I’m not alone—the time and attention that careful reading requires are difficult to muster up when your emotional energy is being tugged at from all sides, as is wont to happen during a time of national and international crisis.
I’ve made slow progress through a few books and abandoned others (don’t hate me for not getting into Where The Crawdads Sing!) but the first book in some time to really capture my energy was this one, The 7 ½Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle(published as The 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle outside of the USA) by Stuart Turton. I read it in about two days, mostly in long sessions curled up in a chair, taking it in as quickly as I could while still giving each scene thorough attention.
The premise is intriguing: in order to solve a murder at Blackheath manor, our protagonist Aiden Bishop relives the day of the crime over and over, each day in a new body, for eight days. If he discovers the name of the murderer, he will be freed from this cycle. Should he fail, his memories are wiped and he begins the cycle anew.
As a fan of Black Mirror, Agatha Christie novels, and of course the movie Groundhog Day, a synopsis of the book was enough to pull me in, but the writing kept me compelled. As our amnesiac narrator struggles to figure out who he is and what his task is, the narrative becomes expansive. A large cast of characters each prove to have fascinating secrets of their own, and as the plot thickens and time begins to run out, the urgency I felt as a reader increased.
I was able to guess a few of the plot twists before their reveals, which was sometimes satisfying and sometimes disappointing. Still, the book had many surprises, most of which were paced evenly and foreshadowed enough that I never felt too jarred by them. However, the final tenth of the book or so did feel like a bit of a letdown. A fascinating, elaborate puzzle had been set up and just as the finale was beginning to take shape in my mind, some reveals were inserted too abruptly for my taste.
I felt like the story demanded some degree more understanding of the machinations behind the time loop at Blackheath, and what the world outside of Blackheath looked like. I’m not one to complain about a well-wrought open ending, and far be it from me to insist that every detail be spelled out for me, but because of the time and energy that went into establishing the first four hundred pages of the book, the payoff to the murder’s solution felt a little hollow. The stakes changed scale drastically in the final chapters, leaving the original story feeling almost entirely disconnected from its ending. Too many of the final reveals felt as though they were inserted solely for shock factor. A truly satisfying mystery should feel inevitable in retrospect, but the chaos that made the majority of the book so interesting could not be mitigated in such a short span and also allow for the introduction of new themes.
My one other complaint is that the same final section of the story that began to expand upon the outer world did so with a heavy-handed moral message. I believe that stories should reflect the worlds in which they are created, and that morals often emerge naturally from the best stories. This one, however, did not feel as though it developed over the course of the story, as it hinged on information revealed at a late stage. The actual lessons which I perceived developing from the text—that perspective drastically shifts how we think about those around us, that money is often a corrupting influence, that trusting others and sticking to our morals when they are challenged is the true test of character—immediately receded beneath a different sort of statement about justice and forgiveness (which I won’t say more about at risk of spoiling the book).
Despite these flaws, I still gave this book 4 stars on Goodreads, as the majority of its plot and text were cleverly crafted, posing big universal questions and having immense fun with its vague historical setting, characters, and social mores. I definitely credit this book with getting me out of a quarantine-induced reading slump, and I hope that whatever I read next is even half as engaging.
This isn’t going to be one of those incessant productivity posts that have been dominating Twitter and Pinterest, filled with motivational quotes and willful ignorance of economic privilege and reckless disregard for mental health.
It’s also… not not going to be a post about productivity.
Full disclosure: during the first month and a half of quarantine I found it incredibly hard to concentrate on anything. I found out that I would have to return home while I was on a solo trip in New Orleans, and I had to change my flights last minute when I was told I could not return to campus. Many of my belongings are still in my dorm, and it’s going to be a few weeks before I can get them back. In that time I steadily re-watched just about every TV show I’ve ever seen, slept at odd hours and woke in the middle of the night, and stared at the same sentence in a a book over and over again without being able to move on to the next one. I tuned in to most of my Zoom classes while I had them, but I felt drastically less engaged with the world, and particularly with any practice requiring intellectual rigor.
Aside from a little bit of tweaking and editing stories I’d already drafted significantly, writing was out of the question. With the world filled with things that make me angry, terrified, or just plain weary, I was struggling to find inspiration or motivation to sit down and put words on the page. I hadn’t been journaling, hadn’t been scrawling poems in the margins of notebooks, hadn’t even really composed a witty Tweet. I’m trying to gestate ideas for my honors thesis, but it’s been years since I’ve written a novel draft and I’ve become a much smarter writer since then—smart enough to understand that writing a novel takes more than a single NaNoWriMo draft.
After school ended it still took me about a month to figure out my new groove. My twentieth birthday came and went, and as it began to really sink in that my summer—and potentially my fall, depending on what my university decides—would be spent in my room, with limited in-person social contact and very little to do, I elected to reframe my outlook on the situation. I’m lucky enough to have a home with good internet connection, my own bedroom, and parents with stable employment. My health is good, and so is that of my family. Although I don’t have a job of my own lined up for this summer, I can afford not to have one. I wish there wasn’t a pandemic, and I miss being able to hug my friends, and I’m angry that our country’s mismanagement of this crisis has led to thousands of deaths, and I grieve the experience I would have had learning a new city this summer. But since I have things so good, I have decided to focus on the positive side-effect of the whole situation: this summer, I finally have time.
