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Community Project | Kani Aniegboka

Community Project

When people urinate together, it foams.

Igbo Proverb

 

I sat across the room from the smallish man whose ears vomited hair. He spoke for a long time without getting to the point. It was the norm I’d learned since I began to sit in these meetings—the old men must go through many proverbs and anecdotes. Proverbs are the oil with which Igbo people eat words. Tradition or not, I was not pleased with being held hostage in the living room of our house.

It had been three months since my father’s burial, and I thought the meetings with relatives I didn’t know had ended, but here we were yet again. Was the old man here, like the others before him, to stake claim of my father’s property? My father’s younger brother had already commissioned himself custodian of everything, so there was nothing left for my vulture extended family to devour. Perhaps, this one was here to take me away and raise me like some uncle had proposed just a month ago. Of course, my mother had steered the uncle off with a polite “No thank you,” but I turned to her now, smiling at the old man’s speech, and wondered if she’d be able to say no again.

I barely knew this old man. The only things remarkable about him were, (a) his bald head with hair trimmings at the edges like a Roman emperor’s wreath; (b) that he held a PhD in something, a sign of significant intelligence, according to everyone except my father; and (c) by the time I was 10 years old I was taller than him. Besides this information, I didn’t know who he was. Did calling him uncle mean he was my father’s brother? No, I was told. My mother had unsuccessfully tried to explain his connection to our family. It was one of those blood ties that weave into oblivion. I always lost interest when the family tree had more than two branches. Everyone referred to the man by his initials, so we called him Uncle TFC. Even after his death many years later, his obituary bore TFC, as if he never had a given name.

Uncle TFC had called our house just a few days before and said he was coming to deliver an important announcement that required my presence. My mother invited a handful of our close relatives, as was customary in such cases. She need not have bothered because Uncle TFC arrived with an army of distant relatives to witness his crucial declaration. After he received the offering of kola nuts and a bottle of Schnapps that my mother presented to the group, Uncle TFC addressed the crowd. 

There were more people squeezed into our living room than we had space to accommodate. Most were standing, even though we brought in chairs with torn upholstery that visitors were not meant to see. Relatives, many of whom I’d never seen before, crammed the room to the point that I felt there would not be enough air to go around. Even though the door to the balcony was thrown open and the window blinds were drawn, the whirling ceiling fan was powerless to alleviate the heat, which stuck to our skin like snail slime. Only the bottle of Schnapps on the living room table seemed to have any space to itself. One of the men unscrewed it and poured a cork-full of the clear liquid on our tiled floor, a libation to the ancestors, who everyone believed also crowded the living room. 

I should have been one of the people standing since I was only fourteen and the youngest in the room, but I was the center of attention, as I had been at many such meetings since my father died nine months ago. It took six months to plan his funeral and another three months of mourning, at which time I wore only all-white outfits, even to school functions. Uncle TFC’s visit coincided with the end of my mourning period. I sat on the brown threadbare three-seater couch, squeezed between my mother and two aunts. My eyes were fixed on the green bottle of Schnapps, and I half-listened to Osita Osadebe’s highlife floating through the open windows from the megaphones of the record shop down the street. Ten minutes into the meeting, the bottle was already half empty, and the liquid danced every time someone picked it up and poured from it. 

Uncle TFC wound a tale outlining the genealogy of our family, as far back as was verifiably impossible, spiced with flashbacks of exploits he shared with my father when they were children. He told tales of how our great-grandfather came to settle in our village and became prosperous even though he had no family. The crowd “Hmm’d” and “Ah’d,” moved by the sentimental memories or pretended to be so they didn’t appear lost or ignorant. In contrast, my mother leaned forward in rapt attention like she was in church, and the man was preaching the gospel. I wanted to tap her, to remind her of her promise never to let anyone take me away, even if custom demanded that I needed to be raised by a father figure. But to talk to her at this point, even to whisper, would be considered an insult to the elder who was speaking.

The man’s stories reminded me of a story my father told us of his childhood. At Christmastime, my father’s family, one of the few wealthy enough to kill a goat for the celebration, would make goat stew for lunch. After lunch, he and his brothers would refuse to wash their hands so they could stick their fingers, stinking of goat meat, under their friends' noses when they later went out to play. The friends, smelling the stench, would realize how good my father had it. An equivalent of showing up to a party wearing a limited edition of next season’s top fashion, I guessed. My father’s rounded stomach would bounce up and down as he laughed at the memory, wiping tears from his eyes, even though he had told us the story enough times that we could retell it word for word. Something told me Uncle TFC was one of the children whose faces were smothered by my father’s unwashed hands. 

