Push Against the Restraint: A Conversation With Poets and Writers Ching-In Chen, Evangeline Ganaden, Cristián Flores García, and Nikki Wallschlaeger

HER KIND: Thank you Ching-In, Evangeline, Cristián, and Nikki for being a part of the Conversation. We love having your voices here, your various points of view. Let’s begin with a quote from Virginia Woolf: “To enjoy freedom we have to control ourselves.” Do you agree with this statement?



 Cristián Flores García: I do and I don’t agree with Virginia Woolf’s statement. I live a double life. Freedom is (by choice) and isn’t (by imposition of society) part of my life. I enjoy the privilege of freedom because I do and do not allow myself to have total control.

My life, like the lives of most people, is plagued with unplanned circumstances that are at times good and at times difficult to take in and digest. And although I might not be able to control all circumstances orbiting me, I have learned to find freedom by way of the attitude I take towards these unplanned moments. Self-control is crucial when reacting to my emotions, desires, and ambitions. I believe a person with self-control thinks about the consequences before taking action, is respectful, tolerant, and mindful of others because our actions will always affect others.


Ching-In Chen: Cristián, I also relate to that idea of living a double life, that freedom and control are two sides of the same face (though I think there are actually multiple faces within one self pushing up against the constraints of being forced to be one way or even stuck between a binary—which is another way of thinking about this symbiotic relationship between freedom and control).

Growing up the daughter of immigrants, this quote was something my parents might have said to my brother and I when we were growing up, related to their attempt and desire to live the American dream that never was. This concept of freedom is both burdened by expectations and by the blood histories of this land, which I didn’t learn about until later (something they never teach you in school). However, growing up in an immigrant family, I already knew about stories, histories and languages that weren’t taught in school, about learning to control what kinds of information you presented to the outside world and what ways you controlled your body so you could conform.

I often felt like I didn’t fit in with my peer group. The other kids would make fun of me, mispronounce my name, call me chicken wings and chopsticks, wouldn’t eat lunch with me, would walk past me as if they didn’t see me or discuss my body (how ugly, how odd, how strange, how different I was) as if I weren’t there. In this way, I felt simultaneously like a deformed thing, which was highly visible, and an invisible being my peers looked through as if I wasn’t present. There was a shadow relationship that I had with my peers of Asian heritage too—where I was highly conscious of their presence and my own body in relation to theirs, but also desperately wanting to distance myself by molding myself against what they were, to prove we were not cut from the same cloth, that we were individual beings.

This was a pattern of internalized hatred that I carried over to my family. I was angry at them for immigrating because I was convinced that I would have belonged if they had stayed where they were (even though my parents did not grow up where my grandparents did because of migration due to war). I was ashamed at them because of their/our difference—accent, grammar mistakes, food, the color of our hair, the color of our skin, our customs, even their “backward” ideas. But one thing about my parents that I appreciate is that they always made an effort to create an atmosphere where I knew where I had come from, to pass on their language to me even when I refused them.

When I was in second grade, for my birthday present, I asked my mother if I could get a name change. Looking back, I think that it must have hurt her for me to reject my given name (which they told me meant happiness). My brother followed suit, shortly afterwards.


Nikki Wallschlaeger: I can relate. Especially when it comes to feelings of having a double life, which makes me think of W.E.B. Dubois as having a “double consciousness.” When I first read the quote which sparked this conversation by Virginia Woolf, I was aware that the word “freedom” itself inspired a physical reaction in my body; a series of emotions without boundaries. Fear, tension, anger, longing, euphoria. But the anger came from the context of Virginia Woolf herself: that her insight into freedom was unrealistic and quixotic. I am a woman of color coming from three different racial backgrounds: an African-American descended from slaves, German and Czech immigrants, and Native American. I usually identify as a Black woman. But even though Woolf and me share the oppression that societies have created by making gender an identity sentence, I knew she wasn’t speaking for me. I’ve come too far to trust that a past like the first wave of the women’s movement even had people like me in mind. And if they did, it was most likely for other purposes of securing power, or for a few individuals of color who were on the radar because of their charisma, hard relentless work, or just plain luck.


Evangeline Ganaden: I, too, relate with the double life, and of freedom and control being two sides of the same face. The idea that the enjoyment of freedom is predicated on control seems paradoxical, and yet the key to this statement, for me, is that we control ourselves not others, nor that others control us. This freedom, however, is incredibly difficult to attain. As an immigrant and woman of color, I cannot fully relate with Virginia Woolf, as she had the privilege of whiteness. Societal as well as economic restrictions always seem to shape freedom—external forces that dilute and control the individual sense of freedom. How can you enjoy freedom, even with self-control, if you do not have it?


CFG: As an immigrant, I had to learn to live with limited (physical and emotional) freedom dictated by the written and unwritten laws of this country: not everyone likes to be kissed when greeted, so hold back your kissing impulse; the neighbors don’t enjoy your loud mariachi and banda music playing all the time, so get a pair of headphones; without a driver’s license you shouldn’t drive, so I walked until I could buy a bike; English was everywhere and my vocabulary of it was limited to about twenty words, so I picked up the comics on Sunday’s newspapers, a dictionary, and learned new words. The way I react to every situation when confronting life [was and] remains my only way of experiencing freedom on a daily basis.

As an artist, however, I had to learn to let go of all control before I could find my voice. I take Woolf’s statement referring to control of self as self-empowerment because when we empower ourselves—by understanding that we have control over our creations, by understanding that no one should control our body or mind, by understanding that this power shouldn’t be given away even when in doubt, that our self-esteem, self-worth, and self-confidence will be the steering wheel of our self-control, that if we expand our knowledge of the world surrounding us our power will be greater, and that by taking responsibility of our creations, we find the path that leads to creative freedom.


CIC: This idea of control is one that has changed as I’ve grown more comfortable in/with my own body, which ultimately means I’ve grown as a writer. When I was first a baby spoken word artist, I would never have imagined I’d write a book years later, which would incorporate Western poetic forms such as the double sestina. I was responding to all the schooling I had received up until then—where we read no writers of color, one woman writer, only one writer from outside the United States, no queer or trans writers, and on and on. Over and over, what I learned was this very narrow image of who I felt I had to be, this image that felt like something deeply imposed externally. When I began to learn otherwise, I reacted by hating everything that kind of writing represented and rejecting it outright because it felt like to find my voice, to empower myself, I had to go to the opposite, to learn what I hadn’t been taught, to take that knowledge into my own hands. For me, taking responsibility was really teaching myself as a writer. I taught myself by going to community classes in places like Kearny Street Workshop, learning with community artists who exposed me to writers I wasn’t exposed to in school. I taught myself by mapping the gaps of what I hadn’t been taught in school—and by hunting down those books and reading them. Once I felt like I had that freedom from imposed brainwashing, I was able to be more open to what I had rejected—to learn from that as well. I eventually learned to have a more nuanced approach, but it wouldn’t have been possible without that initial push against the restraint.


CFG: Freedom to me means frankness, openness, as well as the readiness and willingness to act upon our emotions in the moment of creation. I was twenty-seven years old when I started to write and had very little training. Growing up, I was always a bad reader and a horrible writer (grammar was the subject I dreaded most). It was difficult for me to learn because I didn’t absorb new concepts/ideas quickly. And then, when I was thirteen years old I was brought to California to live with my parents without knowing the language, so overall my dread of school grew immensely. It took years before I could understand enough English to get by. When I reached the university I took my first creative writing course by enrolling in it by mistake while choosing an elective I needed to fulfill to major in liberal studies. I switched my major after reading poems by E.E. Cummings and Theodore Roethke. I didn’t understand the meaning of the poems. I had no idea what was happening on the page or why I was so moved to the point of tears, but I was and I wanted to do the same, I wanted to write like that, like them. So I gave it a try, took more writing courses, and eventually received an MFA in creative writing. But my time spent in the program I felt constricted, I felt lonesome, I was lost and confined to these feelings of isolation because I knew nothing of the writing world and felt like a constant outsider.


CIC: That’s funny that you bring up loneliness and isolation because this was crucial to me in becoming a writer. I think if I were well-adjusted and happy, I wouldn’t have always felt compelled to create an alternative world outside of the one I was living in (which is useful too as someone invested in social justice work, I’ve found:-)). I was a lonely little girl and I survived those years by telling myself (and imaginary friends) stories I made up to entertain myself. I think that was really the root of my desire to become a writer. In those stories, I felt like I really belonged somewhere else, if only I could get to that other place. I believed two things: one, there was no room for failure because of this burden to conform to this ideal that my family had sacrificed for; and two, that if only my family hadn’t left wherever they had left, I wouldn’t feel this terrible pressure to make good, and I would be normal. So I felt like I lived in a body which was divided and battling with itself, with what I imagined my family expected of me, with what it seemed society imposed on me, and, of course, my own expectations of myself.


EG: I agree with you both about the loneliness and isolation. And it, too, propelled me to write because it was the only way for me to make sense of this new place, to reconcile conflicting emotions: the gratitude for our family’s opportunity for economic security and yet the overwhelming resentment for the separation from everything we knew to be home, especially from my brothers, who could not migrate with us because of strict immigration restrictions. Writing became my salvation, and even now, however much I struggle to shape my thoughts and intentions on the page, it is perhaps where I feel most free—not because I don’t continually edit myself 😉 but because it is a place of discovery and even, sometimes, peace.


CFG: My time in the writing program was spent trying to write what I thought others expected from me. I wanted to write like others and censored myself of the true emotions that overwhelmed me when I sat down with pen and paper or in front of the blank screen. I forced myself to write fancy words, even when I wasn’t sure of their meaning, but they sounded impactful and pretty. It was only through the constant support and encouragement of my mentors, professors, and fellow writers that I was able to slowly break down my own censorship. I had to let go of my constant desire to control my thoughts and emotions when writing and reading. But some censorship remained because I didn’t want to be the person who felt so angry, so dirty, so sick, and so evil when writing. And it wasn’t until last summer, while at the Millay Colony, when I was having a conversation with fellow writer and dear friend, Ching-In Chen, that I saw how much I was blocking and blinding myself of my emotions. I read to her one of my poems, afterwards I explained to her what the poem was about, and she took a minute to think, then she said: “I don’t get any of those feeling you’re talking about in the poem. And those feelings weren’t there.” I knew it, I knew at the time I was writing the poem that I kept avoiding my confrontation with those feelings, but I thought I was clever enough to play with words and say what I felt without actually feeling. But that was it—it was the moment I knew I needed to let go of my imposed restrictions and allow myself to have no control and just write, just feel. Perhaps as an artist, the only control one must have is the control over form, craft, and aesthetics. All else shouldn’t be control.