The past few days, I’ve made some changes to my routine, creating my own personal writing retreat. I deep-cleaned my room and created a home office space within it. I’ve begun walking around my neighborhood for an hour every day, listening to music and allowing myself to engage with the lovely spring weather while maintaining social distance. I’m taking some free online courses: video editing and graphic design to gain some professional skills, and classical music appreciation to feed my soul. I’ve been practicing Spanish on Duolingo and in (admittedly) slow conversations with my mother. I’m playing my oboe again for the first time since high school. I’m reaching out to friends more (electronically, of course!), and I’m trying very hard to read more and read broadly. I’ve made agreements with a few of my writer friends to exchange feedback on stories and/or keep one another accountable about writing. I’m finally going to start submitting to literary journals. I feel really good.
Doing whatever you have to do to stay safe and sane is constructive. Everything on top of that is a bonus.
I signed up for Maggie Stiefvater’s virtual writing seminar and I’m very excited to see what insights she has to share. I’m reading craft books, but trying not to get too in-my-head about craft either. Mostly I’m trying to take in the world around me. I often write to process ideas I haven’t fully worked through, to answer questions I haven’t figured out yet and to find some new questions in the process. I’m hoping to document this process here as I write my way through the quarantine and hopefully emerge on the other side with something. It could be a few short stories, a smattering of poems, a couple short new stand-up comedy sets. It could be a novel idea, or a few chapters of a new project. Maybe I’ll dabble in stage writing or screenwriting.
But I know that perspective is crucial. I may not continue to feel this burst of energy, and I don’t want to be too hard on myself when that happens. I’m choosing to think about my work during this time as constructive rather than productive, and that frame shift is very important to me. Productivity is for someone else. It’s systemic, and economic. For me, constructive work feels more personal. I’m doing things that make me feel more confident as a writer and as a person. When I have to take breaks, and to recalibrate the way I did when I first came home, I am losing nothing by not being productive. Rest is constructive too. Doing whatever you have to do to stay safe and sane is constructive. Everything on top of that is a bonus.
I hope to use this space to keep track of my development as I try to write more, publish more, and generate ideas for my thesis project/next novel. Rather than adding to the mindless productivity buzz, I want to engage in frank discussions about the ups and downs of my writing and my life. I hope you’ll join me in this journey of self-construction.
This piece was an honorable mention for the 2020 American Academy of Poets Prize at Duke University.
like a newborn foal— bowlegged, pigeon-toed, drawn in swift slips to the clover-cover of the soft green ground
more joint than not, legs buckle knees, knuckle, tiptoe arch-fallen, spur-ridden, hoof-cloven, hollow
graceless in shape, sinew, slow-stumbling raceless wide-eyed, wet-maned, still slick with womb-water, walking in heaves and shudders till the earth pushes, sky pulls, and—lighter than light— canters forth
LASERBEAM coy, a real wallflower at first, then dashing across the floor where we scramble-scuttle, paws straining, claws out, scratching wood-floor-empty-nothing
and just when we’ve forgotten,
LASERBEAM smirking out of reach silent siren-song pulsing ears unwaxed, teeth bared we dive and scratch and stretch and come up emptyhanded, bloody, betrayed and when we think we’ve learned—
LASERBEAM caught, (we are hunters born) but immaterial, ethereal, ghostthin—
we don’t notice when it’s gone
honeysuckle evening when the moon can’t see us
hiding between the breaths of flowers sunsigh still over land we don’t pierce the silence it would bleed
even the crickets are muted in wonder
the water falls upwards the frost unfurls we hold time hostage it surrenders
(katydids startle fireflies fade
and we among them flash, then falter)
later, when we have loosed our grip it slips away from us
like a crow released from a ship’s bow— landbound, seeking terrain, fleeing the throttlebend of albatross circling the stern like carrion, beelining for the horizon
(pyrite sunglint over wave-dapple) drawn ever forwards by the kiss of distant shores and the promise of renaissance
the opposite of olive-branch caged by scurvy sailors until the stars scramble
This piece won the Anne Flexner Memorial Award for Fiction in 2020.
I’m going blonde. Everyone else seems to have everything figured out for once, so I need a change. I booked an appointment for this afternoon and I’m on my way now, listening to my maudlin brunette music and letting it bounce around between my ears one last time. Tonight will be all Top 40s.
At the salon I fall into the chair with the full force of my weight, just to see if I can break it. It doesn’t flinch but the cushions let out a funny little gasp. I straighten myself up and look in the mirror, but the stylist has gone back to the counter for a moment to check someone else in. They are short-staffed today. Popular time of year for a change.
There are cut cherry blossoms in a vase on the table in front of me. I lean forward to sniff them but it turns out they’re just plastic.
The stylist comes back over. She is short and her breasts are straining against her leopard print top, stretching the spots until you can no longer see the holes in the middle. The elastic is fighting a war.
