Join me at Island in the City

Hi! I have a new project that I’m trying to get the word out about. It’s a newsletter at the new publishing platform Substack called Island in the City.

To semi-quote myself in the About page of the newsletter, I started it for fun and community to cope with the continued social isolation. The newsletter will dive into topics that have preoccupied my mind during the long days and nights of the pandemic. Stuff like creativity & productivity, loneliness, favorite artists, places & people, aging & ageism, class & classism, storytelling, and the life and geography of big cities & tiny islands.

I already have my first post up, about the Chicago outsider artist Henry Darger. Please check it out. This is also a two-parter post–you can expect the second part to go up next week.

What makes this different from my website and the occasional posts here?

A few things. The newsletter will be bi-monthly at the most, monthly at the least. That’s much more frequent than my posting here on my personal site.

You can also subscribe to the newsletter and get an email whenever a new post goes up. There are links to subscribe in the newsletter at Substack, and you can also do it here.

You’ll notice there’s a payment option. For now, my posts will be free. Maybe they always will–this is brand new journey and I haven’t a clue what’s around the corner with this. For all I know, there are no corners. Anyway, Substack was created as a self-publishing platform like Medium, WordPress, and Blogger, but with more of an ability to earn income for your writing. If you’ve been paying attention to changes in media and publishing over the last 10-15 years, and certainly if you’ve worked in media, you’ll know how changes have set so many media professionals adrift, especially many of a certain generation (cough, Gen X, cough). Layoffs and scale staffs, newspaper foldings, media conglomeration, the rise of blogging, the glut of blogs, free media, social media, unpaid internships, the decline of print–all of this has turned publishing, journalism, and media careers upside down and affected many writers’ income. Substack, like Patreon and other “content monetization platforms” (ugh, what a phrase–but it is what it is), allow for writers to charge for their newsletters to give some of the power back to creators.

I’m under no illusion that anyone wants to pay for my ramblings. But since the option is there, if you’d like to show your support by paying, I’d of course feel grateful and encouraged. The subscription cost is $5 a month or $50 a year. Should I ever start charging for the newsletter, it will most likely be the model most other writers are using: some free posts that all subscribers and visitors to the site will get, mixed with some locked ones for paying subscribers only. There is also an option for me to “grandfather in” my original free subscribers so they continue to get the newsletter for free even if I start charging–a gift for the support of loyalty.

What can subscribers expect to read about?

Here are some topics that I plan on writing about beyond my first posts about Henry Darger:

  • Chicago outsider artists Vivian Maier and Lee Godie
  • the Chicago Riverwalk, its bridgehouses, and the Technicolor Man of downtown Chicago,
  • Jean-Baptiste DuSable, city segregation, and the sundown towns of Illinois
  • Tim Robinson and the Aran Islands
  • the islands of Chicago (Goose, Northerly, Stony, Blue)
  • learning a minority language (Irish) in America
  • the sand dunes of Indiana, the boy who fell inside one, and the Girl X case that broke Chicago’s heart
  • the Green Mill and Michael Mann’s/James Caan’s great film, Thief
  • the Pigeon Man of Lincoln Square
  • informal economies and the vanishing Chicago hot dog vendor
  • maybe more (Chicago graffiti art, Ronnie Woo-Woo, Jazz Record Mart (RIP), other Irish islands I have known, who knows?

How to subscribe and connect

To subscribe just go to Island in the City, click the Subscribe button, and add your email. You can also connect with me on Twitter. If you like a post, please share. And if you like the newsletter in general, please tell all your like-minded friends.

As a gift for reading this, here’s a deer pic for your enjoyment. And there’s more where that came from. 😉

Bakery Girl

I wrote this creative nonfiction piece a couple years ago and sent it around to some lit mags but couldn’t get it placed. So I’m sharing it here.

This is dedicated to Roger, Mrs. C., Maria, Vladimir, and Mariann.

The longest relationship of my adult life has been with a local bakery: a Polish mom and pop in a Chicago suburb where I’ve been employed on and off since the early ‘90s, a few weeks before I turned 21. At the time I’d been working minimum wage jobs since high school, with no college degree and not much sense of where I belonged in life. But for fun I liked to bake cookies or whip up some fancy French toast the odd weekend, so I got it in my head to go to cooking school and become a chef or baker. Something like that. The local bakery seemed like a good place to start.

There’s a “sick burn” quote from the third edition of David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1994) about movie goddess Michelle Pfeiffer: “She still carries the rather stunned, obedient air of an ex-checkout girl at the El Toro Vons supermarket.” Personally, I never noted such an “air” about Pfeiffer nor any of her screen incarnations, not even when she played a deglamorized diner waitress in Frankie and Johnny. But back in the ‘90s, when I was knee deep in mandatory hairnets and the impossible promise of guaranteed customer satisfaction, Thomson’s comment seared into my brain.

A film buff and bookworm, I spotted his book at the library, checked it out, and bulldozed through Thomson’s hundreds of acerbically funny and perceptive entries on Hollywood’s luminaries. Like the movies, Thomson’s wit was a welcome escape. But his entry on Pfeiffer unnerved me. Not because I was a fan of hers, but because it confirmed my fears that as far as the cultured people of the world are concerned, you can take the girl out of the working class but you can’t take the working class out of the girl. Or, in the case of any woman who’s worked a service job, that “smile and say ‘Have a nice day’ or you’re fired” reek of subservience. I mean, if the stunning — not “stunned” — Michelle Pfeiffer couldn’t convince someone she was born for better things than bagging groceries, even with all the transformative power of Hollywood’s dream factory backing her, what chance had someone like me, a Midwestern bakery girl of no special talents, looks, or connections?

Bakery girl. When I started cooking school (really, an associate’s in culinary arts program at a community college), I may have aspired to the title of chef or baker, but my domain at the bakery was always the store, not the bake shop in the back. And my title was “store girl.” That’s what the owners called all of us who set up the store starting 5 a.m., sliced and bagged the bread, boxed the donuts, weighed the butter cookies, stocked the shelves, rang up the purchases, made the coffee, carried out the cakes, answered the phones, took orders, wiped down the counters and tables, and swept and scraped (the latter on our hands and knees) the store floors before closing every night.

Store girl. Never mind that our ages ranged from 15 to early 70s.

There were no store boys, not in the 1990s. All the males worked in the back, meaning they did all the baking (and dishwashing and wholesale delivering). It sort of made sense, given all the heavy lifting and industrial equipment involved. The huge mixers, the lead-like buckets filled with custard and buttercream icing, and a wide-mouthed, revolving, floor-to-ceiling oven that warned away kitchen newbies with its perpetual fiery glow. It was heavy-duty baking, and heavy-duty baking apparently was no job for a girl. The only back of the house jobs any women did were packaging for wholesale, strawberry hulling (an endless job, fresh strawberries being the most popular choice of cake filling), and cake and pastry decorating.

The crew in the back wore bakery whites and heavy black shoes. We store girls wore a pink and beige smock with a matching hair scarf, white pants, and white thick-soled sneakers. The touch of pink was vital, underlining the distinction between us girls and the macho bakeshop crew.

We barely ever sat down — even on break, when there was a long enough lull to take one. My first day I brought a novel with me to read, imagining there’d be an official breakroom, like at the library job I’d had when I was 18, or somewhere private, like the popcorn room at the movie theater job I’d had when I was 17. But at the bakery there was no breakroom. Just a side room where baking tins and racks of fresh butter cookies were kept, plus some empty buckets you could pull out for a few minutes’ rest and a quick cup of coffee or instant soup. Never a donut though. You got sick of them fast. “I could never work here. I’d eat everything and gain a hundred pounds,” customers were always telling us. They didn’t seem to consider the concept of too much of a good thing, that even the smell of so much sweetness day after day put you off it all by the end of your first week.

Image for post
Old school bakery with bakery girl wearing uniform. Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash

Not long after I started I changed my goal from baker to cake decorator. Partly because it was the decorators who impressed me the most. They were like wizards — creative, inventive, fast. They made it look so easy. Carving geometric shapes, faces, and household objects out of soft blocks of cake, squirting elegant calligraphy out of parchment pastry bags, molding the tiniest, most detailed features out of marzipan and rolled fondant, blending colors and fruits and flavors like alchemists mixing elements to make gold. And they were almost all women.

