Tag Archives: Catapult

Giving Thanks, Silently

Most years, my husband and I celebrate Thanksgiving twice: first on the actual holiday with my family on Long Island, then again that Saturday, in the Hudson Valley, with his. While there are nice aspects to both celebrations, it can also feel like an exhausting hustle.

This year it all seems particularly overwhelming. Maybe the non-stop onslaught of upsetting news is to blame — from our president’s efforts to dismantle our democracy, to the barrage of necessary but demoralizing reports about men in power sexually assaulting and harassing women and men — or the prospect of discussions about these horrors with people at different ranges of the political spectrum; but I feel as if I’m already experiencing the tryptophan effect, and I’m still a good 24 hours away from consuming any turkey.

Next year, I would like to do what Nina Coomes’ family used to do on Thanksgiving: take a silent retreat.

At Catapult, Coomes reflects in a personal essay on those times with her family at St. Mary’s of the Lake, a Catholic seminary in Illinois. There, Coomes and her Japanese-American family engaged in extreme unplugging — no reading, talking, using digital devices, and listening to music; they were allowed to write, draw and play the piano.

The retreat gave us all time away from the bewilderment we tended to experience around American holidays. By the time we first visited St. Mary’s, we had lived in the US for almost five years, but holidays and the surrounding sociocultural expectations were still a source of stress for us. Spending the weekend in silent contemplation and companionship proved a good way for my family to ease into the American holiday season; to take what we appreciated and understood—quality time together, to reflect and feel grateful—and leave what we didn’t, such as football, Black Friday shopping, and the white-meat portion of the turkey. Silence provided us with a touchstone to return to what we held dear as we continued to acclimate to a new country and culture.

While it was initially difficult for the family to acclimate to the silence, once they got used to it, they came to like it.

On our first Thanksgiving retreat, I was a seventh-grade bookworm of the highest order and had just received my own textbook-sized laptop. I was sure I would be bored to death with no one to keep me company but my little sister and newly uncool Mom and Dad. And at first the silent gesturing seemed infuriatingly slow; communication of the simplest ideas took minutes, minutes that slid by in what felt like an eternity. But after the initial frustration, the silence around us seemed to deepen and warm. Moments when one of us might have snapped at the other over a dropped piece of pie or a hand in an almost-slammed door were smoothed over more quickly, because the expression of frustration and anger had been relegated to facial expression.

To express affection or care without words, we sat close to each other, took long walks together, or fell asleep in overstuffed armchairs, side-by-side in puddles of late-afternoon sun. Silence made us more patient, more creaturely, somehow truer to ourselves. We did not have words to give thanks, but somehow gratitude remained, flourishing and becoming all the more tangible. On Sunday morning following that first retreat, even after we pulled away from the gates of St. Mary’s, our quietude persisted. It was with a lingering sadness that we slowly eased back into verbal communication, reluctant to return to the world of sound.

Read the story

On Identity, Miyazaki, and Japanese Bathhouses

Still from Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away

There are countless things to love in Hayao Miyazaki’s body of work — from the lushness of the drawing to the subtle ways in which his films reference and comment on earlier literary texts. What I admire the most, though, is the way his movies typically revolve around a crossing of a threshold between worlds — and how these worlds resist any easy binary split. There’s cruelty and kindness, beauty and horror, reality and fantasy in both. Characters have to make tough ethical decisions and work hard (often through grueling physical labor) before they find any semblance of harmony within (and between) the worlds they occupy.

In her Catapult essay on growing up as a mixed-race child in the U.S. and Japan, Nina Coomes finds inspiration in Miyazaki’s films to come to terms with her own personal narrative — one that resists clear-cut definitions and predictable plot twists just as the stories of the young girls at the center of movies like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or Spirited Away. Chihiro, the protagonist of the latter, spends the bulk of the movie in a labyrinthine, monster-and-spirit-frequented bathhouse. In a powerful sequence in her essay, Coomes recounts her own experiences as a kid in Japanese bathhouses, and how her visits there, both before and after her family had moved to the U.S., highlighted her growing doubts about where she belonged and who she truly was.