She reaches down and begins to knead at my scalp with her rough fingers. It’s greasy—I’ve heard it’s better to go in with unwashed hair but I don’t quite understand why.
Her own hair is streaky, pink and blue over mouse brown, and I wonder for a moment if I should just get up now and leave before she does something irreversible. There’s still time to drive home and turn on the television and maybe catch Seinfeld reruns or whatever they’re airing these days. I could make microwave popcorn and turn down the lights. I could pretend I was a kid and it was late at night and I was trying not to laugh too loud so Mom and Dad wouldn’t wake up. I could call Frankie and we could curl up in pajamas like old times, but she probably has plans with Andy. She always has plans these days.
I settle back into the chair and grip the armrests until my knuckles turn white.
“What can I do for you today, then?”
My chest feels kind of tight and I don’t open my mouth for a few seconds and when I do I’ve borrowed my grandmother’s German accent that she only trots out on holidays or when she’s angry.
“Blonde,” I say and relax my hands. “All the American girls are blonde.”
The stylist laughs. “So where are you from, honey?”
It’s a bit of a loaded question—I was born in a different place than where I lived longest or where I liked best, and all of those are different from where I live now and where my parents ended up settling in their early retirement. I settle on, “Vienna,” because that’s where my grandmother is from and I lived there for a few months when I was a kid.
“Germany?” She talks with her mouth too wide open, like she wants me to count her teeth.
She begins to pin my hair up to the top of my head with those little toothy clips that only hairdressers and cool girls own. I’ll have to get myself some when I’m blonde. I’ll finally be able to wear a messy bun that looks artful and windswept and accidental and delicately crafted all at once.
I have this theory that I’m going to feel better once I do it. People will be nicer. Guys will smile at me more and rush to pick up my pens when I drop them. Girls will be jealous of me, except the other blondes. We will have an instant camaraderie.
The stylist paints my hair and wraps it up in tin foil. When she’s done I look like an alien from an old Hollywood sensation, an H. G. Wells wet dream. I go and sit with my head in the funny little dryer and everything is warm and I wonder if the tin foil will burn me but I decide that even if it does it won’t matter. You can have horrific burns down your face and neck but with the right shade and shape to your hair you can get away with it.
I close my eyes when the stylist washes the color and the bleach out of my hair because her breasts are too close to the top of my face and I don’t want to stare at the overworked elastic. After that she layers some color back in—I don’t want my hair to be white, after all. I want golden, cornsilk, strawberry, all-American, beach babe, bombshell, bubbly blonde. Blonde with dimension. Approachable blonde.
I go back to the hair dryer, then get shampooed, then she gives me a blowout. All the blondes get blowouts. I’m not sure I have the money to drop on a weekly one, not since I’ve been paying the rent all on my own, but I’ll have to find it. They’ll know if I don’t. The crack in the veneer.
“You’ll want to come back in about three weeks,” the stylist says before I leave. “That’s usually when the roots will start to show, but sometimes it happens sooner.”
I almost forget my Viennese accent when I check out, but I catch myself just before I speak. I hesitate a bit, like choking. Blondes don’t choke. I’ll have to practice.
At home, I put on a shower cap before I turn on the faucet. I even sing as I work my soap into a lather. Blondes lather before they wash. Afterward I put on a sheet mask and settle on the couch in the living room to scroll through my phone. It eats the hours, and it’s late when I finally drift off to a Frank Ocean song.
I forgot to set the alarm so I wake to sunlight. It feels right and so I pad back to my room and strip. I haven’t actually touched my bed in weeks, and there’s dust on the duvet. I throw on a camisole and shorts and then a big knit cardigan on top of it so it covers one of my shoulders but just sort of slips off the other. That feels like a blonde thing to do, and then I make myself herbal tea instead of my normal coffee, because that fits too. I should have a newspaper that I half-read while I sit on my balcony. I should maybe move somewhere with a balcony.
I have a few unread emails, but that’s it for notifications. I haven’t posted anything since before Aidan left and I know that out of sight is out of mind. No one knows I’m a blonde yet, and they’re all too busy having things figured out to bother with me right now—boyfriends behaving, fights forgotten, mental health monitored. They’re probably all staying hydrated and keeping gratitude journals. It’s alright. They’ll come around. They always do.
I need to show the world my new hair, but I have to think about it carefully before I do it. I can’t just post a selfie—I’m terrible at the angles. Anyway, blondes don’t take pictures of themselves. They have friends who do photoshoots at golden hour and capture candids where they’re laughing and all their teeth are perfect. Their eyes crinkle up but it’s cute when they do it. Natural.
I don’t really have the kind of friends who take pictures of me. They kind of avoid me when things are working out for them, really, and when things aren’t they’re always too shaky to hold a camera. We never actually do a whole lot except talk and wish things were better, and sometimes I tell them it’ll be okay without really meaning it or wanting it to happen, but that’s about it. Taking pictures would suggest we wanted people to see us.
But I’m blonde now and I want people to see me, so I guess I’ll just have to find a way. Maybe if I set my phone camera on timer it will look like I had someone with me taking the shot. I’m not sure what my best wall is, for a background, but I’ll figure it out. A real blonde has ingenuity.
