Two Questions for Katie DePasquale

We recently published Katie DePasquale’s wonderful “Scheherazade Tells the Tale of the Northern Shrike.” Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) This is a story unlike any other that Scheherazade has told King Shahryar, and there seems to be a bit of a parallel between her story and theirs: “It can wait for as long as it takes.” When in their marriage do you imagine she is sharing this tale with him?

I picture her sharing this story shortly after their marriage. When I wrote this, I’d randomly read an article about the Northern Shrike, and I’d been thinking of writing something inspired by the 1,001 Nights and was in the middle of rereading them. And I found that I’d forgotten that the reason the king spares Scheherazade’s life is that he fell in love with her, but there was no mention of how Scheherazade felt. Of course in the larger context of that story, it didn’t matter; she had to marry him, just like she had to entertain him, to escape being put to death. But that didn’t mean she loved him. I thought, what if she just married him to bide her time until she could make a more final escape? The tale spun out from there.


2) Northern Shrike are sometimes called “butcher birds” (I love that!) for their habit of killing more prey than they need at once and storing it for later. After sharing this detail, Scheherazade warns Shahryar not to confuse power and beauty. What do you think makes the Northern Shrike a beautiful bird (or, perhaps, a powerful one)?

I think the Northern Shrike is more ordinary-looking than beautiful, but that doesn’t affect its power, which is obvious since it’s such a fearful predator. And there’s not necessarily any connection between looks and capability, but people love to say that beauty is power, which really isn’t often true for women. Beautiful women are frequently in vulnerable positions where the powerful take advantage of them: their beauty doesn’t equate to much in those situations, right? That’s why the shrike and Scheherazade felt like a natural fit for each other. The shrike is more powerful than beautiful, and in this piece, in the end Scheherazade is, too.

Scheherazade Tells the Tale of the Northern Shrike ~ by Katie DePasquale

The Northern shrike population is in decline, she says, her voice a tongue on his ear. They are solitary and wary, maybe that’s why. They can’t even trust each other.

It’s the males who sing: as defense, to protect their nesting territory, sometimes to attract a mate. She eyes him out of the slashes she’s blackened on her lids. They pretend they are other birds until their imitation of reality becomes the new reality.

Their dead, all those amphibians and rodents, are placed on thorns, to be eaten later. She laughs, her mouth a wet red flame. It isn’t a beautiful bird because power is better than beauty. No, don’t try to tell me they’re the same.

Look, there it sits, alone in the open field, on a scrubby little tree. She points with the tip of her knife and says, watch it watching, perched as still as dirt, as the tree’s skin. You’ll see, it can wait for hours. It can wait for as long as it takes.

***

Katie DePasquale enjoys telling a good story and making sure it’s correctly punctuated. Her writing has appeared in The Worcester Review, Atticus Review, and Tin House online, among other publications, and is forthcoming in Grist Online. A Pushcart Prize nominee for fiction, she has an M.A. in writing and publishing from Emerson College and works as an editor at Berklee College of Music.

Two Questions for Sarah R. Clayville

We recently published Sarah R. Clayville’s lovely “Blank Page.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love how you hook the reader with this powerful opening sentence: “The girl’s mother named her Cousin, so people would love her from the start.”How important, do you think, is a name for something like that?

I think our names are both a blessing and a curse. At times they can define us, identify us to others, and even reveal backgrounds we might have chosen instead to reveal in our own time. Our names can make us vulnerable. I also think a name can be something we feel bound to live up to, particularly if the name belongs to family tradition or there is a ‘story’ behind it.


2) At the end, Cousin reclaims her name for herself, by writing it “in a space neither her mother or the man owned.” Such a great moment, realizing you don’t
have to be what others think you are. And then the girl realizes it is time for a new name. Do you think she will someday outgrow the name she has chosen for herself? Or do you think she will choose a name that grows with her?

I believe that for Cousin, this is only the first step in understanding who she is and slowly untying the expectations her mother wrapped around her with the name. In early drafts I kept choosing a name for her to use at the end but realized I didn’t want to set anything in stone, either. I wrote this story as a nod to the cool new reality we are experiencing where identity is no longer something set in stone for us in childhood but instead can be flexible and allow us to authentically grow as humans.

Blank Page ~ by Sarah R. Clayville

The girl’s mother named her Cousin, so people would love her from the start.

