Diagrams of Knots
My eyes are lopsided like used tea bags
and my fingernails are picked into grey, upturned crescents
by the time the sun has set.
I reach into my deep blue sheets to find:
what-ifs like diagrams of knots,
abandoned requests for wisdom I don’t have,
acres of misspoken wit,
an elaborately constructed fantasy
in which things are infinitely vibrant
seem warped as if through a reflection
in a mall fountain—I am haunted.
In the light of this paraphernalia,
I cannot sufficiently engage
in anything of use.
I recline in the yellow lamplight
like a tiger head rug,
conscious that my mouth hangs open,
issuing myself correctives
that turn over every minute like paperwork
boring my eyes into the pictures on the walls
as if I could find some respite in them
and hazily marveling
at how I’ve ever been able to handle
Evening With West Texas and Alzheimer’s
Oma stirs her melted ice cream,
spills a little on her plastic placemat:
Daddy, Lolly, and I got these bowls in Alpine at a tiny store just down the road from our house, during a stormy afternoon, when the sky had turned purple and the trees were trembling. We’d just taken the Thunderbird for a drive around the mountain and we wanted to do something special. Daddy saw these bowls and loved the blue enamel. I put the bag between my feet for the drive home, as the rain was starting, and they began to shine in such a beautiful way, with many different colors, that at first I worried the enamel was made of some sort of poison. I’ve never seen them shine like that again. Daddy said the altitude was so high and the atmosphere so thin that we got more radiation from the sun than other places, that it must have touched the bowls somehow that day.
with shaky hands she picks up the blue bowl from Costco
puts it by the sink
and disappears out the front door
to sweep the driveway for the fourth time that day
a few minutes later, we see her looking up at the dark sky
broom forgotten loosely hanging from her hand
her figure now smaller and shrouded by trees
Vera Caldwell is a sophomore at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. As well as writing, she plays guitar and composes songs in her band, Nobody’s Daughter. Some of her favorite writers include Mikhail Bulgakov, Stanislaw Lem, Patti Smith, Ocean Vuong, and Fleur Jaeggy.
Art by Sherry Huang
This is a beginning
under the oak trees
boys burned their throats
with their father’s liquor
bottles. Girls came to
kiss at night, leaving cigarette burns
to scatter the ashes of their innocence.
This is a beginning in the quiet town
where we know real architecture
and real sounds of bullets. Both arch
over our heads and we embrace
these strange halos.
This is a resolution
that we’ll leave the soil
where southern twang top
sour songs like syrup.
where everyone knows how to
strum a guitar,
and every girl sings Dolly Parton
for the elementary pageant.
This is a resolution
that we’ll fly to great cities
where skyscrapers make
us feel minuscule.
Magnificent things will seep into our minds,
all the urban ideas and emotions.
This is a return
to the town where she never
thought she belonged. But
mother’s hand grew feeble,
fingers like brittle bird bones.
Father drove off into the
southern night years ago,
gone when the midnight ink
drenched his silverado.
Sarah Nachimson is an emerging writer with only a small scattering of published pieces. She hails from sunny California and is currently a sophomore at Yeshiva University Los Angeles Girls School. She is a reader for Polyphony H.S. and an editor for Siblini Journal. Her writing has been recognized by numerous organizations, including Scholastic, and published in the Los Angeles Times and New York Jewish Week, among other places.
Visual Art by Audrey Carver.
Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky: ISBN-10: 1555978312. Price: $11.00. Published March 5, 2019.
Ilya Kaminsky´s Deaf Republic is a brilliantly-crafted book of narrative poetry that moves through a sad and deeply thought-provoking plotline, inspired by Kaminsky’s own experiences in Russia as a child. It follows the story of people in a fictional town using deafness as a form of protest against violence and war, after a soldier kills a deaf boy in the street.
The depictions of violence and love throughout are eerily and astonishingly beautiful. Kaminsky creates a terrifyingly dreary and oppressed feeling throughout the book, while also highlighting the beautiful relationships and hope the townspeople continue to have despite the violence and oppression they are surrounded by.
As the poems go on and the story progresses, the townspeople who do not give up their protests are taken away one by one if they show signs of deafness. Despite this, protests continue in a silent fashion, while the responses of the soldiers grow more and more violent and intense.
The poems themselves are experimental. For example, “Dramatis Personae” is an early poem in the book designed to introduce characters in the collection. Kaminsky is also unafraid to say what he means, sometimes very intensely such as in the poem “As Soldiers March, Alfonso Covers the Boy’s Face with a Newspaper.” One of the lines within this poem is “We see in Sonya’s open mouth / the nakedness / of a whole nation.” The poems progress the overall story, and while in general the story is quite heavy and sad at times, each poem also adds a surprising and delightful level of dark humour, shocking language and profound descriptions of the violence.
