April 26, 2016 § 3 Comments
Brevity is excited to announce a special issue to be focused on experiences of race, racialization, and racism. For our 53rd issue, we are looking for work that considers all aspects of race: what it is, what it means, how our understanding of it is changing. We want essays that explore how race is learned during childhood, lived over the entire course of a life, and how our changing understanding of race shapes the way we experience ourselves and others.
We are looking for flash essays (750 words or fewer) that explore the lived experience of race, racialization, and racism, show the reader a new way to look at the familiar, or give voice to under-represented experiences. Submissions will be open until May 31st and the issue will be published in mid-September.
The guest editors for this special issue will be Ira Sukrungruang and Joy Castro.
Born in Miami, Joy Castro is the author of The Truth Book: A Memoir, the New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water and Nearer Home, the essay collection Island of Bones, and the short fiction collection How Winter Began. Recipient of an International Latino Book Award and the Nebraska Book Award and finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award, she edited the collection Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, and serves as the series editor of Machete: The Ohio State Series in Literary Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in anthologies and in journals including Salon, Seneca Review, Fourth Genre, North American Review, Brevity, Afro-Hispanic Review, and The New York Times Magazine. She teaches creative writing, literature, and Latino studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she directs the Institute for Ethnic Studies.
Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoirs Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, the short story collection The Melting Season, and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night. He is the coeditor of two anthologies on the topic of obesity: What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. He is the recipient of the 2015 American Book Award, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, an Arts and Letters Fellowship, and the Emerging Writer Fellowship. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Post Road, The Sun, and Creative Nonfiction. He is one of the founding editors of Sweet: A Literary Confection, and teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida.
Because we are committed to showcasing a variety of lived experiences in this issue, we want to be certain that everyone is able to submit their work. If Brevity’s small submission fee of $3.00 would keep you from submitting, you may submit your work to email@example.com without paying the fee. (Should you take this option, however, you need to send a word doc. not a PDF for complex technical reasons too boring to describe here.)
Submissions may be sent through our Submittable page.
April 26, 2016 § 2 Comments
By Amy Wright
Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s second memoir follows Descanso For My Father: Fragments Of A Life, which won the Colorado Book Award for Creative Nonfiction and International Book Award for Best New Nonfiction. Turning now to his mother’s story, Fletcher opens Presentimiento: A Life in Dreams with a trip back to Albuquerque after nearly a decade away from his native New Mexico.
Half expecting to find his mother’s home exactly as he remembers with “Navajo rugs, prayer poles, peacock feathers, Cochiti drums,” he discovers instead “displays of porcelain saints, rosary beads, gilded lamps, and crucifixes.” After having open-heart surgery, his mother stripped her room bare of casual decorations and outfitted it with “the aura of a chapel, complete with flickering candles and a creaky wooden floor.” The ambience is ripe for recollecting, and every phrase and anecdote Fletcher gathers shines with the intimacy of worry stones and desert roots he and his mother pocket on visits to gravesites, former dwellings, and other family landmarks.
His noun-thick prose is laden with sensory detail. “In the amber glow of a desk lamp, I read my mother’s walls,” he says: “Hammer head. Weather vane. Hatpin. Holster…As a boy, this was the world I inhabited—image, artifact, fragment, negative space.” Thus, he understands how what he leaves out, such as any interpretation of her memory boxes’ contents, best reveals the objects in themselves and the kind of person who treasures them. He presents, like a rare antique store find, the “nickel-plated hope chest [his] mother bought in the ‘70s from a widow in the hills above Cuba, New Mexico.” The original owner had shrugged off the container that once held her dowry and offered it to its admirer as a gift. Opting instead of receiving it for free to pay the fifty dollars she intended for the light bill, his artist mother reveals her core character. Her son’s character in turn filters through his recognition of what matters most to her, as he gestures to preserve the stories that animate her belongings.
Negative space allows air to circulate between many paragraphs, which are separated by enough white space that some sections in the book appear like poems. This layout makes legendary their family stories. In a passage titled “…the Weight,” for example, Fletcher relays a night when his mother and her three youngest sisters, as girls, lay awake in bed giggling. When a boot step makes its way down the hall toward them, they cover their heads with the sheet and hold their breath. Thinking the heavy weight that sinks into the mattress with a sigh to be another family member, they pull back the covers horrified to find nothing there. That so much remains unsaid in this eight-line story adds to its mythic quality.
But what I appreciate most in Presentimiento is that reminder of “something you feel in your heart,” which people relied on for centuries before telephones to communicate. The sense of connection that presentiment fosters recalls the gift Rebecca McClanahan created by braiding her family narrative into The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change. Both collections ask readers what they might pull back from the edge of the river of forgetting and what we can learn from places and people that are “fading, if not being outright destroyed.”
