Don’t forget. To call the pharmacy again.
Here is the state. Of things. We are in this together and the room is moving with us. How nice. How orderly. How together we are. I love you for being here with me. We think about hop scotch and that’s fine enough for now. I offer us a cold beverage. We love cold beverages especially when it’s hot out. How nice.
Here is the fire. Place. It’s warming us up. We needed it. We feel safe now. We breathe it in. The smoke that’s good. We’re saw dust. We love this stuff. We’re so happy we’re here. Did you see the moon. Landing.
Here we go again. It’s hurling towards us. Look out. That was close. Let’s take a bath. Let’s promise each other we’ll never bathe again. That will make us proud. That will make us eat peaches. It doesn’t
matter what we think. We forgot to call the pharmacy again.
Here is your brain on. Music. I’ll give it to you Einstein. I’ll take you on a boat and make you watch it sink. Do you believe me now. Is anybody alive out there. Can anybody hear me.
Here it is. We’ve been looking for you and here you were all along. That’s the nature of it we figure. Hide and we’ll seek. Do you think we can find it by smell. Should we bake cookies. Can we find our way home from
Here is an orange. Let me show you how to slice it. First you take an orange. Then you stick your thumb in it. Then you hold it up to the moon. This step is important. Don’t think about it. Think about orange juice. Think about swallowing. Spin it like it’s the earth. Now you can eat it.
Here is that memory I wasn’t looking for. You brought it back all of a sudden in a little tote bag. I had forgotten all about it and now here it is. What a surprise. Did you bring a gift receipt.
Here is the new one.
Here is my dusty balloon. I unpacked it just for you. It will stay put if you let it. Give it a kiss.
Here is my note. I am writing to you. To express my gratitude for your prompt response. It is nice to be thought of so quickly. I’ve been thinking about what you said about jam. I am with you for the most part. Have you given any thought to peaches. That is the only hole.
Here. I said here. A little to the left. A little more. A bit higher. Not that high. But a little higher. Yes.
Here’s your hat. What’s your hurry.
Here I’m giving you an out. I’m giving you an out. Well if you don’t want to take it. That’s not on me.
Here I am. Surprise. I got you this time. You should have seen your face. You looked like an icicle. You hardly knew you were dangerous. You keep dripping in my eye. I shouldn’t keep looking up. Let me know when you spot the moon.
Here we go again.
Here I will read it back to you. So do you love it. You can be honest. It won’t hurt. My feelings. Well you could have been nicer about it.
Here are my keys. Now get lost.
Here is my urine. Sample. I made it just for you. I hope you like it. I wiped the outside with toilet paper. I even signed it. I packed this silver tray just to deliver it to you. I hope you don’t mind the garnish. I couldn’t decide between turnips and peaches.
Here comes trouble.
Here you went. I let you die without asking. I could have done it. I could have made it easier for all of us. But here you were and I couldn’t say a thing besides no I am not my mother. It was too late for talks about The Great Depression. Our great depression. I don’t know why but I knew. I will save them for us forever. We will live on forever.
Olivia Muenz is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Louisiana State University. She received her BA from NYU and is currently the Nonfiction Editor for New Delta Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Salt Hill Journal, The Boiler, Pidgeonholes, Heavy Feather Review, Timber Journal, Peach Magazine, Stone of Madness Press, and ctrl+v. @oliviamuenz
our greatest ambition, to be met somewhere other than the middle
passage—just a shadow but sometimes
it’s hard to walk around in your own
worn shoes like an old truth, grotesquely
retrospect of addressed flesh & grit
teeth. across a sea that is big & was
already old, what survives may not be
pretty: what color could shadows
be once this present is subsumed?
answered in that familiar hush,
saved for spaces where your life is
the one game in town. so many bodies
find predicaments, but it’s rare
to worry over naming
blame while they are still
only named bodies, haunting
us like a ghost that isn’t quite
friendly yet carries along with you
knowing you need the company
for the habit of horror.
a habitat teaches you to remain
resilient or alive. most times
that is enough to be and joy
is safely ignored, but when they demand
to hear mourning you can remain
enough, be made sacred by silence &
leave them to listen & listen & listen
for the stillness of no
sound at all, running head
long for your brilliant, elated pause.
in the absence of a parrot
a nature curated in the obverse
self we have always craved as conquerors
airbrushed past all recognition
of our predation, a shadow at the whole
which word alone cannot erase
from the geologic record
expanding as we are into time measured
in strata, the historical record keeps
the familiar shapes of our noses, the color
on our backs and our shoulders, the voices
trapped as legacies of legacy invested in ornaments
like truth, molded into anachronistic
oddities waiting for their day to be
sold at market literate in the value of remains
grown small with time, even our oak shriveled, softened
for the hands of children elastic as they wiggle
the rods, rattle bladeless sabers, able to imagine
they never sought blood, never drained color from any face
recognizable as man; how inviting these artifacts
as they approach dissolution. even waves turn
static waiting for break, distance decays, even
the sand slows itself from melting as glass resting
between you and drowning, an imagined protection
expanding as we are into time measured
in strata, the historical record keeps
a hilly cemetery nearby in the tall weightless grass, an old
barn melting into ground across the bay, a good place
to share with a cat or something else to outlive, accessories
to remember instead of leaving behind. the world at my back,
exposed to nothing but the humming drone of nothing, the rest of
the world all in process. become this thing we tell ourselves we are
expanding as we are into time measured
in strata, the historical record keeps
the grief which your cat lacks when it fails
to miss you, or your own
nostalgia, an evolutionary wedge which found a way
to process loss as promise, holding on
to every one of our mistakes, until mirrors
fade back into sand and we drown
under the weight of it all
the historical record keeps
for its sheer number of things
expanding as we are, the time
to answer question is past.
for all the broken things unfixed with nothing left but time to fix them
we’ve discovered whole vocabularies
of disappointment; maybe I am
as old as we all feel, detached
as we all think. what if all this talk
of new normal is nothing more
than old rumor finally hitting the fan
& we all see the very same thing
in the inkblot splatters on separate walls
& can’t chalk it up to happenstance, again.
what if all this distance is is
a really big mirror facing
the wrong way. what if the universe was not
such an unspeakable terror
for its endlessness & my hands,
pale palms unburned & open,
tumbled each and every one of you
I could ever imagine loving, breathing
& petrified, into the inert
vision at the ends of my own
go-go-gadget arms, finally enough
to fold each and every one
within a single shared thought and not
recognizing the universe in deference
to its scale we always mistranslate
as endless difference. will each and every
or even just one of you
please pity me with this simple kindness:
tell me it’s okay that the universe is so big
that it must be ignored.
Isaac Pickell is a passing poet & PhD student at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he lives & studies the borderlands of blackness & black literature. His work’s found in Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Fence, Protean Magazine, and Sixth Finch, and his debut chapbook everything saved will be last is available now from Black Lawrence Press.
One week after your arranged marriage, on your maiden intercontinental flight from Ahmedabad International Airport to Dallas Fort Worth, you will sit next to your husband for more than 24 hours, half of which the two of you will spend sleeping, exhausted from your four-day-long wedding celebration, a hurried trip to Bombay to get your visa, and a small rooftop reception at his house. The devastating aftermath of the 2001 Gujrat earthquake, two days before your wedding, is still being felt in the aftershocks of the land and people’s consciousness, and though you are not superstitious, you can’t help but wonder what it portends for your arranged-marriage-wedded life to come.