Deaf Republic does not fall into the tropes of what is popular in poetry right now, which is mostly geared towards younger readers and is generally humorous, or give an air of shallow meaning masquerading as powerful. Instead Kaminsky goes for something different, using humour in an intelligent and meaningful way, and using illustrations subtly. Deaf Republic explores traumatic topics and heavy storylines beautifully rather than making the reader feel bombarded by violence. One thing that Kaminsky does well here which is important is including love in a story about war. War often tests our ability to maintain love, positive feelings and peace within ourselves and our homes while we’re experiencing violence outside of them. One of the most important things to remember in times of war and violence is to keep a sense of love or joy in some way. Kaminsky highlights this importance through the relationship described in his book, and the townspeople in general.
Kaminsky, who is hard of hearing due to a misdiagnosis of mumps at an early age, incorporates sign language in conjunction with deafness and protest, through simple and beautiful illustrations of sign language throughout the book. These drawings add to the poems without the poems becoming reliant on them.Overall, Kaminsky provides readers with a beautiful experience with Deaf Republic. The themes and plot can, at times, be related to current issues, and the book does an amazing job of bringing hope out of a traumatic situation. We could all learn a lot from the townspeople of Deaf Republic who put their lives on the line in the name of hope and love, and who refuse to give in to oppression.
I was five when I decided that I wanted to be a writer, but when you’re born into a first-generation Korean-American family, even at five, you learn to hold your tongue about your ambitions. Instead, I confided in my grandfather—curled around him in his library, I told him what I was afraid to tell my own parents. He looked at me sympathetically as if he knew there would be so much that I’d have to endure to even have a chance at writing, and whispered, “There needs to be someone in this family who is in love with what they do.” I wrapped my arms around him; I think I cried.
I’m sure somewhere throughout my academic career I convinced myself that my writing was inconsequentially a part of who I was. Somewhere along my timeline were moments that led up to it: my third grade teacher putting “incredible!” at the top of all my writing, the speech I wrote in sixth grade that my teacher called “irrefutably beautiful” before I even knew what ‘irrefutably’ meant, the essay contest I won at the beginning of my junior year of high-school. I’m sure five-year-old me unknowingly learned to tie the voice in my writing to who I was. I’m sure I expected to grow into my identity as a writer like toddlers expect to grow into their parents’ clothes when they play dress up, even when they’re so small that the sleeves hang off their arms and trail on the ground behind them.
But on my seventeenth birthday, I lost my first writing competition—a mandated essay given by my school’s junior year English teachers. It was only then that I became solemnly convinced by the itchy feeling of lost ambition that the dream that I intended to grow up into didn’t fit me right around the shoulders and didn’t hug me in all the right places and left me a forgone version of myself. I wasn’t upset because I lost, as I explained to my English teacher shortly after, I was upset because I seemed to have deceived myself for years that this dream that I held so close to my heart was not mine to hold. I was upset because I felt as though a piece of me died: the only piece of me that I loved unconditionally.
Naturally, most people responded to my unsettlement by insisting that this one loss was not a reflection of who I was as a writer: it didn’t invalidate my writing or my love for my craft. Instead, to everyone else, it was just what it seemed to be—a loss. Friends and family couldn’t
comprehend why I was so upset, and truthfully, neither could I. It was only after taking a step back from the situation that I realized that the root of why I was so torn up was because somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that my writing was directly correlated to my worth. So if my writing wasn’t enough, I wasn’t either.
Suddenly, as I walked the halls of my academically competitive high-school, I realized that students from all across the board tied their worth to marks on papers and numbers on scantrons. In the same way that I believed my writing had a direct correlation to my worth, my peers held the same mentality about the numbers on their transcripts. And so did I. I became overtly cognizant of how unhealthy and unstable that attitude could be, but I could not abandon it. Even as I talked to peers throughout many different grade levels, they remarked that they felt the same way, but there was nothing they could do to change it. Having your worth determined by numbers and letters seemed to be a frightening standardization that most students are all too willing to accept as the general norm. As public school education becomes more competitive in the coming years, it will only get worse.
When I entered high-school, my ambition for writing was still there, so I’m confident that age didn’t distort my vision at all. Instead what I’ve come to realize throughout my years of public education is that the moment I began losing faith in that dream was when I started to see myself as a reflection of my grades rather than my passion: two-dimensional numbers on transcripts. The grade at the top of my in-class essay was more important than the writing that went into it—somehow the words on the page seemed to matter less than the single letter at the top of my paper. Who I was as a writer and a student became determined by people who only knew me for forty minutes a day, five days a week, and I let their impression of me and my work become a direct reflection of who I was. In retrospect, it’s no wonder I began hating what I saw in the mirror. It’s no wonder that so many students feel the same way.
