Sick Lit Magazine: How long have you known , deep down, that you’re a writer?
I suppose that propriety demands certain things be left unsaid, and though it doesn’t come naturally, I try my best to bite my tongue. I’ve had to dislodge my foot from my own mouth more times than I can remember, but I think that as I get older, I am learning how to more deliberately walk the line between, “Oh shit,” and, “Pertinent.” I ardently hope that this “little” tangent falls under the latter heading.
First of all, I have known and been Kelly’s friend for just over 13 years now. I cannot say whether I was the first to read Unhinged, but I was lucky enough to know it in its original inception as a short story titled The Girl in the Angora Sweater. I think one of the reasons she feels comfortable sharing parts of her soul with me is because we share a lot of the same demons. I, too, know how easy it is to become lost in the seemingly infinite mental quagmire of self-doubt, self-loathing, and self-defeating thoughts. When I am stuck and can’t see the forest for the trees, she is there to keep me focused and on track. When all she sees for miles around are the hyper-critical sneers of others who seem to judge her as harshly as she judges herself, I step in to offer words of encouragement: “It’s mostly in your head; you’re making it worse than it is,” as well as the ever-helpful, “Fuck those people, you just keep doing your thing.”
So at this point, at the risk of saying too much—as I am wont to do—I must step in and address the literary elephant in the room.
I helped her edit Unhinged. I am not an editor by trade or training but I do enjoy writing, and when my dear friend needed help, I felt compelled to do my utmost to ensure the success of her first novel. Mind you—most of my help came in the form of encouragement and motherly orders to persevere. I read the original short story in its unfinished entirety, and snippets of the book here and there, but remember that this process unfolded over the course of years. I didn’t see anything like a completed manuscript until sometime in early 2016. Even then, I didn’t read the entire thing. I wanted to read, and hold, the actual physical copy.
As her publication date neared, though, she was so excited. She sent me the first five chapters as a teaser. I couldn’t bear to deflate her enthusiasm, so I started reading during the lulls at work. Eventually, as I got further into the story and found a few more errors than I was comfortable with, those lulls lengthened into breaks, and eventually full-blown work stoppage. As far as I knew, this manuscript was print-ready. I dared not say anything that might make her unnecessarily frantic so close to publication, especially if there was nothing to be done. However, I finally came across an error that, while small, I knew would incite the wrath of grammar-Nazis and casual weekend readers alike: “Rolling Stone’s.” I pointed it out to her and she was horrified, swearing not to have written it herself. So I flipped back through my emails and the documents folder on my laptop, looking for an earlier draft. Sure enough, the apostrophe had been added between the original version and this “print-ready” copy.
Up to this point, I had seen other smaller errors which I swore I couldn’t remember reading before, but I just chalked them up to human error and the fact that I am not Data (from Star Trek—come on guys). I now realized something was grievously amiss and, by some miracle of circumstance, learned that it was not too late to put a pause on printing. So she halted the entire thing and I rooted around in my life to make the time to read the rest of Part One.
The errors were many, but mostly small things; things a good editor should have caught, but might have been forgiven by a generous client. When I asked her about said editor, I got an earful. This person (who shall remain nameless and genderless for the sake of anonymity) was responsible for inserting the apostrophe into Rolling Stones as well as screwing up the text’s consistency (I cannot even attempt to count the number of times I saw the lower-case formatted “mom” or “dad” mixed in with the unjustifiably mismatched “Mom” or “Dad”—instances where the word(s) did NOT appear at the beginning of a sentence). Like I said, these errors were startlingly many, but forgivably small, and we combed through the entirety of Part One relatively quickly. Part Two, however, was a whole other animal.
At this point, we both realized that the editor contracted by her publishers had all but skimmed the second half of the book and given a completely unfounded thumbs-up to the print department. We were astounded, dumbfounded, flabbergasted, and aghast—ALL of those things. Sometimes all at once, others in quick succession. Formatting inconsistencies, continuity errors, oversights in punctuation and typography. You name it, we found it.
Now, I understand and fully agree with the sentiment that in the end, beginning, and throughout the process, it is first and foremost the writer’s responsibility to make sure the story makes sense, that all changes to previous drafts have been implemented throughout the ENTIRE manuscript, that the book’s geography and timeline make sense, etc. But on the other hand, when that same author has spent years looking at the same manuscript—going back and forth, keeping some changes and rejecting others, editing and re-editing for errors in typography, spelling, syntax, continuity, consistence, grammar, punctuation, and formatting—it is more than understandable for certain things to slip through the cracks. With a 100k+ word manuscript, even 1% of the entire work is still more than 1,000 errors—if we’re equating errors to word count, which is not really now it works.
