How to Make Nice

By: Christina Yang


Sue notices that the front door drifts open throughout the day. She’s perplexed. Are people forgetting to shut it, has a ghost come through, is the door broken? It’s the day after the Chinese New Year, the reason the family has gathered. Outside, it’s freezing in the worst possible way, a joyless and desiccated cold, absent of a good, heavy snowfall. So Sue, being conscientious and dependable and increasingly bitter over these designations that have followed her through the course of her life, shuts the door whenever she sees it ajar.

In the living room, bright red paper lanterns hang from the ceiling. A single potted orchid sits on the coffee table. Neither Peter, seven, nor Ava, three, are wearing pants. Sue put a hard-boiled egg into each grandchild during breakfast, which she felt good about, but then they got into the cabinet when she wasn’t looking, and now they are eating dried marshmallow bunnies from Easter. Sue checks her phone.

“When is Daddy coming home?” Peter asks.

“Just as soon as a doctor removes the googly eye from your brother’s ear,” Sue says.

Ava perks up. “Is William going to die?” Sue is disturbed by the hope in Ava’s voice. She wonders what her granddaughter knows about death.

“Of course not,” she says. “But what can we learn from this very unfortunate incident, kids?”

“Don’t put foreign obstacles in your body,” Peter intones, wagging his head back and forth.

Sue takes a second. “Objects. Don’t put foreign objects in your body.” She turns to Robert, her ex-husband. “Have you heard from Bobby yet?”

Robert doesn’t look up from the football game. “Nope.”

She stares at the back of his head, annoyed. Their son has been at the hospital with William, five, since last night. Megan, their daughter-in-law, is upstairs asleep with the baby, recovering from a C-section. Without exactly agreeing to it, but understanding that she was the natural choice, Sue has found herself running the entire damn ship, and she feels incredibly unsettled by the responsibility.

The doorbell rings, and Robert’s wife, Carla, stands up. “I’ll get it.”

“We should call Bobby,” Sue says to Robert. “They’ve been at the ER an awfully long time. Maybe something’s wrong.”

“Okay,” he says.

Ava says, “Nai Nai, can we go up to our room and play?”

“Sure, honey,” Sue says. The children thunder up the stairs. “Quietly,” she calls after them. “Your mother is sleeping.” To Robert, she says, “I meant you. You​ should call him.”

Robert closes his eyes and throws his head back. “Sue. He’ll call us if something is wrong.”

Carla returns bearing a covered casserole dish. “That was one of Megan’s cousins. Joanne?”

“Joni?” Sue says.

“That’s it, Joni. Dropping off a lasagna.” Carla lifts a corner of the tinfoil. “Oh wait. Baked ziti.”

Carla is in her mid-fifties, a decade younger than Sue. She has the kind of hair that barely moves, and fingernails that feature entire painted scenes on them. Sue’s style has always skewed towards the unadorned. Yet there is a certain exuberance to Carla’s tackiness that presses at Sue’s vulnerable spots.

“Look, why don’t you ask Megan what’s going on?” Robert says. “I’m sure she’s talked to Bobby.”

“She’s resting. I don’t want to disturb her.”

“Fine then,” Robert says. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

A bowl of potato chips perches on his stomach. He is much too heavy now, can hardly get in and out of a chair, doesn’t exercise. When they were still together, he used to mow the lawn every weekend and refill the bird feeders, paint the walls whenever Sue craved a change. That stopped when he finally married Carla after Bobby and Amanda were grown. Sue believes Carla has made him lazy, has never forced him to rise to his best self. Perhaps that’s not entirely true or fair, but Sue clings to it anyway. Then again, who can blame her? To have to make nice with her ex-husband and his mistress for the sake of the family at large would put anyone over the edge.

Sue goes back into the kitchen to unload the dishwasher. She can hear Peter and Ava upstairs giggling and shouting. There are intermittent thumping noises that suggest they are jumping on the furniture, which they are not allowed to do.

Sue sticks her head into the living room. “Robert, can you check on the kids?”

“They’re fine,” he says.