School administrators nationwide tell students that their grades do not define them and that they’re more than the letters written on their transcripts. But they also recognize them as seven-digit student IDs and judge them by what can be valued on paper. Even the most well-rounded students get processed through the mass machine of public education and come out the other side two-dimensional. We insist that a set of numbers doesn’t define our children—we’re wrong.
Adam Grant, the author of “What Straight-A Students Get Wrong,” remarks that grades have little correlation with “creativity… and teamwork skills,” yet students still equate their worth to them, “[creating] an academic arms race,… [where]… students… strive for meaningless perfection.” The root of this problem has nothing to do with misconception—students are, for the most part, overwhelmingly aware of the fact that, in the long run, their SAT and AP exam scores won’t matter. The genuine issue is that it isn’t enough that in the long run, they won’t matter, because in their current state in their existing classrooms, they view their worth as directly correlated by those types of exams. The now is more critical, more consuming than the long-term consequences. Grant even illustrates the concept that in the workforce, more successful people are actually the students with lower GPAs and exam scores, and their high-scoring counterparts usually cannot find the strength within themselves to excel in real-world scenarios. We raise our children through a public education system that has almost no correlation between working in their schools and working in the real world. However, even if students know all this, and I’m afraid most of them do, they are still compelled by the notion to aim for the unobtainable. Because it’s not just their grades on the line, it’s their self-worth too.
Ideally, students would earn grades reflective of the time and effort they put in, but in reality, students who employ lucky guesswork on multiple choice exams are essentially equal to the students who know how to do the accurate work to complete problems. Because there’s no difference between these types of answers or students, students see their efforts as meaningless, or worse, fruitless, convinced they aren’t doing enough if they don’t have grades to show for it. Schools put awarding work ethic, and effort in the backseat behind the actual grades students earn, encouraging them to believe that how hard they work isn’t what matters—at the end of the day, it’s all about the number.
Stanford columnist Annie Jia references psychologist Madeline Levine’s quote that when students “‘feel… they’re only as good as their last performance, [they develop]… the inability to construct an internal sense of self.’” When you base your self-perception on your own and other people’s merits, you’re disappointed continuously, ceding to the same malicious mindset of many students. While academic competition is healthy and constructive for most school environments, the same competition can become debilitating and destructive for students if they don’t understand that their grades are not a determinant factor of their worth. The institution of this mass mentality leads kids to believe that if their grades aren’t as good as their peers, neither are they. Numbers only define this spectrum of self-worth; it doesn’t take into consideration students’ moral standing, personality, work ethic, or character.
When you don’t know the boy in your physics class, but know he has a C; when you’ve never spoken to that girl in history class, but you know her last quiz grade, understand that it’s easy to hang a number over someone’s head to measure their worth; it’s hard to look at people as more than that. Students do it all over the nation, and if we raise a generation so number-obsessed, aren’t we raising a generation that will never be satisfied with their worth or their accomplishments. Aren’t we raising children who invariably go through a cycle of believing that they are not good enough if they don’t have the numbers to show for it? Changing how you see people
Sara Jhong is a high school junior at Great Neck South High School on Long Island, New York. She has won awards from previous writing competitions in the past and greatly enjoys the Parallax Journal.
Displacement by Sumin Seo
What would Buddha be like if he were roaming the soil today?
Would he still wander India?
Or leave due to atrocious air quality and mass population?
These are things Siddhārtha never had to put up with
Would he still believe in putting up with everything?
The world is much too cynical, and we’d designate him as a cult leader
Or if he’s lucky, a trendsetter
Marketplace Buddhism seems to have consumed the West
At least the East remains pretty pious and punctilious
The West has just managed to pervert our daily meditation between Sunday brunch and our afternoon run
What would Buddha think of T.S. Eliot’s, Allen Ginsberg’s, and others’ flirtations with his doctrines?
Subverting them to their gyration and needs for transgression
(Though some engage with honesty)
America has seemed to distort Buddhism into chic leisure
If Siddhārtha was from America, he could’ve shown L. Ron Hubbard how to get the people clear without an E-meter
Buddhism could’ve been fantastic for capitalists if it was American
Would Buddha indeed remain so abstinent with all this hegemonic global marketing for intemperate gluttony?
A little leniency would’ve been helpful since there was no way he could have predicted what was to come
Would he have preferred the religious miscellany of Taiwan where temples amalgamate various beliefs, counting his developments?
Or favored the autonomous institutions of the West?
He’d have the intellect to discern the perpetual profit of unification
In our unified globalist world would he find bona fide social union?