On that same flight, somewhere over Cairo, Egypt, when you both finally wake up, he will head to the bathroom to brush his teeth and gargle with the small bottle of mouthwash kept in the cabinet above the tiny basin. Six months later, after the two of you have settled into your domestic life, you will scoff at each other’s dental hygiene routine—he brushes his teeth first thing in the morning, you like to do it after drinking a tall glass of water and a cup of strong adrakwali chai, made the way you have always liked, one-fourth cup of milk, three-fourths cup of water, two teaspoons of sugar, one teaspoon Brook Bond Red Label loose tea leaves, freshly grated ginger root, boiled till the chai is terracotta brown. He will tell you he grew up drinking tea made with Vagh Bakari (lion and goat) tea leaves, a brand whose television ad you had watched with derision for how it turned a dominating mother-in-law into a docile, motherly figure after drinking the tea her daughter-in-law made. As if tea could solve differences and strengthen marital ties. A month after settling in your one-bedroom apartment, you will start buying both brands and mixing the tea leaves in a big container, so the flavor of Vagh Bakari and the color of Brook Bond can be enjoyed with the morning cuppa. He will start making the morning tea, because you can never wake up early enough to make it for the both of you. He’ll tell you he is thankful you didn’t choose to be a doctor, or your patients would’ve died waiting for you to get up and make your morning cup of chai.
The only chai that is offered on the Lufthansa plane is a paper cup of warm water with a tea bag seeping in it. You don’t care for the tepid flavored water, so you switch to coffee with milk and two sugars. He drinks black coffee, a habit he picked up after living in America for the last two years. In time, you will grow to appreciate the dark roasts at local coffee shops but will always add a generous splash of milk, two sugars and a sprinkling of nutmeg that will remind you of Ma’s instant Nescafe with a dash of nutmeg. It is morning somewhere over the American continent when you realize that all the coffee you drank is pushing against your bladder. In the tiny bathroom of the Lufthansa plane, you will hitch up your kameez, and struggle to untie the strings on your salwar so you can squat on the cold steel toilet to pee, wash your hands and straighten your clothes and swirl the mint green liquid that stings your tongue, spray perfume under your armpits and behind your ears because you want your husband of one week to think you can smell of peaches and roses and minty fresh breath 38,000 feet above the earth. A few weeks later, you will hear his discourse on why stereotypes about Indians are not that far off in his circle of acquaintances—body odor (they don’t wash their clothes often), bad breath (smell of spicy food lingers), bad posture (hunched shoulders). In time, you will start noticing these things too, and then adding your own anecdotal observations to his list—horizontal stripe T-shirts, oily hair, mustachioed men mumbling out last syllables.
When the mustachioed friend of your husband picks up the two of you from the airport, you will sit in the heated cocoon of his Honda Civic (desis drive Hondas and Toyotas, reliable, dependable cars with a good resale value) and listen to the two men from the back seat of the car talk about green cards, parking garages, weather, a big garbage bag full of his mail, friends who cleaned his apartment during his three-week India vacation to get married. The mustachioed man will drop the two of you at the 750 sq. ft. first-floor apartment with one bedroom, living room, galley kitchen. He will help bring in the luggage, four big suitcases and two carry-ons. You will walk in the apartment, over the rose petals strewn on the beige carpet, past the entrance, balloons and buntings on the speckled white walls, the living room with two brown leather couches and a big screen TV, a grey plastic patio dining table in one corner, to the small bedroom with a queen-sized bed, wood and wrought iron bedframe, a particle board office desk, a desktop and keyboard. The fact that you are in a foreign land where the ritual of stepping over your husband’s threshold will not involve a container of rice that you will topple with your toes will hit you with a force that you are not prepared for. Over the years, you will miss out on many more rituals and festivals and celebrations, but for now, you circle back to the living room just as the heater kicks in. You sink on the leather sofa, that’s called a couch, and look around the apartment that’ll be your home for the next five years.
It takes five seconds for a 911 call to go through but you don’t know that when on your first day you decide to call home and let your parents know you’ve reached America and not to worry, it’s very cold here but the apartment is warm and cozy and you feel fine, just a bit tired and yes, you will call later, you need to hangup because by then you are tearing up and realizing how far away from home you are, but this is your home now and you will have to make the best of it with your husband who is talking you through the steps of making the international call, dial 91, then city code, then area code, then phone number. You will dial 911, realize your mistake and hang up. Him: “Did you call 911? You: “No.” It couldn’t have possibly gone through.” A second later, the phone will ring. He will answer it. 911 Operator: “Sir, we received a call from this number.” Him: “Yes, my wife dialed by mistake. She was trying to call India.” 911 Operator: “Sir, get off the speaker phone and get her on the line.” He will hand the phone to you, his face turning shades of red at the implicit accusation in the operator’s voice. You: “Hello?” 911 Operator: “Ma’am, did you call 911?” You: “Yes. I’m sorry. It was a mistake. I was trying to call India.” 911 Operator: “Ma’am, are you sure you are not in any danger? I can send an officer over.” You: “No, I’m fine. Really.” 911 Operator: “Okay Ma’am. Have a good night.” The silence in the 750 sq. ft. apartment as you unpack your suitcases will be as loud as the hum of the heater so the knock on the door ten minutes later will be heard immediately. Standing outside the door will be a tall policeman, asking your husband who called 911. He will be blond and blue-eyed, just like the cops you’ve seen on TV. Your husband will point to you, standing a little bit behind him, and explain, once again, that his wife was trying to make an international call. He’ll be asked to go in the other room, so the policeman can talk to the lady of the house. You will again repeat your story, tell him this is your first day in America and you are tired, and jet lagged, and it was just a mistake, really. The six-foot-tall policeman with his piercing blue eyes and thick Texan accent will look at the rose petals on the carpet, at the balloons and bunting on the walls, the open suitcases in the middle of the living room, and then he will tip his hat with a slight smile, mumble something into a walkie-talkie and wish you both a good night as he leaves. The poise and confidence you thought you were projecting so far to impress your husband will be shattered by the debacle of the 911 call and though the two of you can’t laugh about it now, in the future, you will be able to tell your friends about this with self-deprecating humor as he shakes his head at your frivolity. This will end your first night in America, sleeping on your marital bed with your husband who seems to have calmed down from the humiliation of being obliquely accused of domestic battery. That night, you will also find out that your husband snores, that he needs the fan on every day of the year, that the bed you are sleeping on has a mattresses on top of a box spring (in India, you have slept on firm mattresses re-stuffed every year with cotton batting), a fitted sheet (only in America), and a comforter that does not warm your feet as quickly as the razai you left back home.
Before you lie down and wrap your cold feet in the warmth of the comforter, before you call 911 by mistake, you will go out to dinner with his friends, two men and a woman, to a neighborhood Italian restaurant. They are the ones who cleaned and decorated the apartment with rose petals, buntings and balloons, to welcome you to the country. He will see you shivering in your salwar kameez and leather jacket and turn on the car heater full blast and the passenger-side seat warmer. The ten-minute ride to the restaurant will feature dark, empty streets, twinkling lights in the surrounding apartment buildings, a strip mall with a gas station, a dry cleaner and a laundromat next to the Italian restaurant and a Great Clips. You have never eaten Italian food except for pizza, so you will let the only other woman in your group order something for you. She says eggplant parmesan is a safe bet, and your husband will ask if that’s ok and you will say yes even though you don’t like eggplant. It is not like you to eat foods you don’t like but you are tired. On the flight you’ve already listened to his rant about how he hates that his brothers and parents are so fussy about food. He has lived by himself for seven years and doesn’t care how the food tastes if it fills him up. So, you will swallow the eggplant parmesan with sips of water and listen to his friends talk about work and green cards and parking garages and how much mail your husband will have to sort through. In the coming weeks, you will start a losing battle with junk mail because your husband is paranoid about identity theft. He will not want you to throw anything away with his name and address on it. Instead, he’ll take it to work every few months and shred it there. In the meantime, it will pile up on the plastic patio/dining table and you will sort it as bills, junk mail, catalogues, coupons. In a couple of months, you will give up the sorting, because you are a realist who knows creating order out of chaos is futile.