Later in the day I get a call. Frankie wants to go dancing. It’s a Saturday evening and so it makes sense but it feels a bit out of the blue, especially since we haven’t really talked since the last time we went out. Her voice sounds a little worried and part of me wants to ask if something happened with her boyfriend again, if she’s looking for an excuse to drink, but then I’d have to take care of her and taking care of people isn’t what I’m supposed to do anymore. I’m supposed to go dancing, so I say yes. I’m supposed to turn heads, and make friends with drunk girls in bathrooms, and share that little knowing look with every other blonde that says I recognize you, I applaud you, we are the same, you and I.
It’s kind of cold out but I know it will be hot in the club because it always gets hot in clubs with all those bodies pressed together so I put on a tube top and a short little skirt and then swipe on some waterproof makeup so it doesn’t slip with sweat. Blondes aren’t supposed to sweat often but when they do it’s supposed to look and smell good so I splash on some perfume and apply extra deodorant to my armpits and even a little to my back, just in case. Blondes don’t wear stilettos because that’s trying too hard so I toss on some booties with a little wedge at the back because blondes are either under 5’2 or over 5’7 and I’m neither.
I wonder if they’ll be able to tell, when I’m there, that I’m newly blonde. I wonder if my voice will give it away, or my eyebrows, or my posture. I think I slouch too much.
Frankie and I meet up at a parking garage two blocks from the club—I walked here but she drove. It’s good to see her, I guess, especially since I haven’t in a while. She says, “Nice hair,” but I can’t tell if she means it. She has a biting kind of tone whenever she speaks that makes it difficult to tell if she’s being sarcastic. I’m not sure why I like her, but we’ve known each other since before we lost all our baby teeth and knowing counts for something. Our parents worked on the same committee at the UN, so we moved around a lot, and often to the same places. We’re very different, but I think Frankie might be the only person who really knows why I am the way I am.
After a moment, she asks, “Is this about that girl on Aidan’s Instagram?”
I know the picture she’s talking about, from last Thursday—a girl sitting across the table from him with big blue eyes and hair so blonde it gleamed. We’ve been broken up a month now, but it still stings to see.
“No,” I say, and I can tell she thinks I’m lying, but I double down. “I just wanted a change.”
“Just another one of your self-improvement kicks, then?”
I shoot her a look. “How’s Andy?”
She makes a face, all her features sort of wrinkling up and shrinking in toward her nose, then relaxes and shrugs. This means he’s fine. She never wants to talk when things are fine.
In the line for the club we flash our IDs. The bouncer doesn’t comment on my hair being different and for the first time I’m sad they don’t actually look all that carefully at the pictures.
In the club Frankie says something and I can’t quite hear her but I shout back Yeah! and laugh because that’s what people do in clubs and especially what blondes do. She looks annoyed at me but doesn’t say anything else, so I pretend I can’t see her grimace. We make our way to the center of the pack and begin to move and for once it doesn’t matter that I’m not coordinated because I’m blonde and I’m untouchable.
A song comes on in Spanish and Frankie and I know the lyrics but once I realize everyone else is just sort of faking singing along, I go mute. Frankie frowns at me but continues to sing, enunciating really clearly so everyone can tell she knows the words. We spent fifth grade in Santo Domingo where my dad grew up, attending the American school during the day and watching my abuela cook in the afternoons. Frankie should know by now that it doesn’t make us special.
We keep moving, keep dancing, and I’m beginning to feel the power of the hair taking over me. I dance closer to people, dance on them. I push my hands through my hair and they come back damp with sweat and I know that I like that, that people like that. Frankie seems upset for some reason but I keep dancing because I’m not about fixing people anymore.
I order two tequila shots at first because tequila is a drink for girls who know how to party, but then for my next drink I can tell my abuelo would be disappointed if I chose Mexican tequila over Caribbean rum, so I get a mojito and sip it by the bar while Frankie is in the bathroom.
Frankie sort of dropped off the map about six weeks ago when she and Andy stopped fighting again. She’s been like this since grade school—I was always too anxious to make friends with people I knew I’d have to leave, and she’d run off with the first interesting person to look her way, then come crawling back to me whenever we had to move. I got used to it a long time ago.
I didn’t really want to bother her while things were working so I found myself alone a lot more, especially because Becca had finally stopped trying to off herself after she found God, and James got into law school, and Maryam got a promotion and started working longer hours. I didn’t have anyone except Aidan, really, and after the last time I went out with Frankie, that one foggy night when everything started to get to me, I didn’t have him anymore either.
There’s a guy who comes over to me and the lighting’s bad so I can’t tell if he’s actually cute or if the blue edges of the shadows are creating the illusion of good bone structure. He taps my shoulder and I flinch at first but then remind myself that I’m not supposed to flinch anymore. I turn around slowly and he says something like didn’t mean to startle you and that choice of words, the sort of country lilt to his voice melts me a little. It’s hard to hear, though, so I’m not sure if the accent is real or imagined.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he asks next and I’m surprised because people don’t usually ask to buy me drinks and then I remember that I have joined the ranks of the elite.