So yes, it is ultimately Kelly’s job to ensure that her book is in ship shape before it goes to print. But if that were easy to do, editors wouldn’t exist, let alone receive a tidy little paycheck at the end of the day. Everyone needs help, even the masters of their craft, and EVERYONE improves as time passes. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. You create, you err, you identify, you fix. Then you move on and try to do better next time. So when we dove into the second part of Unhinged, expecting approximately the same amount and sort of errors as littered the first part, we were dumbstruck to discover that this half of the book had seemingly NOT BEEN TOUCHED by an editor, except for a few notes here and there where we found unjustifiable, unnecessary, absolutely perplexing, and seemingly token revisions. After a few days of reading, I felt—and still feel—very firmly that this editor gave the second part of the book no more than a cursory glance. I can only speculate as to this person’s reasons for such shoddy workmanship, but I won’t do that here because most of it is unfounded and fired by sheer bias and outrage.
But then, on top of the litany of mistakes this editor tacked onto her manuscript, Kelly’s publishers offered nothing in the way of actual reparations. Despite the contract she had signed, that THEY had offered, she was not made whole. Instead, she received some sort of half-hearted, half-assed, completely transparent apology in which one of the publishing partners offered to take a look at the manuscript for her, even though he admitted up-front that this was not his area of expertise. Now I’m sorry, but that’s just bullshit. You don’t open a business, advertise a professional service that you charge people money for, and then duck out of holding up your end of the deal when it becomes apparent that—because you did not thoroughly vet your subcontractor—your client’s livelihood has been all but T-boned. In fact, if you operate a small, nascent, independent business which cannot afford to make such mistakes, then you work double-time to a) make sure such expensive errors don’t get made in the first place, and b) fix all such errors so that your completely satisfied clients have no other thought but to rave about your company, which will hopefully increase business and profits. You don’t say, “I’m so sorry and I understand that it’s our fault, but we can’t make it right because we’re just getting started and that will cost more to fix than we can afford to spend. Maybe I could look at it for you even though I have however many other responsibilities associated with running my own business, along with however many OTHER clients who need my attention as much as you do.”
All of that is to say: Kelly did not get what her publishers promised her. The editor they hired to do the job phoned it in. No—scratch that; that editor cut a perfectly good cord connecting the mouthpiece to the actual mechanism and said, “Here, I upgraded it for you. Now you have a cordless phone.” Newsflash: That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.
So I helped her. Out of necessity, we stretched the initial two week timeline into six, and at the end of the entire process, we were dazed and exhausted and sick to death of the manuscript. I don’t wonder that more than a few errors made it past us, and I’m so thankful that the first run won’t be the only run.
And that is the story behind the printing of Unhinged.
Now, I didn’t go off on a tangent just to complain, or to beg forgiveness for editing oversights, or to excuse those errors that made it through to print and ask the reader to try and get over it. I wrote this in an effort to inform you of the fairly bumpy and unplotted road we traversed in order to ready this book for public consumption. I wrote it because the thought finally occurred to me that perhaps some people might gain insight (of debatable value) from a behind-the-scenes look at our uphill struggle to edit the book.
Every reader is free to think what he or she will of the finished product; your criticisms and opinions are your own. And while they may hurt our egos, feelings, and sense of worth (especially if they are well-founded), even the negative criticisms are valuable and appreciated. In order to grow and improve, an artist must receive input—both good and bad. But in the end, even having taken such considerations into account, I still felt it necessary to tell our story. Let it color how you assess and judge the book or don’t take it into account at all. That is your choice as the reader and I leave it to you.
But I would be remiss if I did not at least mention the catalyst for this epic spiel. You will find it here, in the form of an Amazon review, the writer of which I trusted was more than capable of supporting his or her criticisms. This person’s words hurt a great deal because when I read them, I felt like I had let my friend down by overlooking such glaring errors—among many others. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was just off, so I finally decided to look into these errors again. As it turns out, “idler” is a form of the adjective “idle.” In fact, “idle” is only defined as an adjective or verb (not a noun), and “idler” is a strange word. It does stand out to me and I remember reading and being struck by it many times before. But I also distinctly remember giving it the “ok,” because it’s a correct use of the word. Just because something sounds strange to my own ears and is not commonly used does not make it incorrect, and I cannot in good conscience allow my personal preferences to color someone else’s voice. So I chose not to omit it during the editing process.
And as to the other error this reviewer chose to showcase—ending a sentence with a preposition—I adamantly maintain that such uses of the written and spoken word are justifiable and should not need to be defended in the first place. Personally, I do agree that if at all possible, one should avoid or severely limit such instances.
Once more, with feeling: I, personally, do not like to end my sentences with a preposition if I can avoid it. Of course, that assumes the fact that I am always conscious of writing with better grammar than I speak (which I am not, because I am fallible and I accept my mistakes, loathsome thought they may be).