Or technological excuses for minimal concrete interaction?
The traditional Buddhist wouldn’t bother with the strange portable hypnotic machine
But there’s the possibility that Buddha would shiver at the notion of it being away from him
Maybe we could’ve received texts of sutras personally from Gautama
His works on simplicity would align with Apple’s philosophy quite well
What would the political Buddha look like?
Would he lean left or right?
Or would he find it all to be in vain?
What would he have to say to the people of Myanmar who commit atrocities in his name?
What would he have to say to the tension-fueled relationship between the two Chinas?
Or about American carpet-bombing in the Middle East?
Would he find the will to keep on instructing in his ways?
The meditation to stay mindful in these mindless times
Or would he find it all hopeless
And see nothing human left
All that was left was humanity’s struggle to survive
And billions of zombies craving blue light and higher reception
Recording instead of listening to the monks in Taipei chanting the last of the meaningful matter
I’ve been set free
I’ve accepted the truth of suffering, and thus I’m free
I’ve rolled up to Buddha’s crib, and I’ve come out free
I’m unchained from the dead and the living
Free of the light and the dark
I’m free of linguistic oppression, and I now enumerate the beatitudes in Sanskrit
and chant mantras in Latin
I’ve fled to Taiwan only to find America
I’ve been working on a fifth noble truth; corporations
I’ve been lobbying Congress to send out presidential alerts for any metaphysical trembling
I’m set free of association, and I now use rosaries to recite the buddhavacana
I’ve never had so much spiritual rebellion and defiance
The rounds of suffering have left us tired and imprisoned to some fate
We’re only safe in the world we create
If you listen real close, you can hear the om
Just put your ear to the speakers of the universe, and it’ll resonate through you
The banging of the unseen echoing drum
The beat that we always go to
You don’t need to buy it on iTunes for $0.99
You don’t need to stream it either
Just listen to the flexing air void of suspense
And reach a little deeper
Gabriel T. Clément is a junior at Jersey City’s Saint Peter’s Preparatory. He was born in Montréal, Québec, and lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. His influences are mainly those from a Québécois background (Leonard Cohen, Émile Nelligan, Irving Layton) and others like Allen Ginsberg, T.S. Eliot, and Eliot Katz.
Visual Art by Sarah Little.
and they say
that mars was once like earth
but now i see mars is earth
blackened red and barren
and once mars burned as we do now
and it’s always california
the blazing state
the deadly scorching state
the martian state
and people are fleeing
from cities, from homes
from smoke and choke
and they say good for her
but it’s futile
and within 30 years our planet will black and blue
and ash and embers
blue melting sea
and red, sizzling land,
sinking, sinking, sinking
Delany Burk is a four year senior at Idyllwild Arts Academy who loves watching the stars, drinking coffee, and getting snuggly in cold weather. In her writing, she enjoys exploring the philosophical, scientific, and emotional side of writing.
Visual art by Reah Eunji Kang.
Thank you for the love.
Thank you for the fear.
Thank you for the tears.
Thank you for the rejection.
Because I learned to like being alone.
Thank you for the love.
Your cheeks are aching from all the smiling.
It is around dinner time when the baby blue color of the sky fades into shades of pink and lavender. Leo’s hands intertwine around your waist, and his head rests gently on your shoulder. The smell of his cotton perfume, which he adamantly argues is not limited to a woman’s scent, fills the space around you (and the entire apartment—it is quite strong). Staring out from the slightly dusty windows of the living room, you and Leo watch the sunset and frequently comment on some of the bizarre outfits of your neighbors outside, laughing a bit too loud when cranky Mrs. Dallows leaves the complex to walk her three Pomeranians in an electric purple jumpsuit paired with knee-high striped socks.
“Look! Mrs. Dallo—oh god—” you breathlessly manage to get out. Leo’s chuckling from behind, and you can feel the soft vibrations of his chest on your back.
“I feel like I’m in The Wizard of Oz all of a sudden!” he laughs.
Then, mindlessly, you crook your head to the side, locking your eyes with his doe ones. Bliss. It’s the only word that comes to mind when you’re with him.
Leo faces you, his eyes lingering a second too long on your lips. When he looks back to your eyes, which are still gazing at him, his cheeks wrinkle as he smiles, and he’s hugging you tighter.
“I love you,” you suddenly blurt out.
“I love you, too.”
And even though you’ve been together for three years, that’s all it takes to get your hands clammy and your heart beating erratically.
Thank you for the fear.
Your cheeks are sore from constantly gnawing on the insides of your mouth.
Sounds of light rain echo through the busy streets, and people are still out and about, socializing even during the darker hours.
You’re waiting. You’ve been waiting for an hour and twenty minutes now, and there’s still no sign of Leo.