Uncle TFC concluded his stories by telling the enwrapped audience how my grandfather, whose philanthropy was legendary, took over the responsibility of paying for his education and that of his siblings after his own father passed away when they were still young. I had heard stories of other people my grandfather did such things for. With a few more parables and anecdotes—most of which I didn’t understand—Uncle TFC finally cleared his throat and looked at me, and I knew he was about to deliver the message that brought him to our house. 

He stood on the tip of his toes, stretched to his almost five feet height, forefinger pointed to the ceiling like a fire and brimstone preacher, and announced, “Every good deed deserves a reward. It is now my turn to repay the generosity your grandfather showed me,” his voice booming. 

Then he turned to speak directly to my grandfather’s monochrome picture hanging on the faded blue wall behind me. “I promise to take up the responsibility of paying for Kanayochukwu’s schooling from now till he is done with his education, and also—,” he paused to let the applause that interrupted him die down, “I will give him a stipend of one thousand Naira monthly, until the end of his studies.” 

With that, he whisked out the first cheque and waved it like the Nigerian flag during a parade. A rousing ovation, accompanied by flashes from a camera I didn’t know was hidden in the crowd, resounded. Relief pooled at my feet, but I was still a little skeptical. There could be more. The man was still standing, swaying like a roly-poly doll.

My aunt, the one sandwiching me on the couch, waddled to her feet and did a 360-degree dance with arms raised. “Praiseeeeeeee the Lord!” she sang, and the crowd responded, “Hallelujah,” like they were in an evangelical crusade, followed by another round of applause. It wasn’t clear if the second applause was for God or still for Uncle TFC. 

When the commotion finally died, Uncle TFC sat down, and I allowed myself to relax into the chair. Perhaps, this was just it. Perhaps, I had finally met a well-meaning uncle. One who was not out to rip everything away from us. My mother sighed, relieved as I was, stood and gave a short speech. She offered prayers of financial multiplication for Uncle TFC, protection from evil, and a declaration that someone will do for him and his unborn generations as he has done for us. The speech was surpassed in warmth only by the film of tears that made her eyes glitter. Every time her voice broke, she wrung her hand to regain her composure, and it cut me like the thin edge of a sharp blade. I silently railed, first, at my father for dying and putting her in a position where she felt she needed the help of strangers to take care of us, and then at my mother for acting as if she had just won the lottery. 

After my mother spoke, a self-appointed representative of my father’s extended family, admonished my mother for speaking before the men there to represent the family had a chance to speak, then also made a speech. He raised a toast from the now three-quarters-empty bottle of Schnapps and praised the strong ties of our family. He stressed that in Igbo culture, raising children was the job of ora—the village always took care of its own. 

“That is why we refer to children as Umu anyi, and wives as Nwunye anyi,” he said, looking around like he dispensed wisdom and deserved a round of applause like TFC had been getting all afternoon. When he got none, he barked at the crowd like they were errant children, “It would not change now that it is our turn.” He was finally rewarded with applause. 

Another uncle, even further removed from us than TFC, felt the need to cross the room, lay his hand on my mother’s shoulder, and say, 

“Stop crying,” although she was not. “All these men are now your husband, and Kanayo,” he said, turning to me, “They are your fathers.” 

I wanted to tell him not to be ridiculous, but I’d learned to use only my inner voice in the meetings since I was told that if I insulted an elder, I would have to buy a cow to appease them. 

A few other men spoke, each claiming some relationship or another, each repeating what had already been said, just changing the proverb that accompanied the message. At that point, I sincerely expected the event to air on the evening news. 

 

After the theatrics that day, the cheque Uncle TFC waved around was the only one I ever got from him. He never paid for a single term of my schooling. In fact, that meeting was the last time I saw him until he died about ten years later—I didn’t attend the funeral. Not one person from the horde of applauding witnesses ever asked if the promises made were being kept. Perhaps the fear that the enquirer may be solicited to chip in kept them mute. Or maybe they knew it was all for show and would have been surprised if someone suggested they make good on their promise.