BUT—language is a living, breathing thing; it changes and grows to suit the needs and demands who we who use it. If it didn’t, God only knows how we would communicate today. Through a series of grunts and signs and visual cues? There are some things I feel I will never be able to get behind, like officially adding widely used popular words like “manscape” and “YOLO” to the English dictionary. But on the other side of that argument, without incorporating new words and the novel use of old words, any language would be woefully unequipped to adequately express and articulate the ever-changing world or our lives within it (if you’ve ever “googled” anything, you’ll know what I mean). It was not so long ago (1954) that the “like” vs “as” debate entered the public arena in the form of a Winston cigarette ad. Who has the power to exercise absolute judgment on such matters? I, for instance, adamantly support my purposeful and deliberate decision to start certain sentences with “and,” “so,” “or,” or “but,” because in some cases, it just works.
Of course, some rules should be adhered to, because otherwise how could one ever hope to govern the eloquent and proper use of written language? And in the same vein, it would be all too easy to defend and completely dismiss poor writing with the individual, purposeful choice argument.
But I fail to understand how one can conclude with supreme certainty that an author has inexcusably assaulted the English language and committed an indeterminate number of grammatical sins when one refuses to accept or even entertain the idea of language as a fluid and changeful thing. Nor do I understand how one can draw such a broad conclusion without first securing an absolutely unassailable argument. This Amazon reviewer does not have such an argument.
Like I said before, what I feel matters most is that we tried. We didn’t just slap something together, throw a cover on it, and call it worthy of purchase and consumption. We tried the best we could and if errors are present, trust that they will be remedied in subsequent printings (insofar as they do not begin to re-write the book). And if you don’t like the story, or think the writing is sloppy, or have any number of other valid criticisms, that is your prerogative as the consumer. You may choose to read another of Kelly’s books or not. But regardless of your ultimate decision in the matter, I do hope that you don’t issue final judgment upon Kelly—or any author—because of how you felt about ONE of her books. Especially if that book happens to be her first.
In closing, please, PLEASE, allow me to emphasize: I don’t expect a free pass because language is adaptable and everyone has their own writing style. No one should simply excuse the style of the book or any aspect of it they dislike simply because the editing choices we made were deliberate, calculated, and suited to our own personal tastes. What I am saying is that these reviews matter, especially for new authors. If they didn’t, Amazon would not have recently shored up the rules they have in place to fight the fake ones.
So, in light of the fact that in an ideal world, reviews should exist to provide a necessarily biased but hopefully accurate assessment of a product’s usefulness, the purpose of this entire tirade is simply to implore you, the consumer, to review and communicate with discernment, honesty, and objectivity. To break it down to the barest of bones: I don’t personally like goat’s milk. But I will NOT, under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, allow my opinion to color my four year old daughter’s impression of it before she has even tried it for herself. To offer any sort of negative input might affect her ultimate opinion; and in the very worst of scenarios, it could very well affect how she approaches all new foods for the rest of her life. I will tell her what I can to give her an idea of what it will be like, but I will try not shape her opinion before it even exists.
And finally, if you don’t take anything else away from this rant (which I genuinely hope was not a massive waste of your time), I hope you DO go away with this one sentiment: We’re human, y’all; sometimes we fuck up, and sometimes we fix it. People can and do change, often for the better. Everyone deserves a second chance (sometimes more) or the benefit of the doubt. Be kind, and be open-minded.
M. I. Mitchley.
What is a Woman’s Worth?
By Kim D. Bailey
With all that’s going on this week after the election, this question bears asking and answering, with gritty insight and truth.
Many of my female friends are feeling betrayed at this juncture in our American journey. I won’t go into the politics of this too much, except to say that we have a President-elect who does not instill, for our national identity as women, a respect for us. Nor does he practice any respect for women on a personal level.
With that said, I want to address the women, and some of our brothers out there who are feeling lost and frightened by this new reality that is upon us.
Aside from the obviously egregious responses and actions being made by this new administration to race, freedom of religion, cultural diversity, and LGBTQ issues, our sense of worth as women has been compromised by the electoral vote of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States of America.
Those of us who are voicing these concerns are being met with deflating rhetoric. We are being told to calm down, get over it, give him a chance to show he’s not so bad, and sometimes—we are being told we don’t even have a right to voice our thoughts and feelings because we are intrinsically flawed in our thinking and feeling.
We are being called horrific names. Cunt, Whore, Slut, Stupid, Libtard, Bitch. We are being attacked at the very core of who we are—as women—for having an opinion outside the collective conscience of those who either voted for the PE or who abstained from voting altogether.
The latter is a dismally large number, by the way.
Of those who voted for the PE, many were women. Our sisters, mothers, aunts, nieces, daughters, cousins, grandmothers, and friends. Their reasons are their own—as we all have a right to vote for whom we choose—but their responses to our outrage is just as harmful as that of their male counterparts.