My mother leaning on tiptoe to pick a yellow Lodi apple boomerangs to me when he describes his mother’s pleasure to taste again the manzanitas de San Juan. The same bolt of lightning flashed through the viewfinder of her Brownie camera as his mother’s. “Look at them. Just look at them,” she tells him of the saints before the altar at the church of Las Trampas. And look he does, swaddling what he sees in language as vivid as the dyed-oxblood huarachas that gave his mother her first glimpse of glamour, and in turn puts their family culture in a context by which readers might celebrate difference.
Amy Wright is the author of Everything in the Universe and Cracker Sonnets, both forthcoming in 2016. She is also the nonfiction editor of Zone 3 Press, coordinator of creative writing and associate professor at Austin Peay State University, and author of four poetry chapbooks. Her first prose chapbook, Wherever the Land Is, is scheduled for release this spring.
April 25, 2016 § 12 Comments
By Ann Cinzar
Is it an occupational hazard that as a woman who writes, I have a hard time calling myself a writer?
Ever since I began to write for myself — as opposed to an organization which paid me to do so — I have a hard time saying, “I am a writer.” When someone asks “what do you do?” I stumble over the words, unable to say “I write” without splicing my sentence with “try to/kind of/sort of.” How can someone with a love of words be so maladept at using them? And where did this pervasive case of imposter syndrome come from?
I’ve noticed this affliction with many of my women writer friends. We commiserate about feelings of inadequacy; we toil over work but leave it sitting on laptops; we hesitate to send our work to “big” names because we don’t think we are worthy. In short, we’re reluctant to call ourselves “real writers.”
A few years ago I befriended a “real writer.” He (yes, he) is the real deal: his books win awards, he’s had critical acclaim, he’s been in the New Yorker. He’s smart, young and funny, but he’s still humble and unassuming. One reviewer called him “perhaps the most endearing man in the country.” (I am not talented enough to make this stuff up.)
My first encounter with Real Writer was serendipitous. A few days earlier had been a momentous occasion for me — one of my essays had been published in a national newspaper. After reading my piece, a friend said to me “Do you know Real Writer? Your writing reminds me of his stuff. You should meet him.”
I laughed off my friend’s compliment — clearly, she was just being nice. And, while I knew Real Writer lived in my neighborhood, I also knew the likelihood of ever meeting him was slim.
The next day I went to grab a latte and there was Real Writer, shoulders hunched over his computer, at the coffee shop. My coffee shop! It hardly seemed a coincidence. Perhaps the writing gods had sent me a message? Naturally, I introduced myself.
“Are you Real Writer?” I asked.
“Why yes, I am,” he said, his eyebrows raised in manner suggesting, Ask me anything you’d like. Well, it may not have happened exactly like that, but that’s how it plays in my memory.
Nonetheless, we launched into a conversation, and after some time he asked, “Are you a writer?”
I laughed out loud. Real Writer just asked me if I wrote. It was akin to having Jamie Oliver ask me if I cook. I mean, of course I do, but would I call myself a chef? Is calling yourself a writer any different? Isn’t there some baseline standard, some prerequisite? Moreover, how do I call myself a writer when the real deal is sitting in front of me? Surely he thinks I’m kidding myself — a dilettante, dabbling at the fringes.
The truth is I spend a lot of time at the fringes, thinking and talking about writing. Sometimes it’s on my own, but often it’s with my other women writer friends. We support each other in our insecurities, we discuss the latest VIDA counts, we placate each other in our literary rejections.
Interestingly, when subjected to my self-indulgence or rejection woes, every man in my life tells me a variation of the same thing: Get back to work. My husband, of course, provides the most incisive and least diplomatic response. “Get over it.” He says. “Stop talking about it, and do the work.” This is the voice of experience. My husband doesn’t sit around wallowing in every lost sale or minor setback he encounters in his business. He takes it in, assesses, and moves on. He gets back to work.
I used to think my need to discuss and analyze the writing life was part of my nature — maybe I’m more outgoing than the average writer? Certainly, Real Writer isn’t introducing himself to random people at coffee shops. Then again, maybe that’s why he’s writing best sellers and I’m out chatting with my friends about how hard it is to get anything done, or worrying about our lack of talent, or time, or legitimacy, or self-worth.
Lately I’ve been wondering whether this constant navel gazing is merely an excuse to keep me from writing and submitting. Is it simply a distraction from the work? All this time I spend questioning my work, imagining editors laughing at my submission, stewing about how I’m too late, too old, too untalented…wouldn’t this time be better spent writing?