Born significantly underweight, I had always been a long, spindly child. A bundle of elbows and knees, I was constantly tripping, hitting my head, ambling about like a colt learning to walk. I was, by American standards, painfully thin. By Japanese standards I looked identical to my peers. I knew this because of our annual school trip to the bathhouse, where we would all gather around the steaming tub, our bodies present and accountable, held in front of all—all of us with our skin thinning at the ribs, each vertebrae visibly poking out of our backs. It didn’t matter that I had an American father, or that we spoke a hodgepodge English-Japanese pidgin at home; standing at the bathhouse with my peers, I retained a steadfast assurance in my place among the other children, my bodily equality.

After her move to Chicago — a threshold crossed — things get complicated.

That summer, I frequented bathhouses similar to those in Spirited Away with my mother and sister. One day I stood under a showerhead, rinsing my body of dirt and grime before entering the bath, and noticed that the arc of my stomach was jutting softly from my sternum. I had never seen my stomach before, not from this vantage point, with my chin tucked and hair wet. I had always been concave, a pocket of negative space ballooning between my ribcage and hips. To see my stomach take up space was new and strange. As I stared, water ran into my eyes and questions churned in my head: What was I becoming? Was I becoming an American? Was I not Japanese anymore? Had I ever been Japanese?

A steady, fluttering shame took root in my chest, and I was reminded of the ambiguous existence Chihiro entered into when eating the food of the spirit world. By eating the food of a foreign land, I had lost the ability to recognize my own body.

Read the story

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Charleston County Sheriff's Office via Getty Images

This week, we’re sharing stories from Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Ellen Pao, Henry Wismayer, Taylor Harris, and Jeff Maysh.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox. Read more…

‘Is This Gonna Happen Every Day in Charlottesville?’

Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

At Catapult, Black UVA alum Taylor Harris writes about explaining the racist violence on the Charlottesville campus to her six-year-old daughter, who hadn’t yet personally encountered racism or ever learned about racist violence.

Only a day before the “Unite the Right” protest that led to white supremacists beating Dre Harris and killing Heather Heyer, her daughter and husband had been right there, buying ice cream. Harris wrestles with informing her daughter, because she doesn’t want to rob her of her innocence.

We’ve talked about her beautiful brown skin and thick, curly hair, and she has a sense for why Rosa sat and Dr. King died. But we’ve never discussed anything this present, this evil, this close to home.

Did I tell you she calls this city beautiful? She, gorgeous with her huge brown eyes and tight curls. She is proud that her daddy teaches at the university, the one she has no idea was built by her people. We don’t start there, though. We start with that day and what happened on 4th Street on the downtown mall and why those white people were rallying in her hometown in the first place. We use the word racism.

And what happens next isn’t fair. What happens is that burden folds itself over her shoulders, a mantle I don’t want her to carry, and she says:

“Uh oh. We’re black people.”

I cannot bring her back.

“Is this gonna happen every day in Charlottesville?” she asks.

Which part? I want to ask. The racism, the destruction of black neighborhoods, the hidden pockets of public housing among great wealth? Yes. But a racist rally and a car crash? No.

Here she is, learning norms, feeling her way through fear, wondering if she’s next. She’s 6, you know. Her school supply list still calls for blunt-tip scissors. I heard the terrorists hid weapons in bushes.

We have dinner plans that night, and as we get into the minivan, she murmurs, “I just can’t believe what happened in Charlottesville.” She still conjugates some of her verbs incorrectly, and this time I don’t fix it when she says, “Is Mimi white or brown? Would they have foughted Mimi?” She wants to know if her light-skinned grandmother would have been in harm’s way. Look at the world opening like a pop-up book before her.

Read the Story

Can You Return To a Place That Was Never Your Home?

Postcard from Vienna, 1906 (Public Domain)
Postcard from Vienna, 1906 (Public Domain)

Through marriage, I hold Austrian permanent residency. I’m in the coveted position of having a place to go should I decide my home country has become too apocalyptic. I can land in that Alpine nation with a clunky yet functional grasp of Austrian German, a string of in-laws to help me navigate, and full work credentials. Getting my residency status was, from a bureaucratic perspective, painless. I had been married for several years, my husband had a government job, and we went through our hearings — including updating an expired “green card” — in a small-town office with no lines.

Others don’t have it so easy. One winter I attended German classes with Bosnian war refugees and a few mail-order brides — one from Brazil, one from the Philippines, one from Cambodia. “My sister came first,” one of my classmates told me, “and her life was so much better here with her mailbox husband than it was doing laundry back in the Philippines, so I did the same.” (Not her exact words, we stumbled through with a mix of our classroom German and English.)