NW: Freedom comes in different forms. If we are to take freedom as a physical phenomenon, then freedom has nothing to do with controlling ourselves. Freedom means the will to survive, to cut off physical ties as my ancestors no doubt had, to have at least some kind of autonomy over their lives. I think a lot of people forget that. Slavery wasn’t that long ago. I was in Savannah, Georgia, in March, and I had the opportunity to go on a tour of the city, at night, to meet up with its ghosts that haunt its downtown streets. I learned that for blocks there used to be pens—animal pens—where Africans were kept until they were auctioned off on the public auction blocks. When I think of freedom as interior freedom, as the freedom to at least have an inner world to cultivate, how can this happen when survival is the first priority? And in the lives of slaves, their survival means they have to survive only to turn a profit for their owners. One may comfort themselves with the knowledge that their lives, as they exist in perceptions of the world in their minds, are free. But that’s not enough for me—on this idea of how freedom and control translates in concrete terms. I have a suspicion that Woolf was trying to comfort herself by exalting the limited freedoms she perceived she had by invoking the freedoms of a creative life she was able to nourish, while in the material world, she was still a second-class citizen despite her wealth, in an oppressive imperialist society.


CFG: Virginia Woolf herself seemed to live a double life when it comes to freedom. Her work examines the difficulties female writers and intellectuals were, and still are, confronted with due to the fact that men hold disproportionate legal and economic power and for a long time seemed to hold the future of women in education and society (just look at all the laws that are been proposed and passed regarding women’s health care rights). I don’t believe her work would have the enlightening it did if she didn’t let herself be out of control when it came to her work, not her craft, but her themes, her boundaries, her explorations, the challenges within her work. In her life she certainly seemed to have followed her own statement and in order to enjoy her freedom she had to control herself, control herself from acting upon desires of suicide brought on by depression and despondence. She seemed to have forced herself into a “normal” life that included marriage and a literary career.

Perhaps we must control ourselves in society to not end with chaos, breaking laws here and there, and hurting one another because of it. But when creating art and thus examining life, should we be controlling our minds and our hearts? I choose to keep the freedom I’ve learned to find within my life and my art, knowing when to have control fully and when to let go of it completely.


EG: Yes, I couldn’t divorce slavery from this question. Yet even now, freedom, which should be everyone’s right, is instead a privilege. And so its enjoyment, and the responsibility of self-control in its enjoyment, is relative. I have more freedom now than many women or men had or have. But I am constantly negotiating this freedom, both within myself and within society. I am so grateful to have freedoms, even with their limitations, as an artist, a woman, a person of color living here in the United States that still so many others, including the people of my native country, cannot access. But there is a kind of burden to this, of history as well as of the present, which perhaps adds to the sense of control and responsibility in my own freedom. Growing up within the economic distress of the Philippines, the idea of becoming a writer, let alone a poet, was highly impractical if not outright unthinkable. It wasn’t until I’d lived here for years that I gave myself permission, because I was finally able to, to follow my impulse. Now as a writer, I am compelled to examine myself and the world, to push my own boundaries as well as the world’s, because I have certain privileges of freedom. It would be wonderful if one day Virginia Woolf’s statement, however hard-won it was for her in her own time, applied to everyone because everyone had freedom to negotiate, to begin with.


CFG: Freedom indeed comes in different forms, I agree. And I, too, think that freedom is hard to attain. When Evangeline mentioned the “privilege of whiteness, societal and economic restrictions,” all playing a role in the shaping of our freedom, I instantly thought of my years growing up in Mexico City and how I have attained certain freedoms in this country that my parents could never attain back in our country. One of those freedoms is the freedom to walk into a bank and be treated just like any other customer. To be indigenous, black, and/or inmigrante in Mexico was to be treated most times as second-class citizen. I inherited indigenous roots from both parents, my skin is like my father’s and my grandmother’s, and my great-grandparent’s: the color of an old penny. And growing up, many times, we were looked down upon and followed around at the mall, supermarkets, banks, and most governmental offices, because of the way we looked: poor, indigenous, and desiring so much. People often whispered under their breaths as we walked by: indios, not with pride but with resentment because indio to them meant someone stupid, un-educated, un-adapted, un-pleasant to tend to. Everywhere we went, even before leaving the house, my parent’s warnings would be: always walk straight and with your chin up high, always look people in the eye, never take insults with you because we are all equals. But I remember feeling inferior when incidents of discrimination happened. I also felt left out whenever the telenovelas were showing on TV. Soap operas are a big deal in Mexico, but most of the population is not truly portrayed in them, although the story line is most of the times the same, about a poor indigenous girl who falls in love with the rich white man who saves her and in the end love conquers all. Blond slim women, white tall men, blue-eyed, skin the color of butter—these characteristics are idealized in the soap opera world. Even in fiction, in fantasy, our place was not in it. And of course if you are poor you have less access to privileges such as art and high quality education. Our freedom felt negotiated always: if we go to the museum then there won’t be a birthday cake; if we eat beef today then we are vegetarian for the rest of the week; milk vs. bread; do I speak against my boss’ abusive behavior or do I keep my job; do I borrow clothes for the job interview or do I take my chances dressing in my tattered clothes and hope for my application not to be dismissed into the pile of Don’t call us, we’ll call you. I value the freedoms I’ve come to attain and constantly remind myself of people like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela. How much they had to negotiate their freedom, and yet how at every step they had to have the knowledge and control to know which way to turn, to keep going, to not give up.


CIC: I think that’s the paradox as writers we live with—because we are writers, we do have privilege to shape words and this is powerful, especially in a world where we may have so little control over other things. Sometimes too, in writing, it is easier to push against something that’s set there as a limit than to create something completely out of nothing. I had one teacher who I fundamentally disagreed with on most things related to poetry, but he made me write angry poems to prove him wrong. That pushed me to a greater level of artistry. And I relate that to my queer and transgendered communities of color—where we are usually never reflected in any of the literature or culture. Or if we are, it’s as aberrant or ugly or freakish.

One reason why I love the zuihitsu hybrid form, which Kimiko Hahn likens to a fungus, is that most Western forms are set with these hard rules. But the zuihitsu is a slippery-monster form, because it is jagged, chaotic, and crafted with a feeling of randomness. It’s a paradoxical form. It is unfinished, like the practice of leaving that one piece on the plate—for your ghost ancestor, to leave open the possibility of a visit, out of generosity. This is what I would like my writing to do—to find a way to make beauty between these contradictory impulses—to find what’s between the boundaries and borders and to make a new path to follow.

In Incubation: A Space for Monsters, Bhanu Kapil writes, “The monster is that being who refuses to adapt to her circumstances.” This can be seen as a negative thing, but I think the monster identity can also be liberating. If, as Kapil writes, “this was monstrous: the inability to assimilate,” then f*ck assimilation. As a writer, then, part of my role is to write our discomfort with the status quo, with fitting into a world which it is not in our best interests to fit into, to detail our realities and daily lives—no matter how painful or violent—to show how beautiful our bodies are. To reclaim and love our monster/mutant selves.



Ching-In Chen is author of The Heart’s Traffic and co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities. A Kundiman and Lambda Fellow, she belongs to Macondo, Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation, and Theatrical Jazz writing communities. Ching-In has been awarded fellowships from Soul Mountain Retreat, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Millay Colony, and the Norman Mailer Center. She has worked in San Francisco, Oakland, Riverside, and Boston Asian American communities. In Milwaukee, she is Cream City Review’s editor in chief and involved in her union and the radical marching band, Milwaukee Molotov Marchers. chinginchen.com

Evangeline Ganaden is a poet living in Los Angeles. She is a 2006 PEN Emerging Voices Rosenthal Fellow.

Cristián Flores García is a poet. She holds an MFA from the UC Riverside. She has received fellowships to Canto Mundo, The MacDowell Colony, and The Millay Colony. She is currently at work on her poetry collection, Diary of a brick Eater. Her poetry has been featured in PALABRA Magazine, The American Poetry Review, Spillway Magazine, and Connotation Press, among others and was selected for Pushcart Prize XXXVII. Currently, Cristián resides in Southern California.

Nikki Wallschlaeger lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She is the author of one chapbook, Head Theatre, which etched itself out of her palms unexpectedly. Her hands continue to talk, which is why she writes. Publications include Nervehouse, Esque, The Smoking Poet, Word Riot, Pirene’s Fountain, and DecomP ( forthcoming). Currently, she is working on her first full-length manuscript of poems.


Push Against the Restraint: A Conversation With Poets and Writers Ching-In Chen, Evangeline Ganaden, Cristián Flores García, and Nikki Wallschlaeger

I Go Anywhere

by Emma Eisenberg

When I was twenty-three I drove more than 10,000 miles around America by myself in a white pickup truck. My friend helped me build a wooden platform bed and I hauled a futon mattress on top and called it home.

In a bar in Flagstaff, Arizona, I flirted with a man in his early forties who had taut skin the color of camel leather and work boots. He told me he was a contractor, that he’d been successful which I understood by the way he said it to mean he’d made money.

I told him what I was doing. Then he said, But what’s a girl like you doing driving around in a truck by herself? A girl like me. I thought: but what kind of girl am I, exactly?

This is an age old question. A girl like you. I think about Berenice Abbott, the photographer, about the interview of her I watched at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. What’s a nice girl like you doing down here on the Bowery? says some guy on New York City’s Bowery, back before it was hip. I’m not a nice girl, says Berenice. I’m a photographer. I go anywhere.

There is the moment, in the asking of this particular question—but what’s a girl like you . . . ?—when you could say anything and they would believe it. But also, you could say anything and it would be true. There’s power in the answer because you get to decide, in that moment, what kind of girl you are.

Possibly I told him I wanted to travel America because I knew so little of it (modest, curious). Possibly I told him it was about music, about trying to get to the bottom of the equation of why, for so many of us, particularly in places that aren’t cities, music = everything (cultural anthropologist). Possibly I just told him, it was what I needed to do (lost).

He took the last sip from his bottle of Miller Lite, tipping the bottle back with his thumb and forefinger, and then set it back on the bar. He’d come with two friends, laughing men who were itching for something, watching him and me and smirking.

He looked in my eyes like a friend.

But aren’t you scared? he asked. Out there, all by yourself?

And this is where I lose him because the question itself relies on so much. It’s based on a bill of goods you could never sell me. Where exactly is “out there” and what exactly am I supposed to be scared of and when have I ever not been all by myself, when has anyone, and even if I had someone, a man or a woman or a dog or a gun, would that make it, even then, safe? Would that make it, even then, OK to be unafraid?

The thing that no one wants to hear is that I wasn’t afraid driving alone across America, and I wasn’t afraid when I went alone to Cameroon and Morocco and Greece and Spain. I don’t know how to be afraid of travel, I’m not good at it. There are a lot of things I’m afraid of—snakes and roller coasters and flying in tiny planes—but driving a pick up truck with no one in the cab with me isn’t one of them.

Cheryl Strayed writes in Wild about her own experience of traveling as a woman alone and about fear: “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me . . . I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power.”