“Robert.” It’s Carla this time. She shoots him a look that says he better go upstairs. He looks down at his half-finished snack and lumbers to his feet. Both Sue and Carla watch him take the stairs one at a time, hanging so heavily onto the banister that Sue is afraid it might break away from the staircase.

When he has disappeared, Sue looks at Carla. She’s about to thank her, but then something inside of her hardens, and she retreats to the kitchen again. In recent years, Sue found out that during the height of the affair, Robert had taken Carla to a casino once. This had devastated Sue. No, she has never wanted to go to a casino with its sticky low pile carpeting, where people amused themselves by throwing away their money. But maybe if Robert had seen her as a different person back then, someone open and worthy of effort, he would have asked her. Maybe if Robert had asked her, she would have said yes.

A few minutes later, Carla walks in. “I thought I’d come in and help.”

“Well, you didn’t have to do that,” Sue says. It comes out sounding mean, and she is disappointed by her lack of restraint.

“I want to help,” Carla says, already poking around in the fridge.

They work together in silence. Sue reloads the dishwasher with dirty bowls and silverware. Carla makes a turkey sandwich for Peter and Ava’s lunch. She uses white bread with too much mayo.

“Voila!” Carla says. She holds up the finished sandwich which she has cut into halves and placed onto matching plates.

A sudden flash of anger tears through Sue. What does this woman want? It’s just sandwiches, for crying out loud. Sue must have had a look on her face because Carla shrugs and then busies herself with drinks for the children.

A knocking starts up. It’s coming from outside, against the walls. The sound is hasty and insistent, yet oddly distant. The women look up from their work.

“Woodpeckers,” Sue says. Carla follows Sue’s gaze to the window above the sink. All that is visible is a line of naked trees in the backyard. Sue pounds her fist against one of the cabinets, but the hammering continues unabated. Anyway, even if she’d scared the creature away, the damage is still there, only hidden from view because of where the birds are in relation to the house.

Upstairs, they hear a loud thud and a howl. Sue and Carla look at each other. They drop what they’re doing and run out of the kitchen.

Sue hurries past the front door which has yawned open yet again. When she is at the top of the stairs, it hits her all of a sudden, and she cries out, “Woodpeckers!”

“What?” Carla doesn’t even pause.

“Never mind,” Sue says, but she is smiling. The pecking is the reason the door won’t stay closed! She has figured out the source of today’s trouble.

When the women reach the bedroom that the boys share, they find Robert on the floor with Peter and Ava dogpiled on top of him. The three of them are one wriggling mass, just a tangled mess of limbs. Sue peels the children off of Robert, and Carla says, Robert, Robert, are you okay? He doesn’t respond. He’s curled up on his side, and his entire body is shaking. The women bend over him.

He’s injured, Sue thinks. They have to help him.

Then she notices Carla’s hand on his shoulder. She moves aside so that Carla can roll Robert onto his back. He throws his arms and legs out flat. Tears leak from the corners of his eyes. The women look at each other, and Sue can see the concern on Carla’s face.

Then it dawns on Sue that Robert is laughing.

He opens his eyes. He blinks up at the ceiling as he catches his breath. “That was fun,” he says.


Bio: Christina Yang graduated from Columbia University. She loves the library, a good binge watch, and a hot meal cooked by someone other than herself. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Grub Street and The South Carolina Review, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and three children.

Fiction Feature: “Vivian” by Coty Poynter

The rising sun above the cityscape, tinting the polluted sky a hazy shade of pink. High-rise buildings, both old and new, loom over the smaller, less significant buildings creating a man-made mountain range that lines the inner city, divides Baltimore. A crane in the distance. Its neck outstretched, reaching upward toward an airplane, the white contrail tearing the impeccable sky apart. Standing at the bottom, beneath the great world at large, two shadows, one slightly taller than the other.

All of this captured in a single photograph April holds, by the camera her grandma Vivian — Viv, that’s what she called her — gave her years ago, long before she passed away. On the rooftop of her rowhome, once her grandma’s rowhome, she lets her feet dangle over the edge as she looks over the photograph one more time.