In his book Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain expressed his admiration for “studly women” who could “hang tough” in the high-testosterone world of professional kitchens. When the book came out, I had friends in the industry recommend it. By then I was a couple years away from the bakery, finishing up a bachelor’s degree in English at a state university and working in a mall department store. I’d applied for both, the mall job and college, telling myself I was done with food service work — and hopefully, soon, service jobs of any kind. I thought I might want to teach. Or work in an office. Somewhere I could sit down, somewhere I wouldn’t have to wear a name tag, somewhere I could nurture the bookish side of me I’d been hiding for off-hours, somewhere my confidence could grow.

But out of curiosity I tried a couple chapters of Bourdain’s book. His macho tone turned me off, his implication that women don’t belong in the restaurant industry unless they act like men.

It would be years before I’d see in Bourdain what others idolized. Like the way he championed food service people whether they worked at a famous five-star restaurant or a Waffle House. And Bourdain, to his credit, eventually owned up to some of the problematic elements of his first book, writing an essay near the end of his life expressing regret for the machismo he’d once (perhaps unwittingly) celebrated, finally calling out food service sexism for what it is: “meathead culture.”

Bourdain didn’t lie. In the service industry jobs I’ve had over the years, this culture took the form of male co-workers who’d freely talk about “the price of hookers” and joke about the smell of female genitalia in earshot of women workers. There were guys who wouldn’t allow a female co-worker to do anything that required too much physical exertion — they meant well but their thinking was that all women were weak. And there were guys who’d ignore you if you did ask for help — their thinking being that you wanted to work in this job didn’t you, so do it yourself like a man supposedly would. Then there was the young, hot-shot and hot-headed chef I worked with who once threatened “She’s in danger of becoming a battered woman someday” about a teenage waitress he said asked too many questions, was too mouthy. (Later he said he was just joking. Hahaha.)

This was just the back of the house sexism. Out front there were male customers who’d hound you for your number or stalk you by waiting for your table or turn at the counter or calling the store or restaurant, convinced your friendly customer service was really flirting. Which was probably the worst part of the job, much more than being on your feet all day or scraping up crumbs. You had to smile through it all. Even while being leered at by a man “just reading” the name tag on your breast. Or being called “sweetie” by a well-manicured woman pretending you have no name at all.

Machismo is only one flavor of sexism, only one style of disrespect. Women, in their own way, can be just as guilty. From the young, self-described “foodie” bride-to-be who left a thousand-word bad review of the bakery on every online ratings site because her wedding cake samples came in plastic cups, to the middle-aged professional who threw a fudge-iced éclair at a store girl because she didn’t like the way it’d been handed to her. (The iced side hit my co-worker right below her collar, just above her name tag, leaving an oblong-shaped brown spot the rest of her shift. After getting the manager to fill the rest of her order, the customer walked over to the store girl on her way out the door and jeered, “Have a nice day, hon.”)

Or maybe rude customer behavior has nothing to do with sexism. Maybe there’s another ism to blame — classism, capitalism, narcissism. Or maybe some people have impossible expectations. Maybe some people are just jerks.

Maybe Bourdain, while wrong, was also right.

Deep down, Kitchen Confidential riled me because I’d come to believe I wasn’t cut out for professional kitchen work. I was too intimidated to a fault. I didn’t have the cockiness or confidence for chef’s work, baker’s work, industry work. I didn’t know how to hang tough. I was a store girl, extra, out of her element.

David Thomson and Anthony Bourdain exposed a truth, or at least a perception, about women like me that hurt to face up to, much less confront. When I went back to school, it was in a core lit class that I finally saw some representation of the life I’d known, the same life I was trying to get away from, but this time it was cloaked in comfort.

In an American lit course we were assigned a Raymond Carver story, “A Small, Good Thing.” The story is about a middle-class couple whose young son dies on his birthday after a hit-and-run incident. Bookending the story, however, are two visits to a bakery. In the first visit, the mother orders a cake for her son’s birthday. In the second visit, the couple go to finally pick up the cake, three days late. Actually, they go to confront the baker, who’s been prank calling them about the forgotten cake over the three agonizing days since the boy was hit by the car and left lingering in a coma. The story ends with the baker hearing about the child’s death, apologizing for his cruelty, offering stories about the supposed lonely life of a baker, and feeding the couple some of his freshly baked rolls. “You have to eat and keep going,” he tells them. “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.”

I liked a lot of the stories I was assigned in my lit classes, but this one I actually appreciated. I read it more than once — not for study purposes, but to decide what I really thought about it, how authentic it was based on my experience. I couldn’t wait to talk about it in class.

I remember wanting to talk about some of the more contrived aspects of the story. Like why didn’t the baker, someone who’d clearly been in the business awhile, make the mother pay for the cake upfront, at least put down a deposit? Like we did at the Polish bakery. And why didn’t he just mention the cake in any of his phone calls to the couple? Or just say, “This is the bakery calling.” Again, like we store girls did at the end of the day with any orders still waiting pick-up.

But we never got to the story in class discussion. I never got to talk about it with anyone. It just became one of those stories of the American canon that I was supposed to file away and make sense of — its perfection, its meaning, its influence — on my own, like an interrupted dream or a lost ambition.

I decided it was good. What I liked was how dynamic the baker character is, how much he becomes the emotional heart of the story, evolving from the unyielding front he shows the mother at the story’s beginning, to cruelty and self-pity in its middle, to remorse and compassion by the end. To giving.

I decided his prank calling of the couple, unlikely in real life, was his assertion of his own value, of his worth as a worker and human being. He took the time to take this woman’s order, to make the cake just like she wanted, to put in the time and labor for a family he didn’t know and a child not his own. Never mind his “I’m just a baker” apology to the couple. He’s the only character in the story with something to offer the mourning parents beyond condolences or platitudes, something they can hold in their hands, smell and eat, nourish and comfort themselves with. Even their son’s doctors couldn’t give as much.

So Carver’s baker isn’t, in my experience, a perfect, authentic representation of bakery life. Maybe nothing is other than the life itself. But in terms of working-class respect, Carver’s story certainly beats Thomson’s quip. Carver himself grew up working-class, his father a millworker, his mother a sometime waitress and retail clerk. She could’ve been a woman I worked with. She could’ve been me.

(This past year of pandemic, like people the world over I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights. Nights of worrying and fear. Nights that lead your mind to the past, because the future is so uncertain. My mind would sometimes stray to cooking school, to my first days at the bakery, to Carver’s baker… Could I have been Mrs. Carver’s son? Or Bourdain, with more ambition and talent, more confidence and dark sorrow? How about the dead boy’s mother in “A Small, Good Thing”? What contrivances or curveballs would have to be written into a story or a life to make Carver’s lonely baker turn out a worldly legend like Bourdain? Or to make Bourdain turn out like Carver’s baker — lonesome but surviving, overlooked but still alive?

Or to make me a baker, any baker, instead of the girl who rings up the baker’s orders?

How about Michelle Pfeiffer? In the ’90s she seemed straight on the Oscar path. Decades later she’s yet to get there, nevermind her knockout looks or knockout performances. Was it something on her resumé? That supposed miscasting as the diner waitress in Frankie and Johnny? Or maybe the time she played, for real, a supermarket checkout girl. As Thomson said, maybe she played that role too well, too obediently. Unlike lonely bakers, who can find their way back to human connection, working girls can’t expect to live their common beginnings down, not without an enduring confidence or a long fight.)

Two things life teaches you is that plans barely ever pan out and rescues almost never lead you to the promised land.

After college I got the office job I thought would rescue me from service work for life. It was a bargain cookbook publishing job, and surprisingly, I was told they were more interested in my community college culinary arts degree than my brand new university B.A.