I understand this. The story you tell yourself can be everything. Language can be the single strongest force in determining what becomes safe and not safe. Oh, THAT neighborhood? I wouldn’t go there after dark. You’re going home now? Let me walk you. We think about these statements as static things, as facts, or else as reactionary acts of generosity or chivalry, but they are active, dynamic things. They repeat and repeatedly create. They become the same as where we go and where we live. For women especially, they can become the same as if we are free. You’re going where? With who? Aren’t you afraid?

The bill of goods that most of us have learned about traveling alone goes something like this:

1. “Out there” is a world that regards our humanity not at all, and it is made up of dangerous and scary things.

In my travels alone, this has never been born out. I’ve been reckless and drunk and heartsick and sickeningly lost, and nothing of lasting trauma has come to me. Perhaps I’ve been lucky. Perhaps, I’ve simply believed I’m safe and powerful and that has begotten safeness and power. I’ve received kindnesses both extraordinary and ordinary. I’ve been taken in and given food and stories by strangers from Kumbo, Cameroon, to Wind River, Wyoming. These people had nothing to gain from sheltering and feeding and talking with me. These people are out there.

2. “Out there” is most dangerous for women.

Thomas Page McBee, a writer and a trans man, writes, “ ‘I just want to feel safe,’ she told me. ‘I don’t think a man can understand that.’ But you can, she meant. And she’s right. On the other hand, now I can also sleep on a bus station bench without fear, if I want to. Now I can accidentally scare a woman I’m behind when I walk back to work around the Fens, not noticing my pace until she looks back at me, frightened.

“‘I’m sorry,’ I told her, because I am not a woman, because I do not feel safe, because I’ve stopped expecting to.”

We are not ever totally safe, none of us. True, it is different when a man sleeps on a bus station bench and when a woman does. But what is that difference made of? Body parts? Muscle? Power? The choices of men and women and those that make their homes in gender-queer bodies are not so different. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I believe that we do not get raped and killed because we make unsafe decisions or because we cross lines that should not be crossed. We get raped and killed because there will always be rapists and killers “out there” and they will always rape and kill in random and senseless acts committed against people of every gender who are alone and who are not alone, and these rapists and killers will be everywhere, and they will be both strangers and people we know and love, and if we live our lives trying to avoid them at all costs, our lives will be nothing but fear begetting more fear, forever and ever.

3. Women who travel alone are lonely, secretly wishing someone else was there with them.

Weren’t you lonely? As women solo travelers, if we are not scared, then we are supposed to be forever lonely, forever wishing we had company to share our journey. If this company is not to protect us, it is to love us, to keep us from looking foolish when we sit alone in the café, to hold our hand.

How many ways can I say it? I didn’t want to share. The feeling of driving west on I-70 when the sky turned from Kansas-big to unfucking-believably-devastatingly enormous just outside Denver. Being followed by two dogs, one black, one grey, that I named Salt and Pepper, as I made my descent down into Canyon de Chelly in a light November snow, the flakes thick as pancakes. I couldn’t have shared any of it. I was giving so much love and trust to the world, I couldn’t have given any to a companion. I didn’t want anyone holding my hand.

Simply put, traveling alone is about agency, it’s about action, it’s about trusting your hands on the wheel and your ability to read a paper map and that the dirt BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) road you’re driving in the dark will lead somewhere OK. It’s about trusting that if and when the shit comes along, you have hands to steer and a foot to accelerate you far away from it. It’s about sitting alone in the café and not feeling foolish. It’s a way of walking through the world without armor, without anybody across from you at the table or holding your hand. It’s about faith.

When I’m writing at my best, it’s a lot like traveling alone cross country. All that uncertainty, all that faith, all that leaving, all that raw openness to pulling off to investigate whatever might block my path or ask my name or rise high in the distance.

“And what if there is no difference between writing and running, what if the very finest writing is flight?” writes Pam Houston. For me, there has never been a difference. My life is flight. My life is writing. The transitive property makes them equal.

In the bill of goods many of us were sold, women writing doesn’t make sense, just like women traveling alone cross country in pickup trucks doesn’t make sense.

What’s a nice girl like you doing writing something like this?

I’m not a nice girl. I’m a writer. I go anywhere.

I Go Anywhere

Fetal Abnormality and First Loves: A Conversation with Meg Tuite and Kristine Ong Muslim

Meg Tuite and Kristine Ong Muslim on science fiction, pulp magazines and their movement in the world as both writers and women


HER KIND: Ladies, Welcome to the Conversation. Let’s get the ball rolling with Georgia O’Keeffe. She once said that “there is something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore.” Does this statement resonate with you as a writer? If so, what in particular?


MEG TUITE: As a writer, there is always something that begs to be unearthed— otherwise, I would be an archeologist. Unfortunately, my first archeology teacher had that nasally monotone voice and spoke of measuring squares for weeks. I was forced to drop that arena as a major quickly, as that became my naptime.

I like to write from both genders and have found them equally challenging. I have not found it to be the case, for me, that there is something I can explore as a woman that a man cannot as well. Some great examples of male writers who write from both the male and female voice with power and depth, off the top of my head, are  Madame Bovary, War and Peace and a few of my contemporaries, Len Kuntz and Robert Vaughan, who also write exceptional work narrated through the voice of either gender.

KRISTIN ONG MUSLIM:  If you ended up as an archaeologist, then it’s a loss to contemporary literature. Like you, writing does unearth something for me. At the end of every book project, every finished story or poem, I discover something. What immediately comes to mind after reading the O’Keefe quote are “gendered” emotional undercurrents. An example is writing from the point of view of a character who undergoes postpartum depression, menopause, etc. where the “transformation” is crucial to the story. For me, how well and how much a writer “explores” depends on the motivation. And motivation is associated with a lot of things: cultural and political inclinations, even gender.

MT:  I have written about a woman who has post-partum depression, yet I’ve never had a child. I’ve written about a man who is an incest survivor and ends up taking his eye out with a spoon. I’ve written about a boy on the street who is schizophrenic, and how his mother deals with the problem within the family. I love to work with the inner turmoil of a character and get into those dark corners. As a writer, we need to be able to get into all those spaces as well as both genders.

Kristine, you write from those shadowy places, as well. I’m teaching a class right now and one of the exercises is to write the same story through a male’s voice and then a female’s. There are many writers who don’t go into these places, of both genders. We, as writers, tend to be more sensitive and have to understand what it is to be an outsider in order to write from all these places that most people don’t want to go.

KOM: It’s the level of interest on a certain topic — what women or men are more drawn to and which subjects they find more fascinating to write about. For example, I have zero interest in sports, so I’m less likely to incorporate anything about sports in my writing because I have no interest in it. I’m not saying that only a woman (or a man) can write about a certain topic. The difference is in the level of interest which translates to how the final story comes out. If I’m more “interested” to write about a character who undergoes say, postpartum depression, then the more emotionally lacerating (at least, to me) that character becomes.

MT: We all have a propensity for certain subjects and depth of character that we aim to achieve. I find that you and I have a common love for poetic prose as well as working with the inner psyche of the characters. I love to grope into those areas that may make some people uncomfortable and yet also work the rhythm of the language, simultaneously. I keep a list of words that I love the sound of, as well as their meaning, and go to them when I am working on a new story. Of course, I keep a thesaurus and dictionary. What are some of the unique Kristine Ong Muslim secrets that you utilize to work that magic that you do so well in your work? Are you willing to divulge?

KOM:  I love the dysfunctional characters in your stories, Meg! I have no special secrets when I write. I only have habits that make it easy for me. I write primarily on the computer and have a specific writing font, Sylfaen 12pt, my magic font. I then reformat the manuscript when I submit it to magazines. That word-listing that you do sounds really fascinating. How I love to read about the writing quirks of other writers.

Do you shy away from certain themes, Meg, and if so, what are they?

Mine has been militaristic settings and characters; I know because I tried. I am in awe of the military class. I also love crime novels, so there’s that ever present law-enforcement element which I find engaging. I once tried to write a story about a high-ranking soldier having to go to war. I found it difficult to conjure the behavior of a military man. I’ve seen it in movies, read it in books. I guess I have this stereotype of a military man in my head that prevents me from seeing anything else. That’s the ultimate “exploring” for me as a writer — the army/battlefield/law enforcement story.

MT: Oh yes, there are themes I stay clear of. The military would be one, although, I did write a flash piece titled “The Trench,” that was about a man dying at home who thinks that his caretaker is another soldier and they are in the trench together during the Korean War. That’s as close as I’ve come to touching on any war stories. I do love the internal war that happens inside of humans, though.

I haven’t written any detective stories, either, but I’m not very drawn to them. I do love Ray Bradbury stories, some of the first stories I read were his. I’ve only written a few sci-fi stories and would like to work that area a bit more. And no zombie or vampire tales. You write some amazing sci-fi stories, one that will be coming out shortly in a print collection that was a collaborative with an artist. I know because I’m editing that collection. It’s titled Origin of the Tentacles. And many of your pieces from your incredible collection, We Bury the Landscape, are futuristic/sci-fi themes. Do you have an affinity for that genre? And how are you inspired in your writing? Does a sentence come to you first or a character or is it the plot that generates in that brilliant mind of yours?

KOM:  “The Trench” was one of the best stories I’ve read from you. I would love to see you try your hand at sci-fi, Meg. Writing for genre magazines was my first love. I had a treasure trove of old pulp magazines when I was a teenager. That’s how I “discovered” Harlan Ellison and his half-finished story that he said he never finished because it scared him so much. It scared me too. The unfinished story was very, very creepy. It was about a guy being visited by a creature that regularly left an offering on the guy’s doorway. The offering can be a scrap of unidentified meat, etc. — one grisly thing after another. The guy began to understand that the creature was only trying to please him so he’d take it as his pet. And the way Ellison wrote the story…  God, I think, he can probably do anything, even write a masterpiece with a brown paper bag as a main character. The story was published in its unfinished form, which added to its charm. 16, 17 years after that, I still remember it. I associate horror magazines with the act of discovering that jewel of an unfinished story.

So, when I started to write my stories years ago, they were all tailored (in my unskilled writer’s hand) to fit a pulp magazine. In fact, my first story that appeared in print was in a British horror magazine. It was about a girl who had stories in issue after issue of the best genre magazines in the world. Her fans tracked her down and found out that she’s already long dead. It’s probably a subconscious drive that no matter how hard I try to make the literary stuff crackle and fly, tidbits from the genre slip in and become the mutant, the robot, or the fetal abnormality.

I read, hear, or watch something, anything — I react to it and sometimes it translates to writing. The hard work comes when I set my thoughts into words. I normally start with a sentence. That magic first sentence is sometimes all that I need.

I’d love to hear about the single story/literary work that had a strong impact in your writing. Please do tell, Meg, especially the driving force behind your Domestic Apparition. What pushes your writer-buttons?

MT:  I loved hearing about your first story you published and that it was a horror story. The only horror stories I’ve written have been domestic scenes within families.