Real Writer and I see each other regularly, mainly at the same coffee shop. Sometimes I inch closer to him, hoping his talent might seep across the café table and into me through osmosis. I love talking to him about life in general, but on occasion I forget myself and ask him about a writing topic, or tell him about a recent small win. He’s always generous with his wisdom (in the reserved and reluctant manner of a real writer) and even encourages me in my literary pursuits.
One day recently, likely as I was in the midst of some self-indulgent angst, he made an offhand comment. “Just write,” he said.
My first thought, of course, was, Easy for him to say. When you’ve accumulated prizes and praise before the age of 35, the pressure is decidedly off.
But, then I realized I was at it again. That little voice in my head, always over-thinking, over analyzing, and consequently, under delivering. Perhaps the real occupational hazard is that as a woman who writes, I don’t take things literally. When Real Writer tells me “Just write” maybe that is precisely what he means.
Forget about anything else: just write. From now on, that’s what I intend to do. Who knows? Maybe actions will speak louder than words.
Ann Cinzar’s work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Washington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Globe and Mail, and Literary Mama. Her essay “Adult Accompaniment” is forthcoming in the anthology So Glad They Told Me, to be released summer 2016.
April 22, 2016 § Leave a comment
By Karissa Womack
Sometimes a writer can be loudest by being the most quiet, an effect brilliantly achieved by Maggie Messitt in her first book, The Rainy Season: Three Lives in the New South Africa. Unlike Messitt, I never could stay quiet or porch sit long enough to listen.
Messitt was twenty-four and on an indefinite leave from graduate school when she landed in South Africa. I was twenty-two when I first moved out of my home state of Alabama to teach at an inner city middle school with AmeriCorps.
While Messitt was bound for the adventures and stories of another continent, I’ve stayed within the familiarity of the American southeast. At the end of my volunteer year, I loaded up my pick-up truck and retreated back to the comforts of university life.
As a malungu, a white person, Messitt is an interloper in post-apartheid South Africa. Yet, her immersed status in Rooiboklaagte, where she opened a newspaper and school, allowed her access to this unique landscape. She lived and worked alongside the less than two hundred families of Rooiboklaagte until she felt her presence in the community would not notably affect her story and the lives she recorded.
During my time as an interloper, I didn’t know my presence would remain disruptive as long as I held a short-term contract, that to the community where I taught, I was another body in the revolving door of white young women in puffy AmeriCorps jackets. I struggled in writing stories of my time there because I hadn’t been ready to invest myself in the “beautifully complicated” lives of the community I was visiting. I’m still not, but I appreciate the grace of Messitt’s work and I respect her immensely.
Messitt does not evoke an agenda, but invites readers into an (almost) unobstructed view of Rooiboklaagte, sharing her access as a gift on the page. She has called out tama on the doorstep of three lives and each character has responded ahee, hello, you may enter.
With a cinematic lens, she brings her readers in close to see these characters: Thoko Makwakwa, Dankie Mathebula, and Regina Hlabane. Messitt carefully observes Thoko, a middle-aged woman, both a sangoma (traditional healer) and owner of a shebeen (backdoor illegal pub); Dankie, a high school senior with the dream of scoring high on his matriculation exams and attending a university; and Regina, an elderly weaver of the Mapusha cooperative and devout Catholic.
As I write this from my office, I think of Dankie in his mother’s home during a storm, the tin roof sheets lifting from the walls until they slam against nail heads. I try to imagine Messitt in that home, rain leaking through the nail holes, as she observes the small moments that illuminate another’s life.
Messitt shows the intertwining of her characters’ lives most notably through the shared community event of a funeral. The Rainy Season itself reads like a series of funeral songs, “a collection of people who could, at any time, lead a song of their choice.” Sections move between Thoko, Dankie, and Regina, with the voice that most demands attention leading on the page. These interconnected lives are contained within spring, summer, and autumn, highlighting the passage of time through the rainy season.
Their home, the new South Africa, is an amalgam of old tradition and imported consumerism. Messitt explores a world where Thoko wears orange-sherbet Converse All Stars to a chief’s home for tribal court. Her prose is alive from beginning to end with beautifully crafted sentences, like her description of money-laden pockets, “some are quiet, filled with crisp bills of blue buffalo, pink lions, brown elephant, green rhino, and maybe even a few leopards.”
Messitt’s story has no grand conclusion, makes no attempt to craft an artificial ending to her character’s lives. She adheres to the scope of a single rainy season, although she also provides satisfying postscripts to contextualize the reading experience.