Today is supposed to be a reunion date, where you both can catch up, after Leo’s month in Spain with his friends. Specifically, catch up on the past few months because you’re both living hectic lives: Leo with his new office career as a manager and you with your graduate school schedule and studies in English. Classes overlapped with business projects, internships with late-night shifts. But, despite the conflicts, it wasn’t like you to easily give up on a relationship, especially when you still think about Leo wherever you go. So, you desperately cling onto hope.
You wince when you accidentally bite your tongue and grab for the cup of water, which stands alongside a glass of Coke—his favorite—that stopped fizzing an hour ago. It’s pitiful. The side-stares you’re getting from the happily married couple on your right, the glances from the waiters, who are too nice to ask you to leave, and the replies you have yet to receive from your missing-in-action boyfriend.
You wonder if it’s worth calling Leo when you’ve already texted him every five minutes. But, scrolling through the previous messages in your conversation, you decide against it. He hasn’t messaged you anything longer than “no” or “sure” for over five months now.
It’s okay, you think. Leo’s probably jet-lagged and sleeping right now, you attempt to comfort yourself. But, your heart clenches funnily, and your lips begin to quiver.
The fear of losing him has haunted you for too long for you to spit out another reassurance. So, you leave the restaurant in hopes that the blackness of the night will hide your shaking shoulders.
Thank you for the tears.
Your cheeks become stained from crying.
It’s been a long day of classes, and, in between each one, you are either half-running to a building on the far end of campus or haphazardly stuffing a bagel into your mouth to satiate your grumbling stomach. It’s one of those days where Professor Helen didn’t get much sleep and screamed at you in front of the class about how your essay papers weren’t double sided. One of those days where your clumsy hands decide to spill hot coffee onto your new jeans and where you want to be with Leo, even after months of your daily calls going ignored and your date plans postponed.
Are you two still together? In your heart, yes. Even now, he has you wrapped around his finger.
The afternoon wind brushes the exposed parts of your skin, chilling your ankles and slapping against your face and neck. You are walking back to your apartment, choosing this over the bus or taxi so that the coldness of the winter will completely obliterate the thoughts in your mind.
Strolling through the city, you feel mocked by the buoyant sounds of laughter coming from the restaurants and cafes at each block, and there is a twang of jealousy every time an elderly couple or family walks past you. But, all the pessimistic thoughts come to a halt when you see him. The man who you cared for and loved; the one who made you feel so worried for the past seven months; the one who seemed to carry no worries as he walks towards you, his hands enclosed with another woman’s.
The clicking sound of your shoes ceases at once. You can’t take your eyes off of Leo, and maybe it’s your rapidly heaving chest or your tear stained cheeks that reflects the city lights, but his eyes meet yours. His smile falters at the sight of you.
Please, don’t leave me here like this, you plead with your eyes.
But perhaps her beauty is more outstanding than yours. Perhaps you look too embarrassing for Leo to approach you. Perhaps he can no longer conjure up his feelings of endearment for you. Maybe that is why he averts his gaze to her, scratches his head as if he sees nothing, and calmly walks past you.
Are you two still together? In his heart, no, and the thought of that breaks you.
Muffled whimpers escaped from your throat while streams of tears burn your numb face. The signs of the restaurants become far too blurry to read. Once again, you hope the city lights will disappear and the darkness of the night will hide your shaking shoulders.
Thank you for the rejection.
Your cheeks squish against your pillow.
You wake up on the couch with stains of wine on your shirt, but it doesn’t bother you. For the last few weeks, you’ve greeted every morning on the couch.
Since the breakup, or so you assume, you’ve come to realize that you can swat away or ease sadness, but you can’t avoid loneliness. Loneliness clings so tight that you begin suffocating. Loneliness can’t seem to get enough of you, hindering your ability to properly eat, sleep, study, or function as a normal human being. It creeps into your dreams, your mornings, your nights, and into your mind. It constantly reminds you of the image of Leo and that woman.
Do people drift away from each other this easily? you wonder.
You can’t help but look through pictures of you and him when there was happiness at the very beginning of the relationship. At the time, Leo was the type of guy who would walk you past your home so that he could spend the ten minutes it takes to go around the neighborhood to be with you. But now you realize that he was distancing himself because he was too much of a coward to tell you directly, I don’t love you anymore. Then again, could you handle the impact of those five words?
Because I learned to like being alone.
Your cheeks are getting hit by the rays of the sun.
By the time the sun has fully risen, you’re skipping from your bedroom to the kitchen to make breakfast. Pancakes have become your favorite breakfast food these days, and you begin mixing the batter after you turn on the turquoise colored record player, a recent splurge for yourself, to play some Frank Sinatra. From the refrigerator, you pull out a few strawberries and a handful of blueberries to top the pancakes. Sitting on the couch, you look out the window and smile, seeing the beautiful cherry blossom trees and dainty flowers fully open to admire, for the new season of spring had finally come.