My refugee classmates were former engineers and social workers relegated to factory jobs because Austria didn’t recognize their education. I was a textbook picture of American exceptionalism. My education — an art degree — was irrelevant to employers because I was an American who’d worked for Microsoft. I got a job on a software team at Sony in Salzburg while my more qualified classmates stuck labels on yogurt containers at the dairy factory across the river. My classmates thought I was nuts. “Why are you even here,” they’d ask, incredulous, “when you can be in America?”

I did not like living in small-town Austria; I was ill-suited for its xenophobic (yet also very intrusive) society, and I pined for Vietnamese food and my weird friends. I wanted to want to live in Vienna, but the more visits I made to that city the more I could see how it would have worn me down — even while I knew I’d have lasted there longer than out in the little snow-globe where we lived. I went home. My travel credentials include “failed expat.”

All this is a long setup to say I have feelings about this piece at Catapult in which Grace Linden navigates the process of reclaiming her Austrian citizenship — something she has the right to do as the member of a family that was destroyed by the Nazis.

I don’t know if Leo ever found out what happened to his family; it took me weeks of online research. In the Yad Vashem database, I entered the information for Chaim (Karl) Izak Linadauer Zigellaub, my great-grandfather. He was deported on February 15, 1941 to Lublin, Poland, presumably to the Lublin Ghetto. If he didn’t die in the Ghetto, he would have most likely been transported to the Bełżec Concentration Camp where almost 500,000 Jews were murdered. There was just a single mention of his name on a deportation list; the space between the specifics and the unknowns is enormous. Brieche, his wife, and Ruth’s fates are unknown but almost certainly they were taken to Auschwitz. Improbably, Joseph made it to China where he died in the Shanghai Ghetto. It’s no wonder my grandfather forced time to carry him towards the future.

The compensation Linden seeks — the right to live in Austria — was one I did not work for and did not want. But part of me understand the desire for refuge, for options. And the irony of today’s Jewish Americans casting their eyes back on a nation that attempted to eliminate them — us — is not wasted on me.

Vienna is desperately longing for something it once was. As Alice Gregory wrote recently in T Magazine, “The Austro-Hungarian Empire fell a century ago next year, but the physical remains of its influence are perfectly preserved.” The pull of its history is inescapable. In my own family, I keep looking back for what was lost, only there is nothing left to grab a hold of.

Read the story

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Donald Trump caricature by DonkeyHotey (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Rebecca Solnit, Robert F. Worth, Margaret Talbot, Porochista Khakpour, and Frank Bures.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox. Read more…

The Essay Will Feel Like It’s Killing You

Photo by Curtis MacNewton (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At Catapult, Porochista Khakpour reflects on her desire to write — about anything other than being Iranian-American. Deeply conflicted about speaking from her perspective as an Iranian-American, she says, “Remind yourself that when the performance is honest two things happen: The essay will feel like it’s killing you and the ending will not be what you thought it might be. Learn to respect more than resent those parallel planes of living and the rendering of living.”

Begin by writing about anything else. Go to the public library in your Los Angeles suburb and ask for all the great books people in New York City read, please. Wonder if the reference librarian knows a living writer and ask her what would a living writer read—and an American one, please. When she realizes you are still single digits and asks, Where are your parents, young lady? don’t answer and demand Shakespeare and take that big book home and cry because you can’t understand it. Tomorrow, go back to reading the dictionary a letter at a time and cry because you can’t learn the words. (Ask your father if you will cry daily for the rest of your life and remember his answer decades later: When you are older you will care less about things.) Pray to a god you still believe in that you will once more avoid ESL with all its teachers who look to you with the shine of love but the stench of pity: refugee, resident alien, political asylum, immigrant, foreigner the only words you know that you don’t want to know.

Write about it and make sure you keep writing about it. Plan out three more books and call it the end; each and every one is about Iranian-America. Write all the secrets like every essay is a suicide note: one that reveals your Zoroastrian name is a fraud and you are a Muslim and watch everyone applaud it, from all sorts of people online to your own father who gave you your name. Wonder if anyone is reading properly. Put “Iranian American refugee” in your Twitter profile, the way all the other refugees are doing. Question if this is empowering. Imagine you’ve been throwing yourself off a cliff every time you’ve been writing, but it’s hard to know if you are killing yourself or trying to fly. Wonder if a cliché like that is all you’ve got. Wonder if the death you’ve been imagining is just you becoming a bad writer.