It’s close to impossible to single out one story or book that changed everything for me, but if I had to, I remember when I was about fourteen or so and my brother bought me a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find. I remember every story in that collection vividly and I read it all in one sitting. I had always loved writing poetry as a kid and I attempted a novel at age seven, but when I read that book of Flannery’s I distinctly recall feeling a need to pull out my journal and write something. I have read her so many times and studied her work. I used to know how many metaphors and similes she had in her entire life’s collection. So I would have to say she knocked me out with her stories that were packed with pathos and dark humor. And an otherworldly understanding of the human psyche.

When I first started writing the skeleton of Domestic Apparition, my mother had cancer and was with hospice at the time. I was her primary caretaker and I lived with her throughout the period she was dying. It was one of the most difficult times of my life and also the most prolific. I would write all night voraciously and spend the days with her watching her come in and out of consciousness, sitting with my notebook to ask her where she’d been. I wrote down everything she said. She was an exceptional woman and our house was always filled with books and there wasn’t one in the house she hadn’t read at least once. She was a librarian and constantly had a book in her hands at home. And before my mom died, she said that I would write her story. I don’t know if that’s ever possible, but she was a huge catalyst for the novel-in-stories, Domestic Apparition.

My writer-buttons get pushed in many directions. Sometimes a first sentence sets me off, but most of the time I have a character in mind who stays with me and she/he is the first thing I think of when I wake up and before I go to bed. Then I know I’m on to something and sit down with the pen and start writing. But, writing is hills and valleys for me. Sometimes, I’m flying along and other times I’m staring off into space, trying to keep my focus. That’s when I try to read sections of some of the unforgettable work by writers I love that surround my desk. I have a few of your collections I keep close at hand.

I’ve always wanted to hear about your movement in the world. Where did you live when you were here in the states and when did you move to the Philippines? And what do you love most about living there? Give me one of those gorgeous passages of Kristine Ong Muslim’s that takes me into the world you reside in.

KOM: So sorry to hear about your mom, Meg. Thank you for sharing. I imagine you with her, out-writing what you feel. I teared up a little with your mention of having to ask her where she’d been. What a stunning and brave woman your mother was for saying that you would write her story. Maybe, you are already writing her story or parts of it are being imprinted on your stories, but you’re not just consciously doing it.

I’ve never traveled outside of the Philippines. I have relatives and friends in the US, but I’ve never stepped outside the confines of my teeny third-world island. I live in a small rural town with backward ways and old-fashioned values. I’m not married and don’t have kids, so it’s a pretty laid-back life, one that’s very conducive to pursue nerdy endeavors. My employer lets me work at home, which is a perfect arrangement for me because I don’t like to travel. What I love most about living here — I see something that grows in soil. I wake up every morning, and the first thing that I see is a big glass window and behind it, an old tree. I’ve worked for a long time in the city, and the only semblance of a plant in my little apartment is a plastic rose in a cheap vase. What I really love is to grow things. I love to garden.

MT: I do believe that I’ve written some stories that delved into parts of my mother’s life. And I know I will continue to do so.

I grew up in Chicago, but have always had a yearning to be somewhere away from a city and close to nature. I live in Santa Fe, NM and it’s tough to grow much out here. I did have an amazing garden in this small shack I lived in before I got married in an old mining town and we called it the happy shack. I had those huge 6’ tall sunflowers growing everywhere with heads the size of bowling balls all turned toward the morning sun. But we live on Crazy Rabbit Road. Haha! And yes, we are inundated with the jack rabbits and bunnies of all persuasions. They tend to eat anything I plant so now I just consider them neighbors and feed them in the front yard. I call it the cantina when they are all out there nibbling away and gossiping. I have two rescue dogs and two cats that are all living the good life. I live slightly outside the city so we have twelve acres, mostly juniper and cacti, lots of coyotes and owls and occasional rattlers and tarantulas making their way south to Mexico. We just got some rain, thank God. It had been stifling here for a while and now the desert is richer, darker colors and clouds hover above the mountains. It’s quite beautiful this time of year, so I’m happy, and know how you feel being out in nature. Nothing better.

And my favorite writing spot is my desk upstairs with a window looking out at the Cerrillos mountains. Inspiring for me. I used to write in libraries. Felt, I needed to be away from my house, but now I am thankful for the days I can spend at home writing and not drive anywhere.

Do you have a writing community in your village? Anyone who reads your work before you send it out? Does the workshop deal fit into your world of writing or is it a solo endeavor from start to finish?

KOM: I know that there are Aztec ruins of some sort in New Mexico; there’s so much history surrounding you. I imagine you’ve got strong sun where you are.

I’ve never been part of a writing group or a workshop. Aside from the requisite basic English composition courses in high school and college, there’s really nothing else. What I do is to read as much as I can. I make an effort to pick up the nuances (a must because English is not my native language and I want to write for Western publications). In time, I recognized what worked and what didn’t. It’s practically DIY for me from the get-go.

MT:  I agree with you completely, Kristine. The best teachers are always the books we continue to read and reread, silence, imagination and the pen and keyboard! Flannery O’Connor said you can’t teach anyone how to write. Just help them along with the craft.

I’m a true believer in that. It has to be something that drives us, somewhere deep inside.

*     *     *

Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of We Bury the Landscape (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2012) and Insomnia (Medulla Publishing, 2012). Dan Chaon’s selection for The Wigleaf Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions 2012 included one of her tiny tales. Her work appeared in many fine places, the likes of EllipsisExistereNarrative Magazine,SouthwordSou’westerThe Pedestal Magazine, and Verse Daily.

Meg Tuite’s writing has appeared in numerous journals including Berkeley Fiction Review, 34th Parallel, Epiphany, JMWW, One, the Journal, Monkeybicycle and Boston Literary Magazine. She has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press. She is the author of Domestic Apparition (2011) San Francisco Bay Press, Disparate Pathos (2012) Monkey Puzzle Press and has edited and co-authored The Exquisite Quartet Anthology-2011, stories from her monthly column, Exquisite Quartet published in Used Furniture Review. Her blog: http://megtuite.wordpress.com.

Fetal Abnormality and First Loves: A Conversation with Meg Tuite and Kristine Ong Muslim

Tracie Morris: Lady in the House Questions

What has been your ultimate journey?

Of course, it’s been the life-and-death one. I was actually a very sick child (it was quite touch-and-go for a while), and this very much shaped my perspective on life – for the better. I can see that being born into illness has reconfigured several aspects of my living and recovery.

For instance, I was somewhat bedridden and in pain a lot so I had to use my imagination to get out of the circumstances. That experience, I think, tended to attract me to imaginative, speculative writing. I was drawn to other worlds, otherworldly circumstances. This in turn drew me to books such as JRR Tolkein, Frank Herbert, Edgar Allen Poe and other science fiction/fantasy writers and other embarrassing books like Harlequin romances… I did spend most of my time with the speculative fiction I hasten to add! I’ve always liked poetry from Mother Goose to classical European/Euro-American and African-American poetry. I grew up reading Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Ezra Jack Keats, the standard texts for little Black kids.

How do you start? Where do you end?

I think I start with an idea rather than an agenda, and then am quickly undermined by the poem’s own desires. It’s why I rarely write occasional or persona poems, unless they just show up. I think I actually resist those types of poems.

I love to think I have some say in the situation, but that’s not often the case. I write what I think is coming through then see what’s emerging from the text. Oftentimes, I’m shocked to see that it’s in a specific nonce form. My newer collection “Rhyme Scheme” is very representative of this. I find it strange that I’m actually a formalist but I’m tied to form based on the emerging poems. I discover what the form is, rather than pre-determining it.

This is how I discovered my relationship with sound poetry. I heard the repetition and felt satisfied that the poem comprised of that repetition and improvisation. It seemed to resist descriptive narrative. I should add though that the affection I have for the poem, meter, repetition, images, etc. comes from them ruminating/conspiring sometimes for years, way in the back of my mind. Then they show up, seemingly like Athena, fully formed from my head, go through a quick adolescence, then some sort of adulthood. I know they’re done when they stop.

Over the years, the poems have been getting shorter and shorter. I’m not sure what that means. I’m trying to balance that tendency toward truncation out.

Do you worry about the politics of classification? How do you classify yourself?

I don’t worry about classification too much. I really do try to stay out of the poems’ way, even if this makes me/my ego uncomfortable. I’ve been drawn to/drawing very concentrated writing with almost implosive words. They feel like white dwarf stars all the time. I don’t quite know what to do about this because they can resist letting ‘outsiders’ in. That’s been my biggest challenge. I guess I’d classify myself as an astronomer, then… as Sun Ra says: “Space is the Place”.

When do you leave the wall intact, when do you knock it down?

I leave the sonic walls intact when there’s no more left to say, or no more energy in the room. My sound poems are so connected to what I’m picking up from the audience, the atmosphere. I do not do sound poems if I’m not getting energy. I immediately stop them even if I’ve only been reciting/improvising them for 30 seconds. If I’m not feeling it, that’s it. For the page, if I’m not sure, I walk away from the piece and look at it later. If I don’t change my mind about it, then it’s done. I try to knock the wall down only if I think I put it there because I’m afraid of what’s next. Then I push it and push it until it’s ‘finished’.

I should add that I feel wildly different about the poems later and I also have to discipline myself from this weird ‘post-coital’ embarrassment where I think I never should’ve written any poems. That’s always been a challenge but I get by with a little help from my friends. (Hey, I’m not afraid of the Brits: Shakespeare, Beatles, JL Austin…)

Music is my friend; time, space and other constraints are my friends. My communities are my friends (even when they’re not each other’s friends). I’m grateful to have adopted and been adopted by very, very different types of people, spheres.

Tracie Morris: Lady in the House Questions

Freedom Papers

by Racquel Goodison

This July finds me on the hunt again for a place to live. This time I am moving through New York City’s dog days, plodding through daily apartment viewings, and all the time wondering where I’ll end up when all this is done. I’m once again working with the kind of budget that factors in “A Whole Lot of Luck” to make up for the “Meager Sum”.

Reading the classifieds often makes me wonder, like Sylvia from Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson”: “Who ARE the people who can afford these prices and how come I ain’t in on their racket?”

Strangely, I’m also once again remembering Reagan. I blame The City.


The real estate agent for the city-subsidized apartment—  the one built in the once-economically-depressed-but-now-“up-and-coming” neighborhood— spoke about his dissertation:  the one he never finished twenty years ago, the one about history, about US domestic politics, international relations, and global economics. While showering that morning, he suddenly realized that he had it all wrong.  Domestic policy and international politics are driven not by a search for national security, but by a desire by local politicians to secure their positions.  It’s a matter of a seeing history and the world through a revised motive!  It made all the difference in the world.

My partner and I sat and listened and added what we could.  But I was anxious to know about the affordable apartments available after the lottery applications had been exhausted.  I had been looking for a home to replace the one I was recently told would be sold out from under me, the one my landlord hardly found time to repair and now wanted to free himself from.  I had been looking for months and, just this week alone, had seen over twenty places.  I was tired of searching.  I was ready to land some place and settle on a location.