I didn’t adjust well. There were no windows in the part of the building where my cubicle was marooned. There were days when I had maybe ten minutes of work to occupy an 8-hour day. And it turned out offices have their own brand of hell situations to survive, from gossip and cliques to the farce of performance reviews, to back-stabbing. None of the working-class camaraderie I’d known in every service job I’d had, the got-your-back bonding that transcended even the sexism and male chauvinism when it came to surviving especially brutal busy days of churning out high-volume orders and facing throngs of customers.

There were nice breakrooms though, that was a plus. But also self-described “foodies” who’d hunt me down in those breakrooms. Offices, I learned, are filled with foodies. People who’ve never worked in a restaurant or professional kitchen a day in their life, but who watch lots of cooking shows, or read lots of gourmet magazines or restaurant reviews, or spend lots of time in the aisles of specialty grocery stores. Not that there’s anything wrong with all that. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t enjoy the satisfaction of a good meal or the thrill of a cut-throat cook-off. But foodies are people who like to show off what they think they know. And the minute they hear you’ve worked in the industry or gone to cooking school, they want you to prove it. Which means, in the spirit of office passive-aggressiveness, they want to compete with you. Which means being hunted down anywhere in the office for recipe secrets or arcane ingredient advice or the low-down on local hot restaurants I couldn’t afford to eat in or chefs I didn’t know — then being challenged or negged on any experience or opinion you do share.

My first office job, I lasted less than a year before bolting for a full-time job in the deli and kitchen of a Whole Foods. It set a pattern for years to come. Ping-ponging between offices and kitchens, between jobs with health insurance and jobs with surprise health inspections, between higher-status “real jobs” and lower-status jobs that the world really can’t do without.

At some point, after a few years, I went back to visit the Polish bakery. It was during the Christmas season. I’d been working in publishing, but for not as much pay as I expected I’d be making back when I thought an office job was the answer. The bakery staff said they’d welcome any extra help to handle the holiday crowds. So I worked a few shifts, including Christmas Eve day.

It was just like old times, easy to get back in the groove of boxing donuts and slicing bread.

Yet things had changed. One of the brothers who owned the bakery had died. The other brother’s kids had grown up, were being groomed to take over. Prices had gone up. Almost no one wrote checks anymore — everything was put on debit cards. And all those cooking and baking shows that had flooded cable TV in recent years meant customers coming in with more elaborate orders, show-stopper cake designs, foodie-fed dreams of over-the-top sweet tables and multi-tiered cupcake trees and gourmet donut buffets. God knows what Carver’s baker would’ve made of such demands.

And there were store boys. Mostly high school kids. They wore paper caps and aprons. The store girls wore aprons now too. The pink long scrapped for maroon. The bakeshop foreman I’d known in the ‘90s was also long gone — he’d left to start his own business. There’d been a series of male, classically trained, high-end hotel pastry chefs who’d been chewed up and spit out by the bakery’s heavy-duty production rate. Now, in their place, was a Greek woman and a familiar face, one of the lady pastry wizards who had dazzled me back in the day. She wasn’t studly, she didn’t hang tough or make gross jokes about female anatomy. She was a mom and a new grandma.

Maybe seeing how a mom and pop bakery could change planted a seed in me that I could change too. That maybe class isn’t destiny — at the very least, not identity.

Working in cubicles, I did a lot of daydreaming. About being my own boss, maybe starting a business of my own. Back in the ’90s I used to work extra shifts to earn money to travel. In cooking school, I spent a few summers working abroad in Ireland in hotels and cafes. I hit on a travel business idea — specializing in group tours for women. I was thinking of women who didn’t feel like they fit in on family tours or couples tours. Or maybe women who just didn’t feel they fit in period and wanted to get away for a bit, to stretch their sense of adventure, to test their confidence. I intended to turn my back on office life and the rescue and dream that it never was forever.

As I researched the travel biz, became a certified tour manager, set up a business and website, started organizing tours, all along the bakery was there for me. Three years on, when the business failed, the bakery was still there. I felt like a failure, again, but my bakery colleagues waved that off. “You tried,” the store girls said, without a trace of snark, as we stood at the counter folding boxes. “That took courage, starting a business,” one of the older women said.

There were more changes anyway — the kind that kept you from dwelling too much on failure even as they broke the bakery family’s heart piece by piece. One of the wizard decorators, who started at 16 as a store girl, opened a competing bake shop. A fire burned down the restaurant next door and left us working out of a temporary facility for months. The matriarch of the family who owned the bakery died. A young man who worked in the back and a dear friend to all of us was murdered. And one November, two days before Thanksgiving, a longtime store manager said goodbye to us one night at closing: “OK, I’ll see you tomorrow, girls.” She never came back.

She’d been with the bakery since it opened doors in the 1970s. Truly, the original store girl. My first day, back when I was 20, she’d been the one to take me around the bakery and explain every single pastry to me, every flavor and filling, every shape of roll, every kind of bread.

That day before Thanksgiving, when she didn’t show up to work for the first time in decades, we still had to serve the crush of customers. We were stunned, obediently quiet to the news of death. But we store girls and store boys still had to smile, still had to say, “Have a happy Thanksgiving,” over and over and over again. We took turns going in the back to cry. So many of us had never known a Thanksgiving at the bakery without Mariann.

The crew in the back set up a buffet on one of the workbenches. Some had brought tacos. The owner roasted a turkey in the revolving oven. His daughter sliced a loaf of buttercrust white and one of seeded rye. Somebody added cans of cold pop, a bag of chips, salsa, a slab of butter, some butterflake rolls. Front of the house and back of the house took shifts eating from paper plates, standing up at the workbenches and back counters, sitting on empty buckets.

The bakery would be closed the next day for the holiday, but the store would be packed with customers ’til closing time, waiting for their pies and breads, waiting for us. They were counting on us. So we ate to keep going, to endure.

Selected Writings & Stuff

Some of my published work:

Nonfiction:

Bread Pudding for Dimitra Xidous (Poetry Potluck)

Island in the City (Substack) A (bi)monthly newsletter about outsider art, Chicago, creativity, oddballs, islands, and other interesting stuff

Bakery Girl (Medium)

Community cooks (U.S. Catholic)

Meet St. Gertrude, cat lady of the Catholic Church (U.S. Catholic)

How Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery Built a Prairie and Lost My Ancestors (Medium)

A pilgrim’s pace (U.S. Catholic)

Mixed Messages (Memoir Mixtapes)

Song recommendations (short memoir pieces) at Memoir Mixtapes:
White Mystery’s “Birthday”
Van Morrison’s “Purple Heather”
Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection”
Al Green’s “Belle”
The Gap Band’s “Party Train”

Maintaining Self-Esteem and Motivation in a Year of Rejection (Brevity blog)

The Unbeautiful Ones (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note; Tiny Donkey’s site has been taken down, so anything I published there I’ve republished on my site

Ancestral Hunger Pangs (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Modern-Day Mike Finks (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Writing Anxiety and the Wisdom of Improvisation (The Masters Review blog)

Lady Folk (Tiny Donkey: Brief Essays from Fairyland) 2nd-place winner in “Once Upon a Cartographer” contest

Dad’s Honor Flight: A Father’s Second Homecoming from the Korean War (Medium)

All Apocalypses, Bitter and Sweet (Literary Orphans) LO’s non-fiction Tavern Lantern site is no longer, so I’ve included the essay on my site here

New Mexico: Freedom on the Ground (We Said Go Travel)

Walking with the World on the Camino de Santiago (Encyclopaedia Britannica) Republished at Camino Ways

Women of Ireland (Encyclopaedia Britannica) More of my Britannica blog articles are available at this link

Walking to the Well (AranIsland.info)

Island Luck (AranIsland.info)

Writing and Wayfaring (personal travel blog)

Fiction:

The Widow’s Quilt (Medium)

Year of Conor McGregor (Hobart)

Bad Babysitter (Cease, Cows) Nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2018

The Guide to Good Apple Self-Care (Drunk Monkeys)

Chicago Rides For Michael Jackson (here, with author’s note)

Poetry:

Putting on Eyeliner with PTSD (Awakened Voices) Republished at Memoir Magazine

The Buffalo Return to Illinois (Rose Red Review) Another defunct journal, so I’ve republished poem on my site

Periphery (Thank You For Swallowing) Based on Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting New York Movie