The principle that raising a child was the community’s responsibility, as held by the Igbo society, had been passed down from generation to generation. It was once taken literally in the old days that when a man dies, his next of kin inherits, along with his property, his wife and children. In some cases, this may involve marrying the dead man’s wife, and on rare occasions, the male child was taken from the woman to be raised by an uncle, as someone had casually suggested in my case. While this must have been crushing for the children, it is the belief of the Igbo patriarchal society that a male child has to be raised under the mentorship and protection of a male member of the family. The overarching idea is that children are the extension of the community, belong to the community, and, therefore is the community’s responsibility to raise. It is often said in Igbo idioms that everything is easier when done together, and I figure that raising children is no exception. 

Although the way this community responsibility was carried out in the highly patriarchal Igbo society had plenty to be criticized, in principle, the objective that society takes care of its members was propitious. Unfortunately, the idea of the community's responsibility towards the family of the deceased, like chewing gum wearing out its sweet taste, has remained in language but not in essence. It has become a phrase used as a conversation filler or a tool to dispossess widows of their property in the name of using the resources to raise their children.

In the end, the promise of community care that Uncle TFC offered was as hollow as the empty bottle of Schnapps that sat on our living room table after the crowd dispersed. 

Kani Aniegboka

Kani is an MFA student at the University of New Mexico, a 2022 Tin House Workshop participant and the non-fiction editor at Blue Mesa Review. He’s currently working on his first memoir that explores his experience growing up as an only son in a patriarchal society with strict definitions of gender roles and expectations of manhood.

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In Spring Valley | DW McKinney

In Spring Valley

Spring Valley was made of the leftovers, the parts upturned and cast aside when the cities around it had formed. Here the fast-food joints were interchangeable and served the same sloppy food combinations. Retail stores declared bankruptcy, were replaced by a facsimile, then reappeared years later as if this suburb was a transitory place that revitalized stores from the edge of death until they were well enough to thrive in the real world beyond.

The punishing summer sun beamed its unrelenting spotlight on us. Pedestrians lumbered, all glistening languid limbs, down the valley’s shade-parched streets. Everything felt less-than in that heat; never quite what anyone needed it to be. The wear and tear of everyday life tarnished the outside of everything. The streets were greasy and uneven. Crowdedness was prevalent. Apartments cropped up in lots too small for the buildings that loomed there. The houses, jammed close together, were rundown and grimy. 

We lived on Dictionary Hill, Spring Valley’s protruding heart. The name was deceptive: it was more like a small mountain than a hill. Cars jerked and wheezed as they struggled upward on its winding roads. Canyons cut through it, creating a maze of neighborhoods. No one who had a choice walked up the hill; and if you did like I always had to, drivers passed by with a pitying smile. The view from the hill’s peak made Spring Valley look like a somewhat respectable, glimmering nation.

Our house sat atop a curved driveway in the middle of a sharp, sloped road. Barren earth and rock formed our front and backyards, so we found our respite inside, scattered across the split level of our home. In the summers, when wildfires crept up the nearby mountains, the distant smoke waved to us like a flag in warning. We watched from our balcony as the smoke plumed into the sky well into the evening only to awaken the next morning to a twin plume on another mountain. We prayed the fires would not engulf our neighborhood. The one time that a brush fire raced up the canyon behind our home, the air boiled and the dry scrub popped and blackened as red-orange flames crawled closer to us.

When the smoke cleared we set our gazes to the Sweetwater Reservoir in the distance. The wind plucked gentle waves upon its surface. The short green grass stirred in the whipping breeze. Birds cruised and dipped overhead. It was always quiet. Looking at that unremarkable blue lake, we could imagine we were someplace more inviting. With Tijuana on the horizon, a trail of lights in the far distance that winked at us, beckoning our escape at night, it almost felt possible that we were anywhere else but in that valley.

DW McKinney

DW McKinney is a writer and editor based in Nevada. A 2024 Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Fellow, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Oxford American, Los Angeles Review of Books, Ecotone, The Normal School, and TriQuarterly. A comics reviewer for Publishers Weekly, she is also a nonfiction editor for Shenandoah. Say hello at dwmckinney.com.

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I Buy Earrings | Allison Field Bell

I Buy Earrings

I buy earrings and think this will be the last time I have to buy earrings because now I have mustard earrings and I didn’t have mustard earrings to go with all the new mustard clothing I bought because mustard is my new favorite color and now that I have mustard earrings I won’t need to ever buy earrings again. It’s been a week. I realize I need red earrings. I have a red shirt and a pair of red pants and a dress with a red belt and no red earrings. I also need the metal hoops with the prickly pears welded into them and the hundred-dollar rainbow earrings beaded by my friend back in California.