There is an order to international travel that you won’t appreciate when you are jet lagged and weary, standing in line at the airport gate clutching your carry-on luggage. The stewardess scanning your ticket and passport won’t care about the pronunciation of your name. All she will care about is if the spellings in the two documents match. You won’t know it when the customs official at Dallas Fort Worth International scans your passport and stamps, but from here on, you will forever spell your name like a code being transmitted over the police scanner: “First name Jaya, spelled Juliet, Alpha, Yankee, Alpha. Last name, Wagle, spelled Whisky, Alpha, Gerald, Larry, Elephant.” Even though you can speak and write proper English, you will have to relearn words, pronunciation and different meanings of American English: Lift is not an elevator but a ride; ladyfinger is a dessert, not the vegetable okra; coriander is cilantro; brinjal is eggplant; “good for you” can be used to patronize or compliment, same with “bless you”; your name, in Spanish, is pronounced Haya, in English Jaaya. You will learn to spell in American English, substituting ‘z’ for ‘s’ and ‘o’ for ‘ou’ or else red squiggly lines will appear under colour and realise. These realizations will come slowly but nobody will make you more aware of your Indian accent and British English than a high schooler working behind the front desk at the local natatorium where you will take adult swimming lessons because it is Texas and everyone swims in the summer and you have always wanted to learn to swim. When you approach him to ask for a schedule of practice hours, he will say, “What? What is it you want?” You can hear him and his buddies sniggering, but you won’t know why so you will repeat the question. “I want the schedule for practice hours.” High Schooler: “The what for practice hours?” You: “You know, a list of times I can come and practice my swimming.” More sniggering. High Schooler: “Oh, you mean a schedule. Here you go.” As you walk away you will hear laughter behind your back. Later, your husband will tell you “schedule” is pronounced with a “sk” sound and not the “sh” sound you had grown up with. You will never speak schedule with a sh sound ever again, and no matter how much you try to modulate your ‘a,’ ‘e’ ‘g’ and ‘j’ sounds, there will always be high schoolers of all ages laughing at your pronunciation and your accent. The exception to the rule will be old women in your library writing group who will wonder how you manage to not only speak but write in English so well. “How long did you take to learn English?” they will ask. “I learnt it growing up.” “In India? That is amazing!” And you will smile and nod and accept the compliment because they remind you of your grandmother and you don’t want to explain to them how English is taught in schools and you went to a convent school, one of many established during the British Raj to raise a class of bureaucrats and clerical staff conversant in the Queen’s English, where you not only spoke and learnt English language skills, all your subjects were also taught in English. It is easy for you to relinquish rhetorical control when faced with the elderly.
How do you take control of your life after an arranged marriage, in a foreign country, confined to a 750 sq. ft. apartment while an icy rain falls outside? You will watch a lot of TV (Friends and Seinfeld reruns, Frasier and Saturday Night Live), familiarize yourself with the local mall, shop at the Gap, get a haircut at ULTA, visit Sam’s Club and Walmart every weekend, buy ginger and tea leaves and a stainless steel pot with a lip and a strainer to make your chai, eat Pringles and Ferrero Rocher for lunch, read TheBridges of Madison County and The Bluest Eye, and a few months later, you will start going to the apartment gym because your clothes are tighter than they should be on the waist.
You will quickly realize that there is a lot of choice in America when it comes to clothing, so much in fact that on your first trip to the mall you will gawk at all the glass-fronted stores of brand names you have heard of (Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Ray Ban) and the ones you haven’t (Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga). You will buy blue jeans from the Gap, and a shift dress from The Limited, and you will look at the price tags and quickly convert them to Indian rupees. Over time, you will unlearn the subconscious habit of converting dollars to rupees, but in that first year, you will be conscious of how much of your husband’s money you are spending at the Gap, Pier 1 Imports, Target and Old Navy. You will revel in the joy of fuss-free-returns until one day your husband gets exasperated, driving you from store to store over the weekend to return or exchange merchandise because you don’t have a driver’s license or a car.
His exasperation will make you reconsider your daily routine and you will enroll in the nearby community college for a weekly fiction writing class. Every Wednesday evening, he will drive you six miles to the college and wait for you in the empty cafeteria while you sit with seven other students and a silver-haired teacher named Bette Wisapape around an oval table, discussing the difference between show and tell and importance of sensory details in storytelling. In that class, you will hear for the first time an old lady who seemed to be justifying slavery, stating, “Didn’t the black people capture other black people and sell them into slavery?” This will be your first brush with racism that is not directed at you–but it will not be not your last. In that same class, you will also make friends with a blonde-haired, green-eyed girl, an insurance claims adjustor, who will write a story based on her experience as a prison guard in a Wyoming jail. She will become one of your best friends in your adopted country, eventually holding one of your legs in the hospital room as you give birth to your six-pound son. Your husband will be holding the other leg, an incident that will cause shock and awe in your family since Indian husbands typically pace outside the birthing room instead of assisting in the birth of their children.
Before your son is born, before you join the community college and make a friend, you will rearrange the apartment, because you have time on your hands. You will realign the couches and the TV in the living room and stack all the books in the apartment in the middle of the living room to simulate a coffee table. You will drag out the big, pressed wood computer desk out of the bedroom, and put it in the living room where it will sit at a right angle to the TV. The bedroom will look bigger without the computer desk. You will replace it with a $10 particle board side table from K-Mart and use it for your books, creams and earrings. During one of the cleaning sprees of the small walk-in closet in the bedroom, you will come across a sheaf of papers with an English translation of Kamasutra. You will sit on the carpeted closet floor, reading the descriptions of the acrobatic, erotic poses and wonder why your husband printed them. You will call your husband at work and read some of the text to him and ask him about his intentions. He will start laughing and so will you because read out loud over the phone, they sound ridiculously impossible to perform without spraining an ankle or wrist. Soon, the two of you will start going to the apartment gym because you are both getting out of shape, lying on the couch together, watching Food Network and exploring the hitherto unknown joys of first, second, third and fourth base.
At the apartment gym you’ll watch BET and run on the treadmill and the elliptical and watch sculpted bodies gyrate to Jay-Z, J Lo, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Usher, Ginuwine, Outkast. The songs and videos are such a contrast to your own mellow tastes in Hindustani classical music with its emphasis on lyrics and melody based on raagas, taal and sur. But you enjoy listening to the fast-paced music while walking to nowhere on the treadmill. You’ll make friends in this gym with a girl from India. She and her husband will become close friends with the two of you. You’ll all go on vacation to New Mexico, stay at KOA camps overnight (your first camping experience that will remind you of sleeping under the stars on the flat rooftops of your home in the summer), drive through the long, flat stretch of I-20 and US 380 between New Mexico and Texas, marvel at the double rainbows in the expansive blue sky, eat at the flying saucer McDonalds in Roswell, shiver in the caverns of Carlsbad, explore the ruins of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. Over the years, you’ll lose touch with her after they move to another city. You will later find out she cheated on her doting husband with another man and the two got divorced. They will become a footnote in your memories of your first days in your adopted country.
In your adopted country, you will start your driving lessons with your husband, because Sears is the only place that offers driving school for adults but it’s $80 a lesson. Every weekend, you will practice driving on the empty streets of his office park, learning the rules of four way stops, yield signs, changing lanes and blind spots. He will hold on for dear life and yell “Brake, brake, brake!” a quarter-mile from the stop sign. You’ll come to a screeching halt and get offended at his theatrics. He will say he fears for his life. You will not get the concept of a “blind spot” until you almost sideswipe a car in the left lane during one of your failed driving tests. On your third driving test, you’ll get your driver’s license. For the first two years you’ll drive up and down McArthur Boulevard and never venture out on the highway because the community college, the mall, the grocery shops, Sam’s Club, are all equidistant from your apartment. There is no need to venture out on highways with cars driving 70 miles an hour.
Before you start driving your own car, before you take contentious driving lessons over the weekend with your husband, you will need a driver’s license. It will not be easy because you will be on the H-4 dependent visa, which makes you eligible to be in the country but doesn’t give you a Social Security number or permission to work. The Department of Transportation will ask you for your SSN. You will show them your passport. They will ask you to get a note from Social Security office stating you can’t have an SSN. The SS office will tell you they don’t issue such letters unless they get an official request from the DOT. You will go back to the DOT for the letter and they will tell you to get a letter from the SS office requesting a letter to that intent. The SS office will finally give you a letter asking the DOT why they need a letter that says you can’t have an SSN. The DOT will give you another letter. The SS office issues you another, based on the DOT’s. Five years later, it will be easier to give birth to your son than it was to get the driver’s license.