I’m nearly done with the mojito but I’m also getting pretty tipsy and I know that blondes get drunk but they never get hungover and they’re never sloppy about it. I tell him sure and say I’ll take a daiquiri because it’s mostly sugar anyway and I don’t have to drink it quick.
He starts to ask me questions and I can only sort of hear him (huh? yeah, totally, haha! what?) and eventually he says, “You wanna get out of here?”
I look down and it turns out I’ve emptied the glass and I’m not really sure where the time has gone and normally I would say no and get a bit freaked out and wind up at home on my own but I sort of nod because he seems nice and I’m a blonde now and this is the kind of thing you do when you’re confident and carefree.
It’s only after we’re in a cab halfway across the city that I realize I must have left Frankie there and my phone is dead. She’s probably going to be worried about me, and if I’m being honest my breathing is a little quick, but whenever I get wherever we’re going I’m sure I’ll be able to get a charger. This is nothing like last time when my phone powered down. It can’t be. I’m completely in control.
I don’t know where he’s taking me and that’s the sort of thing that should worry me—I can feel anxiety nagging at the corner of my mind but I push it back. I’m done being nervous all the time. Usually the only thing that keeps me together is worrying about other people, trying to keep Becca away from sharp objects and Frankie away from sharply dressed men, reminding Maryam to take her meds and reminding James not to take Maryam’s meds. I met all of them but Frankie in college after I stopped trying to fit in with the international students and the other Latinos and realized my niche could best be described as (✓) Other. Anyway I’m good at keeping them organized, but when that’s not on the table I start worrying about myself and everything falls apart again. So I won’t worry about myself anymore. I’ll land on my feet. I always do.
Turns out he isn’t the sort of sleazebag to take me right to his place without some conversation so we end up at a 24 hour diner and he orders us waffles. They’re too sweet but they soak up the alcohol a bit and I need to clear my head. He’s from Oklahoma originally, so I was right about the country in his voice, and he went to college there too so he’s new to the city but he’s looking to break into the advertising scene because he loves graphic design.
When he asks about me I decide to tell him the basics—Dominican-Austrian by blood, cosmopolitan by upbringing, American by citizenship and schooling and heart. I mention that I’m going through a breakup but I decide not to tell him why. I haven’t really said it out loud to anyone yet. He doesn’t pry.
He’s sweet, and funny, and I start to forget my phone is dead and Frankie’s probably half-crazy. We keep talking and he seems to really like me and when the waffles are gone we don’t really notice because we’re just sitting there, talking, and then a waitress comes over with the check and we both reach for our wallets because blondes reach for their wallet then acquiesce.
He covers the waffles and shyly mentions he lives a few blocks down and won’t I come in for a nightcap. He actually calls it that, a nightcap, and even though I should play it cool and go home or find Frankie or something I can’t turn him down when he says it like that.
He sticks his hands in his pockets as we walk and I loop my arm in his outstretched elbow. It’s bolder than I’d usually be but he just smiles and keeps walking.
At his apartment he fumbles with his keys. We get in and I ask if he’s got a phone charger and he goes into his room to grab it and I slip into the bathroom to freshen up. I’m probably still sweaty-sticky from the club and I figure I’ll splash my face and neaten the edges of my eyeliner and maybe dab under my armpits to make sure they don’t smell too bad. Maybe I should go home soonish but I’m not really sure how that would operate because I don’t do this very often, and he doesn’t seem to either but that could just be a trick like last time. Then again, we didn’t make it to the guy’s apartment last time before things started going wrong.
I get into the bathroom and hit the lights and the first thing I notice is how very boy it all is, not man but boy with the toilet seat up and one near-empty hand-soap dispenser on the sink next to a tube of toothpaste with finger indents where it has been impatiently squeezed around the middle instead of neatly from the bottom edge.
I register all this before I look up into the mirror and when I do I recoil. I’m still not used to seeing this version of me. After the drinks and the waffles with my head sort of fuzzy I think I look fine but not spectacular. I was supposed to look spectacular. I fix my makeup to see if that’s it, but even so I still just look like a person, just as fragile and tangible as before when my hair was limp and lusterless.
Between the personness of my face and the boyness of the bathroom I feel exposed and uncomfortable and I’m starting to think the nightcap maybe wasn’t such a good idea. I go out to the living room again and he’s there with the phone charger asking if scotch is okay, and I can’t square the man who drinks scotch with the boy who squeezes his toothpaste tube and neither seems like the sort of guy who buys me a drink then takes me to a diner sometime well after midnight. I wonder if any part of him is real and if so which part is, or if I’m making him out to be too simple. I don’t think these are the kinds of things that blondes think about but I’m not sure.
I accept the charger and plug my phone in. It vibrates to indicate it’s beginning to charge. I take the glass of scotch as well. I feel like the daiquiri is wearing off, or the hair dye. I don’t want to leave now. I don’t quite want to stay either, but we get back to talking. He doesn’t ask me all that much about myself and when he does I am able to deflect. It’s easier than explaining all the things that really led me here. Blondes don’t have to explain. They just sort of laugh and the world reshapes itself.