But how to explain manic buying to someone who hasn’t manic bought? Or to someone who is not and has never been manic? How to explain that rush as you click through web pages and Etsy stores. How to explain the sight of the fat envelope on the porch, the way those small cardboard boxes feel in your hands, delicate but grainy. How to explain how it is to get mail when you live across the country from your family and there’s a pandemic and you haven’t made many friends in this new place where you’ve just moved with your partner who, let’s be honest, doesn’t really like you that much anyway. And you could stop buying earrings. But it’s riding that edge of stopping but still going that really does it for you. Like the pleasure of being on the cusp of an orgasm. You think you want that release and when you do, sure it’s great (you get earrings!) but really it’s the edge that’s the most exciting. 

My partner does not love or understand my earring habit. He’s right not to love it. I am in grad school and don’t make enough money to support the habit. The earrings go on credit cards. And my debt is growing. My partner doesn’t notice when I wear new earrings. He doesn’t notice the hoops with the prickly pears or the new red clay ones or the mustard ones. Sometimes I wonder if this is just a man failing to notice fashion or if he doesn’t really look at me much. Either way, it prompts me to buy more earrings. Why not? No one notices or cares. 

Earrings have become my signature. I wear big earrings because I have long hair and if I didn’t wear big earrings they would disappear into my hair. I wear earrings when I teach since my students can’t see half my face because of my mask. I used to wear earrings to distinguish myself when I bartended. It’s about personality. Now people gift me earrings. Gold snakes. Clay succulents. Heavy silver lightning bolts. People know I buy earrings, so now they know what to buy me. I have made myself easier to shop for. I have made myself easier to love.

But it wasn’t always earrings. In the past, it’s been Shakespeare and Jane Austen films. In the past, it’s been framing all my photography professionally to create a show I never exhibited. In the past, it’s been collecting Marxist books that I didn’t ever read but someday, I thought, I might just. I didn’t even have my ears pierced until I was sixteen. I only got them pierced because my mother wouldn’t let me get my nose pierced until I pierced my ears. She thought it would deter me. I almost passed out with the ear piercing. I wore tiny studs for a long time. My ears looked alien to me—like they belonged to some other person. But I sort of liked it too. Like my body could surprise me. I remember looking in the mirror for a long time, studying the small black studs in my ears in wonder. It is the same feeling I get any time I get a new tattoo: the surprise of misrecognizing my body. Maybe that’s why I get tattoos. And piercings. Adornments. To change the body. 

Earrings are a coping mechanism. Six months after I started new medication for my brain, I gained thirty pounds. I am a small woman, and thirty pounds is a lot. My face changed shape. My body changed shape. I bought earrings instead of throwing up. I bought earrings instead of starving myself.  Once a therapist asked me why I threw up. I told her because the patriarchy because my brain chemistry. Because because because. She said, No. She said, you threw up because it worked. It helped. You threw up to survive. I buy earrings because it works. I buy earrings because it helps. I buy earrings to survive.       

Allison Field Bell

Allison Field Bell is originally from northern California but has spent most of her adult life in the desert. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Prose at the University of Utah, and she has an MFA in Fiction from New Mexico State University. Her prose appears in SmokeLong Quarterly, The Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, New Orleans Review, West Branch, Epiphany, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Pinch, and elsewhere. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in The Cincinnati Review, RHINO Poetry, Palette Poetry, The Greensboro Review, Nimrod International Journal, and elsewhere. Find her at allisonfieldbell.com.

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I am King | Dayna Copeland

I am King

I eat the strawberry Pop-Tart in the driver’s seat of my car. The one with frosting and little flecks of sharp sprinkles that slice the roof of my mouth. I will use the carbs for a pump. 

I feel my thighs quake and ripple through my army green leggings, check the silhouette of my ass in the reflective glass as I walk through the lobby of the rec center. I have always had girth but now it is intentional. A glimmer of afternoon sun slices through a high-hung window, catches me in the retina and for a moment I feel like an android or perhaps something bionic. I imagine that I am part machine.