The photograph, despite its glossy sheen, is tacky. Ghostly fingerprints blemish the corners of the photograph she’s held many times before. How many hours have been lost studying it? She couldn’t say. 

Before the photograph was taken, Viv next to her, encouraging her to simply take pictures of what she likes rather than what’s she thinks might be good, she barely remembers much of anything.

What she does remember is the quiet of the city that particular morning, how each time that quiet seemed to settle itself deep within her chest, accumulates a weight that pushes it deeper still. It’s a shock to April that her heart has room to beat beneath her sternum at all.

* * *

Living in the heart of a city, especially one so saturated in violence as Baltimore, quiet is rare, jarring, unsettling. Some view the quiet as a commodity; April sees it as an omen. 

Because it doesn’t happen often, or because it isn’t often paid attention, the quiet moments stick out. They act as a divergence in her life. A point where all things changed, serving as a clear marker to the life events that have led her to the rooftop. Over time, she’s learned to be wary of the times when the city slips into these strange lulls. When the citizens become too exhausted, too worn down to play their part in the cacophony of sound the city produces. It’s in those moments that it happens.

There was quiet, or so she imagined, the night the bullet broke through her boyfriend’s belly while he walked home from work. The force of it knocked the air from his lungs, pushed his body to the ground. A second passed through his head. Murdered for Marlboro Reds and seven dollars.

After Derrick’s murder, the night terrors started. April would lay down to sleep, lights off, the quiet of night settling over her, that’s when the haunts started. The shade of a man, distorted face, a body like a blackhole that sucked the faint, flickering light from April’s chest. Emptied her of joy. Noise was the only way she could sleep. And the louder the noise, the more chaotic, the better she seemed to sleep, though she never again felt rested as did before Derrick’s absence.

Too exhausted for daily life alone, April eventually moved out of her rented apartment off Boston Street, on Linwood, and moved back into her Viv’s rowhome in Highlandtown. With open arms her grandma greeted her as April stood on the stoop, her bags dropped at her side. The bed she’d slept in as a young girl still there, covered by the Mulan bedspread. Pictures of her parents, the same ones she doesn’t remember, the same ones that died in a car accident, the car’s roof opened like a can of tuna, the truck driver still lethargic after being asleep at the wheel; he wasn’t jailed, but never drove again, were scattered around the room. Only one frame held the family as a whole: April perched on her mother’s hip, her father’s arms around both of them, smiling under his thick mustache. April was too young to grasp their absence after they died. Viv, living alone except for her cat, Earl, gladly took her granddaughter in, became her guardian, her keeper, her mother.

Photographs were scattered around the house. April walked through the living room, down the halls, and studied the small details of each one.

At a much younger age, when Viv’s father showed her how to use his camera from back when he was a photojournalist, a Zeiss Contax II, her grandma started practicing photography. Every trip she took, no matter how grand, she carried that camera with her.

In the old, unchanged room she once inhabited, she picked up the photograph her parents and her, studied it. “Get rid of this,” she said, handing it to her Viv. “Just get rid of them all. I don’t care what you do to them.”

Knowing that grief is an unbearable creature, knowing how it malleable people become, how they tend to be shaped by what isn’t being cared for, Viv obliged and removed all the photographs of her parents from the room. Carefully, Viv stacked to frames in a box, closed each flap, and watched as the smiling faces of her family fade into darkness.

 It wasn’t until her grandma’s back ached terribly, her legs giving way to the hardwood floor beneath her, that April started to normalize, whatever that means. The common bodily failings a woman of ninety-two affected Viv, aged her by five more years. Hands, once steady, continually trembled.

After the second fall, April bought her a walker that Viv proudly refused to use. But by the fourth she’d agreed to the cumbersome thing, carefully maneuvering the narrow halls of her home with her fractured wrist braced. 

Conversations grew longer with less being said. April would watch Viv place her left hand against her head and massage her temple with her pointer finger; she imagined the words loosening from her brain to drop on her tongue like the toys Viv used to win for April at Funcade on the Ocean City boardwalk. The pink fuzz of her tongue hangs there for a moment, licks her top lip, and slowly, meticulously, works the word from her mouth: “Pars-lee.”