Sometimes, when you’re greeted with the scent of cotton or see your still oddly dressed neighbors, you think of him. Sure, there was no exact closure or apology, but you’ve come to a point where there are no poignant thoughts about him. It took time and the understanding that you can depend on and be satisfied with yourself to stop rebuilding the walls that had been torn down from hurt and rejection. You even learned to embrace doing the activities you used to do with Leo alone—taking walks around town, enjoying Friday nights with movies and wine, or dancing to music.
Feeling fulfilled, you munch on your delicious pancakes, grin at the sight of Mrs. Dallows walking her Poms, and feel content with only the sound of music filling your apartment.
Mina Kim is currently a senior at Henry M. Gunn High School who has been enjoying creative writing through her class at school this year. She especially loves freewriting on sense or specific detail. In her free time, Mina likes to travel with her family, drink coffee, and doodle in her journal.
Photograph, titled “Inhale,” by Jules Landa Ventre.
When I look at my wrists, I expect to see her scars. It doesn’t matter when I glimpse them—at dance, in the shower, on the bus—it always seems wrong that they are unblemished, perfect and whole in every way that hers are not. I can’t feel any other way, not when we live an hour apart and yet I keep her tucked in my pocket, closer than any neighbor. I never stop checking for her texts; I pause in the middle of phone calls with others just to type my replies. When she asks for a high number, I give it to her without question, and agree that yes, I will send her 93 texts if it will keep her from putting scissors to her skin and making more of those wounds. My English presentation can wait until we’re done—it can wait forever if it needs to. I ask my friends from school, the people who somehow have become less important than a girl who ever since we left camp has existed only within my phone, her soul contained in circuit boards and enclosed in a plastic shell, how I am supposed to care about Thoreau when all the way on the other side of the state, my friend has decided not to eat for fourteen days and there is nothing I can do to stop her. I don’t tell them that I half-expect to be the one who will faint from hunger in the middle of class before the two weeks are up if I don’t somehow talk her out of it. The worry keeps me from memorizing my speech, and yet I can recall exactly what she ate on December second: a single candy cane. Is it any wonder that I expect my frame to be skeletal, my stomach flat to the point of hollowness, my lunch box still full at the end of every day?
It seems unfair, even when she’s in the thick of it, for me to claim I feel anything at all. My wrists are empty, my stomach full, my brain free from the lies of mental illness. I know I cannot tell a teacher, “I can’t do this presentation because my friend is depressed.” Besides, I fear they’ll tell me that I’m wrong, that I should just leave it all to the professionals. They don’t know that I emailed her school counselor and still, when she stopped eating completely not once, but twice, it was me who snapped her out of it the first time and me who led our friend to give the warning that saved her the second time, even though her counselor had been pulling her from class for a period every day. The professionals cannot text her at midnight to keep away the doubts that crop up while everyone else is sleeping. So I learned how to fight with her, to throw every thought onto my keyboard in the hope that just one will click. The words to an anti-suicide speech are typed at the slightest alarming message, before I can even think about what to say. I have already adapted so much that it seems a miracle that my outside does not match my inside, that my figure has not lost its padding to the jaws of unsatiated hunger, that I can wear short sleeves without the fear of exposing white “cat scratches,” and that after everything, the only way we match is the bags under our eyes. It only seems fair that if I feel her anguish, I should carry her wounds.
After a month, her mother sends her to the hospital for evaluation. There will be no more scars made with scissors, no more delayed meals, no more early morning conversations. Those are not allowed in psych wards. Meanwhile, I remain at home, in school, trapped in my own sort of isolation. A part of me enters the hospital with her as her wrists heal and her hunger dissipates; the rest lingers in honors classes, pretends that everything is all right. I hide how I’m afraid of her coming back with nothing fixed. I resist the urge to ask everyone fretting about their grades if they’ve ever thought about what it’s like to have real problems. I have to right to shout at them. After all, I am safe. I eat regularly. I have no lines on my wrists. But if that’s true, then how come in my worried haze, I can see the scars residing on my arms, bright and clear, marking me forever? Why am I, too, overcome with fear at being removed from everything I care about until some doctor deems me stable? How come, every time I look in the mirror, I am able to count my ribs?
Margaret Madole is a 16-year-old sophomore from Connecticut who refuses to be reduced to a collection of nouns in a bio. Other people have described her as a writer, actress, dancer, violist, and girl scout. She prefers adjectives like eclectic, loud, enthusiastic, nerdy, and creative.