But this agent was excited by our doctorates, and he wanted to share his research.  He was on yet another cup of dark tea, pouring yet another capsule of creamer into the mix, and effusing about politics and policy and economies and political motivations.  And we listened and played our part in the conversation, all while I grew more and more anxious for news about what this new development in this changing part of the city could offer me.  I wanted to land a home.

Soon enough my partner mentioned President Carter and the agent shrank back from us.  He declared that he’s a card-carrying Black republican and a lover of Reagan.  And it was my turn to shift, suddenly away.

I remember Reagan the same way I remember leaving home.


I was a girl, and it was the early 1980s. I was barely ten and I understood nothing of the world.  I wore T-shirts from The States with images of Michael Jackson and Madonna.  I sat on the concrete steps in our backyard and ate mangoes from our tree and watched the farmer across the street weed his callaloo patch and listened to Radio Jamaica’s steady streams of the songs of America and the sounds of the island. I also learned the words of “Old Britania”, but only by way of my mother’s stories. I knew all this and enough to pass my exams, to be considered a good student, but I knew nothing of the world — nothing of the policies, the politics, the political motivations, the histories that were shaping my little life.

But then Reagan, the president, became our news. And we saw him on our only channel, the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation, as often as we saw Michael Manley, our prime minister. And we saw American Apples replace ours, and powdered milk replace our cows, and bread become something we stood in long lines for and the money for the bus to school become a wad of bills, no longer a handful of coins. And I still knew nothing of politics and policies and political motivations, but I knew that money had changed and our lives were no longer the same.

Soon enough, in a matter of years, we left the home we’ve always known for the possibility of something more. The States.

Here, my parents kept their faith in our education. It was worth all sacrifices. And they reminded us always to “get our papers.” And we understood them to mean our degrees would save us from poverty and from a hard life of wanting and having to give up the only home our children may ever know so that they can make a living, make a life.

When I was a child, there was an expression the grown-ups use to throw at us kids while we played. “You free paper soon bu’n,” they’d warn. And I saw freedom as a kind of paper that could burn, a paper you could hold in your hand like money. This was when I knew nothing of the world, and I was just a child playing under the eyes of the small world I was born into.

Later I learned that these people and I came from other people who were bought and sold. I learned that the history of my little world was one of conquest and killing, of money changing hands, of people leaving the only home they’ve ever known, of people being taken from the only home they’ve ever known, of capital and commodities, of commodification and capitalism, of buying and selling and bloodshed, of free markets and a lifetime of enslavement.


So here I sit with my doctorate in English Literature and a fledging career teaching it, twenty years into my life in these States. And I am searching for a new place to live, one I can afford in this city where neighborhoods get investments of public capital as they are taken over by influxes of those with more capital worth; I am searching for any home I can land in this land where I have struggled for more than half my life to scrape together a living and secure a place that I do not have to leave at the command of those who hold the papers on it. But I am no longer the child I once was and I have come to understand in ways I wish I could forget that I live in a “free market” and, for some of us, the cost of living will continuously take a toll on our lives and will even decide for us where we make our home.


Freedom Papers

Notes from the Edges, Looking In

by Samantha Milowsky

Some time ago at a popular poetry venue, I saw a woman take the stage and tell the audience she’d been going for eight years, but it was her first time on the open mic. I leaned into a friend’s ear and asked if he’d seen her before. He hadn’t. The crowd gave her a warm, enthusiastic first-timer’s applause, imbued with polite gasps at her confession of going unnoticed for so long in near-religious devotion. She was more of a regular than many people known as regulars, and she was likely telling the truth because she emerged from the center region of dense, anonymous space known as the audience. The regular regulars would be vining their way around the bar, slouching along the walls, and clustering in blooms near the stage, playing to the fact that we look out toward the edges, not in.

I can relate to that veteran novice waiting for years in a hopeful stasis for something, anything, to happen. I married at twenty, much younger than most of my peers, and for sixteen years, I focused on obligations that didn’t involve developing friendships or creative interests. I discount prior shortchanged, private romps into music and poetry. When the marriage ended, I decided to ignore anything practical my head directed, and instead to follow my rabbit heart. I took some old poems and read at an open mic. The first moment of stage-light was blinding, like getting ambushed by cotton balls. I anxiously plucked each word from the page, uttering them in a weak, quivering voice while my body vibrated on shaky knees. When I finished, the audience responded warmly. I returned again and again, and a new life emerged that included friends and sturdier knees.

“I’m awkward,” is often said by poets. I go to most poetry events alone. Each time, it feels a like a reenactment of my first day of school. I step into the bus, see more kids than I ever have in my life, and the first thing I do is put my hotshot hands on my hips and loudly announce, “My grandfather said I’m a princess!” A boy much bigger than me gets up, plants his enormous foot on my ass, and says, “You’re not a princess! You’re a liar!” and push-kicks me so hard that I fall forward on my hands and knees, punctuating my grand entrance with a shoe print on my butt. I learned early not to blurt out declarations I assumed would grab a new crowd.

I frequented poetry venues enough that I started getting invites to home events and parties, which created opportune times to say absurd things, which is a way to take a wrecking ball to the shanties of shy-town. For example, a speculative question like “Would you rather eat a dead person if starving, or have a sexless marriage for the rest of your life?” Outbursts and answers vary, along with a feigned sincerity to refine the context: “Did the person die naturally?” “Do I get to choose how the person is prepared?” My answer would be that a sexless marriage happens to be more common than cannibalism, but a more depraved and ridiculous answer would have been okay.

The poetry scene helped me work through social anxiety, and it set the business of making a new life in motion. I found my niches. I started the poetry journal Amethyst Arsenic. I host salons out of my home, and I’m involved in several literary groups and organizations. The outcome of ventures is never certain, but doing them reinforces a resolve to try more, to evolve with circumstance and what I genuinely want. There is more to this. It’s a squaring against what haunted me about shame and obligations, the things that kept me at the edge looking in, and moving past that, to feel freer to do my best in what makes me happy without being encumbered by thoughts of getting a kick in the ass.

Notes from the Edges, Looking In

Samantha Milowsky: Lady in the House Questions

What has been your ultimate journey?

When I was in high school, I used to think I couldn’t understand poetry. What stands out in my memory is being unable to find the elusive meaning of “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I assumed there was some deep meaning to be discovered in every poem, and not finding it meant failure. I was more comfortable with sturdier tools like how to find the hypotenuse of an angle, rather than trusting the shadowy realm of written art. I carried this perceived limitation until my mid-20’s when on a whim at a friend’s home I opened Wislawa’s Symborska’s View from a Grain of Sand. That Nobel Prize-winning dignitary sparked in me the passion of a bandit and arsonist. Without a preconceived idea of what I should get from it, suddenly, I connected to poetry.

In overcoming initial limitations I thought I had, I have become more comfortable with the process of going from the unknown into the known. My doubts no longer shake me as much. I can focus and trust in the process to figure things out. I like trying new things and discovering my strengths and weaknesses. More recently, I’ve ventured into publishing the online poetry and art journal, Amethyst Arsenic, and hosting workshops and literary salons out of my home. I never would have done these things before.

Where do you start? Where do you end?

I start with truth in the moment which, for me, is intuitive and direct. I want to work on things that connect me to ideas and people. The specific goal, such as to write a poem or create a literary journal, act more like a cipher for the acknowledgment that we exist and have some import to each other. The start and end results are almost incidental to the forces driving it. Where we start and end might be less important than all the sticky stuff in the middle: our attitude, actions, and relationships that we navigate and adapt to along the way.

On a practical level, such as with Amethyst Arsenic, I keep the end goal in mind and work incrementally towards it. I need projects like the literary journal where I can have a defined result and path to completion. My writing practice is more chaotic. I don’t start a poem with a consistent pattern or system. I might write on the computer, in a notepad, or on a scrap of envelope. I work in random fits and meditative layers. Even my handwriting frequently changes. I end a poem when I think it sounds right and seems intellectually and emotionally satisfying. Most of my poems have several rounds of edits and some have drastic revisions; I’m pretty comfortable with revising and killing my darlings.

Do you worry about the politics of classification? How do you classify yourself?

My journal received a cover letter from a guy who said he “wasn’t like some f**king bored housewife from the Midwest.” How’s that for a classification? I didn’t know why he was compelled to write such a thing, but he was very specific. Classifications, when lobbed at us by others, can be dismissive and presumptuous, and at worse, they attempt to cut others off from opportunities and a person’s inherent human value.

I’m reading Stigma by social analyst Irving Goffman, and it’s about managing identity in contexts where we’re not considered normal. Classifications and the implication of bias can have generations of meat and teeth to them by imposing limited and negative expectations on us, or, just as dishonestly, over-inflating them. I try to be aware of how others think about me, whether it’s to my benefit or not, and tailor what I communicate while still forging ahead and maintaining my values. I don’t know if it’s self-censoring as much as being aware of the power and nuance of rhetoric.

If there is an accusation of contributing to the politics of classification, or that so many identities today can seem to be an ever lengthening train of nichification, I believe people are making a sensible and obvious choice to use the shorthand of classification to control their stories and identity, as well as a means to raise social awareness effectively by breaking through the noise and short attention spans. If they don’t, others will define these things for them. There’s another kind of writer that likes to keep their identity a mystery. Perhaps they want liberty to explore many identities without settling down with one in a death pact, or maybe it’s to focus on the universal human experience while avoiding a specific lens of classification. I think different perspectives are interesting, even if I’m roused to discomfort or anger; I want to know all of them, and this goes back to another reason why I started a literary journal.

For each issue of Amethyst Arsenic, I select guest editors of various backgrounds and tastes in poetry. I want to attract different kinds of poets and audiences that might not be exposed to each other’s work. I hope it creates an environment of natural, mutual respect.

I’m a woman first. After that, I belong to a community of poets where I contribute as a publisher and benefactor. I also identify with others who work in technology. Occasionally, I’ll mention the challenges I faced growing up when I think it’s helpful to explain my perspective on things, but I don’t wear my upbringing loosely. I think of this slogan: What’s authentic is not what you did in the past, but what you are doing right now.

When do you leave the wall intact, when do you knock it down?

With Amethyst Arsenic, I continually refine the process and presentation. Maybe I try a new feature and it doesn’t work, so I abandon it. Rather than simply leaving a wall intact or knocking it down, I see all of it as part of building the house. You take out what doesn’t support the structure. You leave what does.

The literary journal is also a response to other publishers–in a playful spirit of admiration and spite–as well as a public space where I can try ideas. In a sense, I am stealing ideas from walls in other houses and finding my way around others that block me.

I apply a similar approach to relationships and other types of work. If something isn’t working well, can I take lessons and ideas from it anyway? Can I work around it? Can I influence change or build something of my own? Do others want to be involved, and can I include them? I think these questions can be empowering; then it’s mostly a matter of focus and doing.