“We need more parsley,” she said. “Or is it cilantro?”

April knew what was happening, though she tried her best to ignore it. She didn’t want to acknowledge that her grandma was fading into the prison of her own mind. But it’s hard to ignore when Viv started calling her Deanna, her mother’s name. Or when she stopped pulling her underwear down to use the bathroom. Or when continually meowed and circled beneath April’s feet, hungry after not being fed the evening before, after she returned home the next morning having slept over some strange man’s house she’d met on Tinder. 

“Deanna,” Viv said. “How’s Charles doing? I swear you’re going to marry that man someday. He’s sweet on you.”

Instead of correcting her, instead of imposing the reality that Deanna and Charles did marry, had a daughter, and are now dead, April replied, “He’s doing just fine, mom. He’s doing just fine.” The guilt churned around in her stomach. But was it so bad to preserve whatever joy she might have felt seeing what she thought was her daughter happily with her would-be husband? April didn’t think so. It was far better than the truth, telling her that Deanna and Charles are dead, that she’d slept with  yet another man she’d only met earlier that same night, that she opened herself up, allowed him to do as he pleased, exploited herself to try to fill the hole left behind by the bullet that killed the last man she loved.

Quiet moved in her grandma passed away. Dust settled over the once-busy house; April let it gather on the windowsills, atop the photo frames mounted along the wall. She kept herself moving forward, busied herself with photography, strange men and, on one occasion, a woman, not looking at the loss lurking in the dark. Her life seemed to revert into the blur it once was–nights she spent alone, her time unoccupied, she couldn’t sleep. The ouroboros of loss continued to chase her, closed in on her. It always does.

One night, sleep deprived but unable to sleep, April heard the shuffle of footsteps down the hall, the closing and opening of a door. When she peeked around the corner, there was no one. Earl weaved between her legs, his fur soft against her bare ankles. She proceeded down the hallway, into the living room where the portraits hung; eyes all on her, watching as she moved into the dining room where her grandma would sit and enjoy a glass of whiskey. She half-expected to see her there, dressed in a white nightgown, her pastel skin aglow beneath the fluorescent light. 

But there was no one. Earl jumped up and perched on the tabletop, purring. April poured herself a whiskey and sat in her grandma’s seat. She thought about reaching out to one of her many old flings. She thought about calling Cheryl, the one woman she’d found herself with weeks ago. She thought about each one, how they felt foreign despite being intimate. She thought about how Derrick used to hold her during sex, his hands clumsily gliding along her body, and how he would kiss her forehead before they fell asleep. She thought about the many memories she’d accumulated over her life thus far, how they gathered along her brain like dust on the windowsill, and how each one felt like a different life lived. And she thought about Viv, her guardian, her keeper, her grandmother-turned-mother, how she held the camera to April’s eye, steadied the frame, snapped the shot; taught her all that she knew about photography, about preserving memories. April sat at the table, her losses gathered in all in one place, and wept unlike she fell asleep, her head resting on her folded arms.

Photographs that Viv had taken over her lifetime hung on the walls. April marveled at them. People she’d never met, places she’d never been. The ghost of so many strangers crowding the paint-chip wall, memories of a life she’d never lived. 

When April tried to take down particular photos, not because she didn’t like them, but rather to make room for her own life, the frame remained mounted on the wall, unmoving regardless of how much force she applied. Each one had been placed with care, bolted into the wall so that no one could change what Viv had laid out. 

Sweat collected on April’s brow. She looked on at the array of faces, overwhelmed by the eyes looking at her, through her. They’d watched as she cried at the kitchen table the night before.

Cutting a length of string she’d found under an end table, in a basket with miscellaneous knitting supplies—she never knew her grandma could knit—April tied end-to-end together, forming a loop, and hung her photographs overtop those of her grandma Vivian. With each photo she added to the over-cluttered wall, their lives blended together into an amalgam of decades, becoming a portal to two different lifetimes. The place where Derrick now lives, wearing a permanent smile, among the faces of many strangers; her grandma, too.