The Subject and the Stranger (Ekphrastic: writing and art on art and writing)

Bioluminescent Bay, Aisling, and Coconut (The Writing Disorder)

Transference (Middle West) (Eunoia Review)

Golden Day (Literary Orphans)

The Fading of the Heart and Australia (Wilderness House Literary Review)

Interviews:

Interview with Jamie Kralovec, urban planner (U.S. Catholic)

Interview with Samantha Power, activist, author, and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. (U.S. Catholic)

Interview with Louise Erdrich, novelist (U.S. Catholic)

Interview with Timothy Egan, journalist (U.S. Catholic)

Interview with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, poet (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Kelly Vivanco, artist (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Ram Devineni, filmmaker and comic book creator (Priya’s Shakti) (Tiny Donkey)

Reviews:

The Best Catholics in the World by Derek Scally (America magazine) forthcoming

In the Event of Contact by Ethel Rohan (U.S. Catholic mag)

10 books young readers will love this Christmas (Christmas, Advent, and new children’s books roundup for winter 2020; U.S. Catholic mag)

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (U.S. Catholic mag)

Lost, Found, Remembered by Lyra McKee (U.S. Catholic mag)

In The Field Between Us by Molly McCully Brown and Susannah Nevison (U.S. Catholic mag)

Book of the Little Axe by Lauren Francis-Sharma (U.S. Catholic mag)

Places I’ve Taken My Body by Molly McCully Brown (U.S. Catholic mag)

Other:

The Dangerous Divide (Library Philosophy and Practice): This is an academic paper I published about how libraries are closing the gap in the digital divide for older adults, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic when lack of access to the internet has had deadly consequences for this population. This was a final project for an MLIS course taught by Bill Crowley at Dominican University.

Tales of Old: A digital resource and annotated bibliography of representations of older women in folk and fairy tales. This was created for an MLIS course taught by Janice Del Negro at Dominican University.

Played the role of Marcy, the art school prof, in TV pilot The Artists

Photo: Coumeenole Beach, Ireland (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Photo: Untitled (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Forgotten Cookies

I wrote a short article for a religious mag about my mother’s old church cookbook collection. It’s also about trying to keep a sense of community and celebrate Christmas this year while so many of us are separated from our families due to the pandemic. You can read the article here (note: I didn’t write that headline).

I enjoyed writing this piece. It brought back some sorely needed fun memories.

I used to be in the business of cooking and cookbooks. After graduating from high school, I enrolled in a culinary arts program at a community college. Our textbooks were about 4 inches thick with technical instructions for working with and repairing industrial kitchen equipment and recipes that yielded much higher quantities than in the average coffee table cookbook.

After cooking school, I found a job as an assistant cookbook editor at a publishing company just outside Chicago. The cookbooks were the kind sold in catalogs or found in the bargain books section of chain bookstores. They relied heavily on brand name products, and there were all sorts of rules about which brand’s recipes could run on the same page with another’s and how to order the list of ingredients and what made a particular ingredient “index worthy.”

I remember attending photo sessions where a professional photographer and food stylist set up shots of perfectly sized cookies with just the right number of stray crumbs and an impossibly frothy glass of milk in the background. (The froth was created by mixing liquid soap into the milk.)

I remember other cookbook editor tricks like the time we came up short for recipes for a slow cooker cookbook (we didn’t have the licensing to use the term “Crock Pot”) that was supposed to feature recipes submitted by “real” home cooks across America. We resolved the problem by pulling recipes from our database and making up names to go with them using the editors’ pets’ first names combined with the married editors’ maiden names followed by some random town.

Out of the whole mix, we had to pick a winner from the recipes by actual home cooks and run a special “spotlight” with a picture of the winner in their home kitchen and a mini-interview. As this was my first publishing job, I wholeheartedly believed someone on staff had tested the recipes to choose the best one. My boss had to break it to me that what we picked was the recipe by the closest cook, not necessarily the best one. “What, you think it’s just a coincidence the winner lives in Gurnee?” she said.

Apart from my professional cookbook experience, I’ve worked off and on in a local family-run bakery going back to before my culinary arts degree days. A real old school kind of place. A lot of the cake and pastry decoration ideas came from Pinterest and Cake Boss, but the recipes were the genuine passed down from generation to generation variety. They were kept in a battered black book that was locked in a safe.

The best thing about writing this article though is that I got to name drop some of the parishes I grew up in as well as one of my beloved family members, my great-aunt Florence Fagan. Florence was my maternal grandfather’s sister. She lived all her life on a farm in Iowa. She and her husband, Francis, had four children: Ruth, a Franciscan sister in Dubuque; Marie, who has her own farm in Iowa; Joe, a former priest who founded the activist organization Iowa Citizens for Community in Des Moines; and Jean, a teacher New Orleans. Florence, Francis, Jean, and Joe have all passed away.

My great-aunt and great-uncle, Florence and Francis Fagan, of Iowa.

The New Melleray Abbey cookbook mentioned in the article has at least a dozen recipes by Florence–nearly all desserts. For the curious, here’s her “Forgotten Cookies” recipe in its original “parish cookbook” form:

Transference (Middle West)

Several years ago I published this poem at Eunoia Review. It’s about my maternal grandfather, who died from cancer when I was about 7 or 8 years old. He was raised on a farm in Iowa and came to Illinois, first to Rockford, then to Chicago, after marrying a girl from a neighboring farm. He and my grandmother stayed in the city about three decades before moving back to Iowa.

I thought I’d share it now, at the tail end of November, the month in the Catholic Church when we remember the dead (Granddaddy Collins was a devout Irish Catholic). And I thought I’d share it in memory of all the grandfathers and grandmothers we’ve lost this year due to COVID-19 and our culture’s disgraceful disregard for the elderly and vulnerable.

I’m sorry for anyone who’s lost an elder this year. I live in perpetual worry and fear now about my own mother (87) and father (92). I believe in ancestors more than I believe in anything else. I hope this pandemic is gone soon, and I hope in 2021 all those in our government responsible for letting it rage unchecked throughout the country feel the wrath of the people their negligence took from us. (Both my grandfathers were staunch Democrats too.) I hope our ancestors watch over the rest of us, especially the ones working to rescue the world from this horrible plague and those of us trying so hard to shelter our elders.

Here’s the poem.

Transference (Middle West)

Where I live the corn and the wheat are made of steel.
Their stalks stand a foot for every week my grandfather
the farmer’s son
has been in the grave.
I’d like to lie down at the bottom of the corn in the spaces between the stalks
to get close to grandfather
and watch the stars watching right back at me
but the soil here is too stiff.
It’s unyielding to a body
tamped to death as yesterday’s minutes
gray and comfortless as an ocean without a shore.

Though there is an ocean here
that’s not an ocean
and shores that are comforting shores
and there are burning bushes here and burning trees
that do not burn.
The flames of these wear black masks and cherry robes
and holy names.
They mate and molt and sing a song
like rain bouncing backward off the solid gaps in a liminal wilderness
or between the growing grasses of a vanished prairie.

The air at dusk here fills with lightning
that is not lightning
with delicate and black electric bolts
the size of front teeth.
They glow a green very unlike the green of young corn
and a yellow very unlike the yellow of ripe corn.

My grandfather knew them
these lights.
He caught them in his farmer’s son’s hands
very alike my city girl’s hands long ago
and last summer.
This was before his eyes caught the lights that crown the steel stalks
and needle the stars
here where I live
before he left Iowa
its true corn
its cut and dried fields and cut and dried past
for this concrete prairie, this thresholder’s town
this farmer’s granddaughter’s birthplace
Chicago.

He handed me down a beginning.
I’ve inherited the transformation.

Periphery

Sharing this poem for Labor Day. I published this a few years ago in a journal called Thank You For Swallowing. The journal was started by Cat Conway in response to a poem by a male poet that began with those same words as the name of the journal. It featured protest poems by mostly women writers and poets. I wrote this ekphrastic poem about Edward Hopper’s painting New York Movie, 1939. It’s also inspired by my first job, as a movie theater usherette, when I was 17. I wore a uniform actually very similar to the girl in Hopper’s painting.