Her mother worried no one would take to the homely, wild girl otherwise. Babies were supposed to be pink and beautiful, not ruddy and coarse. Besides, her mother knew how painful love was to catch. Pins beneath nails. Gravel ground into knees. Smoke singed into palms.

The problem was, with a name like Cousin, everyone believed the little girl belonged to them. Her name simmered in people’s mouths the way apples turn soft under their skin in the heat of the skillet. And Cousin was trained to melt too quickly when people called for her. She learned to sit and wait. She believed she belonged to those people, too. The name was a curse.

The girl grew into a young woman the way she was supposed to. Her rough red braids smoothed out into soft curls. Freckles paled against bronze skin. She still waited for her name to be called, but now she passed the time with books. Fairy tales of frozen girls, trapped girls, patient girls who won their freedom through submission. Cousin secretly hoped better stories existed beyond the shelves her mother carefully curated in the study.

In the summer Cousin met a man immune to her mother’s spell. He refused to say her name right. His voice rested on the sin. His hands rested on her thighs.She gently corrected him, moving his hands, moving his tongue. She supposed all this time she’d been saying her own name wrong, leaning into his pronunciation. Curses can never be broken. But they can be sold. Her mother liked the man. That was all that mattered.

Cousin, now rebranded, felt herself change bone by bone. At first, she reveled in a world her mother didn’t create. She adopted the man’s long strides, his taste for foreign spices. Cousin read the man her fairy tales at night. Once he fell asleep, she deftly searched his apartment for new books, disappointed that beneath their exteriors he and her mother were identical.   

The man broke her heart on a starless Thursday night, with a letter written on crumpled paper. Scraps of other words were erased. At first, she thought maybe he’d had second thoughts. Tried to convince himself to stay. Instead, she made out the names of other lost girls he’d collected then disposed of like the decaying autumn leaves. She felt herself disintegrating as she read his words.

Her eyes drifted to the margins. The places where he’d never written, untouched, unworried. She pressed the paper to her mouth, then wrote Cousin in blood from her bitten lip. It was the first time she’d ever written her own name in a space that neither her mother or the man owned. It was the kiss that woke her. Curses can’t be broken, but they can be owned. She felt her heart stitching itself back together, and she realized it was time for a new name.

***

BSarah Clayville is a high school teacher and author who works from a small town in central Pennsylvania where she has lived forever. She holds a special place in heart for short fiction that stops people in their tracks. Find more of her work at SarahSaysWrite.com.

Two Questions for Jack Bedell

We recently published Jack Bedell’s lush “Swamp Thing Watches a Whale Make a Life Decision.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

1) This is part of a Swamp Thing series of poems and micros that you’ve been working on (and which I adore!). What drew you to Swamp Thing for this series instead of, say, The Atom?

I fell for Swamp Thing the first time I read the comic in junior high. I loved that it was set in Louisiana and that all the frames looked like home. It was also my introduction to environmentalism, really. Alex Olsen/Alec Holland’s goal to invent a growth formula to bring vegetation to barren areas seemed like a noble goal to me, still does actually! And even after the scientist’s transformation into the Swamp Thing, he continued to defend the environment against corporations and the military’s industrial complex. The character just really epitomizes the concern I’d like my poems to have for south Louisiana’s wetlands. I’m active in my state’s efforts to restore our coast and preserve our wetlands, and I have a real feeling Swamp Thing would be on the front lines of this struggle if he could be.

2) What really drew me to this piece was the feeling of atmosphere, of place. The way Swamp Thing and the whale are both taking their time here, watching the world go by, as it were. Do you feel this kind of connection to the land, especially in the Swamp Thing’s realm?

I was born and raised in south Louisiana, surrounded by marshes and swamps in the Atchafalaya Basin. My home parish, Terrebonne, is on the Gulf coast and has suffered from coastal erosion and land loss caused by storms and other man-made disasters for well over a century. It’s the only home I’ve known, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else than here. Most of my writing celebrates the people, places, and culture of south Louisiana. I owe a tremendous debt to this place, and could not be more connected to it than I am.

Swamp Thing Watches a Whale Make a Life Decision ~ by Jack B. Bedell

I know I need to move along. Shouldn’t be out in the open on the coast like this, but it’s not every day I get to see a sperm whale in Sister Lake. Not any day, actually. You have to wonder what would draw an animal like this into these shallows so close to marshland, its dorsal fin loafing back and forth along the mudflats like it’s trying to decide whether the water’s gotten too hot or too full of plastic to make all the swimming worth it. Maybe it just wants to belly up on the shore and watch the tops of those trees sway in the distance along the horizon until its own weight squeezes all the air out of its lungs. Maybe a day always comes when moving along isn’t the prettiest choice.