Months after she’d committed to living in her grandma’s rowhome, after sorting through the rummage left behind by her deceased family, all but one box unpacked, the pain of her losses lessened, she goes through the final box marked “VIV’S THINGS.” 

In it, April finds, among the assortment of shoddy knit gloves, old hats, papers covered in doodles and scribbles, Viv’s first camera; the Contax II her grandmother’s father used and had given her when she was a young girl. The metal body dented. Crevices and gears filled with dust and hair that could’ve been Viv’s, or her father’s, or someone else neither of them knew.

April held it to her right eye, closed her left, and saw the crack that spanned from side to side of the viewfinder. She panned around the room, moving from corner to corner, from high to low, looking at the wall of portraits that she covered with her own portraits of landscapes and animals and the people in pain she photographed for her college project. When she looked towards the kitchen, Earl sat atop the table. Left of the Snickers-colored cat, Viv sat. She gazed at her granddaughter, the once-young girl now grown into a woman, the very same woman who slowly became her own caretaker, and smiled. April removed the cracked viewfinder from her eye, taking her grandma with it. Earl licked between his legs, only stopping to glance at April, meowed, and carried on with his cleaning. 

In that moment, April noticed the smile. It decorated her own face, even after Viv had left. It was the first time she’d smiled since grandma passed.

Baltimore is more than pain and heartbreak and loss. It must be. Since Derrick’s murder, since her grandma’s death, since she resigned herself from her former life, embarking on a new life, reborn into the old family rowhome as the last photograph was hung on the wall, she’s found a reason for the city to be much more than how it is perceived.

On Saturdays, she walks the city and takes photographs. Some of the buildings, the architecture her grandma loved. Some of people, mostly homeless—some asleep on stoops, some too high on heroin to hold their head up; some who sit on the benches, half naked, stinking and laughing, posing in gratitude of being alive. 

When she walks President Street, she photographs the young black boys who endure rejection at each traffic life, their squeegees held tight in one hand, spray bottle in the other, trying and trying until that one person tells them “yes” and tips them a buck out in the oppressive summer heat. April wipes the sweat from her forehead with her free hand and watches, even after the film has run out.

These photos she takes, they are single moments that she has come to possess. By applying pressure to the button, she quietly agrees to the someone else’s keeper—a museum curator for the lives of other people, alive, dead, known and unknown. 

Sometimes, after the film is developed, she sits and looks over the photographs. Reviews them for signs of life she might have missed. On occasion, in the frozen world of a photograph, when the great world ceases to spin, she finds the potential buried beneath. When she finds that potential in the photograph of the city she lives in, that’s when she knows there is much more to it than what she’s come to know.

She returns home, exhausted from the day of photography—different from the exhaustion she feels coming home from her work as an editor for a financial well-being service as she herself struggles to pay her residual student loans, her credit debt, the cost of her grandmother’s death—and she falls onto the couch and wonders why she’s in a position to edit financial advice for anyone when she just signed on to inherit the debt of Viv’s old rowhome, which is paid off but requires much work and upkeep. She raises one foot at a time up onto the couch and pulls them into her, one under the other, and retrieves a black film canister from her bag. 

Each image the light burns into the strip of film is a memory. In a single plastic container, April carries roughly thirty-six of them. The actions of others permanently paused. She relishes the feeling of having control over these lives of strangers, that they are hers to own.

Some part of her desires to share them with another; hope that change can come from others seeing the potential for beauty that she sees. 

The other part knows that can’t happen. It’s a fool’s errand, and she knows it. 

But if there’s one thing that she’s learned over the years, it’s that sometimes a small, kind gesture is enough to alleviate great burdens. Times when we wish to give up, when the whole world’s gone dark, April knows she must push onward until the light is there, within reach.

Despite the pain she saw on Viv’s face, she watched as her grandma continued to cook and clean while April grappled with her life and loss; urged April to go out into the city, take photographs, read, learn, keep her mind occupied. Every now and again, when April felt too heavy to move, Viv grabbed her by the arm and pulled her out of bed and out the door, where they’d walk slowly through the streets of the city grew up in.