Periphery

She’s been told she belongs in pictures
twice already tonight.
It averages three, four times a shift.
It’s a line, but no lie…just look at her.
Yellow Harlow hair, formidable Crawford shoulders,
long legs dressed Hepburn style in slim straight trousers,
and high heels like the kind Ginger Rogers danced in
backwards all through the Depression days.
On slow nights, like tonight, she thinks
Ginger’s not the only one who can do her job backwards.
This one, in her sleep even.
She minds the attention from male moviegoers a little less
than her manager’s come-ons.
The moment the picture starts the customers forget
she’s there and she can be left alone awhile
at the periphery, beneath the three lamps
beside the red curtain and sworled blue stairs separating
the dark plush dreams of this movie palace
from reality and all the rest:
World War talk and World’s Fair frenzy,
dull dates, heartaches, mother’s meddlings,
the manager’s pinches and leers.
He puts her on the late shift on purpose,
keeps offering her a lift home
after midnight. She’s taken to telling him
she’s meeting someone, somewhere down the street
and no she doesn’t need a lift there either.
But tonight it’s no lie, not just a safety line.
Standing at the periphery in the wall-lamp glow
she counts the minutes to the closing credits.
Marlene Dietrich is dying in Jimmy Stewart’s arms.
Maybe this new guy will stick around longer,
make her laugh tonight or take her dancing,
backwards or forwards, any direction
so long as it’s away from here.
If not, there’s always the pictures…she belongs in them
so she keeps getting told. And she thinks some night
she may prove her admirers right:
wait for the closing credits, turn up the lights,
wake the audience from their dreams,
usher them out, close the red curtain,
then climb through the big screen.
She figures if they insist on looking and leering,
she’s gonna direct the angle they see her from, at least.
What she wants is to rewrite the script,
change the ending. She doesn’t want Dietrich to die.
Forget what the men in the seats want to see.
Let the heroines live. Make the pictures belong to the girls
for a change. She has ideas…not just dreams.

All the glow a woman basks in when no one’s looking.
All the good ideas to be got from the periphery.

Year of Conor McGregor

So here’s a short story I wrote a few years ago and got published at Hobart, which was a tremendous honor. To top it off, the editors paired it with some terrific art by Barrelhouse artist Killian Czuba. This piece is fiction and the narrator and her family, etc., aren’t me and mine. I’ve never even watched a boxing or MMA match. I wrote it as a kinda/sorta tongue-in-cheek yet loving take on Irish-American identity. I’m sharing it again now because it’s also a “worker’s story” and this is Labor Day weekend. Whoever reads it, if you’re suffering through a similar situation as the narrator, hang in there and don’t give up: There’s going to be a clear road.

I’ve always been the one you wouldn’t want to back in a match of wills. I work in an office. I’m a woman, a little overweight, unmarried. I live with my dad. He looks after me and I look after him.

My boss is a man, more than fifteen years younger than me, and his boss is a woman the same age as him.

Recently, for my yearly review, my boss noted how much my confidence had increased in composing emails. He said he noticed this increased confidence in the tone of quite a few of my messages, all of which I’m required to cc him on, and he wanted me to know how much he appreciated my efforts and recognized my growth. I did not tell him I’d been writing emails since well before he joined the workforce or that I sent my first one before he was even born. And when he suggested I continue my growth and skill variation in the year ahead by taking a social media for beginners course, I did not remind him I had taken it already at his and his boss’ suggestion after my previous review.

He forgets things often: assignments, deadlines, approval of my overtime pay. “I forgot,” he says, while giving me a project on Wednesday that had to be done Tuesday and came to him for assigning at least a week ago. “Sorry,” he doesn’t say. Instead: “You need to have this done before lunch today, no later than 1:00. You can work through lunch if you need to. Don’t worry if you have to go over your hours and stay late to finish the rest of your work. I’m okay with that.”

The other men at work treat me with respect or just ignore me, which I’ve been told for women like me means almost the same thing. Except one, who’s begun to make a particular noise whenever he sees me coming to make the guys in the cubicles around him laugh. He’s a temp, I’m told, when I speak to my boss’ boss about it. Or a consultant. It’s hard to know which, since my boss’ boss changes her mind on his title, on everything, hourly. In any case: “He won’t be here much longer…maybe. Don’t worry about it.”

My dad is a widower and retired. He worked a machine in a plastics factory for his life’s occupation. These days he watches sports and politics, bitches about the Republicans, reads the newspaper every day (he still gets it delivered) and every book he can find about the wild west and the American Indians. He admires their spirit, he says, their defiance. Dad always did respect a fighter. His favorite sport is boxing. On his left forearm, he has a faded tattoo of an Irish flag, the colors long blurred by patches of wiry old man’s hair and the purple, brown, and deep blue spots of age. Dad prides his Irish heritage. His “Irish blood” as he says, though there are several kinds of blood coursing through him. Irish, Welsh, German, possibly a little Czech. But Dad favors the Irish strand over all. The Irish, Dad says, have been in a state of active resistance for over 800 years. Unconquerable, he calls them. “Them” including him, me, and most of all Mom – “the full Irish breakfast” as Dad used to call her, teasingly but with respect bordering on adulation. She was the real deal after all, her parents Belfast born and bred.

She was not a naturally pretty woman. I took after her in that regard. She had a broad back and shoulders and pale eyelashes that made her look like a rabbit when they were bare, which wasn’t often. Mom always wore makeup. And dresses or skirts, never slacks – though dungarees, as she called them, were an occasional self-treat. Thick high heels, even while waitressing at the diner all day. And scads of jewelry, even though her employer threatened to fire her for it day after day. She favored quirky, dangly earrings and unique, colorful brooches – and of course, her wedding ring, an uncharacteristically simple, slim-band item that Dad wears now, on a chain around his neck under his shirt.

Mom’s most prominent feature was one I gratefully missed out on, a strong jutting jaw, like an old-time boxer or one of those tough street kids in the black-and-white Bogart movies. Mom was a toughie herself. If I got bullied at school, she’d come up with the nastiest insults you ever heard to trade back with my bullies. She would’ve gone and said them straight to the mean kids’ faces, and to their parents, my teachers, the school principal, the whole world within her aim and earshot if Dad hadn’t time and again stopped her. Mom was the kind who always needed to be moving, working, acting on something, whether a cause or an impulse, or a real or imagined slight or barely healed pain. She wouldn’t have lasted long at my workplace. The sitting in a cube all day would’ve driven her nuts. And my boss and his boss, and the “consultant”? I’d give anything to bring Mom back just to see how they’d fare against the likes of her.

Though she passed away nearly fifteen years ago, Dad talks about her, champions her every deed and accomplishment as if she’s still here – alive, well, and above all, willful. “Your mother was quite a woman,” he’s always telling me, as if it needs reminding, as if I or anyone could ever forget her or compare. 

In my cubicle at work I keep a small picture of her. It’s the only personal item I keep. I used to have colorful calendars, inspirational quotes, even a little plant back in my first few years at the company, but I took it all down in the past couple years, a few months after my current boss came on. I keep Mom’s photo propped up by my mouse, close at hand. Easy to take on the day it comes to that.

It’s true I do a lot of overtime, more than I should be willing to, but it’s not out of any loyalty or dedication to my work. I use my overtime pay on Dad, always keeping my ears perked up for him to mention something he would love to have or do. Like this year for his birthday, I gave Dad the gift of a fight. The Mayweather vs. McGregor match on pay-per-view. Dad couldn’t stop talking about it for weeks. It was Mayweather this and McGregor that. Who was he rooting for, I asked, thinking that was a no-brainer. Dad has always been something of a purist when it comes to boxing – he used to say boxing was for athletes, mixed martial arts was for animals. And besides, did anyone really believe McGregor, even with his mountain’s worth of confidence, could hold his own at boxing with, as Dad called Mayweather, the greatest pound-for-pound fighter to wear a pair of gloves since Ali?