Read the essay

Our Gardens, Growing: A Reading List

Photo: Joe Pitha

As a child, I dreaded my family’s annual trip to the plant nursery. Embarrassingly, I cannot tell you a single plant my parents purchased. My sister and I romped through the aisles of the greenhouses, hoping to trigger the sprinklers. Neither of us had a passion for gardening. I can’t speak for my sister, but I still don’t. Nevertheless, I’ve listened to two gardeners speak about their passions and philosophies in the past two weeks: Nancy Lawson, author of The Humane Gardener, and Marianne Willburn, who wrote Big Dreams, Small Garden. I pored over their books, replete with gorgeous pictures of very different gardens and their animal and human inhabitants. While I wasn’t inspired to take up a trowel, between their suggestions for dodging Maryland’s infamous gnats and peaceful coexistence with rabbits, I gained a new appreciation for a dedication to the dirt.

1. “Bitter Greens.” (Mindy Hung, The Toast, December 2014)

“When I was seven years old, my grandparents began a squatter’s garden over empty city land.” So begins Mindy Hung’s essay about bitter vegetables, the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the unpredictability of cruel teenagers, and scarcity versus security.

2. “Arcadia.” (Emma Crichton Miller, Aeon, August 2013)

Psychoanalysts, artists, and poets have long drawn on imagery of nature. The garden, with its chaos cultivated and conquered, is lush with metaphor.

3. “Lessons From My Mother, the Grave Gardener.” (Anna Gragert, Catapult, May 2017)

Not even a childhood spent assisting her mother in tending to gravesides could prepare Anna Gragert for the inevitability of her loved ones’ deaths.

4. “Why Would Someone Steal the World’s Rarest Water Lily?” (Sam Knight, The Guardian, October 2014)

A fascinating, frustrating tale of PLANT CRIME: The tiniest water lily, Rwandan in origin, is taken from Kew Gardens in England, ostensibly in plain sight. But there are no cameras and no witnesses. What’s a conservatory to do? And what’s the end game of the wheelers and dealers on the black market for the world’s most endangered plants?

5. “The Neoliberal Green Space.” (Marisa Mandabach, Jacobin, July 2015)

The Turkish construction boom is eliminating the historical link between Muslim life and working-class gardens, over the protests of the people:

Istanbul’s bostans preserve an alternative model for urban gardening: one that provides a living for professional small farmers, who supply their communities with produce and have relative autonomy over the spaces they cultivate. That this livelihood is being destroyed right as gardens are becoming fetish objects in the urban imagination might seem ironic — but it is perfectly compatible with the rise of the neoliberal green space.

A Love Affair with a Prince Soundtrack

Photo by @DrGarcia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At Catapult, Michael Gonzales offers an account of Prince’s career of hits with a touching personal history of the writer’s own years as a music journalist and his eight-year romantic relationship with publicist Lesley Pitts. The couple bonds over a shared love of books, cocktails, and, of course, Prince, before Pitts’ untimely death in 1999.

Playing a silly game with myself, I calculated that in 1999 I would be thirty-six years old, which to my then-nineteen-year-old self sounded ancient, dusty as an old record. If I’d had access to a crystal ball, what exactly would I see in my future? Would I be a famous novelist chatting with Dick Cavett on PBS? Would I be married to my college girlfriend Denise and living in Long Island with our badass kids? Or who knows, maybe Prince was on some Nostradamus shit and the sky really was going to turn purple, followed by destruction.

In the real 1999, while the planet didn’t perish that year, for me and the small world I inhabited, it all came to a screeching halt on August 3rd, two months after my thirty-sixth birthday, when I was riding in the back of the ambulance with my long-time girlfriend Lesley Pitts. Lying on a gurney, she was being rushed from our first-floor Chelsea apartment on 22nd Street to St. Vincent’s Hospital, after she complained of a headache and shortness of breath. Leaning over her, I grunted something reassuring.

Read the story

A Reading List for Mother’s Day

There is no grand unified theory of motherhood. Within every paradigm–chosen families, queer families, nuclear families, adoptive and foster families, on and on– mothering may vary a million times over. In this Mother’s Day reading list, I’ve attempted a rough chronology, from pregnancy to mourning, concluding with information about the crucial, joyful National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day.