“Nothing looks like it used to,” she’d say to April. “It’s all so different.” Viv winced in pain, but April, holding her steady, helped her down the road as her grandma observed all the change, smiling—though was never certain if it was out of nostalgia or for that moment: the two of them, arm in arm. Viv started to laugh, started to curse the deficiency of her body as her nerves screamed and sent fire to her brain.

Back inside, Viv sat at the dining room table while April fetched her large, yellow pills. She’d swallow them down, along with her pride, as April went about cooking a meager meal for dinner—Easy Mac, Velveeta, or Hamburger Helper were all within reach of her culinary skills when it came to a hot meal. Stirring the thick, vicious cream that looks more plastic than cheese, April listened to the faint strain of her grandma’s breathing, felt the soft stare of admiration Viv often offered her. She loved her grandma and hated to see her suffer; wished, day and night, that there was something she could do to ease the pain.

As she bathed her, dipping the sponge in hot water before dappling it across her shoulders, along her upper back, refreshing her skin, allowing the water to trickle down—it offered Viv a small moment of relief, those delicate touches. The two women, a generation apart, met eyes, and April felt sorrow melt away as her grandma smiled, nodded, and told her, “It’s okay, dear.” With a damp hand, Viv wiped the tears from April’s eyes and rested her along her left cheek. Without thinking, April brought both her hands up and, in a small, kind gesture, embraced the single, shaking hand her grandma placed on her cheek.

In her heart, she still carries a tremendous love for who showed her how to be strong and how to be vulnerable. Showed her how to be a proud woman, to say “no,” and to carry the weight that comes with womanhood. And she showed her how to use a camera, to center the frame, introduced April to the magic of a moment and how a camera can turn a memory into a possession.

But a memory isn’t permanent, and neither is a photograph. Both can be easily destroyed. Both can be warped and altered. 

Her grandma didn’t have the heart to tell her that.

The colors fade over time, lose the vividness once captured, just the same as memories lose their potency. The corners wear thin and tear. Before long, the photograph becomes a tattered scrap of paper without meaning. 

Sometimes, the image, though simple, exists to be pain possessed: an image of a quiet morning in Baltimore, the pink sky torn in two by the jet plane, a frame for the shape of absence.

When April is alone, she combs through a collection of private albums from her past, removes portraits of friends and strangers from the over-cluttered wall, sifts through the memories she possesses and allows herself to sink deep into the longing that comes from each one. Eyes closed, she sits in the quiet rowhome, at the dining room table grandma Vivian always sat at and listens for the soft voice she once spoke in.

Ghosts have taken up residency along the walls of the rowhome, in the vacancy of her heart. Laughter fills the room—Derrick’s, the strangers never met, her grandma Viv’s and her pop Teddy, and most startling of all, her own. Emptiness becomes the wrinkles of her flushed cheeks as she wipes the tears from her eyes.

Vivian whispers something to her, April is sure of it. Only she can’t understand it.

The photograph she holds, Baltimore at dawn, is between her fingers. One hand moves opposite of the other. Tension is applied to the glossy paper. The white border that frames the image breaks apart. Destroys what she once possessed.



Coty Poynter is a nonfiction reader for Mud Season Review. Born and raised in Baltimore, he continues to live there with his partner, their cat Pudge, and a hodgepodge of plants. His work has appeared in Black Fox Literary Magazine, Equinox, Grub Street, and Underwood Press. His second collection of poetry, Delirium: Collected Poems, was published in October 2018 by Bowen Press.

Seeking solace in art

By: Maria Asimopoulos, Fiction Editor

A few days ago, my best friend Krupa texted me to tell me she was taking a break from her usual streaming routine to revisit Divergent, a book and film that were huge when we were teenagers. I told her it was an excellent choice and that I’d been itching to rewatch The Hunger Games. “I just did that too,” she said. “It hits a little harder in these times.”