As soon as you get your driver’s license, you will enroll in some more classes at the local community college. In your fiction writing class at the community college, you will write a story about a new bride and her first time in America. The story will start with her first international flight from India to America (a long flight spent sleeping, waking up and talking), her impressions of the streets (antiseptic streets filled with silent cars), the apartment she shares with her husband, her mishap with the 911 operator, her restaurant experience on her first day. The story, titled “Coming to America” will end with the lines: “She dreamt of gargling with a mint green liquid in a tiny bathroom aboard a Lufthansa airplane.” You will write this story over and over for nineteen years.
A former Indian expat, current US citizen, Jaya Wagle‘s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrel House, Jellyfish Review, The Rumpus, Hobart, Little Fiction, Big Truths, American Literary Review,The Write Launch, Litro, and elsewhere. She has an MA in Creative Non-fiction from the University of North Texas where she is now an adjunct professor of World Literature and Technical Writing. She lives in Fort Worth with her husband and fourteen-year old son.
I am sitting in the front row of the red bus when the driver pulls the metal handle that folds the door open. The uniformed man working for U.S. Border Patrol stomps up the bus stairs holding a clipboard. He reminds me of the stocky men who were not coaches or parents or even athletic trainers, but always seemed to be hanging around at school football, basketball, and soccer games, jotting things down into clipboards. Almost belonging, but not quite.
As the Border Patrol agent stands near me, my mouth dries up and I have to remind myself to breathe. Every few seconds, I look down at my lap to check that my hand still holds my blue passport. I don’t believe it’s there; I have to keep checking.
If the Border Patrol agent asks me a question, I’m not sure that I could respond in a coherent English sentence, even though it’s the only language I can speak sentences in.
This man stands between me and my country. He can decide with a word that I can’t return. I look down at my passport again, but I would not be surprised if the blue cover dissolved into liquid and dripped from my fingers.
Until I am suddenly thrust underwater in this trauma response, I forget that this is what happens to me at international borders. I’ve had a lifetime of practice so I can mask my fear and appear calm, but I am practically phobic about crossing borders.
My parents brought me to America when I was a toddler with plans to return to the Philippines, but we stayed and overstayed, and I became an American who believed I had the right to be there until I found out the hard way that I didn’t. During the years that our papers were getting worked out, I learned to fear borders and the uniformed men who asked you questions and spoke to you in a way that made you feel that it was their country and you were intruding onto land that you didn’t deserve access to.
My then-boyfriend sits next to me on the bus. His family began their life in the United States on plantations in the South. He’s uncomfortable around uniformed men, police, for a different reason than me, but borders don’t scare him. Even though the photographs and records of his family stop a few generations back, he grew up hearing the stories of what his ancestors did to build the wealth that white Americans still enjoy. It’s never crossed his mind that he wouldn’t be allowed back in. They wouldn’t dare.
Our relationship to the United States is as different as our histories in it.
It was his idea that morning to drive a few hours south from our home in Los Angeles because he had a craving for fish tacos. Back then, it was nothing for us to wake up on a weekend morning and decide to drive to the border so that we could find that woman with the fish taco cart in Tijuana. She wasn’t always on the same sidewalk and her cart didn’t have a name so sometimes we would wander for an hour looking for her, walking past people trying to get our attention, men blowing whistles to entice us to enter their dance clubs, men carrying cameras inviting us to pose next to donkeys painted like zebras, and endless shops selling discount souvenirs and discount pharmaceuticals. This was a lot of effort for fish tacos, especially considering we lived in LA where taco stands were as common as Dunkin Donuts are where we live currently in New England, but even now, years later, I remember how happy we were when we would find the woman, as if we were reunited with a long-lost aunt, how we’d watch her drop the fish into the bubbling oil, how the liquid batter solidified into a golden crunch, how our eyes would glisten after taking the first bite.
The Border Patrol agent is cranky. Throughout his shift, he has been barking instructions at busloads of tourists, college kids, and day drinkers, including this red bus whose route crosses the U.S.-Mexico border from Tijuana to San Ysidro, back and forth, over and over.
“You are not citizens of California,” he says. “Do you understand? California is not a country.”
When I’m in the middle of a moment like this, everything leaves my head and it’s difficult to think clearly. Is this a trick? I turn to my boyfriend. “What am I supposed to say?” I whisper. “Because I do live in California.”
He thinks the Border Patrol agent is funny, a kind of comedian trying to make the best of a repetitive job. He’s surprised when he sees my face, how distressed I seem. After all, I am in no danger, but this is the thing about traumatic experiences, the sound they make can echo for a lifetime. Before I was naturalized as a U.S. citizen, I lived in fear that one encounter with the wrong person would kick off a series of events that ended with me deported. Even today, a part of me still fears this, especially considering this administration’s racist attacks on immigration. In 2018, U.S. Citizenship and Information Services removed the phrase “a nation of immigrants” from its mission statement. That same year, a task force on denaturalization was created to focus on ways to revoke citizenship from those who had naturalized the way that I had. Even though I know the point of all these anti-immigrant policies is to create an unwelcoming environment and intensify immigrants’ feelings of insecurity, it’s difficult not to react instinctively with fear.
But trauma doesn’t recognize time. That day, I am sitting on a red bus over the U.S.-Mexico border next to the man who will eventually become my husband. He is Black American and I am an immigrant from the Philippines, formerly undocumented.
“What am I supposed to say?”
“The answer is you are a U.S. citizen,” he says.
“You are a U.S. citizen,” I repeat.
“No,” he says. “Answer, ‘I am a U.S. citizen.’”
I nod, repeating, “I am a U.S. citizen,” in my head until it’s my turn to face the Border Patrol agent.
After all that anxiety, the Border Patrol agent barely glances at me and the flash of blue paper in my hand. This time I am lucky. He’s not interested in someone who looks like me.
2. Lubbock, Texas
I am riding in the front seat of the rental van after my uncle’s funeral. The caravan of mourners is so long that I can’t see his hearse. People seem different in Texas. No one has to ask, but once they see us coming, vehicles pull over and stop until all of us pass. I feel their sympathy and condolences. They are not in such a hurry. Drivers in Boston beep impatiently if you don’t immediately move when the light blinks green. The drivers in Texas watch our procession pass them and this acknowledgement feels respectful. They are recognizing that a person has died and crossed the final border into eternity.
A person, who was once alive and driving on these very roads, has died. Stop your car.
For years, every time I saw my father’s oldest brother at a family wedding or event, he invited me to visit him in Lubbock. He wanted to show off his ranch. I always meant to go, but I never seemed to have enough time or money to make the trip. When I found out that he died, I did not hesitate to purchase the last-minute airline tickets at four times the usual price, even though I had waited too long for him to know that I had finally accepted his invitation.
In the 1970s, my uncle had appeared as the on-air physician on the weekly Philippine TV show, Kapwa Ko, Mahal Ko, translated to “My Brother’s Keeper,” a program broadcast on the GMA network which shared the stories of patients needing medical and financial help. After four decades, the show still airs, a sort of early version of the now ubiquitous crowdsourcing campaigns where even employed Americans must plead for help to cover expenses when faced with unexpected catastrophe. When I introduced myself to other Filipinos, sometimes they heard my last name and asked if I was related to the kind doctor from TV. It was a jarring experience, name recognition, after a lifetime of feeling so foreign.
Although we are in Texas, this is a Filipino funeral. The wake, the speeches, the Catholic funeral Mass, all of it is live-streamed so that loved ones in the Philippines and all around the world, can attend.
At the gravesite, I stand around the rectangle of earth with fellow mourners and stare at his headstone, the shiny slab already cut with our last name. It is shocking to read my last name on a tombstone. We are still new enough in this country that I haven’t ever seen my name etched so coldly and permanently on polished stone. My extended family in the Philippines regularly visits the cemeteries where our dead lie, especially on All Souls’ Day. But even though we have been in America for decades, we are still too new in this country to have many gravesites to clean.