None of these responses reflect any truth as to our actual worth.
Women have fought long and hard for the rights and responsibilities that our male counterparts have enjoyed and born out. We were even behind African American men in the right to vote, not obtaining this right on a national level until 1920, over 70 years after the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, the first women’s rights convention.
Nearly 170 years later, many of us voted for Hillary Clinton. In fact, the numbers are coming in, and in the popular vote, Ms. Clinton received upwards of 2 million more votes than did Donald Trump. More women voted for her than did men. Many women who voted for her are college educated to some degree.
As with any election, there is a winner and a loser. So, in this case, more than half of all those who voted in this election are grieving the loss.
But it isn’t just about losing.
For the first time in our history, a woman ran for president of our country. As a lifelong politician and public servant, Ms. Clinton was a strong candidate, especially in her demeanor, experience, and ability to work in a bipartisan manner for the good of the whole.
Therefore, many of us are grieving not just a loss, but the loss of a lifelong dream we have held that a woman could president of our nation and do a good job—as well, if not better—than any man.
We are hurting. We see this loss as a setback, because in so many ways, it is.
Not only did Clinton lose, she lost to a man who openly espoused sexual harassment as a normal part of his day-to-day life. He is also facing charges of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and even sexual molestation of a minor. In addition, he has been charged with fraud (racketeering) related to his failed Trump University business, he has somehow managed to avoid paying taxes for years (of which he brags), and he is in the process of building a cabinet that encompasses known Anti-Semite(s), a VP who is openly and harshly opposed to Roe vs. Wade and LGBTQ rights, and even includes his grown children as part of his special team. By the way, this a clear conflict of interest as they will continue to run his private businesses while he leads the country—with their assistance.
What were Clinton’s sins? The vitriol against her flaws, as opposed to his, was disproportionately astonishing. Emails. Being unlikable. Not smiling. Being hard and firm, even an evil bitch. Being part of an established form of government that people were sick and tired of supporting.
Being a woman.
Yes, I said it. Being a woman.
Our country voted for a misogynistic, criminal, unethical, and racist man over an imperfect woman.
I’ve heard some of my male friends—who I believe are well-intentioned and who believe they mean no harm—say that if it were only a different woman, maybe Elizabeth Warren for example, who had been chosen for the nomination to run for president by either major party, a woman may have made history this election year.
Beside being a crock of shit, this has become a tired refrain that diminishes reality and insults us further as women. The hard truth is, our country wasn’t ready for a female to lead.
Back to us, we are now in a reactionary dance. When we express ourselves, we are being attacked from so many sides, imploring us to accept what is. We are being told we still don’t measure up.
When we are admonished for our opinions and feelings, we are hurt, and sometimes our response is anger and pain.
The root of this anger and pain, however, lies in abject fear on all sides.
Men see us as a threat. They truly do. Even when they deny it, there is a niggling sense of intimidation in most men’s minds that we are overcoming and surpassing them at alarming rates. For a society that has been rooted in patriarchy, this is a tough pill to swallow. Their fear became woefully evident in the results of the election. And this was supported by women who believe that men are to hold the power because they are indeed the stronger sex.
Women who did not vote for him are reacting to all manner of attacks and berating comments out of fear as well. We are afraid we will never be taken seriously, respected, or honored. We are quite certain that we shall never be fully heard.
When you stand in your own silence for so long, only hearing the echo of your voice off the canyon walls when you shout your worth to the universe, it’s hard to accept other’s reprimands and not-so-gentle advice to calm down. It’s even more difficult to be told to shut the fuck up.
So many of the responses we continue to receive are various forms of gaslighting, which as described by Oxford Dictionaries, is a verb: manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.
We see it and hear it every day. Our female friends are saying, “There must be something wrong with me.” Or they say, “I’m sorry, but, maybe I’m not thinking this out like I should…,” when they question this continued status quo. When hit with a barrage of gaslighting, or overt verbal abuse, many of us fold back into ourselves and believe the lie. We return to that place where we think we are asking, even expecting, too much to be heard and validated.
My call to action today to all women is not to give into this lie.
We must gather our strength and courage, more than ever now, and continue to stand for our worth.
Our worth is intrinsic. It does not rely on our abilities to “do a man’s job” well. Women are equally worthy as men to inhabit any space in this world. We need to embrace that worth and reiterate it to the world over and over until it becomes an unquestionable fact.
So, enough with the rhetoric.
If you feel your feet slipping on the icy slopes of the lie that we are not as capable and worthy, remind yourself that you are so much more than what others want you to believe. Do not back down under chastisement or shame for speaking out. Do not allow anyone—man or woman—to make you question your truth and your place in this world.
Pull out the threads of the tapestry that is the lie and weave your own. Then cover yourself in this fabric of authenticity.