By way of answering me, Dad reached into the back pocket of his trousers, pulled out his wallet, and fished out the few bills inside. “That’s on Mayweather,” he said. “What about your kinsman?” I said, teasing. “What about your fighting Irish pride?” Dad placed his hand on his heart. He took a moment to rub at something on his chest, and I knew it was the ridge of Mom’s wedding ring protruding through his undershirt. Then he lightly thumped his chest, his heart, the ring, all of it, as if for luck, and said, “This is on McGregor.”

The day of the match Dad got a barbershop haircut and shave, put on a clean old dress shirt of his, and suggested we order Chinese for dinner and eat it on proper plates with Mom’s silverware. “Some people got the Superbowl, I got the fights,” he said when I took note of his newfound dapperness. Maybe a secret memo had gone out. Just before the fight a picture went viral of McGregor getting his hands wrapped while wearing a three-piece designer suit and shades. I showed the picture to Dad on my phone. “Look at him,” I said. “Full-time flamboyance this guy has.” Dad corrected me: “No, Jean. Fighting form. Battle gear.”

Once the fight started, Dad burrowed into a respectful silence. It’s something I’ve always appreciated about him, that he doesn’t act out fights vicariously like so many other male fans. No shouting at the screen, no balling his hands into fists and jerking his shoulders as if shadowboxing his diminishing potency in his Lazy Boy. Dad watches a fight as if it was a mass, an almost mystical occasion whose noisy embellishments and flashy sideshows are only included for the benefit of those who don’t understand the stakes and significance of a fight the way he does. Which isn’t a conceit. Dad’s a Depression baby, a war draftee, a factory lifer. And yeah, Irish – 800 years of resistance, fighting form, and all.

But McGregor lost, after all that hype and hope. Dad applauded anyway when the match ended and got out a bottle of discount brandy for a birthday toast. He poured a glass for me and we both stood in the kitchen drinking. “Did you enjoy the fight, Jean? It was a good one, wasn’t it?” he said. “But our guy lost,” I said. I downed the brandy in one gulp, feeling thirstier and edgier than I could remember. Dad laughed and passed me the brandy bottle. “He lasted 10 rounds, Jean. Against Mayweather. That’s the important thing.” He put his empty glass in the sink. “There’s winning and losing, and then there’s fighting. The first two are just outcomes. The third is something else altogether. A way of life. A fighter doesn’t always need to win or lose to justify himself or prove his worth, Jean. He just needs to put up a good fight. Make a good stand.” He moved to the doorway of the kitchen. “This is just the beginning for our man McGregor. You watch.” He winked and thanked me for his birthday gift, then went off to bed. But I stayed up.

I am not like my parents. Not on the inside. Like I’ve never been comfortable with confrontation. Though there’s beauty in a fight that even I can recognize, I’m never at the ready with a withering comeback like Mom always was and I don’t have the ease with handling confrontation, the philosophical attitude about it that Dad does. That night, after the fight, I stayed up in the kitchen wondering where it all went wrong with me. Perhaps the Irish in me is too watered down, too commingled, beyond Dad’s even, beyond the brink of any inborn courage and inherited resistance. Perhaps the fighter’s gene, if there is one, skips a generation.

Dad always says Mom worshipped me, her only child. Whenever I’m feeling low about my job, he says she would be proud to know I escaped working class life, that I have a “nice clean job” in an office instead of working on my feet or at a dangerous machine all day like they did. Something stable too. He may think that and I get it, I really do, but I don’t feel it. Certainly not when I walk past the consultant’s desk and hear his juvenile joking and his cubicle neighbors’ cowardly giggles, and all I do is walk on red in the face without a word in defense of myself. And not when I put away my resignation letter for yet another day or get denied a raise for “budget reasons” for yet another year or see the boss and his boss going out with the consultant for lunch more and more often, my boss’ boss laughing and blushing as the consultant opens the door for her, and all of them acting sweet as Halloween candy swiped out of some scaredy-cat kid’s bag.

Long after the match, I kept the picture of Conor McGregor getting his hands wrapped on my phone. I looked at it every day, sneaking peeks in my cubicle, in the ladies room at work, during lunch. Studying it, studying him. His pose, his style, the way he held out his hands to his trainers – casually, but with undeniable power radiating from his hands, from the picture, from some mysterious realm I’ve never been able to find the door to, where self-assurance is as second nature as brushing your hair or buttoning your shirt, as easy to carry around and show off as a flashy new watch or necklace or tattoo, or a family trait. Imagine if McGregor were a woman, I’d wonder throughout the day, as I sifted through the barrage of emails from my boss, all his reminders to cc him the next time I sent this or that, the notifications that he’d be leaving early again as I stayed late. Imagine McGregor in an office. Imagine him…or her, aged a bit past her prime. How would she prep for a fight? What would it be like to be a woman like her?

More often I forget McGregor and the all the cubicle walls around me, and I picture clear roads. Just that, plain and simple. I close my eyes and imagine a twister-wrecked field, a traffic-jammed crossroads, the faces in my office crowded together into an ugly clump of eyes and nostrils and teeth, then say to myself in quietude: “There’s going be a clear road. It’s inevitable.” And there, in my mind and heart, it appears.

For the first time in a long time, maybe ever, I can feel something coming up in me, something stirring in my blood. Like I might be my father’s daughter after all. My mother’s too.

There’s one more way I take after her. I may spend a lot of my overtime pay on Dad, but for myself I splurge on makeup. Unlike Mom, I can take or leave a nice outfit, designer clothes, accessories, bling and all that. But like her, like a warrior without a shield, like a knight without armor, without makeup I feel naked. Defenseless even, like someone without a name or history or kin. I wear it every day, even when I have nowhere to go. What I’ve always loved best is a dramatic look – dark eyes, carved cheekbones, a strong mouth in a bold color. But it’s too much for the everyday, for the office, so I keep that look just for practice, just for myself.

But lately, as I get ready for work every morning, I’ve been playing up the drama, piling on the boldness, keeping a few images in mind. As I trace the shape of my eye with liner and gloss my lips, I think of the consultant and the cubicle gigglers. I’ve begun to notice, they all dress alike, eat alike, laugh alike, as if on cue or autopilot. They make a drab little blot in the center of the office, their laughter and very breath a feeble, fading heartbeat, the mewings of a nest of mice in a python’s chokehold. Their time’s up. They’re done. I apply color to my cheeks and I pick something rosy – against drabness, I say.

As I blacken my lashes, I think of my boss in a meeting room going over my annual review, clicking his pen and reading from a sheet the goals he’s decided on for me for the year ahead. The social media course. The emails. My boss’ boss interrupting me, correcting my just fine English and exchanging my just fine words for ones that make no better difference. This is the best they can do, and it isn’t much. It’s over for them too. It’s inevitable. I say it again: There’s going to be a clear road.

Second to last, I think of Conor McGregor getting his hands wrapped in a three-piece suit. Dad’s faded Irish flag tattoo and special occasion dress shirt. Mom’s picture beside my mousepad, waiting, ready.

I accentuate the angle of my brows, my cheekbones, and work my way down to my jawline, playing up the feature I’ve always tried to hide. My mother’s boxer’s jaw, jutting out from her face, from 800 years of resistance, from my long-awaiting destiny, like a fist.

Ancestral Hunger Pangs

This is the last editor’s note/essay I wrote for Tiny Donkey. As I wrote in a previous post, Tiny Donkey was a digital journal devoted to short nonfiction about fairy tales and folkore and associated with Fairy Tale Review. It was shut down in 2017, and its site was recently taken down from the internet completely. I’ve been rescuing all the essays and interviews I contributed here. This one was my favorite of all.


My mother’s kitchen cupboards are stocked with ancestral memories; crammed with what may look like ordinary jars and cans, boxes and bottles—but I know better. These are her hunger ghosts, I think to myself every time I open the cupboards, doppelgangers of old wounds and inherited hurts.

The same goes for the freezer and fridge, the fruit bowl, even the jar for cat treats. My mother hoards food. She consistently buys too much, as if she’s still cooking for a household of eight or preparing for a food shortage or a spell of famine. She overcooks too, long used to making large casseroles that needed to stretch into a couple days’ worth of leftovers. My father and I have tried talking to her, telling her to scale back, that we cannot possibly eat everything before it spoils and it’s a sin to waste food.