1. “Dear Daughter, Your Mom.” (Sarah Smarsh, The Morning News, June 2014)

This is an essay about your mom: her Hooters uniform, her Mensa card, her abstinence, and the potency of mother-love:

What would I want for my daughter?

The answer was always correct and its implementation reliably unpleasant. Human intimacy, so she suffered hugs until she became enthusiastic with affection. Honesty, so she said what she meant. Love, so she showed hers.

2. “First I Got Pregnant. Then I Decided to Kill the Mountain Lion.” (Kathleen Hale, Elle, February 2017)

In a haze of maternal-ish instincts, Kathleen Hale hikes obsessively in search of the puma of Griffith Park.

3. “The Price: The Queer Daughter of a Queer Mother.” (Melissa Moorer, Electric Lit, September 2016)

Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, and its film adaptation, Carol, are the rare queer stories with happy endings. Writer Melissa Moorer sees reflections of herself in the story’s cast of characters and analyzes how representation affects the possibilities we see and don’t see for ourselves and our parents.

4. “Mama.” (Jasmine Sanders, Catapult, March 2016)

Is Mama a title to be earned or a biological fact? If it is the latter, does the exaltation, the importance of blood require me to love my mother unquestioningly and unconditionally? Or, if there are conditions, who determines them?

My grandmother, my adoptive mom, raised me. She is the salt and marrow of who I am, and when I hear the word Mama, the hollow, red ache in my chest belongs to her. My mother, between her six children, would have spent almost five years of her life pregnant and swollen. Half a dozen times, she made room in her lovely body to house a person only to have it ripped apart when they left. She split open at the seam and I slid into the world, ribbons of her blood curled under my tongue. I am left wondering, now: Does that mean anything? Should it?

5. “The Perils of Writing About Your Own Family: The Rumpus Interview with George Hodgman.” (Danielle Trussoni, The Rumpus, May 2015)

It’s one thing to cloak your familial angst in the guise of fiction or wait for your relatives to die in order to air your grievances. George Hodgman did neither. Instead, he wrote the New York Times bestselling memoir Bettyville. It’s about his decision to leave New York City and its freedoms for small-town Paris, Missouri, to care for his 90-year-old mother, Betty. Hodgman talks craft, secrecy, and identity in this hilarious and honest interview.

6. “The Day Virginia Woolf Brought Her Mom Back to Life.” (Christopher Frizzelle, Literary Hub, May 2015)

I watched Sally Potter’s Orlando for the first time last week, so I’m giving myself over to the throes of a Virginia Woolf obsession. It’s a long time coming–I’m a queer former English Lit major, for God’s sake. Anyway, Christopher Frizzelle has written a delightful piece of literary criticism, delving into To The Lighthouse’s Big Reveal and the textual variations spearheaded by Woolf herself.

7. “The Unmothered.” (Ruth Margalit, The New Yorker, May 2014)

Mother’s Day after mother-loss:

It’s true that the pain wears off, slightly, around the edge, like a knife in need of whetting. But here’s what they’re missing: It gets harder to explain to myself why I haven’t seen her. A month can make sense. (I took a trip; she was busy with work.) Even six months is excusable. (I moved; she’s on sabbatical.) But how to make sense of more than three years worth of distance?

8.  This Mother’s Day, Southerners on New Ground (S.O.N.G.) and other organizations are coordinating National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day.

It’s an initiative to free moms who can’t afford bail in time for this Mother’s Day:

The idea for Mama’s Bail Out Day is about “naming the massive impact cash bail is having on families and on black mamas,” says Mary Hooks, the Atlanta-based co-director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG). The idea came to her out of the haze of the election last November, she says, a way to enact “abolition in the now.”

It is also a campaign that’s deliberately expansive in its definition of motherhood, “queer and trans, old and young,” Hooks says, “all the many ways in which we are mothered, and have chosen family. We want to honor black mothers who have held us down in a myriad of ways, whether that’s SONG elders or the first lesbian you meet at the bar when you come out, who teach us things, mothered us along the way and helped raise us.”

You can read the rest of Melissa Gira Grant’s coverage of the Mama’s Bail Out at Pacific StandardWUNC interviewed mother-daughter activists Courtney and Serena Sebring about their work with S.O.N.G. Dani McClain covered the Bail Out at The Nation.