Does one belong more to the country where one is born or the country where one is buried? I belong to both places and neither. I was conceived in a place that my family left when I was two years old. We cut ourselves from our family tree, grafting this new branch onto a different tree in America. The life that I would have lived back there ended, and a new life here bloomed. But decades later, the transplant didn’t bear fruit: I don’t have any children to clean my future gravesite during All Soul’s Day. Even though I am the one who asked this question, I cannot answer it. Perhaps the question of burial is moot; I would rather be cremated. As it is, I’ve rarely ever felt as though I belonged to a particular place; I’ve only ever belonged to people; to those who I love.
3. Brown Paper Packages
During these pandemic times in America that stretch on and on, I think about how I used to react with pity when I heard about how funerals in the Philippines have been live-streamed for years, a way to include mourners such as the many Overseas Filipino Workers who can’t come home at a moment’s notice. How sad, I used to think, to have to mourn through a screen. I was reminded at those times how lucky I was to be American.
Besides teaching, meeting, working, and socializing online, like everyone else around me, I’ve celebrated several family birthdays, a bar mitzvah, my nephew’s high school graduation, and other milestones on Zoom. I even crashed the wedding of a friend’s friend; while she and I were on Facetime, she held her phone up to her laptop and we watched her friends exchange vows on Zoom.
My loved ones in the Philippines are not quite back to a virus-free life because there is no vaccine yet, but posts of their daily lives indicate a much wider range of activity than mine. As we get closer to All Soul’s Day, my relatives post photos of themselves at the gravesites of my grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and then at a long table sharing a meal together in a restaurant. What photos would I post? An image of my screen looking into someone else’s screen? Who is pitying who now?
During our first few years in America away from our extended family, these technologies did not exist. Instead, a few times a year, packages arrived from the Philippines with news of our clan. I remember the rough paper of the packages, the canceled stamps, the flowery handwriting–how foreign the package seemed as we sat around it at the kitchen table in Boston, my father carefully slicing through the layers of brittle brown tape.
Inside there were grainy photos about the size and shape of my iPhone of my aunt Baby, in white, by then well past childbearing age, feeding wedding cake to her husband; my godmother Lydia, smiling with anguish next to her husband’s open casket; school pictures of my parents’ godchildren with their names and ages scrawled on the back. There were cassette tapes, letters written in sound, but by then, I could no longer understand Tagalog, and I did not smile the way my parents did when they heard the voices of their parents and siblings.
I had lived with these relatives in our family compound back in the Philippines since the day I was born, but I didn’t recognize their names or voices. They were strangers to me now, separated not only by land and ocean, but by language.
My father did not plan on us staying long in America. We were supposed to return and be reunited with everyone in the family compound. Being the resourceful immigrant that he was, he reused the cassettes, taping over the familiar voices with music from his vinyl record albums that he wanted to listen to in the car. Why buy new when you can recycle used?
Until I was in the copyediting process for my memoir, I didn’t know the difference between “emigrant” and “immigrant.” Merriam-Webster’s Usage Notes explains that the terms are practically the same, but with one slight difference: “immigrant is used in reference to the country moved to, and emigrant is used in reference to the country moved from.” We were emigrants with an “e” when we left the Philippines, and we became immigrants with an “i” (and an additional “m”) when we arrived in the US. Merriam-Webster continues by explaining that even the verb forms of these words are used interchangeably, “the borders between these words are somewhat porous.” I never considered that even words had borders, but I suppose almost everything that we’ve imagined into existence, like race, must prove it can withstand defining.
My father didn’t know that we wouldn’t go home to the Philippines for almost two decades. We could not risk crossing borders until our immigration status was fixed. By then, many of the people on those cassette tapes were dead, the sound of their voices overwritten with The Carpenters, John Denver, and The Jackson Five. The stories from the Philippines that were once important enough to record and mail to us in America were covered over, the way green grass grows over a grave.
Grace Talusan‘smemoir, The Body Papers, is a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection, a winner in nonfiction for the Massachusetts Book Awards, and winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. Her short story, “The Book of Life and Death“, was chosen for the 2020 Boston Book Festival’s One City One Story program and was translated into several languages, including Tagalog. Currently, Talusan is the Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence at Brandeis University.
The envelope is thin enough that I know what it will say. Still, I hope. My fingers are steady as I tear through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stamp, as I withdraw the single sheet of paper informing me that my work visa renewal application has been denied, a letter reminding me that I should not have gotten comfortable here, that I cannot stay. That night, I Skype my parents, text my brother, call my long-distance best friend. I am hungry for connection and belonging, to stand on stable ground. I open my journal to write and find no words. Instead, I am consumed by the blank page, unable to see beyond the most uncertain present.
– – –
Years later, in a village in Rajasthan, I stand amidst the rubble of what was once my family’s home. There are no walls, and the light of the setting sun falls across the crumbling alcove where my grandfather was born. The stones, the dust, the land all pulse as if alive, and I want to ask my brother, my mother if they feel it too. This is ancestry, I think, coming back to a place that is and isn’t mine. As we drive away through miles of desert grit, I slide filters over my favorite photos of the village, write a caption that I hope will capture the weight of what I feel. For the last two weeks I have hardly spent a minute alone, the time I usually steal for writing consumed by family and weddings and family weddings. Instead, I escape to my phone, my reflections slipping out as quickly as my thumbs will allow. My ancestral village, I write. In writing, I make a claim to something. I put a name to the belonging I feel, to the generations of movement and migration that have allowed me, for the first time, to come back. When I share the image, I am aware that it is 4 A.M. back where my friends live, that few will be awake to receive it. Still, I send it out, needing this space of my own.
– – –
This why I write: to make a space for myself. To discover the boundaries of that space. To find the seams of the boundaries, and then push. In pushing, to cross borders.
– – –
The night I receive the letter, I place waterlogged chamomile tea bags over my eyes. I have never done this before, and I do not know if it will work. But I have come to understand that my first-grade students, five- and six-year-olds, notice things like swollen eyelids, a voice rusted from tiredness, a heavy heart. It is them that I think about as the leftover tea dribbles into my hair. My classroom the next morning is alive as if a letter has not shifted the tilt of my world. At breakfast duty, I wipe milk spills and tear open pods of apple sauce and tell stories about my new kitten, as I do every day. Routine, too, is the warm melt that settles over my chest, watching crowds of black and brown faces eating, yelling, laughing. The school was founded by a group of parents who felt that the city’s public schools were not serving children of color adequately, pooling together to build their own space of focused support, care, and growth. This school is no haven; it is not sheltered from the realities facing racialized youth in Boston. Still, it is a space that is theirs, a community formed around common needs and dreams. For many, it is a space of survival.
– – –
I think of this as I walk into the principal’s office to tell her that the government has decided it no longer has space for me. I am devastated, but I understand my privilege in this: I can finish the school year, pack my apartment, and travel back to Canada, where my family migrated years ago. I can make choices, take things, settle back into a comfortable life. Still, I ache. The relationships, the places, the subway routes and daily details are fragments of a life that I cannot take with me. The principal, a woman with a wide smile and an endless well of care, says to me, You’re so cute, I can find you someone to marry. Then she opens her arms. A place for me between them. I laugh, tears leaking from my eyes.
– – –
I come from a long line of displacement. My grandmother, a Hindu born in Karachi, found herself on the wrong side of the border carved by the British during Partition; my family was one of millions displaced. A reality as violent as cleaving a country in two. My father’s side was settled in Uganda for generations before they were forced to flee a dictatorship, seeking asylum from a home they could no longer inhabit. These are histories I do not remember, though they live in my bones. Ancestry surpasses memory, I think, as I roll socks into neat piles, wipe the refrigerator clean. We have always moved; my body has always carried that truth. I also come from a long line of choices. My grandfather’s choice to leave India for London, searching for an elusive place to build a better life. My parents’ choice to move to Canada, baby in tow, following the promise of a job. A series of calculated risks, perhaps, decisions under pressure, but decisions no less. When I write, I carry both the intention behind these choices and the trauma from when there were none. I am finding ways to hold both.
