Author: Alex Clendenning
Rivers in Her Hands
My most vivid memories of my mother are the thick, blue veins in her hands. They lurk beneath the surface of her thin skin, distant reminders of decades of age. I like to run my fingers over them, imagining that each line is a river encased in the pores of her skin.
Every evening, she raises me up to her worn chair, sits me in her lap, and runs her fingers through my hair as I trace the rivers in her hands.
“You can be anything you want to be,” she tells me.
“Really?” I always ask, even if I already know the answer.
“Yes.” My mother smiles a worn, tired smile, and I watch the earth crumble and crack around her eyes and mouth, the wrinkles etching her skin like moving plates.
I didn’t realize what she meant until I entered primary school, when talk of immigration and foreign countries began. During those times, I thought about my mother, and began to understand why she sat me down in her leather armchair every night after dinner and held me in her lap, whispering words of encouragement into my ear.
My mother, who never got the chance to be whatever she wanted to be.
My mother, who came to America in hopes that an unborn me would have a better future.
My mother, who never got the chance to go to school the same way I do.
But my mother is brave, resilient. She tells me how hard it was to learn English, how she spent years poring over textbooks, memorizing when to use “-ed” for past tense and when to change the word altogether. She tells me how hard it was when she first came to America, the strange looks and mocking from strangers with perfectly-enunciated English.
I can’t imagine my mother, who has rivers in her hands and the earth in her smile and the sunlight in her eyes, ever struggling with anything. It makes me feel lucky to have been born here—to speak English fluently.
When I came home from school crying after my classmates mocked my strange-smelling lunch, the shape of my eyes, the color of my skin, she was there for me. She picked me up, placed me on her lap, and sunk into the leather chair, whispering words of her home. She described Chinese countrysides and the family I had in a country across the world, and suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad about my heritage.
As I grew up, I learned not to cry about the teasing and smiled instead. Now that I’m too old for her lap, I sit across from my mother in a chair of my very own. Of course, she keeps her old, leather one; even when it sheds black flakes onto the carpet, neither of us can bring ourselves to get rid of it. We still sit across from one another in the evenings, but I miss the days when I fit in her lap. She still tells me stories of her beginnings in America, detailing her struggles, and how, to this day, she still hasn’t mastered English.
I kiss her cheek. “Your English is perfect,” I say. She smiles and reaches forward for my hand. I place mine atop hers and see myself in her eyes, in the bridge of her nose, in her lips.
I am a spitting image of my mother, and I hope that, when I grow up, I’ll be as selfless and noble as she is, too. Because my mother has rivers in her hands, and the power to change the lives of people who come after her.
Even when these rivers dry up and the earth shatters, I’ll always be grateful for the chance my mother has given me.
Viviana Wei is a 16-year old girl living in Cooper City, Florida. She goes to American Heritage in Plantation and enjoys writing and drawing. As a first generation Chinese-American, she speaks both Mandarin Chinese and English; she is eager to share her Chinese roots through her writing.
Visual Art by Rudy Falagan
Waves strike against cement of solemn water.
One solitary seagull pierces through the clouds,
Slices sky from the sea without bound,
Watching it rise and rise out of sight
Like a balloon from a careless child’s hand.
Will the sky, too, pop,
If it climbs too high?
Sunlight crawls on snowflakes so purely warm.
One solitary nightingale sings among thorns of ice
And shatters the clear crystal with voice alone,
Its image flickering in ice shards,
As they dive into deep snow
Like dandelion seeds taking root.
Would the ice, too, grow,
Into a snow-draped forest?
Shadows retreat from the burning candle in haste.
One solitary raven trips over a bottle of ink,
Dips its wings in a pool of spreading black,
And drags the feathers across the parchment,
Composing poetry with such grace, an instinct –
How like a coffee mug rushes towards the ground.
Would the ink, too, drip so fiercely
That it wounds the floor?
Natashia Deón Interview
Natashia Deón is an attorney and law professor based in Los Angeles. She runs the quarterly reading series, Dirty Laundry Lit, a non-profit that focuses on introducing people to literature. Her first novel, Grace (2016), has received awards from the American Library Association’s Black Caucus and the Kirkus Review, and was part of The New York Times’ Top Books of 2016.
Q: Your quarterly reading series, Dirty Laundry Lit, promotes readings for authors and has become well known among the Los Angeles literary world. What was your inspiration to create it? What pushes you to continue doing it, and what do you hope the audience gets from it when they leave?