I hike the slipping waistband up over my fleshy haunch, cover iridescent gashes on my left hip where my belly once swelled to hold my baby and the skin stretched too fast. The signs of life, of new life, but a decade ago. The divots of skin prove the possibility, power once borne from this body. I stumble, a subtle limp where the muscles in my spine pull my pelvis into a rotation, the scoliosis of middle age that tips the plates on the bar. I am in charge of it, though. The strength I fortify, now. I build myself in the more perfect image. I am not simply a tool of reproduction, an artifact of female youth, yet aging and decrepit. The scars that sear my uterus shut bear no limitation to my force of will. I am not done.

The sugar hits just as the air conditioner slams me with frigid, blessed air. Cross the threshold. Prickles in my fingers. I drive the carbs to my heart by pumping my legs rhythmically at the leg press machine, the squat rack. Nicki Minaj spits raps and the televisions reflect in meta, in meta, in meta, in mirrors, infinitum– they all project Fox News.

Tucker Carlson reports once again. The American Dream is in danger. Our children are in danger. Another school shooting I can do nothing about. It’s the Fentanyl. It’s the black people. It’s the working mothers. Fuck Fox News. I use the rage. 

Deadlifts, walking lunges, sumo squats, hip thrusts, hyperextensions, monster walks. Kettlebells, dumbbells, barbells– they all hit the floor and I pound my chest. In this space, I have Power. I make Power. I am Power. I pull sweet, pink drink between my teeth. Hiss to acknowledge the burn like it is some anesthetizing elixir earned in battle. I am not done here. I will finish when I have moved thousands of pounds of plates. When I know I have become stronger for it. Warmth from my depths roils to the surface, skin flushed, red. Song changes, System of a Down. I feel it. Hair standing on end. Here, I am not in danger. Here, I am the danger. 

And in light of that, I will keep coming back. Today and tomorrow and the day after, I will throw iron. I will propel heavy things through the air. I will hurt myself. Purse my lips, cinch the sharp angles of my jaw till the muscles under the skin bubble and nerves in my head short circuit. I will allow myself to look as angry as I never dare to feel. I feel it. Helpless to stop it. I will hurt myself before you can. I will force the world to move around the wide width of my frame– the body I have molded into granite, immovable perfection. Try to move me. You’ll lose. Helpless to stop it. I will not quit. I will hurt myself. Helpless to stop it. 

The world does not change for the better. A baby cut straight out of my guts, glorious and gory, thrust into the best country in the world, the violence of America. The love of a mother, not enough, you let them shoot it up. And I am powerless to stop it, but here– here, I bolster the machine of my body.

Dayna Copeland

Dayna Copeland writes experimental and narrative non-fiction from the perspective of a person stuck somewhere between poverty and privilege. Dayna seeks to offer a window into the humanity of the female experience beyond the pursuit of partnership or child-bearing. An Alum of the Tin House Summer Workshop in 2022 and a graduate of writing programs at Yale and Florida State University, she writes about the woman's pursuit of legacy, purpose, honor, and spirituality. She spent the last year caring for her son with cancer, editing for Identity Theory Magazine, and writing her memoir. She also teaches elementary art. Twitter: @DaynaECopeland Instagram: @DaynaCopeland

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In Good Company: A conversation with debut author Shannon Sanders

Hannah Grieco, editor-in-chief of the ASP Bulletin, interviews author Shannon Sanders about her exciting new short story collection Company, from Graywolf Press

 

Hannah Grieco: Tell us about Company!

Shannon Sanders: Company is a collection of thirteen linked short stories, most of them centered on the members of one multigenerational Black family. The stories tackle lots of different subjects, but they share a common element: Each one involves an interaction between a guest and a host. (Hence the title!) The stories jump around to center different protagonists, but—and this is what I love most about linked collections—a character you've gotten to know in one context is likely to reappear on the fringes of another character's story.

 

HG: Why a short story collection vs a novel? What do you love about the short story form?

SS: I'm debuting with a short story collection because for a period of several years, short stories were what I was writing—and pretty compulsively at that! I was obsessed with the idea of trying to capture a particular scene or moment or feeling and imbue it with meaning within the limits of the short story frame. Before I had kids (meaning I had a lot more time for my mind to wander), short story ideas kept coming to me, and it was really satisfying to be able to put them on paper. Some of the stories I wrote in only one or two sittings. I got massively lucky in that my agent, Reiko Davis, believes in short stories and was excited to seek a home for these ones without pressuring me to try to write a novel.