– – –
I do not say survival lightly. For many of us on the margins, survival means carving out a space for ourselves, swaddling our existence in community. As parents and educators, we build homes and schools where our children can be valued for their full selves. As a teacher, I worked to make my classroom safe and familiar, filling the shelves with storybooks by Edwidge Danticat and Yangsook Choi and Maya Angelou. As a writer I seek out communities that value voices from the periphery, communities founded on shared understandings, that choose to listen first, that strive to lift each other up, that thirst for more stories, our stories, ours. This is sustenance, nourishment. This is necessary.
– – –
My mother grew up with many mothers. In her family home in India, mothers, fathers, and siblings were fluid, interchangeable. She was raised with dozens of cousins who were never anything but brothers and sisters; tens of aunts and uncles who were all their parents, enough grandparents for the lot. At night the siblings would sleep up on the rooftop, and when it rained they threw their sleeping mats into the courtyard and, laughing, slipped down into the waiting soil. My mother grew up not knowing who her birth mother was, because that kind of claiming didn’t matter. Theirs was a borderless family and home. A space so much their own that it didn’t require walls, an innate knowing that each of them could exist in this family, without having to lay claim to someone, something, as solely theirs. A belonging so expansive it defied boundaries. I remind myself that this is where I come from. I imagine this is what it means to be free.
– – –
In Rajasthan, I catch a few bars of service and scroll eagerly through the comments on my photo, my chai growing a milky skin beside me. Thank you for sharing, they say, grateful for your insights.Can’t wait to hear more. I am reminded of how I feel each time I publish a story or an essay, every poem shuttled into the world. Each piece a mouth. Each a shoot, roots burrowing back and face unfurled to the sun. In this scene I am surrounded, a forest of us. There is no unity in our voices, but there is collectivity. Sometimes, writing brings connection. An email sent to me from a woman across the city, who I later meet over coffee and cake. Sometimes, it brings reflection, invites others to share. Always, it feels naked, unready. Still I do it. It guides me back to my own histories, to understanding where I come from. It connects me to the present, to so many others who are telling their own stories, offering their truths. On the page, we reenact the agency that wasn’t always ours. In writing, we resist erasure, the forces that seek to define us. We find one another and press our heels into the soil, visible, loud, here.
– – –
Fault lines live close. My ancestry teaches me how everything can be undone in the space of a moment, a new border erected, a radio announcement from a dictator, a thin envelope arriving in the mail. To have a history of displacement means to hunger for belonging. My lineage tells me where I come from and I where I can no longer go. Each generation tells a story of uproot and resettle. Of choices, pressures, actions driven by survival. In the spaces between, we search for connection, for safety and validation, a space to fill and overflow. In telling our stories we resist the silence, we refuse to disappear.
– – –
Each time I write, I tell this story, even when I don’t. That is to say, I don’t write in order to tell this story, but this story informs all that I write. It is soil under forest and rain filling oceans. A cycle that moves without me, and yet, has made me. If these spaces exist for us, they also exist beyond borders, boundless, uninhibited by the confines we navigate every day. They defy the logic imposed on us, that we must split apart in order to thrive.
On the page, I continue. I write to belong; I write to endure. I write to stay.
Janika Oza is a writer based in Toronto. She is the winner of the 2020 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest and has received fellowships from VONA, Tin House, and One Story. She is published in The Best Small Fictions 2019 Anthology, The Cincinnati Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Find her at www.janikaoza.com.
The True Thieves of Greatness Have Always Been At Home
“Go back where you came from!”
On multiple occasions during my North American childhood, this phrase was flung at me and my family. Despite being so young—we lived first in the U.S. and then Canada, from my birth until I was ten years old—I still remember knowing that whatever the people saying this meant, they most likely did not mean the city of Philadelphia, where I was born; rather, they meant some presumably African country that they didn’t know the name of and couldn’t have located on a map even if they did. They never would have yelled that at my friend with a Polish mother and white South African father, who had actually grown up in Africa and moved to North America when she was five years old not speaking a word of English, only Afrikaans; she didn’t look like someone who had another place to go back to. Maybe if they had heard her mother speak, always in Polish to my friend and in heavily-accented English to us, they would have said something about her foreignness. But they never could have looked at her and made the split-second determination that she categorically didn’t belong.
In the summer of 2019, President Trump told Ilhan Omar, an American citizen and public servant—an immigrant with skin like mine, a flawless American accent like mine, from the same continent my parents first immigrated to America from—to go back where she came from. Thus my President implicitly told me, the American-born child of immigrants, the same thing. Through their complicit silence, the people around him agreed, even as they later shunned the fully racist implications of that declaration. In today’s political reality, a crowd can chant “Send her home” about that same public servant, and my President can look on smugly as they do, the angry, gleeful chant reverberating through that rally hall—and then be able to say the very next morning that he didn’t start it or encourage it. Because his supporters’ First Amendment rights give them the freedom to say what they want and he claims he thus cannot stop them; if he happens to be there while they say it, though—“it is what it is.”
When I was in elementary school and got told to go back to my country, this phrase was unquestionably understood to qualify the person who uttered it as a racist. Until recently I believed this to still be widely true. This statement as well as the speaker were understood to be racist because the speaker typically had no idea what country they meant—only that they had observed my skin color and determined that because it wasn’t white, this country could not be mine. Now decades after my earliest memories of racism, we find ourselves in the middle of a political landscape where the President of the country in which I was born can use the phrase “Go back where you came from” against people who were actually born here and who have decided to make this country their home, yet the people around him will deny that it was racist, even though it is such a textbook example. I don’t know how to reconcile with this. I don’t think I should have to.
I was born in America’s first capital, at a hospital that is still a part of America’s first medical school. Eighteen years later I returned to the same city, the same university, to begin my own American life. My parents came to the U.S. for their educations from Malawi, a tiny sliver of a country in southeast Africa, whose technical borders run straight through several tribe-nations that already existed when the British arrived. The colonizers did not care about the lives of the natives they found—they cared about the resources their home countries needed, the opulent lives they wanted for themselves, and how to divvy these up amongst themselves so that they wouldn’t end up fighting each other so often on their home continent. My parents chose to stay here, in America, when they realized that they could speak out against injustice and oppression in their own country and others like it, without fear of persecution or worse. In dictatorships—like the American-backed one my parents left behind in Malawi in 1981—you can’t, not without ending up imprisoned or on the wrong side of a well-staged car accident. As long as we had the opportunity to stay, as long at Malawi’s dictatorship remained, my parents determined that we would never go back.
Two months after Malawi’s democratic transition in 1994, my family actually did go back where we came from. The Cold War finally ended and suddenly America didn’t need to prop up various dictatorships as a buffer against the alleged threat of communism. Suddenly, oppressive authoritarian governments all over the continent collapsed, and a lot of African countries had their first truly democratic elections since the independence era of the 1950s and 1960s. Zambia, 1991; Kenya, 1992; South Africa, 1994; Malawi, 1994. The proxy conflicts of the Cold War had turned our continent into a poverty-ridden, decrepit mess, though; our resources were still being mined and exploited by corporations headquartered in our former colonial rulers’ homelands and in the countries backing our dictatorships. Our populations were being controlled by arms sold to us by the governments of those same nations, cosigners to our ongoing oppression under different, allegedly independent flags. Yet we are the ones who are held responsible for making a mess of our countries.
Perhaps it is they, our colonizers, who should have gone back to their own countries.
It takes a breakdown of monumental proportions for people to decide to leave their home country. They will not leave until things at home are so bad that they feel they have no other options, not if they want their children and families to have a chance at a better life. Migrants all over the world go back at the first sign that things are livable again. We don’t need to be asked. Leaving home is heartbreaking; we do it knowing it could end up a one-way journey, that we might never come back, and that even if we did we may not find a place for ourselves again. We might never see our parents or siblings again, or the land on which we were raised, hear our language and music reverberating through the air as we walk down the street, visit any part of the country and know—without a second thought, without the grinding work of constant self-validation—that we are home. To imagine that this is a decision people make lightly, as a way of merely extracting value from the country they have immigrated to without reinvesting in it, is a total failure of imagination. It is insulting, lazy, and betrays the truth of the ignorant privilege of a spirit that never has, and likely never will, experience the violent adversity of being in a situation where the only good choice is to leave behind everything you’ve ever known, and set new roots down in a place that does not recognize you.