Visual Art by Öykü Seran Harman
Alice Bolin is the author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession. It is a New York Times Notable Book of 2018 and a New York Times Editor’s Choice book, is on the list of Kirkus’ Best Nonfiction Books of 2018, and is an Edgar Award nominee. Alice has published poems, stories, and essays in numerous publications, and is the former Poet-in-Residence at Idyllwild Arts Academy. She is currently a Creative Nonfiction professor at the University of Memphis.
Delany Burk and Kalista Puhnaty sat down to interview Alice about her recently published essay collection, Dead Girls, a large portion of which was written during her two years as the Poet-In-Residence here at Idyllwild Arts Academy.
Q: You write in many of your essays about the sexism that is present in the media. Do you think it is improving with the “Me Too” movement and the issues that are being brought up surrounding that?
A: I do think that it is improving, and that there have been a lot of changes when it comes to representation, and more diverse stories, but we have a really long way to go. I also still think stories that are supposedly combating sexism often play into it in certain ways. Even with the Sharp Objects thing, where a lot of it is just an excuse to just watch violence against women, and also watch women be ravaged by their past trauma. I don’t necessarily know if staying in that mode is doing us any favors, and I would like to see just more diversity in stories, not only in terms of representation but in terms of the kinds of stories we tell, and more experimentation with plot and structure. It is happening in some ways, like–I don’t even want to use this example–with anthology series like Black Mirror, changing the ways that people consume TV, which is really cool, and we aren’t as stuck in this season arc thing. But I think that we still have a long way to go, that’s my basic answer.
Q: Do you think that the fascination with dead girl shows, and stories like that, have anything to do with the “damsel in distress” theme from many older stories?
A: Yeah! It has everything to do with that. That sort of overlap between fairy tales and dead girl stories, and the ways that they always feel fairy tale-esque, harkening back to those attitudes about women, about women needing to be saved or helped by men. We still feel really comfortable with that narrative, of “Oh, let’s get a dad to come help,” but that’s what’s interesting about dead girl shows. The dads are the heroes and the villains, and that tells us something about our culture that we didn’t know before, which is ultimately sort of the good thing about them. But yes, it definitely harkens back to that damsel in distress image for sure.
Q: Why do you think that serialized crime shows are so popular, when a majority of people don’t know about real cases of women disappearing and dying, especially with the killings of women of color and trans women often going unspoken about?
A: I think our conception of what a mystery is has everything to do with the identity of the victim, and probably the perpetrator. When I lived in Los Angeles, two guys were shot right near my house and their killers were never caught. What they said in the newspaper was, “Oh, it was probably gang related,” and that they were two Latino guys, and that’s all we ever heard about it. That’s a mystery, we don’t know who did it, but it wasn’t treated like a mystery. Gang violence answers the question. “Okay, mystery solved!” When a white girl gets killed you feel like, “Oh! Who could have possibly done it?” because we don’t think that white women deserve violence in the way that we think that other kinds of people deserve violence. Or maybe because that’s just not our image of a victim of a violent crime. So that’s part of it, the allure of “the perfect victim.” Also, I have read literary theory stuff about serialized fiction even in the Victorian era, you know, Dickens and Wilkie Collins, but also journalism. Once the daily newspaper would come, people would follow these cases that were salacious, and serialization is kind of this method of getting people addicted to narratives, where once you have that cliffhanger, people start to fill in their own ideas of who did it, and what the answer is. It is perfect for these kinds of stories. I think that it has to do with structure too, there’s something about it that has been around for 200 years.
Q: Is there ever a time where having a dead girl in a story can be justified? And If so, how do we write stories about dead girls in a way that doesn’t fall in the same pitfalls that other dead girl stories do?
A: I don’t really feel like I’m the arbiter of what kind of stories people get to write. I even met the writer Megan Abbott who has written a bunch of literary… you might say literary thrillers, and they all center around female characters, and female rage you might say, and she explicitly said about my book, even though she liked the book, and she gave me a blurb, she said about my book that she doesn’t necessarily agree, and she thinks that we need to keep telling dead girls’ stories, and keep exploring that idea, because that’s where we’re going to find some answers about why this violence is so prevalent. Which I think is valid. I respect that opinion. So basically my answer is I don’t know… but I think there are ways that dead girls shows, and dead girls stories can kind of reveal our feelings towards women, and our feelings about crime and about who is the perpetrator and who is the victim, in ways that other stories can’t because they’re so outlandish and over the top and even fairy tale-esque, and magical. They kind of illustrate our really messed up interest in these stories by being so over the top. I think Twin Peaks is the perfect example of that.
Q: What other criticisms have you received for Dead Girls, and how would you address them?