Years ago, at the start of my undergraduate English program, I sat at a cheap desk in my dorm studying for Spring semester finals. I had been at it for hours, flipping through PowerPoints and crafting notecards instead of sleeping (which is arguably what I should have been doing at 5 a.m.). I’m now a senior, but this moment came back to me today, April 19, at the start of my fifth week under lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. The contents of the notecards are the reason why.

In my hands were American literary movements from realism through postmodernism: time, space, history, and people, bundled up nicely into abbreviated bullet points and blue ink for me to study. I held literature’s reflection of the human condition in my hands, and I wondered what it looked like now, on that May morning in 2017. So I googled it.

Dystopian literature. A movement hadn’t been defined yet; critics went back and forth arguing whether we had moved beyond postmodernism to begin with, but a brave few suggested that dystopian fiction was our next stop on the literary wagon. Indeed, with booming franchises like Divergent and The Hunger Games so fresh in my memory, 18-year-old me could believe it. Authors were telling stories of environmental destruction, economic despair, and the collapse of society. With climate change and wealth inequality looming in the back of our collective consciousness (of course, these days I would argue that it’s more at the forefront), it is no wonder we had such a need for these stories.

And it’s no wonder that we feel such a powerful need to return to them now. Our economy is crumbling and, for many of us, the thought of participating in society makes us paranoid. We’ve become increasingly conscious of our bodies in relation to the world: the ways they function, their positioning around other people, the way we hold ourselves in grocery stores. We’re not being sorted into personality categories like characters in Divergent, nor are our children being rounded up to fight to the death as they are in The Hunger Games. But we are getting a front row seat to the exposure of vulnerabilities in our medical and financial infrastructures. We’re bearing witness to politicians’ blatant disregard for human life while we burn through our savings and apply desperately for unemployment that many will not receive. We’re video chatting with loved ones to express our condolences during funerals that have a mandated limit on how many people can mourn together. Dystopian.

In all the time we spend at home, art is more critical in our modern lives than ever. Movies and TV can distract us from endless hours spent indoors. Never before have I seen quite so many people posting music recommendations on their social media. We can finally find moments to get to the endless reading list, books that have been glaring at us from our shelves for weeks, begging us to take a break from our busy schedules and open them. We can spend this strange time panicking, or we can spend it immersed in other worlds and stories. Many of us are choosing the latter. 

If dystopian literature wasn’t where the bulk of critics thought we were moving a few years ago, perhaps it will be now. Brave New World has just re-entered my “to read” list on Goodreads. I’m going to keep on my vow to rewatch The Hunger Games—more than that, I’ve been itching to reread it, too, and I haven’t felt that urge about a YA novel since my mid-teens. 

These are unprecedented times. It often feels as though we have more to worry about than we ever thought we could handle. But when a virus cracks the world wide open, maybe literature is just the thing we need to begin to fill in the gaps.

A Reflection on Luis Alberto Urrea’s visit to Towson University

By: Gel Derossi, Online Creative Nonfiction Editor

When Luis Alberto Urrea visited Towson University, his vivid presence as a storyteller blurred lines of performance and identity. It is absolutely no wonder that the first thing you’ll find on Mr. Urrea’s “About” page on his website is NPR’s designation of him as a “master storyteller with a rock and roll heart.”

In his books, Mr. Urrea unearths lives that have been buried. His writing is what he calls “bearing witness.” In the masterclass he held at Towson, he told us about—or, more accurately, performed—his own experiences that culminated into his identity as a storyteller. As he came to understandings he had not had before, he recognized the truths that his unique background uncovered and their need to be told. Sitting among students in a tightly-packed classroom, Mr. Urrea brought us with him into his past. He expressed intimately the story of his father’s unjust and tragic death. He confided in us. He trusted us with the responsibility of knowing the importance of his brother’s influence in The House Of Broken Angels, a novel written after his brother’s death. Mr. Urrea’s way of storytelling draws listeners into a lifelong promise.