WE as women are worthy, simply because we ARE. Once we believe that, there will be no stopping us.
Kim Bailey Deal writes Women’s Fiction, short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. She has written two novels, now in revision. She authors a weekly column and is former Social Media Manager for www.five2onemagazine.com. Kim has several works published, including in Firefly Magazine Issue #3, on Writersdigest.com, Pilcrow & Dagger, Tuck Magazine, The Scarlet Leaf Review, Madness Muse Magazine, Drunk Monkeys, and forthcoming publications in Sick Lit Magazine, The Magnitizdat Literary, and Firefly Magazine Issue #8. A mother of four, she lives near Chattanooga, TN. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @kimbaileydeal and her blog at www.kimbaileydeal.net
I know I’ve been posting a lot of editorial notes here lately, but it’s been a nice place to be able to vent.
That being said, I’ve been meaning to post announcements about the previous theme schedule and what’s to come at SLM.
SO, here’s what I’ve decided for now: Melissa is busting her butt, and unfortunately won’t be able to devote as much time to the magazine until after the holidays.
Everything will still happen, guys, just PLEASE bear with me while we go through somewhat of a transition. We will pick up on JANUARY 9th with the themes, picking up with Paul Beckman’s It Began in an Elevator, and go from there.
If we have sent you an email telling you we’ve accepted your work, then we’ve accepted your work. Once I schedule it for publication, you’ll get a personal email from me telling you the exact date and time of publication. I apologize for the delay in getting this information out to all of you, but I woke up with the nastiest cold-slash-flu-thing-virus-that’s-making-its-rounds-in-my-house this morning and have been buried under a mountain of stress on top of that.
Melissa and I were both due a sabbatical – they just so happened to coincide with one another. When I get the finalists from Kean University’s graphic design department for our t-shirt contest, I will post them and you guys will be able to cast votes for your favorites.
There are still good things in store, guys. Just hang in there.
No matter how you woke up feeling today: deflated, depressed, let down, apathetic, disillusioned, or even if you’re happy with the election outcome, it’s evident that what Americans are deficient in the most these days is basic kindness. Everyday, basic outward kindness, toward your neighbor, whatever creed or religion they may be, whatever shade their skin may be, is missing in our “Land of the free, home of the brave.”
Don’t let this divide you from your neighbor. Let this bond us and make us stronger, in spite of our differences. THAT’S what’s going to make America great. I left off the word ‘again’ because I don’t know that our society has always been great…or good…but what we hear a lot of is hypocrisy. Europeans calling us all “puritanical hypocrites” when their EU is full of its own brand of hatred, racism and flaws. Other countries who tell us that we ought to be ashamed that Donald Trump was even a representative. Are they blind? If they think for one second that I, Kelly Marie Coody, singularly, have the power to overhaul America’s electoral process and turn things around, then they are just as dumb as the people they’re shouting at, calling a “typical, stupid, fat American.”
The grass is NOT always greener, my friends.
When I lived in Germany in the ’80s, you think they were nice to us? You think that German adults, who ought to fucking know better, who ought to know how to behave as adults, were nice to my 4 year-old self and my brother’s 6 year old self? NO. Instead, every opportunity they got, they pushed us, laughed at us, kicked us, accosted us on the street when they learned my mom didn’t speak German, incited riots during the day, and harassed an innocent mother with her two children. CHILDREN. If anyone thinks it’s okay for a random adult to kick, hit, and harass a four year old girl just because she’s an American, then YOU, my friend, are the problem.
Shit is bad every where.
I woke up today sad. So did my daughter. So did my husband and my son and many, many other people.
There are times where I don’t even know what to think any more – I don’t know what to believe any more. Who’s right and who’s wrong?
It seems that no matter what we do as Americans, we are looked down upon by not only the European Union, but an entire slew of other countries as well. We are a joke. It doesn’t matter who the hell our Commander in Chief is (President Elect), how intelligent we are, if I suddenly figured out how to turn myself into Sir Ian McKellen and be Gandalf the Grey (and practice expert wizardry, speak Elvish, etc, etc…), no matter how savvy, well-spoken, informed, intelligent, or how many languages we speak, it’s always, “Oh, she’s an American.”
**Let me make an addendum: my husband is under the impression that I’m stating everyone hates America and he vehemently disagrees. Par exemple, his dad is in Paris right now and he doesn’t feel looked down upon. For clarification’s sake, I’ll spell it out for you a little more specifically: I’m speaking from personal experience living abroad as an American. Personal experience of a lifetime FULL of being surrounded by Europeans and the like at various military functions, especially when my dad was a Lieutenant Colonel and SNR and we lived in Wichita Falls. I’d never had so many foreigners tell me what was wrong with both myself and my country in my life, as they stood in my home, eating my mom’s food and drinking our drinks, taking up our valuable time, giving us backhanded compliments and insulting our paper plates, sneering at our paper napkins. This doesn’t mean that I, in turn, dislike Europeans, or anyone, for that matter. But that’s the thing about perspective. I’m only one pair of eyes and I’m sharing my perspective with you.**
Above is a slideshow of my family and me living in Aschaffenburg, close to Frankfurt, outside of Bavaria, Germany. Granted, we lived there in a tumultuous time – from ’85ish to ’89-’90ish – and we moved to West Germany. By the time we left, it was all Germany.