Samantha Milowsky: Lady in the House Questions

Channel the Howl: A Conversation with Kate Durbin and Kate Zambreno

Kate Durbin and Kate Zambreo explore why women should step up as “culture-changers” and their own roles as “illegitimate theorists.”


HER KIND: Ladies, Welcome to the Conversation. I’d like to get the ball rolling with a question to provoke you.  Virginia Woolf said: “To enjoy freedom we have to control ourselves.” Do you agree with this statement?


Kate Zambreno: On some bizarre abject impulse, I went on Facebook yesterday and asked advice, from whatever masses were online on a Sunday afternoon, on whether I should get an MFA or a Ph.D. because I need a JOB.


People answered – well-intentioned – yes, you should go to an MFA program but only do it for fun or to have time to write but not for a JOB, you won’t get one anyway, and I wanted to fight with the world, and counter: but I have three books! And I have been in the adjunct trenches forever! I have been progressively making less money every year for the past ten years since I’ve become a writer and now make less than an extremely bad graduate stipend!

But I just erased it. Of course then I posted something on my blog, and then erased it. And now I have just been following you, Kate Durbin, on Facebook—silently/supportively, hopefully not creepily/stalkily—as you’re posting links to critical or negative or “didn’t-get-it” blog posts about your intriguing performances, talks and essays about Tumblr and Reality TV.

This makes me think about how when Green Girl was in the Tournament of Books recently, and I almost lost it trying to engage with people who were dismissing the book. I think Virginia Woolf, while I love her, spoke a lot of self-control and containment—in A Room of One’s Own ­especially—of controlling “one’s” emotions, of literature not being created in the “red light” of anger, but in the “white light” of truth.

That Charlotte Bronte is spoiling something by having her heroine Jane Eyre vent about the unfairness of her life and her circumscribed status in it, unlike Jane Austin who was happy in a small space, the sitting room; her literature didn’t suffer from any sense of agitating to get out. But even though she uses this fictional persona of Mary Carmichael, A Room of One’s Own is so much about her own alienation as a woman and as a woman writer, and she was someone who would stay in bed for weeks when reviews of her books came out, and she wanted so much to be taken seriously and read seriously. She thought of making her tortured girl Rhoda in The Waves a failed fiction writer, but didn’t, wanting to distance her own personal excessiveness and torturedness, so that she could be taken seriously, especially as a self-published writer, as a wife, as a girl raised in Victorian times.

I always think this is why she distanced herself from T. S. Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne, who was a very talented yet toxic girl, who I think of in my upcoming memoir Heroines as one of Woolf’s Shakespeare’s Sisters. But this idea coming out of New Criticism that writing should be controlled, and then of course people’s emotions should be controlled—Eliot’s objective correlative—even though Eliot was a total hysteric in his life, like his wife, who he disciplined and controlled—she was forbidden from writing for their little magazine The Criterion, after it got out that the pseudonymous delicious, gossipy little pieces were penned by her, and then later more infamously institutionalized and silenced. Virginia was definitely of that generation of women who learned the hard way that she needed to control herself or she would be controlled—diagnosed as a child according to the time with “moral insanity” just like Vivien(ne), one of the cures for which was self-control, Victorian moral management, another cure being the “rest cure,” being sent away to a nursing home if she “acted out.”

So I think in some ways that transferred onto her criticism and ideas about writing and the emotions and being kind of out in her essays about being alienated and depressed—that’s why I love her journals in some ways best, for how fleshly and oozey they are, how much they’re really about the divided state of the woman writer. But I think it’s terrible to have to be so controlled. I don’t think that’s freedom at all. I think we should be able to vent. We should vent our anger at being alienated or marginalized in society. We should be able to vent our rage about Jonathan Franzen analyzing Edith Wharton in regards to her looks, or that it’s his blurb that sits on the front of the new version of Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star. At least to each other or on our blogs. During the time when I was feeling very raw—in a very public space, online—about criticisms of Green Girl, I was thankfully reading David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives, which is such an ANGRY text, rallying against a closed and conformist society. At the same time a friend of mine sent me a worksheet on Dialectical Behaviorial Therapy, how I can figure out whether an emotion is too much or not, whether it’s maladaptive, I guess as a way to cope with my feelings that I was documenting so publicly—which was more than anything about feeling alienated—having Green Girl pitted against The Marriage Plot and found lacking, found not even literary, it didn’t seem to be fair, and more about privilege and power. This was someone who had a massive billboard in New York when his book came out. But I decided at the time my favorite works of literature are maladaptive (including Virginia’s, all of the mad scenes in Mrs. Dalloway).

Kate Durbin: I thought of you today too, when I received that pile of criticisms and misreads of my work—specifically of your awful Tournament experience. I realized, too, the irony of having my work—which I have explicitly stated as being an incitement of how we ALL misread women in culture—misread. It both pleased me intellectually, that level of meta-demonstration, and wearied me. It was difficult to hear that one of the critics thought I should only exist online; that feels like a type of corralling or shaming, and so much of my work about Tumblr and teen girls is about the fact that girls feel freer online, but ultimately, off and online are just perceptions we hold, and everyone wants to be free in every interface, including IRL.

The other night I participated in a reading, wherein I presented The Hills, and I could tell that people were put off by the text. It was interesting too, because the way the reading operated, the audience could walk around and listen to different readers installed in the bookstore, so it was very easy for them to walk away from one reader and go to another when they wanted. While the overarching concept of the reading was really cool if one was reading lyric poetry or something more easily digestible or familiar for the crowd, I felt in that situation very panicky as my work was being “rejected” over and over due the construction or constraints of the event, and I often found myself reading to bookshelves, totally alone. Later only one person in the audience said anything to me directly about my work—as the other (mostly) lyric poets, two of whom were former Stegner fellows, good people, good poets, but lyric-familiar—received an abundance of praise. The person who talked to me about my work said: “At first I was really angry with what you were doing. I thought it was Warhollian and pretentious. Then you said something about one of the characters in The Hills slamming a car door. Then you said something weird, you said ‘the slamming is audible.’ I realized then that what you were doing was not just a straight transcription, that it had emotion behind it, and I thought it was brilliant.”

This brings up a slightly different interpretation of this notion of control. I know Woolf was thinking of the writer having control over her text as she is writing it, but I think for women writers what is sometimes even more dangerous is feeling so out of control over how the work is framed once it is out in the world. I often feel very out of control as to how my work is presented and received, even though I set myself up for a lot of that by leaving such a wide open framework with my projects—by giving the reader huge gulfing amounts of trust and hope that they will, in fact, fucking pay attention instead of walking away, and that they will encounter the work in freedom, without me having to tell them exactly how to read it and exactly what it means. That they will give the author, despite the fact that she is a woman, some trust that she might in fact know what she is doing. And yet, the world is a ravenous audience; that is part of the point. And yet, I am a woman, and for a woman to produce work like this without accounting and even maybe apologizing for herself, is to piss people’s “unconscious” off.

The problem of not having enough control of ones work in presentation is driven in part by forces you mentioned—finances, the “literary community,” the internet, etc. Unlike, say, Vanessa Beecroft of Marina Abromovic, who both have great control over how their work is presented, I often feel like I have to say yes to situations like the reading I just described wherein I end up being set up to be misread in the exact way that my work attempts to counter. I wonder if all women writers feel this anxiety of control over their work; how they counter it. You and I have talked so often about how hard it is to let ones work out into a hostile world. And yet, as you point out, absolute control, repression of emotion, or, “hiding,” is dishonest, invulnerable. In a way, opening up oneself for rejection and abuse and misreads seems integral to the work of a culture-changer, which, I think, is what we both are. I know: what an arrogant role for women to take on.

I agree with your assessments of Woolf. I love her texts, especially Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves, and I especially love Nicole Kidman playing Woolf in The Hours. But I think she was repressed, not self-aware of that repression, as a woman. I have always had more esteem for Plath, as writer-mother, because of her willingness to delve into the black emotions, to channel the howl. Her craft was “controlled” yet harrowingly hysteric. And yet, who says even craft needs to be controlled? What are we so afraid of, in the emotion of a woman, that we feel we must control it before we’ve even felt it?

KZ: Oh, that reading you gave for The Hills sounds alienating and deeply symbolic:  you are the girly writer in the glitter-face standing in the corner, alone. I had a recent experience like that, and it wasn’t alienating on the skin, so to speak, but it was just another reading where I was the sole prose writer among poets—and feeling like an outsider, that people didn’t think of my writing, specifically my fiction, as “real” writing. I feel this a lot. That fiction writers don’t think of me as a “fiction” writer, i.e. interested in discussions of craft (and really, I’m not, not really, regardless of how enthralled I am to the “baggy monster” that Henry James called the novel) and the poets definitely don’t think of me as a poet, so sometimes not a “serious” writer, even though my experiences being read by readers unused to nontraditional narrative often dismiss it or describe my writing as prose poetry, or poetry, which is funny, because no poet ever thinks of me as a poet. Sometimes I feel isolated—and then I remember writers like you, and many others I met in the online community—that I share such an affinity and kindredness with, all of my weird sisters, and I feel very lucky.

And I do approach a lot of my work and my perspective through being an orphan, so I think I partially indulge in those feelings of isolation (in some ways Heroines is a séance with all of these modernist women who weren’t taken seriously). So I think I decided I wasn’t going to probably do readings for poetry series anymore, unless I have a book out that that’s a good fit, because it’s not the right audience for me, mostly, and the audience is disappointed mostly, and I am disappointed not feeling that sense of public-ness and connection which I guess is part of the reason we do readings.

I think it can be very freeing to learn to say no to things that stress us out and take us away from what’s important (our self-preservation, our engagement with our work). For a while I thought I had to be a really hard-working writer, and do tons of readings, do everything people want me to, and now I’m beginning to realize that that’s the same as wanting to be a good girl, a good woman, that sense of duty. I feel really inspired by Bhanu Kapil in regards to this – not only do I think she’s a genius, and inventing new forms, but she once told me she only does readings/promotions for her work in ways that feel right to her. I aspire to that. Of course she’s also connected to an amazing institution—Naropa, where I felt really privileged to spend some time recently for a week as a visiting writer for their Violence and Community symposium Bhanu curated—so that comes with it in a way a local community and ways to interact with all of these other writers coming in. I think there can be a freedom in having choice in how we direct our careers as writers—maybe part of it comes with being considered more established?—but a lot of that is possibly privilege, of being connected to an institution, and so feeling relaxed about whether you’re getting out there and being seen and connecting with others and being read by people you respect and published by people you respect. That’s partially why I wrote that status update about an MFA or a Ph.D.—I think coming from the stimulating community at Naropa, which I think is a rare institution—but that sense of belonging, of having a place, that I sometimes think being full-time at a university or college would give me, or at least having good well-paying quality part-time work teaching literature or generative seminars.