A: I want them to see that we all have these different experiences, but there are things we all have in common. I have people of different political opinions get on my stage. I try to create as much diversity on stage as possible. The readings I’d gone to before were all the same, all white guys of a certain age group, all buddies, but there was never anybody who looked like me. So every time, I have eight readers who come from different backgrounds. Diversity is not prescribed, but it’s something else. I think it’s also a diversity of experience. We’re so limited in what diversity is, so I started Dirty Laundry because I wanted people to tell their stories, so we could connect in real ways.
Q: What was your thought process when writing Grace and how did you approach this topic? What kind of research did you do while working on it?
A: I did a lot of research just on the time period and what people were like. I wanted to know what people were thinking at that time. I thought once the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, all slaves were free.
The novel was rejected by a lot of places. The answers to my book were we already have that book, we already have two slave books coming out, so it kept getting passed. Then I talked to an editor who wanted a whole book to revolve around the Emancipation Proclamation, I said no, I don’t think [the slaves] were happy that day. It wasn’t until after the book was being shopped when I looked into the history, I found out slaves were free two years into the war, but they wouldn’t have walked across battlefields. I went to traditional public school and we weren’t taught that. I rewrote some sections because of it.
History informed a lot of what I wrote, and diary entries, too. I read a lot of diary entries at the time to know what the slaves were thinking about.
Q: Grace follows two characters—Naomi, a runaway slave, and Naomi’s daughter, Josie, who grows up during the American Civil War. When writing Grace, was it hard to separate your thought process when writing Naomi’s flashbacks of her past versus her view of Josey’s future?
A: Yeah, it was. Some days I would only write one storyline, I wouldn’t go back and forth. I would only focus on one story, because mother love is different from sexual love. I wanted to understand how she was seeing her daughter.
You don’t have to stay on one story all the time, you can move. When I feel like I use up all the creative energy in one place, I’ll move somewhere else. I wrote most of the novel on the notes in my phone, waiting for things.
Q: In class, you mentioned the beginning of Grace coming from a vision you had. How long after you had the vision did you finish the book?
A: Seven years. I wrote screenplays for MTV at the time on the side; I was still a lawyer.
It was daytime, around twelve. I was walking down the hallway, holding my son, and suddenly it was night. I was in the woods; I remember the moon was super bright. I heard a voice in my head and saw a girl running in a yellow dress covered with blood, and she’s pregnant. What happened in the book is what I saw. I thought I was still dreaming. The daytime bright was over, and I told my husband you have to hold him I need to write down what I just saw.
[After I had the vision] I put the novel in a drawer for six months. Driving down the five freeway, I knew what it was about. Okay, step one, take a writing class. As I was writing I was at UCLA extension, the teacher recommended PEN Writing Center. I got my MFA [from UC Riverside-Palm Desert]. I could be crazy or I could be right.
Q: Is there a particular reason why you made Naomi a ghost?
A: When I wrote Grace, I didn’t necessarily believe in ghosts, but I knew how to articulate experiences. I had no language for what happened, I just knew that this ghost would see, would behave like this.
Q: How was the writing process (in terms of the chapter structure)?
A: It was originally linear and then I just wasn’t interested in it. I wanted it to go faster. I thought wouldn’t it [the novel] be more interesting, because I knew I had a beginning. I wanted to find myself as a writer how she [Naomi] got to this moment, being chased in the woods. It was really me trying to figure, to unwind, how she got to this moment. It would be a better way, as a craft issue, to show the story.
Q: When writing Grace, how did you manage to write a book and hold a day job at the same time?
A: You think I’m sane, I’m faking it all so good! I don’t think about it. I just plan the next task and try to be present in everything. You have to be able to leave everything behind to be able to exist
I plan my breaks like holidays. I don’t say that I have to be at work from 9 to 5, I say that I have a break from 6 to 7. That way, you can keep moving knowing you have this break coming up. On break your mind can rest, you can listen to your music. I believe I have to refuel, physically and spiritually.
Writers’ brains are different than everyone else’s. They’re like video cameras in quiet moments, recording. We hold onto things that haunt us, that want to be told again.
Q: Were there any particular challenges in writing a book in dialect?
A: Not really, because the dialect that I chose was from my grandmother. It was largely from her; she lived in Tallassee, Alabama. I also combined it with ways we speak now, so it wouldn’t be super heavy and difficult to understand. For me, I made a conscious choice of do I want to help readers or do I want to keep it like how grandma talked? I softened the dialogue to help readers, because I wanted to tell a story with a lot going on and knew I wanted to keep readers. It was a choice to make it simple, but still be strong.
Q: Do you have any advice for young writers?