I know all of the possible ramifications of this Trump presidency. I am aware. No need to list them here.
For those of you who are standing strong behind Trump and defending his win: don’t be naive. He’s just as cold and calculating as you think Hillary was – he’s as un-American as those people who look down on you in Paris, in Oslo, in Warsaw, in….Bavaria. He is still the same man who insulted Sen. John McCain for being captured after he was forcibly ejected from his aircraft in Vietnam, a violent, last-ditch resort that no fighter pilot ever wants to be on the receiving end of. I would know – my dad was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. I have seen every side to this fucking coin – every possible 3D angle to the Rubik’s Cube.
The only answer right now is knowledge, truth-seeking, and kindness. Be nice to each other. Seek your own truths. Amass knowledge. Stand together.
Kelly Fitzharris Coody
(I’m on the left.)
Young Woman’s Epiphany
Ki-Ana L. Tonge
Did you know?
Did you know that you were the gasp of air between my every breath?
The tip-tap to my every step
Love captivating my every sense
Your heavenly scent lingered on my neck
From where lips have last been…
The notes on my five liens core
Finger stroke striking my every chord
And your lovely smile,
You were the single star to my empty sky.
The sun shine one my flower petals,
Allowing me to bloom
You were the wind to my howl on an eerie full moon
My path when I’m lost
My light in the dark
The blue blood that seeps from my once reddened heart
The waves in my ocean
The heat of my fire
The feathers of my wings
The energy in my wires
You were the…
The leaves falling in autumn
The snowfall in winter
The drops on my window that trickles down my window pane
The clouds on a stormy day
The waters of the rain
So if I try to forget you it won’t be hard to find another thing in nature
That fails not to remind
Ki-Ana L. Tonge is a humble, outgoing, creative, and ambitious nineteen year old from St.Croix , USVI, with a love for writing. She is on a mission to be the very best she can be, and strives to make a difference with the tools and talents God has given her.
My dad was leaning out the car window, catching up with Sofia’s mom, as I ran my finger from my Basque-Puerto Rican surname to the name “Mouthpiece, a Jet,” on the West Side Story cast list posted on the gym door. I ran down to the parking lot with the news that Sofia and Mia would play Sharks, but the rest of the Girl Scout troop and I would be Jets. Sofia’s mom sighed and my dad looked at her more directly than he ever looked at my mom, saying something so quietly he didn’t need words, and then he rolled up the window. The whole car ride home, I complained that I wasn’t Polish like the Jets are supposed to be, and he repeated, “I know, I know.” When my mom walked in the door, I tried to pull her into my well-articulated reasoning: “The Sharks have all the good songs,” and, “Well, red is my favorite color.” She stared into my hazel eyes just like hers and pronounced, “It’s typecasting. The play is a racist fantasy about gang violence ending in redemption.” My dad snorted and muttered that the Black Barts and Greasers at Balboa High were about no such thing when he was a teenager. Before I could hear what they were about, my mom interrupted. “They have an idea of what Puerto Ricans look like, and you’re not it. That’s why they chose Sofia to be a Shark; she looks the part. They don’t care that she’s Mexican.” It didn’t make sense that Sofia looked more Puerto Rican than a Puerto Rican. But it seemed downright bizarre that she got an anonymous chorus role without lines, even though she was a better actress at age twelve than the two eighth grade Anglo girls cast as María 1 and María 2 less for their singing voices than for their ties to “old families,” meaning rednecks that stole land when the U.S. took over California and never left. So instead I pointed out that Mia was, believe it or not, paler than I was, in skin tone and naturally platinum hair, yet she would get to perform the famous sung-out debate between the female Sharks who “like to be in America,” because life is “alright” and even “bright” in America, and the male Sharks, who counter with certain qualifications: if you “can fight” or “if you’re all-White in America.” My dad laughed at my shade-of-blonde, flesh pigment technicality, and my mom glared until he went quiet.