Soon, though, my phone screen lights up as the texts and calls from Frankie pour in. She’s alone, she’s worried about me, she isn’t sure where I’ve gone, am I okay, did I leave, did it get too overwhelming again, am I alive, am I with someone, please tell her I’m with someone and alive and just an asshole, please don’t be a dead asshole. If I hadn’t disappeared on her before, it would register as paranoia and I’d be annoyed, but as it is I just feel really guilty. She knows what happened last time and she feels like it’s her fault for not babysitting me.
I excuse myself and pop to the bathroom to call her. I explain everything as best as I can but she wouldn’t understand because her hair is short and black and it does this thing where it falls in a straight line bob like she used her chin to cut it. Pretty and all, but high maintenance. Dramatic.
She asks me if I’m sober enough to consent to everything this time and I tell her we haven’t even kissed yet and that yes, I’m plenty sober and the waffles helped and I’m sorry for bailing and is she okay and does she need me to do anything for her.
She sounds annoyed when she responds. “Jesus, don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”
“You never call me when you’re fine.”
“To be honest, it’s because I don’t think you can handle it. Go deal with your farm boy.”
I’m not sure if he is a farm boy or not because I’m not really sure what people do in Oklahoma, but I hang up without saying anything else and go back out into the main room. If Frankie doesn’t need me, she won’t get me.
Farm-boy-not-a-farm-boy has finished his scotch and smiles when he sees me walking in. I sit next to him on the couch just far enough that it’s not too clingy but close enough that our knees are brushing. That seems like the right kind of energy for tonight. Coy, but not too coy. Blonde coy.
He turns and faces me and says something but he’s staring at my mouth and so I smile a bit then lean closer. He kisses me and tastes like scotch and syrup but suddenly I’m thinking of the toothpaste tube and the way I don’t have any other texts on my phone and this man and Frankie are the only people who really know I’m a blonde now, not including the stylist who did it to me in the first place, and it’s not too late to go back and ask her to add the color back in but even if she did it wouldn’t be the same and I’d have to keep adding toner in every few months to keep it from fading back to bleached white straw.
He pulls away. “What’s wrong?”
I didn’t realize I’d frozen up. Blondes don’t freeze up. Blondes don’t choke. They most definitely don’t start crying on the couches of strangers who want to hook up with them and maybe, just maybe, actually get to know them after.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” he says in a sort of whisper-voice. “Want me to take you home?”
I nod. I think there might be snot coming out of my nose.
“Do you want to talk about it? Whatever it is?”
Aidan always left me alone when I was crying, even after that night when Frankie and Becca forgot me at one club because I was in the bathroom when they decided to go to the next one, and then my phone died and some other stuff happened and I had to walk home barefoot and half-dressed with my head fuzzy and my thighs aching, and by the end I was spending almost every night curled in the cold porcelain of the bathtub trying to stifle my sobs so they wouldn’t echo. It only took him two weeks of that to leave me for good. I rub my fingers under my eyes to smudge away the mascara, then sniff so the snot creeps back into my nose.
Oklahoma still has the curl of a worried smile tugging at his lips. I blink a few times, then ask, “Could you do me a favor and get a picture of me?”
He laughs, then catches himself when he realizes I’m serious. That’s the other issue—people don’t take blondes seriously.
“What, right now? Like this?”
“Like anything. Anywhere. Just a picture.”
He nods a bit uneasily and accepts my phone when I hand it to him. I don’t get red very easily and I’ve been told I don’t look like I’ve been crying after I cry, so after a few moments when I start feeling a little better I tousle my hair and strike a few poses on his couch.
When he holds his phone out in front of his face I can see something I couldn’t when I looked in his eyes. I think his eyebrows give him away, raised but only half-way, like he’s trying and failing to keep them lowered. He’s a live wire, Einstein on the verge of a breakthrough, a child in front of a near-finished jigsaw. He wants to know what makes me tick. It’s been a long time since anyone looked at me like that. I forgot how much I missed being dissected.
To Oklahoma’s credit he has a great eye and the photos look nothing like how I feel on the inside. He asks again if I want to talk about it and I tell him I don’t really like talking about myself and that I’ll be okay again just as soon as someone else breaks down. I work well under pressure is the thing.
He sort of shakes his head at this and offers to get me a cab again but this time I’m committed and when I kiss him I don’t think about him squeezing a big fat dollop of toothpaste onto his raggedy old toothbrush and jamming it all in his small little mouth.
The next morning I head back to my apartment after popping three aspirin and doing my best not to vomit them up. I stop in the mail room and tear the name Aidan Thompson off the address card inside our box and drop the torn-up scrap of paper in the trash. On the elevator I check my phone—it’s buzzing with texts from Frankie asking how I’m doing and if I’m hungover and what happened really, and messages from people who saw my couch pictures on Instagram and slid into my DMs, and a half a dozen replies to the Snap story I forgot I uploaded of me singing at the club. No crying, no one asking for a hug or if they can vent at me. Nobody who needs me. Dozens who want me. I brew myself some tea and change into something that says I had sex with a stranger last night and it doesn’t even matter and sit at the window and wonder if I should break my lease and move into Oklahoma’s apartment. It had a balcony.