In its 400-year history, America has never been solely white. America’s essential whiteness is the bankrupt idea that nonetheless immovably resides in the hearts of the kind of people who scream “go back;” it is an idea patently, arrogantly at odds with the history of this nation. They speak of people who look like me “going back where they came from” as though there was ever a time when America was a land of non-immigrant descended white people. White people came to America, ostensibly escaping oppression and persecution in their European countries of origin, and then through disease and violence wiped out most of the Native American populations they found living on this land when they arrived. White Americans did not want to do their own work on this land, and so stole people from the west coast of Africa and forced them into slavery. White Americans who had arrived on what we now call the East Coast and then migrated to the South decided the land they were living on was not enough, and so expanded westward, Liebensraum before the Third Reich would invent that policy term a century later. They colonized several parts of what was formerly Mexico, and made—battled—those parts into new American states. White Americans stole, killed and colonized their way to ownership of the land now called the United States of America, and now have the audacity to turn around and say it is us who do not belong, who are the foreign agents in the American project.
Gratitude, the need for immigrants and their descendants to constantly express thanks, to be entirely uncritical when America goes wrong, has nothing to do with us. It is, rather, the need of people who desperately need for there to be betters and lessers in life: the need of people who classify themselves as among the superior in society and require acknowledgement from those whom they consider inferior of this fact. These are the kind of people, perhaps, who have failed at the promise of their own lives, and so seek validation from outside of themselves, in people who had nothing to do with their own failures. In truth, I am grateful. Tremendously so. I describe my own situation in life today, compared to what it might have been without this American detour, as a quantum leap. Even as someone whose family did return to our homeland, and thus as someone who has intimate insight into what my life could have been, it is still a real challenge to try and accurately imagine just what the non-American parallel universe of my life might have looked like.
Part of the promise of this nation is our commitment to the rule of law–not the rule of men. Thus my gratitude, in the places where I have it, is given to the laws that allowed my parents to come and make a new home here, that said that if I was born here, I was a citizen. I am grateful to the Constitution that enshrines my right to seek happiness in this land. I am grateful to the people who work every day to protect and defend those laws and the Constitution, who do the great work of ensuring that these laws are fulfilling their promise to all people and not just some. But what I do not need to do is perform that gratefulness every day that I breathe American air, eat American food, and walk American streets; I do not need to withhold my critique of the ways in which America breaks its promises nor smile in the face of the same kind of oppression that drove my parents out of Malawi’s arms and into America’s. I am not grateful to the boys throwing rocks from their yard as I ran home from school, or to the teenagers on bikes who spat in my father’s face and called him a very bad name while his car window was rolled down one summer afternoon’s drive. I don’t think their feelings about me would change even if they knew of my gratefulness to this land, even if they could imagine that some of that gratitude extended to them.
Today, I have chosen America, and I will continue to past 2020, past 2024, past every point at which I have been told that people who look like me and have names like mine will find their lives worsened in countless ways. But America is, in fact, always to be chosen, every day, for everyone who is a part of this American project—even by those who have never spent a day outside the borders of their own states or even their own towns. For the folks who think it’s okay to tell people like me who critique America and its failures to “go back to your country,” I argue that they themselves fail to understand the beauty at the center of America. They have forgotten that this was always intended to be a place where disagreement was patriotism; that challenging a nation to be better is indicative of one’s profound love for the country. In personal relationships it’s understood that if you can’t fight well, it’s an unhealthy relationship. Why would it be any different for our relationship with this country, and the people who comprise this country whose choices are intertwined with our own? To ask America to be better, to demand that it meet the promises of its laws and Constitution, is very much to love the country, to fight for the country, and to care in ways that those who haven’t had to make painful choices take for granted. Blind devotion to a country is a powerful feeling, but what it is not, is love.
Despite the seemingly intractable mess we are in, America is still, at its core, a great country. But unless we are honest about the ugly truth of this mess, America will lose its greatness and become the latest cliché of a fallen empire. We have become bloated and sick on our lies, and blind to the repeated sleights of hand with the truth. In a way, perhaps, America’s eventual fall is not even that tragic, merely inevitable. And yet it feels tragic to me: to live in an age where there is more information, more knowledge, more mobility available to everyone, and yet to choose to be mediocre, to choose to blame scapegoats like immigrants who supposedly strain the system, rather than the corporate plunderers whose tax cuts have choked off funding for public schools, Medicaid and Medicare, and much-needed infrastructure. Perhaps it is harder to contend with the broken trust of the elected officials who were supposed to care about you, than the stranger with an odd accent who you assume does not. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge the truth that the people who are currently plundering the birthright of America’s greatness are the same people who stole the resources and potential of colonized nations in the name of international peace and prosperity. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that the true thieves of American greatness are not arriving from outside our shores, but have in fact always lived inside this house, and have always been right at home.
Michelle Alipao Chikaonda (she/her/hers) is a narrative nonfiction and essay writer from Blantyre, Malawi, currently living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She has won the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Scholarship for writers of color from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and The Seventh Wave’s Rhinebeck Residency. She is a VONA fellow, a Tin House Summer Workshop alumna, and a Pushcart prize nominee. She is currently published at The Globe and Mail, Electric Literature, Catapult, Hobart, and Al Jazeera English, among others.
The first semester’s winter break, I took public transit home from college to find out Papa got his cold hard evidence of my mom’s affair. He told my sister and me to our faces. After following the mail trail to the small yacht our mom was living on part-time with her boyfriend, he bought a gun. He was going to drive to the waterfront, shoot her, the boyfriend, then himself, and hope his daughters could collect the $100,000 life insurance to survive the rest of our lives without them. He deemed that kind of tragedy a better life than the alternative of enduring our family’s dissolution. Papa couldn’t wait for justice to leak its slow antidote. The poison of heartbreak was leached into his veins. With every breath, he was pumped full of lead. On the way to the boat, he drove past St. Vincent’s, the prettiest and oldest-looking parish in our town. It was my dad’s church on holidays (he was a Holiday Inn Catholic). He walked in to pray one last time to ask forgiveness for what he was about to do (Does one light votives for this premeditated sin?) An obedient, colonized convert from the Philippines, he could have done enough penance to be absolved for the double murder. But, I’m pretty sure he knew that suicide was unforgivable—it crossed all Christian religions, Catholic and Protestant—how could he not? He walked in to relinquish all rights to any part of heaven he might have ‘earned’ at the end of his life. Then, he said, sitting there, Something happened he can’t—or won’t—explain. Just Something else. He walked out of the parish, got back in his brick red Audi, drove to the gun store, and returned it. Went home. Instead of making peace with God at what he thought was his only answer to the unraveled American Dream, he re-enlisted into the Merchant Marines, moved his home base 7,000 miles away from our Northern California cul-de-sac back to the Philippines, and remarried a shy, lonely, unambitious “old maid” (her most endearing quality: “She never aspires to come to the United States”). He buried 24 years of life with mom in leftover war trenches in the “land of milk and honey.” He made a new covenant when he let go of his right to swift justice and set sail in turbulent seas: never peace, never rest, never resolve. As for the two of us: My sister found terra firma, setting her sights on the closest paradise in Hawai’i, while I gallivanted back on campus, dropped and then withdrew from my classes. Eventually, I orphaned myself from family and faith. I know. Papa didn’t do it, he didn’t commit murder. He didn’t pull the literal trigger anyway. But my mom and that man—rotten corpses to my dad. From what my sister and I could detect after that nuclear conversation and the meager, surface-to-air letters he sent from overseas, he was a ghost, too.