That said, I love novels too—I was raised on them—and am hard at work on my first one!

 

HG: This collection is so beautifully linked, with characters (and their needs) intersecting throughout. Was that hard to pull off? How did you plan and organize the collection? Was ordering the stories difficult?

SS: Thank you for those lovely compliments! I will be honest: I think linked short stories are easier in many ways. To take a step back (I promise it will make sense), some of my earliest writing efforts were in teenage fanfiction, which I think is a great learning experience because so much of the material is pre-cut and the writer doesn't have to worry so much about building the world from scratch. It leaves a lot more room to play and experiment. When I was writing fanfic in high school, I was able to get a lot of good story-shaping and sentence-level practice, because I already understood the characters and the setting so well.

In much the same way, the more of these stories I wrote, the deeper and realer the world became. By the time I was putting the finishing touches on the collection, every character in the book felt human to me. I was no longer guessing what they would do or say; I knew. I understood how they would intersect because we'd spent so much time together already.

Ordering the stories felt daunting at first (because I knew it was important to get it right), but in the end they ordered themselves. I wanted the reader to have a particular experience of discovering these characters and then growing to understand each one better as the perspective shifted. Though I hear that lots of readers skip around when they read collections anyway!

 

HG: Can you talk a little more about that organization process? Was there a timeline in your head? How did you go about deciding what story went where?

SS: Ordering the pieces was not nearly as complicated as I had worried it would be! My agent and my editor were fairly decided that the PEN-prizewinning story should go first; I felt that a story that ends on a hopeful note should go last. I took a wonderful One Story class with Patrick Ryan in which he discussed ordering collections, and I had learned a few tricks about positioning some of the heavy-hitting stories (in my cases, the longer, more exposition-rich ones) to hold reader attention. And then finally, I tried to make the reader experience fun and revelatory wherever I could! So that, for example, a reader who remembered the mention of Cy Collins in the second story (in which he's just a voice on the telephone) would be excited to catch up with him ten years later toward the end of the book in the story of which he's the star.

 

HG: When did you begin to realize that you were writing a collection, vs just a story or two with related characters? What was your writing process like, once you decided to write an entire book this way?

SS: I have a wonderful friend, Jen Buxton Haupt, who was my first-ever workshop leader and writing teacher. She read my first few workshop stories, most of which were linked, and started publicly telling people that I was working on a book. I think that's probably what planted the seed! I kept adding stories to the same linked universe for years—not because I thought I was working on a book, but because I found that it was so easy to generate material that way! Every time I introduced a peripheral character in a story, I found that I was really excited to explore that character further, give them even more focused attention. As an example, the first story in the collection ("The Good, Good Men"), which is also one of the first ones I wrote chronologically, features a character named Lela. Shortly after I wrote that one, I found that I wanted to delve into Lela's childhood, so I wrote another story, which ended up being the title story and an anchor to the collection.

I wrote about four of the stories after connecting with my agent, who felt there should be a few more stories touching on a little bit of additional material. The better I knew the characters, the easier the stories were to write! So the ones that came toward the end of the process (which are interspersed throughout the book) felt less like generating new material and more like filling in gaps.

 

HG: Were there any stories you cut from the collection? Why?

SS: No, but I did have to make a couple of tough decisions about not including stories that were a little bit too resonant with others in the collection. I think a lot of writers find ourselves doing accidental rewrites—coming up with the same story in different ways because we're obsessed or because we feel we left some stone unturned last time! That happened to me a couple of times, and I knew I had to keep the collection tight and succinct.

 

HG: What was the hardest story to finish, and why? Were there any stories you almost gave up on?

SS: I don't want to suggest that I'm an effortless writer, but I did not have any pulling-teeth experiences while writing this book! But I did have to do a little bit of story surgery on two of the shorter pieces in the collection: "Rule Number One" and "Three Guests." They were, at one point, a single story overloaded with an awkward combination of backstory and forward movement. My editor very gently coached me to streamline the story, but I really wanted to keep most of the material. So I ended splitting up the paragraphs (non-sequentially) and creating two stories, then suturing on a little bit of extra tissue for polish. (It sounds gross! I hope no one perceives it in the reading.)

 

HG: For those of us who also write stories vs longer works: How did you go from writing for literary journals to getting an agent and landing Graywolf?