A few notes: This post was written originally in 2018, but since then I’ve revamped this blog. That being said, I think this post holds up, so on its first anniversary I thought I’d re-share it, and use it as a vehicle to relaunch my very occasional book reviews. Below is the original text, with a few updates (indicated in bold).
This post was inspired by a very thoughtful Goodreads review of Maggie Stiefvater’sAll the Crooked Saints, and the comment I made in response to it. Before I begin, I feel the need to express a disclaimer: I do not speak for all minorities, nor even all Latinx people. What follows is my own opinion, but one that I have seen widely expressed throughout minority conversations about diversity and representation in literature.
With that out of the way, let’s begin!
The question of what types of writers can write what types of characters is nothing new. Throughout history, white writers have written characters of all races and ethnicities, sometimes well, but very often, very poorly. The effects of blackface minstrelsy and stock characters like “Sambo” and “Aunt Jemima” still have a major impact on how African Americans are portrayed in present-day media. Whitewashing in Hollywood films erases roles for Asian actors, who make up only 1% of Hollywood’s leading roles. Muslim men are often portrayed as terrorists, and Muslim women as victims who must be saved from the “oppression” of the hijab. I could go on and on for hours about the countless movies, TV shows, and books that portray Latinx characters as maids, drug dealers, or sexy, spicy, feisty Latin lovers. With all of this, it’s easy to understand how some people believe writers should stick to writing about characters of their own racial/ethnic background.
*Addendum from 2019: A lot of the negative reviews I’ve seen about this book are from readers who didn’t seem to connect with the characters, as though their Latinidad is by its very nature ostracizing to non-Latinx characters. This is a phenomenon that happens frequently with books about minorities of all varieties, and I find it deeply frustrating. Just because something is outside of your personal experience doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy reading it or connect to the characters. I don’t know about you, but my lack of dragon-riding experience didn’t keep me away from A Game of Thrones, so the fact these characters speak a little Spanish shouldn’t scare you off.
But this is not a solution to the problem in the slightest. If white writers, who still hold the majority of writing posts in America and whose path to publication has fewer hurdles, write only white characters, then the vast majority of characters in literature will remain white. Representation is crucial for people of color, especially for children, who should see positive examples of people of their racial or ethnic background in the media they consume. So this presents the conundrum: how do writers depict someone from a different cultural background sensitively?
There are a myriad of answers from a number of different sources. Some people recommend sensitivity readers. Some immerse themselves in the culture they’re depicting. Some believe that characters of different ethnicities should be treated no differently, that the color of their skin or the second language they speak should be incidental, background information with no more importance attributed to it than eye color or favorite song. Personally, I believe a mix of all three is important. A non-Latinx writer may never capture the full nuance of my day-to-day Latinx life, but it isn’t, quite frankly, that different from non-Latinx life most of the time. Sure, I have abuelos who I love, and a tin of Vicks VapoRub and a bottle of Superior70 Alcoholado to heal my ailments, and I like my food with lots of Adobo and garlic. But my daily thoughts are not about my Latinidad. I go to school and struggle with that. I have complex relationships with my friends of all backgrounds. I worry about what I wear, and I read great books, and I watch too much Netflix. All in all, I’m normal, and that’s what writers should remember.
Now, to connect this all back to All the Crooked Saints. The Soria family of Bicho Raro is nuanced, delicate, real. Not once do the central female characters appear to be “spicy chicas” oozing sexual energy, or saintlike virgins whose faith is the most important thing in the world to her. Not once are the male characters reduced to “cholos” or drug dealers, men who rely on their machismo to secure their otherwise undifferentiated identities. Instead, the family is a collection of oddball individuals, whose problems stem from human flaws. And while some reviewers have pointed out the potential stereotyping of the radio name Diablo Diablo, I think it is justified by its explanation in the story: that triple repetition of the devil’s name summons him, and that double repitition is just close enough to be cool and just far enough to be safe. To those questioning why Stiefvater would write about Latinx characters, I want to make clear that choosing to make the main characters of this story Latinx is especially important considering the roots of magical realism in Latin American life, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Isabel Allende to Jorge Luis Borges and more. Stiefvater acknowledges the long literary tradition she is writing in in a respectful manner, and has clearly done her research in the use of Spanish and the realities of life for a Latinx family in the 1960s.
The same care should apply to all portrayals of minorities in literature, whether that be racial/ethnic minorities, neurodiverse individuals, LGBTQ+ characters, or women. Research must be done. Drafts must be read and revised. Characters should be treated with respect. But don’t you dare tell me that male authors can’t write female characters, or that straight authors can’t write LGBTQ+ characters, or that neurotypical authors can’t write neurodiverse characters. That’s a sort of literary segregation that will get us nowhere.
*Addendum from 2019: I also feel like this is an important moment to remind folks that Latinidad isn’t monolithic. Latinx people come in all races, are of all faiths, inhabit all countries. Some of us use a lot of Spanish. Some of us know none. Some of us like spicy food, but many of our cuisines aren’t hot at all. We are millions of people from dozens of countries, and taking that into account is crucial. Sometimes we live up to certain stereotypes and oftentimes we don’t. No work is necessarily flawed because a few stereotypical boxes are checked, so long as the complete humanity of the characters is guaranteed. And I’ve never seen Stiefvater fail to capture the humanity of her characters, regardless of background.