I thought that would reach him, me wanting to sing lines containing his own advice in the anecdotes he told me about growing up. In that scene, Rita Moreno’s character sings, “I’ll get a terrace apartment,” and her boyfriend, the leader of the Sharks, sings back, “Better get rid of your accent.” In the ‘50s, my dad’s family got a place in Bernal Heights, and after that, a friend’s family tried to get one nearby and couldn’t. “He never told me why,” my dad had repeated every time he told the story, “I found out years later that anybody Black was denied a right to buy or rent there. He thought I already knew.” I’d forgotten that the moral that ended narratives like this one could be sung as, “if you can pass in America” and “if you keep quiet in America.” I’d acted out that advice, repeated his silence almost daily with lines like, “It doesn’t matter that my grandfather’s from Puerto Rico; I’m only Spanish.” But now that being Puerto Rican was something everyone around me saw as fun and exotic, I suddenly wanted to reclaim my heritage. If I could play a teenager in a play set when my dad was a teenager, maybe I could finally resemble pictures of him smirking with a cigarette he’s only pretending to smoke.
During and after every rehearsal that year, white girls in our troop asked Sofia when exactly her family moved here from Jalisco, boasting about their humble “European immigrant roots,” all the while insisting that she prove the Americanness they considered inherent to their stories. And thanks to my mother’s blonde Nordicness and my “only-Spanish” story, I fell under one of the few rules the male and female Sharks agree upon: “Your mother’s a Pole, your father’s a Swede, you were born here and that’s all that you need; you’re an American now.” Sofia was “once an immigrant, always an immigrant,” although we were born in the same place. The more I tried to explain otherwise after twelve years of that other story, the more they thought I was lying out of pity for Sofia. She got sick of this and reminded me that she wasn’t ashamed of being Mexican and I didn’t have to lie to make her feel less alone. “And if you think that you’re making some sacrifice by pretending to be Latina, then you think just like they do.” Did I really understand what it would mean to not pass, or did I just want to put on a costume for a few hours and shout “Olé” like the Anglo girls, because red was a pretty color?
Either way, I resented that European-Americans at school had the power to push me farther from my grandfather, not based on how much I resembled him but on how much I resembled Natalie Wood, the daughter of Russian immigrants. Sure, my dad’s parents and hers both moved to San Francisco during the first two decades of the twentieth century, and soon after Natalia Nikolaevna Zacharenko (Natalie Wood) was born, her family moved to Santa Rosa, the city where Sofia and I were both born, but that didn’t make Natalie Wood Puerto Rican or me Russian. Natalie Wood accessed Hollywood at a time when most Latinos changed their names to downplay their non-whiteness. Rita Hayworth started out as Margarita Carmen Cansino. And although Natalie Wood changed her name to make it more pronounceable to Anglo-Americans, she didn’t do it to disguise African and indigenous ancestry. She could ignore the lynchings and kidnappings of Chicanos and mexicanos that had taken place in the ‘30s, people whose families were living in California before it was part of the U.S. and families who had recently moved here put in trucks and dropped off across the border or murdered by the kind of white terrorists still patrolling streets, deserts, and checkpoints, or, like my classmates’ parents, building sets for a play.
When the last rehearsal ended, Sofia’s mom and mine uncrossed their arms, rolled eyes at each other, reminded us that it was our choice to participate in this offensive musical, and instructed us to change out of our red and blue t-shirts. They knew that boys our age were being asked to choose sides with those colors, and one kid in our class who went by the nickname “Chango” and had dedicated truly atrocious pre-adolescent love poetry to both of us, had joined the Sureños. Although my mom panicked over me wearing blue, I knew it was the kids who “looked the part,” who were in danger whether or not they joined a gang, and I was so pale blonde that I was beyond those accusations, even if my Anglo friends asked me why I didn’t look quite like them.
At a school in California, formerly Mexico and still Aztlán, it was less threatening for a third grade teacher to explain that when I screamed at my friend, I should “put spit into the word ‘Spic,’ like you mean it” than it would have been to stage Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit or another play centering Chicano or mexicano characters. When I asked my mom why this was, and what the word “Spic” meant, she said, “It’s a derogatory word for people who are Hispanic,” and looked at my dad, who shrugged and gestured as if to say, “Go on.”
“It’s not like they’re going to put on a play portraying Latinos in a positive light. They’re being historically accurate.” My mom seemed surprised that I would expect respectful treatment in the world of middle school musical theater. Having been a white anti-racist activist in the ‘60s, she knew better.
The lights came up slow the last night of the play, and I punched past Sofia’s jaw as she threw her head back as if hit, my fist in front of her face, so that the audience wouldn’t see there had been no skin-to-skin contact. She pulled my shoulders down and brought her knee up to hide that she wasn’t really kicking me in the gut. We stomped inches above each other’s feet, because that was apparently how hard-ass gangsters rumbled in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I changed out of my cuffed jeans and into a royal blue ‘80s sequined cocktail dress because time periods were interchangeable depending on what I could afford at Goodwill. Sofia put on a dark red poodle skirt her mom made. Both of us could go through the motions, familiar from siblings’, parents’, and friends’ stories, but neither of us got the fashion chronology quite right. Leonard Bernstein’s dance music began. On opposite sides of the gym floor, Sofia and I reflected the same steps, her left foot back when my right foot moved forward. Lights dimmed, we slowed at the same time and then froze, as spotlights brought Tony and María together, the Polish guy trying to go straight and stay out of his friend’s white supremacist gang and the sister of the Sharks’ leader, who insists he’d rather go back to San Juan, even if over half its population is living in New York City by the late early ‘60s, cheap flights available to anyone willing to work, as “long as you stay on your own side,” as the Sharks sing.