But I think she really is preparing for a famine, or reckoning with the haunting of one. My mother descends from the Famine Irish, the generation that left Ireland in the mid-19th century for their lives, escaping starvation and fever, mass death, and the devastation of centuries of British colonialism. Hunger is the reason she’s here, in America, and half the reason I’m here too, along with my brothers, sisters, and all my maternal cousins.

In Irish folk belief there’s a type of grass called an féar gortach, the hungry grass. Some say it’s a different shade than the green that famously carpets Ireland, more silver in color, or patchy and withered. Others say it looks like any other grass, and you only know you’ve stepped on it too late, when a great hunger suddenly comes upon you and nothing can cure it save a bite of some bread tucked away in your pockets (if you had the forethought) or a bit of your own shoelace (if you’re really stuck). It’s said hungry grass grows wherever a corpse has been laid down or someone has died. The belief predates An Gorta Mór of the 1840s, the Great Hunger. But an féar gortach took on a new, ghastly meaning then, in an era when famine victims were found in fields and on roadsides, a ring of green around their open, lifeless mouths after a last, desperate meal of grass.

As Ireland’s potato crop failed and its people starved, its other crops were harvested and exported by the shipload to serve on British dinner tables and fill British bellies. At least a million Irish died during the Famine, their bodies buried in mass graves wherever their lives gave out. In a sense, all Ireland’s green countryside turned to hungry grass, a landscape of want and loss, of lasting trauma and emptied beauty. At least another million emigrated, became refugees, exiles, Irish-Americans, Irish-Canadians, Irish-Australians, hyphenated people, diasporic, hungry.

Growing up, Mom spoke often of her family’s history, sang and played us Irish folk songs, explained to us the Famine, dressed us in green on St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe it seems a stretch to suggest my mother’s food compulsions have anything to do with an event in another country her ancestors left fadó fadó. But some events are simply too large, too traumatic not to eat into the blood, the DNA, the collective cultural memory of a people.

Mother’s ancestral memories transferred to all her children, but might have absorbed most deeply into me, her last-born child and the only one to go live in Ireland years later. I am the child who’s never married, never had children. Who’s struggled with her weight, eats when she’s not hungry, and bakes when she’s sad or simply bored. Who collects cats, books, and passport stamps like they’ll fill up some loss, some second-hand but deep-rooted want and need. The famished one, always looking for some patch of grass where the hunger finally makes sense.

Mom in Ireland, 1969.

Interview with Ram Devineni

As I wrote in a previous post, I’m sharing pieces I contributed for a digital journal called Tiny Donkey, which was shut down in 2017 and whose site has more recently been taken down from the internet. Every month one of the editors interviewed some writer or artist related to folklore or fairy tales. I did my second interview with the filmmaker Ram Devineni. He had recently unveiled a new virtual reality comic book project called Priya’s Shakti, which draws from Hindu and Indian mythology to tackle the subject of gender-based violence. When I heard about the comic series, I knew I wanted to talk to him about it. Here’s the interview.


Ram Devineni is a filmmaker, publisher, and the founder of Rattapallax films and magazine. His films include the documentaries The Human Tower (2012) and The Russian Woodpecker (2015), which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Devineni is also the creator of Priya’s Shakti, an augmented-reality comic book series featuring a superhero who fights gender-based violence in India. Priya’s Shakti was inspired by the gang rape and death in New Delhi in 2012 of a young woman returning home on a bus at night after seeing a movie with a male friend. The crime sparked protests across India as well as conversations about gender-based violence, patriarchy, and victim-blaming. In Priya’s Shakti, Priya is a young woman attacked by a group of men who finds her power (shakti) to help other survivors with the aid of the Hindu god and goddess Shiva and Parvati and a tiger companion. In the comic’s sequel, Priya’s Mirror, Priya uses a mirror to free a group of acid attack survivors held prisoner by an acid-green demon-king, Ahankar, who himself has become imprisoned by toxic masculinity. In addition to rich and colorful illustrations and mythological characters, the comics feature augmented-reality technology that brings to life the stories and voices of real women who’ve survived gender-based violence. Intrigued by this extraordinary project, I contacted Devineni to find out more about the Hindu, Indian, and mythological elements of the Priya series.

Why did you decide to create this comic series? There seem to be many different people and groups involved. Can you describe their different roles and contributions?

Although I am the creator of this project, I really consider this a team effort. Everyone played a valuable part in the creation of the comic book and project. I met [artist] Dan Goldman at a StoryCode Meetup in New York City, and [we] hit it off on the spot. I think he signed on the next day. Dan is a remarkable artist and philosopher–he has brought a new perspective and look to the Hindu gods. His design is based on deep respect and affection for Hindu mythology and the power of the image. Each page is a stand-alone painting that can be mounted in a gallery. [Producer] Lina [Srivastava] has vast experience creating social impact strategies for documentary films and art projects. She has been instrumental in developing partnerships with major NGOs. She recently set up a partnership between the project and Apne Aap Women Worldwide–one of India’s leading NGOs supporting at-risk girls and women by ensuring them access to their rights, and to deter the purchase of sex through policy and social change. Vikas K. Menon co-wrote “Priya’s Shakti” and Paromita Vohra co-wrote “Priya’s Mirror.”

This is the backstory of how the comic book started:

I was in Delhi when the horrible gang rape happened on the bus in 2012, and was involved [in] the protests that soon followed. Like many people, I was horrified by what had happened and angered by the indifference exhibited by government authorities at every level. There was an enormous outcry in particular from young adults and teenagers–both women and men. At one of the protests, my colleague and I spoke to a Delhi police officer and asked him for his opinion on what had happened on the bus. Basically the officer’s response was that “no good girl walks home at night.” Implying that she probably deserved it, or at least provoked the attack. I knew then that the problem of sexual violence in India was not a legal issue; rather it was a cultural problem. A cultural shift had to happen, especially views towards the role of women in modern society. Deep-rooted patriarchal views needed to be challenged.

For about a year, I traveled around India and Southeast Asia learning from poets, philosophers, activists, and sociologists working for NGOs focused on gender-based violence. Talking with several rape survivors, I realized how difficult it was for them to seek justice and how much their lives were constantly under threat after they reported the crime. Their family, local community, and even the police discouraged them from pursuing criminal action against their attackers. The burden of shame was placed on the victim and not the perpetrators. This created a level of impunity among men to commit more rapes.

How do the Priya comics reflect traditional Hindu and Indian beliefs and legends? How do they challenge them?

I wanted to use constructs that already exist in India and also use popular mythological stories to address this problem. I began researching Hindu mythology and discovered the many rich stories involving regular people and the gods. Often a favorite disciple would call on the gods for help during dire situations. So, I began formulating a new mythological tale where a mortal woman and rape survivor would seek help from the Goddess Parvati–only after she had nowhere else to turn. Although Lord Shiva and other gods get involved, eventually it is up to her to challenge people’s perceptions. I wanted to create a new Indian “superhero”–Priya, who is a rape survivor, and through the power of persuasion she is able to motivate people to change. Priya is the catalyst for change. Not the gods.

In my opinion, the core essence of Hinduism is about conquering your fears. In the story, Priya confronts the tiger that has been stalking her. She turns her fear, the tiger, into her power–her shakti. Also mythology is the story of us. In Hindu mythology, Parvati is the goddess that challenges Shiva, the other gods, and humans to open their eyes to sensitivity and struggles of others. For her, wisdom is meaningless if it does not enable the liberation of those who are trapped in fear. So, her role is to challenge Priya to conquer her fears, but it is up to Priya to motivate and challenge other humans.

Is Priya a more assertive character than most female Indian and Hindu characters or is she typical? Was her character inspired by film and other comic book heroines or by mythological heroines?

Priya is influenced by my interviews with rape survivors, but on a mythological level, she is an alternative representation of the Goddess Durga. Durga is the ultimate goddess of feminine power and empowerment, and she rides a tiger. We subverted that image by putting a rape survivor (Priya) on a tiger.

Why are there gods and goddesses (Shiva and Parvati) as characters in these stories? Were they included to bring a higher moral authority to the comics? Or just to make a more colorful story?