I’m still meditating the uniqueness of this book, on Messitt’s prose, which exemplifies a respect for the lives of others as they exist in the world and apart from the narrative of her own life. Messitt has shown me that the authority for telling someone else’s story comes from humility, a sharp eye for accuracy, and a commitment to “sticking around” long enough to create trust. The Rainy Season sings out, in crisp notes, the songs of the new South Africa. The music of these lives asks us to quiet our own stories just long enough to listen.
Karissa Womack is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of South Florida, where she serves as the Creative Writing Program assistant. She is the managing editor for Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art and the interview editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection.
April 21, 2016 § 3 Comments
An end-of-the-semester reflection from Brevity‘s excellent undergraduate intern, Celia Tice. Thanks for the help, Celia, and best of luck as you graduate:
When I first learned I’d be interning for Brevity this semester, I was absolutely ecstatic. I knew that reading so many different writing styles and hearing the opinions of the other readers could only benefit my own writing. Having a chance to add something substantial to my cobweb-covered resume certainly didn’t suck either.
After the initial glee wore off, however, the anxiety set in. How did I get this opportunity? How can I possibly contribute effectively as a submission reader when I can’t even call myself a writer? I have to say, however, that having concrete experience with Brevity made things feel real. Suddenly, I could call myself a writer. I felt I’d even perhaps gained enough agency to write email salutations like, “best regards,” or even, “best.”
What power I had in my fingertips, crushing the dreams of someone’s personal essay. The one they surely struggled with, threw at a wall, debated giving up on, then got drunk/stoned/took Advil and continued trekking on with. How easy it was to move my fingers to the mouse and lightly push that “no” or “maybe” button. It was overwhelming. Be wary of power, ladies and gents, it can go to your head.
How much influence I truly had over what was published is debatable. I’m not sure how much weight my votes were given. Regardless, it was fun maintaining an illusion of power for a little while.
Something I found to be true while reading is something I’d been told once or twice in a nonfiction workshop that I took from Kelly Sundberg, Brevity’s Managing Editor: titles matter.
Kelly always said that a title should add something to the essay, and not just be something thoughtlessly tacked on at the end. I hate to say it, but I pre-judged many a submission based solely on the title, ranging from, “wow, what a cliché,” to “oh jeez, this is going to be sappy,” to “hmm, this might be good.” I can’t vouch for the other readers, but personally, I began reading many essays already having an idea in my head of how good that essay might be. And what am I, really, but a culmination of my perceptions of the world around me? So my point is, titles matter, people.
The other thing I learned, and maybe will draw encouragement from in the future, is that widely published people get rejected all the time. Being published doesn’t give a blanket of security. We are all going to fail (are you happy you’re still reading this?), but it is crucial that we keep going. Not every essay is going to be “good enough.” Many essays are going to be rejected. But we keep writing because we have to, because we think too much, because everything about the world around us is fascinating and important. We need to understand; we need to inform. So we grit our teeth and press on.
I’m beginning to embrace my impending adulthood. I’ve started getting ready for bed around 8 pm. I make myself a hot chocolate,(with two packets of cocoa powder if I’m feeling crazy,) and snuggle up with some nonfiction essays. I’ve even started listening to NPR in the mornings, becoming my father.
So with unfinished Spanish assignments piling up, I say “Adiós” to senior year and blindly jump in to the land of disappointment and writing/ employment/graduate school rejection letters, which will someday be sprinkled with the cottony mold of a valuable experience.
So thank you Brevity, thank you readers, thank you random people who have devoted your life to the love of the nonfiction essay, and thank you Kelly Sundberg for giving me a chance to play with the big kids.
Celia Tice is about to become a recent graduate of Ohio University with a degree in English. She currently lives in beautiful Appalachia with her cat, Louise. You can find her personal blog at: celiatice.wordpress.com
April 20, 2016 § 4 Comments
By Emily K. Michael
Dear Mrs. Woolf,
I hope you will not mind bending time to receive my letter. I have wanted to write to you since the day I closed A Room of One’s Own and realized that you could be talking to me. You published that book in 1929, and I read it in 2005. I was seventeen then, turning the pages of a cheap paperback and underlining in smeary purple ink. I filled my own notebooks with stories and poems, thought essays belonged to academia.
I want to tell you about a ritual I invoke every semester.
First, you must know that I teach writing to young college students, and our discipline has wandered away from literature. These early level classes concern rhetoric, and I must tuck poems and stories into the slight half-spaces between research articles. My students are often crushed into ambivalence by the density of mandatory course texts.
Each semester, I rearrange the course schedule to place your essay, “Women and Fiction.” Will I nestle it between scholarly articles on discourse and academic convention—or slide it into the section that questions the value of writing rules? The essay has lived in several places on the syllabus.