A: I think that the biggest criticism that people have of it is that it is not all about dead girls. There need to be more dead girls in it, that it’s too personal, and there’s not enough analysis of that phenomenon in it, and it’s a little bit of a bait and switch. Which… whatever. But I think for me that was not the book that I was interested in writing, was a critical analysis purely of this dead girl phenomenon, not that it would be difficult to write. But I also felt like, “Well there are endless dead girls, I could write about that forever. Where do I find an end to that story? How do I find my way out of it instead of just staying in it? That book could be 1000 pages long. How do I find a resolution?” And the only way that I could do that was sort of veering off course, and examining other stories, maybe examining alternatives to that story and thinking about my own stories and the ways that I have sort of been complicit in the kind of oppression I was critiquing. That was how I found my way out of it. I’ve talked to women who are really cool who are like “Oh I’m so excited for your book, I’m a PhD student and I’m writing about violence against women in literature for my dissertation” or something and I’m like, “That’s great…” and you know I think that can exist alongside my book, and be kind of an alternative. I’m not the only person who is writing about this stuff but that’s kind of my take about it.
Q: You seem to have a fascination with mystery; have you considered writing a mystery novel or story? If so, how would you approach it?
A: Yeah! I want to write one about Idyllwild. But the thing is, I do like mystery and mysteries, but what I like more is that kind of mood, a really noir-ish or thriller-ey tone. And I love that in books that really have no mystery or the mystery is kind of missing, like books by Shirley Jackson, or Patricia Highsmith. I think those books, or even books like Toni Morrison, or “Ghost Story” books where you feel like there’s a mystery and you are reading it like there is one but ultimately the mystery is never going to be solved. That’s the kind of book I’d like to write. And maybe about Idyllwild. I think it would be the perfect setting. It’s so creepy.
I moved to Idyllwild from Koreatown in LA, which is the most densely populated part of LA, and I never felt worried about walking around at night because there were always people everywhere… but here? No. I’ve written about it a little bit, I think it’s so perfect for that creepy mood. That’s what I’m more interested in, because I do want to question our addiction to mysteries.
Q: Has teaching influenced your opinion on women in media?
A: I mean, teaching has influenced sort of everything that I think, but… Basically I think one thing that teaching helps me do is be more open-minded towards kind of practical ways that representation is important or sticking by what I believe in in certain ways, where maybe even if I like a book, or an essay, I’m maybe not going to assign it if I think that it could be offensive or marginalizing towards my students. And it is more important for me to represent more diverse and interesting voices because that is what my students need, and also what they would appreciate. So I feel like in some ways it has put me more in a mind of how I can be more responsible for my own choices, and the media that I’m personally consuming and recommending or assigning. Because I have this weird kind of power where I can make a group of people read books that I tell them to, and so I want them to read books that do have good representation of women, that don’t have damaging ideas about women, unless that’s something that we want to talk about.
Q: You’ve dug quite deep into many aspects of the media that are considered shallow. Are there any rabbit holes you’ve gone down that didn’t make the cut?
A: Lots of them. Yes, tons. Especially stuff about music and country music. There’s none of that in the book but I have written lots about country music, because I think that country radio is really fascinating and especially actually how it relates to women and female artists and the kind of values that it perpetuates to its audience. Also stuff about reality TV, there’s a little bit in there but I have, much more to say about MTV. I think I am probably going to be writing about stuff about media in my next collection, especially women and social media influencers, stuff like that is something I am really really interested in and love to write about.
Q: What is your opinion on the media’s obsession with bad mothers?
A: Hmmm. I feel like the media probably has pretty equal obsessions with bad mothers and bad dads, but they’re portrayed in different ways. I think we villainize women more for being bad mothers, like it’s almost perverse to be a bad mother. But to be a bad dad is sort of expected. It’s like, “Oh, sure.” It’s sort of a cliche, where a bad mom is like gasp, “So shocking!” and that’s something that in fairy tales, usually the mother is dead. But there might be an evil stepmother, or there’s this witch figure off in the wings and there clearly is literally or figuratively a stand in for a bad mother or an absent mother. I think it has a lot to do with our anger towards women, and towards our own parents. That’s something I talk about I think in the dead girl show essay, that the Philosopher Julia Kristeva, her theory of the abject had to do with this anger, maternal anger, anger towards our moms, she was a psychoanalytic theorist, so its like this Freud thing, but I think that it’s kind of gross, right? That’s really my only take on it, I really like stories about moms, and about moms who are in the picture, and who are good moms. I think that’s actually much more interesting than bad moms… Bad moms can be interesting too. That’s what my student at Idyllwild said to the class once: “To get writing ideas, I google ‘I hate my kids.’” I was like, “How many stories can you write about people who hate their kids?” but still, that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.