The Hindu gods have an important meaning in the comic book. Shiva is removed from human society, and is deep in meditation. At first he is unable to empathize with the sufferings of humans, but it is through Parvati that he changes from an “insensitive angry god into Shankara, the god who empathizes and is patient” (Devdutt Pattanaik’s “The Seven Secrets of Shiva”). Shiva eventually believes that the human race can change, and allows Parvati to instill “shakti” into Priya, who then becomes the catalyst for change.

So, the Goddess Parvati is the awakening light in Priya and Shiva; the Goddess wants Shiva and the human race to empathize with Priya and other survivors of rape. She motivates Priya to conquer her fears and find her shakti and be the catalyst for change.

In Devdutt Pattanaik’s book “The Seven Secrets of Shiva,” he writes: “That is why the Goddess stands in opposition of Shiva as both the radiant Gauri, producing light, and as the dark Kali, consuming light…She hopes to change Shiva the insensitive angry god into Shankara, the god who empathizes and is patient.”

“Priya’s Mirror” focuses more on men’s responsibilities in fighting gender-based violence than “Priya’s Shakti.” Can you talk about the demon-king character, Ahankar? Is he based on anyone in Indian mythology? How did his character develop?

Ahankar is an unusual and complex villain. He is born of acid and is a victim too. He is given a boon by Lord Shiva to either purify the acid he was forced to drink or make it more potent and dangerous. Unfortunately he chooses the latter. He feels he is a benevolent and caring King by hiding women who have survived acid attacks in his castle and away from the real world. He does not realize that by doing this, he is actually entrapping them in their fears and depression. We wanted to a show a male character who is also a victim of patriarchy. Patriarchy and indifference affects everyone. There is no direct influence in creating Ahankar, but characters like him are common motifs in Hindu mythology. A classical example is the demon-king Ravana in the Hindu epic Ramayana.

“Priya’s Mirror” also includes the stories of women other than Priya who have survived acts of gender-based violence, namely acid attacks. I think this is an interesting element because so many fairy tale and folklore collections have involved asking local people in a community to contribute their own experiences or stories passed down in their families. How were these women’s stories collected for “Priya’s Mirror”?

Last December 2015 I was in Delhi presenting the comic book at the Delhi Comic Con, and I had the chance to meet Sonia [Chowdhary] and Laxmi [Agarwal] with Stop Acid Attacks in their office. What I discovered after talking with them is that they faced the same cultural stigmas and reactions from society that rape survivors had to endure. How society treated them intensified the problem and their recovery. How they were treated by their family, neighbors, and society determined what they did next. Often they were treated like the villains and the blame was put on them. Our comic book focuses on this and tries to changes people’s perceptions of these heroic women. The comic book’s main character is Priya who is a survivor of gang rape and we wanted to continue her movement and adventures and by focusing on acid-attacks allowed her story and character to evolve. The correlations were too obvious and imperative.

I spoke with Sonia and Laxmi with Stop Acid Attacks in December 2015 and later with Monica Singh with the Mahendra Singh Foundation and Natalia in Colombia with Natalia Ponce de León Foundation. They all helped to create the characters and story. Here are their short videos: Sonia, Monica, Laxmi, Natalia

What is in the future for Priya? Any more stories in the series? Is there any chance Priya’s adventures will make the leap from augmented reality to TV or film in the future?

The next chapter is about sex trafficking, and we are working with Apne Aap Women Worldwide to develop the story. Dan and I were in Kolkata [in November] and interviewed exploited women in the red light areas. The story will be co-written with Emmy Award winner and advocate and founder of Apne Aap, Ruchira Gupta. The research is funded by the Jerome Foundation and we hope to release it in a year. We are looking into doing an animated short film, but financially it’s super expensive and we feel we get more impact continuing the comic book series.

Last, what is your favorite Hindu or Indian fairy tale or folk tale and why?

As a kid, I always loved the story of Ganesha. He is a fun and adorable deity whose story really resonates with kids. Also he is the god of good fortune, so all Hindus pray to him.

All photos courtesy of Ram Devineni

The Unbeautiful Ones

As mentioned in a previous post, a digital literary journal that I contributed to and served as volunteer editor for a few years ago went the way of the dinosaurs recently. Tiny Donkey was an offshoot of the Fairy Tale Review and was dedicated to short non-fiction pieces about folklore and fairy tales. The journal shut down in 2017, but was still available to read online up until recently. With its site being gone, I’ve been sharing a few of my own pieces here.

This one is the third and last editor’s note I wrote for Tiny Donkey, about Hans Christian Andersen’s folk tale The Ugly Duckling. I loved the tale as a child, and I admit I identified with the poor créatur. I didn’t fit in as a child. At all. And adulthood has felt like a full-on flail as well. I suppose most people feel that way, more of us than each of us realize. In any case, I worried about appearing too emo or po-faced in this piece. Still, I hope anyone who reads it likes it, and I hope it did Andersen’s touching tale justice. And yes, I stole the title from a Prince song. You can’t tell me the guy who played The Kid in Purple Rain wouldn’t have related to The Ugly Duckling as well.


Growing up, you were shy. Or maybe you were short, you were fat, you had bad teeth. You had frizzy hair, you wet the bed, you spoke with a stammer. You slept with a stuffed toy ‘til you were twelve, or ‘til you were twenty, or ‘til your monthly blood ran out and you began soaking the bed with night sweats and hot flashes and Mississippi-wide rivers of regrets. You’re almost an old woman now. Love and transcendence have passed you by. Those fairy tales you were fed by Hollywood and MTV and Hans Christian Andersen as a child, and the ones you fed yourself to get by, through the loneliness of the school playground, through the long tick-tocking overthinking of the night, through the daily treacheries of life – they all lied.

Which fairy tale was it you always went back to, the one you believed in most? The one with the song saying someday your prince would come? Or the one where the funny-looking little duckling (you don’t like to say “ugly” – it’s a word that’s been used against you so many times) turns into a stunner of a swan? Did you think that might be you one day? Did you really? All along, you should have paid more attention to the crone, the ogre, the unredeemed outcasts, the ones haunting the margins, or worse yet, the ordinary ones, the unmagical, the unnamed and underappreciated. Because these were your destiny – not the beautiful ones, not the princess and the swan.

Or maybe the fairy tales didn’t lie. You just saw in them what you wanted, took what you needed. Beauty, hope, promises of happily ever after, some danger to make things interesting, some fear to cut through the dull of the everyday. You simply ignored the despair. Even though all fairy tales, and all life, is rife with it. Like that moment in Andersen’s tale about the duckling, when the bullied little bird welcomes the beauty of spring and a bevy of swans with pure, piercing heartache:

“I will fly to those royal birds,” he exclaimed, “and they will kill me, because I am so ugly, and dare to approach them; but it does not matter…”

Then he flew to the water, and swam towards the beautiful swans. The moment they espied the stranger, they rushed to meet him with outstretched wings.

“Kill me,” said the poor bird; and he bent his head down to the surface of the water, and awaited death.

In the next moment the duckling sees his reflection in the water, sees a swan looking back – his transformed self, his true tribe, his happily ever after. I wonder though, if the duckling had seen no change, no beauty, no swan staring back at him in the water, could he still have survived? Would he still have come to know happiness, belonging, self-love?

I need to know, same as every once and for-all-time misfit. Is there magic after all in despair? Can there be beauty in forsaken hope, transcendence without transformation, belonging when you’re the only one around to hear your own questions, a happy ending when the fairy tale, or life, or maybe yourself, is found so wanting?

Think back on the ones you paid too little attention to, while you were paying as little attention to the beauty in your worst and best self. The crone, the ogre, the marginal, the ordinary. The untransformed duckling. The resilient, the persisting, the interesting and astute, the ultimately self-accepting and wise. Lucky you – these were your destiny. The unbeautiful ones, who know how to make magic out of the most disappointing circumstances, to potion up an unbreakable spell of endurance out of yesterday’s cold pot of despair. Let them teach you to love whatever reflection stares back at you, to see the beauty in even a fantastically imperfect you.

Illustration by Johannes Larsen