Gaze

By Tamara Sellman

Essay

 

It’s a perfect night for sleeping outside. I told my husband so, but he said I was crazy.

Why would you want to do that?

I dunno. Fresh air? A chance to be swallowed by the night sky? To watch the Perseids?

I spend all day at work on a computer. Craving the aboriginal—dreamtime in suburbia—is nothing if not an act of psychic survival.

Whatever.

I flatten a sleeping bag on the sun chair, plump a buckwheat pillow. I hear my husband now, snoring through the open window above me. I unzip my down wrapping, find carbon-free climate control by slipping my foot into the cool August night.

Rock, Paper, Sister

Private Practice: 30 Years Later

June 8

Nick had presence. He was a tall, solid bodybuilder. Sharp, chiseled angles defined his jaw and shoulders. He wore a worn green T-shirt and jeans to his first therapy session. The muscles in his chest and arms were more defined than on anyone I’d ever seen. When he shook my hand, it felt like he wore a catcher’s mitt. I could barely get my hand around his.

I don’t intimidate easily, but I felt humbled by his size. He seemed a yin-yang blend of power and stillness.

American Snake Pit is a powerful title for your memoir-but the subtitle is even more intriguing: Hope, Grit, And Resilience In The Wake Of Willowbrook. Can you tell us where it came from?

The title came from Bobby Kennedy in 1965, after he toured an unannounced visit to Willowbrook, a large institution in Staten Island, New York. He stood shaken in front of the cameras and said: “We have a situation that borders on a snake pit.” That film clip really grabbed my interest and American Snake Pit was born. But in spite of this ominous image of a “snake pit,” this is a book about hope. The tremendous courage, bravery, and hidden skills of the people I helped move into the community by way of this experimental group home is astounding. It’s what’s possible when people are given the right opportunities.

 

My aunt died in a car accident when I was six. We buried her, a fetus in her belly. She was only 26.

I try not to hear my own biological clock ticking. I came across a chart. It was labeled, “The Age Factor.” There’s a picture of a healthy pregnant woman. Above her, the caption: “Likelihood of a woman conceiving after trying for a year.” To the right of her belly are percentages broken down by age group. My group, 40-44 is 36%, not bad, but the one after it, the one I’ll be in soon, 45-49, is only 5%.

Sunday morning, in my twenties, a baby is crying somewhere in the apartment complex. I lie in bed amazed at its fierce demand. I want not to cry. My father always said, Don’t cry, or I’ll give you something to cry about. I learned to cry softly so no one would be bothered by it, to do it with muffled sniffles and the silent roll of hot tears, not like this baby, crying with all its might. After a few hours, I wonder if I’m hearing things. Is that a baby or just my own sorrow? Finally, another neighbor yells, “Shut that fucking baby up. I’m trying to sleep.” The baby stops so suddenly I wonder if they’ve put a pillow over her face.

This month, the TNB Book Club is reading Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change, by Tao Lin.   Available now from Vintage Originals, Trip is a remarkable and sometimes harrowing exploration of creativity, Terence McKenna, language, imagination, and, yes, drugs.  This is Lin’s first nonfiction book, a fascinating window into his life and work and deepest interests.  

What’s up with this book?

I had no capacity to take new clients and I turned down everyone who reached. There was no one to even refer them to. I am the only person (that I am aware of) who does this specific set of services for artists with my precise training. I thought if I wrote it all down in a book, I could be of service to more artists.

Then the 2016 presidential election vomited all over America. I quickly wrote up a pamphlet called Making Art During Fascism as a toolkit to help artists think about how to maintain their lives, their practices, and their (probable) increased activism. My friend, the writer Michelle Tea, asked if I wanted to expand this pamphlet into a short volume for Feminist Press where she’d recently launched the imprint Amythest Editions. I both expanded that pamphlet and incorporated a written account of what it is I do with artists. That’s how this all went down!

You’re an Artist, Keep Making Art

The realization that art could first save and then expand my life came when I was a teenager in a troubled home. Life with my mentally ill mom and alcoholic dad near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before the Internet, was difficult. A smart, queer feminist without the language to talk about any of it—let alone identify with those lineages—I was profoundly depressed and mostly miserable. I ached for art and counterculture (remember that word?), but they were really hard to come by in small Rust Belt towns in the nineties. I read books, made zines, bought 45s, and ordered Sub Pop record catalogs out of the back of SPIN magazine, which at the time was a wonderland filled with mysterious ads for things like The Anarchist Cookbook.

Dreams

By Joyanna Priest

Essay

 

Sixteen says indignantly that she hasn’t taken pills in a month.

Since she got caught, she means.

Oxy was her favorite. I never tried Oxy, but I used to love heroin more than my own dreams.

 

***

 

There’s darkness beneath the glamour, I warn her, but her ears are closed.