But that fear of being disciplined or confined is exactly the reason I am probably not meant for the institution, Kate (I have always had a fear of being institutionalized!). I honestly don’t think I would have written O Fallen Angel or Green Girl or certainly Heroines within a workshop or dissertation setting. I can’t imagine trying to explain to anyone else but people who love me and who I trust what I’m working on now—for example my hidden girl novel, certainly can’t imagine having to conform it or discipline it for a person in a place of power over me. I imagine getting an MFA in poetry is different—or I don’t know. But I taught for one semester at an MFA program—and the focus seemed to be on character and plot and all of these traditional elements I’m not really interested in. I’m interested in excess. I’m interested in texts that are monsters. I’m interested in breaking something with my writing and playing with new forms, in engaging with and sometimes alienating the reader—I know we share that in common, Kate. With a Ph.D. as well, which is the possibility I more seriously consider, I would be afraid more than anything of changing my language. I love to read theory voluptuously and bodily, but I would hate to use this programmed language, their language. I think we are theorists in our own right, illegitimate theorists, philosophers of girls and bodies and the Internet.

In terms of the experience of having Green Girl enter the mainstream, I don’t think it was necessarily all bad, or in reality it was a learning experience. Experimental novels tend not to be received well by a reading public-at-large, which often wants something different out of their reading experience. I realized I need to try not to be infected by other people’s opinions of my writing, a protectiveness I feel, say, with not believing countless editors or agents who rejected Green Girl, or realizing I have a singular vision that I wouldn’t want to defend in workshop, but that I don’t yet feel on the Internet. In some ways I am very interested in the performance of vulnerability and doubt, of public transgressions, of crossing boundaries.

I think it’s very important how both of us have become critics, partially in a way to defend our projects—this is what fucking T.S. Eliot did, why can’t we? I am really interested in how female artists are often portrayed as unserious—remember that jackass Kate who didn’t realize that the title of your book The Fashion Issue was taken from Barthes, suggesting to me to suggest to you to read Barthes? I hate that. It’s so masculine. I think people look at our project and don’t realize, yes, we have read others’ theories, and we are also using our own theory. I think for poetry conceptual writing can seem so masculine to me—and you’re subverting that, you’re also problematizing what can be the subject of literature, the subject of important inquiry. Women that use their bodies in the ways that we do—both of us in a way engage in the self-portrait—are often dismissed, have been dismissed historically, seen as attention whores, narcissists, etc. I think both of us have been interested lately in the notion of the girl-cipher—Green Girl  was inspired as well with the celebutante, with Britney and Lindsay—and how the girl is interpreted in public, is over-interpreted. I feel that Heroines and now Slapping Clark Gable, a new critical memoir/essay book I’m working on now—are trying to theorize how female artists are perceived, especially women who write of worlds perceived as “unimportant” or “unserious” or who write the body or self or emotions in any way—and to attempt to trace the genealogy of all this.

Okay, I’m now going to go to bed, here in the South, i.e. go read something online or watch something pulpym. I will end with a question—Kate, what is freedom to you?

KD: I thought about your question when I was dyeing my hair mermaid blue last night, while you were probably watching Girls or Gossip Girl, and again today while I walked around the Norton Simon looking at the Rococos and at Camille Claudel’s.

The reason I began writing when I was a little girl was because it offered me freedom— freedom from my parents’ rule, freedom from the constrictions of a world that didn’t see me. I could make anything happen; I could insert myself in the stories I wrote and give myself agency.

And yet, now, I am thinking of how much of our conversation has revolved around our material, financial and work situations, the complications of my love life. In effect, the lack of agency we have often experienced as female artists/writers who refuse to compromise our visions. I think as a child I really thought that writing was magic and would change my life dramatically–that by doing it, I could make the world change, and be taken seriously as an artist, could make the world better for girls and women. I still believe that, and have seen it happen in my life, but it’s of course much harder than I thought it was as a child. And yet as a child I could write for days straight, hours and hours and hours, so it was still hard work, even then. But pleasurable.

I am spending June and July finishing up E! Entertainment’s Diamond Edition and the Gaga Stigmata book simultaneously. This is the only time I have to write these things, because until recently I was teaching six days a week, some of those five hour class sessions far from my home. I was teaching so much I made myself ill, so much so that I was dizzy 24/7 and had to teach sitting down, and have been in and out of the doctor’s office ever since, sans insurance.

For the Gaga book, I am writing a piece that talks about Marina Abromovic and Gaga, in part. There was this interview Gaga did with SHOWSTUDIO, wherein Marina Abramovic called in— many celebs called in. Abramovic asked Gaga the question: “Who creates limits?” Gaga answered, “We do,” and then she said to the interviewer: “You see how simple her [Abramovic’s] question was? That’s because she’s fucking free.” The interviewer asked Gaga to explain, and she said, after gushing about seeing “The Artist is Present” in NYC, and gushing about “Rhythm O,” Abramovic’s famous performance wherein she let the audience abuse her, almost to the point of death, without surrendering or bowing her head:  “That bitch trusts herself, and she trusts her art.”

To me, to be a woman, an artist, and to be free, the bitch has to trust herself, has to trust her art.

That could look like different things to many people, but for me, lately, that looks like two letters: NO. No to anything that feels wrong in my gut, no to reading bad reviews, no to compromising my vision, no, even, to “accepting” a life of poverty just because I am an artist. I am saying no to those things. Not “no” for the sake of no— no for the sake of my YES. I am saying YES to trusting my art, for continuing to believe in and work for a better world, wherein women and girls can make a success of their life and art, no matter who in the audience is holding a gun (that can be interpreted in various ways, used as a metaphor for any number of financial and other restrictions). Because— as that performance of Abramovic’s exemplifies, to me at least— no one can take away your trust in yourself and your work, if you refuse to let them, if you won’t bow your head.

I love you and admire you and your work tremendously— it has given me freedom. Any time I have been stuck in my life, whether in an abusive marriage wherein my ex was trying to have me institutionalized like your Zelda, or in a bad relationship with a poet-who-shall-not-be-named mooching off of me financially, or just in one bad adjunct situation after another, you have always encouraged me to move toward freedom–to believe in myself, my power to take care of myself, to find real good love (and now I have!), and to love myself and believe in my work. I think our friendship was founded in freedom, more than the USA (hah).

KZ: I was asked to do something yesterday which would be very good for my career. And this thing will involve having my picture taken, and it was all so weird, and kind of jolting, that I’ve been looking at clothes online all day, even though I CANNOT buy any more clothes, and then I’ve realized I probably have to get Shapewear—  because remember that dress I was wearing at AWP? The long black one? I love it but currently photograph like Gertrude Stein in it, and then I’m premenstrual, so kind of nervous and vertiginous and edgy, and I just polished off half a thing of coconut milk chocolate ice cream. What a cliché I am. I should be intoning something in a thoughtful, earnest voiceover while typing in my laptop while someone films me. I am glad that Lena Dunham forwent the earnest voiceover device in Girls, even though I’m not in love with the show, I like it, but as we’ve discussed, and as you’ve brilliantly theorized, horror is perhaps the best genre for the girl, I think, not television.

And I’m imagining when some male authors learn they will have to get their pictures professionally taken they don’t obsess about what they’re wearing, or think about writing a Facebook status update wishing there were Spanx for arms, but then not writing it, or erasing it before posting it, because realizing that that’s very body-obsessed and ANTI-feminist, and if I was truly body-obsessed I would probably exercise. Anyway. And then throughout that this wanting to LOOK like an AUTHOR, whatever that means, so smart and sophisticated, but not a hag, and as you know, since I’m turning 35, this has been obsessing me more than I’d like to admit, Eve versus Edie Sedgwick, that dialectic. And Eve Sedgwick wrote about fat, as well, in her poetry, her fear of fat. The fear of being a hag. The desire to be pretty. Why does the idea of being photographed make that internal monologue go again?

So of course I didn’t get any work done today. “Work” being now binging on books and trying to think about all of it for an essay. Yes, on girls. And on boundaries, and radical oversharing.

I love all of what you say here about freedom. It seems to me, when I was unpublished, I was a lot freer as a writer. Yes, I didn’t have a community, yet, I had to invent this invisible tea party, like Sontag’s Alice in Bed, except it was with Zelda and Jean Rhys and Colette Peignot (the woman known as Laure). But I had no sense of the scene, of the climate of publishing, of who my contemporary peers were, or what genre whatever monstrous project I was envisioning would be shuttled into, or who would publish it, or how much I was going to have to struggle to get published, or what people would write or say about it. So I wrote and wrote, a girl-Darger, and dreamed and wrote in my journal and I remember this period as a magic time, like your girlhood, that I wish to get back to.
Like the Shapewear, sometimes I find the life of the writer rather confining. For me, freedom would be freedom to be absolutely brave, and so for me it is an internal freedom – a bravery – an ability as you say to refuse things, to choose to hole back up in that hermitage (and also, a freedom from the poisonous internal monologue that sometimes the demands of feminine beauty can narrate). It is very important for me that I continue a discipline that seemed to somehow fall to the side in the rush of touring, editing, getting things ready for production, doing stuff for publicity, worrying over reviews, etc. And beyond the discipline – the talent of the room, as I once heard it put – the deafness or dumbness, the refusal to think of my work solely in the context of some contemporary scene, or to be paralyzed or atrophied by an anxiety of not being a genius, but trying, trying, trying, always to break something, always to not fit into a mold, because to me that’s interesting writing. Every project I work on I want to finally succeed in breaking something. I recently read Anne Carson, in the introduction to her translation of An Oresteia, bring up Francis Bacon’s quote (I’m rewording) that when he makes a painting he removes a boundary.

So freedom for me I guess is about boundaries – putting the boundary up in my public life, taking it away in private to allow me to be monstrous and marvelous in my interior world.

Oh, Camille Claudel. The opposite of freedom right? I mean she was absolutely brave – and then contained. I guess it’s about not allowing ourselves to be contained—to be stopped, or silenced.

You are always taking risks, Kate Durbin. I admire your fortitude to continue with your projects, your singular vision. Sometimes I look at myself, or some of the woman writers a bit younger than me—and I think it’s not really about talent, succeeding as a woman writer, which I think means continuing, going forth, pushing on, but it’s about whether we’re strong enough. I think we need these sorts of bonds and confidantes to assure ourselves that we’re not crazy, we’re not weak, that we’re original, that we’re brilliant, when sometimes we don’t know it ourselves. It’s like Mademoiselle Reisz feeling Edna Pontellier’s shoulderblades in The Awakening, seeing if she was strong enough to fly away from the voices of prejudice and conformity, in order to be an artist.

That book is so much about female friendship, isn’t it? My students always thought of it as a love story, like Twilight, Edna and Robert, but he distracts her. He doesn’t see her for the gorgeous monster that she has become. He ignores her becoming.

*     *     *

Kate Durbin is a Los Angeles-based writer and performance artist. She is author of The Ravenous Audience, E! Entertainment, and The Fashion Issue.  Her projects have been featured in Spex, Huffington Post, The New Yorker, Salon.com, AOL, Poets and Writers, TMobile’s Your Digital Daily, Poets.org, Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion, berfrois, NPR, Bookslut, 1913, LIT, Fanzine, and The American Scholar, among others. She is founding editor of Gaga Stigmata, an online arts and criticism journal about Lady Gaga, which will be published as a book from Zg Press in 2012.