He expertly weaves emotion and surprising humor in stories that sing of the lives of immigrants, Native people, women, and other folks who have been too often overshadowed by the dominant minority. The drive of Mr. Urrea’s life, as he made clear to us, is amplifying the voices of the influencers, the voices of the people who gave their love and passion and received nothing in return. That rock and roll heart beats for the lives of the oppressed, just like the music genre of the same name.

Luis Urrea brought to my attention the importance of your own story. It is already weaved intimately in the oppressed voices that call to writers. In class, one student asked about writing someone else’s story as a person who has not experienced what they have. Mr. Urrea asked us to do our due diligence in getting another’s story right. He handed the words to us like bricks we could use to build ourselves. Chuckling, he told us how he had once asked renowned indigenous author Linda Hogan to write The Hummingbird’s Daughter, a now-published novel with deep Native American and Mexican roots. He claimed his mind was too Western to write it himself. She waved her hand peacefully, and then she replied to him, “The Western mind is a fever. It will pass.”

The act of bearing witness can transcend our barriers if we commit with respect and love. Not only can this apply to others’ stories, our own stories deserve that due diligence, too.

The day Mr. Urrea came to Towson was a day I noticed my mind lost some grounding with reality. It may seem like a simple thing. About two months into the school semester was when Mr. Urrea held his masterclass, and I decided my regular class started at 4:00 (it actually started at 3:30). Conveniently, Mr. Urrea’s talk was scheduled until 3:45, and then I stayed until 4:00 as it ran over. I thought I’d only be a few minutes late, not a half hour. I came to understand that my own mind had tricked me. It has happened often, and it is always unnerving when it does. There have been times when I needed my memory. I needed to rely on it, to be there for the people who I care about most, who were depending on my memory in one of the most literal forms you might experience. I was a witness for the rape of someone I love. During pre-trial interviews, they asked me to recount what had happened. Instead of answering truthfully, faced with a gathering of legal workers, my vision blacked out, but I didn’t stop functioning. I ended up telling the story of my own rape, for the first time.

They dismissed me from the case. I was the only witness. I know it’s not my fault, and that this is the justice system we live with—but the rapist was charged for his drug possession, not for the rape. The justice system itself told someone I love that their rape didn’t happen, that their feelings were invalid. If I had been able to articulate and process my story before that moment, maybe I’d have been able to tell the victim’s. Perhaps telling my story in that moment wouldn’t have mattered. Telling our stories, and integrating our stories into the narrative and the understanding of our society, will.

Another revolutionary author, bell hooks, excavates in her fist-pumping title, Rock My Soul: Black People And Self Esteem, that the way in which we act and behave, especially in life’s throes of mundanity, has a crucial effect on our mental health and identity. During the masterclass, Mr. Urrea shared with us a lesson: an entire life is a river, and its tightest bends are where you’ll find the stories, where something either must change or must fail. The choice between embracing our story or suppressing it is in the ordinary, everyday choices and bends that we face. Building ourselves and our identities is in any opportunity to express and perform your story, your thoughts, your feelings.


Photo courtesy of Towson University

It’s okay to not feel creative in quarantine

By: Bailey Hendricks, Marketing & Publicity Director

With more time on your hands during quarantine, you may feel some pressure to write a poem, make art, finish your manuscript, or generally be productive. I, for one, have been feeling some of this pressure myself.

It seems like since we are home, we should be “making the most out of this time.” If the pressure you’re feeling is not to finally finish that poem and submit it to a lit mag, maybe it’s wanting to clear out that junk drawer or finally organize all of your take-out menus. Whatever guilt you’re feeling for not being as productive as you’d like, take a moment to try to release that guilt. Understand that these are unprecedented and uncertain times. You shouldn’t add that extra pressure on yourself.

Make time to do things that give you the most comfort. Maybe that’s sipping on some tea, putting your feet up, and reading a good book. Or, maybe it’s making some chocolate chip cookies, or painting your nails, or just taking an extra-long, extra-hot shower.

Whatever activity gives you the most comfort is what you should be putting your energy into right now. We are all going through a collective traumatic experience, all around the world. It’s normal if you’re unable to focus, are sleeping more, or even are snacking more than usual. Be gentle with yourself during this time and seek comfort in the little things.