SS: In early 2020, my debut short story "The Good, Good Men" won a PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Winning that award (for which I had asked Puerto del Sol to nominate me—writers, don't be shy about doing this!!) truly changed everything for me. Reiko (who would eventually become my agent) follows those awards; after she read my story, she found my other work online (writers, keep your website up to date!!) and reached out to me. To my absolute delight, she was excited about trying to sell a short story collection and had some great ideas about where to do so.

I was prepared for the possibility of multiple submission rounds, but it went to auction almost immediately and I fell in love with Graywolf's vision for it.

Shannon Sanders 2013; Photo: David F. Choy

Shannon Sanders lives and works near Washington, DC. Her fiction has appeared in One StoryElectric Literature, Joyland, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere, and was a 2020 winner of the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.

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FEATURED STORY: How to Fly Away | Caroljean Gavin

How to Fly Away

Wake up just before dawn. Check your phone the night before to see what time the sun is scheduled to rise. Don’t set your alarm. You don’t want your husband to wake up at the chimes. Think to yourself “Wake up at five, wake up at five, wake up at five…” until you fall asleep and wake up at five, amazed but not surprised. Roll out of bed carefully. Do not bother with extra clothes or foot coverings. You won’t need them. Soon. You know you won’t need them soon.

Leave out the front door, silently, locking it behind you. Wade out through the flowers, through the wet grass that’s been moaning for a mowing. Close your eyes. Feel the end of night on your face. Hear the trees flapping their hands in the breeze. See the lightening. Behind your eyes. Keep your eyes closed. You are in the midst of a waking-up song. The chitters, cheeps, peeps, trills. Taste the opening of your throat. Do not open your mouth. Keep the song. You don’t want the neighborhood to hear what you’re becoming, and besides, you don’t know the language yet. You don’t know your own
language yet.

Your body is changing. Each feather takes root in your skin and sprouts into a spreading softness. Your bones, too, are hollowing out. You have never felt this delicate. You steady your talons in the ground, and you take a little hop. The hop pulls you up, up. Why would you try to stop something that feels so good, that feels so right? Your eyes open, they do not break, or pop, or burst open. They simply open and rejoice.

You wheel around your house for a while. You hear your son rising, singing songs to himself, tossing cars around his room. You make several passes across his window. He is safe. Nothing will harm him in there. Your husband is still sleeping, he will wake up soon enough.

And when your husband wakes up, he will be confused you aren’t there, he will call your phone, he will hear your phone buzzing on the nightstand, he will figure you just went out for a run, he will take care of your son, he will start to get worried as the day goes on. He will call your friends, your family.

You will be back. You are not leaving them forever. You will be back in time for dinner. You will weigh down your body with cutlery, and you will pull the feathers out of your skin. You will pick them up something for dinner. You will come up with a reason that is a surprise. You would never, never, ever leave your family forever, only life happened so fast, and you never got to soar over the ocean. Never got a chance to dip a wing as a whale spouted. Never got to perch on the mast of a boat. You never had the chance to feel clouds disappear into your eyes. You never had the chance to see the horizon in all directions. You push yourself up higher, higher, higher, and this time you choose your wind.

Caroljean Gavin

Caroljean Gavin's work has appeared in places such as Milk Candy Review, Fractured, New World Writing, Best Small Fictions, and X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine. She’s the author of Shards of a Stained-Glass Moving Picture Fairytale (Selcouth Station Press). She's on Twitter:@caroljeangavin

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Abandon | Katherine Gekker

Abandon

 

Katherine Gekker

Katherine Gekker is the author of In Search of Warm Breathing Things (Glass Lyre Press). She serves as Delmarva Review's Poetry Assistant Editor. Her poetry has appeared in Little Patuxent Review, Broadkill Review, and elsewhere. Gekker was born in Washington, DC. In 1974, she founded a commercial printing company and sold it 31 years later. She lives with her wife in Arlington, Virginia, and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

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Invisible Man (Two Views) | MEH

Invisible Man (Two Views)

I.

I am not a spook, nor ectoplasm.
I am flesh and bone. fiber and liquids.
a mind. I understand people see me
like bodiless heads in circus sideshows
surrounded by hard, distorting glass.
when they approach they see figments
of their imagination. my epidermis:
a peculiar disposition, a matter
of construction. a figure in a nightmare
the sleeper tries—with all his strength—
to destroy. let me confess, it's seldom
successful.

II.