 Kate Zambreno is the author of the novels O Fallen Angel and Green GirlHeroines, a critical memoir revolving around her obsession with the wives and myths of modernism, will be published by Semiotext(e)’s Active Agents in November. She blogs and tweets at @daughteroffury.

Channel the Howl: A Conversation with Kate Durbin and Kate Zambreno

Breaking the Silence in Cambodia

by Anne Elizabeth Moore

Since late 2007, I’ve been travelling between Cambodia and Chicago, doing informal media justice work with young women, mostly in and around Phnom Penh. I started my own career in the literary arts as a zinester, “inventing” the hand-made book in that naïve way all self-publishers do, determined to create some kind of physical proof that I existed in the world. I was 11. Saturday-morning cartoons and the other media I was consuming in the early 1980s were beginning the process of deregulation—a consolidation of advertising and entertainment immediately evident from the increased product placement that regularly appeared before me when I wanted to learn about the world. Carving a space for my own voice as a counterpoint to constant consumer messaging saved my sanity.

But in Cambodia at the time, the situation was somewhat more dire. The early 1980s there saw the country in a state of shock, having just emerged from the Khmer Rouge regime that killed a quarter of the population and, through starvation, forced labor, rape, and other daily injustices, traumatized those who remained alive. The Vietnamese invasion that ended this period kicked off two decades of civil war. Public elections in 1992 aimed to prove the country had finally democratized, but accusations of strong-arm tactics, voter fraud, graft, and corruption still emerge as a regular part of the political landscape.

Yet democracy means more than voting: it means freedom of creative expression, too. However, in a country where few escaped abuse—whether as perpetrators or recipients—free expression is not always welcome. The Khmer Rouge years are still not taught in most schools, still not discussed in ruling party-controlled media, or, for more understandable reasons, still not bandied about the dinner table. Why dwell on the negative? Is the explanation I’m often given for why young Cambodians don’t know their nation’s history.

And they don’t. The first year I worked in Cambodia, a survey indicated that the majority of the booming youth population simply didn’t know that the Khmer Rouge regime happened. That’s changing now, but the refusal to say anything negative still predominates, which far too often means that many remain silent. Particularly women, who are subject to a fairly strict set of traditional rules and values called the Chbap Srei, which outlines a cultural code of feminine silence in all aspects of public life, and many aspects of private life as well.

So when I went there, initially to work with the first large group of young women in the history of the country to achieve higher education, then later to continue my work as a journalist, college professor, and media justice worker, I naturally started by teaching zines. Small, self-published booklets that we created in English to avoid government overview, copied in small quantities, and distributed in locations we felt were safe and amenable to young Cambodian women’s genuine concerns, interests, and dreams. Thirty of us made over 50 zines in the first two months, then when I returned a year later we made 75 more. The young women I worked with have since gone on to teach zine-making in their home provinces, in English and in Khmer. Some have entered the field of journalism. Around 2007, there were only 6 female journalists in the country. That’s changed now, significantly. Last year I taught a college class on independent media making, and how it can be an effective response to a globalizing media environment. Cambodia didn’t have advertising until the late 1980s, but Cambodians now see almost as many ads per day as Americans. Critical media literacy is an essential first step to creative expression. In a developing economy where ads feature Western amenities at Western prices—moreover one that prefers and rewards feminine silence—inspiring an urge to speak at all can take time. But it grows, and spreads, fast.

This project has only been possible because it remains informal. Although I have been funded by many organizations, foundations, and individuals, the work would necessarily change, were I to establish a literacy program for young Cambodian women. For one, such a program would allow for government monitoring—NGOs in Cambodia suffer a great deal of scrutiny—and thus a new set of fears for folks just learning to raise their voices in any medium. But also, the nature of gaining control over a language, and constructing a world and worldview through it is viral. The love of it grows too quickly to establish an institution around; it passes too fast from one person to the next. I can barely keep up with the torrent of passionate emails from my young friends, much less do the paperwork required to establish this project as a 501(c)(3) organization.

Keeping the project informal also means I can share resources freely without worrying about the defamation of my project. The small 8-fold zine I use to teach—first in Cambodia, but more recently elsewhere in the world, too—is available, in English, or in translation in Khmer, German, Arabic, Georgian and other languages. You can check out the first in my series of books on this work, Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh, here; the next in the series looks at what happened when we collaboratively decided to rewrite the Chbap Srei. It’s called New Girl Law, and you can check that out here. Then sometimes, I try to bring other people in to share resources, since democracy is best explored from a range of perspectives. You can read about my comics project with Sara Drake here, or read some of the zines and comics my collaborators have made. I’ve found little in the world that is as inspiring to the global women’s literacy movement than global women’s amazing creations.

Breaking the Silence in Cambodia

Freedom Is A Historical Romance

by Tonya Cherie Hegamin

My children are my books, and I am a fierce mother. In birthing my fourth book, a historical romance for young adults focused on physical and emotional freedoms in 1848 and set on the Mason-Dixon Line, I fretted over the world I was bringing these characters into. The protagonist is a black girl peculiar only because of her desire for and attainment of knowledge. Her love interest is a black boy who endeavors to walk the line of freedom with only his wits to guide him.

Before you moan and roll your eyes as so many do when I tell them I’ve written a historical romance, I’ll tell you that I wrote it purely as a womanist activist.

Rita B. Dandridge, in the introduction to her 2004 critical text Black Women’s Activism: Reading African American Women’s Historical Romances, asserts that “…historical romance [is] a useful and timely genre in which to encase unresolved sociopolitical issues regarding African Americans’ rights and status in American society”(3). I knew this genre would specifically allow me to facilitate an exploration of freedom and slavery for contemporary young people in a connective and hopefully healing manner. 1848 was a critical year for “The Freedom Business”—not just for American slaves but also for the world-wide class revolution— it was the end of the Mexican-American War which laid out the borders of Texas and California, the year Marx and Engels published their manifesto, the year of the Third French Revolution, as well as uprisings in Brazil, Hungry and Sri Lanka. It was also the year of the Seneca Falls Convention, which officially began the public discourse on women’s rights.  Two years later, the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, allowing slave owners to “recover” their escaped property across state lines, a broiling issue of the time which led to the Civil War.

The time period begs comparison to today’s issues of freedom. Freedom was a business then, just as it is now, and the issues haven’t changed much. Women’s bodies are probably more objectified now than they were then. We’re still struggling for educational freedom, reproductive and marital freedom, not to mention the freedom to work across borders, live healthy lives and vote without harassment. The only difference is that back then, the carrot was dangled in front of you with a ten foot pole, whereas today it dangles right in front of our faces, and still just as hard to reach. Perhaps it has become even harder because media and advertising has magnified the ideas of “The American Dream” and “Freedom” to be synonymous with fame and self importance (btw, the dawn of advertising as we know it started around 1848). The stronghold of capitalism requires free or nearly free labor, which in turn is enforced through oppression of personal freedoms—specifically the freedoms of brown and black people. It feels as though many are still living in the grips of slavery today.

It was literally painful for me to write the end of my book. I cried over the last few chapters knowing that I was sending these characters into a future that was just a few hazy shades brighter than what would have been their present. I decided to dedicate the book to Treyvon Martin, killed for being a black boy in the wrong place at the wrong time and Kelley Williams-Bolar, who was jailed in 2011 for trying to send her daughters to a better school district. They are simply representatives of the masses whose personal freedoms are consistently impinged upon by the racist capitalist system.

How many people are like them who haven’t had their stories told? What about the Mexican American teens who work hard at school only to be denied access to college because they are “undocumented”, or the brown folks in border states who (still) get routinely stopped and humiliated, not to mention urban profiling. Or what of the Muslim men and women who are under suspicion for simply following their faith (let’s not even get into the lies about “separation of church and state”). How about my native cousins throughout the country who can only rely on casinos for income? Is this the freedom we want for ourselves, for our communities, for our children (whether they be real or fictional)?

What exactly are we striving for? How do we define freedom if it is not for the enslavement of others? In the 1840s there were many planned utopian communities where people were trying to answer those questions, to create a space for consummate equality, but obviously none of them succeeded to sustainably impact the mainstream culture of the time. Money was usually the main issue; self-disenfranchisement can be lethal in a commerce driven society. Even the Occupy movement that held fire for a while faded into the background of our collective consciousness. Most middle class Americans (white, black, brown and yellow) live specifically to separate themselves from “the other” as a sacrifice to their perceived freedoms. They are just as beholden as the poor—slaves to creditors and propriety, slaves to the fear of poverty.

Freedom can only come from a lack of fear; freedom is an open heart, despite injustice. That idea must circulate in the mixed blood of all Americans in order for true equality. Our world holds plenty, enough for us all, really—but we must learn to share instead of horde, to forgive instead of grudge. But do we even want that as a society? It’s uncomfortable for many to accept that freedom isn’t about taking from others, but it comes from releasing others and ourselves to live without fear.

At the end of my book, Willow, the protagonist asks herself the question: Can a black woman ever really be truly free, especially if she wants to marry? In 1848, the sad answer was no, and it broke my heart to tell her and my readers that, knowing that in 2012, the answer for many women is still the same. We still don’t get equal pay for equal work, we still don’t have complete freedom over our reproductive systems, and women are still more likely to be abused by their spouses and boyfriends than by strangers. Are you still rolling your eyes? Still asking how historical romance for teens could fix any of this?

Dandridge concludes in her epilogue, “These heroines [of the historical romance genre] correct the misconception given by nineteenth-century fiction that black women had little or no input in the freedom struggles and that their public aspirations should have been subordinated to their private responsibilities” (91). One of the significant freedoms American women are afforded now that they did not have at all in 1848 is the freedom of expression. Of course, many people are still unable to express their discontents without backlash, but freedom is, after all, a constant struggle. However, I want young women of all races to always remember where we started from, to be able to make these comparisons between their present lives and the past; to draw their own conclusions and to be inspired and empowered by them enough to organize and vocalize; to encourage them to enthusiastically consider their private aspirations to be inextricably linked to their public responsibilities. I also want Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth to not be considered the only black females of their time to succeed as freedom fighters.

The answer for my characters? The payoff for their struggle? Perhaps it is the very simple fact that I am able to write them a better ending than they would have had in reality.  I was able to create a fictional male partner for my heroine who shared and supported her private and public aspirations so that she and my readers could have some ray of hope. So perhaps true freedom is only found in fiction, a re-write of history into herstory that might be mistaken as the truth somewhere in the future. Maybe it is cheesy, but I celebrate your freedom to roll your eyes again!

Willow will be published in 2013 by Candlewick Press. Find out more at http://www.tonyacheriehegamin.com.

Freedom Is A Historical Romance