 

***

 

What I point out: addiction dulls brightness, makes ideas go nowhere, splices generosity with blinding selfishness, makes a person betray themselves so they’re left with no one to trust.

What I say: “I’ve never seen anybody get out whole.”

“Not you, though,” she shakes her head like it’s the only true thing in the world. “You’re the best person I know. You kept your brightness.”

No, daughter. No.

Why did you write Not My White Savior?

Somedays I’m not sure. I’m a very private person so being public about anything has been, well, interesting. Sometimes I want to close my eyes and pretend I don’t see anything public about myself. When I started to read my poetry at open-mics, other adopted Koreans wanted a copy or wanted to talk with me about my poems and I wasn’t ready for that. I just wanted to read because it was therapeutic. Now I’m ready to share and talk and if it’s helpful to someone, then it’s worth it.

Return to Sender

*Since the Korean War, over 150,000 children have been sent to the USA via inter-country adoption. Due to a loophole in the Child Citizenship Act, there are an estimated 35,000 inter-country adoptees living without US citizenship. Some have been deported to their country of origin.

Korea exported me to America
Before I could speak my name.
Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Lakes
Better Life, education

Formation

There are four stages of interrogation; the first is called Formation. Before the interrogation comes the need for it to occur and the mandate to undertake it. At this stage, the framework is established for how the interrogation may be determined, including the level of coercion that is permitted or not allowed.

 

What happened in the library?

My affair with California begins long before we meet. I am nine, tucked between stacks in the school library on the second floor. For years after, decades, I will have dreams about the second floor of this school. I will wrestle in my sleep to remember what the hallway looked like as it hooked a sharp right, to the farthest reaches of the building where only the sixth-graders went. I will smell the disinfectant wafting off the floors and hear the squeak of untied sneakers. I will remember, without knowing if it is real, a tide of anxiety about the girls’ bathroom—dirty stalls, cold tile, donut-shaped communal drinking fountain into which one could easily fall, or be pushed.

Where were you on the evening of December 3, 1979?

I was in a living room with a brown shaggy rug, tangled curls flying, rag doll clutched under my armpit, enormous headphones clamped around my toddler ears. I was dancing, my mouth plugged by my right thumb. A stretchy black coil connected the headphones to a cord, which ran to the wooden wall unit, which held my father’s record player. A 45 spun round, the needle’s gentle connection to the grooves sending the sound—maybe the Eagles; the Bee Gees; Earth, Wind and Fire—back through the wire to my ears. My parents sat on our nubby couch smiling, looking on. This is where everything begins, and where everything ends.

 

Where will you be on the morning of March 1, 2018?

Probably hiding. My book, California Calling: A Self-Interrogation, comes out that day.

 

 

I’m thinking about dislocation. About place. Wondering how to set myself in it, like Wallace Stevens’s jar in Tennessee, so I can change the place and the place can change me. An exchange. A connection. But then again, I just reread his poem and the jar gives nothing back to its surroundings. This wasn’t the story I remembered from school. I remembered a more generous jar.

I’m wondering how to make a scene that another person can enter into through words on the page and feel welcome in this story of displacement. I want you to feel out of it while you’re here, like I tend to feel, but in a nice way, so you might want to come back.

Y’all come back now, ya hear!

So, I hear you’ve written another book.

That’s right. It’s called The Infernal Library and it’s a study of dictator literature, that is to say books written by dictators, that is to say the worst books in the history of the world. I trace the development of the dictatorial tradition over the course of a century, starting with Lenin, then exploring the prose of Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, et al before arriving in the modern era where I analyze the texts of Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and assorted post-Soviet dictators (among others). It’s a bit like Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, only the books are terrible and many were written by mass murderers. It can also be read as an alternative cultural history of the 20th century, with implications for our own troubled times.

 

How did I get from standing on the bimah for my son’s bar mitzvah three years ago to visiting my son at the adolescent wing of a psych ward? Raphael is here on a 72-hour hold, a “5150.” This is where a social worker from the Psychiatric Emergency Team (PET) evaluates a person under 18 to see if he is at risk to himself or others. This is the first time my son has been put on such a hold related to his escalating drug use. I drive somewhere down the 605 towards Santa Ana to a hospital with an adolescent psych unit. I am buzzed into a locked unit. I enter and sign in, looking eagerly around for Raphael. The large room where the visits take place has posters on the wall. Some are informational—rules—others are friendly with pleasant scenes and inspirational quotes, but it doesn’t take away from the stark, institutional look. This will not be one of Raphael’s favorite places for a psych hold. Subsequent adolescent wards and treatment centers we pass through will have bright murals, and I will not remember where this one was, that it was only a waystation to the next step that I had hoped would arrest the downward slide. But the physicality, the geographic location, of this first 72-hour hold he goes on, will mostly be a giant blank in my memory. I’ve been told that trauma can do this, above and beyond the normal menopausal memory loss.