Give me any dessert made from ube, Filipino purple yam. OO bay. Dirt-grown, sliced, edible amethyst geodes. Peeled and pounded, sweetened into purply shapes. Tastes of vanilla, nutty notes. Ube ice cream, ube cake rolls, puto bumbong—steamed fingers of sticky rice. Oh pleasing peasant plant with heart-shaped leaves, aubergine veins. Ube ube oooh
Bay. In English, a “water yam,” a “winged yam.” It swims, it flies. It stows in Balikbayan boxes, homecoming packages. Now pastry chefs swirl this child-bright violet revelation, into hundred-dollar gold-flaked donuts, New York cheesecake. Ube, baby, my bae. I demand mine purest, my crowning love,
ube halaya: a boiled jam sticky on my spoon, thickly spread on pandesal, our warmed bread rolls. Paper bags balance on handlebars down Philippine streets, minutes-fresh pandesal sold by the armful. Smeared and stuffed with creams, meats, cheese, by every Filipino, poor and rich. Dough logs cut into ovals, singkits, “narrow eyes.” Once baked in dirty floor ovens, pan de suelos. Manna for the masses. Eyes as big as blinking fists. Or, as a poet said, “bread of salt,” the size of a human heart. Here,
here it is: the yeast of memory
rising. Our rushed visit to Papa in the Philippines, 2010. Expedited passports for my ateh Elise and me, skipped Halloween with our kids. Doctor prophesies, “two weeks to three months.” He’s only 71 but too weak to fly back to the States for cutting-edge “blood washing” that healed our cousin. Red to blue, blue to red.
Face mask pulled from his mouth, he sits bedside, sips Ensure, matches my sister’s and my swollen stares. Leukemia, or as he translates, “bitterness that is no longer worth it.” Learn from me, his bloodshot eyes entreat. “Forgive
sooner, for yourself,” he says. His (new-to-us) wife hands him pandesal, pancit noodles pressed inside, as if to say, Eat, kain na, “Don’t give up.” Two very small bites. He chokes, bile spills. She wipes,
weeping. All eyes narrowing, we hover, spread our arms over him. Our guts distend with the rot of lost years. Our spirits bloom like yeast. My tongue is an uprooted ube, ready for mashing. Fingers pulse, knotting us—this bruised organ—together.
Prelude: rearranged driveway protects parking closest to the front door. I married into proud Romanian gypsies. Grandma Hyacinthe’s walker scratches, marks our amnesty. Lola, my Filipina Mama’s Sabbaths of hymns and have to’s revised decades later into impassioned, unpredictable Shabbat dinners. A lifetime of Fridays, ordained rest—pulsing mundane and mystical.
Today’s dinner, a texted errand for Chris, not the cuisine-themed menus I sometimes sweat on my weekly To Do’s.
“Can u pick up food?” “Like what?” “Whatever looks good.”
Once home, I prep, heat, cook what shopping bags offer—a literal mixed bag—Caesar salad, Salvadoran pupusas, paleo sausage, scalloped potatoes. Dessert? Kids had just picked peaches from the May Pride tree.
Everyone congregates, drawn to the table.
I plucked two tealights from the Emergency Supplies bin, Stand-ins for traditional white Shabbos candles. The log lighter flicked, one hand covering eyes, fingers loose (a ceremonial cheat—I have to aim flame at the wicks). As woman of the house, I chant in a single exhale.
Kids tap together cups of diluted grape juice, brother-in-law Steve sips sweetened coffee, a ritual boost towards his 10 p.m. AA meeting.
Today, I skipped kneading and punching dough, no towel-covered challah rescued from the sunny backyard, all-day first rising before the second, before the oven. In the rush [or resolve] to rest, leftover Hawaiian rolls hang loose in a bowl. Kids smile, sing.
“Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.”
Forty years ago, we would have eaten with our hands, kamayan, Mama’s inherited Sabbath, steamed rice as our manna, our braided loaf. After our family fissured, split atomic, each of us adrift, wayfinding in wide arcs, down towards the wreck.
The ancient crocodile, buwaya, bumps, brushes my face against lost ancestors, our time-toughened skin kin. I am she: I am he: I am we.
Today, Shabbat almost doesn’t happen, again. Mere hours before our annual County Fair hula performance, there is somuch long hair to braid, costumes to touch-up, extra rehearsal. Or, fill in
the blank. Every weekend, every reason insists this doesn’t have to happen. Our liberty says we
can choose this, point ourselves at each other. Gather, swallow and sigh. Whatever we intend,
outside, a mapped contusion of dusk dilates. Stars blink awake, magnetize
those who arrive.
Ella deCastro Baron is a second generation Filipinx American raised in Northern California. She is an English and Creative Writing professor in San Diego whose first book, Itchy Brown Girl Seeks Employment, is an ironic curriculum vitae of her ethnic upbringing, inherited faith, mixed race family, and chronic illness. Ella works best in community, trying to re-indigenize ways we storytell towards more healing, integration, and kapwa (deep interconnectedness, shared identity).
is that cut up fruit is the ultimate Asian
parent gesture of love.
there are posts like:
TFW your mom cuts fruit
when you're up late at night
and you see her eating the leftover bits
around the core, before putting the nicely
cut apple slices in a bowl to bring to you
if ur mum doesn’t randomly bring u
cut up fruit is she even ur mum
one meme in two frames—
in the first, a man reads a book,
and you can only see the cover:
Asian Parents’ Guide to Apologizing
in the second, the inside
of the book. the response:
now that I am older, I need
to get the translation right.
no — there were never any sorrys
just cold plates of nectarines,
bright pomelo, ice-raw starfruit,
fragrant lychee. sweet ya li pears,
without their papery brown skins,
at Jing Fong, at Sam Woo,
at Mei Sum, at Garden,
the restaurants do this, too.
tonight, the apron-splattered man
with grandfather hair, carries a
chipped plate to the register.
the server counts the other table’s change,
but jokes with me: crowded enough for you, ah neoi?neoi couldn mean girl or woman
but it also means daughter.
I have spent years making sure.
he places the oranges on my table.
they do this for all the customers,
but oh, what a glitch in the matrix
tonight. my mother saw me alone
with my empty bowl and splintered face
on wednesday, and she is here.
I know there is a math that measures time,
but what about a math that accounts
for logic? How should I explain the strangers
who will bring me fruit after she is gone?
it has been 31 years of my mother
bringing me cut up fruit without
even saying anything.
sometimes she would put
the fruit directly into my mouth.
tonight, I will eat all of the orange,
sweet or not. I will go home,
I will call her. I will buy an apple,
and cut it for myself.
all she ever wanted
was for me to hurry, finish
before it got brown, no worries
if she did not get a taste.
TO THE MAN WHO FOLLOWED ME NINE BLOCKS
on 171st and Broadway asking me if I was Japanese, telling me I could slurp a “long noodle” pulling up at the sides of his eye for an original one-eyed Oriental wink.
where are you going, pretty girl? or some of the time, look at me, you dumb chink bitch? I will tell you this — I am walking, but I am not going anywhere.
this happens maybe seven times in twenty-nine blocks or five times in three, not far from where I sleep.
I want to taste your body— baby, I love Chinese food— So beautiful—
just neighbors saying hello, I guess. I shuffle away, shoulders sunk low, sheepish eyes on scuffed sandals, sidewalk and gravel, carefully dodging all of the dog shit.
if only I could force that sourness from my churning stomach tell it to leap into my closed, tight throat to vomit on command— and shower this man.
you so piao liang! I wonder where you learned your Mandarin to make me stop—stunned, shocked— maybe a visit to the library? “How to Harass Women In Chinese” Beginners, Volume 1? your tones are all wrong.
Jennifer G. Lai is a poet, audio producer, artist, and writer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Slate, Angry Asian Man, Pigeon Pages, and elsewhere. In 2020, she was named a finalist in Sundress Publications’ Poetry Broadside Contest. As part of Catapult’s poetry generator with Angel Nafis, she is working on a forthcoming manuscript, Dust We Carry. She lives in Brooklyn. Find her on Twitter @jenniferglai.