But when we read the essay is much less important than how we handle it. My students arrive to class having read the piece and answered some basic questions about it. They expect a conventional discussion of content and style. They watch me arrive, deposit my bag, and arrange papers on my desk.
To begin, I divide the class in half, making them count off so that the grouping is arbitrary. I tell them to gather at opposite sides of the room. Then I announce that we are traveling back to Victorian England—the era just before your work. We will explore the conventions that shaped your essay, the criticism of women’s writing that prompted your response.
But we won’t travel as ourselves. I designate one side of the room as husbands, and the other side as wives. Regardless of gender, each husband must find a wife. Any extra wives can join existing couples as sisters (or spinsters). At this point, there is a lot of giggling as women on the husband side stride manfully across the room to claim their partners.
The real fun begins when I unveil the rules of the exercise. In Victorian fashion, each wife’s opinions must be filtered through her husband. The husband may translate correctly or creatively—or censor his wife’s comments.
Once we know which voices will fill the next hour, we investigate how attitudes become stereotypes, how binary genders often lead to strict opposites. We track the influences of war and peace on aspects of masculinity—bravery, duty, physical strength. We disavow makeup, corsets, and high-heels as exclusively feminine resources—citing their use in Georgian England and at Versailles. In short, we watch the evolution of gender through a social and historical lens: the model you provided in “Women and Fiction.”
Your essay responded to the criticism of female writers. Male critics said women weren’t suited to writing—and they used the sparse shelves as evidence. A handful of novels written by women, that’s all they had: if women could write better stuff, they would have done so.
You said that a woman’s pen was stalled by the cries of children, the mounting chores. Her time was given to the managing of a household, and her experiences were limited to that domestic space. Unlike her male contemporaries, a woman couldn’t be a sailor, a soldier, a rover. Society prescribed spaces for her. So she wrote novels—which could be set aside when the family needed her—or she didn’t write. Critics should not measure the quality and potential by the number of women writers on the shelf.
You demystified the process of writing, Mrs. Woolf. You said what I strive to teach to every writing student—the self-assured expert and the shaky novice. You cast out the myth of talent, what we in contemporary education call “inner-directed teaching.”
If a woman wants to write, she needs money, leisure, and a room of her own.
When my students work several jobs, live in crowded spaces, don’t have time to sit under a tree and read for pleasure, your words ring in my ears. I know what they need, what all writers need.
You addressed women called to write and women living by their pen: “In the past, the virtue of women’s writing often lay in its divine spontaneity, like that of the blackbird’s song or the thrush’s. It was untaught; it was from the heart. But it was also, and much more often, chattering and garrulous—mere talk spilt over paper and left to dry in pools and blots. In future, granted time and books and a little space in the house for herself, literature will become for women, as for men, an art to be studied. Women’s gift will be trained and strengthened.”
I wonder whether the blackbird and thrush work at their songs, what they need to make them. When we call their work “divine spontaneity,” we speak from a place of privilege and vision. What looks and sounds to us like magic must still be created, even in a method unknown to us.
We can map the songs of blackbirds, but we can’t map their divine spontaneity. If they knew English, I believe they could give us a hint. Perhaps it’s better that they don’t.
I offer students your work because they need your blackbird habits—kernels of passion carefully measured. They need to understand, as you wrote, that the extraordinary depends on the ordinary. Even in a class of silence or sullenness, I cannot forego these discussions. Perhaps some stray phrase will act like a snatch of thrush’s song—speaking to a listener in a voice they don’t yet understand.
Emily K. Michael is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor, living in Jacksonville, FL. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Wordgathering; Artemis Journal; Compose Journal; Disability Rhetoric; Breath & Shadow; Bridge Eight; Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics; and I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening. She develops grammar workshops for multilingual learners, and participates in local writing festivals – offering workshops on the grammar of poetry. She has essays in the forthcoming volumes Barriers and Belonging: Autoethnographies of Disability and Mosaics 2: A Collection of Independent Women. Read more of her work at her blog On the Blink.
April 19, 2016 § Leave a comment
Lavish congratulations and turquoise sequins glued onto sea-colored cotton to Diane Seuss, frequent Brevity contributor, and one of two finalists for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, for her book Four-Legged Girl.
This might be a good time to reprise some of Diane’s stunning prose work over the past few years, including “I hoisted them, two drug dealers, I guess that’s what they were,” “Gyre,” “Candy,” “I can’t stop thinking of that New York skirt, turquoise sequins glued onto sea-colored cotton,” and “You Like It Don’t You, You Like It Hard and Cold.”
Hard to beat those titles.