I am invisible. a spook who haunted
your Hollywood movie. invisible
because people refuse to see. they see
only my surroundings—everything,
anything except me. no invisibility
is an accident. invisibility occurs
because eyes look through. I am
not complaining, nor protesting.
it is advantageous to be unseen (though
it is wearing on the nerves to doubt
if you really exist, whether you are
a phantom). say—out of resentment—
you ache to convince yourself you do exist,
with fists make them recognize you. alas,
it's seldom successful.

 

An erasure poem from Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man by and Glenn Ligon’s painting Invisible Man (Two Views).

MEH

Matthew E. Henry (MEH) is the author of six poetry collections. He is editor-in-chief of The Weight Journal and an associate poetry editor at Pidgeonholes. MEH’s poetry appears or is forthcoming in Cola, The Florida Review, Massachusetts Review, Ninth Letter, Pangyrus, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, and The Worcester Review among others. MEH’s an educator who received his MFA yet continued to spend money he didn’t have completing an MA in theology and a PhD in education. You can find him at www.MEHPoeting.com writing about education, race, religion, and burning oppressive systems to the ground.

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Selfie | Jennifer Keith

Selfie

The starlet’s facial features do the dance
demanded by the camera’s music: Snap.
A girl like that could do it in her sleep:
that look, immortalized in that romance,

the sculptor, carving up some pale ideal
and how he tried to make it love him back.
Miss Monroe’s blank and tired. You can see
she’s done with trying to make that smile look real.

Then Daltrey sang about his precious Lilly
completing the circuit: eyes to brain to hand,
a line a pixel, the billion points of light—
a limbic money shot of willy-nilly.

How many looks attempted, then discarded—
the duck, the hungry sparrow, baby fish,
a sucky little game face breaks the bank,
and stuffs itself with everything it’s started.

Like sugar—wet lips hungry, silent, so
they’re force-fed phalanxes of angry boy
until the psyche chokes. Are you done yet?
A million lonely housewives want to know.

Our man is walking, lonely on a beach,
without a hand in his, no candlelight
or quiet conversation, please, no games—
just eyeliner and implants, waves of bleach.

The truth is terrifying: In no way
is this what was at some point guaranteed—
by dint of dudeness: “Hooter’s type,” long legs,
some alien abduction, swiped away.

Now hand on gun, he’s hardened; resolute.
Be Seen, the billboard says. Be Seen. Be Loved.
The smile in that one photo was for him.
The dissonance enraging, playing cute,

while she is scanning all the sparkly racks
to amp up this and that, and try again.
The mental contact sheet of shots extends
to the atmosphere of Mars, which now attacks.

Consider the distraction: what it took
to blister reels of real life, snagged within
the teeth of the projector, motion stilled—
in hope that he would look, and look, and look.

Jennifer Keith

Jennifer Keith is a web content writer for Johns Hopkins Medicine and plays bass for the rock band Batworth Stone. Her poems have appeared in Sewanee Theological Review, The Nebraska Review, The Free State Review, Fledgling Rag, Unsplendid, Best American Poetry 2015, and elsewhere. Keith received the 2014 John Elsberg poetry prize and in 2021 her poem “Cooper’s Hawk” was a finalist for the Erskine J. Poetry Prize from Smartish Pace. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

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the immigrant dream | Ishanee Chanda

the immigrant dream

you and me, together, in a house
that is just small enough to hear us hold our breath.
two tails, eight legs, and a pair of wet noses
running around our knees - not a single child in sight.
two cars in the driveway. a christmas tree touching the ceiling,
always four months into the new year. your hand on my waist
when i am sleeping or cooking breakfast or dancing in the bathroom
before bedtime. my nuzzling your clothes every time you leave the house
for a jug of milk or a midnight snack. gold rings glinting
in the muted light of the moon. a fluttering that lives in our
skin for as long as the sun turns in the sky.

Ishanee Chanda

Ishanee Chanda is a prose writer and poet from Dallas, Texas. She is the author or two books of poetry titled Oh, these walls, they crumble and The Overflow. Additionally, she has been published in the Eckleberg Project, Stoked Words: A Queer Anthology, Z Publishing House’s Emerging Texas Writers, Flypaper Magazine, and Apricity Press. Ishanee currently resides in Washington, D.C. where she works full-time in the field of humanitarian aid and refugee response. You can find her loitering a farmer's market, chasing her cat, and cooking her girlfriend fresh pasta every Tuesday night.

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