***

Jack B. Bedell is Professor of English and Coordinator of Creative Writing at Southeastern Louisiana University where he also edits Louisiana Literature and directs the Louisiana Literature Press. Jack’s work has appeared in HADPidgeonholes, Heavy FeatherOkay DonkeyEcoTheoMoonParkTerrain, and other journals. His latest collection is Color All Maps New (Mercer University Press, spring 2021). He served as Louisiana Poet Laureate 2017-2019. 

Two Questions for Joy Guo

We recently published Joy Guo’s wrenching “Heart / Beat / Run.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) This whole piece is so powerful, so evocative. But the moment for me that just gives me the shivers is at the end, when the instructor reveals to the girl why she ran, why she ran, ran, ran. This is such an amazing detail to include, I just love it. There’s so many small things like that we sometimes ignore or overlook or pretend not to see. Do you think the girl in this story will be watching out for things like that more from now on?

No question. I’ve always felt conditioned to be polite, keep my head down, and ignore what’s right in front of you in order to not rock the boat. I included the instructor’s example of the businessman as a situation where you need to listen to your gut and sprint for the hills, politeness be damned. Now that the girl knows (at least a little) what to look out for, the next step is to trust that internal voice when it detects danger. 


2) And of course, a man interrupts the self-defense class! While it gives the instructor a good opportunity to demonstrate some subtler tactics, it really speaks to what these (all) women are facing. Do you think they will find any comfort in the fact that, yes, the man did, finally, leave? Or do you think they will focus on the fact that he felt emboldened to just step in and interrupt them?

This actually happened during a self-defense class I took with a friend, when a man just stood there and watched us for a few minutes. It was incredibly creepy and on-the-nose; the whole time, we kept asking ourselves, did the teacher hire an actor to do some real-time roleplaying? When he finally left, my initial reaction was one of overwhelming relief. It was only until much later, as I was writing the story, that I processed anger at the audacity of him just stepping in like that. Unfortunately, that sort of reaction is likely all too common – our first response is to thank our lucky stars that we came out of a situation unscathed, when really, that situation should not have been imposed on us in the first place. 

Heart / Beat / Run  ~ by Joy Guo

1. The girl tries to focus. To hold still. The more she concentrates, however, the more she drowns in tactile sensations, all the things that chafe.

2. Now, all she can think of are the self-defense instructor’s arm muscles. So many veins standing at rapt attention. The girl wishes she could run her fingers over them, trace the paths of those green-blue rivers, see where they lead.

3. The instructor tells the class about the man who once stopped her on the street and offered instructions. You look lost. Where are you going? He was wearing a navy business suit, the creases in his pants so stiff they stood along their own axis. Right hand clasping a briefcase. Kind face, kind smile, kind eyes. So why did she run? Why, after crossing three streets, putting a hot dog vendor, a FedEx deliveryman, and a cluster of nannies between them, did she finally stop to catch her breath?

4. Everyone, stand up. The girl complies. She feels unsteady on her feet. All she does is cardio. Treadmill belt unspooling under her feet. Pedaling, in a dark room, to the thunder of club music, so loud and dark she could sob without anyone hearing. She should incorporate more strength training. Swing a kettlebell over her head. Build muscles, enough to open a jar without needing to ask. Root herself to the ground. But all she can think of is how to gain distance.

5. The instructor teaches them a series of easy to remember moves. The girl forgets immediately. Was she supposed to jab the windpipe or the eyes? What is her other arm supposed to be doing? She flails. She stomps down to disable an imaginary foot and almost laughs. Who is she kidding? She is as weak as a child.  

6. Come on, the instructor snaps, squaring those magnificent shoulders. You can hit harder than that. Can I? the girl thinks and winds up again.

7. As if on cue, a man drifts over. His eyes rove and then fixate, like a dog locating the scent. He pauses at the perimeter and watches them, licking his lips.

9. Sir, hello. Hi. How are you doing? the instructor chirps. The girl and the others do what they should never ever do in these sorts of situations – freeze.

9. What you should actually do. Defuse – hi, how are ya. Divert – Hey, what’s that. Deflect – I got to go, can’t miss this appointment. The three Ds, the instructor explained. But all the girl hears is run, run, run.