After Tony and María’s first meeting at a community dance like the one where my dad met my brothers’ mom, Tony sings María’s name as a prayer and trills, “Say it loud and there’s music playing,” but it’s always fighting and not respect or adoration that upsurges the instrumentation for the remainder of the play.
During the condemnation and defense of America, the music rises again, and from behind the sets, I heard Mia and Sofia arguing that “buying on credit is so nice,” to which other Sharks reply, “One look at us, and they charge twice.” A stratified payment plan corner store owners on Valencia offered my dad, who replied throughout his childhood and adolescence that he could afford the whole Saltine cracker box, not just a sleeve, even when it wasn’t entirely true. The same interaction I’d watched through the ‘90s at the corner store in my neighborhood. Although “cadillacs zoom” and “industry booms in America,” Sharks reiterate that people live “twelve in a room in America.” And many of my friends did that May 2001, decades after the play’s Hollywood mirage of New York City had long since faded. A few people had told Sofia that not living like that was one more sign, along with her penchant for singing and dancing in American musicals, that she had allied herself with bourgeois comforts and white people. Since I passed for white and couldn’t speak Spanish, being friends with me was further evidence.
Meanwhile, I wasn’t blending in with the Jets as seamlessly as I had previously imagined. When we mocked police, psychologists, and social workers for pathologizing white teens as “juvenile delinquents,” “depraved on account of we’re deprived,” the kids with money sang the very sociological reductions they hurled at kids from my neighborhood: “Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers all are drunks. Golly Moses, ‘natcherly we’re punks.” My only line as Mouthpiece in West Side Story was in this song: “The trouble is he’s growing.” The next line is, “The trouble is he’s grown,” and that simultaneity was precisely my problem and Sofia’s.
We were both “queer for Uncle Sam,” as María’s brother accuses Rita Moreno of being. Since moving between and within gender expressions for even a few scenes was what drew me most to theater, this pejorative equivocation of queerness and assimilation was an accusation I was only beginning to realize would follow me the rest of my life. When one of my fellow Jets sang, “My sister wears a mustache, my brother wears a dress, golly, Jesus, that’s why I’m a mess,” and the Anglo girls in my troop turned and gestured at me for the benefit of the audience, that tipped me off.
Onstage in front of two hundred audience members, including my own family and Sofia’s, I didn’t have to fake tears in the last scene when María cradles Tony’s body even after he’s killed her brother to avenge his white friend’s death in his quest to be the good White ally boyfriend. She shouts at the Jets, the Sharks, and perhaps most of all the people watching the play, “How many bullets are left in this gun? Enough for you, enough for all of you? You all killed him” (to paraphrase). I’d spent hours practicing calling my friend epithets my dad ran from as a kid, down Capp Street, Valencia, Howard, and Mission. Terms that precipitated real, un-choreographed fights at Balboa High when the trouble was that he was growing and grown. After people that could have been my dad start to die in the play, the Jets advise each other to “keep cool” around cops to avoid being indicted for murder. But in all my dad’s stories, when the cops cornered and questioned his cousins any time anything happened in the neighborhood, they rarely got out of it by “keeping cool.”
I’d worried through rehearsals and multiple stagings of the play that my hair and eyes didn’t look quite like Natalie Wood’s instead of listening to what my dad had tried to tell me, in that silent way he communicated with Sofia’s mom. Un-ambivalent longing and nostalgia for sets and props didn’t belong to my father. For him there was no fixed boundary between art imitating life and life imitating art, the way there was for my friends who were “all-White in America.” Sometimes it’s possible through silence to be a Jet “from your first cigarette ‘til your last dying day,” but it comes at a price. My dad had laughed at my confusion about gradations of Whiteness and lightness and who played who in a musical because the only curtain call in his stories about colorism was that final one, without stage lights, sometimes with songs and people you love, but sometimes under the street lights and cop flashlights that end West Side Story.
Jenny Irizary grew up in a canyon that flooded every winter and now resides in the city of Oakland, California. She holds a B.A. in Ethnic Studies and an M.A. in literature from Mills College. Her work has been published in Label Me Latina/o, Atticus Review, Duende, Snapping Twig, Tipton Poetry Journal,Communion, and other journals.