It was a warm, dense day in April when I realized that for two years, the novel project I’d been working on was not truly my own. I had been struggling for months to find the inspiration to continue writing, going through brief spurts of energy, revamping the entire plot before again losing interest among my myriad other commitments. I couldn’t understand why this story, which had interested me for so long, was getting worse and worse even as my prose skills were rapidly increasing.
Then it dawned on me: it wasn’t my story.
I know the various theories, that there are only seven stories, or thirty-six, or one. I’ve heard that every story that can be told has been told. I know that West Side Story is just Romeo and Juliet, that even Shakespeare stole from Chaucer and that Chaucer stole from Boccaccio and classic myth. All telling is retelling and all that. I’ve been told in writing classes that what changes is simply the way the story is told, the presentation, the word choice, the voice.
I don’t buy it. At least, not completely. When you break a story down to its constituent elements, there are two major layers: language and plot. To break plot down even further, there are only two elements of that: tension and release. These are what make art great. Music builds and swells and escalates your heart rate only to come crashing together in a sigh, a cadence that allows you to regain composure and reset. But like binary code, two ingredients can compound to make vastly different works. Two cells can make a living being.
The problem comes when the similarities between your story and others are on a much larger scale than tension and release. My novel wasn’t a shimmering layer of language set atop the skeleton of some ancient, primal structure. It wasn’t a retelling, or a subversion. It was a monster, stitched together from books and movies and TV shows I liked, borrowing major motifs, character profiles, plot elements. I wasn’t rearranging the thirteen tones all Western musicians have to work with. I was cutting from Dvořák to Tchaikovsky to Wagner and back in whole chunks.
Once I had realized this, it became easy to see why my writing was losing steam, easy to understand how this had happened. In appreciating other art, attempting to recreate the wonder those works inspired in me, I accidentally wound up recreating the stories themselves, or at least cheap facsimiles.
To quote T. S. Eliot, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
I had fallen into the trap of defacing. It was disguised by pretty words, darlings I still struggle with killing, turns of phrase I’ll likely recycle into later works if I have appropriate occasion to do so. But it was defacing all the same.
In one of the hardest decisions of my writing life, I set the project aside. It’s all saved somewhere so that I can go back to it someday with a clearer head, but as of right now I’m novel-less, and a little unmoored. I’m still in a strange haze coming down from that fictional world I spent so much time in. But this break is for the better. I’ve been focusing on short fiction, and I definitely feel my prose strengthening. I’ve experimented with poetry and nonfiction, and liked what I’ve discovered. And I can feel another novel churning in the nebulous horizons of my mind, just wisps of something now: a snatch of a character here, a glance of a deserted street there, the whisper of magic in the shadows. Nothing has coalesced, yet, but there’s still time to be had and research to be done and life to be lived in the meantime. I’ll just have to be a little more careful what books I read when I’m plotting and planning next.
Sometimes, I read a book that provokes such wonder in me I don’t know whether to put it down and marvel at the changed world around me or to keep it pressed tight to my face and never let it go. The dilemma between a desire to process thoughtfully and a burning hunger to consume more is overwhelming.
But eventually I finish the book, one way or another, and find myself in a strange haze afterwards, trying to reconcile the real world around me and the much realer world I’ve just left. Everything seems distant, and shiny. And then it all sharpens. The knowledge crystalizes. My worldview has changed.
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu is one such book. Shifting between science fiction and fantasy, traditional and wholly innovative, Liu focuses in on human concerns even as he leaps through space and time and species lines. I read The Paper Menagerie in a week last summer and it’s been turning over in my mind ever since. This week, after finishing another read, I decided to revisit Menagerie, this time as an audiobook.
Some books are thin. Not in size necessarily, but in content, in complexity. They may dazzle and astound at first, but become thin upon the closer scrutiny that comes with rereading. Menagerie is not thin. It instead unfolds, revealing ever more layers, striking the same chords and new ones. From its first tale, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species,” which chronicles the reading practices of alien races of Liu’s invention, to its last novella, “The Man Who Ended History,” which zooms in on a future Earth and on the very real atrocities of our past, Liu manages to gather nostalgia, loss, shame, and love together in his fists, ball them up so as to make them indistinguishable, and release them, now commingled, into the world. His characters make sacrifices and make mistakes, explore the American frontier and the final frontier, but they are always reaching out to one another, always searching for connection. They are raw and complex and intricately human, distinct and compelling, and within the many worlds he casts they come to life, some timid and some bold, all more than what they seem at first.
It is for this reason that I found The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories so difficult to put down the first time, and for this reason I revisited it again. It makes me feel the sort of connectedness that I only ever find through fiction. This book broadened my understanding of what short stories could do, and helped me to realize there’s more worth reading than just novels.
I can’t give this book five stars. That’s too simplistic. It’s worth a galaxy.