10. The instructor keeps up a steady thrum of chatter. Underneath it, the girl can hear trembling. It reminds her of that time across a table, the boy had gripped her wrist so hard, he left plummy half-moons studding her skin, and still she couldn’t stop talking, hey, what’s worse than finding a worm in your apple, I don’t know, what, half a worm.

11. Distract.

12. Bored, the man eventually leaves. For the rest of class, the instructor speaks a little too breathlessly, as though her voice has sprouted legs and a ponytail switch-flicking in the wind.

13. After class, the girl buys a black plastic baton, half the length of a forearm, to attach to her key ring. She whaps it against her own arm, again and again, testing its heft and sting, until finally, the welt grows big enough to satisfy.     

14. As she is about to leave, the girl thinks to ask, why did you run?

15. The instructor blinks, then remembers. A scabbing gash along his left hand. From a cat, maybe, or a girl trying to get away.

***

Joy Guo currently lives in Manhattan with her husband. She is a white collar and regulatory defense attorney. Her work is published or forthcoming in Passages North, Pithead Chapel, CRAFT, Atticus Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. You can find her on Twitter at gojiberryandtea and www.joyguowrites.com

Two Questions for Phebe Jewell

We recently published Phebe Jewell’s gorgeous “Fence Jumpers.” Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love the sparkling, here-and-there details in this story — one of my favorites is Mr. Li’s bag of lychees. It gives him so much personality in this small glimpse of his life. What made you choose lychees for Mr. Li to be carrying to his niece?

“Fence Jumpers” was one of those stories that took on a life of its own. It started with a free write about the scene in the church, but then somehow Mr. Li rode his bike across the page. I could see him quite clearly (probably because he’s modelled on a man I often see biking by my house, usually carrying a bag of groceries on his handlebars), so I followed him as he made his way up an extremely steep hill. I could see Mr. Li ride with purpose, a man on a mission to comfort someone with something that had weight and could be shared. That’s when I knew he was bringing his niece lychees.When I lived in Vancouver, B.C. I would go to Chinatown to get lychees for special occasions. There is something comforting in peeling their rough skin to reveal the perfumy fruit. Mr. Li wanted his niece to taste this unexpected sweetness. I wanted to make sure Mr. Li made it safely to the top of the hill, and that’s when the truck came in, allowing me to connect Mr. Li with the narrator.

2) The way this story addresses the loneliness of not quite fitting in, the way the narrator wants to be part of things — it’s so powerful and longing and, here especially, tinged with sadness. Do you think the narrator will blame themself for what happened? That they will feel that, by sneaking the communion wine, they have somehow caused George’s death?

I think so. Like many children, the narrator makes sense of the adult world by connecting details and events that may or may not be related. The narrator, for all their bravado about sneaking the wine and being a badass, carries the weight of new knowledge that not everyone survives breaking the rules. 

Fence Jumpers ~ by Phebe Jewell

The day you sneak communion wine at Saint Mary’s, an overloaded truck barreling downhill brakes so it won’t hit Mr. Li biking uphill, a bag of lychees swinging from the handlebars, a gift for his niece after losing her job. The truck skids and seesaws all over the road to avoid flattening Mr. Li, hurtling with the kind of gravity you might recognize only after it breaks your nose or flays your kneecap, an inevitable trainwreck of weight leaving you with a badass scar to flaunt, proof you escaped another death. Some days you understand the indifferent stealth of a cat with nine lives, slipping between bars just as a guard dog snaps, jaws catching air. But when you drink red wine now you taste rubbery diesel, swallow truck treads leading to a side of the road, where a minute before your hound George squeezed through the gate, tracking fresh cat while you sipped Father Peter’s wine, tired of being the only non-Catholic at Saint Mary’s School, filing into chapel for Mass behind the others, your arms criss-crossed over your chest so everyone knows you want the priest’s blessing even though you can’t drink the Blood of Christ because you don’t belong like you do when you get home and Dad tells you George is dead and isn’t coming back.

***

Phebe Jewell’s work appears in various journals, including Monkeybicycle, MoonPark Review, SpelkNew Flash Fiction Review, Bending Genres, and The Cabinet of Heed. Her story “¿Cómo Está Tu Madre?” was chosen for wigleaf‘s 2021 Top 50 for (very) short fiction. A teacher at Seattle Central College, she also volunteers for the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit providing college courses for incarcerated women, trans-identified and gender nonconforming people in Washington State. Read her at https://phebejewellwrites.com.